"Is there anything I can do to help?" Will asked.
"No, dinner is nearly ready," Hannibal said. "Please, enjoy your wine. I'll be back in a moment."
In deference to his current state--his leg, even Hannibal had to admit, hurt abominably--Hannibal had opted for a relatively simple one-pot dish. But it did not have to be untidy; he spooned the beans across the bottom of two bowls, fanned out the slices of sausage, and arranged the duck legs on top. He garnished the bowls with parsley and toasted panko and brought both out to the dining room table, where Will looked nervous and uncomfortable.
"Cassoulet," Hannibal explained as he placed Will's bowl before him. "A simple and hearty bean stew from France, with duck and sausage. I hope you enjoy it."
"Are you sure you should be going through this trouble?" Will asked.
"This is a celebration," Hannibal said as he took his own seat and draped his napkin in his lap. "We're taking joy in being alive."
"We could have gone out to a restaurant." Will's hand hovered over his utensils; he only picked up his fork once Hannibal picked up his.
"I derive greater joy from cooking for my friends."
A smile twitched on Will's lips as he took a bite. "Oh, Jesus, this is really good," he said, one hand in front of his mouth as he chewed and swallowed. "You said this is just beans and meat?"
"I used my own chicken stock, and the sausage is homemade as well," Hannibal said. "Good ingredients, sourced and prepared with care, make a world of difference."
"Wow." Will looked down at his bowl and speared another piece of sausage. "I didn't think you'd be in the mood for sausage, considering what Tobias Budge was doing with his victims." He glanced up and grimaced. "Sorry, maybe that's not appropriate dinner conversation."
"In some ways, I would have considered it an honor," Hannibal said. "My body, transformed into a work of art, a tool in the service of music...there are worse things. Of course, I'm glad I remain on this earth, as do you, so that we may dine together."
Will had picked up his knife to attack his duck leg; was Hannibal mistaken, or was that a tremulous smile beginning on Will's lips? It made something in Hannibal tremble too.
"Me too," said Will.
Hannibal was the only Caucasian at the store where he went to procure the silkie chicken, and he towered nearly head and shoulders over everyone else there. He selected the chicken he wanted--shrink-wrapped in a styrofoam tray, but there was little alternative short of finding a chicken farmer who raised this particular breed and harvesting it himself--and filled his basket with a few other pantry necessities he thought he might be low on: soy sauce, rice wine, rice vinegar, glutinous rice, dried shiitake mushrooms. He spoke to no one, and no one spoke to him. Hannibal almost preferred that all his transactions be that way.
He went to a different store for the other ingredients, one where the glass displays were filled with antlers still covered in fuzz, stacks of dried fungi, and beautiful gift boxes whose flowing script Hannibal could not read. Behind the counters were tall banks of small drawers, each one neatly labeled in Chinese script. Hannibal could read some of those, but that did not help him make much more sense of them. The air had a strong bitter tang to it, with underlying notes of star anise and clove. Most of the smell came from the bins in the center of the store, heaped with dried roots and seeds, each one with a handwritten sign advertising its price per pound.
A white-coated woman stood behind the counter, her dark hair gathered behind her in a ponytail, measuring some kind of sliced root into a series of butcher paper squares. She had glanced up at Hannibal as he entered, said nothing, and gone back to her task. Hannibal did not begrudge her this. He went up to her now.
"Excuse me," he said in a low voice. She looked up at him, setting down her handful of roots. Hannibal decided to try his Mandarin on her, which he knew was good, if strongly accented: "I'd like a chicken soup, please."
She nodded and brought out another square of butcher paper, which she placed far away from the others. She plucked open drawers and fetched ingredients out of them with her gloved hands: ginseng, goji berries, dried red dates, slices of other dried roots that Hannibal did not know the names to. She dropped them all in the paper square and tied it up with a piece of twine. "Five dollars."
Hannibal handed her a five dollar bill and dropped the packet into his bag.
Once home, he began by boiling a large pot of water and dropping the chicken--now mostly thawed from its stay in his grocery bags and then in his car--into it. He watched the chicken bob in the roiling water, oil seeping from the skin to collect on the water's surface. After a few minutes, he drained the water, rinsed the chicken, and washed the pot.
He'd had some time in the car to think about which base to use for the soup. Typically, he would use his own stock, which was not made from chicken, and which usually caused diners to compliment him on the depth and complexity of flavors. But this was not just any soup for any person, and he'd gone through all the trouble of procuring a silkie chicken. He doubted Will would notice, especially with the ginseng and red jujubes in the soup, but Hannibal would know.
Hannibal filled the pot with water, let it boil again, and added the chicken along with the packet of herbs. He set it to a simmer, put the lid on, and walked away. Soup rarely needed any more help than that.
"I'm glad to be able to celebrate with you once again," Hannibal said.
