Author's note: The story follows movie canon for "Silence of the Lambs," with the exception of the change that shows up in Chapter 1. For the timeline, assume the events of the movie take place in the year of its release – 1991 – and that the following events take place in 1991-92, with technology and cultural references appropriate to those years. The characters' ages have not been altered, so you'll simply have to suspend disbelief on that count.

I do try to respond promptly to every review, so if there's something you like or dislike in the story or if you have a question, just let me know.

Thanks again go to Green Jewels for her support and encouragement.

Disclaimer: Nothing is mine but the use of these particular words in this particular order. Everything else goes home to its proper copyright owner at last call.

June 15, 1991

"Or comincio a regnare, ora incomincio la mia felicità."

Hannibal Lecter shifted minutely in his seat – sixth row, center – to better catch the beautiful irony unfolding on stage. The false king's death was nearly upon him, delivered by the hand of a trusted ambassador.

"Quanto ti devo, o caro amico."

And then the knife, yes, the elegant silver flash that severed soul from body and left nothing but meat to be consumed or discarded as one chose. The doctor's mouth opened slightly, his tongue pressing against the back of his upper incisors. Red silks stood in for blood, more's the pity. So few were willing to die for their art.

A sound intruded upon his thoughts. Not from the stage; not the coughs of the man a dozen seats to his left, a habitual smoker by the sound; not the heavy breathing of the boor back and to the right who seemed to have fallen asleep during the third act. No, this was something else, something other.

The action on stage paused, the newly revealed Mitridate frozen in the midst of stabbing his usurping cousin cum stepfather, as the doctor traced the sound to its source.

Footsteps, two sets. One quite familiar, one … well now, that really was surprising. Certainly worth leaving the opera. It wasn't as though he couldn't return to enjoy the performance again.

Hannibal Lecter opened his eyes to the bare ceiling of the cell he had occupied for the last eight years save for his recent, regrettably brief sojourn in Memphis. He pressed a hand against the wall as he got to his feet; the thin pallet on the stone floor didn't have the height of his former cot, which had been confiscated upon his return to Baltimore. It wouldn't do to greet his visitor in such an undignified state. He lightly brushed off the drab blue jumpsuit with a few swipes of his right hand, though truly nothing but burning could improve its condition. Prison garb was far from the height of fashion.

He stepped forward and clasped his hands courteously behind his back, patiently waiting, his ears attuned to the footfalls now nearing his cell.

Barney appeared first, a metal folding chair in hand.

"Visitor for you, Doctor. Figured you'd want her to have a chair an' all, even if you haven't got one yourself."

"Yes, thank you, Barney; you're quite correct."

The orderly nodded before turning his attention to the chair, which he unfolded and set precisely in the center of the hall.

The "her" under discussion moved into view. The rhythmic sound of Clarice Starling's steps faltered as she took in the emptiness of the cell – the walls, the floor, the pallet little more than a layer of hardened foam, all bare but for the man standing two feet beyond the Plexiglas barrier. The doctor detected a flash of concern on her face before she mastered her expression. Something new lay there as well, a dark smudge of some kind below her right eye. Curious.

Barney gently patted the back of the chair.

"You let me know if there's anything else you need, Clarice. I'll be watching."

She nodded, her hair bobbing a bit as she turned to address the orderly. It had grown a little longer, Lecter saw, and the ends were slightly ragged.

"Thank you, Barney. I'm sure we'll be fine." The soft West Virginian drawl still clung to her voice. Lecter noted with some consternation that he had missed hearing her curiously improper inflections in the weeks since their last parting.

The orderly nodded to Clarice and Lecter and then departed.

Lecter kept his silence as he studied the young woman before him. She had worn gray slacks and a short-sleeved pale blue blouse to this meeting – what she might, in her own mind, term churchgoing clothes, he suspected. Without a suit coat, the effect was no doubt too feminine for her to wear to work, where she almost certainly affected as masculine a persona in dress and mannerism as was possible for her.

She eyed the chair with suspicion and carefully inspected it, running her fingers along the underside and every edge, twisting it this way and that. Checking for unwanted ears, are we, Clarice?

Finished with her inspection, Clarice stood up straight and truly looked at him for the first time since she had walked in. Her head tilted five degrees to the right.

"Will you speak with me today, Doctor?"

"You wish to re-establish our acquaintance, Clarice? I hadn't realized they would find you a new serial killer to chase so quickly. I notice you aren't carrying a case file with you today."

