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Culinary Substitution

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What Molly sees beneath her eyelids and feels inside her head are much the same.  Static electricity dancing on a field of darkness.  She feels like she’s hiked up a mountain and can’t draw enough breath.  Then she wakes a little further—realises only then that she has been asleep—and feels the soreness in her throat, awful and hot, and recognises it as the seat of her difficulties.

A memory flares in her head.  A hospital recovery room, cheap lunchroom sorbet on a plastic spoon.  Orange.  But it tastes of blood and sickroom and summer colds, flows liquid down her raw and swollen throat, and she flinches back and away.  She cannot move her limbs.

“Easy,” her mother murmurs, stroking her head.  “Don’t struggle.  You’ll tip right over and hit your head.”

Hospital beds don’t tip, Molly wants to protest; she manages a searingly-painful grunt in reply.

“Here.”  Her mother—no, her father?—snaps his fingers in front of her eyes.  “Stay here, Molly.  Don’t wander off.  I’ve taken great pains to allow your survival.  I want you lucid.”

That is not her father’s voice.  That is not her father’s face—she is not in bed—she is not eight years old and her tonsils are long gone.  She is Molly Graham, mother, wife, woman grown, and she is tied to a dining room chair in her kitchen with Hannibal Lecter bent at the waist in front of her, peering into her face.

She frantically wracks her brain, trying to remember if Wally is home.  Almost sobs aloud with relief when she concludes he isn’t, remembers he’s out with Will.

As her eyes focus on him at last, Lecter hums in satisfaction and straightens up.  He has a spoon in one hand; past him, Molly sees the orange bottle of liquid Motrin on the counter.  The taste of the medicine still sits on the back of her tongue.

“It should ameliorate your condition,” Lecter says evenly, following her gaze.  “Hopefully enough to allow you to speak.”  He walks away from her, towards the far side of the counter.

“I would have administered something stronger, but I did not come prepared, and it was all you had.  Well,” and here he chuckles softly, an easy sound yet without much mirth, “that and the very large bottle of extra-strength aspirin in your bathroom.  Will still has his headaches now and again?—or perhaps the memory of the pain is enough that he fears to be caught unawares.  I wonder.”

Molly tries to speak.  Not to respond.  Just to say anything, but the painkiller hasn’t kicked in yet, and her throat is terribly hot and dry.

Almost as she thinks it, Lecter is at the sink, filling a glass with water.  She watches his face as he approaches.  She knows it better than she’d like, from news reports and second-hand nightmares and the peeling surfaces of photographs laid to rest in the fire.  It is pleasantly neutral as it beholds her.  Placid.  His eyes are hard and cold and blank.

“Drink up,” he urges, bringing the glass to her lips and tipping it gently along with her head, the hand on her scalp placed with impersonal care.  “Slowly.  We can’t have you choking to death, now can we?”

But she does choke, because all at once she remembers.

Scraping the mud off her boots on the porch.  Stepping through the front door, dusting a hand over her hair because she still hasn’t lived down that one time a leaf had gotten tangled in the strands and Will and Wally had just let her walk around with it poking from behind her ear, exchanging secret grins and waiting for her to notice.  Stripping off boots and coat with a smile at the memory, moving towards the kitchen with a vague thought in her head of coffee or cocoa or some combination of the two.  Then the rush of air past her ears, the simultaneous explosion of it from her lungs, and the muscular arm binding hers tight against her sides, the biceps of a second brutally constricting her airway.  The sounds of her struggles.  The comparative silence of her assailant.  Grey fog seeping into her vision, her chest tight and empty and awful and then—

She is being leaned forward now, just a little, just enough for Lecter’s hand to pound quite precisely against her back.  She spits up water, the viscous mess spilling over her lips.  As Molly gasps and rattles for air, tears spilling from her eyes from the strain of her chest and the bubble and burn of her throat, he bends forward and wipes her mouth with a cloth.  A napkin—no, a handkerchief.  How very expected from the man Hannibal Lecter presents to the world.  Yet not from the man he presents to her now, clothed in slacks that fit well enough but a sweater just a touch too tight over the shoulders.  It’s one of Will’s, an oversized one he wears infrequently, not as worn as his old favourites.  She thinks the slacks are Will’s, too.

He sees her notice.  Gives her a strangely brittle smile as once again he straightens up and walks away from her.  He sets the half-empty glass on the counter.  Places the handkerchief beside it, neatly folded, squared with the counter’s edge.  He turns away, and she hears the faucet run again.

“Tell me, Molly,” he begins in a perfectly amicable tone, looking down at his hands as he scrubs them thoroughly, “are you familiar with the code of chivalry?”

“Is—” Molly clears her throat roughly, suppressing a whimper.  “Is this the part where I say thanks for pulling out my chair?”

“Ha!”  He beams at her, just for a moment, before he turns off the water and shakes his hands sharply, droplets drumming against the metal interior of the sink.  “A glimmer of personality.  I am heartened.  But no; I was referring not to the modern concept, but the medieval one.”  He enunciates the word, medi-eval.

Lecter had, Molly realises with a chill and a strange sense of violation, quite clearly acquainted himself with her kitchen while she was unconscious; once his hands are dry he moves swiftly, assembling a cutting board, a chef’s knife, and a pair of fat Valencia onions before him with the ease of one at home.  “Did you know that chivalry and cavalry come from the same root?” he asks.  He clearly means to go on, but he pauses just long enough for her to rasp an answer.

“Cheval.”  Molly is spitefully careful in forming the word.  His eyebrows cant up subtly.  Surprised.

