“Sit,” Hernando says, gesturing to the head of the table.
Lito is wary of what’s happening and feels he ought to be. Ever since he proposed to Hernando, life has been a whirlwind of plans and media and Daniela trying on more dresses than a woman needs for a maid of honour. Hernando has been taking it all very quietly in turn, but he seems happier. Maybe Lito just wants to think he’s happier.
Only, he’s sure he is. There’s a glow to him that Lito cannot miss and recently, Hernando has been locking himself away for hours on end in the kitchen, refusing to tell Lito what he’s doing.
Until today, it seems.
Lito takes the place at the head of the table and Hernando very carefully pulls out a chair to his right, but doesn’t sit there. “I imagine you’ll have company very soon,” Hernando says, pointing to Lito’s forehead.
“They don’t come and ring a doorbell,” Lito protests.
“No, but after everything you’ve told me, I think they’ll come today,” he says, turning to fetch the first plate. “Remember how I told you that you could wear whatever you wanted to our wedding and sing whatever songs at the reception and that I would even let you pick the honeymoon destination?”
Lito nods warily, knowing the catch is coming.
“I will still let you have all those things, but on one condition,” Hernando says. “I decide the menu.”
“Hernando, this is our wedding. You really want to spend all your time obsessing over the food?” As soon as he’s said it, Lito already knows that Hernando’s idea of a good time is exactly that, and Lito nods as he gives in to the inevitability of this. “How many courses?”
“Eight,” Hernando says proudly.
“Eight? I won’t be able to fuck you when we run away for our honeymoon, I’ll be so full,” Lito protests dramatically, though he knows there’s no chance on earth that he won’t be enjoying the joys of a newly married man with his husband. And oh, he loves that word. Husband. It’s a shame he already knows Hernando will refuse a request to postpone, because Lito could really use a break already to show Hernando exactly how much he likes that word.
Taking a deep breath (and grateful he’s worn pants with an elastic waistband), Lito rubs his palms together and prepares himself for the first course. When it arrives, Lito’s stomach growls with hunger, but he’s not entirely sure it’s his.
“The last time I had kimchi that smelled as good as this, I think my mother was still with me,” Sun says, now sitting in that chair that Hernando had pulled out.
It seems they are expecting guests after all.
The quesadilla on the plate before him is like those Lito has seen before, but the sriracha on top and the kimchi inside are an unexpected surprise. Before he can even stop himself, he feels Sun take control and pick up a piece with both hands, taking a messy bite. Lito offers her a napkin helpfully, and even though it’s Sun who took the bite, it’s Lito who tastes it now.
“Hernando,” Lito moans, the fresh chives on top adding the perfect end. “Did you do all this for us?”
“You told me about all of them and I know we can’t really invite them to the wedding, but I thought this might be a good way of having them here in spirit,” Hernando says, glancing to the chair.
Though Lito knows perfectly well that he can’t see Sun, she’s studying him in return, wiping away the last of the sauce from her bottom lip with her thumb. She’s considerate, careful, and Lito knows she wants to say something.
“Well?” Hernando coaxes.
“Tell him that it’s not spicy enough, but I like the caramelized kimchi,” Sun says. “And that you are a very lucky man.”
“What is she saying?” Hernando demands, smart enough to know exactly who’s decided to come and visit.
“Something along the lines of me being lucky that she’s very far away and can’t steal you from me,” Lito says, finishing the last of the plate himself before Hernando steals it away (and before Lito can lick away the last of the sauce, which is terribly rude of Hernando; it will certainly be punished later).
There are seven more courses, Lito realizes, and is immensely thankful that Hernando has restricted the portions to small little things, else Lito will do nothing but work off the calories the rest of the day. He lights up even more when a glass of white wine is poured for him next, set alongside a bowl of seafood chowder alongside a small piece of sourdough bread that Lito suspects is homemade.
“How long have you been at this?”
“And where did he get the cultures for this bread?” Nomi asks, taking over the guest’s spot. She’s nibbling at the bread, but her eyes are closed and she’s having some sort of religious experience, Lito thinks. “Lito, this is amazing,” she says, shoving it at him and not even bothering to wait before it’s on his lower lip.
He opens his mouth and chews thoughtfully, narrowing his eyes at Hernando. “You’re bringing them all to visit today,” he says, after he’s through swallowing. “You could’ve at least warned me. I would’ve worn something nicer.”
