The baking contest was a typically spectacular explosion of Christmas joviality, but Hannibal could not bring himself to care. He stood forlorn in front of his table, with his key lime tarts looking positively scrumptious. Common sense told him he looked quite splendid himself in a festive red zip-up cardigan, which surely humanized his otherwise imposingly regal features. Sad to say, he was scuttling along the bottom of the ocean floor somewhere inside his own broken heart, and could not have felt less like portraying himself as the proud creator of extremely high quality baked goods.
He didn’t feel like himself at all.
“You’re not looking like yourself today, Hannibal,” that ridiculously imposing Edmund had the audacity to observe, approaching Hannibal’s table with a gentle expression. Almost sympathetic, how dare…
Hannibal rearranged the perfectly symmetrical presentation of plates bearing tarts, so that now the display was perfectly symmetrical from a slightly different angle.
With pursed lips he declared, “It is increasingly exasperating that you continually choose to speak to me with such unwarranted familiarity, Edmund.”
“Yes, it would be, wouldn’t it?” Edmund laughed softly, “If it wasn’t for…”
Hannibal frowned. “If it wasn’t for the fact that somehow, against all reason, when we are conversing it seems that you know me very well, and we have been acquainted for many years. I find it difficult to properly resent your intrusive overtures of confidence.”
“That’s wonderful, Hannibal. You always did have pitch perfect instincts about people.” Edmund admired the sign which Hannibal had placed on the table, written in thick, velvety green calligraphy cursive. “Your dessert looks delicious. But as I said, you don’t look very happy at all. Does that have something to do with the way you have been avoiding Will since last night?”
Hannibal sighed, “I’m sure it has nothing to do with...why are you so concerned about my relationship with my former spouse?”
“I’d like to see both of you happy for the holidays.” Edmund shrugged, “I guess you could kind of say it’s my job, making sure guests enjoy themselves in more than a shallow way, but in a way that gets down to the heart.”
“I see. Since you have meddled this far into the matter, and I seem to find it easy to talk to you for some highly baffling reason, you may as well know that I have failed completely in my attempts to woo Will back into my arms.” Hannibal stood stiffly, hands folded behind his back, belying his nearly casual attire and the supposedly “fun” occasion.
The judges were making the rounds, handing out prize and honorable mention ribbons, and it only seemed boring. Earlier that day, in an attempt to exorcise some of his soul-deep angst over Will’s latest rejection, Hannibal had murdered a particularly rude fellow contestant who had ridiculed his choice of recipe for not being “Christmassy enough.” Although the fresh meat had kept him busy making a savory French-style pie, Hannibal had not found one moment’s real enjoyment, either in the rather clean homicide (in such a public setting, strangling was really the only method that would do), the abrupt silencing of his victim (although the cessation of the shrill voice was a relief), nor even in his masterful cookery and the wicked game of sharing the delicious fare with fellow guests, then inwardly amusing himself with their enjoyment, little imagining they were engaging in cannibalism.
“None of the old thrills are doing it for you anymore, are they, Hannibal?” Edmund’s brows knitted and Hannibal looked at him in fresh surprise. It was almost as if he could read Hannibal’s mind, and yet perhaps it was more that he sensed the usually inscrutable therapist’s mood with exact understanding. “None of your usual tricks seem to be helpful either.”
“No, and it’s really quite discomforting,” Hannibal said dejectedly. “I had evolved an entire plan of complex manipulation to ensure Will’s affections were once again solely my own. I was going to sabotage Molly’s car when she went Christmas shopping, stranding her in town so as to allow me more time to be near Will. Yet I did no such thing. And I have not had the heart to physically portray my affection for Alana before Will’s eyes to try and drive him wild with jealousy. To be honest, Edmund, I do not understand what has happened to me; I seem to be disappointing myself and letting Will slip through my fingers.”
“Or it could be that you are wise enough to know you won’t win Will back the same way you lost him,” Edmund suggested.
“With lies and tricks,” Hannibal answered. “Ah. I had not considered…”
“You don’t have the heart to rely on those worn-out machinations, because you just want Will to see you. That’s all you ever wanted, that he would see you and love you unconditionally, the way you absolutely adore him.”
