The stag puffed out the feathers on its chest, its antlers reflecting the blue moonlight. It was cold, it was snowy. Everywhere, the ground, the trees, snow blanketed everything with a soft, shimmering gleam.
The stag's nostril flared and it huffed loudly, digging its hooves into the ground. It shook its antlers, snow glittering onto the ground.
Will turned his head, away from the stag. He stared into the blackness of the night, waiting for nothing.
In the darkness, an impaled girl appeared. She was naked, save a pair of underpants and a bra. Will couldn't see her face, her hair hanging in front of her like a veil. Then, her body began to bleed. First her heart, then her stomach and her shoulders and her thighs and her neck, all dripping with gooey blood. It was the stag, the same stag, piercing its antlers through her papery skin.
A troubled sense of déjà vu rushed through Will, down his spine and tingling in his fingertips. He had seen this before. Where? He knew this, had had this within his mind. He had deconstructed this. It wasn't a stag, it was something more; it was something worse.
He began shaking, sweating, shivering, all at the same time. He was burning up and freezing cold. He took deep breaths, the icy air burning his windpipe. No, no, this was all wrong.
Will forced himself to look again, overcoming the pain and the sweat and the cold. And he looked closer.
Tiny little fish hooks, slicing underneath her skin. There was colour. And there were more. More and more hooks stabbed into her, mutilating her skin and pulling her apart. It was all so wrong.
The trees around Will began to blur; his heart rapidly thumped against his chest and he could no longer ignore the growing pains in his head – screaming inside him like sirens.
Will clamped his palms over his ears, desperately wishing for the pain to stop. Stop, the sound and the noise and the wailing pitch. Stop, the blood and the flesh in front of him. Stop, the sweat and the cold.
His eyes were shut tightly, his breathing was uncontrollable. Then, he couldn't breathe. He gasped, coughing, choking on nothing. His diaphragm contracted and relaxed in spasms.
Will gasped for air, shooting up in his bed. His teeth chattered, but looking around wildly, he noticed that the mattress underneath him was entirely drenched with sweat.
He took deep breaths, slowly. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Eventually, the shock wore off and he regained his composure.
Around him, his dogs panted and whined. He must have woken them up.
He sighed, stood up and pulled off his t-shirt, throwing it on the ground. He could deal with the laundry later. Still tired, he shuffled across the floorboards and rummaged through his drawers for a clean pair of pants. The sweat was becoming more noticeable.
He shuffled into his bathroom and turned on the taps, pulling off his sweaty pants while he waited for the water to heat up. He hated how this was becoming almost routine. And he hated doing the laundry; washing bed-sheets was an effort.
The water cleaned away the salty aroma from the pores of his skin, thankfully. He continued to focus on his breathing – in through the nose, out through the mouth – while washing. He didn't think about his dream, afraid he might start seeing things while awake.
Will breathed, the water washing down his body. It was a small comfort.
After a short while, he turned off the taps and stepped out of the shower, shivering. He wrapped a towel around him quickly and wiped his palm over the mirror above his sink, staring at his own reflection. He assumed it was his own reflection as it was only logical, but he could hardly recognise that person in the mirror. Their eyes were so dull, so sunken, so empty. He couldn't find any of himself in them.
He felt like an empty canvas, itching to be painted with the personalities and emotions of someone else to fill the void inside of him.
Will breathed in. Four counts in.
Four counts out.
He woke up, cold, on the couch. He shot up, disorientated. That wasn't a nightmare, no, what was that?
He cursed underneath his breath, realising he had lost time.
Will looked down, saw he was still naked save the damp bathroom towel.
The doorbell rang, again. It was familiar, it was definitely again. It must have been what woke him up. Will hissed through his teeth, hoped it was someone unimportant like the postman or the neighbours on the next property and hoisted his towel around waist securely. He stumbled over towards the door, almost tripping over his dogs that were now alive and alert – ready for breakfast.
He unlocked the door and pulled it open.
Hannibal Lecter cocked his head, "It appears I've interrupted the morning ritual?"
