"I had another dream."
Hannibal leans back in his chair, laces his fingers. Will can't tell what he's thinking, but his expression is open, understanding. "Tell me about it."
"I was walking down the road, outside my house. And there was – there was this car, pulled over on the side, lights flashing." Will slides his glasses off to rub at his eyes. He's tired, too tired. "A woman got out when she saw me, and she looked so – so relieved. She asked if I could help her – she was from out of town, and she was lost – flat tire."
"And?" Hannibal prompts when Will falls silent. "Did you help her?"
Will gazes at him hollowly, pain flickering in his chest. "I grabbed her throat. She fought me, but I had caught her off guard, and I pinned her to the car until she stopped breathing."
Hannibal's expression remained impassive, calm. "Did this one feel as real as your previous dreams?"
Will curls in on himself, burying his face in his hands, fingers digging into his hair. "I woke up on the side of the road. Right where it happened. I – I know it was real, but–"
"There was no car," Hannibal supplies, knowingly. "No woman. No evidence to suggest that what you experienced was reality."
"I'm losing my mind," Will says quietly, voice cracking. "I'm afraid to go to sleep because I know I'll kill someone else."
"You've killed no one. No one who didn't deserve it."
"Did Hobbs deserve it?"
"You thought so at the time. Anyone would argue that what you did was justified."
"But what if – what if that was the start of something. What if I – that rush from killing him, what if I've changed? What if I'm like him now?"
Hannibal lets out a breath through his nose, not quite a sigh, though a trace of sympathy creases his brow. "A few dreams about murder doesn't make you a psychopath any more than dreams about having intercourse with one's mother makes them incestuous."
Will considers this, gazing sightlessly at the countless rows of books that line the office walls.
"My opinion," Hannibal continues, "is that you're overworked. Stressed. Your work follows you home, and you're unable to find an escape from it."
"And?" Will lifts an eyebrow, smirking. "Your solution?"
Hannibal returns the smile, pushing himself up and crossing to the cabinet. "I've never met a problem a little wine couldn't solve."
Will lets himself laugh, taking the glass Hannibal offers him. "Professional."
"Would you rather I prescribe a medication?"
"No." He takes a sip, sighing. "No. This is – thank you."
Hannibal lifts his glass in acknowledgement, and they're quiet for a moment. It feels good, just being able to sit, without feeling obligated to fill every second with words. They've come a long way in such a short amount of time, and Will's grateful for it. He feels more comfortable in Hannibal's presence than he does with anyone else; Hannibal doesn't push him, doesn't judge him. Everyone else seems to handle him delicately, like he's a ticking time bomb, but with Hannibal, it's like they're equal. Like they're friends.
Maybe when this is behind them, and the Ripper is locked away forever, they really can be friends. Will is surprised to find himself wishing for that. Desperately.
Will's phone rings as he lets himself out of Hannibal's office. It's Jack, and Will almost, almost doesn't answer. He's finally in a good mood, and a call from Jack can never bring anything positive. Whatever this is is going to drag him back down, into the hole, which seems to get deeper and darker every time he falls in.
He answers anyway, because this is his job. He's needed, and Jack won't let up until Will's purpose is served, mental health be damned.
"The Ripper struck again."
Just like that, Will is back in his daze. Jack continues to talk, filling him in on details, where to go, what to do, but his words jumble up in Will's head, losing their meaning and fading away.
"Are you listening? Get here as soon as possible."
"I'm on my way." He doesn't want to be. He wants to go home to his dogs, spend some time alone, maybe read a book. He can't remember the last time he had a chance to read for leisure, and he misses it. His ability to empathize so strongly allows him to completely lose himself in books, to go on adventures and be someone else. It also meant, however, that he has to be careful about what he reads, because anything too horrific can plague his mind for weeks.
The drive from Baltimore back to Virginia seems longer than normal, and Will nods off periodically, catching himself just before he falls asleep completely. The interstate is dark, surrounded on either side by blackened trees that seem to stretch into forever. It only reminds him of how tired he is, how he hasn't gotten a decent night's sleep in ages. The headlights flashing in his eyes from cars travelling the opposite direction is the only thing that keeps him conscious.
When he arrives on the scene, an abandoned warehouse crawling with local police, Jack and the others are already there. Jack is on him the second they make eye contact, lays a hand on Will's shoulder as he guides him inside.