She paused before answering, but her face gave no indication that his words had affected her.

"Do you mind if I sit, Doctor?"

"By all means, Clarice, make yourself comfortable. Feel free to remove your shoes if you wish; I see their quality, sadly, has not improved."

She sat slightly forward in the chair, her back arrow-straight.

"No, it hasn't. I see you're going barefoot yourself these days, Doctor."

"Yes, I believe Freddie needed a new pair for himself and he quite fancied mine, you see."

He was rewarded with a smile. No teeth showing, but a smile nonetheless, at least until it faded to a frown.

"I feel as though I should be expressing my sympathies for your current circumstances, Doctor, which puts me in a rather awkward position."

"You find it difficult, as an officer of the law, to commiserate with me over my failed escape attempt, Special Agent Trainee Starling?"

"I can hardly say I wish it had been successful, Doctor, and yet…." She gestured to the bare walls surrounding him. "I can't say I'm pleased with the outcome of failure, either."

"I appreciate the thought, Clarice, but you needn't concern yourself. If it weren't for my actions in Memphis, Freddie would merely have found another pretext for playing his little games."

She nodded, either in agreement or acceptance that the subject was closed. Her face, however, remained troubled.

"Is there something you would like to add, Clarice? You're thinking quite loudly over there."

"It's, uh, it's not 'trainee' anymore, Doctor." She cleared her throat. "I graduated this morning."

"Truly? My apologies, Special Agent Starling. Had I known, I would have procured an appropriate gift. My mail has been a bit slow these last few weeks." He narrowed his eyes as he pondered the full context of her revelation. "Shouldn't you be celebrating the joyous occasion with your classmates this afternoon?"

"They're hosting a post-ceremony luncheon at the academy, yeah, but it's really an excuse to drink free booze and mingle with everyone's families. It's not my scene, Doctor."

"Because you have no family with which to share your success, Clarice?"

She shrugged.

"Partly, yes. Mostly because it's a waste of time to stand around gabbing with parents and spouses of folks I won't even be working with 'cause we have different division assignments. What would be the point?"

He let the comment pass for now; for all her ambition, Clarice Starling was in some ways a naïve young woman. Well, she would learn. Either networking with colleagues would help her rise in the Bureau's ranks or her passion for justice and her obsession with saving the innocent would isolate her until she could no longer move in any direction. Time would tell.

"So you rejected an afternoon spent with your fellow officers of the law, all of whom are enjoying the loving attention of their families, to come and sit here in this dungeon with me? I'm flattered, Clarice. You must be quite eager to get started on this new case of yours."

Her eyes widened before she looked away, embarrassed or ashamed, it seemed to him.

"Um, there's not a case, Doctor. I guess this is… more in the nature of a social call." Her cheeks were slightly pink when she raised her head. "I just… well, I wanted to thank you for your help with Buffalo Bill. I would have come sooner, but Dr. Chilton" – her face turned stormy at the mere mention of his name, and Lecter inwardly reveled at their shared distaste for the petty little man – "refused on the grounds that your escape attempt merited additional security precautions. I didn't have the clout to change his mind."

"Surely Jackie-boy would have backed his rising star."

Clarice's brow furrowed and she tugged at her lower lip with her teeth. Confusion and some distress, he thought. A crack in her faith?

"Mr. Crawford suggested that it would be better if I didn't visit."

"Did he, now? Why is that, do you suppose?"

Clarice raised an eyebrow, an impudent look of patent disbelief on her face.

"Really, Doctor?" she drawled. "Let's see… he's already warned me about talking to you several times; tongues have been wagging all over the Bureau and Justice, too, speculating on just why you talked to me anyway; the case is over, so there's no longer a need for your expertise… take your pick."

"You wound me, Clarice. You neglected to mention my charming personality."

"With good reason, Doctor. It hardly would have helped my cause to tell Mr. Crawford that I thought I might visit a notorious serial killer because he's an intelligent, witty conversationalist. The FBI would have found a way to retroactively fail me on my psych eval."

"Compliments, Clarice? Are you certain there isn't something you want from me?"

She laughed. It was a lovely laugh, he thought; he resolved to bring it about again before she departed.

"Sometimes, Doctor, a truth is just a truth. And the only thing I want is for you to know that your help was invaluable in saving Catherine Martin's life. I wouldn't have been in time if you hadn't pointed me in the right direction again and again."

