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playing the points for all you're worth

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Hannibal brought up a morsel of chocolate cake to his mouth. He stilled, nostrils flaring, and his unblinking gaze flickered up.

Will sat across the table with his own slice of cake. He smiled. “Even Steven.”

Hannibal gave a single nod, so minute as to be nearly imperceptible, and ate the cake. He chewed four times and swallowed, and took another bite. This action repeated itself until the slice of cake had been reduced to crumbs on his plate.

“You used good chocolate,” Hannibal remarked.

“Ghirardelli,” Will said. “It had good reviews, online.”

“The frosting in particular,” said Hannibal. “Not too sweet.”

He rose, plate in hand, and Will helped him clear the dishes to the kitchen. Since there were only a few, Hannibal washed them by hand, handing the wet dishes to Will, who dried and stacked them in the cupboard. The round, chipped plates with blue flowers curling around the edges went on the counter.

They went into the living room. Will fetched the decanter and poured them both two fingers of whiskey. Hannibal took his seat in front of the fireplace and accepted his glass with a nod. “Thank you,” he said. He crossed his leg. “Now, what would you like to discuss?”

Will took his own seat. He raised his glass to his lips. “What would you like to discuss?”

“This is your session, Will. Not mine.”

“Isn’t it?” Will raised his eyebrows at Hannibal. “I don’t think you should be supervising a therapy session while under the influence. Do you?”

“If this were a colleague of mine, I would advise strongly against it.”

“There we have it, then.” Will rolled the amber liquid around in his glass. The firelight winked in the crystal like a handful of golden stars. “Besides, you’re always saying that this is my hour. Maybe I want to spend my hour talking about you.”

Hannibal’s mouth tightened. “Then I shall bow to the wishes of my patient.” He took a sip of his drink. “Well then. How would you like to begin?”

Will spread one hand out in front of him, as if to say, after you. “However you would like to begin. This is your hour.”

“Then I would like to hear about your day.” At Will’s frown, Hannibal waved his hand. “Indulge me. In forty-five minutes or so, I will be intoxicated, while you will remain lucid and therefore in control of the experience.” He paused. “You did make two cakes.”

“Of course I did.”

Hannibal smiled, genial and paternal. “Then tell me about your day.”

“There’s not much to tell. I woke up, fed the dogs, walked them. I studied a few case files Jack gave me. Answered some emails. Walked the dogs again, more to clear my head than anything else. I baked two cakes, frosted them. I called you to say that I would be bringing dessert. I fed the dogs and walked them again, and then I came here, with two slices of cake.”

“I was pleased,” Hannibal murmured.

“You thought you’d been a good influence on me.”

“Haven’t I?”

Will did not reply. They sipped their drinks in silence.

“Have you ever been high before?” Will asked.

“Once.”

“Did you enjoy it?”

“No.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Will said. He did not sound sorry. “What didn’t you like about it?”

“I dislike not being in full control of my faculties, generally,” Hannibal said. “My senses are very important to me.”

“You’re a control freak.”

Hannibal gave Will a disapproving look. The firelight deepened the shadows of his face. “Having the upper hand makes you rude, Will.”

“I’m always rude,” Will replied. He slouched loose and easy in his chair. “It’s what you like about me.”

“It is...refreshing.” Hannibal set his glass against his armrest.

Will set his glass on the end table and brushed his fingers against the side of Hannibal’s face. Hannibal turned; his sclera were rimmed red around the edges, and his pupils were large and dark. “How are you feeling?” Will asked.

“Annoyed.” Hannibal said. “It feels like fire licking up the edges of a piece of paper.”

Will let his hand drop. He smiled. “Are you saying that I’m about to get burned?”

“You’re pleased,” Hannibal said in a tone that approached petulance. Will’s smile widened..

“Weren’t you, when the tables were turned?” Will took Hannibal’s glass from him and set it on the end table next to his own. “Would you like to lie down?”

