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He dined alone and he was not lonely.

Hannibal had entered his heart’s long winter. He slept soundly, and was not visited in dreams as humans are. - Hannibal Rising, Thomas Harris

 

*

 

They're in a sun-lit plain, nothing but wilderness for miles around. The distinctive, deep prruk of ravens punctuates the air.

"Show me," says Hannibal, the words calm and demanding even slurred through a shallow breath. He sways, hands and feet bound to the limbs of a wooden cross. Laid bare, but without a hint of vulnerability.

Will opens his palm, revealing the cocoon. It's semi-transparent, wrapped tight around the insect inside, and cracking straight down the middle as he watches. He can feel it pulse with life.

"I plant the seed and watch it grow."

Hannibal opens up easily to the linoleum knife. His lips are soft, a little dry against Will's, eagerly responsive. He doesn't cry out when Will plunges his entire hand into the wound.

The inside of his body is warm and wet. It starts to heal around the cocoon - around Will's offering - as soon as he lets go.

Hannibal's voice begins to fray at the edges. "What have you done?"

 

Will wakes up laughing in a hospital bed. He has tears in his eyes and the first inklings of an idea, taking root in his mind.

 

 

[Fourteen Weeks Ago
Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane]

 

 

In his previous life, Will did a series of lectures about John Moss, a mountain bear of a man who had killed seven police officers in a week-long spree before the FBI caught up with him. By the time they got him in custody, he had killed two FBI agents too.

After one particularly unsuccessful attempt at getting into Will's head, Chilton moves Moss into the cell next door. Will finds this out when Moss starts talking at him.

"Stanley in block two told me you were some sort of cop." A pause. "I'm John Moss. You know what I did to cops?"

If Will were in the mood, he could describe in vivid detail every single thing Moss did to those seven police officers he killed. It's entirely possible that he remembers it better than Moss.

He doesn't say anything.

"It's too bad we've got this wall between us. We could have us some good times. There's nothing but time in here. I've had lots of great new ideas. Maybe I'll cut bits off you with one of those little utility knives and feed them to you. Or pull all your teeth out one by one. Maybe I'll stick pencils in your eyes, one in each. Eyes do these neat, weird things when you jab them, you know?"

Will's hands flex. He knows all too well exactly how it feels to gouge someone's eyes out with them, and for a moment the sense memory is overwhelming.

Moss goes on in this vein for quite some time.

It's a pitifully transparent power-play on Chilton's part. If Will had an ordinary mind, it might have some chance of success. As it is, all he has to do is wade into the quiet of his stream.

 

*

 

After three days of loud speculation about the method of his eventual demise, Will decides to do something about it.

"When did you know you were going to be a cop?"

Moss had been in the middle of describing a particularly baroque scenario. It takes him a few moments to respond.

"Always. Ever since I was a little kid. How'd you figure that?"

Will ignores him. "Something happened, when you went up for it. The interviews didn't go well."

"Yes. Tried everything, I did. Wrote letters, begged for a second chance. Nobody even bothered to give me a straight answer. Fuck them all, anyway. More useful dead than alive. But I can't get them any more, so you're the closest thing."

It's so petty. Will's lips twitch. "You should stop trying to scare me."

"I ain't trying. This is all God's honest truth."

"It's a performance. Did Doctor Chilton testify at your trial?"

"Yeah, he did. Said I was sick in the head. Incurable."

Will laughs, brittle and bitter. "You're not crazy. You just like the rush. You killed the first one in the heat of the moment, and that gave you a taste. Their fear satisfies the part of you that's never going to get over the rejection. It proves you're better than all of them."

"How? How can you know?" Moss asks, quiet and a little unnerved.

"I always find out, eventually. But it's better for you to be crazy, isn't it. You know what happens to cop killers. They'd have found a way to get you."

Blessed silence, broken only by the sound of Moss' breathing, suddenly shallow and quick.

"How long has it been since someone told you that you were sane, John?"

He can hear the grin in his own voice.

"I - I don't - "

"Get some sleep. You'll feel better in the morning."

 

*

 

There's an apple on his breakfast tray the next day, and the cell next door is silent.

Will measures his smile, parcels it out for the orderly. It's the one who watches him oh so carefully. He'd seen the name tag when he was being led to the shower last week.

"Thank you, Matthew."

Matthew inclines his head. "You have keen eyes."

"I have a good memory. What happened to Moss?"

"Doctor Chilton ordered him moved out of your block."

Will can feel a smile starting to form at the corners of his mouth. It's not a very nice smile. "Why would Frederick do that?"

"He said you were interfering with his therapy."

"That's one way to see it."

"No one's moving in, Mr Graham. Doctor Chilton's afraid you might talk to them," Matthew says. Something about the way he's looking at Will makes Will want to sit up straighter, raise his head. "If you don't mind me asking - "

"Go on."

"How did you get to him?"

"The worst person you can think of still wants to be understood," Will says, and sees something change behind Matthew's placid eyes.

 

*

I want you to kill Hannibal Lecter.

 

*

 

It's not a form of power he's accustomed to. More Doctor Lecter's sort of thing, really, making puppet strings out of words and smiles. Incarceration has left him with nothing to bargain with, save himself. It's also made him realise just how far he can stretch. If this goes well, he could kill two birds with one stone.

Will can't afford to be choosy about methods any more.

 

*

 

Later that night, Will feels Matthew's gaze on him again, heavy and warm like a caress. He keeps his eyes closed; this moment is for Matthew. He has to choose how it breaks.

"Mr Graham?"

Will gets up slowly, straightening out of his customary slouch, and meets Matthew's eyes. His design is written in them, an open book for Will to flip through. "Are you here for my blessing?"

"I'm - No." Matthew licks his lip. It's an old, nervous tic he buried long ago, no doubt, but excitement has brought it back. "Will you grant me a favour in return?"

Will finds himself amused by the courtesy. "Ask away."

"You know - " Matthew snorts. "Of course you know."

"I knew you before you revealed yourself to me. That crime scene told me everything important - everything but your face."

Matthew comes right up to the bars, curling his fingers around them. "Then you know what I want to ask."

