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Unraveling Gold

Chapter Text

Fireworks exploded overhead and died with a sizzling golden burst. The canals of Venice weren’t clear enough to show a true reflection, but the blazing colors illuminated the water and the narrow, labyrinthine streets. Masked faces breezed past in a seemingly endless parade of color. The man standing on the corner was just another spectator to the grand carnival. He wore the face of a brilliant golden lion, its maw partially open to emulate a snarl. It wouldn’t have been Will’s first choice—he preferred the unnerving beauty of the traditional Venetian masks—but Hannibal insisted.

When it came to matters of aesthetics, it was best to let him win.

Will glanced at his watch. Nearly midnight. Almost time.

It felt strange to be out in public again; they spent the past few months in relative seclusion. It wasn’t that they feared being caught. That emotion seemed far away to him now, alien, some remnant of another life. He and Hannibal didn’t hide; they stalked, and they waited.

Will leaned against the railing of the bridge and watched the revelers drift past. Some wore elaborate, colorful costumes to complement their masks. Others were just tourists in cheap half-masks they bought from one of the many souvenir stores that dotted the floating city. A group of young women stumbled by him. They reeked of alcohol, and they spoke too loudly in French.

One of them stumbled. Her heels, which had probably seemed like an excellent choice when she was sober, were becoming unmanageable now that she was a few drinks in. She caught herself on the stone railing, mere itches from Will.

Pardon,” she said. Her smile was conspiratorial, as though they were sharing a private joke. Long brown hair fell around her face and framed the bright blue butterfly mask that covered her eyes. She righted herself and shook her hair out like a mane. Her neck was pale and slender, marred by a scar on the side.

Then she was gone, and so were the rest of the girls. They walked on, talking and laughing and shrieking at the booming fireworks. Will watched them go. For a moment the canal was a clear, babbling river. The sky was bright with golden sunlight as two gossamer fishing lines cast off the bridge.

Another firework fizzled, and the image dissolved with it. In the fading light, Will realized with a start his quarry had walked right past him. He wore a black-and-white jester’s mask with a matching costume, and he was so drunk he was wobbling. The stone steps at the end of the short bridge seemed to be perilous territory.

A drop of blood hit the water. Will breathed it in—the air stank of the canals, alcohol, and smoking meat—and turned towards his prey.

Will’s hand caught Francesco’s elbow as the man wobbled again. The bells on his jester’s costume jingled.

“Alright, friend?” Will said. His Italian was, as Hannibal said, adequate. “Spirits like those will take you if you’re not careful.”

Francesco barked a laugh. The bells on his costume jingled merrily. “I am well-acquainted with spirits of all sorts, my friend! I know how to handle them.” He pulled away from Will’s grasp, but only succeeded in throwing himself off-balance again. Will watched dispassionately as the man stumbled and fell on to the pathway. He struggled to right himself for a moment, looking like a bird floundering to get off the ground.

Will reached down and offered his hand to the jester. This time Francesco accepted his help.

“I’m a fan of wine, myself,” Will said, pulling him to his feet. “I’m a bit of an amateur critic.”

Francesco’s eyes sized him up from behind his jester mask. He thought he was reading Will, analyzing and measuring him. But every flick of the eyes betrayed his every thought. The mask impressed him; it was finely made, not the sort of thing you could pick up in any old store. The rest of Will’s clothing failed to meet Francesco’s standards. His white button-up shirt and black pants were so plain they were practically gauche.

“Your favorite vineyard?” Francesco asked. His voice was polite, friendly even. But Will recognized the challenge. No matter what answer he gave him, this jester would still find a reason to scoff.

This part Hannibal prepped him for. Will did not know, nor cared, about the intricacies of winemaking. “DRC—Domaine de la Romanee-Conti? You know it, I’m sure.”

Francesco’s eyes widened in surprise. “Of course. In Burgundy. Beautiful country.”

“Even better wine,” Will agreed. “I have a couple of bottles of their Romanee-Conti waiting at my estate.” That wasn’t a lie. Hannibal purchased two at auction several months prior. Altogether they’d cost nearly twenty thousand dollars.

“Truly?” Francesco’s eyes now resembled the size and shape of an owl’s. “The wine from that field is said to be some of the best in the world.”

“Truly.” Will paused, as though mulling something over. “What the hell; it’s Carnival! I’d be willing to share with a fellow wine lover. If you don’t mind coming to my estate?”

The lure splashed into the water. It always astounded him how simple bait needed to be. People were so trusting, so blind to everything else but the meal on the hook. When you want something bad enough, it’s easy enough to convince yourself that you can make off with your prize before the hook digs in.

Francesco seized the bait, as they both knew he would. “Of course! Romanee-Conti…that’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Of course, friend.”