"Oh yeah?" said Will. "What are we celebrating? That I tried to have you murdered?"
It was good to have Will at his table again. He looked good; he had discarded that abominable aftershave; tidied his hair; sat up straight. He didn't hesitate anymore to make eye contact with Hannibal, and he gave that contact to him freely, without the bars of his cell between them. It delighted Hannibal to know that he was the one who'd had this effect on Will, and he could not help the fond smile he directed at Will now.
"It seems to me that we have many things to celebrate," said Hannibal as he poured their wine. "Your acquittal and release; your good health; that you seem to know yourself better than before."
"Thanks to you, I guess," Will murmured.
"I'll be a moment," Hannibal said, and went to the kitchen, where he retrieved two stoneware bowls from his oven. The rice sizzled when it hit the bowl, and Hannibal moved quickly, arranging on top of the rice the pickled and seasoned vegetables; the thin slices of meat; the sunny side up egg. He drizzled sauce and scattered sesame seeds over both bowls and placed each one on a wooden trivet to carry out to the table.
"The rice on the bottom is likely crispy by now," Hannibal said when he placed Will's bowl before him. "You'll want to stir it soon."
Hannibal had placed both a fork and a pair of chopsticks at each setting, not knowing which one Will would prefer; he was not surprised to see Will pick up the fork. "What is this?" Will asked, leaning forward and inhaling a deep breath off the bowl.
"Dolsot bibimbap," said Hannibal. "It is a Korean dish; dolsot refers to the bowl that it is served in."
Hannibal used his chopsticks to stir up his own bowl, stabbing down through the egg yolk and scraping up the rice. It was, as he'd surmised, perfectly golden and crisp on the bottom, with a spot of dark char here and there. Steam rose from the bowl, carrying with it the smell of grilled meat, soy sauce, sesame, and chili peppers.
"This is good," Will remarked. He stirred his bowl again and came up with another bite. "My dad wasn't really any good at cooking. He tried, but he just...didn't have the patience for it, I don't know. Sometimes the food would be burned, and he'd try to make a joke about it, say that it was extra vitamins, or better burned than raw, something like that."
"The right degree of high heat, for the right amount of time, produces a delicious result," said Hannibal.
Will gave Hannibal a small, bitter smile. This smile gave Hannibal its own sort of pleasure, though it wasn't as good as some of Will's other smiles. "Am I delicious?"
"You have certainly been forged in the crucible of recent experiences," said Hannibal. "But that is a different metaphor."
The night they made lomo saltado was one that Hannibal would come to cherish: the way Will had looked at him as Hannibal handed him the knife; the sight of Will in his kitchen, head bowed over the cutting board; the smell of him, his cologne mostly sweated away at the end of a long day, leaving only the scent of himself, pure and cold.
He'd given Will the job of slicing the onions and tomatoes and ginger and marinating the pork, tasks for which it didn't matter a great deal if the pieces were a little uneven. (Hannibal adored Will and thought he was a magnificent killer, but he knew that that magnificence did not necessarily extend to the kitchen.) Hannibal saw to the potatoes, which he peeled, sliced thinly into sticks, and coated in a mix of oil, paprika, salt, cumin, and coriander.
Hannibal did not own a deep fryer; he didn't see the need for any such device when he could fry just as well in the bottom of a deep pot. He poured a liberal amount of peanut oil into the bottom of a pot now, not missing the way Will watched him with curiosity. The way Will looked at him warmed his skin. He wondered if Will would look at him that way forever.
"Wait," Will said after the first batch of fries had come out and were cooling on the rack, dripping oil onto the tray underneath, "are those French fries? Are you making French fries?"
"Yes," Hannibal said.
"What are we making?" Will asked.
"I told you: lomo saltado."
"Apparently that includes French fries," Will said. He shook his head. "We could have been eating French fries all this time, if I'd known that I could have asked you for them."
"You could still ask," Hannibal said, recklessly. He didn't miss how Will's breath caught at the statement. "You can ask me for anything."
Hannibal wanted to catch up Will's hands in his and smell them. Though he'd washed them, some scent would remain of meat and vinegar and garlic. But Hannibal's hands were occupied, so he didn't.
Speaking of memories:
There was little else to do in the BSHCI besides wander the corridors of his memory palace. Each time Hannibal opened a door, Will was on the other side, turning around with a smile, as if he'd been expecting Hannibal to arrive any moment now. Will was even in rooms he'd never been in before: the chapel; the bedroom; the basement.
There was a meal that Hannibal had never cooked for Will, and he thought of it often. Sometimes, when he entered the kitchen and Will was there, Hannibal would indulge himself in it. He would tell Will that this meal was meant to be a surprise, and Will would merely shrug and stay, leaning against the counter.