Hannibal blinked at the elderly bearded fellow, again questioning his own unheard-of patience in allowing the man to share such theories. Perhaps he was finally desperate enough that this stranger with his odd, almost mystical wisdom seemed a suitable candidate from whom to seek advice. At this point, perhaps he would have listened to almost anyone offering him an answer to the puzzles of his own heart and Will’s.
“Yes,” he replied quietly.
“And that’s honorable, Hannibal. You should be proud of yourself for making progress, trying to regain Will’s love through honesty.”
“I don’t want to be proud of myself for such weakness,” Hannibal sniffed. “I want to go back to my former life, wherein I was entirely self-sufficient and relied on no one else’s presence to feel continually pleased with the beauty and horror that life has to offer.”
How very upsetting, that the beauty and horror could feel so hollow and meaningless without Will there to share them, but surely he could still fight past this, cover over the hole in his armor.
“I see,” Edmund nodded, taking one of Hannibal’s tarts to go. “I suppose you’ll have to do what you feel is best, Hannibal. By the way,” he winked, “I voted for you.”
Edmund departed and Hannibal had to endure the judges coming up to his table to gush about his perfect key lime tarts and how they only wished they had a bigger grand prize and a category above “Grand” to bestow upon him. It was all so excruciatingly tiresome.
“Hey, congratulations,” Will said, appearing by Hannibal’s side and making the therapist suddenly want nothing more than to lean his head back and scream until his lungs were all worn through.
“Why are you here, Will?” Hannibal demanded wanly.
“Well, you wouldn’t talk to me when I tried to approach you at breakfast, or outside at the hot cocoa stand.”
“No, I wouldn’t. That is because I truly cannot fathom what more there may be for us to discuss, nor why you are suddenly interested in my company after abandoning our marriage and then avoiding me for three years. The subsequent explanation of my unlovable and despicable nature did not go unheeded, I assure you.”
“You won’t even look at me?”
Hannibal knew exactly what he would find when he gathered his strength and wounded pride to return Will’s beseeching gaze. Big, emotion-glazed blue eyes, pretty lips parted on a sad sigh, brows lifted as if to suggest, really?
He particularly disliked the way Will looked in that charcoal grey, mock-turtleneck fisherman’s sweater, so entirely cozy, huggable and yet untouchable. And so he kept his own features carefully cool.
“I’m looking at you, Will. Perhaps it would be best for you to accept this dubious proof of my respect, and to depart a baking contest which you are clearly trespassing upon, as neither a contestant nor a patron.”
“Come on, Hannibal. How much do the tarts cost, anyway?”
Hannibal’s caramel eyes very briefly journeyed upwards. “They are free of charge, Will. And you are well-aware I would never take your money.”
“No, you never would. Why did you do that anyway, during the divorce? Try and give me everything, even your house and your savings?”
Hannibal opted not to reply except with an annoyed huffy sigh. It ought to be obvious that his fortune and formerly delightful home meant nothing without Will, and therefore he would rather Will simply take it all away and leave him as decimated in life as he was in his heart and soul. Yet Will had refused, had left with nothing except what he had brought to the relationship, a comparatively paltry sum in the bank, the dogs, and the ability to make Hannibal happy, which no one else possessed. He hated the house now, but remained there out of masochistic insistence on remembering the wonderful times they had once shared within its walls.
Will grabbed a plate with a tart off the table. “I’m a patron now, see?” He took a clean fork from the table as well, then a quick bite of the tart made him almost moan, “Oh, God, that’s good, how are there any tarts even left by now?”
“I made extra, anticipating their popularity,” Hannibal answered crisply.
“Mmm,” Will sighed in a moment of irrepressible enjoyment of the tart flavor. “Alright, so I’m here to say I wish we could put all this mess behind us and just be friends. I’m sorry I was so hard on you last night, sorry we can’t see eye to eye.”
“How fortuitous, Will; you’ve finally landed on a subject where we are in complete agreement. I’m sorry, too.”