Yeah, I know French, bitch.  Eight semesters.  Come at me.

If she were a little braver or less aware of Lecter’s pathological distaste—or, well, taste—for the rude, she would voice the sentiment.  The man is far too used to thinking he’s the smartest person in the room, and from what she knows of him, he usually is.  But the gap between his intellect and her own isn’t nearly as wide as he’d like to believe, and something about being assaulted and held prisoner in her own home makes Molly want to point that out, to yank his haughty star down to her solid ground.

“Yes,” Lecter says simply, inspecting the edge of her knife.  Evidently, it’s unsatisfactory, for he pulls out another drawer and withdraws her sharpener, briskly running the blade along it at a precise angle as he continues, the scrape and ring of it a harsh descant over his low and even voice.  It also forms an effective cover for her subtle attempt to test the strength of her bonds, just rough rope from the shed, but all the knots hold good.

“Cheval.  Horse.  No coincidence, either.  Chivalry was initially devised as a code of conduct for Charlemagne’s cavalrymen to uphold—a set of social regulations to enforce the qualities of bravery and good breeding which storytellers of the age attributed to them.  It was not something one did to be polite.  Rather, one had a legend to live up to.”  He inspects the knife again, lips tipping into a slight smile this time, and puts the sharpener away.  He looks at her as he tilts the blade to catch the light; tilts his head as well, just slightly, so pleased with himself, like a child showing off an art project: See?

She does see.  More than she cares to.  It cannot be more than the merest echo of what Will sees, but she Sees nonetheless, not because of an innate ability but because the thing she is looking at is raw and exposed and right before her eyes.  Lecter has allowed this.  Intends it.  Or perhaps his façade has slipped a little in his years behind bars, too far to be pulled back into place so soon.  So very soon it must be, too; Molly has heard nothing about a jailbreak and she knows that that if Hannibal Lecter escapes his cell, Will Graham’s phone will be ringing before the alarm klaxons have a chance to warm up.

Or it would be, if it weren’t a crisp, clear Saturday, and he weren’t hip-deep in water with Wally somewhere outside the range of cell service.  Gone fishing, Molly muses with an edge of hysteria.  Catch-and-release, today; Wally is only just ten, only just coordinated enough that she doesn’t half-irrationally fear he’ll put his eye out learning to fly fish.

“Over time,” Lecter tells her, stripping and chopping the onions with tight, efficient motions, “the code came to be applied more broadly, to all of society’s would-be gentlemen.  But first it was taken up by nobility, knights, and so it is with knighthood that chivalry is most closely associated.  Romantic literature did its part there, of course.  Art imitating life, and embellishing it.”

The onions are scraped into a waiting bowl.  Mushrooms take their place on the cutting board.

“Chivalry in the Arthurian tradition took on new life, became something meant to encompass every aspect of noble existence from war-room to dining room to the threshold of the forbidden bedroom.  Service, selflessness, and purity in all things.  In duty.  In love.  It’s from these stories that the most famous aspect of chivalry arose: courtly love, as Tristan for Iseult, as Lancelot for Guinevere.  Art imitating life—transforming it, in the process, that an ideal re-absorbed may take a higher form when the cycle comes to its close.”

He looks at her, and with the Sight he has permitted her (or perhaps forced on her), she understands.  She has spoken, and in so doing, set expectations.  She is to speak again, and meet those expectations, or face consequences.

“Life imitating art,” she rasps.  “Storybook knights based on real ones.  Real ones had to live up to the stories.  Bar keeps moving higher.”

“Just so.”  She has passed, she thinks, but he cocks his head at her.  “Do you feel for them, these knights of old?  Pity them?  Bound to standards ever drifting out of their reach, pushed away by their own deeds as they ascend to the stuff of legend, pulling them apart at the seams?”

“The whole bound thing really hits me where I live.”  Molly doesn’t know what else to say.  This is about Will, somehow, it has to be.  The way the FBI had pulled at him?  The way Lecter had?  Or maybe he was suggesting she was holding her husband to an impossible standard.  “You underestimate him,” she says bluntly.

She thinks he likes that she’s caught on.  She has no idea how he feels about what she’s said.

“No,” he replies softly.  “I have done much to Will, and I will do more.  But never that.”

The mushrooms, too, are set aside, and Lecter crosses the kitchen to the spice cupboard, wrinkling his nose at the phials of dried herbs even as he lines them up on the counter.

“Do you imagine him a knight, then?  Clad in bright armour, astride a noble steed.  A role he seems ill-suited for, to my mind.  A knight serves.  Beholden to his king and his God.  Will is his own ruler.  Perhaps in time, he will be his own God.”

Molly knows, with a shock and a sickness, that Lecter likes that idea.  What kind of god do you think he’ll be? she wants to ask—but oh, she doesn’t want to hear his answer.

“There is…one other to whom an ideal knight is beholden, of course.”  Lecter does not look at her, still intent on his task.  “To whom he submits himself willingly, even if his only reward is a kind word.  A chaste kiss.  A favour—some small token to carry with him and remind him of this most vaunted bond, though to another’s eyes it seems but an insignificant trinket.”

Molly’s eyes dart to the handkerchief resting on her counter.  When they return to Lecter, he is looking directly at her.

“Courtly love,” she whispers in echo.

He smiles minutely.  Smug.  “It was tucked away in his nightstand, beneath his glasses’ case.”

