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Sleep Like Dead Men, Wake Up Like Dead Men

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He is standing in a clearing in the snowy woods, dressed only in his meager undershirt and boxers. Countless thin, barren trees surround him, encircling him like a pack of starving hyenas closing in on easy prey. As the wind rustles through the sparse and skeletal branches, it sounds like whispering voices. Will cannot make out the words.

There is a crackling sound and the whiff of something burning. Will squints and brings a hand up to guard his eyes as a light draws near. With heavy, purposeful steps, the stag which has haunted his dreams and hallucinations emerges through the trees. Its antlers are wreathed in bright and raging flames, though the beast does not seem perturbed by it. It makes its way to Will with a powerful, controlled grace. Its black and empty eyes bore into him all the while. Will is immobilized, stuck in place by those eyes like a weakly fluttering moth on an entomologist’s pin. He is not only unable to move, but incapable of even thinking about moving. All he can do is stare into those eyes.

The beast stops about three feet from Will. No heat emanates from its flaming antlers, which makes the warm puff of air it expels in a huff all the more confounding. The warm vapor curls up into the frigid night sky and somehow, despite the distance, Will feels the warm exhalation against his neck. There is something eerily intimate in that small pocket of impossible warmth, and it sends a cold chill of dread racing down Will’s frozen spine.

Without warning, the stag rears up on its hind legs and the trees surrounding Will erupt into a fiery cataclysm.

-----

Will awakes to insistent whimpering and yelping and the cold press of several wet noses against his bare arm. His eyes open blearily, which just riles the dogs up even more in their desperate attempt to rouse him. “What-what is it?” he mutters, his voice still thick with sleep. He jolts to full awareness and his body stiffens when he realizes that he is not lying in his bed but rather sitting in a chair in his living room. Even worse, there is a thick haze of smoke in the unnaturally warm air.

For some reason, his phone lies on his lap. He grabs it and staggers to his feet. Stumbling and coughing, he heads to the door leading to the kitchen. The moment he sets his hand on the metal doorknob, he gasps in pain and recoils. It is painfully, scalding hot. He glances down at his shaking hand and the angry red welt that has already begun to swell on his palm even after such brief contact. His gaze sinks even lower, and he can see thick, black smoke pouring out from the crack beneath the door. The puny fire extinguisher he keeps in the hallway closet would be no match for the inferno that has already consumed his kitchen and seems eager to extend its dominion.

“Shit,” he hisses, ending the curse in a cough. As his lungs rebel against the choking smoke filling the air, he lifts his nightshirt over his nose and mouth in an attempt to buy himself more time. The dogs crowd around him, yelping and barking in their panicked state.

“C’mon, hurry,” Will says as he ushers the dogs down the hall toward the back exit. “We’ve got to get out of here.”

There is a glorious rush of fresh, cool air when Will opens the door, and his oxygen-starved lungs gasp at it hungrily. He counts the dogs as they run out of the burning house, and at least one small layer of his dread fades when he notes that all are present and accounted for. Still coughing in an attempt to clear the smoke from his lungs, he stumbles until he stops against a tree. He leans his back against it just in time for his knees to turn to jelly as the surge of adrenaline that had gotten him out of the house drains out of him as if he were a sieve. Trembling, he sits against the tree as the dogs huddle around him, licking his face and arms in gratitude and concern.

Will stares at his house in the darkness. He can see the smoke pouring up from the other side, tinted an ethereal orange in the moonlight. It’s a far cry from when he’d leave the lights on and observe his home from a distance. There is light, yes, but it is a mere byproduct of the fire consuming his home. Without intervention, his little boat on the sea will surely sink.

In a numb and distant way, he remembers the phone in his left hand. Somewhere in the back of his hazy mind, he realizes he must call the police, the fire department, Jack, Alana… but the numbers his fingers press do not belong to any of them. With his eyes still locked on the thick and ominous smoke, he raises his phone to his ear and listens to the tinny mechanical ringing.

Once.

Twice.

“Will?” Hannibal asks. His voice is as controlled as ever with not even a hint of being muddled by sleep, and for a fleeting second Will wonders if it it’s completely impossible to catch Hannibal off guard. “It’s just after 3 AM. Has something happened?”

