"Thou must needs another way pursue
If thou wouldst 'scape
from out that savage wilderness." - Canto III, Inferno
Death, it would appear, is a great dark wood.
He finds himself alone in a labyrinth of trees that are as tall as mountains. A bitter wind beats at their boughs and draws a hissing chorus from their leaves. A long time ago he lost someone in a forest like this — who was it? He once had a palace filled with ghosts he could ask for answers. But the palace is gone, and so are the ghosts.
Where should he go? There are no paths to follow. All is uncertainty, except for this: Will Graham has put him here.
More than death, then, this wilderness: it must be damnation. He walks on, aimless as he had never been in life. What aim now, without Will?
He finds that he's not entirely without purpose. A feeling stalks him through the forest, a sucking force at his back which he seeks to escape with ever growing desperation. The same feeling used to slither in through the vents of his prison cell, when he lay awake at night thinking he would never see Will again.
Time, unmarked, ceases to exist. Minutes or centuries go by. He grows weary. His feet drag through the black earth and stumble over the indecipherable tangle of roots. The desolate feeling looms ever closer, tugging at his heels.
He could stop. He could give in. It would be so easy to turn and tumble into the gaping void of hopelessness.
But just then he hears it, winding its way through the oppressive geometry of the forest, rising above the hissing song of the leaves, reaching him like a rescue party arrived just in time: the sound of water.
The sound of water reaches Will first, arriving as the great roar of the ocean.
Soon after, light assaults his optic nerve and draws the rough contours of the scene before him. A familiar figure is kneeling a few feet away, her headlamp fixed on the dreadfully motionless body lying sprawled like a rag doll on the rocks.
Will hoists himself up on the elbow of his good arm.
"Is he alive?" he rasps. Then retches salt water.
The eye of the headlamp sweeps over to him and stares for a moment, surprised. Then it goes out.
Will swears. She must have thought he was dead.
"Chiyoh,” he calls into the darkness, as loud as he can above the deafening wind and waves. “Tell me.”
No reply. But she wouldn't have come here just to collect a corpse. Or would she? Will has to know. He drags himself to his knees. He feels very little outside of the sharp need to reach the body he held so tightly against his own on the way down.
Off in the distance, small lights are moving on the water. The search must be out already, scouring the night for the missing prize — dead or alive.
Right now, the prize is Chiyoh's. Somewhere nearby, Will can hear her trying to move him. He half-crawls, half-staggers blindly, towards the strained sounds of her effort.
A faint, aching groan reaches him from the darkness. Will whines with relief. But he still needs to get close. He still needs to know for sure.
"If you're taking him," he says, "I'm going with you."
"It is unwise," she answers. "You are both safer apart."
In what sense? Will wants to ask.
"You can't move him yourself. You need help."
"You tried to kill him."
If Will could, he would laugh at that statement.
"What's gonna happen when he wakes up? Will you tell him I'm dead? What do you think he'll do to the bearer of that news?"
Her struggling stops.
"Or are you gonna turn him in? Fine job they did trying to keep him caged the first time around."
Silence. She must be considering.
"Help me move him onto the blanket," she says at last. Her headlamp flicks on again, and Will flings himself towards its light. He drops to his knees next to Hannibal's body, grabs at his wrist. The pulse is there, much fainter and slower than it was on the bluff. Up there, Will pressed himself against that great beating heart, heard its ecstatic rhythm and longed for one thing and one thing only.
He clasps Hannibal's hand and leans in close. He smooths wet strips of hair from Hannibal's cold brow. He can feel Chiyoh watching, but doesn't care.
"Hey. It's me," he says. "Can you hear me?"
"Can you hear me?" the water asks. "Do you know me?"
"Will," he replies. The name sounds like absolution on his lips. "I'd know you on the outskirts of hell."
The water laughs softly above the wild and bitter wind. "Then come to me," it says.
He follows the call. The force at his heels slackens its pace, its drag lessening every time the water beckons.
The infinite tangle of trees loosens at last, uncoiling itself into a clearing. On his next step, his foot sinks into a pool of cold, sharp sensation. He looks down and finds a thin, silvery stream spouting like blood from the knotted roots. It flows onwards, widening through the clearing. It is a path.
