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Taken for Rubies

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Who can find a good woman? For her price is far above rubies. (Proverbs 31:10)

*

Branches tapped against the tall windows of Hannibal’s office, invisible outside in the dark. Will stared past Hannibal at the blank glass.

“We spoke before, briefly, of your family,” Hannibal said.

“We did.”

“You were reluctant to discuss your early life.”

“Still am.”

“You lived with your father.”

“Until I was sixteen.”

“You moved often.”

“If you can call it moving when you live in a pay by the month motel and all your stuff fits in a suitcase and a cardboard box.”

“Did you wish for things to be different?”

Will shrugged. “It was the way things were. I didn’t think about it much.”

“And when you did?”

The tip of a twig scraped across glass. Will listened to the high, eerie noise it produced. He thought back to similar nights, waiting for his dad to come home, hearing things move outside in the dark.

“I watched a lot of TV,” he said. “Sometimes I wished it was like that. Mom at home, Dad with a steady job, nice house, everyone around the dinner table every night. But I think I knew that was bullshit even then.”

“Is it?”

“No one’s life is really like that,” Will said, and he could hear the bitterness in his voice and how much he was giving away. He decided not to care. Hannibal had heard much worse from him. “Dad hits Mom, or Mom hits the kids. Someone gets a coke habit. They can’t pay the mortgage. Happy families on the outside, quiet desperation on the inside.”

“The idealized situations you saw on television as a child have embedded themselves into this nation’s collective unconscious. The resentment when they fail to materialize is often more damaging than any other obstacle encountered in a relationship.”

“Because it’s just a fantasy. It’s not real.”

“What if it were? Is that something you would want? Your wife waiting at the door with a drink when you came home from work, dinner in the oven?”

Will smiled a little. “I think we were watching different shows. I didn’t grow up on Leave It to Beaver or wherever you’re getting that from.”

“You might be surprised how many men have sat where you are sitting and described that to me as their ideal.”

“Well, it’s not mine.”

“Perhaps the other way around then.”

Will had kept his eyes on the dark windows, but now he looked back to Hannibal with a frown. “What?”

“Perhaps you find it easier to see yourself in the role of caretaker. Tending the home fires, waiting for your partner’s return from battle.”

Will struggled with his own expression and didn’t dare look at Hannibal’s. He kept his mouth shut. Anything he said would sound defensive.

Hannibal leaned forward in his chair. “Your empathy makes you unusually aware of the needs of others. Perhaps you would prefer to fulfill them rather than have someone tend to your own.”

Memory caught at him abruptly, an unexpected hook in the bait. “I used to do it for my dad," he said slowly. "Put a couple beers in the fridge for him, find the game on TV so he wouldn’t have to look for it when he came home.”

"Did he thank you for it?"

"Why would he?"

"Gratitude would be the appropriate response," Hannibal said mildly. "The polite response."

"You couldn’t say much for my dad’s manners."

“Do you still wish to fulfill the needs of others?”

“That’s why I came to dinner at your house the first time.”

Hannibal blinked slowly once. “Because I needed you there?” he said, slight emphasis on need, as if he was considering the idea.

“Dad didn’t need a beer after work, but it sure put him in a better mood.”

“It’s an interesting comparison to make. I don’t feel particularly paternal toward you.”

“Good. Then you won’t expect filial piety in return.”

Hannibal’s tongue touched his bottom lip, and Will watched the wet shine it left behind. He uncrossed his legs and leaned back in the chair.

“Do you feel the need to improve my mood?” Hannibal asked. “To appease me?”

“It’s not about appeasement.”

“A gift then. An offering.”

“My company isn’t a gift.”

“That’s a matter of opinion, I think.”

Will shifted in his chair and passed a hand over his mouth. It was half a desire to prove Hannibal wrong and half a desire to be proven wrong himself that made him ask: “Do you want to come to my house? For dinner. Friday.”

Hannibal smiled very slightly. “I would like that very much, Will. Thank you.”

*

Hannibal stood in his wine cellar and touched the bottles on the high shelves one by one. Eye level was for everyday vintages. The top shelf held the best he had, wine worth hundreds or thousands and certainly worth more attention than it would receive at Will’s table.

It wasn’t the first time Hannibal had been tempted to throw his best at Will’s feet, knowing it would be neither recognized nor acknowledged. It was the oddest sensation, the desire to give without receiving, to do it in secret. The same desire had spurred him to kill Cassie Boyle and Marissa Schurr.

He resisted this time. Will had the oddest collection of knowledge stored away in his head. If he did, by chance, recognize the label, it would not create the impression Hannibal intended.

