Title and initial concept from this article: The Valley of the Cheese of the Dead
Thank you, as always, to Hope for talking this out with me, and providing the concept for the ending.
“Will, it needs to be smaller than that.”
Will bites the inside of his cheek. He’s never pulled his punches before, when it comes to Hannibal. Hannibal is an asshole on so many different levels that it’s all Will has ever been able to do to keep up with him on one or two of them. At least verbal retorts are something he can do just as well as Hannibal, and as willingly.
He doesn’t shoot back. He gathers the onions he’s already chopped, and rocks the knife over it all again to get it smaller. “Sorry,” he says.
Hannibal is dredging slices of heart in flour. His hands work slowly, and every so often he stops and stares at what he’s doing, looking like he might have forgotten how to do it altogether. Will knows better than to offer to help. Instead, after a few minutes of Hannibal standing at the counter and swaying without moving his hands at all, Will wordlessly pulls up a bar stool behind him for Hannibal to lean on.
Finally he remembers what he’s doing, and resumes dredging the heart pieces and placing them in a large glass container. It’s labelled with instructions in Hannibal’s looping, now somewhat shaky, script: sauté 45 sec, add broth/wine, simmer 1 hr. There are preparations scattered around the kitchen. Anything that could be prepared a day in advance with no effect on the final product is already finished; Hannibal had started working late yesterday, preparing ingredients methodically in between long bouts of rest and periods of confusion. Will had tried to stay out of his way, because the point of this isn’t for Will to do any more than he needs to. He’ll do the final cooking of the prepared elements, hopefully just in time to have the entire meal ready as their guests arrive.
He’s already scoped out the kitchen of the church Hannibal had decided on. It’s a small country affair with delusions of grandeur, all arches and gargoyles and stained glass. Old, though. Fragile. Flammable. Perfect.
It takes a long time for everything to be ready. Longer than Hannibal would have permitted, in the past, and when they are finished the kitchen is the kind of mess that it never would have been before. But this isn’t before; this is the new reality where Hannibal snaps at Will and Will wants only to soothe him. He knows that even the hazy joy of morphine can’t temper the irritation of Hannibal seeing something done wrong in his kitchen. And each barb might be the last one, so he treasures them.
Will is starving, so he snacks on scraps and bits of leftovers as he cleans the kitchen. Hannibal doesn’t eat, and Will no longer bothers encouraging him to. It was unnerving, at first, when Hannibal refused food. Even though Will knew why, that this was just the perfectly normal and expected process of the body shutting down, he still wanted to fix it somehow. He started making more kills, dangerous ones of a type he hadn’t attempted for many years, and never alone. Hannibal’s eyes would shine every time Will brought one home, and he would cook from it. Will stopped doing it when he saw how much it pained Hannibal to not even have the appetite to eat more than a few bites of his own food.
The heart currently in the fridge is the last victim, or at least the last one until tomorrow; the police officer who’d been uncomfortably close to being on Will’s tail, following the killing spree. “Unfinished business,” Hannibal had said softly when Will unloaded him from the car. “Very appropriate, Will. Thank you.”
Now, Will wipes the last dredges of flour of the counter and looks over at Hannibal, who is watching him sleepily from a plushly upholstered armchair.
It’s almost ironic, how many times he’s imagined this moment, and how many ways. With his hands, he’d once said, and he’d meant it at the time. He remembers holding a gun to Hannibal’s chest, practically able to feel Hannibal’s heart beating in his own veins. He’d pulled them over a cliff, once, and neither of them had ever quite figured out where that was supposed to fit in the back-and-forth of their dance.
They’re gentler with each other, now. They hadn’t meant to soften their hard edges over the years, but it turns out that isn’t something you choose. It was Hannibal who’d chosen this way, and Will was relieved. If Hannibal had asked for Will to kill him with his hands, Will would have done it. He would have squeezed the life out of him, looking him in the eyes and kissing him tenderly the entire way through. He wouldn’t have enjoyed it, though. And Hannibal has seen enough of Will’s brutality over the years that he no longer needs to be reassured of it daily.
They are allowed to be merciful and loving to each other now. Will prays to Hannibal’s God, in small hours of the nights he can’t sleep, and thanks Him for that.
Will holds out his arm, and helps Hannibal to his feet. He doesn’t want to do this. After so many years wanting it more than anything, now he wishes he could capture Hannibal in amber and keep him. It’s too late, though. Even if he could keep him, neither of them would choose for Hannibal to be frozen in time like this.