“My house – on fire –“

“Are you hurt? Are you out of danger?”

Even though his mouth is dry as a desert, Will swallows. “The… the dogs woke me up before I could… roast.”

“Have you called the local fire department and police yet?”

Will hesitates and blinks a few times in rapid succession, as if trying to clear his head. It doesn’t work. It’s insane to call his psychiatrist before the fire department, isn’t it? The fire is growing ever stronger, but here he is on the phone with someone who can’t put out the flames. He swallows heavily again and shakes his head. “No,” he croaks. “You were the… the first person I called.”

For a moment, there is only silence at the other end of the line. Though only a few seconds long, the quiet seeps down deep into Will’s core and something peculiar happens. He begins to laugh. It’s a quiet, gasping laughter that bubbles up from his throat, and he can’t begin to understand it. He clamps his free hand over his mouth in a desperate attempt to stifle it, leaving him shaking even more.

“Will, listen closely to my voice,” Hannibal says. Will obeys, mentally grasping at the smooth stability in the older man’s voice like a parched wanderer in a desert clawing to drag himself closer to an oasis. “Let my voice be a tether for you; embrace it as the peaceful center of the emotional hurricane you are experiencing. You may be having a bout of hysteria. It is not uncommon when unstable individuals are exposed to certain traumas.”

Will’s shaking hand slides from where it had clamped over his mouth. Goosebumps prickle and make the skin on his arms and the back of his neck tickle in an uneasy, sickly way. He swallows nervously and mutters, “Don’t you mean a ‘conversion disorder’, doctor? Nobody’s called it ‘hysteria’ in decades. The word’s got certain connotations. From the Greek for uterus. The root of the word. Once believed to be the root of the problem. And I think we can all agree that the root of my problems extend far beyond my reproductive organs.”

“I apologize. My terminology can, at times, be a little antiquated. I have been referred to as a rather old-fashioned Alpha,” Hannibal says. “But we shall talk more about the matter when I arrive at your home. I am leaving my house as we speak. Your next task is to inform the police and fire department as soon as this conversation ends. Do not trouble yourself with contacting Agent Crawford and Dr. Bloom. I will bear the burden of informing them, and I can only hope that I arrive at your side before they do. You are, quite frankly, in no state to be put under pressure by Agent Crawford without psychiatric assistance. Unfortunately, he lives considerably closer to you than I do, and I apologize in advance for not being there to cool the coals he will be sure to rake you over.”

“What do you-“

The rest of Will’s question dies on his tongue as the sound of sirens approaching begins to cut through the trees. Two distinctive sets: one a fire engine and the other at least one cop car. He pulls himself up to stand on trembling legs and watches in a daze as the flickering glow of reflected blue and red lights draw nearer and nearer.

“Will?” Hannibal prompts.

“The police and the fire department are here. Someone called them. But it’s just me out here. No neighbors, no…” he whispers. He takes a few shaky steps forward and falls to his knees again, raking his free hand through his curly hair. “I’m… hanging up. They’ll want to talk. Just please…” His voice hitches. “Please get here fast.”

“I hope there are not any patrolling police officers on the way,” Hannibal says. “For I am prepared to break a great many laws to ensure I get to you as quickly as possible, Will.” Will can hear the tone of smooth assurance in Hannibal’s low voice; the man means every word.

-----

Time blurs once the police and fire department arrive. Will does not black out or lose time, but as fire fighters pump water into the inferno that had once been his home, Will feels as if he is equally submerged. The officers’ and fire fighters’ voices are muffled and garbled when they ask him questions, and his own voice sounds as if it were coming from a mouth a thousand miles away when he tries to reply. They check him for burns, smoke inhalation, and other injuries, but it doesn’t take long for them to clear him of any physical damage. Even in his hazy state, though, Will can see the shifty, pitying glances they exchange with each other after they try to speak with him. He can’t read lips, but he doesn’t need to in order to know what they’re whispering about. They suspect him.

Eventually they let him be, leaving him to sit at the back of an ambulance with its doors open. Someone drapes an orange shock blanket around his shoulders, though Will takes no notice of it as it hangs limply from his frame. He stares once more at his smoking home with glassy eyes, thinking.