Will shrugged, "Alana's seen worse." He paused, inspecting Hannibal up and down. There was something off. It didn't take long for that something to click. Will snickered. "Since when do you wear shorts, Doctor Lecter?"
"Today," Hannibal replied indifferently. "May I come in?"
Will nodded and stepped to the side, allowing Hannibal to walk inside. He was greeted immediately by six incredibly enthusiastic dogs. Winston barked, jumping up.
"Tsst," Will said through his teeth. Immediately, the dogs dropped still.
"You've trained them well," Hannibal stated.
Will nodded, walking into the kitchen. He turned on the kettle. "Coffee's in the far left cupboard, help yourself. I should put on some clothes," Will muttered, hastily leaving towards his bedroom. Awkward.
As he was pulling out clean underwear, it suddenly dawned on him that he had misplaced the ones he had planned to wear after his shower. He had lost time. Where would lost-time-Will put briefs? He hoped to the high heavens that wherever they were, they were not in Hannibal's sight.
Will pushed the thought to the back of his mind and dressed, throwing on an old pair of jeans, a casual shirt and a jacket. He ran a hand through his hair, figured his appearance was good enough and returned to the kitchen.
Hannibal was sitting at the small dining table, the morning sun lighting up half his face while the other half was in shadow. But before he could even attempt at social expectations when a guest was inside, his dogs jumped him, demanding food.
Will smiled. He whistled and the dogs followed him obediently around the back, and sat patiently by their respective bowls. Will opened a crate containing a huge packet of dry dog food and poured it out into each bowl. The dogs were trained, and all waited until the last bowl had been served.
Then they dug in, munching hungrily on the dry food loudly.
Will packed away the food back into the crate and went back inside. He sat down opposite Hannibal, "Sorry, I didn't hear my alarm this morning – what's the time?"
"It is eight fourty-three," Hannibal glanced at his wristwatch. "Hardly a dilemma. I poured your coffee." Hannibal gestured towards the mug in front of Will. "Unfortunately, I have not brought breakfast with me this time."
Will smiled, reflecting back to the last time they sat at the same table, in the same spot. Back then, their relationship was somewhat strained. I don't find you that interesting, was what he had said. That had changed. Hannibal had become somewhat of a comfort, now.
"I think I can manage," Will said. He picked up his mug and drank from it steadily. "So is your current outfit to be explained?" Will asked after a while.
Hannibal put down his mug, making eye contact with Will. "It has come to my attention that you are an avid fly fisher."
Will nodded. "It's a hobby."
"Today, you would have had a session for two o' clock. It's a few hours' drive. You're in an environment that is dissimilar to what you find comfortable. Thus, I came to the conclusion that today is about you, Will. We will have today's session by the lake."
Will thought about Hannibal's reasoning for a second. "We're bonding," he said with a small laugh.
"That is one way of putting it."
"If you're thinking of fishing, you'll have to wear proper gear," Will pointed out bluntly.
"We'll see," Hannibal grunted.
An entire hour was spent sifting through the terrible mess that was Will's wardrobe – a pigsty compared to his drawers. The art of fly fishing included overalls and if Hannibal was going to be true to his word in his latest tactic of psychiatry, then he had to be geared up appropriately with waders, too.
Grudgingly, Hannibal Lecter had, in Will's opinion, had gone through a mild identity crisis by entirely stripping his former dignified appearance of expensive suits and sharp haircuts. In the overalls, he looked goofy and misplaced.
On the topic of clothes, Will had found his misplaced pair of pants – in the bathroom – and thrown them back in his drawer discreetly. An awkward situation had been successfully avoided, but Will was sure it could get a lot worse.
Down at the lake, Will had prepped Hannibal on the type of hook they would be using and how to throw the line. It was a relatively simple concept.
Will waded into the stream first. The water was ice cold and the current was tough. He attached the hook to the line and with practiced precision, pulled his forearm back quickly, the line unravelling behind him vertically. Before it touched the water, he pumped his forearm forward and the line catapulted in front of him, dipping into the water seamlessly. It was so the fly appeared natural, and the fish mistook it as an actual invertebrate of sorts.