“But you don’t want to be friends?”
Hannibal tidied the now empty plates on his table, then stacked and re-stacked the cloth napkins. “No, I don’t want to be friends with you.”
“And you’d rather keep this insane tension between us than try to get along and part on good terms?”
Hannibal’s nails scratched across the length of the tablecloth; he stood fully again with his eyes hot and heavy on Will. “Yes. I’d rather part from you with this tension, with a lack of resolution, so that in some small way my existence still eats away at you. Perhaps you’ll forget me again when you return to your safe life with Molly and the dogs, fishing and repairing boats, keeping your mind free of darker visions and truths. But I’ll still be there, lingering at the very back of your mind, somewhere in your remarkably muddled heart, like an itch you never had the chance to scratch. I’ll hold onto you in whatever tiny way I can, Will, make no mistake about it.”
Will looked like an angel torn between heaven and a sinful descent; his pained indecision and incomparable beauty caused Hannibal’s stomach to somersault even as he stood his bitter ground.
“Fine, then,” Will muttered, neatly placing his plate back on the table.
The tart was half-eaten, and briefly Hannibal entertained the notion Will’s appetite was inconsistent again, as it was when they had first fallen in love and the overflow of emotion made him weak-stomached. He made himself let go of the idea; Will would never care about him that much again, not now that he knew what Hannibal was, an unrepentant, insatiable killer and cannibal.
“Fine, Hannibal, you win. You win this argument and my feeble attempt to make peace with you, just like you won this contest without even breaking a sweat.” He flipped the bright blue ribbon on Hannibal’s sign, his anger and sadness all mixed together. “What else is new?”
“I haven’t won a damn thing, Will.” Hannibal’s chest was heaving, his face flushed, and his eyes again stinging with the humiliation of an impending public breakdown if he did not immediately depart.
Yet Hannibal still noticed how Will looked slightly aghast; he rarely ever swore. The only other times Will had heard Hannibal voicing obscenities were when they had gone to bed together, and then Hannibal had surprised himself by being quite verbose in his dirty talk.
“You could understand it all very clearly if you chose to,” Hannibal insisted, pulling off his apron and laying it over the back of the chair behind the table, rolling his sweater sleeves back down to his wrists a little too forcefully. He was never going to pass for his normal, composed self, but he could get this off of his chest, as it were, and that might form some small relief. “But you choose to ignore the truth and consequently hurt us both, with every opportunity.”
“I--” Will started, overwhelmed.
“No, Will, please, we’ve both said more than enough. If you see me again, keep your distance out of charity to us both.”
He stormed off, truly he could not lie to himself it was otherwise; he actually stormed off, like the heartbroken ex-husband he was. As he contained his wrathful, lusty disappointment to the extent of not stomping to the elevator, nor crawling into bed with the covers over his head, he supposed that he might as well pass a dignified day in reading, then skiing in the late afternoon before dinner.
Surely the Maple Oaks Lodge would not have another annoying event in store to bother him, when there had already been a baking contest that very day. If it had been that same contest which had cheerfully tempted him to choose this resort for the vacation, it didn’t matter now that the affair had proven such a pointlessly dull one.
Sitting miserably in his chair by the fire in his room, it distantly occurred to him that he could go up to the honeymoon suite anytime he wanted, as an upgrade to the superior lodging had been his prize.
He wondered if Alana would be excited about the change in accommodations, but then he had not seen her since breakfast, and until this moment, it had not even slightly occurred to him to wonder where she was.
When Molly suggested ice skating that evening, Will guessed it was the least he could do. It was obvious to him by now that the flame between them, if it ever existed, had been well and truly doused by time and familiarity. He couldn’t seem to bring himself to break up with her so close to Christmas, but he knew it might be crueler to string her along. Meanwhile, he was worried about Hannibal (silly, but true), who seemed so uncharacteristically down-trodden. It was awful to know he was the only one in the world with the power to heal Hannibal’s broken heart, and worse to know how much he wanted to, when he couldn’t do so without losing his own morality forever.