Hannibal look at Will for a very long time, his face perfectly expressionless. Then his eyes unfocused, and he was no longer looking at Will, but into the past, or the future. Will waited. At last, Hannibal said, “No, I think not. I think I should like some food.”

“Stimulates appetite, right? Well then, I’m sure we can find something to eat.” Will got up from his chair.

They went to the kitchen, Hannibal in front and Will half a step behind. Hannibal did not seem any more or less steady on his feet than he would be normally; his movements were always so precise and careful. Upon entering the kitchen he immediately went to the refrigerator, but Will took him by the elbow and steered him to the stool where he so often sat himself. “Let me handle this. I’m not sure you should be handling sharp objects right now.”

“I’m high, not insensate,” Hannibal said, but he allowed himself to be seated. He watched as Will opened the refrigerator and peered inside. Jars and cans lined the top shelf; vegetables lined the bottom; bottles of beer occupied the door shelves. Will picked up a flat paper package that looked as if it had been taped shut, torn open, and folded back together.

“That prosciutto really ought to be eaten tonight,” Hannibal said. “It will be thoroughly disappointing tomorrow.”

“I think I can be the judge of that,” said Will, but he took the package out anyhow. He scooped up a creamy-skinned melon with dark green seams from the fruit basket, gave its stem a quick sniff, and set it on the cutting board. He drew a knife from the block and sliced the melon in half, sending the reek of melon musk into the air. The flesh inside was deep orange, with a center of small pale seeds. Will used a spoon to dig them out into the sink.

“Prosciutto and melon,” Hannibal remarked. “A classic combination.”

“Damn straight.” Will cut the melon into trapezoidal shapes, shaving off the skin. “Do you have any toothpicks?”

“In the drawer behind you, though at the moment I dare say I would eat them with my fingers.”

Will gave Hannibal a long look. “Tempting,” he said, and got out the toothpicks. They were not flimsy bamboo toothpicks but rather stainless steel, with a round loop at one end to facilitate their use.

“You desire to see me out of character.”

“Isn’t that what you do?” Will speared a piece of melon with a folded-over ribbon of pink-and-white prosciutto. “You set events in motion just to see what will happen. Wind them up and watch them go.”

“On the contrary,” said Hannibal. “I wish to see people’s true characters.”

Will skewered two more pieces before replying. “Then is your true character someone who wants to eat with his fingers?”

“I suppose so. It’s not something I’m averse to, at the moment.” The corners of Hannibal’s eyes crinkled.

Will pushed the plate across to Hannibal. Hannibal picked up one of the skewers and closed his lips around it, pulling off its contents with his teeth. He chewed and swallowed. “The melon could have used another day or two. But it’s good. Very good.” He dropped the pick on the plate with a metallic clatter and picked up another one. “Won’t you join me?”

“No thanks.” Will picked up the knife and cutting board and took them to the sink to wash.

“I insist,” said Hannibal. “It’s rude to eat in front of company.”

“And I insist it’s fine.”

“Will.” Hannibal tucked his chin down, to give Will a chastising look.

“All right, give me a moment.” Will set the cutting board on the drying rack. The knife he dried and replaced in the block. Hannibal was still holding one of the skewers above the plate. Will snagged one for himself and popped it into his mouth. “Wow, what kind of melon is this?” he asked around his mouthful.

Hannibal did not comment on Will’s manners. “Charentais.” He ate his skewer.

“What would this have been like after another day or two? It already tastes like cheese.”

“Even moreso.” Hannibal plucked another skewer from the plate and ate it.

Will ate slowly, perhaps one skewer to every two or three of Hannibal’s, and in short order the plate was cleared. Will took it to the sink and poured Hannibal a glass of water from the pitcher in the refrigerator. Hannibal remained at the counter, drumming the fingers of one hand against the granite, while propping his chin up on the other. His eyes were distant. Will set the glass in front of him. “How are you feeling?”