Not surprisingly, Will didn't catch anything. He pulled in the line and repeated the same technique. All the while, Hannibal watched him from the banks, sitting on a plastic fold-up chair uncomfortably. For now, Hannibal was content with watching only.
For the third time, Will threw the line. The fly dived into the current and sunk to the bottom. This time, there was a tug. Instantly, Will flicked the rod up to pierce the hook into the trout's mouth and pulled in the line quickly. Sure enough, as the end of the line lifted out the water, was a flapping trout dangling off the hook.
Will waded back to shore where Hannibal sat and took the fish off the hook, feeling its weight in his hands. It was large enough for eating, definitely. He could feel its heavy breathing in his palms, its diaphragm demanding to be put back into water. Will opened the esky and placed the trout in it. He closed the lid, expecting it would die within the next few minutes.
"Already a catch?"
"Luck. Most catches are too small."
Will dismantled the fly. It wasn't any good once it had been used. There was the option of preserving it but it was too much effort and he made too many flies to ever be short of one. On the hook was a bit of flesh left from the inside of the trout's mouth. It was a soft fleshy pink, but no bigger than that of a head of a pin.
Will threw the fly into a bucket near the esky.
"Are you going to fish soon?" Will gestured to one of his other rods.
"Of course," said Hannibal. He stood up and grabbed one of the rods. "I expect I'll be no good, however."
Will shrugged and waded back into the current. He attached a new fly, pulled back then cast the line forward. Hannibal stood further downstream, ten metres away. Will wasn't exactly sure why Hannibal felt the need to involve himself in Will's pastime as it was rather obvious that Hannibal and he had very different likes and hobbies.
Will reeled in his own line and watched Hannibal. Like Will had told him, Hannibal pulled back and cast the line in front, directing his aim through the line and not the lure. The fly dipped into the water and sunk to the bottom for the trout. It was almost a perfect throw. Will was surprised. It generally took a while to get used to the techniques. Fluke, he reasoned.
For the next twenty minutes, they cast their lines out silently. Nothing was caught during that time. Will liked it, no matter the circumstances. It was something he could focus on entirely to block out everything else. It was simply a matter of casting and luring. And there was such tranquillity to everything. In the water, sensing and connecting with the current; feeling the wind and calculating the throw. Here, in this world, Will was in control. He knew how to work with his surroundings, knew how to manipulate nature.
Then, Hannibal caught a trout. Will suppressed a laugh at Hannibal's surprise when the trout tried to slap him in the face with its tail, and immediately waded over to Hannibal's aid. It was a good catch, large and fat. Will snapped its neck before it could jump back in the water and felt its weight in his hands.
"You're not too bad."
"I paid attention," Hannibal said simply.
Will gave the dead trout back to Hannibal, "You can put it in the box. Throw out the old fly, it's lost its buoyancy."
Hannibal nodded, wading back to shore. Will stared downstream. He pulled back and cast the line forward. The fly sailed in the air, hurtling downwards into the current. It dived into the river and sunk to the bottom.
Then, just as Will began to reel the line back, his vision blurred. Suddenly, his forehead burned with a fever and his brain hammered underneath his skull painfully. No, this wasn't supposed to happen. This was where he was safe.
On the banks, the trees pulsated in waves of nausea and in the sky the once crisp blue began shattering into fragments of grey and black. With everything decaying around him, Will tried to breathe – four counts in, four counts out – and the air burnt on his tongue. He could feel everything; the hairs standing on end on the back of his neck, the soft whistle from the wind screaming into his eardrums, the current smashing into the back of his weakening legs.
In the water, the current carried red blood. Will watched the blood travel past his legs, watched it bleach the water until it was no longer red ribbons but an entire sheet creating a red river of death. All the fish underneath, all the wildlife underneath the waters, rose to the surface of the water, dead. Will could smell it; the rot and the blood, festering around him.