"I didn't do it for her, Clarice." He left the other half unsaid, knowing she would intuit his meaning without it. Or she might come to the wrong conclusion entirely; it was hard to say. She was unpredictable at times, his lovely little Starling.

From the tilt of her head, though, she had caught at least something of his intent.

"Well… thank you anyway, Doctor. Whatever your reasons, the outcome benefited Catherine."

"Hmm. Things didn't turn out quite so well for old Buffalo Bill, I hear."

"You saw the papers?" Her expression showed surprise, and no wonder.

"Don't be ridiculous, Clarice; no, Freddie hasn't allowed me access to the outside world. Barney was kind enough to relay to me the outcome of your adventure in Ohio. Congratulations on your first kill. Tell me, what did you like best about shooting a man to death?"

He delighted in the minute changes in her face. She inhaled sharply first, through her nose, her lips tightening to a thin line. Her eyes hardened. The muscles in her neck twitched, but she refused to look away. Her anger was exquisite; he was quite pleased to have provoked it.

Finally, her jaw tight, she gritted out, "That he didn't shoot me to death first."

"Oh, come now, Clarice, that's cheating."

"Whatdya want me to say, Doctor?" He inwardly smirked as her drawl grew more pronounced in her anger.

"The truth, Agent Starling; only that, and nothing more."

She sighed, shoulders heaving beneath the inferior cotton of her blouse. Her lips pursed; her gaze dropped to the floor, fixing on a point somewhere between them. He waited in silence.

"It was dark. Real dark. Not like city dark – like country dark, out in a holler on a moonless night. Proper dark, you know?"

Her eyes flicked upward briefly, and he nodded to indicate his understanding. Yes, he knew the darkness of moonless nights in the wilderness only too well.

"I knew he was huntin' me down there in the dark. Every whisper of air coulda been him standin' right aside me, ready to drop a bullet in my skull."

Her hand rubbed against her cheek, just below her eye. When her fingers fell away, the smudge remained as it had been. A burn? Gunpowder, he realized, carefully concealing his startlement. There must have been more to the shooting than Barney's recounting had covered. He segregated the twinge of distress her close brush with death caused; it was something to think over later, after she had gone.

"An' then I heard it – the click when he cocked his gun. If I didn't shoot, I was gonna die, an' Catherine was gonna die, an' I had promised her I was coming back. I found her first, you know, before the lights went out."

She shook her head, lost in some thought, and he resisted the urge to draw it out of her before she had finished.

"So I pulled the trigger. Couldn't even see him, really, except in the muzzle flash, until a stray bullet broke a window. I fired until I came up empty, an' then I reloaded quick, just in case I had missed. An' what I liked best, Doctor, was knowing that I wasn't gonna die a meaningless death on a filthy floor at the hands of some shitty criminal the way my daddy did."

She looked up at him with real anger in her eyes now.

"So like I said before you accused me of cheating, I liked best that he didn't shoot me to death first. Does that answer your question?"

He gave her a moment to compose herself, which also gave him the pleasure of watching her do so. The anger in her face receded, but the tension held her thin frame stiffly upright, and she couldn't quite bank the coals in her eyes.

"It does, Clarice," he said, his tone mild as milk. "Thank you."

He waited another moment as his response sank in and further mollified her anger. Then, quickly, like a physician slipping in the needle once his young patient had been sufficiently distracted, he added, "But I do have follow-up questions. What did your lamb do when you left her behind to hunt Mr. Gumb, Clarice? Did she cry out for you? How did that make you feel?"

She must have felt the prick of guilt keenly still to shoot to her feet as rapidly as she did, he thought. Alas, no charming outburst accompanied her movement, no unconsidered words to more easily enhance his understanding of the fledgling agent. No, she mastered herself quickly, clearing her throat and re-seating herself. Good girl, Clarice.

"I think you'll find I already answered a question, Doctor. Tell me, had you planned how your escape would happen before you set foot on the plane?"

Oh, she was daring. He quite enjoyed provoking her; her responses were enormously fascinating and fun.

"Are we playing games again, Clarice? I thought this visit was in the nature of a social call."

Clarice casually crossed her legs and tucked her feet beneath the chair. She gave every appearance of an old friend enjoying a chat before afternoon tea was served.

"It would be rude of me to monopolize the conversation talking only about myself, Doctor, wouldn't you agree?"

He had to admire her aplomb. She had recovered swiftly from his assault, launched her own offense, and calmly parried his riposte.