“You’re fine,” Nomi promises, smiling as Hernando bustles in between them to tuck the napkin into Lito’s tank top, thumb lingering on the line of muscles in Lito’s neck. “And he loves you. More importantly, he’s come to love us. By the way, Amanita is incredibly jealous and she’s demanding that we get to come to your wedding.”
“Not a good idea,” Lito gently chastises.
After all, it’s dangerous enough that Lito has been so public in the tabloids lately. He can only imagine the danger of bringing more than one of their cluster to the same place. While Will has managed to find a unique combination of drugs that keeps Whispers at bay, there’s no good reason to chance fate, especially not on a day that Lito wants to be perfect.
“I’ll send some up, in a care package,” he says, when Nomi turns her very best disappointed look towards him. “Or maybe just Hernando in a big crate that I poke holes in,” he teases, turning that fond grin on Hernando.
“I hope I at least warrant a novel in there,” Hernando huffs, but his eyes are rapt as he eagerly seeks out the affirmation that the soup is enjoyed.
He nods, feeling awash with sensations of home, comfort, and watching the morning fog rolling away from the hills. While he is intimately acquainted with the first two emotions, the third he knows is from Nomi and he basks in this small joy that she’s allowing him to share in. He lifts the napkin to the corner of his lips, but when he turns to ask Nomi if she’s enjoyed it, she’s already gone.
“I’m already full,” Lito protests, but is smiling because he would never refuse a single course and they have a great many to go.
Hernando is busy in the kitchen for the next course (which Lito suspects is not following any actual order at this point, hopping from region to region and that it will have their guests happy, satisfied, but incredibly stuffed). The pan is frying in hot oil when Lito feels company arrive beside him.
Riley is there, eyes closed, her nose tipped in the air.
“Saltfiskur,” she says longingly, that soft smile of hers widening like a child’s upon receiving a treat. “And chips,” she laughs, turning her attention to the fish frying in the pan. “I used to dream that I would never meet someone who loves me this much to make the foods that I loved as a child and the ones that I found when I moved, who cares this much…”
“But you did,” Will says, taking up the opposite chair. His eyes are dazed and sluggish, his awareness barely there. Lito feels a sudden, guilty pang as he wonders if they are safe, but trusts Kala to have adjusted the dosage to ensure that Will and the rest of the cluster remain safe. Will reaches across the table with both hands to take Riley’s in his own, squeezing her hands lightly. “I’m always going to be here for you, Riley. Always.”
“Carino,” Lito summons. “We have an early guest. Will’s here,” he says, the subtext implying that in order to make sure they don’t have to summon him back again, they serve up the next course at the same time.
“Ah,” Hernando says, the panic showing in his eyes, but he’s quick to turn around and fetch something from the oven.
When the plates are laid down in front of them, Lito instantly knows there is absolutely no way they can serve this to their guests at the wedding, not after the already large and expansive plates. Not to mention that serving salt-fish and chips is one thing, but the massive bratwurst on the table with sauerkraut is something else and it’s practically inviting the media and the guests to make snarky comments that will grace the papers the next day.
“And here I thought that one would be for me.”
At the other end of the table, Wolfgang twirls a knife and smirks as he reaches over to stab the wurst with the tip of the knife, letting it dangle in the air as the juices roll down it. Lito eyes the dangling sausage considerately and without even taking his eyes off of it, he clears his throat and avoids blushing (Lito is sure he lost the ability to blush years and years ago).
“Wolfgang is here,” Lito says. “And I think he’s pleased with the size of your sausage.”
“It’s not bad,” Wolfgang agrees, smiling in that private way that curls the corner of his lips just upwards.
Hernando takes it in stride, pouring a thick beer to go with the meal. It feels right, now, for so many of them to be here and combined, and Lito’s heart sings with more joy to know that Hernando has done this for all of them. He even passes aside the jealousy that thanks to their strangely linked activities, Wolfgang knows exactly how much of a sausage Hernando can claim.
“Well? Go on,” he prods Riley and Will, who are sitting there anxiously. This is hardly the most romantic dinner he can provide, but there are worse in the world. Lito shares a sympathetic smile over the table as Wolfgang takes in the way Riley gets her fingers in the fish, flakes of it falling off until Will leans in to kiss and suck them off for her. Lito knows how very lucky he is to have this, and in a show of friendship, he sends the dark beer across the table.