“Right next to the condoms,” she fires back, unable to help herself.  The smile turns rigid, fixed, and it is her turn to feel satisfied.  Reckless, and probably about to die, but satisfied.  It’s a bitter victory, though, not only for the risk of it, but because it confirms a suspicion she didn’t even know she was harbouring—the truth lurking in the negative space of the tale Will had told her long ago, of a killer’s fixation and a friendship too twisted to be entirely false.

“One must laud Will for his caution,” Lecter says lightly, but there is a tension to his words.  “He knows better than to let his seed take root.  Even God cannot know what would grow from it.”

Molly finds it hard to hate a person, especially sight-unseen.  She had come closer with Hannibal Lecter than with anyone else, and how could she not?  How could anyone love Will Graham, and not hate this mockery of humanity making himself at home in her kitchen?  She does, now.  Properly.  Finally.

“Will is a wonderful father,” she growls.

“And your son is no doubt a wonderful child,” Lecter says, sounding not quite bored, just blandly polite, as he opens the refrigerator and pulls out the beef roast she’d been defrosting.  “Mm!  Yes, this will do.  My apologies for divesting your larder of such a fine roast, Molly, but I was forced to abandon my initial plans for dinner.  I can only hope the dish it produces makes up for the loss.”

The smile he gives her freezes her to her very soul.  She has grown used to filing him away as one of many serial killers, a shadow of Will’s past, the one which looms over him most heavily but remarkable for little more than that.  She has compartmentalised even further here and now to allow herself to converse with the man, to dance to his tune well enough to stretch her life a little longer.  She has, in the process, managed to forget that Hannibal Lecter is arguably the world’s most famous cannibal.

Far more calmly than she feels, she asks the question he’s served her.  “I take it I was originally on the menu,” she can’t keep a little wobble out of her voice as she watches his knife carve so easily through the meat, “rather than the guest list?”

“I would have served cutlets of you to your son, with a mushroom cream sauce to soften your flavour.  I know children can be finicky about new foods.”  He says it so matter-of-fact that Molly cannot react, at first.  “Will and I were to dine upon your heart.”

There is a moment where that heart seems to stop, a dizzying crevasse of frozen time cracking open between his words and the churn of her stomach, the flood of bile rushing up her throat.  It burns all the way up and out, throat, mouth, lips, nose.  All while she empties her stomach, gagging and coughing, she is conscious of Lecter’s dispassionate gaze upon her.  Uncaring, but judging.  When she looks up, gasping, her belly still clenching and spasming, he is still watching her as he scrapes cubed beef into a waiting pan on the stove.  The hissing sear and the smell of cooking meat makes her dry heave.

He sprinkles salt over the meat, cracks pepper from the old wooden grinder that used to sit on her grandma’s dining table.  Turns the cubes delicately with a pair of tongs.

“You are out of flour,” Lecter says, rather critically.  “This will affect the way the meat browns, alter the consistency of the sauce.  I noticed you have cornstarch, however.  It is not what I would prefer, but it will serve.  In cooking, one must always be prepared to make substitutions.”

Cornstarch for flour.  Stew beef for Molly’s heart.

“When did you change your mind?” she asks hoarsely, spitting more vile residue from her mouth.

He hums an amused note, returning to the fridge and retrieving a small handful of carrots.  “After I laid hands on you.  Before you passed out.”

“Why?”  Those few seconds—had she done anything, somehow said anything, that could…?

“Because I could see in your eyes that you did not know who had caught you fast.  You did not know I was free, which means Will does not know.  Will gone, your son gone, and all of you ignorant—I realised I had an opportunity to speak with you, and felt I would regret it if I did not take advantage.  Where is Will, to be gone so long?”  He smiles, strangely indulgent, as he echoes Molly’s earlier thoughts.  “Gone fishing?”

“I won’t tell you where they’ve gone.”

“Together, then?  How nice that they share a hobby.”  There it is again, that tone of not-quite-boredom, the blank insincerity of a mask turned down at the carrots he’s chopping and Molly thinks this, too, has wounded him somehow.  The domesticity, perhaps?  The easy way Will’s taken to being father and husband when Lecter would rather it were beyond him?  Or simple, acid-sharp envy?  Wherever the blow has landed, she is not above twisting the knife.

“Yes, it is.  Will has been wanting to teach our son how to fish.”

Lecter’s own entirely literal knife slips, slamming into the cutting board edge-first with excessive force; he had just managed to pull his fingers out of the way in time.  Molly startles at the sound, not expecting it.  Not expecting anything even like it, from a man whose most extreme reaction thus far had been to grow briefly still.  He does not look at her.  She says nothing, heart and mind racing.

Too far.  You went too far.

Swiftly, piece by piece with the tongs, he pulls the meat from the pan, setting it on a lined platter to drain, and swaps in the second, raw half of the cubes, treating them as before.  He walks to the sink, pulls a fresh dishcloth from the little basket of them, wets it down with water and a little soap, and then he approaches her.  For once, she doesn’t dare meet his eyes.  In fact, she closes them as he kneels in front of her, well-clear of the mess she’d left.

He puts a hand around the back of her neck, cradling her skull, and gently, almost tenderly, cleans her mouth and chin.  Shielded by the cloth, his fingers cup her nose, as if poised to pinch it shut.

“Blow,” he orders, as if she were a child.  She obeys, then holds her head very still while he cleans around her nostrils.  Only when she feels him draw the cloth away does Molly open her eyes again, in time to see Lecter offer up the water glass.  She nods just slightly.  As much as she dares and as much as she can, with his grip on her.  The water flushes her mouth, soothes her throat.  He sets the glass down on the floor once it is empty, and his hand shifts to cradle one side of her jaw.  His other hand rises to mirror it.  He forces her to make eye contact.

