Deck the Halls

The first stray’s name was Wilhelmina.

Will is, at first, unsure whether her name is actually Wilhelmina, or whether Hannibal simply decided that that ought to be her name because it would amuse him. She answers to it when she comes for dinner, though, which merely leaves Will to wonder if Hannibal had brought this one home because her name amused him, or if it was a completely coincidence.

Wilhelmina is a diminutive girl of perhaps ten, or maybe older. One of those kids whose age might be written down on a piece of paper somewhere but there is probably nobody keeping track of it, so they appear simultaneously very young and very grown-up, like some sort of disturbing Schrödinger’s child. She lives with her grandmother in an apartment just on the wrong side of the Périph, and when Will gently probes into the question of her parents, she stares at him with a million-mile stare and says, “Well, I don’t know,” very slowly in English, even though she’s heard Will speaking French just fine.

Hannibal doesn’t ask Will’s opinion on her, but then, Will had never asked Hannibal’s opinion on any of his strays, so he supposes that’s fair. Even if the Will’s are dogs curled up in front of the fireplace, and Hannibal’s are– what? Are Wilhelmina’s parents buried in shallow graves dug by tiny, psychopathic hands?

The next one is a boy named Manuel, and he is too thin and scarfs down dinner, then seconds, then dessert so quickly that he is sick in the bathroom afterwards.

“You shouldn’t have given him a second plate,” Will grouses, watching Hannibal put together yet another helping in plastic takeaway containers he seems to have acquired specifically with the expectation of never seeing them again. “You knew he was going to make himself sick.”

“Self-regulation in the face of sudden plenty is a learned skill,” says Hannibal, and Will knows too well that that is true. He’s still not sure how well Hannibal has learned that skill, but if there were ever a time to complain about Hannibal’s ostentation, it is surely long past.

There are more, mostly children, mostly dinner guests. Some come during the day, and they learn to put on their best manners at the door and ask for what they want. Most of the time, they ask for Hannibal. Good day, may I have a sandwich, please, they might say. Some get more adventurous. I was wondering if I might borrow a copy of that book that you mentioned at dinner last week, please. Or even Hello Will, would you allow me to pat your dogs? A whole group of them show up together at the beginning of the winter season, and help Hannibal to deck the halls of their house with branches and wreathes as the Messiah plays in the background. Will doesn’t help, but mostly because neither of his shoulders are all that good at reaching up above his head any more.

Hannibal and Will don’t have secrets from each other, exactly; what they do have is areas of shadow and light, pieces of their behaviour that are comprehensible to the other and pieces that are not. So Will is fairly sure that Hannibal isn’t meeting with his strays outside of the times that Will knows they are there: no therapy sessions, no drugging, no helping them to bury bodies. None of them ever provide the meat.

If he were going to do any of that, there would be no reason for him to hide it from Will. It’s not that he necessarily wants Hannibal playing mentor to all the tiny psychopaths of Paris, but it would be somewhat hypocritical to try and stop him. And anyway, Will has enough psychiatric knowledge– both training and, memorably, first-hand experience– to know that the idea of a psychopath is less of a diagnosis and more of an official statement of resignation. Psychopath: one who has made their way through the system of illness and healing in its entirety and found inside of it no place of shelter, no other label inside of which to lay down their burdens.

Maybe Will wants something different for Hannibal’s strays than Hannibal does; but he finds he still has the desire, buried so deep that only Hannibal could ever have brought it out in him, to make a place for those who have no other berth in their own world. Even if that place is merely a seat at the dinner table.

That had been enough for him, after all.

(It hadn’t been enough for Abigail. The thought keeps a tiny fire of anger alight inside of him, one that has nothing to do with forgiveness or its absence.)

So they keep coming: sometimes there are regulars, and sometimes they are new. Not all of them work out; once, after an incident with a teenager that nearly ended with the kid being dinner instead of eating it, Will had backed Hannibal up against the wall as soon as they were alone and snarled, “House rule; the only one who is allowed to need a muzzle is you.”

“Understood,” mouthed Hannibal, and then Will had found a better use for his mouth.

He chooses not to think about the endgame: the inevitability that one day, Hannibal will get what he wants from at least one of them. An ask. The best part is, of course, that he doesn’t even need to do anything. Whispering through the chrysalis is unnecessary. One day, Will knows, there will be a knock at their door in the middle of the night, and Hannibal will open the door to the sight of a wild-eyed young thing covered in blood, saying “I didn’t know where else to go.” And Hannibal will help them– once they ask.

Or perhaps that isn’t the endgame. Perhaps Hannibal, who despite the adult luxuries he wraps around himself like a blanket has pretty much the same underdeveloped impulse-control and poor long-term planning skills as his favourite strays, has no endgame at all. He hadn’t had one, after all, when he’d looked at Will, and decided on Will, and thrown everything else in the world aside.

Perhaps– Will dares to wonder, only in the black of night with Hannibal’s breath slow and even beside him– it merely pleases him to see the weak strengthened, the desolate comforted, and the hungry fed.

Will’s not counting on it. But it’s a nice thought.