"Is this Clarice?" the voice drawled on the other side, smooth and metallic, followed by a low hum.
Clarice's blood turned to ice, "Doctor Lector?"
"Indeed, Clarice…it's been a while."
Her heart banged against her chest, almost to the point where she was certain that he could hear it on the other end of the line. It seemed like only yesterday when he hand her hand on that cutting board, the blade of the cleaver hovering only inches above her skin. Although, it had been nearly two years since that had happened.
"Where are you?"
"My, my…we are demanding today, aren't we?" Lector mused, "However, I'm afraid I can't tell you that…freedom is far too sweet a thing."
"I will find you," she said, her voice suddenly taking on the West Virginia tang that became noticeable when she was agitated or excited.
"Ah, there it is…the voice of the lamp. I'll tell you, Clarice, I did miss hearing that." The voice on the other end was smooth and calm, almost teetering on the edge of being bored.
Clarice's hand shook as it held the cell phone up to her ear.
"Tell me Clarice, how long has it been since our little date night in Paul Krendler's lake house?"
"Two years and four months." When she had said the words, she already knew that she had answered far too early.
Hannibal chuckled on the other end of the line. "You keep an accurate count."
"What do you want, Doctor? Why did you call?"
"I merely wanted to touch up a few old cuts, you are familiar with that term, I can tell. It seems like the FBI has given up on me, the weary horse has finally settled down. Are you still on the case?"
His words stung.
"No…the FBI has released me."
"Hmmm…that's interesting," he mused. The line was silent for a few seconds before he continued. "I see. Well, I'll tell you what, why don't you pay me a visit?"
Clarice's eyes widened and she felt a sweat break out on her lower back. The simple tank top that she was wearing felt five sizes too small. "What?"
"Please do not make me repeat myself, it gets quite tedious. Are you armed?"
Clarice looked at her hip and clenched her eyes shut, immediately wishing that she had her gun by her side.
"By your pause I'm assuming that you are indeed unarmed." And with that, the line went dead with a simple click.
"Doctor Lector?" she said into the phone, feeling that same rush of panic she felt all those years ago during the graduation ceremony and again when she heard his voice at the end of a Florence detective's phone. "Doctor Lector?"
Suddenly, there was a series of knocks on her front door. Clarice's heart stopped and her muscles seized. A shot of fire raced through her body that she couldn't understand. With slow steps, she approached the door. Firmly taking the knob in her hand, she inhaled sharply before she threw the door open. Lying on her front stoop was a single red rose, a dark burgundy ribbon wrapped around the stem, protecting her hands from the sharp thorns.
Clarice felt dizzy as she bent down and picked up the flower, almost thinking that this was a dream. Bringing it back inside, she settled down in her armchair and stared at it in her hand. Cautiously, she brought it up to her face and inhaled, letting the floral scent wash over her senses as the soft petals brushed her nose.
She couldn't help but smile.
"Your smile is lovely, Clarice," a voice said behind her.
The detective's eyes snapped open as she whirled around, her hand automatically going to her bare hip, grasping for protection that wasn't there.
Dr. Hannibal Lector stood in her foyer, dressed in elegant black slacks and dark shirt, his tie the same color as the murky night sky. He had kept his hair short since that terrifying night on the lake and his maroon eyes glinted with pinpoints of red, just like she had remembered them doing so long ago.
"You-You're here," she stammered, backing up away from the chair and further into the living room.
Hannibal lifted up his hands. "I can assure you, I mean you no harm tonight."
"Then why are you here?"
"To talk." The sincerity in his voice surprised him just as it did her. Did he really want to talk to her this badly? Why did he find it so easy to look at her? So easy to get lost in her bright, determined eyes? He smiled a bit, his lips still covering his white teeth. "Sit, please."
She shook her head, "You come over here and sit first."
Hannibal shrugged, "As you wish."
When he was comfortable, he looked up at her, his head slightly cocked to the side and his hands folded in his lap.
Uneasily, she settled in the chair across from the center table, her eyes never leaving his. She had forgotten how deep they were, how they managed to hold her whole, how the light seemed to get caught in them and hum. She felt a strange numbness in her stomach as she looked at him, suddenly remembering how he managed to stun her with one sentence, one look. How one touch of his finger had electrified her in Memphis.
Clear your head, Starling…. this is Hannibal Lector we're talking about…don't be giddy….
"So you wanted to talk?" she said, trying to push away her conflicting thoughts and clear her head.
"Yes….I was traveling through and I thought I would pay a visit to my favorite detective." This time, his smile revealed his teeth, white and even. "Although, now I hear that you are no longer a detective…so this is indeed an unfortunate turn of events."