He imagines water shooting back into the fire hoses as the flames roar back to life. He imagines the police and fire fighters running backwards, packing their tools away, and driving off away from the home in reverse. He sees the fire recede until it is a tiny, flickering light on a match head. He holds it up to his face, his eyes obscured by the dancing flame reflecting against his glasses. It goes out, leaving the match unstruck.

“If I wanted Will Graham to die, there are more certain ways to accomplish it,” he mutters. “I do not want him to die. Or at least not yet, and not in this way. An ignoble death in a fire, easily ruled accidental?” He sneers. “Not my design. Low art.”

He moves around the kitchen, squeezing a bottle of lighter fluid. “I have disabled the fire alarms. The only fingerprints that will be found on them will be Graham’s. I have been paying close attention to him. This is not the only time I’ve been in his home. I know it like the back of my hand.”

He glances at the door and the definite lack of any scratching or yelping from confused dogs. “The dogs do not react. They have grown used to my presence and will not go on the alert unless something out of the ordinary happens. I am about to make things very, very extraordinary.”

He holds the match up and strikes it. Once again, the light glares against his glasses. “Now the question is: do I light this fire, wander into the living room, call the police, and fall asleep in my chair… or do I leave? Am I Will Graham? Or am I someone else?”

“Will- WILL!”

Will gasps and shudders, coming back to reality abruptly as someone lays a heavy hand on his shoulder. His eyes flicker from face to face, and slowly his rapid breathing and heart rate begin to settle. The worried faces Alana Bloom, Jack Crawford, and Beverly Katz eye him warily, the same way animal control eyes a questionably-rabid creature. It’s Jack’s hand on Will’s shoulder; his aggressive supervisor gives what he probably considers a comforting squeeze, but it just makes Will wince and his muscles ache.

“How long have you been here?” Will croaks.

“Five minutes,” Bev answers. Her body language begins to relax, and she gives a tentative smile. “But we’ve only been shaking you and trying to get you out of Will Land for about two.”

“Dr. Lecter called Alana and I, and we busted ass to get here,” Jack says. He finally lets his hand slip from Will’s shoulder. “I called Katz, Price, and Zeller on the way. Speaking of which: Katz, go lend those two a hand. See if you can get a read on what the fire marshal’s thinking about all this. Plus, Dr. Lecter should be here sometime soon, and I want you to bring him here when he arrives.” Bev nods and trots off.

Alana takes a deep breath, holds it. She lets it go slowly, a long and steady exhalation that sends a stray strand of her hair fluttering slightly. “Will, I really don’t want to ask what I’m about to ask you, but-“

“Then I’ll save you the trouble,” Will grumbles. “No, I have no idea if I set my own house on fire.”

Alana furrows her brows in worry. “What’s the last thing you remember before you woke up?”

“I’m not sure that would actually mean anything, given my sleepwalking and blackouts. My last memory could’ve been climbing Mount Everest and I still would’ve woken up in my burning house with no clue how the snowy peaks of point A became the smoky rude awakening of B.” He sees Alana cross her arms in his peripheral vision and a stab of guilt spikes in his gut for being sarcastic toward a concerned friend. “But for the sake of argument, the last thing I remember before I woke up in the living room is brushing my teeth and going to bed.”

“Then we won’t know for sure until the place gets checked out thoroughly,” Jack says. “But we can’t just assume you did it while sleepwalking. It could’ve been bad wiring. Or… well, you have had a lot of exposure thanks to our good friend Freddie Lounds.”

Alana snaps her worried gaze from Will to Jack. “Jack, are you saying you think the Ripper could have done this?”

“Or any other psycho with an internet connection. I’m saying that there are a lot of possibilities we can’t write off until we know what started the fire.”

“If it’s the Ripper, his goal wasn’t to kill me,” Will murmurs. “He wouldn’t let me die in something that could be seen as an accident. If he wanted me dead tonight, there’d be no question he did it.” He meets Jack’s eyes for a few seconds before they dart away. “He’d have left my corpse for you as a big, special present. Maybe wrapped up with a bow of Miriam Lass’ hair.”