“Nostalgic. Wistful. It feels like coming out into the warm sun after a long day indoors.” Hannibal’s gaze sharpened. “I don’t believe anyone has prepared food for me in a very long time.” He picked up the glass of water and drank half of it in two thirsty gulps.

Will opened drawers until he found a roll of cling-film. “When was the last time someone cooked for you?”

“If one doesn’t count boarding school or university meals, then...I was a boy, I believe.”

“I find that difficult to believe,” said Will. He wrapped the exposed melon and set it on a bottom shelf in the refrigerator. “You’ve thrown so many dinner parties. Surely people return the favor.”

Hannibal smiled. It was a far cry from his usual distant, faintly superior expressions; this one changed his eyes. “You’ve caught me out. All right, yes, there have been dinner parties. And Alana Bloom has had me over for dinner. And yet, this occasion feels different.”

“Intimate.” Will shut the refrigerator door and leaned against it. “You and me, alone in your house. Me, in your kitchen, handling your knives. Feeding you with my hands.” Will came to stand on the other side of the counter from Hannibal. “But I didn’t even cook; all I did was slice a melon.”

Hannibal looked up at Will, still smiling faintly. “Will you cook for me someday, Will? Will we cook together?”

“I’m sure that we will, if you have anything to say about it.” Will leaned with both hands on the counter. Hannibal’s hand twitched, but did not complete whatever aborted movement it had begun. “Now what?”

“I believe that you’re the one guiding this session.”

“And I believe that you’re the patient, in this scenario. Doesn’t that mean I follow your lead?”

Hannibal tilted his head. “Is this my hour, Will Graham?”

“It’s whatever you want it to be.” Will smiled, tight-lipped, without mirth or rancor.

Hannibal smiled in return, eyes unfocused. “What was it last time? Music?”

Will raised his eyebrows. “I hope you don’t expect me to play the harpsichord for you.”

“Hardly. But there is a stereo in the music room, if you would like to accompany me.” Hannibal slid off the stool.

The music room was the same as before: a harpsichord, a shelf of sheet music, a theremin on a table in the corner, and yes, a state-of-the-art sound system. But there was not a library of CDs: rather, there was a library of vinyl records. Hannibal ran his fingers along the stiff cardboard album covers, said “Ah!” and tugged one out: Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. He slipped it out of its case, lifted the needle, and set the record in place. After a minute, low, creeping piano chords filled the room, slowly growing louder. Hannibal adjusted knobs and dials and buttons and, apparently satisfied, retired to an armchair in the corner. Will had already seated himself on a sofa where once he had admired a ceiling as Hannibal played for him. Hannibal curled his fingers over the edges of the armrests, crossed one leg over the other, and closed his eyes.

After five minutes of classical music and no change in Hannibal, Will lay down on the couch with his arms behind him, the better to stargaze. After fifteen more minutes--minutes that surely seemed interminable to Will--the music ended, leaving the room filled with the fuzzy noise of an empty spinning record. Hannibal remained immovable and solitary and alone.

“What sky is this?” Will asked.

Hannibal took a deep breath and opened his eyes. They glistened. “The sky from a very long time ago, when I thought I might die.”

Will did not speak for some little time. “Was that when your parents died?”

It took a moment for Hannibal to reply. “Thereabouts, yes.”

Another breathless pause, wherein Will gazed up at the ceiling in quiet contemplation. “When did Mischa die?”

“After.”

Will sat up. “Come here.” His tone was gentle and not imperious. “Sit here and tell me about Mischa.”

Hannibal groaned. “That is, how do you say, low-hanging fruit, Will. Lazy psychiatry.”

“It’s a good thing I’m not a psychiatrist, then.” Will leaned his weight against one arm of the couch. “I’m prepared to sit here until you decide to talk. I can wait for a long time.”

Hannibal did not reply. After a minute, he got up and lifted the needle off the record. He replaced the record in its sleeve and returned it to its place on the shelf. He stood there for a few moments, running his fingers over the cardboard, and left the room. Will remained sitting for the space of three heartbeats before he got up and followed.

