A/N: A little something for Christmas. Enjoy ;)
Disclaimer: The characters herein are the property of Thomas Harris. No copyright infringement intended.
What Are The Chances?
Starling caught a glimpse of her reflection in the polished sides of the escalator, and was heartily relieved that she did not look as shocked as she felt. By rights, according to the swooping sensation in her stomach, she ought to be swooning like a Disney princess. She clung grimly to the rail as the implacable rise of the escalator carried her effortlessly past the descending pole-axed expression of Ardelia Mapp on the adjacent stair.
All around her, tinny Christmas music blared its commercial clarion call to the thronging multitude eager to spend their cash in the boutiques and department stores. The tinsel was too cheery, the Santas too jolly, and if Starling hadn't felt trapped by the press of crowds under one roof before, she did now.
The Serengeti had nothing on a major shopping mall at Christmas. She defied even vast herds of wildebeest to prevail against New York shoppers with two days to go.
There was a commotion at the bottom of the escalator. Someone dared to slip out of the mass of one herd and try to join another, stampeding in a different direction.
Stampeding up, in fact. Starling saw the top of a familiar head and swore, causing a family of three behind her to flinch.
The escalator was too slow, the crowds were too thick and Mapp was far too tough to care about what people thought. She was viciously and calculatedly elbowing her way up the escalator, upsetting shopper and shopping alike.
It just wasn't fair, Starling thought. One little trip to the Big Apple, one little shopping spree and she passes Mapp on the stairs. Just what was the woman doing in New York anyway?
The escalator snailed upwards. There was a small planetoid in front. Or rather, she thought a little more charitably, a large person bearing many monstrous bags of shopping. Her less charitable nature thought moons.
She could climb over the rail and go down. Of course, Mapp would do the same. They could go round in circles for hours. The thought was briefly amusing.
Her voice was hushed, almost scared, Starling realised after a second. She could almost feel the light touch of the hand Mapp wanted to rest on her shoulder.
She chose her own time turning around. There was no use denying it, after all. Mapp's face came into view, as stunned as Starling had ever seen her.
They looked at each other.
There was a swell of muttering and pointed coughs from behind. The herd was restless. It took both women a moment or two to realise that they had reached the next floor, and were stood in the way of thirty or so people eager to shop.
Ardelia cocked her head at Starling, an anxious look in her eyes. 'In the spirit of Christmas,' she said, ignoring the mutinous crowd, 'let me buy you a coffee.'
Starling almost had to admire the perfect timing. She couldn't make a scene in front of a group of mildly irritated people. They would remember.
'Sure,' she said. 'Why the hell not?'
Almost inevitably, Starbucks hailed and drew them inside. Starling privately wrinkled her nose, but she had drunk far worse in her time. However, if the doctor could see her now… Yes, the doctor. Lounging at home in the French Quarter, Quebec. Go to New York, he said. You'll be fine, he said. What can go wrong?
She'd thrown a cushion at him for that. For as all know, any endeavour prefaced with the words 'what can go wrong?' inevitably will, and in spectacular fashion.
She suspected that he was trying to be funny. It happened from time to time.
Nevertheless, here she was, and so was Ardelia.
They took their coffees to a corner table and sat down facing each other. Starling's eye was inexorably drawn to the emerald ring winking on Mapp's finger. Some of her tension faded as she realised that her friend may not be her enemy after all.
Ardelia caught her looking. 'I nearly threw it in the river,' she said with characteristic bluntness. 'I don't pretend to know what you were, or are, thinking, but…' She sipped her coffee. 'You look good.'
'Thanks.' Starling shrugged. 'I can't explain it, 'Delia. I never could.'
'I know.' Ardelia actually smiled. It was tentative and too small to be out on its own, but it was there. 'I thought about it and thought about it, and realised that it was not up to me at all.'
Starling could only gape at her like a goldfish stranded on the carpet. She had more than once wondered how this conversation might go, and for just starters it involved more guns. She did know one thing - if she got back to Canada in one piece, he was going to just die laughing. That's if she didn't kill him first.