He turns his head toward the woods, and he can see it all too easily. His own pale and waxy body on the cold ground, his torso sliced and butterflied open. All organs missing, with the exception of the ones he personally resented. A ribbon woven from blonde hair around his neck, tied off in a bow right over his Adam’s apple. His eyes open wide, left that way intentionally by the Ripper. Unblinking, unflinching eye contact at long last.

“Will,” Alana chastises, looking back and forth between Will’s haggard form and the perturbed twitch developing in Jack’s jaw.

“Sorry.” Will rubs his fingers over his tired eyes and trails his hands down the stubble on his cheeks. “It looked – seemed like something he’d do.”

Jack heaves a sigh, and Will can almost hear him counting to ten mentally in an attempt to keep his temper in check. “So you don’t think the Ripper is involved?”

“All I know is that he wouldn’t want the fire to kill me,” Will says. “If he was involved, it would be to smoke me out.”

“Aside from your dogs, you already live alone, so it’s not like he’d want you isolated even more. Would he want you to stay with someone?” Alana ponders. “But why and who?”

Jack slams his fist into the door of the ambulance and the whole vehicle quakes. Will shudders and his trembling hands dart up and twitch around his temples, as if undecided between covering his ears and his eyes. “That son of a bitch,” Jack growls. “Does he want you under my care, Will?”

“I don’t- I don’t know,” Will mutters. “If it is the Ripper, my impression of him has always been… different… from what I get off other killers. No, no, no… not what I get from him. What he lets me have. With a lot of the other killers, especially the ones with poor or inconsistent designs, I just slip easily into their thinking like they’re oversized coats. Obvious and easily worn. But the Ripper… he holds the door open to his boutique. He smiles wide, all teeth, and ushers me in. Makes it tailor made. Fits like a glove. Real artisan work. Whatever I see in his killings, I see because he wants me to. The fact that I have no idea if the fire is him tying a noose around my neck or my subconscious unleashing hellfire on one of my few little corners of peace is… troubling.”

Alana bites her lip. “As troubling as you using flattering terminology like calling his gruesome murders as artistry? You’re on thin ice, Will. You need to be aware of the cracks.”

“That son of a bitch!” Jack growls. “It’s his goddamn mind games. I bet he wanted me to take you in over this. If he does want to give me your dead body with a ribbon on it, he wants it to happen in the sanctity of my own home. Like when he left Miriam’s hair in my bedroom. Maybe take me or, God forbid, Bella out while he’s at it.”

Will stared down at his feet. “You don’t have to worry about that. I sure as hell won’t be playing slumber party with you or anyone else, Jack. I’ll find a dog-friendly hotel and stay there until my house gets repaired.”

“I’m afraid I really must disagree.”

Will jolts a little in surprise at Hannibal’s voice, looking up to see Bev leading his distinguished psychiatrist up to the tense little group. Will glances furtively at Jack’s watch. Only about forty minutes had passed since he first called Hannibal, and given that the doctor lives at least an hour away in Baltimore, he really must have broken the speed limit to get there so quickly.

“There is reason to believe you may have started the fire without realizing it, Will?” Hannibal asks.

Will looks back toward the final, faint curls of smoke drifting from his home. “It’s one possibility.”

“The other being that some freak might’ve been trying to make Kentucky Fried Will,” Bev says to Hannibal, whose lips purse in distaste at the joke. Her grin widens at the obvious disdain on the Alpha psychiatrist’s face. “Will, do you feel like you’ve been rubbed down in the Colonel’s secret herbs and spices?”

“No more than usual.” Before Bev can continue her teasing or Jack can develop an aneurism yelling at her about it, Will continues, “Find out who made the 911 call and you find out if I set the fire or not. I don’t have neighbors, and my house isn’t visible from any public streets. Whoever made the call had to have been here. If it’s my sleep-garbled voice on the other end of the line, my subconscious has a lot of explaining to do. But if it’s someone else, I really doubt they happened to be out on an innocent jog.”