He does. It's a risk, opening up this far, but one he has to take if he wants any control over the outcome.

"I didn't kill those people. Does that change anything for you?"

Matthew's smile is fond, hungry, and uncomfortably familiar to Will. "No. You're not like the rest of them. But you can see into their hearts - our hearts."

"I'm not a mirror, either."

No matter what anyone else claims, the darkness in him isn't a reflection. It's uniquely his own.

"No, you're something else. What do you see of the Chesapeake Ripper, Mr Graham?"

Will closes his eyes until he can see Hannibal's smile.

"The Ripper is a monster hidden inside the skin of a man."

"He wears a mask."

"He wears many masks, and not all of them are for our consumption. Get under his skin, and the monster becomes a man. The man is no less dangerous for not being a monster."

Matthew breathes in deeply, his fingers tightening around the bars. "Thank you, Mr Graham."

"No, thank you," Will says. He comes right up to the bars and covers Matthew's hand with his own, like a blessing. "Godspeed."

 

*

I regret what I did in the stable.

*

 

The best case scenario would have been to catch Clark Ingram in the act of hunting down his next victim. It might have worked, too, if they hadn't spooked him into hibernation with that interview.

Will waits a few weeks to make sure. Then he makes his move.

It's warm and dark in Ingram's small but fastidiously neat apartment. Will almost falls asleep waiting for the man to get home.

"Mr Ingram."

"Who's there?"

Ingram flicks the light on. The first thing he sees is Will sitting on his couch. The second is probably the revolver.

"You remember me."

"What the hell are you doing here? I'm calling the police," Ingram says. It would be more convincing if his voice hadn't wavered. And if he actually had the guts to go for his phone.

Will raises his revolver. "No, you're not. Sit down."

Ingram all but collapses onto the armchair across from him.

Hannibal would call this an opportunity. To Will, it's a problem, albeit an easy one to solve. Ingram's a psychopath, but not without fear for his own life.

"You'll go to Jack Crawford and confess to the murders you committed. I can recommend a very good lawyer. He'll make sure you're found not guilty by reason of insanity. You live out the rest of your life in an institution."

A flicker in Ingram's calm facade, reflecting the frantic calculations no doubt going on in that diseased mind. "Or what?"

Will lets the veil drop behind his eyes.

"Or I feed you to my dogs. They've acquired a taste for unprocessed meat. You'll learn to appreciate bars, Mr Ingram. The monsters can't get at you in there."

The hunger inside him isn't foreign. It's a long-buried part of him, unearthed and given wings. Any restraints he sets on the beast are as much a part of him as the beast itself. Sometimes, though, it's easier to pretend otherwise.

"I don't want to die," Ingram whispers, his eyes wide, darting between Will's face and the revolver.

Will knows his teeth aren't bloody when he smiles, but it feels like they should be. "I killed you when we had our conversation in the barn. You just didn't know it yet."

 

*

I can't let you go, Freddie. Not 'til you've heard what I have to say.

*

 

"I think you broke my wrist," Freddie says, prodding at the offending limb and glaring daggers at Will.

"It's entirely possible." He'd used enough force wrestling the derringer off her and dragging her out of the SUV. "Jack can get someone to have a look at it for you."

"Wow. The contrition is overwhelming. I can see why Crawford trusts you so much."

Will chuckles despite himself. "I don't think you understand the situation, Freddie. If I hadn't made that appointment and fought to keep you here, you'd be dead. Hannibal was lying in wait in your hotel room."

That gets Freddie's full attention. Her head comes up like a hunting dog scenting blood, physical ailments all but forgotten.

"How sure are you of that?"

"I just got off the phone with him. He thanked me for letting him know the day's work was over and invited me to dinner."

Freddie's a master - the only hint that Will's words had the intended effect is a slight widening of her eyes. It's a matter of seconds before her natural bravado reasserts itself. "Better you than me. Tell me, Will. In your own words - what is it about you? Everyone else who came close to the truth is dead, as far as Hannibal Lecter's concerned."

That's something to appreciate about Freddie - her own malleable approach to the truth makes it easy for her to adjust to shocking new realities. Will's running out of patience for those who can't. He's spent too long on the other side of the crucible, looking back with no small measure of resentment at those who have yet to come through it.

All he can do is show them the way. If they choose to stray instead, well. Look where that got Gideon and Chilton.

"He wants to be my friend."

That had been good enough for Chilton. Freddie had her own peculiar brand of insight.

"Huh. Disappointingly mundane for the Ripper." She tilts her head, looking him over from head to toe like she's seeing him with new eyes. "Are you sure it's just friendship he wants?"

"There's no 'just' about it, Freddie," Will says softly. "He's tempted by the idea of someone who empathises with the worst of humanity without being like them. He wants to corrupt me so that I'm like him. He wants me as a companion in every aspect of his life, up to and including our eating habits."

He doesn't mean to say so much. It's hard to stop.

Freddie looks briefly both fascinated and repulsed - there must be something about this that feels wrong, even to her. She shrugs to disguise her unease, wincing when the movement jars her arm against Will's table. "Okay, not mundane. Guess there's no accounting for taste."

She's doubling down because he truly frightened her less than an hour ago, in the deep, primal part of the mind that's pure survival instinct. He doesn't take it personally.

"That's true," he says flatly. "Which cut of you should I give him?"

She doesn't back down. "You're enjoying this game far too much. That's not going to convince me I was wrong about you."

Will raises his eyebrows. "I'm as sane as you are. And we're both as sane as Hannibal Lecter."

 

*

I'm dismantling who I was and moving it brick by brick.

*

 

They hand him the first set of pictures as soon as he's well enough to look.

Will brushes his thumb over the body, entirely faceless, ribs spread, a hole in his chest where the heart should be. He can feel a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. It's entirely the wrong reaction, and he's probably scaring Kade Purnell, who's never been less sure of him. He can't quite bring himself to care.

"Did Hannibal Lecter do this?" Purnell asks.

"Yes."

He can hear the words in Hannibal's voice: I'm going to cleanse myself of you.

No one speaks the language of murder as fluently as Will. No one speaks it as beautifully as Hannibal. Will's always valued that about him, even before he realised why.