Hannibal winces as the protruding bones of his spine make contact with the bed. There’s no surface that is quite soft enough for him now. The morphine helps, but he’d skipped his evening pill tonight to keep himself alert enough to cook. He lies back and lets Will arrange the chest port that they switch to for the night, in the hopes that Hannibal might sleep through it if he doesn’t have to wake to take pills. Will sets up only the usual dosage, for now. He isn’t ready. He wonders for a moment if Hannibal will comment on it, say that isn’t what we agreed on for tonight, Will, but he doesn’t. Maybe Hannibal is as apprehensive as Will.
Will changes into a sleep shirt and boxers, like it’s a normal night. He slides under the covers, in between Hannibal and the drip stand with the morphine that will kill him. He isn’t counting on being able to adjust the dosage without Hannibal noticing, but then, Will’s expectations are based on a different Hannibal. One who notices everything, one who’s a step ahead, or at least willing to pretend he is.
Hannibal is no longer ahead of anything. His eyes drift closed. Will knows that Hannibal wants to be here with him. He doesn’t want to leave before he actually leaves. But Will had also tried one of Hannibal’s pain pills, out of curiosity, and he knows the deep tug of contentment of the morphine. He’s glad that Hannibal can have that. That he’ll go out with neither a bang nor a whimper, but something more like a rush of water. Like Hannibal was a high tide that swept Will away, and is only now receding from the shore back into the depths.
Will had thought that Hannibal was asleep, and he shifts slightly towards the controls on the IV pole. He nearly misses it when Hannibal murmurs, “Get some rest, darling Will. You have an important day tomorrow.”
Will doesn’t trust himself to speak. Instead he leans over and presses his lips to Hannibal’s thin, warm mouth. He tastes sickly-sweet and slightly metallic. Will pushes up the morphine dosage, and he cannot tell whether Hannibal notices or not.
Will had thought perhaps he wouldn’t be able to sleep. That perhaps he would need to count Hannibal’s breaths, noting the exact moment when they slow and finally stop. He doesn’t, though. He just knows that he will fall asleep with a warm human beside him, maybe the most human human that he’s ever met, and he will wake up beside something else. An object, a remnant. Something left behind. He doesn’t want to know when one becomes the other.
There is a small speaker system in the dingy, retrofitted kitchen in the church basement. It had been easy enough to get in, which Will had ascertained in advance— breaking in several nights in a row a few weeks ago, and bringing home picture evidence to Hannibal. He leaves the front door to the church unlocked; the guests received instructions on their invitations to let themselves in.
Will plugs in his phone and plays a recording of The Well-Tempered Clavier as he works. Hannibal used to warm up with them, one tonality each day. Will remembers, early in their life together, realizing that Hannibal practised; that he played scales and studies just like any musician. It was just one of many small adjustments to the reality of daily life, getting used to the extent to which Hannibal was normal. That he wrote shopping lists and still forgot ingredients on them, made mistakes in recipes, stumbled over air when he got up to pee in the middle of the night. That he had good days and bad days. That he, too, was vulnerable and mortal. The fact that he was vulnerable to Will had been a pleasant revelation; that he was vulnerable to disease, less so.
He had played Bach every morning until the end, though. Will lets the music float through the church kitchen, and through him, and wonders whether the body resting on the altar upstairs can hear it.
The preparations are easy enough— or perhaps they just feel that way, in the absence of a both terminally ill and terminally bossy kitchen overlord telling him what to do. He’s placed warming trays for the hot food and mini-fridge for the cold behind a curtain in the sanctuary, and he brings the food up in several trips which also serve the purpose of obsessively double-checking the placement of the rest of the night’s necessary equipment.
They arrive together. It’s no great surprise; the first thing that each of them would have done, upon receiving an invitation to the funeral of a man who was supposed to be long dead, would be to dredge up old contacts, share information. Will knows that Jack had never quite given up the hunt, merely allowed it to take backseat. He’d never believed the official line that Hannibal and Will had both died in the depths of the Atlantic. Alana, too, had spent the intervening time vigilant, knowing that Hannibal was unlikely to forget his promise to her, if indeed he had survived. Bedelia, of course, had always been well aware that they were alive and well.
Will marvels, as he hears the doors to the church creak open and hesitant, disbelieving footsteps make their way inside, that he doesn’t feel apprehensive or doubtful about this. He had wondered, when he woke up that morning beside the empty shell of Hannibal Lecter and felt only ordinary human sadness, whether he was even capable of this any more. Whether his soft, sweet love for Hannibal had worn down the sharp edges that both of them still felt about the other players in the drama that had brought them together.
He had even wondered whether he would be capable of any of it, with Hannibal gone. He had always relished Hannibal’s gaze on him. How would he go through with this when that gaze was empty?