"I see you've gotten better at this game, Special Agent Starling."

"I see you're avoiding answering the question, Dr. Lecter."

Perhaps she did deserve something for her effort.

"Very well, Clarice. It hardly matters now, does it? Yes, I had some idea of the necessary events; however, one must always accept that plans bow to chance and circumstance. One cannot account for every variable, no matter how one tries. Unfortunately, my plan proved too inflexible to accommodate the ultimate circumstances in Memphis."

"If you couldn't make it work, I doubt anyone could have, Doctor," she murmured, her eyes distant.

"It's kind of you to say so, my dear. Now, I believe it's your turn to answer. Shall I repeat the question?"

"No, Doctor, I remember it well enough."

She lapsed into silence, and he allowed it to stand. Minutes ticked by.

"He had her in a pit in the floor. I didn't have a way to get her out. The room was open – too many points of entry to watch. She'd been screaming; that's how I found her. She begged me to help her, get her outta there. I tried to explain the situation, but she was too terrified to listen. I told her I had to leave; that made her angry. She started cursing at me, an' I told her… I told her to shut up. I left her there, trapped an' sobbing."

The doctor lowered his eyelids to conceal his joy in her confession. He'd seen her determination, experienced firsthand her willingness to deceive a criminal, but to hear her admit to such ruthless treatment of a victim, a lamb, was thrilling.

He knew, now, that he had not been wrong about her potential. It hummed within her, a melody that might be nudged into harmony with his own.

"As for how I felt about it, Doctor, how do you expect I felt? I did the expedient thing, the necessary thing; I didn't have to like it."

"And the lambs, Clarice? Did saving Catherine Martin silence them?"

She looked away.

"No, Doctor. Not for long."

"She curses you in this nocturnal chorus of yours, doesn't she, Clarice?"

His fledgling's eyes darted to his.

"Are you quite sure you aren't Catholic, my dear? You carry an overabundance of guilt with you."

She snorted, shaking her head. It wasn't a laugh, but it would do, he thought.

"Quite sure, Doctor. I've been Baptist, and I've been Lutheran, and I've sat in church on Sundays singing hymns and mouthing prayers, but I can't say it really took. I don't suppose I'm about to try it a third time."

The sound of footsteps intruded on his ears as she spoke. He found he was loathe to let the conversation end, not knowing whether she might ever return. It was a problem to consider in the days to come; he had little else of importance to occupy his time.

Clarice's head turned toward the hallway; she must have noticed the footsteps as well.

Barney looked almost bashful as he came into the doctor's view.

"Sorry, Clarice, but your time's up. Dr. Lecter's visiting hours have been restricted for—

"—security reasons, of course, Barney," Clarice finished in unison with the orderly. "It's all right. I hope escorting me hasn't gotten you in trouble."

"Naw, I'll be fine."

Clarice stood and looked at the doctor, her expression unsure.

"It was… good… to see you, Doctor. Thank you again for your assistance."

He nodded courteously.

"Congratulations on your accomplishment, Clarice." He left open whether he intended her graduation, her rescue of the Martin girl, her killing of Jame Gumb or something else entirely. Let her interpret his well wishes as she would.

She nodded once in return and left, Barney following close behind.

Dr. Lecter listened to her fading footsteps until they disappeared entirely. Still he waited. It was only a matter of a few minutes before Barney returned to collect the empty chair.

"Sure was nice of Clarice to stop by, don't you think, Dr. Lecter?" The orderly collapsed the chair and hoisted it under his arm.

"Yes, we had a lovely chat, Barney; thank you for facilitating."

The orderly's forehead creased.

"For your assistance, Barney."

"Ah, right. Y'all looked good together, Doctor, if you don't mind my saying so. I thought it was real sweet the way her shirt matched your jumpsuit."

"Did it? You have a keen eye, Barney." It hadn't escaped the doctor's notice that the pale blue of Clarice's blouse was a near match for the blue of the prison uniform. Had she chosen it at random, or was it deliberate? Well, he would simply have to mention it and see how she responded. Which meant….

"Barney, I wonder if you would be so kind as to do me a favor."

Note: The Italian at the beginning is from the libretto to Mitridate Eupatore, Act V, Scene II.

Or comincio a regnare, ora incomincio la mia felicità. = Now I begin to reign, now do I begin my happiness.

Quanto ti devo, o caro amico. = How much do I owe you, dear friend.