"It wasn't unfortunate…to tell the truth, I left," she said, momentarily falling into that old back and forth feeling she had with Hannibal deep down in the Baltimore State Forensic Hospital's dungeon.
"Really? You left the FBI, the establishment that held your heart so many years ago?" The eager look on his face almost amused Starling, knowing that she had some prize of information that he wanted. "Tell me what made you make that rash decision, Clarice."
"It wasn't a rash decision. I thought about it for nearly a year and a half," she said, already realizing that she let out a detail that Lector was sure to have noticed. She had started thinking of leaving only six months after their night in Krendler's lake house. "The FBI had nothing left to offer me…I didn't care for the way it was run."
"It chewed you up and spit you back out, didn't it, Clarice?" Lector said, leaning forward slightly as he steepled his fingers under his nose, his maroon eyes never leaving hers.
Clarice paused for a moment. "I guess it did. I'm not afraid to admit it."
"No, of course you're not."
Clarice couldn't help but smile. For some reason, she loved the way it felt to talk to Hannibal again. That exciting, on her toes verbal exchange electrified her, made her feel like someone wanted to hear what she had to say.
"So, quid pro quo, Doctor, did you actually just stop by? Or were you planning on visiting all along?"
"You manage to see straight through me, Ex-agent Starling," he murmured, leaning back and crossing his legs, "I did indeed plan on meeting you."
Hannibal was silent. His eyebrow rose curiously and the corner of his mouth curled upwards. Clarice was suddenly very aware of him, noticing how his eyes never left her.
"As I recall, we left on some unstable ground two years ago," he finally murmured, blinking slowly.
Clarice was silent.
"Are you running through the memory right now, Clarice? Tell me, truly."
She nodded, suddenly unable to speak. That night was terrifying, but in some twisted way, romantic. She hated to admit it, but the way the drugs made her feel and the way he cooked for her were enticing. If the shock of being slammed into the refrigerator hadn't shook her from her stupor…she was afraid of what she would've done. And the feel of his lips pressed against hers at the moment was terrifying, but feelings change over time….
"You are quiet Clarice…I would love to hear what you are thinking about," Hannibal said as he rose and headed behind her into the kitchen. "I brought some wine," he called to her, "I hope you don't mind."
Wine…of course he brought wine.
"No, not at all," she said, swallowing her fear and unease as she started to rise from her chair.
"No, no, Clarice, settle back down," Hannibal said from the kitchen, not even turning around. She stared at his back from her spot in the armchair. There was the clinking of glasses and the quiet pop as the cork was removed from the bottle.
"Shall we continue with our little chat?" Hannibal smiled, handing Clarice a glass, the dark red liquid inside looking both enticing and chilling. He watched her intently as she sniffed the wine. "I can assure you it's nothing but Merlot in that wineglass," he said, reading her mind.
Cautiously she sipped it, but once the rich drink filled her mouth she felt warmer, more relaxed. Feeling more comfortable she took a longer drink.
"That's my girl…" she heard Hannibal murmur, almost too quietly as he brought his own drink to his mouth, glancing down only for a moment before his maroon eyes snapped back up to her.
"Did I ever tell you that I fantasized about getting you on my couch?" he asked after a while, rubbing the tip of his index finger around the glass rim.
For a second, Starling choked, the wine in her mouth threatening to spew over her furniture.
Hannibal remained calm, but a ghost of a smile traced his lips. "No, not in that sense, I'm talking psychologically."
"Yes. You're quite fascinating, such a strong drive and your overwhelming desire for approval."
"I disagree with that," Clarice countered, setting her empty wineglass on the end table. "I don't desire approval."
"You know you do. I know you do. What would daddy say to that, Clarice?" The maroon eyes narrowed. "Isn't that why you became a cop in the first place? Isn't that why you sold your soul to the demanding Bureau?"
She was quiet.
"You may have lied to yourself, saying that you just wanted to get crime off the streets or do your best to protect this country. Deep down you knew it was because of your father, the dead night watchman, wasn't it?"
Clarice looked at her feet and then to her hands, which had managed to fold themselves in her lap. Suddenly, she felt very small and very young.
"Did you come here just to see if it still hurt, Doctor?" she muttered, anger starting to build up inside her. "Just to see if you could still poke out a few emotions?"
Hannibal stood and set his glass down and Clarice mirrored him, suddenly tense and alert. Calmly, he neared her, standing far too close for the ex agent's comfort. As he moved, Clarice could pick up warm notes of his cologne. A shiver wound its way up her back and she had to fight the urge to close her eyes blissfully.
"Have you forgotten what I did for you, Clarice?" Hannibal asked, snapping her out of her musings. He cocked his head to the side and the maroon eyes trailed up and down her body. He reached out and lightly moved the strap of her tank top, revealing the ugly scar that was hidden by the fabric. She wanted to pull away, but she was frozen to the spot, her own bright eyes switching from his hand to his face.