Wolfgang says nothing as he finishes it all easily, the queasy and light feeling roiling in Lito’s gut (which is something he’s still not used to). Riley and Will are still sharing the chips, their fingers twined together to the point that the halo effect makes Lito summon Hernando with nothing more than a look.
It’s no surprise that the moment the last drop is gone, so is Wolfgang. Faced with two happy couples, he can’t face this.
Hernando lifts Lito’s hand to press slow kisses to each knuckle. “So far, so good?” he verifies, clearly hoping for validation and praise.
It’s a very lucky thing Lito is more than willing to praise this man to the moon and all the stars. “Hernando, it is the most wonderful things we’ve ever tasted,” he says, not sure if it’s him or Riley speaking these words, but glad someone is saying them. “And I know you have more because we still haven’t seen everyone,” he adds fondly. “And you two, you should get a room,” Lito says with a wink in Riley’s direction.
He enjoys the flush he draws out of her, happy that she’s finally figuring out a way to be happy.
Lito loves seeing other people as in love as he is, even though he’s fairly convinced that no one on earth could be as in love as he is, because no one else has Hernando the way that he does and the man brings out a singular sort of epiphany that love is art and being in love with Hernando is like painting all the great works of the Louvre in one lifetime.
Hernando clears his throat, asking permission to move on, which Lito nods to let him know that they’re able to.
The next dish comes hot and tempting, from the warmth of something that looks like a tortilla, filled with beans, cabbage, and pork.
“My mother used to make this when we could get the flour,” Capheus shares, his eyes brimming with excitement. “Chapati is excellent,” he says. “Kala could tell you that, as well,” he notes, smiling so eagerly, though where the others dug in instantly, Capheus sits back respectfully, giving Lito pause.
“He doesn’t want to try it?” Hernando says worriedly, somehow managing to interpret Lito by just a look on his face.
“It’s for your wedding,” Capheus says, “and there is always enough to go around. Please, you go first,” he coaxes.
Lito rolls the chapati and dips it in the oil of the plate as he bends his head to the side to eat it, spices appearing in the mix of the beans and fried cabbage. He reaches for the glass of wine (that has been refilled somewhere in between the multiple visits to his head) and lets himself fall into old memories that don’t belong to him.
“The days we had flour were the best days,” Capheus shares as he takes his turn, “those and the days we could have mandazi,” he says, eating the last morsel with his fingers. “I try to cook for my mother, but she won’t let me. It may have something to do with the fact that I nearly burned down our home the last time I tried.”
“I’ll make sure Hernando teaches me to cook so I can teach you,” Lito promises.
“I’m working miracles now?” Hernando teases, draping his arms around Lito’s neck to lazily wrap around him and kiss his way down his neck.
It’s a bit too much for Capheus, it seems, who vanishes and gives them some time alone. Lito’s stomach is full to bursting, but there is more to go, he knows. Still, he slides his palm up to coax Hernando down to him, eager for a private moment just the two of them. Between seven voices in his head and Daniela in their space, alone time can be a precious commodity and he doesn’t want to waste any of it.
Lito breathes in the smell of Hernando so close to him, turning so he can close his eyes and live in this very moment and nowhere else.
“I don’t want to confuse you, but I have to serve dessert before one of the savoury courses,” Hernando warns. “Only, if we do it the other way around, I think Kala might end up watching you debauch me on the table and while I know I always dreamed of the performing arts, I don’t think that’s what I had in mind.”
“I don’t think any of us want that,” Kala says, already there without a scent or a plate to even draw her. She sits forwardly eagerly, wiggling in her chair as Lito watches her with brotherly affection. “My father is my favourite cook, but I think your fiancé is quickly rising the ranks to challenge him. He’s not there yet with the spices, otherwise I’d fly him to Mumbai to show Rajan how to cook,” she explains, watching Hernando bustle around the kitchen with a fond smile. “I always wanted a husband who can cook.”
“But you love the husband you have, yes?”
He’s not clear on it, not entirely, but he can feel affection beginning to grow like a late-blooming flower in spring. There’s respect and definitely something there, but Lito knows it’s not the love that so many of them share.