“Now that sounds like something with actual answers behind it. It’s sure as hell better than us just standing around and throwing out guesses,” Jack says. “Come on, Katz. We’re looking into it.” He turns to Hannibal and Alana. “I’m leaving it to you psychiatrists to hash this out. But whatever you decide, Will is not to be left alone.”

Hannibal gives the irate Agent a small, dignified smile and a gracious nod. “For once, Agent Crawford, you and I agree about what would be best for Will.”

Will grips the shock blanket around his shoulders and slouches a bit, as if willing himself to disappear beneath the fabric. “I’m beginning to suspect that I don’t have much say in this,” he says, his lips twisting into a wry and mirthless smile.

“You suspect right, but it’s for your own good,” Jack declares. With that, he and Beverly leave Will to the devices of Hannibal and Alana.

“’My own good,’” Will mumbles beneath his breath. He flicks his gaze to Alana and Hannibal, where it lingers on his unconventional psychiatrist for a moment before wincing away. “And what would you suggest that is?”

“I would suggest you stay with a trusted colleague,” Hannibal states.

“Let me guess. You?”

“Of course. As your unofficial psychiatrist, I am the one most familiar with the dark corners and esoteric workings of your mind. I am a light sleeper and pride myself on being aware of my surroundings. I am capable of protecting myself and others if the need is present. And, naturally, I would be more than willing to help a friend who needs a place to stay.”

“I agree with Hannibal, Will,” Alana says. She presses her lips into a thin line for a moment. “Right now, you really shouldn’t be alone, and he is far and away the best fit. Jack is too pushy and confrontational and… I’m sorry, I don’t trust myself to provide what you need right now.”

Will sits in silence, trying not to think too hard about her words. He looks over to where a few police officers are corralling and placating his dogs. “What about my dogs?”

“I have a frequent dinner party guest who is utterly enamored of dogs and who happens to own a sizeable plot of land,” Hannibal says. “Given the situation, I’m certain she’d be happy to help. The dogs would be able to get plenty of fresh air and exercise, as well as socialize with the other animals she fosters. I’m sure she would be very agreeable in regards to scheduling times for you to visit them.”

“See? It sounds ideal. You stay with Hannibal while your house is repaired and we get to the bottom of this, and you don’t even have to worry about kenneling your dogs.” Alana beams, giving her best reassuring smile.

“I still don’t think it’s a good idea,” Will grumbles.

Alana sighs. “Will, Hannibal is easily the most well-mannered and cultured Alpha I’ve ever met, myself included. Less refined Alphas can get aggressive and territorial over what they consider their property, sure, but you have absolutely nothing to worry about from someone as respectful as him. Even if you weren’t on suppressants and birth control, I’m sure he’d be a perfect gentleman.”

Will squirms slightly. “I wasn’t referring to my… to that,” he says. His lips twitch into a small smile. It’s bitter and unconvincing to the core. “He’s just got a much nicer house than me. It’d be a shame if anything were to happen to it.”

“Well, then I shall have to protect what’s mine,” Hannibal says, stepping toward Will. He extends a hand, offering to help him stand. “Now, come. Let’s see if the fire marshal will allow you into your home to collect any of your clothing or personal articles. If not, you are only somewhat thinner and shorter than me. The difference is even less pronounced when you manage to keep proper posture. I’m sure we could find something in my wardrobe to fit you well.”

Will stares at the hand for a moment before tentatively reaching up and accepting.

-----

By the time Will sits in the passenger seat of Hannibal’s car and gazes out the window at the passing scenery, the sky is turning the deep purplish pink of approaching dawn. There’s a red tint to it as well which only grows deeper as sun begins to peek over the horizon; the little part of Will that forever floats on the rivers of Louisiana and casts his fishing line into its waters recognizes it as a portent of an approaching storm. The part of him that stares at dead bodies and imagines he is the one who snuffed the life from them sees the purple hue of internal bleeding and the bright red of freshly spilled blood.

“You did not correct Dr. Bloom when she said that you take heat suppressants,” Hannibal says. It’s the first thing either of them has said since getting into the car about twenty minutes before.

“So you know,” Will mumbles. “Of course you do. Knowing is what you do.”