"He's still mad at me," he sighs.

Purnell's face darkens. "This is not a joke, Mr Graham."

"I'm not joking. Where?"

"Palermo, Italy. We reached out to Interpol last week. They're sending us anything that might be the Ripper."

Too obvious.

"It's misdirection. He'll go somewhere else."

"How can you be so sure?"

"I know Hannibal Lecter. Am I back on the case?"

Her mouth twitches. "What makes you think I'm so keen to repeat the mistakes of Jack Crawford?"

Will spreads his hands, ignoring the twitch of pain in his gut. "You fix mistakes. Hannibal Lecter was a big mistake for the FBI. I'm your only chance at containing it."

He means it, too, and it must show on his face; she can't hold his gaze for long.

"There's something else. Bedelia du Maurier's gone missing."

The laugh erupts out of him. He's helpless before it, doubling over with the effort, the way it pulls on his wounds.

Of course she is.

"She'll be with him. He needs an audience, especially after what I did."

"What exactly is it that you think you've done?"

"I hurt him."

A warm thread of satisfaction runs through Will at the thought. The way he wants to smile would get him put away for life, so he keeps it from curving his mouth with an effort.

 

*

 

His next visitor is Jimmy Price and his shell-shocked eyes.

"Hi, Will."

"It's good to see you," Will says softly.

The sincerity clearly makes Price uncomfortable, but he struggles through it with a smile. "I'm glad you're in one piece. Zeller says the same."

"Thank you. You found something?"

Price hands over the file, suddenly all business, as brisk as if they were back in the lab. "Human remains in Lecter's garbage disposal. Traces of blood, mostly."

"Good thinking to check there."

"Gross work, but someone's gotta do it." Price hesitates and takes a deep breath before determinedly plunging onwards. "We also followed Jack's blood down to a hidden basement. A lot going on down there. Baltimore PD made the mistake of sending one of their officers to check it out. He almost contaminated the scene with vomit."

"That's what Beverly found. The basement."

Price's hands clench into fists. He holds onto his composure by a hair. "We thought so, too."

"Enough proof for a courtroom. That's something," Will says. He can barely get the words out through the flood of relief. For everything that had gone horribly wrong that day, at least they'd managed to expose the truth face of the Ripper. It's a start.

 

*

 

A week later, the first Tattle Crime article goes up. THE PRICE OF TRUTH: THE MAN WHO SAW THE RIPPER. There are a lot of pictures of him unconscious. Will makes himself look at all of them. He expects to have some sort of emotional reaction, but can't muster anything other than a vague sense of embarrassment.

One of the nurses tells him about the bigger problem, later that day: in her infinite wisdom, Freddie hadn't bothered to hide the name of the hospital.

Will calls Purnell.

"I'm going home."

"We can guard you more easily at the hospital."

Guard me, or monitor me?

"I don't need it, and the hospital doesn't need the attention. I'm going home. You know where to find me."

Will goes home to his dogs, and solitude, and all the space in the world to think. His body knits itself back together, much too slowly for his taste, no matter how diligent he is with the physical therapy.

The rest of the time he spends dreaming. His mind needs healing, too, in preparation for what's coming.

 

*

I let you know me. See me. I gave you a rare gift, but you didn’t want it.

Didn't I?

*

 

Will isn't surprised when his phone rings with a blocked caller ID, but he is pleased, angry, amused, and a hundred other things that freeze him in place. It rings five times before he manages to answer.

"Hello, Will."

He'd known what to expect. It's still overwhelming, like the last few weeks had been a dream that only the presence of Hannibal could rouse him from. It takes him a few tries to make his voice work.

"Hello, Doctor Lecter."

Jack would have known to tap his phone, legally or otherwise. He'd been suspicious enough of the true nature of the relationship between Will and Hannibal to go that far. But the FBI's guru is a long way from returning to work, and what Purnell doesn't know won't hurt her. At least not yet.

"You sound tired. Are you sleeping well?" Hannibal asks, all earnest concern. It's real, too - that's the most difficult thing about him.

Something that might be a laugh tears its way out of Will. "I dreamed about Abigail today. Being - being splattered with her blood, trying to hold in my guts and pinch her throat shut at the same time."

"She lived, or you would not be speaking to me."

Will doesn't know what he would have done if Abigail had bled out in front of him. Just that it's not a world anybody would want to live in. Not even Hannibal.

"Luckily for you. You're not forgiven - but we can talk."

Once, he would have dismissed the idea of Hannibal ever feeling anything as banal as regret. The time they spent together shifted his perspective. Hannibal probably does have regrets - he just doesn't let it change anything. Which is precisely the problem.

"I hope you know better than to try to trap me again."

"No, no. The distance between us is an opportunity to see each other clearly. For you to see me. Unless you've given up on that."

"Never," Hannibal says. Will can picture the tilt of his smile.

"I didn't think so."

It's not a trap. It's a design.

"I was sorry to see those pictures of you on Ms Lounds' website. She is incorrigible."

Hannibal would have greedily lapped up the evidence of the hurt he'd inflicted, even as a part of him raged at the rudeness that led to their publication. The dichotomy is probably what saved Freddie from being eaten years ago.

"I wasn't thrilled, yeah. But I let her publish. I wanted you to see. It's probably going to scar pretty badly." Will pauses at the faint sound of an indrawn breath. "You like that idea."

"I won't deny it," Hannibal murmurs, finally, his voice low.

Will has to suppress a shiver. It's the honesty - that's always been Hannibal's best weapon against him, much more difficult to shield against than deception and manipulation.

"A scar is just a scar. You know what's worse? Despite it all, everything you've done to me - I missed this." 

"I would return the sentiment if you were not with me always," Hannibal says.

"In your memory palace?"

"Yes. In the brightly lit rooms, and the dark corners."

"That's not me, though. That's your ideal of me."

With a darker tone: "I suppose events have proven that to be true."

The way he says it reminds Will of the look in his eyes that day, uncomprehending, childish hurt peeking through the rage.

"I couldn't retreat. Do you get that now? None of it was a lie."

"Ms Lounds was a lie. I knew when I smelled her on you."

"Is that what gave me away?"

He had wasted quite a lot of time wondering about that.