“You asked me why I wanted to talk to you,” he says.  Voice neutral.  Face neutral.

“You didn’t really answer,” she whispers.

“No.  I did not.  Do you still want to know?”

“I think I deserve to know why I’m still alive.”

“Deserve?  An interesting choice of word.  But that question, I did answer.  You are alive because I have not yet killed you.”  Lecter inspects her face, every line and shadow, the rise of her cheekbones, the fall of her hair, and Molly’s skin crawls from his regard.

“So why,” she asks as calmly as she can, trembling on the inside, “have you not yet killed me?”

He is silent for a moment.  Then, at length: “Will is not an experienced cook.”

The remark comes so far out of left field that Molly doesn’t know what to do with it.  Lecter’s gaze flits up to her brow as it furrows.

“The curious thing about cooking,” he goes on, smoothing a thumb over that crease, “is that a well-equipped amateur can follow any recipe and still produce a passable result.  But to prepare even the simplest dish without instructions is hopelessly beyond them.  They do not understand the process.  The ingredients.  They lack the technique necessary to recover from a mistake, the instinctive understanding one gains of seasoning.  The knowledge and experience needed when, in dire straits, it becomes necessary to substitute one ingredient for another.  But sometimes, they get lucky.  They guess right.”

Lecter leans in.

“I needed to talk to you, Molly,” he murmurs, “because it was the only way to know whether Will had guessed right.”

“He didn’t,” she surmises.  He shakes his head, almost pitying.  It’s in the very same tone as Molly that he replies, though.

“He didn’t.”

With venom she didn’t know she had, Molly hisses back, “He found a dish more to his liking.”

Lecter is unimpressed.  “Gentler on his palate, perhaps.  Rice and sweet milk to soothe a system overwhelmed.”

She has nothing left to lose at this point; either he’s going to kill her or he won’t, and she’s powerless to help her family either way.  Might as well get to the point.  “Envy doesn’t become you, Doctor.”

“Envy is the sin of coveting what belongs to another.  It does not apply here.”  His grip on her tightens, though his expression does not change, and his voice remains soft.  “The word you wanted was jealousy.  It is a powerful urge to prevent others from laying claim to what belongs to me.”

“So why am I still alive now?”

“You are a poor substitute for me.  I wish to see if your son is an equally-inadequate substitute for our daughter.  I expect that is the case, but the evening will be calmer for your continued existence.”  He raises his eyebrows, gives the shadow of a genial smile.  “Besides which, I have already allotted you a portion of tonight’s meal.  I would hate to see it go to waste.”

Molly knows he’d kept talking, but she’d stopped listening after those two words, staring down at him in shock and confusion.

“‘Our daughter’?” she echoes.

Lecter tilts his head.  “Will did not mention he had been a father before?”

“N-no.”  Daughter?  Our daughter?  Lecter’s and Will’s?

“I supposed it is to be expected,” he was saying, somewhere beneath the clamour of her bewildered brain.  “The only pain greater than losing a child must be knowing the loss was your own fault.”

“How…?”

“All he had to do was be honest.  With me.  With himself.  We were going to build a home together.”  Genuine wistfulness takes him over as he goes on, his gaze distant, hardly seeing Molly at all.  “In Florence, we would have awoken to the sound of bells.  Walked beside the Arno as the sun rose.  I would have taught him Italian and relished the sight and sound of his mouth learning to form the words.”  His eyes harden.  “Instead, he deceived me.  Struck out at the one moment I could not withstand it.  It was beautifully ruthless—as breathtaking in its own way as each fit and start of his Becoming has been.  But it put the dream to death.”

Realisation, slow and seeping.  “You put the dream to death.  You killed her.”

“And he forgave me.”  He releases her face.  “Excuse me.  The meat is burning.”

Molly can only stare after him, dumbfounded.

“It is not irretrievable,” Lecter assures her after a moment of peering at it; still, he moves quickly to wash his hands and empty the pan.  “The additional char will result in increased bitterness and toughness.  Fortunately, those are flaws I am accustomed to accommodating.  The long braise will recover much of the lost tenderness, and bitterness can be counterbalanced with a combination of sweetness and richness.  What bitter flavours remain will only serve as complementary top notes to the savoury profile of the dish as a whole.”

A pat of butter and a dollop of oil enter the nearly-dry pan.  It sizzles, gains new life as the onions tumble in, urged by the flat of a knife.  Lecter shakes the pan gently, keeping the contents moving until the hisses and plosives die down to his satisfaction; then he allows his attention to shift again, resuming his work with the carrots.

“Everything I’ve heard makes you out to be some culinary wizard,” Molly says slowly, setting aside daughter and Florence and forgiveness in order to win back the mental space she needs to survive.  She furtively tests her bonds again, but the knots are as tight as before, and her puking fit has only weakened her, leaving her with a physically shaky feeling in her core to match the terrible vibration of fear running down her spine.  “Why would you be used to working with tough, bitter food?”

“Those are the qualities imparted to meat when the animal whence it came was under significant stress at the time of slaughtering.”

She immediately regrets asking, but Lecter warms to the subject quickly—because of his own interest or her obvious discomfort, she doesn’t know.

“There are ways to reduce the impact on the end product, of course.  Quick, humane slaughter is key.  Of course, in a situation where quick and humane are the opposite of what you intend, chemical intervention is often needed.  Even so, the timing must be very precise.”

