Hannibal Lecter's townhouse wasn't terribly large, but Alana still had trouble keeping its layout straight in her head. Relative navigation was easy enough in the parts of the house she knew well. But any time she tried to come up with a mental map of the place, a hallway would turn out to be on the wrong side of the house, or a door would open on the wrong side of a room, or she'd lose the trick of how the ground-floor staircase interlocked with the next one up.
For the most part, it wasn't a problem. She stuck to the living room and dining room the first few times she visited. Eventually she was invited into the sanctum sanctorum of the kitchen. Much, much later, the bedroom joined the list as well, which somehow seemed like a lesser escalation of intimacy. Even then, she remained very much a guest in Hannibal's home, and the rest of the upper floors remained a bit of a mystery.
His personal library, for example. She'd assumed, from the fireplace complete with wingback armchairs on either side, that it was directly above the bedroom. She'd even found it again with no trouble, based on half-remembered landmarks from their few previous visits, when they were en route to return a book she'd borrowed and Hannibal had to take a sudden call on the landline.
("I'm sorry," she'd said over their third glass of wine, "I just don't think I'm ever going to finish it."
"No need to apologize. The Brontës do tend to inspire love-or-hate reactions—the reasons for which can be far more illuminating than the mere fact of loving or hating."
"I didn't hate it. Actually, I liked the beginning, when it was about Jane's life. It just seemed like a waste to derail it into a romance."
"Is that what it was—a romance?" That sly, teasing smile of his. "I've found it rewards rereading. But perhaps not now, if the much-mythologized figure of Mr Rochester casts too long a shadow on your enjoyment.")
It was the way back to the stairs that tripped her up. Maybe she'd mixed up one of the multitude of connecting doors in this confounding puzzle-box of a house. Maybe they'd indulged in one glass too many. In any case, here she was, wandering an unfamiliar upstairs hallway in true gothic-heroine fashion, trying locked doorknob after locked doorknob in the hopes of finding her own way back down. She was just about to resign herself to yelling for Hannibal to come find her when a knob gave under her hand.
Expecting resistance that never came, she pushed too hard and sent the door slamming into the inside wall. It bounced back, skidded on deep-pile carpet, and came to rest half-ajar.
Instead of the stairs, it opened on what looked like a guest room. One that had been recently inhabited: an old-fashioned, ornate silver hand mirror lay out on the dresser at a careless angle, next to a matching brush whose bristles still carried a snarl of long black hair. Wrapped around its handle was a dark-teal hair tie, its elastic stretched and twisted with use.
"I take it you found the library on your own," came Hannibal Lecter's voice in her ear.
Alana jumped half out of her skin and dropped her empty wineglass. Then she jumped again when Hannibal's hand shot out next to her and caught it halfway to the floor.
"Jesus," she hissed, and was almost surprised when her voice came out steady. Seizing her chance to save face, she managed to force a wry smile. "I ought to put a bell on you," she said, grabbing onto the familiar cadence of their banter like a clutch for balance. "Maybe if I'd heard you on the stairs I'd be less turned around right now."
"It's an old house with many doors. Easy to lose your way." There was something cagey in his voice that raised gooseflesh on her arms. Or maybe it was his breath on the back of her neck, making the fine hairs on her nape prickle. He was still standing too close behind her. Clutching her rescued wineglass too tight.
Alana had known for a long time that Hannibal was an odd man with many secrets. She'd also known him far too long to be intimidated just because she'd stumbled on one and he was acting weird about it. "Full of surprises too," she remarked in a tone of bright unconcern, and since he insisted on standing mere inches behind her, she leaned back into his chest. "Who's the lucky madwoman who gets to live in your attic?"
Slowly, warily, he snaked an arm around her waist, his palm coming to rest on her sternum. Her answering shudder was Pavlovian, more pleasant than nervous—the result of many nights in bed together with his gentle but firm hands stealing up to caress her neck. "Nobody lives in my attic, Alana." She was reassured to hear a note of tolerant fondness in his voice. But he was still so, so tense.
"Whose are those, then? Unless you've suddenly started leaving things lying around." And grown a foot or two of black hair, she didn't add.
His answer, when it came, was soft and careful. "They belonged to my sister."
His dead sister. Fuck.