Will would smile when he saw the crawfish. Hannibal could picture it, broad and toothy, the kind of smile Will generally directed at his dogs. They would peel the crawfish first, so that Hannibal could use the shells and heads to make a stock. Then Will would dice the vegetables while Hannibal made the roux, stirring and scraping until it was a golden-brown color.
But there was more than just crawfish etouffee: there was okra to cut up and batter, corn meal and onion and spices to mix and fry. Will's smile would grow broader as he saw all these things; his eyes would shine as Hannibal lifted the hush puppies out of the oil. He'd want to bite into one right away, perhaps, burning his fingers and his tongue, a lingering smear of grease leaving a shine on his fingertips and his lips.
Or sometimes Hannibal entered the dining room first and saw Will already there, like the day Will had brought him the corpse of Randall Tier. Sometimes Tier was there, sometimes not. If Tier was not, Hannibal might say, "Ah, you're right on time. Dinner will be ready soon." And he would pull out Will's chair for him, pour him a glass of wine, and go into the kitchen to plate the crawfish etouffee, the okra, the hush puppies. When he placed the food on the table, Will would give him that grin and say, "What is this, my birthday?"
"It is," Hannibal would say with an answering smile, and he would watch with a warm, effervescent joy in his chest as Will picked up his utensils and ate with enthusiasm and gusto.
Sometimes the menu would change: shrimp and sausage gumbo instead of crawfish etouffee, cornbread instead of hush puppies, collard greens instead of fried okra. But Will's smile never changed, his gratitude, his sincere joy. Hannibal's heart pounded to think of it. There were so many more things he intended to cook for Will.
Hannibal returned from a day of errands to a home that smelled of good things. The dogs greeted him with wagging tails and repressed whines, and Hannibal patted them absently, but he was absorbed in trying to determine what the smells were. Meat, yes, and a powerful cruciferous fragrance. Cabbage?
Puzzled, Hannibal left his bags in the foyer and followed the scents into the kitchen; the dogs stayed at the threshold, whining. He found Will prodding the contents of a Dutch oven with a wooden spoon, a look of resignation on his face. "Oh, hey," he said with a sheepish smile, upon seeing Hannibal. "I wanted to surprise you."
"I am surprised," Hannibal said. He strode over to peer into the pot, where there was indeed cabbage and meat, all covered with tomato sauce.
"I think it's just about ready," said Will. "The borscht is done."
Hannibal raised his eyebrows. "You made borscht?"
"It was easy." Will sounded a little defensive. "It's just soup."
Hannibal checked the other pot on the stove and found, simmering on low heat, a beautiful purple-red borscht, darker bits of mushroom peering out here and there among the jewel red. Will had already chopped the dill and sliced a lemon in half. Hannibal added them both, discarded the juiced lemons, and gave the pot a stir. He leaned in and inhaled deeply of the earthy smell.
When he turned around, Will had plated some of the cabbage rolls and was spooning sour cream over them. "That looks good," Hannibal said.
Will grimaced. "It's not like how you would have done it."
"Because it was not me doing it." Hannibal ladled the borscht into two bowls and added a generous dollop of sour cream to both.
They carried the food out to the dining room together, and now the dogs rejoined them, their nails skittering excitedly across the tile floor. "I'll feed them," said Will, "if you'll pour the wine." This was part of their typical routine, and so Hannibal nodded. By the time Will returned from the back porch, Hannibal had poured them both glasses of Romanian wine and was seated at his place, trying to name the emotions that welled up in him. He suspected that individually they were not wholly unfamiliar, but he had never experienced them in this particular mix.
"Is there some special occasion?" he asked when Will took his seat, though he knew there wasn't; Hannibal had an excellent memory and never forgot an occasion.
"No," Will said, unfolding his napkin. "I just wanted to cook dinner for once. You always do all the cooking, and I thought you'd like a break."
Hannibal picked up his spoon and stirred the sour cream into his borscht. "And was there any meaning behind your choice of menu?"
"I tried to pick easy things that I couldn't mess up," Will said. "And that I thought you'd like. Did you eat any of this growing up?"
"Yes," Hannibal said. "Often." He took a sip of the borscht. The sharp, citrusy taste of dill burst across his tongue, mellowed by the sour cream and the sweet earthiness of the beets and mushrooms. Will had soaked the dried mushrooms first, and added the soaking liquid to the chicken stock. When he looked up, Will was smiling.
"How'd I do?" Will asked.
"It's very good," Hannibal said. He tried a bite of the cabbage rolls next. They had kept their shape, and the leaves were tender enough to be pierced with a fork. The filling was well seasoned and not overmixed. It didn't taste like his childhood memories, but that was to be expected.
"Hey," Will said. "It can't be that bad."
Hannibal blinked and was not surprised to find that he was blinking away tears. "It's been a long time since anyone made cabbage rolls for me."
Will reached across the table to put his hand on Hannibal's, the one that was not holding a fork. "That's why I did it."