***

The manor could only be reached by canal. Will arranged for an empty gondola to be left waiting for them. It had been simple; a handful of euros placed in a gondolier’s palm and a whispered lie about an impending proposal was all it took. Will handed Francesco into the boat. It rocked unsteadily under his weight. The jester bells jingled.

Will took the gondolier’s position, standing on a raised platform at the back of the vessel. He’d done this before, weeks ago, though it had been Hannibal sitting in the boat. That had been in the early light of dawn, before the first ferry brought in the morning’s herd of tourists, when the canals were still quiet. Hannibal had arranged it. He’d somehow known Will wanted to explore the city, just the two of them.

They’d discovered the manor, empty and abandoned, in the heart of Venice. Waiting for them. Will remembered planting the pole, anchoring their boat directly in front of the doors.

“Do you want it?” Hannibal had asked, finally breaking the silence.

“Yes.” It called to him, somehow, the way few material things ever did. Will wasn’t a man of taste. Material things didn’t matter to him. But this place was different. It had a presence, a personality.

“Then it will be yours,” Hannibal promised. He kept it, as he always did. They celebrated the purchase over champagne and duck breasts. Hannibal even made a toast. He raised his crystal glass, perfect as always in his designer suit, and smiled. “To our new home.”

Our new home. A strange concept for them. For three years they slipped from place to place. Paris, Rome, Berlin, Anchorage, Los Angeles, London, the Irish countryside. The idea of having a home, of having roots again, felt strange. Three years had passed without the FBI ever catching their scent. They could keep running. Forever, if they wanted to. But did he?

A moment’s hesitation passed, then Will clinked his glass against Hannibal’s.

“Home sweet home.” He brought the gondola to a stop in front of the manor. This part of Venice was nearly forgotten. The sounds of Carnival were distant. Fireworks became dull background noise. The manor stood alone and silent. It wasn’t much to look at from the outside. There were no columns, no intricate facades, nothing to indicate what might lay within. It was painted a deep, almost blood red. The wooden doors were brown-gray and heavy. A simple iron knocker adorned each one.

Above the doorway was the only decoration the manor could boast: a stone lion’s head, mouth open in a roar.

A stone slab jutted out over the canal, providing just enough space for two people to stand. Will tied the gondola to an iron post, anchoring it there. He could return it to the gondolier in the morning.

Francesco got out on his own, bells jangling and gondola wobbling. He gripped Will’s sleeve as he stepped on to the platform. Will successfully tamped down the urge to shove him into the dirty canal and hold his head there. Almost done.

“Quite the place.” There was an undercurrent of judgment in Francesco’s tone. For a moment Will saw the manor how he did: ancient, crumbling, a hovel that should be removed and replaced with something more pleasing to the eye. Then he felt a flare of righteous indignation. He’d never felt so protective—no, possessive—over something before. Perhaps Hannibal was right; perhaps this was home.

“It’s four hundred years old, give or take,” Will said. He rummaged in his pocket for the keys. The lock clicked. With a hearty tug, he pulled the door open and held it for Francesco. “I keep the wine in the butler’s pantry. It’s just through the kitchen.” He watched, expressionless, as the fool jingled right past him into the darkened parlor. Will let the door thud shut behind them. The parlor immediately plunged into complete darkness. He heard Francesco stumble and bump something—the buffet table, most likely.

“Don’t you have electricity in this place?” Francesco sputtered. Will could still hear the bells jingling, could practically see their victim struggling to remove his mask in a misguided attempt at increasing his visibility.

Will clicked the lock back into place. He could feel a new presence in the room. Poised, silent, waiting to spring. It made his own body tense in anticipation. His hand went to the light switch on the wall. “Of course.”

The parlor light flicked on and bathed the room in soft yellow light. Behind Francesco, a figure rushed from the shadows. Tall, lithe, and silent, he grabbed the clueless fool. Before their prey could form a cohesive thought, Hannibal gripped him by the back of the neck and slammed his head against the buffet table. The wood rattled with the force of the blow. Francesco slumped to the floor, groaning and sufficiently stunned. Will produced a knife from his back pocket, suddenly so focused, so alive, and surged forward.

He flicked open a knife and plunged it deep into the side of the throat, severing the artery. When he pulled the blade free, blood sprayed across his mask and shirt. Francesco continued to choke and sputter for a few seconds, his eyes whirling in all directions, struggling to comprehend how his fortune changed so quickly. Then his face grew slack.

“You were right.” Will straightened slowly.

Hannibal straightened as well. He brushed aside a single lock of hair that had fallen out of place when he attacked Francesco. “About?”

“You know what,” Will said. He thought admitting he was wrong would be enough to satisfy him. Hannibal must have been feeling particularly playful that night. Or irritable. Even after three years, it was difficult to read him sometimes. Will gestured towards the bloodstain on his white shirt.