He found Hannibal in the kitchen, dropping teacups. One was already in pieces on the floor. He dropped another as Will watched. By the time Will crossed the room to Hannibal, a third had already shattered and Hannibal had a fourth in his hand. Will grabbed Hannibal’s wrist; Hannibal snarled at Will, showing his teeth like an animal, and broke the fourth cup against the counter. Blood glistened on the porcelain shards. Will let go.

“Jesus,” he said. “If I knew that weed had this effect on you, I wouldn’t have brought the cake.”

“Time travels in one direction,” Hannibal said, with great dignity. “The cake cannot be uneaten, or unbaked, just as the teacup will never come back together.”

Will pressed the corners of his mouth together. “C’mon, let’s look at your hand.”

“I’m a doctor,” said Hannibal, but he allowed Will to lead him from the kitchen, stepping gingerly around the broken teacups, though they both wore shoes. “My hand is fine.”

“Yeah, but we should probably bandage it up anyway.”

The closest bathroom was a half-bath just off the hallway. Will put down the toilet seat so that Hannibal could sit and peered down at Hannibal’s upturned hand. There were two lacerations: one at the base of Hannibal’s index finger, and another in the meat of his palm, the latter of which still wept blood. There did not appear to be any ceramic lodged in either wound. Will blotted the larger cut with a piece of toilet paper, found an unopened box of bandages in the medicine cabinet, and set one of the small tan strips to their ultimate use. He did not bandage the one on Hannibal’s finger. “I think you’ll live,” he said, and looked up. He stilled, even his breath, like a rabbit under a hawk. Hannibal was looking at him, and their faces were very close.

“Thank you,” Hannibal said at last.

Will’s throat worked. “You’re welcome,” he said at last, and broke Hannibal’s gaze to crumple up the little wax strip that the bandage had been wrapped in and pitch it into the garbage can. “Stay here for a second; I’m going to clean up the kitchen.”

It took only a few moments for Will to find the broom and dustpan, stowed in a tall cupboard to one side. He picked up the larger pieces first and set them in the sink to dispose of later. Then he swept the entire kitchen, from one end to the other, in search of any stray fragments that had pinged off for places unknown.

Somewhere in the middle of this chore, Hannibal came for him.

The knife he had was not a kitchen knife. It was small and cruel and elegant, with a cloth-wrapped handle and a chiseled, triangular blade. Hannibal pinned Will up against the cupboards with the blade at his throat, and his face was clean and smooth as a river-washed stone. Will dropped the broom; the dustpan, being one of the long-handled kind, tipped over, scattering its hard-won contents onto the floor again. Hannibal was in his socks, and without his jacket; that was how he’d come upon Will so quickly and silently.

“Careful,” Will gasped, his voice a strained croak against the weight of Hannibal’s arm, “I don’t think I got everything.”

Hannibal narrowed his eyes at Will. After a long, rattling moment, he stepped back; his foot pushed aside a small pile of sharp ceramic shards, but did not bleed. “You have a cruel streak in you, Will.”

Will sucked in a breath. He looked at Hannibal’s face, not the knife in his hand. “But you’re the one with the knife.”

Hannibal took another step back, removing himself entirely from Will’s personal sphere, and set the knife down on the counter. He glanced down at the scattered contents of the dustpan. “I’ve upset your hard work.”

“You always are.” Will took Hannibal’s elbow. “C’mon, let’s get out of here before one of us gets hurt. More hurt. How are you feeling?”

“Angry.” Hannibal did not sound very upset about that. “It feels like a tightness in my gut, here.” He placed a fist on his abdomen.

Will paused in the hallway. He looked left and then right, and then at Hannibal.

“My bedroom is to the left,” said Hannibal, and Will took them to the left.