"The failure was not yours. You played your part perfectly."

"I could never have fooled you if I'd been playing. Do you know, Doctor Lecter, they found bits of Randall Tier inside my freezer? I get amnesty if I catch you. Otherwise it's prison. How do you think I'd do in prison?"

"Better than you'd expect. I continue to have huge faith in you, Will."

Will rubs a hand over his face. "Why do you think I called you that night?"

"You wanted to save Jack Crawford."

"Oh, was that my motivation?"

"Tell me I'm wrong."

That's exactly what I'm here to do.

"I honestly don't know, Doctor Lecter. Maybe I wanted you to get away. Or a part of me did. The world would be a lesser place without you in it."

"I believe the same for you. There's no need for you to ask for my forgiveness, Will. You already have it."

Will snorts. "I'm going to have to call you a liar. How can you forgive when you have no experience with being wounded? I hurt you, and you reacted emotionally. Maybe I reminded you that you were still human. It's not an easy thing to get over."

A quick intake of breath. "Perceptive, as always."

"I gutted you like you gutted me. It would have been beautiful, wouldn't it? And then I had to go and ruin everything."

"Tell me where I am, Will."

"Old Europe," Will says without hesitation. "France, I think. Somewhere sunny. You're in your element. Standing - standing before a blank canvas."

He can picture it: the terror of the young man, bound and gagged and bled out - no, drained of blood. He probably has blue eyes.

"Are you looking at his eyes?"

There's silence on the line. Just the soft sound of breathing, slow and even.

"If you had been born in a more superstitious age, you'd have been revered as a prophet."

Will laughs. "Or burned as a witch."

There's a strange crackling in the background filtering through the phone line, like burning logs, or a fire pit.

"This step is, strictly speaking, not necessary, but it will make the skin easier to remove," Hannibal says, with the air of a lecturer. Somehow, that makes it easier. Just like giving the right answer in class.

"Dangle the body over the fire pit, and the heat helps separate skin from flesh."

"Yes. I am making a gift for you. A Valentine, perhaps."

Will tips his head back, closes his eyes. The picture forms in his mind - the flayed man, bloodless, lying spread-eagle. Stripped of his false skin. Laid open.

Look what you've done to me.

He understands the cruelty as well as, if not better than, the kindness.

"Thank you. For the honesty."

 

*

 

A week later, he gets a postcard in the mail. Or rather, the FBI team combing through all his mail does. It's of the Norman Chapel in Palermo.

There's no return address. Just a single line, written in Hannibal's beautiful cursive:

Even in my mind, the truth of you remains elusive.

Fighting a smile, Will runs the tips of his fingers over the whirls of ink. Good.

 

*

 

Will counts his days from Hannibal's phone call. He hasn't told anyone about what happened, aside from feeding Purnell hints about France to keep her happy. Around the same time as the postcard, the body turns up in Nice, exactly as he had pictured it.

No one needs to know the rest - they're not part of his design.

Then Abigail wakes up.

The doctors hadn't expected it so soon, or they would never have left her alone in an unfamiliar room, hemmed in by tubing and monitors and hovered over by a man she didn't know, or so the rookie FBI agent guarding her explains to Will, eyes fixed on his face with a nauseating mixture of awe and terror, all but wringing his hands.

"She panicked. They had to sedate her."

For a moment, all Will can see is Abigail's face, terrified and hurt and somehow resigned, before Hannibal spilled her blood all over them both. He'd come so close to killing her, and it's going to take at least three more operations before she'll even come close to speech again. Too many authority figures have failed her already.

He gathers himself together with an effort. It wouldn't pay to spook anyone, not now.

"What's your name?"

That helps - the kid straightens his spine. "Bobby Fowler, sir. I took your class two years ago."

Will retreats into the mildest, most insubstantial version of himself, the face he'd present to lure a stray dog to his car. He smiles.

"You don't have to call me 'sir', Bobby."

Patches of red colour Fowler's cheeks. "No one's actually supposed to know the details, but we're all talking about what you did. How you saw what no one else could."

Not surprising - it suits the Bureau to paint a flattering picture of Jack and Will's efforts to apprehend Hannibal now, just as it had suited them to paint Will as an intelligent psychopath a year ago. Potentially useful, all the same.

"Would you mind waiting outside? I need to talk to Miss Hobbs alone."

"I have orders - "

"Please," Will say softly, peeling himself back until there's little more than vulnerability and need in his eyes. "You must know a little of what she's been through."

Most people, especially men, aren't socialised to deal with that kind of honesty. Fowler's no exception - he can't hold Will's gaze. "I - I'll be right outside. Call out if you need anything."

Will closes the door gently in his face.

For a moment, his vision doubles, superimposing the last time he'd stepped into a hospital room and saw her with bandages swamping her neck over the reality. A different hospital room, less monitors, and Hannibal slumped over in a chair, holding her hand. He blinks to make it go away.

"Hello, Abigail."

Abigail looks up from the tablet propped up in her lap, her eyes widening; Will reads surprise, guilt and fear before she ducks her face to poke at the tablet. She turn it towards him. It says i'm sorry in a big, blocky font.

She's pale, and her eyes are like glass. Will has to reach out for her hand just to reassure himself that she's real, and breathing. He's horribly gratified when she doesn't flinch away.

"Don't be. I'm just glad you're still here."

Abigail's face arranges itself, with some difficulty, into a bitter smile. She points him at the tablet again.

even after what I did?

He can't be anything other than honest. "That's between you and Alana. Get better first."

Her fingers shake as they hover over the keyboard.

everything I did was so I could survive

"Abigail, I know." Will understands better than anyone, what human beings can be driven to do. "You don't have to - "

Abigail gives his hand an admonishing squeeze.

"Okay, okay, I'm listening." She raises her eyebrows at him. "Reading."

i started asking myself if there was any point to staying alive if i was just doing what he wanted me to do

"But now you're free."

Her fingers fly over the screen of the tablet. i can't really believe it. he's still out there. he might come for me

"Hannibal's not the Devil, Abigail. He's just a man." He leans closer, until their foreheads touch, and all he can see is the fear in her eyes. She'll never be free of it, probably. But fear can be lived with. "I promise you, you're free now. I'll make sure of it."