Hannibal quirked an eyebrow, as though he didn’t know what Will was talking about. But they both knew what he was really saying: Say it.

Ah. Not playful or irritable after all.

Tonight, Hannibal felt flirty.

And why not? It’s a special occasion, he thought. This was their first meal in their new home. Their first real meal, in Hannibal’s eyes. No doubt he would pull out all the stops. Perhaps those bottles of absurdly expensive wine were for this exact sort of occasion? Will’s annoyance disappeared—for the most part. Part of him still hated to give Hannibal the satisfaction of both being right and being smug about it. “I ruined the shirt.”

“Ah,” Hannibal said, as though he didn’t have a near-perfect memory. He stepped over Francesco to examine the stain closely. “Not entirely. If you take it off now and soak it in cold water, it could still be saved. Go on—I can get him to the kitchen myself.”

Hannibal knelt and hooked his arms under the dead jester’s. He lifted him almost effortlessly, despite the man’s heft.

“Show off,” Will muttered. He turned towards the hall, already unbuttoning his shirt. Then he paused. His fingers hovered over the second button. A brief smirk passed across his face. In an instant, it was gone, and he went back to unbuttoning his shirt. He didn’t look at Hannibal, but could hear him dragging the body, feel his eyes on him from the still-dark living room. Will undid the last button, paused, rolled his shoulders. Only then did he disappear down the hall towards their bedroom.

Perhaps he was feeling a little flirty too.

***

Will turned on the lights as he passed the switch, illuminating the hallway. At the end of it was a narrow spiral staircase, leading up to the second floor. Will mounted the steps, shedding his shirt as he went, already putting the jester out of his mind. The days of being haunted were over. Now, his mind turned to more important matters. Saving this shirt, for one.

He stepped into their bathroom and turned on the faucet. Will watched the cold water fill the wide white basin, then glanced in the mirror. To his surprise, he was still wearing the lion mask. Somehow, he forgot he was wearing it. He reached back and untied the ribbons that held it in place, then carefully set it on the marble countertop by the sink. The jester’s red blood had splattered across the golden lion’s maw. A drop rolled down a tooth and dripped on to the white marble.

When the water neared the rim, Will shut off the sink and submerged his shirt. Some of the stains began to leak out into the water. The water soon possessed a faint reddish tinge. Perhaps Hannibal was right; perhaps it could still be saved.

After Will changed, he found himself with some free time before dinner. On normal nights he helped Hannibal in the kitchen. Will would dice mushrooms, season meat, monitor something simmering in white wine. But on special occasions, Hannibal banished him from the kitchen and did all the preparation himself. That way Will could be appropriately surprised and impressed when dinner was served. It would take some time for Hannibal to butcher and cook Francesco. Will wondered vaguely when the two crossed paths, and why Hannibal felt compelled to collect his business card. The snobbishness, probably. Will saw past Francesco’s mask. Beneath his veneer of politeness was the blatant belief that he and his tastes were superior to all others. Hannibal loved the finer things in life, but he loathed rudeness in all its forms.

With nothing to do till supper, Will wandered the manor.

When they discovered and purchased the property, Will hadn’t realized how large it was. The manor contained four bedrooms, not including their master suite, as well as three bathrooms, a living room, a dining room, a butler’s pantry, and a large attic. One bedroom they converted into a library, another into an office for Hannibal, and a third into a guest bedroom. (Will argued against that decision—they hadn’t had a “guest” since Bedelia—but Hannibal simply smiled that reptilian smile and said, “It’s always best to be prepared.”) The fourth bedroom stood empty, unused.

He made his way to the library. They’d lined the walls with shelves, all the way up to the ceiling, and organized the books in alphabetical order by genre. Or rather, Will had. It was just the sort of project he enjoyed. It kept him focused and it ate up time. When he finished the library he had, unbidden, organized the books in Hannibal’s office as well.

Nothing on the shelves interested him that night. They had an assortment—nonfiction, horror, crime, romance, even a smattering of fantasy and science-fiction. Will paced the room three times, hoping a title would jump out at him. But none did. Instead, he found himself simply pacing the room. Will froze in his tracks. Suddenly feeling restless and a little claustrophobic, he exited the room and headed down the hall. The stairs to the attic were hidden behind a narrow door, easily mistaken for a broom closet. The wood creaked under his feet as Will made his way up. The stairs weren’t quite as old as the manor itself, but he felt certain they had at least a century on him.

The attic was enormous and mostly empty. They tended to travel light. There were a handful of boxes stacked neatly in one of the corners and little else. The air felt chilly and stale. Will walked slowly from one end to the other, listening to the floorboards creak and settle. Like so much of the manor, it seemed to call out to him. It wanted something, it needed something.

It was hungry.

From somewhere two floors below, the smell of cooking meat wafted up through the floorboards.