“Miss the mark often, do you, Doc?”

He flashes a smile at her.  “Ah, pigs are clever creatures, Molly.  And one’s life is a powerful incentive for ingenuity.”

Oh, Molly has incentive aplenty.  It’s ideas she’s short on.  And range of motion.  And the privacy to act on either of those things if she did have them.

“How long of a long braise?” she asks abruptly.

“Between ninety to a hundred-and-twenty minutes, depending on your oven.  I admit, I am rushing it a bit.”  Out come the onions, in goes more butter and then, when it has melted, the mushrooms.  Their rich, earthy smell fills the kitchen, vastly preferable to the odours of frying beef or sharp-sweet onion or—well, Lecter had cleaned her face, but not the floor.  She’s been trying not to look down.

“That’s a little…” Molly takes a moment to test out words in her mind, landing on “presumptuous.”

“Oh?”

“This is the first place you’d come after escaping.  This is the first place you came after escaping.  It’s the first place they’ll look for you.  Police, FBI, the men with the butterfly nets.”

He chuckles.  “An evocative image.”

“And you really think you have time to wait on the oven?”

“I do.  Jack Crawford called your phone shortly before you woke up.  Will answered, explained that his phone battery had died some hours ago, and assured him all was well.  And then you texted Will, assuring him that the missed calls he will find along with your message are entirely the result of Jack’s frustration with not being able to reach him, rather than being born of true urgency.”

“…Will…answered?”

Once again, Lecter looks inordinately delighted with himself.  “The accent is natural,” he says, in a voice now stripped of any accent but General American, “but I always take care, when learning a language, to perfect the sound of a native speaker of some stripe.  And I am so very well acquainted with Will’s way of speaking.  In person, it might not fool anyone—”

And it wouldn’t fool Molly, but she still has to take a sharp breath because while the voice coming from Lecter’s mouth now isn’t Will’s, it isn’t not Will’s, either.

“—but over the phone, well, that’s a different story.”  Lecter gives an awkward, closed-off shrug, Will’s awkward, closed-off shrug, and then mercifully drops the whole charade, relaxing into his own skin and reclaiming his accent.  “If that weren’t enough, my almost-perfectly hidden trail is leading them across the Appalachians.  I believe I am headed for Ohio.”

“Why the hell would you be going to Ohio?”

“A sentiment shared by all who have visited, and sheepishly echoed by its inhabitants.  It has a striking number of international airports and private hangars to choose from, as well as numerous ports along its eponymous river and the shores of Lake Erie.  A train caught in the north may carry one to Detroit or Chicago.  I-70 and 75 intersect in the south, and both highways see a great deal of traffic—legitimate goods, drugs, human beings willing or otherwise.  In short, it is an excellent place to be in order to find oneself swiftly headed elsewhere, with a plethora of opportunities to confuse the trail left behind.”

Shit, this is bad.  There really might not be anyone coming to save her.  Which means there won’t be anyone coming to save Wally, either.  Or Will—but Will, she can’t help thinking, is going to need a different kind of saving.  Her best hope is that Will ignores ‘her’ text and calls Agent Crawford anyway, or that Lecter won’t turn out to be the only one who thought to type out a message to him instead of recording one.

Everything Lecter has prepared so far is scraped into a deep casserole dish.  He pours a measure of red wine into the pan and turns up the heat, boiling off the residue on the pan’s bottom.

“Most recipes do not call for deglazing,” he confides, “but it will make such a lovely fond.”  He flings the French word at her without context.  Fond.  Bottom, or background…

“Base,” she decides.

“Just so.”

In goes the fond, most of the rest of the wine, and an almost equal amount of beef stock poured out from a carton that earns much the same look from Lecter as the dried herbs had.  As they earn again, while he measures out rough quantities of each of his selections in the hollow of his palm before tossing them into the casserole.

“Maybe you should have brought your own supplies,” Molly suggests, unaccountably irked by the cannibal’s dissatisfaction with the contents of her kitchen.

“I had not foreseen Will’s standards falling quite so low.  He does indeed seem to have sought out my very opposite.”

Well, fuck you very much, Doc.

Yet while Lecter’s tone is derisive, he does not sound like a man harbouring the sort of rancour he had let her glimpse before.  If anything, he sounds ever-so-faintly amused.  He’d seemed on the cusp of his equivalent of outrage when he’d knelt so solemnly before her and told her of the life he had not known, the daughter he had slain—

When he’d talked about substitutes.  When he’d talked about Wally.

“I gave him what you offered,” Molly says numbly, squeezing her eyes shut so that she does not have to see or worse, See Lecter’s reaction to the words she cannot hold back from her lips.  “He accepted from me what he rejected from you before.  He came with me to raise Wally, but wouldn’t go with you to raise your daughter.  That’s it, isn’t it?  That’s what you hate about me, about us.  You don’t see me as a threat to you or your place in his life, but our son threatens your daughter’s memory.”

He says nothing.  She hears nothing, not the faintest whisper of movement.  At last, she opens her eyes to find him standing statue-still in the exact spot she last saw him.  She doesn’t know what to call the look he is giving her now, controlled and mild yet piercing.

“I wonder,” he says softly, “if I have not been looking at you from the wrong perspective entirely.”


Wally bursts out of the vehicle alongside a tidal wave of dogs, all eight rambunctious creatures eager to be free of the confined space.  For his part, Will is happy enough to breathe fresh air again.  It had been too chilly to leave the windows down after their day in the water, and seven dogs' worth of breath made for nothing less than a miasma in a small, sealed box on wheels.