 

*

 

THE TAROT KILLER STRIKES AGAIN! FBI BAFFLED! EXCLUSIVE PICS!

...So named for the calling cards he leaves at the scene of his grisly crimes, The Tarot Killer has now claimed his sixth victim. This morning, fourteen-year-old Doug Swallow was found naked in a field, bearing the same markings as the previous victims. Like them, he had been strangled. The killer also taunted the FBI with a gruesome message left in Mr Swallow's blood….A source within the Bureau revealed to us that the 'tame killer' referred to in the message is believed to be none other than Special Investigator Will Graham.

"This guy's probably offended Graham's not on the case. He's peacocking and trying to draw a comparison between his crimes and the Chesapeake Ripper's."

 

*

 

To Kade Purnell's credit, she doesn't even think of trying to use him as bait to catch the Tarot Killer.

"The Ripper case is too important. You do your job and leave the BAU to do theirs."

"This killer seems to have taken an interest in me," Will says.

He's young, probably white, an artist of some kind - maybe a photographer. He has an eye for composition. The killings are highly ritualized. He's going to come after me next. I'm the seventh, the centerpiece, Will doesn't say.

"I could assign you an FBI agent."

"Better not. Resources are stretched enough. I can take care of myself."

It was only a matter of time before he was sought out by a copycat killer. He's a little surprised it hasn't come sooner. Freddie's earlier reporting had painted a big target on his back, even before he gained his reputation as the man who saw through the Ripper.

Will's not worried. He only pretends to be prey, these days.

 

*

 

When the phone rings, he's lying in bed, staring at the ceiling and waiting for his brain to quiet down.

"My apologies if I woke you," Hannibal says. There's something off about his voice, rougher than Will's used to hearing, and by calling so late he's committed what to him would be a major transgression.

It takes Will a moment to guess at the cause.

"You didn't. Did you read about my new admirer?"

"Yes. Have you ever wondered why it is you attract killers like bees to honey?"

Bingo.

"I try not to think about it," Will says carefully. "Maybe they recognise something in me."

"Yet you do not recognise yourself in them."

Will can't tell from Hannibal's voice whether he wants to be contradicted. Maybe even he doesn't know.

"I'm as much a psychopath as you are."

"What would you call me, then?" Hannibal asks, amused and indulgent.

"To call you a psychopath does you a disservice. It makes you less responsible for your actions when you always know what you're doing. Killing is a hobby - something you're passionate about, but I wouldn't say you're driven by it. You're not ruled by your base instincts...for the most part."

"I would say not at all."

Will grins. "You would be wrong."

The long silence that follows is satisfying. He's found a sore spot. An open wound, perhaps.

"You have such confidence in your analysis of me. Am I an open book to you, just like all the others?"

"Not just like. They're...routine. I always get them, one way or another. Everyone except for you."

"Do you ever entertain the notion that you could move on?" Hannibal says. He sounds considerably less amused than he did before, wielding his words like a scalpel. "A life of fixing boat motors, a house in the wilderness, perhaps even a family?"

He can close his eyes and imagine it - somewhere warm and isolated, a life lived on the edges of civilization and all the more restful for it. But it's someone else's life.

"I threw all that away when I chose to come back to you, after the hospital. Maybe I didn't know it then, but that's the choice I made."

"You'll never be free of me," Hannibal says warmly. He means it that way, too.

"I know. What should I do with this killer when he catches up to me?"

They could be talking about the weather.

"Whatever you think is best. This man is a sickness, and you're the only medicine this world has."

Will takes a moment to think about it.

"You'd avenge my death if he got to me, wouldn't you?"

"Don't make light of that."

The depth of feeling in Hannibal's voice makes Will want to squirm out of his own skin. This wasn't meant to work both ways.

Or maybe his initial mistake was ever thinking it could work one way.

"I'll do what I like. Goodbye, Hannibal."

 

*

 

A HELPING HAND - TAROT KILLER DEAD?

...a package delivered to the FBI was found to contain a pair of severed hands belonging to photographer Danny Greene. Prints taken from the hands matched a partial thumbprint pulled from the body of Doug Swallow.

A source within the Bureau speculated that the killer may have chosen the hands as a trophy because Greene strangled his victims...

 

*

 

Three more bodies are found in France. Big crime scenes, all but shouting their message in the screams smeared on the air.

Will pins the pictures up until they cover an entire wall inside his house, stares until the tremors leave his hands, and stares some more until he can process what his much-vaulted intuition is telling him.

He finally goes to see Alana.

She had herself moved to a private hospital in Washington DC as soon as the doctors pronounced her capable of moving. To be closer to home, she told Purnell. Will suspects she just didn't want anything to do with the FBI ever again. He can relate.

Her room is much nicer than the one he'd been in - well lit, well appointed, more like a hotel than a hospital. He finds her sitting by the window in one of her bright dresses, loose hair gleaming in the sunlight. Nothing about her says 'patient' - save for the wheelchair, and the quick flash of old terror when she sees him in the doorway.

"Come in."

"Thank you. You look better."

The bitter, shaky smile she turns on him briefly makes Will long for the days when she looked at him with cordial disappointment and cool distance.

"They're telling me I could make a full recovery, in time. With plenty of physiotherapy."

Something vital loosens in his chest. "That's great news, Alana."

"As for the rest of me...I can't even begin to process what happened. Every time I try, this great crushing weight comes over me. I can't breathe for the thought of it."

She can't hold back a flinch when Will reaches out to take her hand. He backs up and puts them in his pockets instead, fighting not to be stung by it.

Stop it. It's not you.

"I remind you of him now, don't I."

"I'm sorry," Alana says in a hoarse whisper. "Your expressions, the way you talk, even the way you hold yourself - I know you can't help it."

She's right, of course. A glance at his neat, carefully crafted reflection in the window is enough to confirm that.

"You survived him. What I did...is a lot worse."

That old protective ferocity flares in her eyes. "All victims cope in different ways, Will. You were just trying desperately to keep your head above water."

It's much harder to bear than recriminations would be.