He felt torn asunder by painful indecision, but again he tried to smile and make light of the evening’s activities. As usual, Maple Oaks had spared no expense to create a magical evening for their guests. The large pine trees that surrounded the ice rink were covered in dazzling Christmas lights that made the ice glow in pretty shades of red, green, purple and gold. The night sky overhead was perfectly clear, as if angels had hung the full moon and shining stars specifically to add to the festive ambiance.
“What a gorgeous night,” Molly enthused as they took to the ice hand in gloved hand.
She had on a cute pink headband, her hair falling otherwise free around her shoulders, and a matching coat over white fleece pants.
“That’s a great outfit,” Will smiled as they began easily skating, falling back on years of experience.
They often went ice skating in the winters, back home in the more southern part of Maine where they had settled.
“Oh, thanks,” Molly grinned in return, “Alana helped me choose it while we were out shopping today.”
Will noticed that she blushed slightly when saying Alana’s name, but he didn’t think anything of it, too distracted by his own worries.
Across the ice, he saw Alana sitting on a bench and lacing up her own skates, looking lovely as always in a plush maroon coat over a short black dress with thick matching tights. She seemed more melancholy than usual, frowning, and if Will got closer he had a feeling her eyes would be slightly tinged in red.
“I’m going to go say hi,” Molly told Will, who released her hand so she could skate over towards Alana.
Just then, as he continued skating a neat circle around the periphery of the rink, Will glanced up and noticed Hannibal walking through the snow nearby, looking deeply thoughtful and as if he thoroughly intended to avoid the ice skating.
“Hey,” Will greeted, stopping by the edge where the rink met a railing. Although he was completely ignoring Hannibal's petulant request to be left alone, Will couldn't seem to resist. He rested his arms over the railing, his breath puffing visibly in the cold air. “What are you doing? Thought you’d be out here showing us all a thing or two.”
“As a matter of fact,” Hannibal said, mildly embarrassed, “I suppose it never came up during our relationship, but I do not actually know how to ice skate.”
Hannibal was almost absurdly handsome in his soft brown overcoat, purple, black and gold check scarf, and black leather gloves. Handsome, out of his element, and anxious: a combination of traits which, on his normally pretentious and overly confident ex-husband, moved Will’s heart.
“Well, now we can’t have that,” Will smiled, a more genuine smile than he had shared with Molly. He felt almost like himself, inside his own skin and bones, especially when Hannibal relaxed slightly at his playful attitude. “You’ve got to learn, so you can be the best at it, like everything else. Come on, let’s get you some skates and I’ll show you what to do.”
Hannibal leaned heavily on Will’s arm as his former spouse guided him in the shaky first stages of learning to take to the ice.
“I’m going to fall,” he predicted, his lips pursed and cute worry lines showing up on his brow.
“Stop it, you’re fine, I’ve got you,” Will assured him. “Try to just melt into the motion, back and forth with the blades of your skates. Listen to the music, breathe the nice, fresh air.”
“The air is rather bracing, and the music an atrocious mix of contemporary, plastic-sounding festive odes to the sort of Christmas I am most certainly not going to have,” Hannibal complained, although he followed Will’s tutelage and let his body go looser, limber and more elegant with each movement.
He had a natural physical grace about him that made Will assume he’d be a terrific skater if he kept practicing.
The music playing from the speakers surrounding the rink had been traipsing through an excited medley of “Let it Snow!,” “Sleigh Ride,” and “Jingle Bell Rock,” but now the song changed to one uncomfortably familiar to Will.
"I don’t want a lot for Christmas, there is just one thing I need...I don’t care about the presents underneath the Christmas tree…"
Will’s cheeks were thankfully already reddened by the cold night, and he immediately looked away from Hannibal’s eager expression when they both recognized the song. It wasn’t the original version, but a slower, R&B-tinged version with tender vocals by a girl band. Actually, it had a nice beat that was easy to skate to, so Will tried to focus on that, and not the way his heart kept leaping, trying to bring up the past and make him admit this song represented their love.
“Does the memory of that night really cause you such discomfort?” Hannibal asked intently.