“Make sure they do their business before you take them in!” Will calls after him.

“I know!” Wally hollers back, already halfway up to the house.  Maybe he’ll be able to buy Will enough time to get the fishing gear stowed away without earning one of Molly’s half-teasing admonishments for being late to the dinner table.  She’d texted him again on the highway, just before they’d reached their exit, saying dinner was nearly ready.  Certainly a more welcome message than her first.  Will had been sorely tempted to call Jack and demand to know why he thought he had a right to call Molly about work business, especially when that ‘work business’ pertained to a job Will had quit a solid two years prior.  He’d managed to cool his temper, thankfully, so his day with Wally has remained largely unspoiled.

The kid’s growing up so damn fast, Will can’t help thinking.  He leans a pair of fishing rods against his shoulder, gathering up the nets and jamming them under his arm so he could grab the tackle box too, closing up the vehicle again with an awkward combination of his elbow and hip.  Wally had really taken to fly fishing, too, both in his clear enjoyment and in his determination to learn.  He’d managed to bring in a small brook trout all on his own, grinning widely as the fish wriggled in his hands.

By the time Will finishes putting the gear away, there isn’t a dog left in the yard, all of them having followed Wally inside like the Pied Piper.  Though it probably has more to do with the smell of food than anything.  He takes in a deep, appreciative breath as he opens the door.  Beef roast, or maybe stew; he can’t be sure.  Molly has definitely done something different, though.  And successful, if it tastes half as good as it smells.  It almost takes him back to—

No.  Will stomps down hard on that thought before it can carry him away to a place he doesn’t want to go (except when he desperately does want to go but that’s wrong-bad-over STOP) and takes another breath, fixing hard in his mind the knowledge that this is his home, his and Molly’s and Wally’s, that he is smelling his wife’s cooking and that everything here is simple and safe.  Simple and safe.

Will steps inside, painfully conscious of how long he has been hesitating on the porch of his own house.

Almost as soon as he releases the handle, his hands moving to unzip his jacket, the door swings shut behind him.  Their door isn’t weighted to do that, something is wrong, but before his rusty instincts can kick in there are hands on his shoulders and he freezes.  Stays frozen as those hands slide forward, down, find the open collar of his jacket and pull.  Weight, warmth, and a dozen other factors scream in his head; he knows those hands, knows this touch.

“Allow me,” says the second of his inner voices, smooth and cordial and almost directly into his right ear.  Will moves his arms automatically to enable the removal of his jacket, the shucking of a shell that cannot protect him.

“What did you do with Molly?” he whispers, because this must be why Jack called him, why there are so many missed calls from a Baltimore number he doesn’t recognise which must be Alana’s new cell and not, as he’d assumed, some third party Jack had conned into calling in case Will was ducking him.  Which means his last conversation with Molly wasn’t with Molly at all.  He could kick himself for his lapse in good sense.  He could do a lot worse to himself than kick, for that matter.

“A little rough handling.  Nothing permanent.  Hello, Will,” Hannibal adds gently as Will turns at last to face him.  He smiles, warm and pleasant and open as he is for no one else.  Will experiences a moment of panic as two competing sets of instincts war over whether to mirror the expression or counter it with a scowl, and for the life of him he can’t work out which urge he should be listening to.

“Hello, Dr. Lecter.”

Hannibal’s smile dims.  “My title is certainly seeing a great deal of use today.  A refreshing change from my new normal—though I would not hear it from your lips.”

“Consider it my way of compensating for the…breach in manners,” Will says carefully, tightly, “of a home invasion.”

“Oh?  Do you feel invaded, Will?”

“I feel like I need another dog.  One you haven’t had the chance to bribe into complacency.”

Hannibal chuckles.  Will has to fight not to flinch away from the sound.  Not to close his eyes and let it pour into his ears.  Not to reach out and throttle him with his bare hands slam his head against the wall until his eyes are empty—

He comes back to himself as Hannibal replies.

“I’m afraid I must admit to bribing them once again this evening.  They are settled in the living room now, happy as can be.  They remember me better than I expected.”

“You do have a way of making an impact,” Will murmurs.  Hannibal concedes this with an elegant nod, the slightest smooth incline of his head.

“Come, Will.  The table is set.  Won’t you help me serve up?  Molly and Walter are waiting.”

“Well, as long as we’re tolerating rudeness, I’ll ask what’s for dinner.”

“Bœuf bourguignon,” Hannibal replies, gesturing for Will to lead the way to the kitchen, “or rather, bœuf cabernet.  Your wine selection brings to mind an abyss, at once desolate and unfathomable.”

“Oh?  Tell me, Doctor, when you gazed into my half-empty wine rack, did it gaze also into you?”

“No, for I could not bear to gaze long.”  When Will glances back at him, Hannibal’s eyes are glittering with true laughter, the sort he does not voice, that only he and Will can hear.  “I had a better selection whilst I languished under the tender mercies of our dear Dr. Bloom.”

It’s easy, much too easy, to fall back into the rhythm of conversing with Hannibal Lecter: the give and take, the philosophical wordplay, the veiled meanings and dark humour.  Too easy, and too pleasant; dangerously so.

“As sad as you find the state of my kitchen, that probably says more about what Alana lets you get away with.”

“Alana always pays her debts.”

A subtle chill.  “And you always keep your promises.  Did you?”

“Did I…?”

They’ve entered the kitchen, now, and there is room for Will to turn on his heel to face Hannibal, locking eyes with him as instantly and instinctively as he avoids this very contact with others.