"What I did to make you believe me, to take you away from him - that was cruel. I manipulated you; made you question your sense of reality. That's how he operates. It's what he did to me."

Alana shakes her head. "Don't blame yourself. Blame him."

"Believe me, I do."

Something of his thoughts must show on his face - it makes Alana lean forward in her chair, spots of colour appearing on her cheeks in agitation. "Will, don't. Please listen to me. Leave. Forget the FBI, make a life away from all this. You've done enough."

For a single, bright moment he can see in her the person who clasped his hands and told him she wanted to saved him, who had tried so hard to protect him from Jack at the beginning of it all.

None of them had known what they were really up against.

"He'd come after me," Will says quietly.

He opens his satchel, walks over to the small table, and begins covering it with photographs. Then he retreats to the corner so she can wheel herself up to it without having to be crowded by him.

The sight of the bodies makes her visibly nauseous, but she doesn't look away.

"This is...these are messy. Are you sure - "

"Yes. You're looking at Hannibal's last 3 crime scenes."

The Ripper's kills were murder elevated to an art form, at once grotesque and elegant. This most recent sounder is still recognisably Hannibal's work, at least to Will's trained eye, but the act of killing is no longer dispassionate.

Alana's brows knit together as she pages through the slim file he'd set down beside the photos. "He's becoming disorganised now?"

"Not disorganised, no. But murder has become contaminated for him, somehow. It's an attempt at an exorcism."

"He's struggling to absorb something new into himself," Alana says slowly. The look she aims at Will is a curious mixture of horror and concern. "Something got inside his head."

Will lets out a breath he'd been holding for far too long. I'm not seeing things. I'm not.

"Thank you, Alana."

"You wanted me to confirm your diagnosis."

"Yes. And I need to ask you a favour."

 

*

Did you think you could change me, the way I changed you?

I already did.

*

 

Hannibal calls when he's cooking for the dogs.

"Give me a moment," Will says, wedging the phone between his shoulder and ear. "Need to turn the stove off."

It feels oddly domestic. Like Hannibal's just a friend who's gone on vacation, and they're catching up. Except Will's never done that with anyone.

"Sorry about that. You caught me cooking."

"How appropriate," Hannibal says. Will can picture his smile - one of those subtle expressions that's barely a smile at all, except in his eyes. "What happened to your Tarot Killer?"

"You read Tattle Crime."

"I want you to tell me."

"Got jumped in the woods while walking my dogs," Will says shortly. "They're not going to find the rest of him."

Self-defense or not, he's not risking another investigation. He'd sent the hands as a gesture of courtesy towards the Bureau, letting them know it was safe to close the case. If Freddie's sources are any indication, it's not been taken in the intended spirit. Not that he cares - the main thing is that the man won't kill again.

Will's always been able to diagnose the sick like no one else. It's taken him a while longer to decide he could apply the remedy.

"Did your heart race?" Hannibal asks, avid.

His hands had been utterly steady. "Violence doesn't agitate me. What does concern me is how I feel about it."

"The act of killing has been normalised for you."

"Not like it is for you. But - yes. In some cases. That's not the problem. There's something I find distasteful...about power trips. About enjoying that aspect of it."

A satisfied hum from the other end of the line. "And yet you do. Further, the corrective aspect brings you peace and satisfaction. Is it so strange that I would want this for you?"

"An appetite for killing bad people doesn't mean that I can see anyone's suffering and not feel it. Choice isn't an illusion, Doctor Lecter. I can choose mercy, except when it suits me to choose murder instead. Can't let go of either and remain myself."

"The best and worst of humanity. You finally see yourself clearly."

Clarity, for Hannibal, means seeing the world from his point of view. Yet there's no denying that what he did forced Will to define himself differently. It's a gift Will intends to return.

"No one is just one thing or another. Not even you, Hannibal."

"You truly believe that," Hannibal says. It's as if he wants to sound mocking - it comes out sounding anything but.

"Because I've seen it. It's in the pictures you paint. You opened up a door inside yourself, and you can't close it. Is it so hard to admit to a basic need?"

Hannibal is silent for so long that Will starts wondering if he should be preparing for another body to drop.

"You taught me a truth I had forgotten about myself," Hannibal says, finally. "Before that, it was...a very long winter."

"And a painful but necessary thawing."

Hannibal chuckles, which is the last thing Will expects. It's low and warms Will like a shot of good whiskey. "Your very own method of unorthodox therapy."

Will takes a moment to be monstrously pleased with himself for that.

"After a fashion. Yes. I supposed that's what it was."

"And yet I allowed it. I continue to allow it, in our conversations." Hannibal sighs. It's maybe the most human sound Will's ever heard from him. "Please take it in the intended spirit when I say they are an inadequate substitute for seeing you face to face."

"You're the one who left me behind." Shit, he hadn't meant to say that. "It must be a novelty for you, to be able to act betrayed."

"You're mistaken if you think it's an act."

"Not an act. But betrayal requires trust. You don't trust easily. You didn't even trust me all that much."

"On the contrary, I trusted you as far as I have trusted anyone," Hannibal says sharply.

Will knows instinctively that it's true, and that he could dwell on it for years and still fail to sort out how he feels about it.

"Not far enough. You were so close. All you had to do was tell me about Abigail."

I would have gone with you.

It's true. He would have done it, and it would have been the wrong thing to do, and between him and Hannibal they'd have destroyed her in the end.

He's replayed that evening so many times in his head, searching for a way out that didn't doom him or anyone else involved, and he keeps coming back to her. If Hannibal had told him the truth when Will asked - if she had shown up at their last supper -

Too many what ifs. Regrets are useless if they don't inform action.

"I didn't want to lean on the scales," Hannibal says. For the first time, the petulant rage lying just under the surface whenever they talk about that night is gone. He sounds almost wistful.

"Your ego wouldn't let you. You didn't want me to choose her. You wanted me to choose you."

"It is...common…for the infatuated to harbour fanciful notions that the subject of their infatuation feels their connection with equal intensity. And to want confirmation of those notions."

It's too much naked honesty. Will's utterly disarmed - he doesn't know how to give a meaningful reply.

"You're not common."

"Perhaps, in this, I was not as far removed as I thought."