"All the signs point to the Ripper, but I want you to take a look. The body is mounted on the wall, missing organs, the usual, but –"
Jack pushes the door open and stands aside as Will enters. As usual, the smell is overpowering – gritty, metallic decay, and even after all this time, Will still recoils a bit. His eyes adjust to the darkness of the warehouse slowly, focusing on the particles of dust floating in the streaks of moonlight that filter in through the fractured ceiling. And there, on the far wall, mounted up like an statue of Christ in a church, is the body. A woman. Bile rises in the back of Will's throat.
"What do you see?" Jack asks quietly.
She's secured to the wall with pipes and mechanical equipment, rusted railroad spikes supporting each hand through the palm – fingers removed. A slit opens up her torso like a zipper on a coat, and the skin sags emptily, the organs gone. What catches Will's eye, though, what makes the cold sweat appear on the back of his neck, is her face. The bruises around her throat.
She was strangled before she was killed. She's the woman from his dream, he knows it, and all he can see is himself grabbing her, pinning her to the car as she struggles against him, crying for help. He can still feel her clawing at him, kicking him, her nails biting into his shoulders.
"Nothing," Will chokes out. He's panicking, his breaths coming in shuddering little puffs. He's on the verge of a panic attack, he can feel it tingling in the back of his skull, ready to overtake him. "I can't – I can't see anything."
Jack sighs. "Is it the Ripper?"
"I don't know! I don't know anything! I can't see anything!"
Jack throws up his hands, and Will can hear him muttering to himself, but all Will can do is stare at her. He wants to look away, to leave, but she has him hypnotized; her dead face strangely peaceful. And then her neck jerks brokenly, as if waking from a nightmare, and her eyes fly open, impossibly wide. She stares at him through the stringy, blonde strands of hair that hang in her face, her eyes white and vacant. She opens her mouth as if to speak, but a scream comes out instead, the same scream he's been hearing in his mind since he woke up on the side of the road that morning. Black blood pours down from her eyes like tears, creeping out of the corners of gray, cracked lips.
"I'll leave you alone," Jack says. Will blinks, and the world is back to normal. "You better know something by the time I get back."
And then he's alone, the door slamming as Jack leaves him, stirring up a new cloud of dust. Will doesn't want to look at this anymore; he can't see anything that happened here. Whoever killed her wasn't the one to mutilate her, maybe – he doesn't know. All he can see is the dream, playing itself over and over in his head. What had she said her name was? Monica?
The pendulum swings, and Will feels like he's falling. It's like those moments, when he's right on the verge of sleep, and he's hit with the sensation that he's lost his balance. He jerks, startled, and when he opens his eyes he's back on the side of the road. It's vivid, hyper-realistic; he can see full color even though it's dark, he can see the pores on her face as she gets out of the car, waves him down.
"Excuse me! Hi! Can you help me?"
She's pretty, in her late twenties or so, hair flowing in loose curls by the sides of her made up face. She looks like she's just come from a party of some kind, little black dress and high heels, a silver clutch bag in one manicured hand.
She trots over to him, moving carefully against the uneven pavement. "Sorry, hi," she says again, smiling timidly. She's as awkward as a high school girl, moves as if she's never worn heels before in her life.
"I'm not from around here," she goes on, shifting her weight. "I got lost – my phone died, and it's my GPS, so–"
"The highway is that way." Will gestures vaguely into the darkness. It feels like a dream, the kind where he knows he should run, but his body feels like it's trapped in molasses. He wants to help her, wants to do more, he can feel himself trying to help her, but the dream isn't letting it happen.
"Actually, um, I have a flat tire." She does; Will sees that now. Exploded beyond repair. "Do you live around here? Can I maybe use your phone? Or could you give me a lift to a gas station?"
He doesn't know what makes him lunge at her; he barely realizes that he's moved until she's screaming, her throat flexing and pulsing under his hands. She has too much room to move, twisting violently against him, lifting her knee uselessly against his thigh. He shoves forward, slamming her into the car, and that's when she starts to cry, her eye makeup melting down her face.
"Please," she moans, scraping her nails into his shoulders, and he's vaguely aware that she now has a grade A sample of his DNA. "I – My name is Monica." Her voice is weak, strained under the pressure he's applying to her throat. He pushes his thumb against her trachea more firmly, a sick twinge of pleasure coursing through him when she gags. "I have a mother, two sisters–"
He knows this ploy, of course; the whole appeal to humanity shtick. It enrages him as much as it excites him, but he's tired of this game. He closes his hands around her neck and her face goes purple, her eyes wide and horrified, searching his pleadingly, and he shakes her, bashing her body against the car until she goes limp.