He drops to his knees beside it, and drinks in great gulps.
He gasps when he's sated. “Will. Are you truly here?"
"You sound surprised," the water's voice replies from behind him, so close now, beyond familiar. "Where else would I go?"
He doesn't dare turn and look, not yet. But in the clear mirror of the stream a second reflection joins his own. It is unmistakable. He touches it, carefully skimming the water's surface, wary of smearing what it shows.
"I didn't think you could be. I thought you— survived."
A hand falls on his shoulder, warm and real. He flinches, catches his breath — and looks up.
Will smiles down at him with the same smile that upstaged Flora's at the Uffizi, so long ago. "What do you think has happened to us?" he asks.
"I remember falling. You must have killed us. It was your design and command that we perish."
Will laughs. "You're not dead, Hannibal."
Hannibal hears the child-like uncertainty in his voice. And how strange to have his name spoken again. Had he forgotten it in the hopeless maze of trees? Did it exist before it crossed Will's lips?
Will is still smiling. He cups the back of Hannibal's head. It feels like a benediction. His eyes are clear blue planets, perfect heavenly bodies to navigate by.
"No. You're just lost. Would you like me to show you the way?" he says, and reaches for Hannibal's hand.
Will keeps hold of Hannibal's hand, even as he pukes and shivers inside the small work boat Chiyoh had commandeered.
Dawn is breaking by the time they reach an abandoned fishing shack raised up on a flatter stretch of coastline. They haul Hannibal inside. The decor is bare — two cots, an ancient loveseat — and the smell of rot is appalling.
Chiyoh gets the heaters going and points to her stash of supplies: antiseptic, painkillers, antibiotics, gauze.
"Aren't you gonna help?" Will asks.
"You do it," she says, and moves to stand in the farthest corner of the shack, arms folded tightly about herself.
Will watches her for a moment. Her stare is blank, fixed on Hannibal's senseless body.
"How long since you've been this close to him?"
"Too long. And not long enough."
Will sets about his task, working as quickly as he can. His shoulder is in agony and he's more tired than he's ever been in his life, but what else can he do? Tatters of Hannibal's shirt have stuck to the wound in his side, and he moans when Will peels them away. His torso has already bloomed with impact bruises, huge dark kisses from the ocean. His face is ashen, eyes restless behind pale lids. His mouth is still smeared with traces of the Dragon’s blood. Will cleans it last.
"What if he dies?" Chiyoh asks quietly.
"That’s not an option I let myself think about."
"Only a clean end for the both of you would rid you of him at last. Is that so?"
Not quite, Will thinks. Some bonds not even death can break. Will understood that up on the cliff and sealed their fate. Life or death, no turning back.
He doesn’t answer. Outside, waves crash against the stilts holding up the shack.
"What if he lives?" she says.
The fear the question carries is hers and hers alone. Will isn't afraid, not of that.
Afterwards, she does help. She stitches up Will's cheek and cleans the gaping gash on his shoulder. Bandaged, watered and fed with crackers and analgesics, Will shoves the two cots together with the last of his strength.
Her rifle for company, Chiyoh curls up on the loveseat, and watches.
"I need to know that he's breathing," Will says in reply to her stare. Under the blankets, he gropes for Hannibal's hand again and draws it to his chest.
"Thank you," he mutters, hoping Chiyoh can hear him. "You— you could have killed me."
He closes his eyes. He cannot remember falling asleep.
A day passes — or is it two? Hannibal doesn't wake up, doesn't react beyond faint groans when Will cleans him up or changes his dressing. The wait is the worst. Will dreads all kinds of thing: internal bleeding, the arrival of sepsis.
Chiyoh is gone more often than not. She returns on the first evening with an IV, sourced from God knows where. Though she still won't touch him, she does help hook up the line to Hannibal's arm. The next morning, she brings hot food and news from the closest town: the water search has been called off, but the roadblocks still haven't been lifted. They can't move. The news is relentless. There are posters of the two of them in the local stores and gas stations.
“I don’t believe we will remain undiscovered here for much longer,” she says.