"Oh," Alana said, and felt like a total asshole.
Something still wasn't adding up—did he stage this? leave his sister's stuff out in a guest room for unsuspecting visitors to use?—but her face burned with the realization that whatever this was, it was none of her goddamn business. Hannibal was an odd man with many secrets. If he wanted to be secretive about the odd ways he grieved his sister, that was his prerogative.
"Sorry," she offered, and forced herself to look away from the room, twisting her head to look him in the eye. At the sight of his face she felt even sillier for making a production out of it—tolerant fondness was all she saw there. Even his hesitation had a guardedly vulnerable edge to it. His dead kid sister, for Christ's sake. If something about it still nagged at her, if her mind's eye kept straying back to the teal hair tie and the hastily made bed, it was her own fault for letting melodramatic novels go to her head.
He answered with a forgiving smile. Apology accepted. "No matter how many homes I've made for myself since her death..." he said slowly, like he was trying to find words to explain something important, "I've always tried to make a place for her in my world."
She leaned up for a gentle kiss. "You don't owe me an explanation, Hannibal." Besides, something about it made an obscure kind of sense—the room looking like its occupant had only stepped out for a moment, the space ready for her to step back into it at any time. Never mind the hair tie. Never mind the turquoise and berry plaid scarf draped over a chair, even though it looked too new to have belonged to his sister.
Later, in the bedroom, lounging by the window and watching the snow come down, she remembered the scarf. She could've sworn she'd bought one just like it, was the thing, only she couldn't remember where. A gift, maybe? Who knew. They'd relaxed enough, by that point, that she felt comfortable asking about it. Maybe he could help her place it.
"No, of course it wasn't hers," he replied. "A guest from out of town left it behind. I'll have to mail it back to her."
"Didn't know you'd been having overnight guests. Should I be jealous?" she asked lightly, because that was the natural follow-up question, wasn't it? Suddenly it struck her that now both of them were doing it—acting out some kind of script, going through the steps of a choreographed dance around the subject.
"Why?" The sly smile was back. "Is this a romance?"
Alana blew a breath out, the seriousness of the question settling on her. "I don't know if I have a word for what this is."
He nodded and took that at face value. "Whatever you would call it, I promise you have no rival in anyone who's stayed in that room."
So Will Graham hasn't been staying in the guest room if he's stayed over. The thought was an ugly uppercut to some hollow place behind her ribs, coming out of nowhere and landing with a sickeningly solid thud. It was paranoid. Uncharitable. Jealous, even. She shoved it away without looking too closely at whether there was any truth to it. "I wondered for a minute if it was you who bought it," she said, just to say something else. "Making a place, like you said. Should've known better—it's too loud for your taste."
Hannibal favored her with his most charming smile, perhaps realizing that her mind had strayed somewhere unpleasant at his last remark. Perhaps also picking up on the note of self-consciousness in her deflection. "The first step in the development of taste," he remarked, "is to be willing to credit your own opinion. You've profiled me well enough to know what I would and wouldn't pick out myself. But I hope you don't think me rude enough to argue with taste when the opinion of someone dear to me diverges from my own."
Carefully choreographed, carefully phrased. She couldn't help but wonder if they were both thinking of someone else. The chitter of sleet on the windowpane was starting to give way to something wetter. Whatever was sitting frozen between them, Alana realized, she desperately didn't want it to thaw.
Over their heads, the floor above let out a creak. Alana must've been jumpy still, because she banged her wineglass down on the windowsill so hard it cracked the base. "Fuck," she muttered. It was swallowed by a louder groan of wood as the wind picked up. Not someone treading on a floorboard upstairs. Just the house settling. "You know," she said, trying to laugh it off, "your house kind of creeps me out sometimes."
Hannibal raised an eyebrow. "Are you arguing with taste now?" he teased. Then, spotting the first bright beads of blood, he took her hand gently in both of his. "Let me have a look at this. Would be a shame to find yourself rolling in broken glass when we have better plans for the evening."
Alana looked away while he worked. She didn't have a problem with blood, exactly, she'd just never been great at watching her own body break or bleed. She stared out the front window, avoiding the reflection of Hannibal using his surgeon's hands to heal, and watched the snow turn to rain.