“I will be happy to spend my life with him,” Kala says. “Now, chop chop, I haven’t got all day! I have to get to work soon, where’s our dessert?”
“She says you have to hurry,” Lito tells Hernando.
“Then tell her she can wait for genius,” Hernando mock-huffs, but turns around with two plates this time. He reverently sets the plates down before the both of them as Lito looks to Kala for the explanation he already knows in his heart, but is more than happy to hear from her. He sets down two bowls that look like ice cream, but smell like mango and are topped with caramelized bits of crunch. “Something sweet,” he announces, “for my sweet.”
“He’s precious,” Kala coos, laughing fondly as she twirls the spoon around the ice cream. “Careful, I might steal him away.”
“Only for cooking, I hope,” Lito says. “You’re missing other parts he requires to keep him pleasured.”
“Damn right,” Hernando lazily says, clearly able to garner what the conversation has turned towards. He leans in to kiss away the droplet of mango ice cream from the corner of Lito’s lips and between the pleasure of the food and the pleasure of his soul warmed through seven times over, Lito’s practically brimming with a bliss he didn’t think he could experience.
Kala chatters away about her father’s cooking while they finish dessert, laughing as the joy of a full meal settles in their stomachs. She pronounces the dessert and the whole meal a success, though Lito notices that she says nothing about the bitter German beer that had accompanied the whole thing.
“Tell me when it’s just us,” Hernando says, “and I’ll serve you the last of the courses.”
Kala wraps her hand around Lito’s and squeezes it firmly. “Don’t follow my example.”
“If Hernando looks half as handsome as he does now, I’m afraid I may have no choice but to faint,” Lito confesses, staring star struck at him.
Kala smiles warmly and kisses his cheek before she vanishes and leaves them alone.
“It’s just us now,” Lito says, rubbing his hands together eagerly. He knows that if everyone else has been served, then the last meal is waiting for him. Hernando turns to crouch, allowing Lito a long, enjoyable look of his backside as he fetches the last of the dishes and sets it out before him.
They are at the end of a perfect banquet, and yet more perfection arrives.
Lito opens his eyes to the final plate of elotes, beautiful against the white plate Hernando has served them on. They could even taste awful and he wouldn’t care, because what’s important is that they’re here and Hernando made them for him. “You remembered for me,” he says, placing his palm above his heart. “I always forget I love them, but here they are.”
“Of course I remembered,” Hernando promises, settling down into Lito’s lap carefully. “I remember everything you tell me. In my head, I have years’ worth of awful scripts rattling around in there. You see, my love, I would do anything for you.”
It’s so heart-rending and awful that it could honestly have come from any one of Lito’s scripts. He bounces with his silent laughter, burying his face in Hernando’s shoulder as he basks in this private joy. He honestly doesn’t know if he can eat another bite, but already knows that the menu for the wedding is bound to confuse a great number of their guests, but Lito is pleased for it.
“You know you’re going to have to do this all over again for Daniela, right?” Lito murmurs.
“She said she wanted to be surprised. Besides, I had to make something for her, too,” he confesses and holds up a chocolate. “Sweet on the outside, with spice on the inside. Just like our Daniela,” he says, resting it on Lito’s lower lip. He cannot even protest without accepting it and it sets off the perfect end to the perfect meal.
Lito is beyond thankful that Daniela isn’t summoned so easily as the others because he’s just eaten a lot and has a number of calories he needs to work off. Picking Hernando up in his arms, he secures his legs around Lito’s waist, already intent on the bedroom.
“You like it?”
“I love it,” Lito swears, roused beyond the telling of it and determined to show Hernando just how much he appreciates the meal.
The way to a man’s heart is definitely through his stomach and if you’re Lito, it’s through seven other minds, memories, and stomachs, too. With a world’s worth of tastes on his tongue, Lito brings his focus back home, eager to make a new memory that these foods will call to mind the next time he tries them.
And always, in the centre of his heart, there’ll be Hernando.
“I love you,” Lito says, the words hot in his chest as he thinks about having almost lost this for his cowardice and he is so, so glad that didn’t come to pass. “And now it’s my turn to show you, eight times over.”
(Except, it turns out that over the course of the night, Lito manages nine with some help; but no one is complaining, least of all Hernando)