He knelt instead and inspected the lower shelves, with their dust covered bottles and cheaply printed labels. The last of his stock from the family vineyards, decent but not exceptional. A gesture Will would appreciate far more than the 1947 Cheval Blanc on the top shelf, if Hannibal ever told him where it had come from.

*

Will left work on Friday with a loose plan involving striped bass and roasted potatoes. Simple, straightforward stuff. Trying to live up to Hannibal’s standards would only end in disaster. He was home by four, which should’ve been plenty of time, but the more he looked at his house, the more he inevitably saw it through Hannibal’s eyes: the dog hair, the dust, the piles of books, the empty glasses.

It started with carrying the glasses back to the kitchen and doing his breakfast dishes and a futile attempt to sweep at least the area around the kitchen table. It ended with enough dog hair to make another dog and him vaguely sweaty and more than vaguely irritated with himself.

He hadn’t planned to clean. The house wasn’t dirty. Messy, all right, and the dog hair built up, but it wasn’t as if Hannibal had never seen it before. It wasn’t as if Will had any thought of impressing him, except that clearly he did. More accurately, he had no chance of impressing him.

He put the broom firmly back in the closet and started dinner.

As he chopped potatoes, he tried to recall the precise moment and emotion that had led him to issue the invitation: the odd combination of peace and turmoil that he had felt in Hannibal’s office more than once. It was a haven and a shipwreck all in one.

He dropped the potatoes into the pot and rinsed off the knife. It was a good knife. Old now, but solid and sharp. The little—very little—cooking he’d done as a child had been with cheap ones, plastic handles and wobbly blades, often taken from previous rentals or left by previous tenants.

He remembered one with a bright orange handle that had snapped and cut his thumb open. He’d bled heavily on the apple he’d meant for his dad’s lunch. No one had been happy that morning.

Hannibal had asked if his father had been grateful. Will couldn’t remember ever having considered that as a possibility. He hadn’t done any of it it for gratitude.

*

Hannibal arrived just before seven and greeted the dogs patiently at the door. He handed over a bottle of wine.

“If it doesn’t suit your menu, please save it for another occasion,” he said.

“Why don’t you tell me if it suits my menu. That seems safer.”

“Fish? Yes, I believe it will do nicely.”

Will turned and frowned at the kitchen, but the bass was marinating in the fridge like it was supposed to be. “How—?”

“The scent.”

Hannibal’s expression said he knew Will would have questions, and therefore Will elected not to ask them. He opened the wine instead and poured a glass for each of them.

“I’ll get it in the oven,” he said. “You can sit, or… Or whatever you want.”

Hannibal leaned against his kitchen counter. Will couldn’t help noting the faint crease in his shirt, the less than perfectly crisp pocket square, the five o’clock shadow. He must’ve come straight from the office.

“Long day?” he asked, and closed his eyes briefly. Too many connotations to that question after their last conversation. Hannibal home from work, Will with dinner waiting.

“Do I look so tired?” Hannibal asked, warmth in his voice and creases around his eyes.

“A little,” he said, and put the bass in the oven so he didn’t have to look at Hannibal when he said it. “I assume even you have a bad day once in a while.”

“Perhaps it was long. My profession provides its own trials. There is a patient I expect I’ll need to refer to someone else shortly.”

“What does it take to get you to give up on someone?”

"Our relationship has become such that I believe he's no longer benefiting from our time together."

Will started the salads and picked his way through that sentence. "Did he hit on you?"

"What makes you say that?"

“Relationship is a nice way of referring to his personal feelings for you, since you obviously don't have any for him. I can't imagine any amount of antagonism would put you off, so he doesn't dislike you. He likes you too much."

"Astute as always. But no, he didn't make romantic advances. He wants to be my friend, and that's not possible."

"Why not? We're friends." Will paused for a second with his knife blade about to pierce another tomato. Hannibal had told him that at least a dozen times. It shouldn’t feel so dangerous to say it out loud.

“You said it yourself. I have no personal feelings for him.”

“And you do for me.”

“Does that surprise you?”

Will glanced at him and then quickly away. He went to set the table. “No,” he said. “Not at all.”

He finished cooking, and they sat down together.

Will had never given a second thought to using paper napkins until he saw Hannibal unfold one and smooth it into his lap with the same practiced gesture he used for his own at home. The weight and thickness of the cloth pressed against Will’s fingers in his mind.

"This is very good, Will. Thank you," Hannibal said.

Will couldn’t answer. He was too caught up in memory and in the soft glow of this moment, somehow tinted by nostalgia, as if it were already lost to him.

Hannibal was pouring them more wine, asking him what he thought of the case they’d just wrapped up. The lost boys.