“I have an especially strong sense of smell, even for an Alpha,” Hannibal explains. “Others may be tricked by the fact that you cover your naturally mild scent in overbearing aftershaves and deodorants, but not me.”

“They mess with me too much. Never found suppressant or birth control that didn’t leave me even more of a wreck than I already am,” Will says. “When I tried, I got every bad side effect in the book, from awful mood swings to suicidal ideation to cramps so bad I felt like someone put my organs in a vice and squeezed until it was just a matter of time until something ruptured. Even acne.”

“Yet I find it curious that you have never missed work for the three or four days in a row which would indicate a heat, at least as far as I’m aware.”

Will sighs and rubs at the bridge of his nose. He squints at the rising sun and begins the explanation which has weighed him down for nearly two decades, rarely if ever discussed. “I had my first heat when I was fifteen. It only lasted about six hours. My dad thought it was a fluke, but the same thing happened again three months later. We went to one of those Omega free clinics, since free was all we could afford, and I got checked out. Turns out I was born with one sad, warped little ovary that couldn’t produce the right levels of hormone and pheromone on its own. They said that my heats would always be short and pathetic. That my scent would never be enough to bring an Alpha into rut. That the odds of me ever conceiving without fertility treatment were about 25%. I always took it as a not-so-subtle hint from Mother Nature that my genes ought to crash and burn at a dead end.”

“So you press your luck by refusing to take the suppressants and birth control which vex your system so,” Hannibal muses. Will glances at him out of the corner of his eye and sees a thoughtful expression on the older man’s face. “You should be aware that Mother Nature has a tendency to inflict dramatic irony upon those who jump to conclusions about her intent. You should not assume yourself immune to her meddling. When was your last heat?”

“A month ago. I slept through it. I usually do, and just wake up feeling like I ought to take a shower beneath Niagara Falls.”

“Then I have two months to come up with a solution to the problem,” Hannibal says. “Fortunately, I am nothing if not resourceful.”

Will scowls. “Did you miss the part about how I don’t produce enough pheromone to send an Alpha into rut?”

Hannibal smirks and he raises an eyebrow in amusement. “Did you miss the part about how my sense of smell is uncommonly strong?”

------- Earlier ------

He smells Will succumb to his somnambulism before the man even enters the kitchen. Hannibal closes his eyes and breathes in deeply, allowing himself to fully indulge in the luxurious smell. It’s clean, delicate, and ethereal. It brings to mind small, iridescent soap bubbles on a gentle breeze, in danger of popping at any time. It’s a pleasant compliment to Will’s natural Omega scent, blessedly spared from awful aftershave.

He has been visiting Will’s home at night with some regularity now. He finds it particularly easy and rewarding to consider his plans for Will Graham as he walks through the Omega’s home. Home is where the heart is, or so they say, and there is nothing Hannibal wants more than to observe Will’s heart. He imagines holding it in his hands delicately, the way one would cradle a small and injured bird. He would feel the organ flutter and pump as it continues to push lifeblood through Will’s still-living body. And he would carefully put it back in its little nest within Will’s ribcage.

Normally Hannibal kills to arrange his works of art. But Will… Will is a living tableau.

The dogs are now used to Hannibal’s presence and have considered him a dear and trusted friend ever since he fed them homemade sausage while their master was out of town. They are perceptive dogs and realize that merely watching him with their tails wagging pleases him more than crowding around him and impeding his progress. They sit in the living room and watch with curious affection as the man who brings good food disables the fire alarms and begins dousing the kitchen in lighter fluid.

Hannibal looks up when he hears unsteady footsteps. He can still smell the scent of sleepwalking beneath the lighter fluid, and he smiles when Will wanders into the living room from his bedroom. He stands there for a moment, swaying slightly, before walking into the kitchen and up to Hannibal.

The sleeping man stands in front of Hannibal for a moment and watches him with glassy eyes untainted by consciousness.

“Good evening, Will,” Hannibal practically purrs.

At the sound of that rich and heady voice, Will presses forward, wrapping his arms around Hannibal’s chest. He murmurs something purely incoherent as he lifts his chin up to rub against Hannibal’s jawline just below his ear. He pushes his groin against Hannibal’s thigh and tilts his head back far, exposing the long, pale expanse of his neck. A textbook Omega mating display.