After that comes the darkness.
Will opens his eyes, regarding the body on the wall. This is her. He killed her. But what about what happened afterward? Could he have brought himself to mutilate her like this, to cut off her fingers to hide himself? No – no. He couldn't. It wasn't possible.
He focuses on the warehouse, on Monica's lifeless body, trying to see someone other than himself. The world moves backward with aching slowness, and Will sees someone moving quickly, methodically. It feels like the Ripper, though it lacked the typical revulsion; he wasn't doing this for his usual reasons. This seemed like a chore. The Ripper got no joy out of this, but that didn't stop him from bringing home a reward for his troubles: her intestines, her liver, her heart, her lungs – all gone.
But under all of that, underneath the work and the obligation, Will detects a flicker of – what? Respect? Protectiveness? Someone who cared enough to remove the fingers, to dispose of them where no one would ever find them. Will shudders, feeling vaguely sick. Whoever did this was protecting him.
Whether or not it was him protecting himself is still up for debate.
When Jack returns, Will has nothing to tell him. "It was a collaboration. I think."
"You think?" Jack repeats, his temper flaring. "So what, you're telling me the Ripper has friends now? You're telling me we have not one, but two Rippers on our hands?"
"I don't know! I don't even know if it was the Ripper. It feels like him, but – whoever did this isn't a monster."
Jack regards him skeptically, pursing his lips, lifting an eyebrow. "Not a monster." He turns his gaze to Monica. "Not a monster."
"Not a monster in the – I don't know – fictional sense. This was a human, someone who cares, someone who's protecting someone else. Someone he admires. He has feelings, real ones, and I don't know if the Ripper is capable of that."
Jack sighs, shoving his hands into his pockets. "Well, you better figure it out."
Will vomits as soon as he's alone, in the bushes next to his car. His entire body is quaking in terror, revulsion – what if he had brought Monica here, pinned her body to the wall? He can see himself doing it, and that's the worst part; he doesn't know if he's empathizing or remembering.
He grabs onto the side of his car for support as another wave of nausea overwhelms him, dry heaving violently. He spits out a mouthful of bile, shaking tiredly. He should get a hotel room here, but he wants to go back to Baltimore – to Hannibal. He's the only one Will can talk to about this, the only one who will listen without immediately throwing him into custody – or worse – a psych ward.
When the nausea passes, he gets into his car, drumming his fingers indecisively on the wheel. The interior lights are still on, and he can see himself reflected in the windshield; he looks like shit, his eyes dark and sunken, his hair matted and greasy. He's tired, so tired, but beyond that, he's terrified. Looking into his own eyes, he sees a frightened animal, one that's pushed so far into a corner it has no choice but to bite. It's a look he's seen so many times before on the faces of strays that he's picked up, the few that have lashed out at him. All it took was a few days of kindness and treats to break through to them, but Will feels too trapped, too far gone to be saved.
As he stares at his reflection, another face materializes in the darkness behind him. Monica, her face rotting before his eyes; skin peeling off in soggy gray chunks, her jaw dislocating and hanging loosely, letting out that scream – that scream. Her rancid breath pushes against his face, and Will throws open the door just in time to vomit on the gravel. Tears leak out with the force of it, trickling down his nose and dripping down, and that's all it takes for him to break, crying quietly.
He lays his forehead on the steering wheel, too scared to look in the backseat. He allows himself this moment, he needs to let some of this out – he knows that. But he feels so small, so overused. It wasn't supposed to turn out this way, but he feared it from the beginning. He warned Jack, he warned him, but it never mattered; Will has never been anything more than a tool.
It's that thought that makes him start the car and begin the drive back to Baltimore. Hannibal can see him, and that's what Will needs right now; someone to look at him as a person, rather than a special agent. Hannibal is the kind, nurturing hand that can keep Will from snapping, that can guide him out of his corner and back into the light.
Hannibal answers the door so quickly that Will almost feels like he was expecting him.
"I–" Will starts, and that's all he can manage before his voice breaks, his arms wrapped around himself protectively.
"Come in," Hannibal says, curling his arm around Will's shoulders. He feels so big, so sturdy; this is the closest they've ever been, and Will doesn't mind it, not this time. He refuses to cry in front of anyone – especially Hannibal – but he's so broken that a few tears slip out anyway. He wipes them away quickly with his thumb.