Will knows they need a plan. But for now, he spends his hours shuffling between the cots and the window of the shack, fighting off waves of nausea and the constant urge to sleep. He keeps watch over the flickering behind Hannibal's eyelids, listens to his ragged breath and sifts through his mutterings for clues. By the window, he stares out at the turbulent skies hung above the ocean and feels the water’s pull. It's where the two of them belong now, after their bruising baptism. Out there.
On the second evening, Chiyoh leaves again. Will is watching her small dark figure disappear down the beach.
Will turns sharply.
Hannibal's mouth is moving. His arm has flung itself out of the cot.
Three wide steps, and Will is at his side. He checks Hannibal's pulse. It's much too erratic.
“Hey," he whispers. "Are you back?"
"Water. Where ..."
"You need water? Here—"
The contents of the cup spill against Hannibal's lips. His face contorts. His eyes stay shut.
"I'm here, I can hear you—"
Nothing. Silence again, punctured only by puffs of Hannibal's breath and the chorus of waves disintegrating themselves against land outside. Will slumps onto the cot. He presses himself against Hannibal's unhurt side, hides his face against Hannibal's shoulder.
"Where are you?" he asks, and begins to weep.
"Do you know where you are?" Will asks.
They had followed the widening stream to the mouth of a sprawling black river domed by turbulent skies. The wall of the forest is behind them. There is no turning back. Hannibal cannot see what lies beyond the river's breadth.
"At the end of things," he answers. "At the mouth of consequence."
"Many things end here," Will says. “Others begin. This is as clean a divide as you and I will ever get between what lies behind and what waits ahead." His hand squeezes about Hannibal's. "I need to ask you something.”
“Did you ever not want me?”
Hannibal doesn't hesitate. “Never. Even when I didn't understand what you were to me, I still wanted you.”
“Even when you tried to open my skull?”
“I could think of no other way to stop wanting.”
“And me? What did I do, Hannibal?”
Hannibal looks over the water. He feels Will's presence beside his own, so solid and firm, like the fulcrum of the world. The answer surfaces, summoned from the river's depths.
"Look," Will says, and points to their left.
Far off in the distance, the river's bank rises and summits a cliff. There, under dark skies, forever poised over the precipice, two tiny figures stand clasped about each other.
"Up there, I absolved myself of the sin of indecision," Will says.
“You decided that the only way to stop being divided was to end us both.”
Will laughs again. How often in their previous life did Hannibal hear that laugh? It thrills him now, like a plunge into icy water.
"You say that, but here we are: definitely not dead. So something doesn't add up."
Hannibal doesn't understand. He shakes his head.
"Would you agree that the possible outcomes of an action aren't the same as its desired goals?” Will asks.
It takes some time, but what lies beneath those words comes to Hannibal, again from the watery depths.
"You wanted us together." Hannibal's voice breaks on the last word. "Whatever the outcome."
"I could think of no other way."
“We fell from the precipice of your irresolution.”
Will draws him close and kisses him softly. The water rises and laps at their feet.
“Yes. Into certainty.”
"I'm certain," Will tells Chiyoh. "This is our best bet. Jack’s given up on the water, he’s not given up on land. He'll keep looking. Find a better boat, and I can get us to the Bahamas in less than ten days."
She nods to Hannibal. "He may not survive the journey."
"It's a chance we have to take."
She thinks for a moment, then says with a frown: "I don't know how to sail those kinds of distances."
“You don’t have to,” Will says slowly. “You don’t have to come.”
She pierces him with a steely look, then goes back to cleaning her gun. She's silent. She looks so lost.
"Chiyoh." Will drops his voice. He's treading carefully. "One way or another, his jailers always end up as his prisoners."
"I am the only family he has."
"Family can be the worst kind of prison. Haven't you had enough of those?"
She casts another glare. "You sound just like him."
Of course Will does. He cannot help a smile, even if it makes his face spasm with pain.
"Is that what you want to become?" Chiyoh asks. "His jailer and his prisoner?"
"Doesn't work like that with us. We belong in the same cell."
She sets her gun aside and walks over to the cot. Her fingers flex once, then reach down to touch Hannibal's brow, a contact made and broken in an instant.