When Will finally looked over at him again, Hannibal’s throat bobbed as his eyes brightened.
“It was one of the happiest nights of my life,” the older man added in a husky tone that made Will’s spine tingle.
“Me, too, and that’s why it’s so hard,” Will admitted.
“I see,” said Hannibal, nodding. “I don’t know why I keep putting myself in this foolish position. My apologies, Will, but I think I’ll continue learning to skate on my own.”
“But you only just started--”
“I’m a quick study,” Hannibal insisted. “Please, you should go and find Molly now.”
Will nodded sadly as he let go of Hannibal’s arm. The last few lyrics of the song faded away, replaced by an equally sentimental cover of “Last Christmas.” Will’s heart seeked to be sinking somewhere beneath the ice, into fathomless black, freezing water, drowning, forgetting what it was like to breathe freely. He was suffocating himself with his own almighty conscience, and dammit...Hannibal was right. It never had made him happy, being good.
“Once bitten and twice shy / I keep my distance / But you still catch my eye…”
Jesus. Every Christmas song was out to get him this year.
“Hi, Will,” said Alana, skating up to him with a serious expression.
“Hey, Alana...have you seen Molly?” Will asked, forcing himself not to look back at Hannibal even though he was a little concerned his ex might fall on the ice.
“Well, yes I have, Will.” Alana pressed her ruby lips together, brows lifted in accusation, although her demeanor was free from resentment. “I think I’ve seen a lot more of Molly than you have since we all arrived. We spent the day together...she’s a fantastic person. Right now, she’s over there getting us some hot cider and donuts. We didn’t know if you wanted anything, because you’ve been too busy skating arm in arm with Hannibal.”
“I was just teaching him to skate,” Will explained, regretting the impulsive decision now that he more directly considered how it must look to Molly.
“Mmhm. Look, I just thought you should know that I broke up with Hannibal earlier tonight.”
“Oh, Alana, I’m sorry--”
She rolled her eyes. “No you’re not, Will. Trust me, you aren’t fooling anyone on this subject, least of all yourself. Here’s what I need to tell you, as a friend, as someone who cares about you and Molly -- if you want Hannibal, he’s all yours, okay? He always was as far as I can see, and I guess deep down I always knew it, too. But you need to be honest with Molly.”
He nodded guiltily. “I know that. I know I do.”
Suddenly the night felt a whole lot colder. He tucked his hat down over his ears more tightly, then fiddled with his gloves, pulling them snugger. But there was no getting away from the cold, dark pit in his stomach mixing nausea with yet more guilt and regret. Sure, he could be honest with Molly, as much as he hated the thought of disappointing her, but then...what the hell was he going to do about Hannibal?
Molly stood on the side of the rink, holding a tray with two lidded cups of cider and a bag of donuts on it, and Alana waved over to her, then nodded back at Will.
“Do the right thing, Will.”
She went to Molly and the two of them sat on the bench to share their snack. Will noticed that Molly didn’t bother waving or smiling at him this time, and he guessed she must be upset about the skating with Hannibal thing. Not that he blamed her. Alana was right; he had to explain it all to her (or as much as he could) soon, before she assumed he was merely a heartless, faithless bastard. At least they could talk it out and end up as friends, if he could get himself together and--
Just then, he heard Hannibal give a startled exclamation in Lithuanian, and a series of gasps all around him made Will spin around, only to discover that Hannibal had indeed made a wrong move that left him sprawled on the ice, his foot landing at an unnatural angle.
Plenty of other guests were rushing to Hannibal’s aid as he attempted to sit up, immediately wincing in pain and cradling his ankle. It was so strange to see him uncoordinated and a public spectacle like this, Will somehow could have cried.
His ex had enough help on offer, and didn’t need it from Will, yet his heart lurched and everything in him longed to hurry to Hannibal’s side.
Will looked over at Molly, who merely nodded for him to go to Hannibal. That was all he needed -- he rushed to Hannibal, who looked up at him with a jolt of surprised gratitude, his beautiful eyes glazed by automatic tears of pain at his injury.