Hannibal guides him to the dining room, sits him down at the table, which is set for two. It has to be past midnight, way too late for dinner; but this is what Hannibal does, and Will is grateful for the normalcy.
Hannibal says nothing until he places a plate in front of Will – Will's too exhausted, physically and emotionally, to eat, but it smells divine. Through tear-blurred eyes, it looks like some kind of steak.
"Tell me," Hannibal says, taking a seat at the other end of the table. He shakes out a cloth napkin before spreading it across his lap. "What's troubling you?"
Will shakes his head, cutting a small sliver off the end of steak, putting it in his mouth with his fingers. It's heavenly, melts in his mouth – better than anything he's tasted before. He's suddenly ravenous, and he unabashedly shoves his face before answering. He can feel Hannibal's eyes on him, watching him, studying him, and Will is almost comforted by it.
He pauses when half of his steak is gone, places his fork on the table and massages his forehead with his fingers. "I – I think I'm the Ripper."
Hannibal's laugh surprises him – offends him – and he jerks his head up to meet Hannibal's gaze. "Why is that funny?"
"No – I apologize. I see you're very upset, and I was rude." He dabs at his lips delicately with his napkin, his eyes never leaving Will's. "Tell me how you reached this conclusion."
"I – that girl. From my dream. She was found dead today."
"Are you certain it's the girl from your dream? You said yourself that it happened in the dark – her features couldn't have been clear."
"I was two inches from her face," Will says firmly, curling his fist on the table. "And…" He pulls back the collar of his shirt enough to expose his shoulder, and Hannibal's eyes follow the movement curiously. Will hasn't checked for himself, but he knows.
"She clawed me." He feels the skin there for himself, his eyes squeezing closed when his fingers brush against raised, crusted stripes. He feels sick again, and he swallows down the urge. He opens his eyes to meet Hannibal's gaze once more. "The girl from today? Her fingers had been removed."
He can no longer read Hannibal's expression – it's closed off, strangely dark.
"None of this makes you a murderer. You had a premonition, perhaps; clawed yourself in your sleep."
"That doesn't explain how I got outside."
"Sleepwalking is not unusual for you."
"There are only two explanations. Either I'm the Ripper, or – or I know him, and he's protecting me."
Hannibal studies him for a moment longer before returning to his steak, cutting into it with deliberate care. "And?" he asks. "Which do you think it is?"
Will shakes his head, laughing bitterly. "I'm scared to know. I'm scared that if I go back through the missing person reports from the past month, I'll find faces I recognize from my dreams – and maybe some of them will have been found dead somewhere." Will thinks for a moment, trying to line the pieces up in his head. "He – he wanted to see if I'd notice, if I'd care. Now he wants my attention." He takes his glasses off, burying his face in his hands. "And he has it. Undividedly."
"I imagine he'd be happy to hear that. Now what will you do?"
"I don't know." It comes out as a whisper. "Even if he's – a monster. The Ripper. We're no different. I have to catch him, but how can I look him in the eye and lock him away, knowing he spared me that same fate?"
Will brings his hands from his face, focusing blearily on the steak before him. Something strikes him, an odd feeling, which quickly progresses into a heavy dread, wrapping tightly around his chest. "What – what are we eating?"
"Lung," Hannibal replies simply. He plucks a bite off his fork, closing his eyes as he savors it.
Will's voice is barely there when he asks, "Lung from what?"
Hannibal smiles at him, placing his fork on the table. "You should sleep. I'll keep an eye on you, so you won't sleepwalk."
Will is frozen, shaking hard, watching Hannibal in horror as he slowly gets up from the table, moving closer. "And if you do," Hannibal continues, "I'll be there to clean up your mess." He reaches out, brushing his thumb against the corner of Will's mouth, wiping away a smear of food. "I'm sorry, Will," Hannibal adds, sincerely. "I wanted you to stay in your dream. It's safer there."
"What have we done," Will chokes out, and he feels himself breaking, the last sane fragments of his mind shattering, turning to dust. "What have we–"
"Shh," Hannibal croons, stroking his face with the backs of his fingers. "Come now. We're no different, hm? Come."
Will follows him, lets Hannibal lead him to his bedroom. He's the stray, and Hannibal will guide him, take care of him; will hide his secret until they both go down in flames. And they will. One day.
Until that day comes, Will will shut himself in his mind, where he's safe, unaware. If it weren't for Hannibal, he would have been locked up a long time ago, and for now, he has to rely on that.
When he sleeps, he dreams of being held, protected – maybe even loved.