He needn’t have worried; Will feels only satisfaction as the three guests enter. He’d known they would come. Will knows that receiving the invitations to Hannibal’s funeral would have had the same effect on them as absolutely everything to do with Hannibal: you know it’s a bad idea, you know you’re being sucked into a game that you can’t possibly win, but you do it anyway.
“Thank you for coming,” he says, and steps out of the shadows.
It’s not exactly surprise that he feels from them. All three of them are very much aware that Hannibal is, to the best of his ability, unfailingly honest. And for all that the funeral invitations had been from Will, it would have been naive for them to imagine that Hannibal’s honesty doesn’t now run through Will like a golden thread.
Alana looks heartbroken, Jack looks murderous, and Bedelia just looks like, well, Bedelia. She walks with a perfectly even gait, Will notes. An expensive prosthetic and extensive physical therapy did wonders for her. Will fiddles with the remote control in his pocket. The urge to press the button is overwhelming in an almost childlike way. He wonders if this is how Hannibal felt, in his less rational moments of wanton destruction.
“I hope you came hungry,” says Will. There’s no need to prolong things; if they didn’t know what they were here for before, they do now. “Supper is ready. Unless you’d like to pay your respects first?” He waves to the altar, raised at the front of the sanctuary, where Hannibal is laid out.
He isn’t surprised that Jack does, indeed, tentatively approach the body. Old habits die hard; Jack hasn’t been official FBI for years, but he still needs to make sure that it’s authentic. That this isn’t some sort of trick.
“That’s not the kind of game that we play, Jack,” says Will. The deliberate we makes Alana wince a little, and Will graces her with a smile. Behind the worry and fear pinching her face closed, she looks well-fed and happy. She’s had a good life with someone she loves, just as Will has. Will had wondered if she would bring Margot with her, and he’s glad she didn’t. Margot, unlike Alana, owes them nothing.
Bedelia sits down at the table first. She, after all, has nothing to fear; the worst that Hannibal could do to her has already happened. Depending on one’s definition of worst, Will thinks.
Will beckons over Jack and Alana, and they eat. Bedelia raises her eyebrows at the meat, when it arrives, and Will offers the man’s name honestly without being asked. Alana tears at little chunks of seed-studded Lithuanian bread, and eventually works up the stomach to eat a piece of meat. Bedelia and Jack don’t bother with coyness; they had made their decision when they’d gotten on a plane to answer Will’s invitation. Probably earlier; maybe there had never even been any decisions to make, when it came to each other. They had all been destined to see this thing through to the end; if destiny is the ensemble of choices that make up a life, Will can almost bring himself to believe in it.
He asks the questions he’s curious about, because Hannibal would like that. He asks Jack if he remarried, and Jack grunts out a negative. When he turns questioning eyes on Bedelia, she says acidly, “It may surprise to you learn that I have some lingering intimacy issues to work on,” and Will barks out a laugh. Her eyes crinkle in amusement back.
He asks Alana about Morgan, and she spits out, “You don’t deserve to hear about him.” Will supposes that’s fair.
Dessert is a platterful of žagarėliai; thin Lithuanian pasties with the dough twisted around itself to resemble angel wings. Will grins at the expressions on the faces around him at this obvious confirmation that Will hadn’t made this meal himself. Will remembers chuckling, leaning over Hannibal’s shoulder as he’d worked on them.
“I have no responsibility to be subtle posthumously,” Hannibal had told him, and tipped his head sideways for a kiss.
Will eats the pastry and misses him, God, he misses him already. And perhaps that simple, human emotion is the only thing that could make him go through with this. Will finally gives in to temptation, and presses the button in his pocket.
It starts small, inaudible. Will had done his research. God may be experienced with this sort of thing, but Will is no god, and he knows it. The most flammable parts of the building are already aflame before the smell even reaches the sanctuary.
The wall between the sanctuary and the front hallway collapses first in a shower of impenetrable rubble. They are trapped, now, between piles of stone in the front and flames in the back. Will’s heart unclenches a little bit. It is easy, now that he is committed. Now all any of them have to do is endure, until there is nothing to endure any longer. And if there is one thing he knows how to do for Hannibal, it is endure.
The meal is over. Jack brought a gun, but it hardly matters; what’s he going to do, shoot his way out of a collapsing building? Shoot Will, providing him with a quicker and easier death than the one he had planned? Will opens his arms to it in invitation, but nothing happens. He feels peaceful. After all these years, this finally feels beautiful again.
He walks up to the altar. There is room for two, and he lies down in the place where the earthly matter that is no longer Hannibal will soon be joined by earthly matter that is no longer Will.
“One more church collapse for your collection,” he whispers, and feels Hannibal smile, full of love and light.