The small smile on Mapp's face reached its teenage years. 'What's got your tongue?'
'I'm sure that must be the first time someone's asked me that,' Starling growled, feeling a smile of her own creep onto her face. She chose to hide it behind her coffee. It didn't matter, Mapp knew it was there. 'So, what you doin' in New York, girl?'
She didn't mind the occasional accent relapse, unlike Dr Lecter. He would no doubt insist on picking up that 'g', dusting it off and sticking it back on again. However, she felt the need to talk to Mapp as she once had, as comrades and friends rather than strangers.
'Little bit of this, little bit of that.' Mapp hauled a roll of wrapping paper out of one of her bags to illustrate her point.
'Are you, um…' Starling hesitated over the syllables F.B.I. It was as if bringing them up in conversation might somehow inspire Mapp to produce backup out of nowhere and take her in. Or down. She felt more in favour of down.
'Still with the Bureau? Yep.' Mapp sipped her coffee again. 'New York field office, no less. It's busy. Too busy this time of year to bother about crimes that haven't happened yet.' She eyed Starling closely. 'At least, I hope they haven't.'
Shaking her head, Starling decided to put her friend at ease. 'No trouble. It's just me.' She was surprised to realise just how nervous Ardelia had been when she saw her visibly relax into her chair, tension draining away. She must have been expecting the doctor to creep up behind her any second, Starling thought with some amusement.
'Christmas shopping, eh? What do you buy him for Christmas?' Mapp leaned forward, intrigued.
Starling shrugged. 'I honestly don't know. I have this trouble every year. It's not even as if he's a Christmas sort of person, it's just that this the one time of year when he will let me buy him something. I usually end up going for something funny.' She laughed. 'Any ideas?'
Mapp snorted. 'I ain't even going to go there, girl. All I can say is I hope you cook the dinner.'
'Hell, no!' Starling exclaimed. 'Man can do things with a kitchen I ain't ever seen before.'
There was a silence.
Starling broke it, laughing. 'Sorry, 'Delia. I can't help myself sometimes. These things just keep coming out of my mouth.'
Ardelia managed a weak smile. 'Like I said, I don't know what goes on in your head. Never did. But that doesn't mean we can't be… friends.'
'No, it doesn't', Starling said slowly. 'But I would have thought you being an FBI agent and me being, well… kinda does.'
Mapp's turn to laugh. 'That never stopped you.'
'Point,' Starling conceded. 'I'd like that, you know. To stay friends.'
'Good,' Mapp said briskly. 'Cause I mean it. And if you ever, well. You ever need me, I'm there.'
Starling smiled. 'I'm ok with him, really. I don't think it will come to that, but thanks anyway.'
'I hope you're sure.' There was concern in Mapp's voice, and in her expression. Starling found herself moved, despite the fact that her friend didn't seem to fully understand.
'I am sure.' She held Mapp's gaze. 'I'm safe, 'Delia. I'm home.'
She wasn't entirely sure, but she rather thought she caught a glimpse of a tiny tear in the corner of Ardelia's eye. Then she blinked and it was gone.
'I think you're probably incurably insane,' Mapp said dryly. 'But who am I to judge?' She rose to her feet. 'I have to be off, still gotta get something for my brother. I'll get the coffee.' Leaving a generous tip, Mapp collected her bags. 'Happy Christmas, Starling.'
'Happy Christmas, Ardelia.' Starling began to gather her own bags. As she did, the FBI agent caught her eye once more, and grinned. With a nod and a toss of her head, the indomitable Mapp strode forth from the coffee shop and disappeared into the mass of humanity out in the mall.
Starling watched her go, her previously edgy mood evaporating. She hadn't realised just how much she missed Ardelia's forthright conversation and blunt humour. A grin that was very difficult to suppress stole across her face. It was good to talk.
Even so, she was still no closer to deciding what to get Dr Lecter for Christmas.