"They weren't fanciful, those notions of yours," Will admits. It's the least he can do in exchange. Quid pro quo. "I just...couldn't let go entirely of the side of me that needed to see your crimes punished."

"This is a savage and cruel world. Why would you burn up your own life to save the faceless masses? They're banal and petty. Not worthy of you."

He sounds almost jealous. A bitter laugh rips its way out of Will. He stands up and begins to pace the room, slow, even steps that take him to the window Randall Tier had burst through, a lifetime ago.

"I'll decide that, thanks. Was Abigail banal and petty? Beverly? Miriam Lass? None of them were improved when you were through with them. You're not unfamiliar with the idea - you care about me."

In Hannibal's mind, there was no contradiction between caring and all that he had done to Will. It had taken Will a long time to understand that, and then it made everything fall into place.

"I do. After a fashion. Perhaps in excess."

"Maybe. You care about Abigail, too, in your own way. I care about them all, in my way. Surely you can see that, even if you don't understand it."

"You don't object to the act of murder when the victims are unworthy of life in your eyes."

"I don't see it in terms of worth. Not all deaths are created equal. My sense of morality simply allows for those who are destructive to be put down. "

"Like me."

"Like you." Will's voice drops to a murmur, like he's sharing a secret. "I used to imagine killing you in idle moments. So many different deaths. Each...design...had its own appeal."

Hannibal's voice changes, too. "You no longer desire my death."

"I wouldn't go that far. I still feel...a calling. The fantasies no longer have power over me, that's all." Will never sees the stag any more. He bites his lip against the rest of it, hesitates to go further, but what's one more piece of the truth? "That's why I had to let you kill me."

"For forgiveness? Was it your guilt that made you acquiesce?"

There's a nasty edge to the smile on his face. It feels like it should break skin. "I don't feel guilty, Doctor Lecter."

"A rebirth, then. A true rebirth in place of the false one you fed me."

"Yes."

"Has it afforded you greater clarity?"

Will stares at the wilderness outside his window, imagining another world entirely - Hannibal in a sparse apartment, something that feels ancient refurbished for modern comforts, with the lights dimmed. Staring out his window but not really perceiving it.

"I see all of it, now. Even the parts of you that you don't see. That what I value about us - we see potential in each other."

"You used that potential against me, to seduce me. I allowed you to."

Hook, line and sinker, too.

"Think of it as reciprocity."

"Do you imagine that if you peeled my skin back far enough, you'd find guilt? Compassion?" Now Hannibal's voice does acquire a mocking lilt.

Will laughs, deep in his throat. "I don't harbour any illusions. You forget - I knew the Ripper before I knew you. I know how and what the Ripper feels."

"You see the Ripper as an enemy. How do you see me?"

"Fishing, Doctor?"

"Articulating our emotions can be therapeutic."

"Don't. Don't do that. I'm not your patient any more."

"I would like to hear it," Hannibal says, as breathtakingly sincere as he'd been when he'd stabbed Will in the gut. "Please."

Will licks his lips where he'd bitten them, reaching for the right set of words. He's not sure they exist in any language known to man. "It's hard to explain. There's so much of it, sometimes I think I feel everything I'm capable of feeling, good and bad."

Murder and mercy.

Hannibal takes a deep breath like he's aerating a fine wine. "Thank you. Would you like me to return the favour?"

"No. I already know. You're the one who needs clarity about us."

"I have clarity."

"You had certainties and hurt feelings, before you called me. Now you have...something else."

That restlessness had been written all over the last sounder of bodies, as good as a confession to Will's eyes.

"You would have me believe that there was truth in the lie."

"I don't think I'll persuade you. You'll either believe it or you won't."

The line is quiet for a minute, maybe more. When Hannibal speaks again, it's in a voice Will's never heard before.

"I made my choice the day we parted."

"I know. You were wrong. I want you to regret it. Think about it. Call me when you've decided."

 

*

 

Hannibal's hands are black, inky claws, tearing at his own chest, heedless of skin and bone; then they're just hands, holding his heart out to Will, bloody and dripping and still faintly pulsing with life.

Will raises an eyebrow at him. "What do you want me to do with this?"

"Accept it as your due," says Hannibal. The look on his face is familiar - that old, comfortable combination of hunger and fondness. A red glint in his eyes.

So Will does.

It's still warm, and the flesh is tender, giving way easily to his teeth. Blood runs down his jaw as he chews, savouring the delicate flavour. With each bite his limbs feel stronger, and his wounds start to close.

He's being lit up from the inside out.

Will clasps Hannibal's face between his hands, which are not hands but claws, tapping at where the skull bone is thinnest.

"Now this."

"Take it. It's yours."

Hannibal's smile is very red, up close, and more so when Will traces it with a claw, blood welling up through the cuts.

"No. Take it out and give it to me."

 

Will snaps awake and lies there, waiting for his breathing to settle. He traces the curve of his mouth and is surprised to realise that he's smiling.

 

*

 

Will spends a lot of time tying fishing lures, more of them than he could use in a year. He takes the dogs for long walks. He dreams of the look on Greene's face right before Will put a bullet in his brain and wakes up with a quiet sense of satisfaction. He feels settled in his skin, at peace.

It's a month and another duo of messy bodies, this time in Toulouse, before Hannibal calls again.

"You've got an answer for me?" Will asks. He should be nervous, probably, but there's a strange buzzing like something living under his skin, and he feels like he could do just about anything.

"I have questions," Hannibal says lowly. He sounds tense. If Will was still capable of fear at all when it comes to Hannibal, he'd be drowning in it. "I would like you to answer them first."

The Ripper is not agitated by murder. It is an art form. Hannibal Lecter is a man trying to adjust to his newly reduced circumstances - dissecting, humiliating and consuming the disorder in his own mind.

If Will hadn't sowed the seeds of that disorder, it's entirely possible that a few more people would be alive. He's going to have to live with that. Just like he's going to have to live with what happens now.

"Is whoever you've got there still alive?"

"Yes. What should I do with him, Will?" Hannibal says lightly. Like this is a conversation they have all the time.

This is the life Will chose.

"What did he do?"

"He attempted to rob me."