"I'll get you a boat," she says.
"And a gun," Will adds.
She nods. "But I'm coming with you."
She leaves soon after.
She's gone for too long. Will knows something has gone terribly wrong.
When she returns, she's not alone.
Will spots the two of them from the window, down the beach, in the twilight, advancing slowly: Chiyoh, hands behind her back, the large man in the puffy blue parka looming behind her.
Will jerks away from the window and staggers about the room. There's nowhere to go. He can't leave her, can't move or hide Hannibal. He shakes out the bags Chiyoh's left behind. No knives, no weapons. The only gun they had went with her, and whoever is now marching her back to the shack will have taken it off her.
But there are scissors — they used them to cut up gauze. Will grabs them and presses himself next to the doorframe, heart punching against the inside of his chest. He waits, eyes on the cot. Hannibal doesn't stir.
The wooden slats creak just outside. Will can hear the wet, phlegmy sound of the man's breath.
"Guess you're waiting by the door," a voice booms. "I just want you to know that if you don't back off, I'll break her wrists."
Will hears a cry of pain. Then another.
"Fine!" he yells. "I'm backing off."
He moves to sit on the edge of Hannibal's cot. He slides the scissors under the blankets.
The door creaks open by inches. A barrel of a shotgun shoves Chiyoh inside, followed by the man at the other end.
"Sit, sit, sit," the man hisses until the nudges of his gun force Chiyoh down to the floor to face him. He's nearly twice Will's size, broad and fleshy like Cordell. His gun swivels over to Will. "Hands," he says.
Will puts them up as best he can and looks over to Chiyoh. Her wrists are tied behind her. There's a fresh cut on her cheek. Her expression is unreadable.
"This little lady came asking about my boat." The man kicks the door shut behind him. "Paying cash."
"How about a name?" Will says through his teeth.
"Sure. I'm Dean. And you're Will Graham, he's Hannibal Lecter and this one here—" the gun swings lazily back to Chiyoh— "calls herself Hana, which I'm guessing isn't her real name. See, most idiots just watch the news. I look at the FBI website. Their small print talks about known associates. One of them is supposed to be a Japanese lady. We don't get many of those around here." Dean's neck cranes over Will's shoulder. "That really him, huh?"
"Dean," Will says slowly, "you need to understand something. She's brought you here for a reason."
"Yeah, reason being I was gonna break some of her bones, then hand her over to the cops. I don't give a fuck about either of you. I just want Lecter. So this is how—"
His next sound is a howl. Chiyoh's still on the floor but she's kicked out and connected her steel-capped boot with Dean's left tibia. It's enough to bowl him over in pain. Will makes his leap.
He jams the scissors between the tendons of Dean's hand, then out — then aims for the neck. He misses and sticks them in the man's shoulder instead. He doesn’t get to pull them out again. The butt of Dean's gun slams against Will's own bad shoulder and sends him crashing down against Hannibal’s cot, into a sea of searing pain. Chiyoh tries to scramble to her feet but takes a knee to the face and goes flying.
Dean won't stop screaming. The smell of his blood and panic fills the room. He staggers back against the door, aims blindly and fires.
The shot rips through the shack like thunder, loud enough to split the sky in two. Will's vision cuts out.
Something like thunder cleaves the sky in two, a great snap or tear that startles them both. They turn and look up to the heavens.
A million dazzling stars appear from behind the ripped curtain of clouds and cast their reflections down onto the rising black river. Hannibal’s heart quickens at the sudden spectacle of beauty, and grows covetous. It seems to him that each star is a possibility, a life yet to be lived. This is the path for them to follow. But how are they to traverse it?
"Will," he says, "you said you would show me the way."
At his side, Will is silent. His eyes move between the water and the sky. "Tell me something first,” he says at last. “When you used to imagine our future together, what did you see?”
"I saw glimpses only," Hannibal admits. "Like engravings torn from a beautiful but unfamiliar book."
"Fragments.” Will points to the celestial reflections moving on the water. “Scattered, like those stars.”
Hannibal nods. "I never knew how to connect them into a cohesive route."