Something rumbles deep in Hannibal’s chest, a low growl of interest. It just makes Will go even more boneless and pliant against him. Hannibal pushes his nose against Will’s neck and breathes in deeply against his pulse point beneath his jaw. He lets the breath out slowly against Will’s warm skin.

“Later,” Hannibal murmurs. “I promise.” He disentangles himself from Will’s arms and presses his hand against the small of Will’s back, guiding him toward the living room. Will lets out a vague moan of protest that makes Hannibal smile.

He ushers Will to a chair in the living room and gently pushes him down to sit. Will relaxes into the chair and his eyes flutter closed; he is drifting out of his sleepwalking state, leaving him in a deeper, less ambulatory sleep. Hannibal reaches into his trouser pocket and pulls out Will’s cell phone, which he had removed from Will’s bedside table when he had disabled the smoke detector in Will’s bedroom. He places it gently on Will’s thigh and can’t resist the urge to slowly run his hand up the inside of that thigh. He can feel the warmth through the gloves he’s wearing.

He walks back to the kitchen, shutting the door behind him as he goes. Once at the door leading outside, he reaches into his other pocket for the matchbox he brought. He strikes the first match and tosses it to a puddle of lighter fluid by Will’s wooden cabinets. With a burst of blue flame, it catches fire. He lights another match and flicks it to the pantry door, which also soon flares alight. The fire hungrily spreads throughout the kitchen, and when Hannibal is certain he won’t need to help it along, he casually walks from Will’s home.

He drives for around ten minutes, stopping in an empty parking lot by a rest stop surrounded by woods. There is a muffled, desperate sobbing coming from inside the dense trees, along with a frantic rustling. Hannibal approaches and finds the grocery clerk who had charged him twice for several items and pocketed the difference. The young man’s ankles are twisted and broken, and his wrists are tied tightly together behind the tree he has been tethered to. His mouth is gagged.

“Ah, I see you’re finally awake,” Hannibal says.

The clerk’s eyes go wide and his attempts to scream escalate. Hannibal shakes his head and makes a tsk. “Now, that’s no way to behave for someone who comes to you looking for a favor.”

The clerk goes quiet, though he continues to tremble and breathe shakily.

“I have a phone call for you to make,” Hannibal explains. “If you’re very helpful and do exactly as I say, I may be willing to entertain other notions about your fate. On the other hand, any deviation from what I say will make me very disagreeable. Now, what do you say? Will you be cooperative?”

The grocer mumbles and nods desperately.

“Good.” There is a bag near the man. Hannibal strolls over to it and pulls a prepaid cell phone from it. He tells the man that he is going to report a fire at Will’s address and if he does anything else, like scream when Hannibal removes the gag or yell to the emergency services operator about being held captive by the Chesapeake Ripper, things will end badly and – more importantly – very, very slowly.

Hannibal dials 911. Two minutes later, he ends the call. He places the cell phone back in his bag. He will destroy it later at his leisure. No one will ever find a trace of it.

“There, I-I did what you said,” the grocer whimpers. Hannibal, his back to the man, rolls his eyes. He should have gagged him again immediately after the phone call. He pulls a flawlessly sharp butcher knife from the bag. The man cranes his neck, trying to see everything Hannibal is doing as he walks behind the tree the man is tied to and pretends to regard his tied wrists. “Y-you’ll let me go now, right? I promise, I won’t say anything. I’ll take it to my grave, I swear.”

“Oh,” Hannibal murmurs. “I’m sure you will.”

With one swift movement, he swings the knife. The very beginning of a startled yelp transforms into a choked gurgle as his throat is cut cleanly. The man thrashes and seizes as blood pours down his neck and out of his mouth. His teeth stain red. His kicking eventually dies down to a few pathetic twitches and, finally, nothing at all.

Hannibal knows he doesn’t have much time to work. He expects he shall receive a phone call soon. Still, given that everyone expects him to be at his home an hour away, there should be enough time for him to pick a few choice cuts and place them in the cooler in his trunk.

As he slices into the grocer’s flesh, he ponders the menu. Some sort of flambé would be ideal.