Directly in front of him, the dead fish floated apart as a strange mass appeared underneath the water. It was huge and dark. It broke the surface of the water and Will saw antlers dripping with blood. Will shuddered, gasping for air as his heart thumped underneath his chest viciously.
The stag rose and with it, was a dead girl hanging off its antlers. It was always the same girl. It was her. But this time she wasn't simply pierced, she was drenched in blood.
Will blacked out.
When he woke, he was wrapped up in at least four woolly blankets. He groaned, feeling disorientated and desperately needing to pee.
"I see you're awake."
Will looked around, found the owner of the voice. Hannibal. What was he doing here?
Hannibal must have caught his confused expression. "You fainted in the water. I brought you back home."
Will nodded slowly, vaguely remembering a fishing trip. He was still unsure of why Hannibal was there.
He stood up, knees knocking together weakly. He pushed off his blankets and saw he was only wearing an undershirt and briefs. If he wasn't feeling so ill, he might have felt someone embarrassed. Hannibal watched him leave for the bathroom, his eyes following Will's every steps.
Will pissed and felt instantly better. While washing his hands he stared at his reflection. He really didn't know what he was looking at. He sighed and tried to remember what had happened before he passed out.
It was slowly coming back to him, Will remembering Hannibal making coffee. He remembered fishing, and yes, Hannibal joined him. But Hannibal said he fainted, so he couldn't have simply lost time. It was different. What was it that made it different?
Will struggled to remember anything more and dejectedly returned to the living room. He passed Hannibal preparing something in the kitchen and gazed over the counter for a better look. Fish. Trout, to be accurate.
"It's the least I can do. You should rest, Will."
Will nodded and climbed back onto the sofa, snuggling underneath the blankets. He wasn't sure if he was actually cold or not but he felt comfortable, at least.
It wasn't long before Hannibal joined him and gave Will a plate. Despite being served on plastic plates with printed abstract art, Hannibal still made a very lavish dish.
"Smoked trout kedgeree," said Hannibal.
Will nodded. He didn't feel particularly hungry, but he would feel bad telling Hannibal this after making his meal for him. He took a few bites. "It's good."
The corners of Hannibal's lips twitched into a smile and the two of them ate in silence.
"Do you remember anything prior to you fainting?" Hannibal asked, breaking the silence.
Will swallowed. "I think so. It's all a blur."
He had been thinking. The trout was a clue, the smell of it reminding his brain of what he had seen. Blood. He remembered galleons of blood.
"It is less important on what you saw. It is how you feel and react that is important," Hannibal said wisely.
Will nodded, "I feel... My nightmares, they're infecting who I am. I don't feel anything anymore. Because every time I try to disconnect, I see Cassie Boyle. I feel like I'm being suspended from a piece of string, and every time I find stability the strings are pulled tighter."
"Who is pulling the strings?"
"I don't know. Jack. The Copy Cat. Abigail. Maybe it's me. Maybe I'm doing it to myself."
"Maybe. Losing what makes you feel safe is dangerous. You're allowing yourself to become vulnerable, which may be why you are hallucinating so often. You may want to consider another hobby, in the lightest of terms. You are slowly beginning to associate yourself with the Minnesota Shrike case, and now your own home is an association with Garret Jacob Hobbs."
"So how can I break down those associations?" Will asked.
"It is very difficult to give you a clear answer. The simplest solution would be to sell your house and everything in it, but I feel that would not be a very permanent solution."
"I saw, in my dream," Will said slowly, "last night. Cassie Boyle's skin was being torn with fish hooks. I wanted to lure her in."
Hannibal gave Will a steady look. Will coughed, put down his plate.
"I need some air." Will stood up and shuffled outside, sitting down on his porch. The air was cold but for the first time in a while, it was relaxing. Will breathed, watching his breath become fog with childish amusement.
He stared out into the mist with the moon creeping over the horizon. One day, he'd escape all this.
Will imagined that he was on a lake and everything was entirely still save the organic rocking of the boat he lived on. It was so peaceful, so quiet. He'd like to live like that.
He'd have his dogs, of course.
His dogs, his house-boat, and himself, alone on a lonely and never-ending river.