“His parents want him back,” Will said.

“Did you think they wouldn’t?”

“I didn’t think they’d fight so hard. They’ve got a boatload of lawyers. And it’s not like he’d be a ward of the state forever. They’ll bankrupt themselves to get him home a few months sooner.”

“He is their child. Wouldn’t your father have done the same?”

“I was put into foster care five times between the ages of four and twelve. What does that tell you?”

“It tells me that he got you back.”

Will raised his glass, conceding the point for the moment. “Would your parents have done that for you?”

Hannibal looked past him and swirled his wine gently in his glass. He set it down and took a bite before he answered. “They would have, yes. Out of duty if nothing else. For my sister, they would have done it without question or reserve.”

“Which part of that sentence am I supposed to ask about?”

“That’s up to you. Conversation is a dance, and dancing requires a partner.”

“Someone usually leads.”

“I usually lead. But this is your home, not my office.”

“You’re my guest.”

Hannibal nodded once, but said nothing.

“So I should change the subject, not take the bait. Do the polite thing and not press you.” 

One corner of Hannibal’s mouth twitched upward. “Your manners often leave something to be desired. Perhaps I’m counting on that.”

Will shook his head. “Too easy. Nothing’s ever easy with you.”

“Or with you.” 

“I was an awful kid,” Will said. “Bet you were too. I don’t really need to ask why you think your parents would’ve gotten you back out of duty, do I?” 

“I was difficult,” Hannibal admitted.

“They didn’t understand you.”

“Doesn’t every child believe that of his parents, sooner or later?”

“Some sooner than others.” Will pointed his fork at him. “All right. If I’m leading this conversation, your typical day back then. Go.” 

Hannibal considered for a moment. “We had an apartment in town, but all summer and most of the autumn we stayed in a house in the woods. We rose early. My mother cooked breakfast, usually porridge of some sort. Sometimes my father drove me to school in town, but more often I walked. I preferred it. The journey through the woods, the emergence into the light of society and education. A daily progression through savagery to civilization.”

“You thought about that on the way to school when you were nine,” Will said flatly. 

Hannibal smiled. “Perhaps not in so many words. But the sense of it affected me even then.”

“And how was school?”

“The lessons were dull, but there was a small library. I read all that I could, often during class.”

“Didn’t you get in trouble?” 

“My father was a prominent member of the Communist Party. I seldom got in trouble for anything.”

Will considered that and filed it away to think about later. “Okay. After school?”

“The walk home—”

“Back into savagery.”

“Yes. And the more primitive pleasures of hearth and family. Sometimes I helped my mother with her baking. I had chores, which I often ignored with little to no consequence. Homework. Dinner.”

“Everyone’s faces red in the firelight, candles, the clink of silver on china. A ceremony for the closing of the day.”

“An apt description,” Hannibal said quietly. 

“This is before your sister was born. What about after?”

“Past a certain age, my parents chose to let her cry so that she might learn to sleep on her own. I could never let her cry.”

“You snuck out of bed to be with her. Talked to her, told her your secrets.” 

“What do you imagine my secrets were at that age?”

“That you were smarter than the other kids at school, that you knew you weren’t supposed to say it, but it was true. That you were different. That your parents knew it.”

Hannibal set his fork down. “That’s an unusually accurate read of the situation, even for you.”

“Speaking from experience," he said, which was more or less the truth, though he still didn’t know if his father had ever realized just how different he was.

“And what of your typical day?”

“Next time,” Will said. 

“Is that an invitation?” 

“Next week. If you’re free.”

Hannibal nodded, and the conversation moved on to the less perilous topics of murder and food. 

*

The case was in Illinois, about an hour from Chicago. An old woman had wandered into a cornfield and never come out again. Local law enforcement found her tied up like a scarecrow in the middle of the field three hours later, drained of blood. 

“The biggest thing we’ve dealt with in the past year was a rabid raccoon in the Carruthers’ barn,” one of them told Will. “Thanks for coming so quick.” 

The trip had been approved by Jack, but Will was on his own, consulting. He’d done it before when he worked for New Orleans Homicide. Louisiana, Georgia, even as far away as Texas once. He’d had a reputation. Now he had a slightly different one, but apparently it hadn’t spread this far. The locals were almost confusingly friendly and pleased to see him. 

It was an enormous relief to have no jurisdiction, to give them his opinion on the killer—mid-30s, skilled labor, maybe plumbing or carpentry, local, first-time killer but definitely not his first crime—and be done. The locals started looking for someone who fits that description with a criminal record, Will dodged an invitation to dinner, and everyone parted on more or less friendly terms.