"And standing here, looking at what's to come, what do you see?"
"I see that I cannot navigate the future without you," Hannibal confesses, and it feels like the utterance of a secret code, the humbled admittance Will has been waiting to hear. “Will you take us across?”
“Those fragments. Do you still want them?”
“More than anything, ever.”
"I’ll take us across,” Will says, a strain in his voice. "But I need you to do something for me first. And I really need you to do it right now."
Will turns to face him. Why is there fear in his eyes?
"Wake up, Hannibal. Please wake up.”
And then the river rises, the stars on its surface flicker and shrink, and all fades to black.
Wake up. Please wake up.
Who is he talking to? Himself?
Will pries his eyes open. He tries to blink through the daze, he tries to shake off the pain. He turns his head from the floorboards and slowly looks up.
The shot’s missed. Chiyoh has managed to free her wrists, and has leapt onto Dean's back. He's flailing about the shack, trying to shake her off. He's clinging on to his gun.
Chiyoh gropes for the scissors still stuck in Dean, but her grip on him falters and she's thrown off. She crumples against a wall with a cry of pain. Dean rips the scissors from his shoulder with an animal scream and goes hurtling towards Will.
Will dives across the floor, past him, towards Chiyoh. Dean spins around, reloads and takes another aim.
And then— what the hell's happened? The swearing and yelling sputters out, replaced by a hideous wheeze. The gun clangs to the floor. Dean's bloodied hands shoot up to his throat.
Somewhere nearby, Will hears Chiyoh gasps.
Dean turns purple. A garrotte is tightening around his neck: Hannibal's IV tube.
Hannibal's face rises slowly from behind Dean's shoulder. His lips curl back in a snarl. His eyes lock with Will's. His arms jerk, and the plastic line cuts deep into Dean's throat.
Dean's eyes bulge with terror. His left arm flings back and grips a fistful Hannibal's hair.
Feeling floods every nerve ending in Will's body, a hot afterglow from the ecstasy of the Dragon's demise. He gets to his feet, propelled by the rush.
The scissors. He snatches them from the floor as he advances, dodges the desperate kicks from Dean's legs, throws his arm back, strikes.
Both blades jam cleanly where they belong, just below the plastic noose. It's a soft, easy stick that uncorks a spouting red fountain from Dean's carotid. It's perfect. It's just right.
Dean gurgles and chokes one more time, skidding in his own blood.
Hannibal lets him go with a shove.
Dean hits the floor, twitching. Then goes still.
They stare at each other over the body. Their breaths seesaw together in the humid, copper-scented air. Will wants to laugh. He wants to scream.
"Will," Hannibal rasps, and sways back, dangerously fast.
Will lunges forward to catch him. He pulls Hannibal into his arms. They slump onto the bed, entwined, brow to brow. Will does laugh then, a shaky, cracked sound.
Between their breaths, they hear a pained whimper. Hannibal's hand twitches against Will's back.
Chiyoh has curled herself against the wall, dwarfed by the inert mountain of flesh that was Dean. The thick spill from his corpse is pooling at her feet. Streams of blood run down her face, and she wipes at them with both hands, over and over again.
"Too much," she whispers. "Too close."
They say goodbye to her a few nights later, after they see to her injuries and find them manageable.
Will watches the two of them on the dock: Hannibal and Chiyoh, holding hands and exchanging soft whispered words in Japanese. Will keeps his distance. He thinks he understands: too much, too close.
Dean's boat, a trusty old Halcyon 27, takes on Dean's body as cargo. It might stay on board as provision. It might go to the bottom of the ocean. Whatever happens, it will become sustenance.
The winds are kind. Two evenings in, they're doing a comfortable eight knots, moving smoothly south.
The last of the light has drained from the sky. Will goes below deck and finds Hannibal awake. He looks better, but still so grey. Older somehow.
Will settles at his side.
"The clouds have cleared.”
"And you came here to tell me that,” Hannibal says.
Will frowns a little. "Yeah. Don’t you want to come up and see the stars?”
There’s a faint smile on Hannibal’s lips. He reaches for Will’s hand, and Will lets him take it.
“More than anything ever.”