A suit of samurai armor greeted Will at the entryway to the room; the room itself was easily the size of the first floor of Will’s house. In keeping with the armor, a series of Japanese brush paintings bracketed the king-sized bed. There was a small table with two chairs, where two people could presumably share drinks and conversation, in full knowledge of the intimate furniture that sat two feet away. Will set Hannibal on the bed, let go of him, and hovered. Hannibal looked up at Will with dark, fathomless eyes. His hair had become disarranged, so that it fell across his forehead in a soft sweep.

“Stay,” he said. “I will tell you about Mischa.”

Will sighed. “I don’t want to force a confidence from you.”

“Of course you do; that was why you gave me drugs. Sit.”

Will sat. Hannibal fell backward on the bed and laced his fingers over his stomach. After a moment’s hesitation, Will toed his shoes off and lay down, arranging his own arms under his head. There was no mural in this room, but the ceiling was painted a stifling dark color.

“She was your charge,” said Will.

“Yes,” said Hannibal. “I was the eldest, and so I was responsible. But I failed in that responsibility.”

Will blinked up at the ceiling. “And you never forgave yourself for it.”

“It was not in my control; there is nothing to forgive.”

“But you miss her.”

“I do miss her,” Hannibal acknowledged. “How could I not?”

They lapsed into another silence, this one less pregnant with anxiety and more comfortable. At last, Will said, “What was her favorite food?”

Hannibal smiled, and it transformed his face. His eyes shone; his teeth were crooked and uneven; he was human, and fallible, and radiant. “She was very fond of sweets, any sweet. Ice cream, spurgos, žagarėliai--the sweeter, the better. We got into a great deal of trouble, once, when we stole a skruzdėlynas intended for a dinner party. We ate it by ourselves, locked in one of the bedrooms, and made a great mess. We were both quite ill, after.”

Will laughed, and then looked startled that he had laughed. “How old were you?”

“She was three, so I must have been, oh, six. Seven, perhaps.”

Will turned his head to look at Hannibal. Hannibal looked at the ceiling, but he was still smiling. “You stole that cake for her,” Will said, accusingly.

“She wanted it. I wanted her to have it.”

“You would have given her anything she wanted.”

“Oh, yes. I would have found a way to pluck the moon from the sky. If she’d wanted my heart, I would have cut that out for her.” Hannibal’s eyes were heavy-lidded. “She was the first thing that truly belonged to me, better than any of my toys or books, because she adored me as I adored her.”

Will stared. Hannibal had closed his eyes. His breathing was deep and even. Will began to sit up, but one of Hannibal’s hands shot out to close around Will’s wrist, hard enough that Will sucked a breath in between his teeth.

Hannibal’s eyes had opened, and he looked up at Will like a man peers out of a crevasse that he has no hope of escaping from. “Did you mean it, when you said that I could have your bones? To cover my harpsichord.”

Will took a deep breath. “Yes.”

“I think.” Hannibal let go of Will’s hand, his fingers trailing down across Will’s palm until it fell back against the bed. “I think that is the kindest offer anyone has ever made me.”

Hannibal’s eyes slid shut again. Will waited a few minutes and carefully slid off the bed, his socked feet noiseless against the rug. He found a throw flung over one of the chairs and used it to cover Hannibal. Then he picked up his shoes and left the room. He put them on outside of Hannibal’s bedroom door, which he left open.

Will finished sweeping the kitchen. He washed the plate and toothpicks in the sink and set them on a dish towel to dry. He poured another glass of water for Hannibal and padded back into the bedroom to set it on Hannibal’s nightstand. Hannibal had not moved from where Will had left him; his breathing had deepened to something that was nearly a snore. Will bit his lip and left as quickly as he could.

He walked around the large, large house, turning off lights. When he had satisfied himself that everything was in order, he found his way to the guest bath, and spent a long while contemplating a dented tube of toothpaste with a French label. He brushed his teeth before going into the guest bedroom, where he stripped himself down to his boxers for bed. He left his clothing, folded neatly, on a chair in the corner, and climbed under the covers.

He lay there for a long, long time.

---end---