Will, having lied about the time of his flight to avoid further hospitality, was left with several hours before he needed to get back to O'Hare. He got dinner at a small diner that advertised home cooking and, for once, seemed to deliver the kind of food that people actually made at home. Will ate grilled cheese and applesauce and limp green beans. Afterward, he walked to stretch his legs and ducked into a kitschy antique shop with the vague and probably terrible notion of finding something for Abigail.

Shelves lined the walls from floor to ceiling, filled with stacks of hatboxes, old books, doll clothes, and the other cast-off detritus of a thousand lives. Will paused by a display of silk scarves. He pictured handing one over to Abigail, pictured Alana’s expression when she found out. He drifted further back between the shelves.

Three hours until his flight. He’d be safest just showing up early at the airport. He could use the time to work out what he was going to serve Hannibal tomorrow night.

His fingers caught momentarily on the hem of an apron draped across a leather trunk. Blue flowers had been embroidered on the pocket. For a moment, he could see himself in it, standing at the stove, waiting for Hannibal to arrive.

He moved quickly on, mind dodging the image out of long habit. He didn’t think about that kind of thing. His job and disposition made life hard enough. He didn’t need to give himself more problems. These dinners with Hannibal were dangerous enough on their own.

A sagging stack of napkins caught his eye. He paused, ambushed by the memory of Hannibal’s elegant hands smoothing over the cheap paper in his lap.

If Will was going to keep having him over for dinner—no. Not as bad as the apron, not impossible, but still a terrible idea.

He looked through the stack anyway. Most of them were printed with polkadots or flowers, or had fiddly bits of embroidery on them that he would inevitably destroy in the wash. At the bottom, lay six tied together, plain brown linen, with two thin red stripes along the edge. The price tag said five dollars.

“Bad idea,” he told himself. Saying it out loud didn’t help. He picked them up and flipped through them, hoping for some disfiguring stain. Nothing.

Hannibal would inevitably notice. He would know that Will had bought them, essentially, for him. He’d be pleased, of course. Probably he’d be polite enough not to embarrass him by mentioning them. But he would know, and Will would know, and the thought made him feel a little too warm for reasons he didn’t really want to examine.

He took them up to the desk and bought them anyway. He could stick them in a drawer when he got home. There was nothing to say he had to put them on the table.

*

Hannibal finished up with his last patient just before six. The small parking area in the alley behind his office was being repaved, and he’d had to park three blocks away. Inconvenient, but perhaps something to be grateful for in this instance. The cold air and the exercise emptied his mind of other things and let him look forward to tonight’s dinner with focus and clarity.

It also meant that he passed a small florist shop, where his attention was snagged by a froth of yellow azaleas in the window. They spilled over the shelf and onto green velvet, lit like grass in the sun. He stepped inside and emerged moments later with a bouquet of them, swaddled against the cold.

It was too soon, too impulsive a gesture. Not quite a misstep, but something close. He could pass them off as a centerpiece, but it would be better—

But he had them in his hands, and Will would like them. Hannibal could see the expression on his face perfectly, guilt and poorly concealed yearning and surprise that anyone would bother. Joy and pain sat with equal beauty on his features, and Hannibal wanted to give him so much of both.

*

Will spent Friday afternoon typing up a report on Illinois for Jack. It took longer than he had expected. He had more fish defrosting but no real idea of what to serve with it. He hit send on the report and went to stare into his fridge. If he’d been on his own, he probably would’ve settled for canned vegetable soup and toast. If he was going to keep having Hannibal over, he’d have to learn to make at least a few more things that normal people were willing to eat.

The fridge contained carrots, onions, and last week’s lettuce, which was disintegrating into a liquid pool at the bottom of its bag. Pasta would be safe. And carrots. Carrots with mint and butter. He was pretty sure he’d had that in a restaurant once, and there was wild mint growing in his backyard.

He went out to pick some, barefoot in the wet grass. Dusk gathered around him. The dogs nosed at his legs, snuffled at the mint, and backed quickly away. It was later than he’d thought. He squinted at the last glare of the sun on the horizon.

Hannibal hadn’t set a time, just said that he would come after work. Once again, Will liked that thought a little too much. The memory of Hannibal’s easy gratitude last week didn’t help.

Hannibal knocked while Will was still heating water and chopping carrots. He let himself in. He’d brought wine again, which he set on the kitchen counter. He’d also brought a small bouquet of yellow azaleas. He set the vase down in the center of Will’s table.

“Good evening,” he said.

“You brought me flowers.”

“A centerpiece.”

“No bird skulls or peacock feathers?”

“The adornments one chooses for one's table should suit both the food and the surroundings.”

“Plain and simple.”

