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The Empty Table

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Will killed the engine and let his car coast to a stop three houses down from Hannibal's. Three dark houses, and then his, lit up gold on the ground floor. No Christmas lights, but Will hadn't expected any. No extra cars outside, no Christmas Eve dinner party.

Will had driven out with every intention of turning straight around when he got here, when he realized what a terrible idea this was, how intrusive, how inappropriate. The realization hadn't come yet, and, instead, he was climbing out of his car, wine in hand, and walking up the street.

A knot of worry tightened in his chest, but he comforted himself with the thought that the worst this could be was awkward, and Hannibal had already seen him far more awkward than this.

He knocked.

Hannibal opened the door in a long, white apron, sleeves rolled up, genuine surprise on his face. "Will. Are you all right?" he asked.

Will held out the wine. "Don't be polite," he said. "If you want me to go, just say so."

Hannibal stepped aside and held the door open. Will followed him into the kitchen and set down the bottle. He looked around at counters crowded with dishes, stove with three bubbling pots and a covered pan and raised his eyebrows.

"I've cut the recipes down considerably," Hannibal said. "But there will still be far too much." He passed one pot to Will. "There's a dish there, the green one. Fill it with this, please. Twelve dishes for the twelve apostles. It's a tradition where I was born," he went on, as Will obeyed.

"Do you do this every year?"

"No, no. It must be...at least twenty years." He paused, and the wooden spoon in his hand dripped something rich and brown into the pot he'd been stirring. "Yes, precisely twenty years, I believe." He flashed Will a quick smile. "It may not be up to my usual standards."

"It smells amazing," Will said honestly. He had no idea what he was spooning into the green dish, but he'd be more than happy to eat it. "So, Lithuania?"

"The tree gave me away?"

Will nodded. He'd only caught a glimpse as they passed the dining room, but he'd seen the straw ornaments before. For a case, though he wasn't about to say that. "Are they… Were they your family's?"

"Ordered off the internet, I'm afraid. There's nothing left from when I was a child." He set another dish on the counter. "Would you put these on the table for me? We're almost ready."

They weighed pleasantly in Will's hands, steam curling up in the dim light. He took them through into the dining room and paused for a moment on the threshold. There were five places set: Hannibal's at the head of the table, plate empty, and four more at the far end, each with a candle in the center of the plate.

He set the dishes down and walked slowly back to the kitchen.

"I am intruding. You should've said."

Hannibal shook his head without looking up. "No, I'm glad you're here. They're unlikely to be good company. And who else would I invite to eat with the dead?"

Will couldn't help the smile that pulled at his mouth. "Funny 'cause it's true."

"There are more plates in the cupboard, there, if you… The table isn't full."

"I'd think it'd get pretty crowded after a while."

"Traditionally, one sets places for those who can't be present, or those you've lost in the past year. I admit, it's been somewhat longer than a year."

Will took down two plates, one for a mother he'd never known, and one for a man he'd killed. He didn't want Garret Jacob Hobbs at the table, but maybe it was better to give him a place than to let him choose it.

They carried the rest of the dishes out together. Hannibal didn't ask Will's place settings were for, just added a candle to each.

"How long?" Will said.

"Forty years, almost to the day."

Hannibal lit the candles at the empty place settings and served the food in silence. He didn't identify the dishes, and the pride Will usually saw in him over as little as a cup of coffee was missing. The only sound for the first few minutes was the clink of cutlery and the slow, liquid sound of poured wine.

"What moved you to come here tonight?" Hannibal asked. "I would have thought you'd prefer to be alone."

"I do. Usually. I would've thought you would, too."

Hannibal smiled at him over the rim of his wine glass. "I do. Usually."

"Right. So what am I eating?"

Hannibal pointed out the dishes: herring with carrots, mushroom dumplings, some kind of biscuits. Will lost track after that, content just to listen. Hannibal wore a slightly pinched expression when he tried the biscuits.

"I must make these more often or not all, I think," he said.

Will snorted. "They're fine. I like them. What happened to all the meat? It's usually nine tenths of whatever you serve."

"Tradition again, I'm afraid. No meat, dairy, or eggs. Limiting, but it's only for one night."

"It's good," Will said. "When I was a kid, it was mostly Hungry Man TV dinners for Christmas Eve. You always had all this?"

"Always. And more. My mother and grandmother started the day before."

Always, until they were gone. Forty years ago, Hannibal couldn't have been more than ten years old, if that.

Hannibal raised his glass. "To those no longer with us," he said.

Will raised his own glass, and, as they drank, he felt he could almost see the missing faces gathered around the table: Garret Jacob Hobbs and his bloody chest, his mother's face bloated and pale from her death in the Mississippi only two weeks after he was born. Hannibal's mother and grandmother, and the next one must be his father.

Will hesitated over the last until he saw the single cookie, covered in powdered sugar, blending in with the white of the plate. Younger sibling. Younger sister, if he had to guess, and he did. He wouldn't ask, not tonight.

"Thank you," he said, awkwardly. "For-- All this. Letting me stay."

Hannibal looked at him for a moment. "You are welcome," he said, grave and formal. "Always."