Will almost laughs. The idea of anyone looking at Hannibal and seeing weakness - "Spectacularly stupid."

"I may have been presenting a target. He's killed before. Haven't you, Hugo?" A faint gurgling, followed by Hannibal switching to French, too faint for Will to decipher. A muffled scream. "In the last 24 hours, I should think. An older woman. She wore Guerlain Shalimar. The scent is distinctive, even with the taint of blood. In your mind, what does he deserve?"

"Ask him what he does to the elderly."

"You think there's been more?" Hannibal asks. He sounds delighted.

"It's likely. Even if this woman was his first kill, there might have been a pattern of behaviour leading up to it."

"I agree. Let's find out."

More indistinct French. The other voice grows increasingly shrill before it's cut off with a gurgle.

"You were right, of course. It was not his first. He strangled this one, and beat the others."

It's a familiar pattern. Familiar, at least, to someone like Will. He never forgets a face - or a serial killer's body of work.

"The Beast of Montmartre. That's what they called him."

"I can't say I'm familiar."

If Will closes his eyes, they could be in Hannibal's office, sitting opposite each other. Or maybe at his desk, talking over a drink.

Or he could be standing beside Hannibal, delivering judgment.

"Beneath your notice, maybe. Just a common, garden variety serial killer. He targeted older women, robbed them. He's long dead, though."

"So our quarry lacks even the virtue of originality. You tell me, Will. What does he deserve?"

The images come thick and fast, each scenario more outlandish than the last. Some of them aren't even anatomically possible, his imagination ignoring the boundaries of the world for the sake of some other truth as it tends to do.

Will has to clear his throat before he can get the words out. Even then, his voice comes out hoarse, like he's been screaming. "You should take it all."

"Please elaborate."

Hannibal sounds as attentive as he's ever been, even as his voice loses clarity, as if it's coming from further away. He's put down the phone.

Over the sound of rustling, Will says, "this man's design was crude. He preyed on the weakest, and took everything from them by violence. Take everything precious to him so that he understands the weight of his own actions."

The voice coming out of him is the one that echoes around his head when he walks in the shoes of killers. There's something strangely fitting about gifting this part of himself to Hannibal, who knows its value so well.

"Poetic justice," Hannibal says appreciatively. His breathing is slow and steady, and there's no hint of strain in his voice, but Will can just about hear the faint, wet sounds of his hands doing their work above the muffled screams. "You have such clarity of vision."

Will laughs so hard a few of the dogs turn to check on him. He waves them off, still struggling to breathe. "If you want to call it that."

"I find it inspirational. I believe this composition will be up to your exacting standards."

It will be. He can see it now - none of the mess and directionlessness of the last duo, or the sounder before that. Sharp, focused, murder elevated to art. The disorder temporarily banished.

"Do you feel more like yourself?"

"I feel the same sense of...consonance and satisfaction, as I did when we improved Mason Verger. How do you feel?"

Something inside Will's come unstuck, tonight. It no longer feels like anything's anchoring him to Wolf Trap, to the FBI, to the life he'd built as a desperate, inadequate antidote to the world's poisons.

It doesn't hurt like he'd expected it to.

"Like myself. I think we both have our answers."

There's a long silence, filled only by the soft sounds of Hannibal working. Will could almost drift off, if his mind weren't on a knife's edge, waiting.

"I don't dream, Will," Hannibal starts slowly. "So I am at a loss to explain how you keep appearing to me in the night."

"What do I do?"

"You hold me down until I drown in a stream of your own blood, and smile as if it pleases you."

For a brief, visceral moment, he's pushing Hannibal down by the shoulders, staring into his open eyes.

"How did it feel?"

"Bleak. Like the endless winter."

Will takes a deep breath. "It doesn't have to be. You could...compromise."

"What compromise would you have me make?"

"The same I've made, because of you. Not all deaths are equal."

"Why should you be the one to decide?" Hannibal asks. Amused, indulgent - but with an edge to it that says a part of him is receptive.

Not wanting to be alone in the dark had to be the most human motivation of all.

"Because I understand why people do the things they do. It's...a calling, much like yours."

A quick intake of breath. "One that I'm uniquely well placed to offer you."

"Yes."

"And why would I do that?"

Closing his eyes, Will conjures up the way Hannibal had looked at him during their last supper. He hadn't understood then.

This time, the right words form in his mind. All he has to do is let them out. "Because l know you. Because it pleases you to grant me such favours. Because...you had a taste of a different season, and now you miss it."

He counts out six heartbeats of silence, pulse pounding in his ears.

Hannibal laughs, sharp, a hint of strain behind it. "That is possibly the most audacious thing anyone has ever said to me," he says finally, his voice low.

"Not really. I just proved it was true. Or I guess we did."

The sound of a slow breath, maybe a sigh. "There is...an appeal in playing with you rather than against. You’ve taught me to want that."

"Unpredictability?" Will asks, almost teasing now. He's so close.

"Companionship. To be known and understood without pretences. Find me, Will. Then we'll talk."

"It'll have to be something new. Not like before. No more lies."

"I look forward to it."

Will's knees go weak with relief and he all but collapses onto the bed. The next breath feels cleaner. The inside of his head feels cleaner, a house no longer divided against itself. For the first time, he can imagine a life without self-imposed limitations.

The idea should probably scare him. It doesn't.

 

*

 

No one can be fully aware of another human being unless we love them. By that love we see potential in our beloved. Through that love, we allow our beloved to see their potential. Expressing that love, our beloved's potential comes true.

 

*

 

 [Earlier]

 

"I need to ask you a favour."

"What is it?"

"When I'm gone, tell Jack - don't send anyone after me. If he does, they won't be coming back. Tell him that."

 

*

 

Dear Abigail

I'm sorry for not saying goodbye.

Now that I'm gone, the FBI are going to be desperate. They'll offer you a deal - tell everything you know about Hannibal in exchange for a new life. Take it. Let that be the last time anyone tells you what to do.

Don't worry about me. I'm fine. If you ever want to find me, I won't hide from you, but you should be ready for what follows.

Take care of yourself.

Yours

[The note is signed only with a fishing lure, pinned to the paper.]