“You live a calculatedly plain and simple life.”

“I don’t see the point in dressing things up.”

“Then perhaps you will allow me to set the table.”

“Be my guest.” Will stared at the flowers and then turned quickly back to his carrots. “Napkins in the top drawer next to the stove.” He hoped he’d remembered to take the price tag off.

Hannibal took down the plates and glasses first. Another trip for the silverware. He seemed to almost deliberately draw out the process until Will was glancing over every few seconds to catch his reaction when he finally laid out the napkins. Of course, when he did, nothing showed on his face at all.

Will looked over at the table: two simple place settings, white plates, wine glasses, the napkins with their flash of red, the yellow flowers. It seemed out of place in his house. Too much a constructed image, though nothing like the ones that Hannibal regularly built on his own table. Deliberate nostalgia rather than fine art.

“Thanks,” he said.

Hannibal nodded. “Is there anything I can do to help with dinner?”

“I’ve got it. It’ll be ready when the pasta’s ready.”

Hannibal opened the wine and poured for both of them. He brought Will his wine glass. Their fingers brushed when Will took it from him.

“This is uncomfortably domestic,” Will said.

“Is domesticity always uncomfortable for you?”

“It’s an alien concept.”

“Like family.”

“Yeah.”

Will stirred the mint into the carrots. He’d seen the multicolored ones at the grocery store and almost bought those instead, a mix of orange and red and purple and yellow. He'd left them on the shelf and gone for plain and simple instead. Maybe he was constructing his own image.

Hannibal stepped closer. “You were going to tell me about your typical day,” he said.

“Up early. Sometimes fishing before breakfast if we lived somewhere close enough to water. Cold cereal. Lunch money if Dad remembered. School. Whatever I could do afterwards to make some extra cash. I always wanted a paper route, but we were never in one place long enough. When I was thirteen, I knew a guy at school whose dad owned a restaurant. I got an underage work permit and washed dishes there for a while. Worked the tobacco fields for a couple of summers, but that was really bad pay.”

“And when you got home? Dinner?”

Will drained the pasta and started transferring food onto plates. Even disregarding the lack of bird skulls, it looked nothing like Hannibal’s elegant presentations. Just food on a plate, but enough of it, and fresh, and hot. He wiped a spot of melted butter away from the china with his thumb and sucked it clean.

“I ate a lot of cheese sandwiches,” he said. “Frozen dinners. Canned soup.”

He took the dishes out to the table . Hannibal followed with their wine glasses.

“Your father didn’t cook at all?”

“He wouldn’t have known where to start. A lot of times he was still at work when I went to sleep.”

They ate in silence for a minute or two, or Hannibal did. Will stared at the white and yellow flowers in the center of the table for too long before he remembered to take a bite. When he did, he winced. “Jesus, that’s a lot of mint. Weren’t you going to say anything?”

“I’m your guest. It’s not my place to criticize your food.”

“How am I supposed to learn if you don’t tell me what I’m doing wrong?” Will ducked his head and ran a hand over his eyes. The implication was too clear. Learning to cook for Hannibal’s benefit, because on his own he’d still be living in a childhood world of Oscar Mayer and Chef Boyardee.

“You recognize your own mistakes,” Hannibal said. “For myself, I value the attempt over any potential perfection.”

Will’s jaw tightened. “An A for effort? It’s the thought that counts?”

Hannibal looked at him, steady and sincere. “Yes. Sometimes.”

“Hardly ever, in my experience.”

“It depends on the effort involved and on the person making the effort.”

Will sighed. “I can’t wash it off, can I?”

“The mint? I’m afraid not. It’s a strong flavor and it will have permeated the dish by now.”

“I can redo the carrots.” He paused for a second. “I can’t redo the carrots. I’m all out.”

“We will eat what there is to eat. Neither of us will go hungry tonight.”

They ate pasta and catfish. By Will’s standards, it was a good meal. By Hannibal’s, it was undoubtedly dismal, but he made no indication by word or tone or expression that it was anything less than what he was used to.

“This will probably happen again,” Will said. “If you keep coming over.”

Hannibal smiled at him, small but clearly pleased. “Is that an invitation?”

“If you want it to be.”

“Shall we say next Friday?” He lifted his wine glass.

Will clinked his against it in agreement. “Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“You’re unlikely to make this particular mistake again, I think.”

“I’ll use a recipe next time. No,” he added, seeing the glint in Hannibal’s eyes. “Don’t give me any of yours. It’d be like giving oil paints to a five year old. You’d regret it.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” Hannibal said. “In any case, I’m interested to see what you will come up with on your own.”

“Me too,” Will muttered.