“Did you kill Alana?” he asks bluntly.  It isn’t rude, he reminds himself, if Hannibal has left him no more tactful way to ask.

“Will you kill me now, if I have?” Hannibal asks curiously.

The knife block is less than a foot out of his reach.  If he moves now, he can close that distance, snatch his weapon, protect his family, avenge the dead, carve Hannibal out of his head and his heart and his blood and make art of him, the Chesapeake Ripper centre-stage in his final tableau.

“Hannibal,” he breathes, low and terse, warning.  The other man takes a deep breath of his own, as if trying to draw his name in Will’s voice out of the air between them.  For a long moment, he continues to meet Will’s eyes in silence, mesmerised.  Neither of them move.

“Not yet,” Hannibal says at last, gentle, soothing.  “I had other priorities.”  He gestures towards the stove, a pot and casserole dish sitting side-by-side.  A stack of shallow ceramic bowls Will’s not sure they’ve ever actually used sits nearby.  “Portion the noodles, please.”

Will stares him down a beat longer before he acquiesces, rounding the counter.

“Molly and I had a surprisingly intriguing conversation while we waited for you,” Hannibal says, apparently content to simply watch him do all the work.

“Was this before or after you raided my wardrobe?” Will asks, just to emphasise that yes, he’s noticed.

“After.  The outfits I used to get here were all most unsatisfactory.  I took advantage of your fire-pit and disposed of the last in the line.”

“And Beau Brummel slept a little easier in his grave, I’m sure.”

“Brummel perished in poverty and madness.  Deprived of his assets, abandoned by his friends, and locked away in an asylum.  I doubt even so righteous an act of sartorial justice could soothe his no-doubt restless soul.  Careful,” Hannibal tacks on as Will reaches for the lid of the casserole.  “It is not even ten minutes out of the oven.”

“It’s like the world’s turned upside-down,” Will muses, folding a dish towel to use as a potholder.  “Hannibal Lecter warning me before I’ve been burned.”

“Warnings come in many forms.”

Like the text from ‘Molly’ sitting in Will’s phone, promising dinner.

“So what was the subject matter?”  He could clarify, when you talked to Molly, but Hannibal has never had trouble following his leaps before, and this is really more of a wide step backwards.

“What is the one thing your wife and I have in common?”

Will finishes spooning the aromatic wine sauce into bowls and looks up at him.  “Me.”

Hannibal smiles, a touch sardonic.  “You.”

Will huffs out a mirthless laugh, swiping a clean dish cloth over a drip on the edge of one of the bowls.  Hannibal leans an elbow against the counter, watching him idly; his smile grows as Will moves on to the rest, ensuring the dishes are immaculate.

“This is what happens when you let me plate,” Will says, a little defensively.

“You made a mistake.  You corrected it.  To what am I to object?”

Will braces his hands against the counter’s edge, observing Hannibal in silence.  Something is wrong.  Something is—

They stand in the kitchen of Hannibal’s Baltimore home, Will behind the counter in a crisp button-down with the sleeves rolled up and an apron over his dress slacks, Hannibal still in Will’s clothes, watching him with patient, distracted interest.  A piano concerto plays quietly in the background.

Will’s eyes widen.  The music twists, distorts, and he slams his hands over his ears.  Squeezes his eyes shut.  His breathing turns ragged and time unravels around him, the pendulum swinging, singing, and how has he never noticed before how it is bladed and stretching and he is down in the pit—?

“Will.”  Hands over his.  Gentle.  “Will.  Come back to me.”

He does not want to.

“Breathe, Will.  Count your breaths until you are home with me.”

Home?  But he is home, home in—in—not Baltimore.  He’s never lived in Baltimore.  Not Wolf Trap.  Not anymore, no, home.  Home with Molly, and Wally, and—

And—

He realises he must have unconsciously followed Hannibal’s direction about his breathing, because it is only a little heavier than usual by the time he opens his eyes.  He can feel sweat gathering under his hair, but a thin layer, not the awful fever-sheen of his worst days.  He’s sure Hannibal’s bloodhound nose can detect it—is abruptly self-conscious of how he must smell after a day in waders and lake-water—but if the fastidious doctor is perturbed by it, it doesn’t show.

Hannibal had come around the counter while Will was elsewhere, standing at a distance of bare inches from him, an invasion of personal space to which he had habituated Will long ago.

Do you feel invaded, Will?

No, he doesn’t.  He wishes he did, wishes reflex alone would push Hannibal away because he is too shaken to do it consciously.  Instead he stands there, half-sagging towards Hannibal as the man slowly and carefully moves Will’s hands away from his ears and replaces them with his own.  He doesn’t cover them with the palms, which press instead against Will’s face, tucked beneath his cheekbones and just barely curving around the back of his jaw.  It’s his fingers which rest over his ears, more a symbolic filter than an effective block, causing a very faint rushing sound—the waves in a seashell turned down low.  White noise.

Hannibal presses his forehead to Will’s and with a shuddering sigh, Will lets him.

“Forgive me, Will,” he murmurs.  “For the second time today, I am betrayed by my arrogance.  I did not expect you to see so clearly and so quickly even a piece of the truth I am only just coming to grasp.”

“What…”  Will swallows.  “What was the first time?”

Hannibal slowly withdraws from him, lowers his hands and steps away, and Will breathes out in relief even as he mourns the loss of contact and warmth.

“The food is cooling,” he says, moving to pick up a pair of bowls.  Will catches his wrist.

“Hannibal.”

Hannibal eyes Will’s hand on him, his expression remote.