"I saved you that night. Carried you to safety before I even thought about helping myself. And you foolishly think I came to visit just to play with your emotions." He gave a rueful smile and a small chuckle as he flicked a strand of Starling's hair off her shoulder.
At this distance, all she could smell was Hannibal's scent. She couldn't describe it if she had tried…it was just simply him.
They stood there for nearly five minutes, sizing each other up, planning on what the other could do. Lector was taller than she remembered, fuller. She remembered him thin and wiry in the asylum, sleek like a mink or a sneaky black cat. Now the years of freedom has treated the doctor well, sticking to his bones and building muscle.
Suddenly, an old memory of Dr. Lector's voice resonated in her head…and don't your eyes seek over the things you want? Her cheeks flushed.
"Blushing? Well…I must say that shade is quite appealing on your skin, Clarice," he hummed, "However, I find it odd that you're blushing when facing me."
With one last glance into his maroon eyes, she threw the last of her inhibitions out the window. "What can I say, Doctor, you can have that effect."
For the first time, Clarice Starling saw Hannibal Lector caught off guard. His eyes widened and his mouth went slack, momentarily at a loss for words, but he recovered quickly. "Really? And what effect might that be?"
"Well, you're suave, polite, cultured," she said, putting her hands on her hips, she noticed as his eyes followed them, "dangerous, surprising, romantic…quite the man I'd say."
"Ah…well you're flattering, Clarice. Shall I tell you what I see?"
He smiled, taking a step closer to her in her living room. "I see a woman that's educated, fascinating, driven, her eyes are the most beautiful I've ever seen." Clarice's blush returned with his words. Hannibal's voice a low purr, he continued, "Her face is beautiful as well, flawless skin, perfect bone structure. Not at all the Appalachian Startling the FBI perceives you to be." He glanced downwards at the coffee table to his right. Smiling, he picked up the black rectangular remote to the stereo system and pushed the power button.
Warm flowing piano music filled Clarice's house.
"I took the liberty of updating your musical library while you were away," Hannibal purred, setting down the remote and looking at her, his maroon eyes searching for something in her face.
She smiled and shook her head, "I don't mind at all."
"Good," he said, barely above a whisper, his smile falling as his eyelids lowered slightly. Without saying a word, he reached out and took her hand in his. Immediately, he grew excited, remembering that night in Memphis when he stroked her mere finger in farewell. Keeping his excitement masked, he led her away from the crowded area of her living room. Taking her closer to the stereo, he courteously placed a hand at her waist.
"I can't dance," Clarice stammered as she was realizing what was happening. She felt as if she was going to faint, her emotions a tumultuous churning mix in the pit of her stomach.
"Don't worry," Hannibal said, giving her his signature upturned smile. "I believe you can, you just haven't had the opportunity to do so."
Nevertheless, she stared at her feet.
The hand on her waist relaxed and the fingers spread wider across her side.
"Look at me, not at your feet," Hannibal instructed.
Looking up, Clarice found that her eyes were level with his chin. Reverting her eyes to his, she found herself tense.
"I must ask, Clarice…have the cursed lambs stopped screaming?"
She was silent. Every memory hit her like a wave in his presence. Leaving the FBI, the disgrace of Hannibal's escape, the constant harassment by her bosses. Everything in her life had ended in that one night at the lake.
Normally, Clarice was strong. But being strong for two years without fault had started to chip away at her protective wall. With one simple tear, that wall had finally crumbled into dust.
"No…"she said quietly, "They still scream every night."
And, as tears started to fall freely from Clarice Starling's blue eyes, Hannibal Lector moved his hand and pressed gently on the back of her neck, letting her bury her face in his welcoming shoulder. The movement of their casual dance stopped and they stood together, Clarice's arms finally wrapping around him and holding him close. And there, in the arms of a serial killer and cannibal, Clarice felt safe. The safest in two years.
"Let me silence them for you, Clarice," Hannibal finally murmured as he carefully trailed his fingers through her hair, waiting for her to pull away. "Let me stop the screaming."
Gently, she let go and looked up at him. "How?"
Without answering her, Hannibal looked into her eyes and leaned closer, catching a wisp of her scent as he did so, the smell overpowering and intoxicating at this distance. Closing his maroon eyes, he bent forward, lightly brushing his lips against hers, barely a ghost of a kiss, merely a suggestion. When he drew away, he found that Clarice's eyes were still shut and her mouth had turned up in a smile.
Opening her eyes she spoke. "With you here, they're quiet."
And with that said, the two locked lips again, this time two years of unknown passion crashing down on them as they stood in each other's arms.