“Any armchair psychologist could tell you that what you have built here is an attempt to recapture what you have lost,” he says coolly.  This, Will is expecting—this, Will has actively worked not to think about, lest he destroy what he has for the sake of what he could have had before.  “A partner, a child, a flight from the FBI—their employment, not their manhunt, but you fled all the same.  I expect it was the child which drew you most strongly, just as it was with us.  Walter for Abigail.  One-to-one substitution.”

“People don’t just equate like that,” Will says tightly.  His hand tightens, too.

“No, they do not.  But we often act as if they do, as if lives have equal weight, equal value, as if any one person is as good as the next.”

“You’re muddying your concepts.  Equality and equivalence are separate.”

“But related.  You and I are equal, are we not?  And we are equivalent.  Just alike,” Hannibal parrots, and whether it is his past self or Will’s he is quoting does not matter.  Perhaps that is the point.  “And yet your protests stand on solid ground, for my arrogance blinded me to your role and so to Molly’s.  If Walter was to be your new Abigail, then surely Molly in some strange, small way must be your effigy of me.  How else were you to recreate that which you most desired?”

“Molly,” Will seethes, “is nothing like you.”

“Of course she isn’t.  She never could be.  The only person who is anything like me at all is you.”  With effort, Hannibal turns his arm in Will’s grip.  Rotates it so that his hand can clasp Will’s wrist in return, and for a moment Will sees blood running between their fingers, down their arms, flowing between them.  “And Molly is your very own Will Graham.”

Will can only stare in mute horror.

“She is to you as you are to me.  The next step in the cycle.  Art imitating life.  Life imitating art.  How will you fill the vessel you have cradled in your hands, Will?  How will you shape the malleable young life strung between you?  Will you create?  Or will they Become?”

Hannibal releases Will, and it is only then that Will thinks to let go, as if he had not been the one holding them both in place.

“Or perhaps they will prove to be the tedious creatures I expected to find, these dolls you clutch to your chest to ward off the dark, and we shall have to cut them away.  I simply do not know.”  He takes two of the bowls in hand, directing an odd, almost bemused little smile at Will.  “This once, I find I am enjoying the uncertainty.  It promises to be a most memorable dinner, however it turns out.”

Stricken, numb, it is the bone-deep impulse to mirror more than anything else that has Will grabbing the other bowls and following Hannibal to the dining room.  For a moment this room, too, fades into reminiscence, blue walls and soft music and the drumming of the rain running red with Alana’s blood, the thunder he isn’t sure he didn’t imagine when Hannibal cut Abigail’s throat.

But the present has its own horrors for him to confront.  Molly is bound to a chair at the foot of the table; Wally, his face wet with tears, lips red from biting—Hannibal must have commanded silence—is likewise tied to the chair left of the table’s head.  Glasses of water sit at each place, along with forks and napkins.  There are no knives.

Will slowly circles towards the head of the table, meeting the eyes of his wife and son and trying to project calm, reassurance.  He’s not sure he succeeds.  He’s not feeling particularly calm or reassured himself.  Hannibal sets bowls at his captives’ places with the grace of a professional server, then doubles back to free their right hands, starting with Wally.  When it’s Molly’s turn, she immediately snatches up her fork and tries to stab his throat, snarling in effort and rage.  Hannibal catches her by the wrist as Will had done to him, plucking the fork out of her fingers as he presses his forefinger and thumb into the pressure point at the base of her hand and numbs it.  Wally cries out.

“Mom!”

“I applaud your zeal, Molly, but this is hardly the time,” Hannibal chides.

“It’s okay, Wally,” Will says softly, plunking bowls down at the remaining empty places and putting a hand on the boy’s shoulder.  “It’s going to be okay.”

“Why is this happening?” Wally demands in the shrill whisper of oncoming hysteria.

“An excellent question,” Hannibal praises him, coming to stand on the boy’s other side.  He arches an eyebrow at Will.  “Perhaps your father might answer?  A story to share over dinner.”

Will glares at him over Wally’s head.  Hannibal still wears his faint smile.  Brushes past him, bypassing the head of the table, headed for the chair opposite Wally.  Will knows he means to pull it out, to stand behind it, expectantly, until Will obediently takes his place.  Instead, Will pulls out the chair at the head of the table and seats himself before Hannibal can do more than draw his assigned seat back.  He stares up at the man with an expectant look of his own, raising his eyebrows, flicking his gaze meaningfully down at the chair and back up again.

Hannibal blinks.  His smile widens into a grin, and he bows his head in acknowledgement as he takes his seat to Will’s right.  “I would offer a toast, but to be frank, I could not bring myself to decant any of the wines on hand.”

“A toast to what, exactly?” Molly asks, rather bitingly.

Hannibal hums thoughtfully, but he does not look at her, eyes fixed as ever on Will.  “To reunions long overdue.”

“Overdue,” Will echoes.  “Yes.  I guess it is.”

Hannibal has taken up his fork, tines down in European fashion, but he waits.  Last to sit, last to eat.  The perfect host.

Will picks up his fork just the same way, spears a piece of tender meat, and brings it to his mouth, never breaking eye contact.  To his left, Wally swallows hard but takes his cue, digging through the sauce to get to the noodles.  Molly releases a shaky exhale and scoops a forkful of mushroom and carrot.  Hannibal watches, golden in the room’s warm lighting, incandescent in his fondness, as Will takes the morsel between his lips, chews, and swallows.  Only then does he lower his gaze and his fork to his portion.

Together, they dine.