It is close to midnight in Argentina. It is December 31st, and in some twenty minutes or so, the year 2002 will pass into the year 2003. The third year of the new millennium. Clarice Starling reflects that the world has not changed so much as has often been predicted in this science fiction age of the 21st century. There are no hover-cars humming past her windows, there are no tourist resorts on the moon, and the domestic staff that tends to the house she lives in is still comprised entirely of human beings, not space age robots.
She smiles, and looks into the fire burning on the small hearth in the living room, where she sits. It is a cool night, but the windows of the room are open to admit the distant sounds of celebration from the streets outside. It is New Year's Eve, and all of the Avenida Alvear is awash in gaiety, alive with the sounds of festivity. It is New Year's Eve, and all the non-robotic household servants in Clarice's own home have been given the night off to pursue their own celebrations.
Although the new millennium has not yet brought forth all the technological wonders futurists have long foretold, Clarice decides that the world has, nevertheless, turned. She has lived with Hannibal Lecter for five years.
Five years back, on another, earlier New Year's Eve, she would not have dared to look this far into the future. She would not have believed that this much future existed, for them.
Perhaps it was that sense of limited time and impending loss that, paradoxically, had given her the courage to seek and to accept all the forbidden pleasures and dangerous intimacies that first New Year's Eve they'd shared had offered. A sort of half-maddened desperation? The belief that that time, for them, might be all the time there was?
At this same hour, eleven-forty PM, five years ago to the day, the two of them had consummated their ten year journey through the various permutations of desire for a second time. Clarice looks towards the double doors of the living room, graceful polished oak, slightly ajar. He has left the room to go and uncork champagne, with which they will soon toast the new year. She is alone with her thoughts, for the moment. Perhaps this time is what reminds her of that time, and she wonders if he is remembering too.
Their first coupling had been marked by its own tender ferocity, had whirled past her astonished consciousness with the dervish-like speed of need denied far too long. A pitch black room, the intimation of obscure ritual, an incomprehensible welter of emotion and fragmented sensory impressions. She had been too stunned by the depth of her own passion and by the enormity of acting on it at last to remember, in any real detail, all that had passed between them, that first time.
She had been stunned. She believes now that they both had been stunned. She believes that this is a recollection much too intense to ever sit motionless and clearly visible in the memory. She believes this one will resonate just beyond clear recall indefinitely.
But . . . afterward. She can remember that clearly, and does so now, five years later exactly. The four walls of her living room in Buenos Aires shimmer into insubstantial wisps and she sees instead the dark corridors of an old house on the shores of the Chesapeake. She hears the creak of their footfalls in these dark halls, her own and his beside her. They are walking together and the sound the old boards make under their feet is unpleasant, is one of mindless, creaking protest. She should not have liked to hear such sounds had she been walking alone. She wonders how he has been able to stand it during his time here in this house.
They are walking away from a door he has closed behind them. Behind that closed door is a room she never wishes to see again. After they'd stepped through this door, he had taken the latch in both hands and pulled with all his strength while she watched. After a moment, the sound of wood grinding against wood sounded in the dark hall and the door jam splintered in two places.
He has jammed the door. He has sealed the room as she watched, because she wished it. She has never before had anyone, nether friend nor lover, who has been so willing to abide by her wishes without first questioning them. He is interested in what she wants, but he is not interested in whether or not what she wants is valid or reasonable. His utter lack of concern in this matter both pleases and frightens her.
Now they are walking through the hall, and their step is steady. They are not careening drunkenly through space, although they have reason, but she does suspect that neither of them has any clear idea of where they are going. When they reach the stairway that leads up into the second story of the house, it comes as something of a surprise to both of them, she believes. Certainly this stairway is a surprise to her.
"What careless person," she asks aloud. "Left a flight of stairs lying around the hallway like this?"
He is close enough beside her that she feels, rather than hears, the faint chuckle that moves through him.
"Disgraceful," he agrees. "I shall have to speak to the cleaning lady. However, since we're here, we may as well ascend. Unless you can think of a better plan?"
She smiles. She turns her head to him, so that he can see her smiling in the dim hallway. "I don't think I'm much for planning just now. I . . . I can't seem to focus. You plan the agenda for the time being, all right?"
He seems to take this playful request quite seriously. He thinks for a moment.
"How can I plan? I have no frame of reference in this context whatsoever. Up or down? What next? How can I answer any of these questions? I suppose the stairs themselves could lend us some structure, laid out as they are in their orderly progression. Shall we take the stairs, Clarice?"
He has moved very close to her as he has said her name, and it seems natural that her body has turned toward him as he moves, as though they exert gravity on one another. It seems natural that their lips touch, and then that their arms interlock, and then that stairs and decisions of any kind fade out of their combined consciousness. There is only further exploration and a nascent renewal of mutual hunger. She tastes his breath in her mouth and draws it deep, deep into her own lungs.
She does not know how much time passes, and she does not particularly care. This is not a night for sober evaluation. They have decided nothing, but some vague instinct, perhaps some strange revival of the ancient impulse to migrate, moves them up one riser, and then another. And then, since they recognize, dimly, that they are going up the stairs, they continue to climb, still without any particular will or purpose.
After a third and then a fourth step, he turns her around, so that her back is to him and she is facing the flight of steps ahead. She does not know if he does this so that she won't stumble as she climbs, or simply because he prefers, just now, to hold and touch her from behind. She doubts he knows himself. His length is pressed firmly against her, she can feel his breast against her backbone, the long muscles of his thighs move against her buttocks as he clears each riser behind her, and his hands move restlessly at her hips, her waist, over her arms and then under them to her breasts. There is nothing urgent or insistent in his touch. The movements of his hands on her seem almost random, again, like the endless routes of migration. Her body is the unknown land he travels.
On the seventh step, his hands colonize the delta at the juncture of her legs, and she stops, momentarily stilled by the sudden flood of pleasure that has drowned her ability or will to move. She expels her breath in the ghost of a moan as her body arches forward slightly into his hands, thus pressing her backside into him firmly. He surges forward to accept her. She presses her hands over his to encourage him to continue what he is doing there. He accepts this invitation too, and she rocks her hips against his moving touch. Her head falls back against his shoulder and he presses his face into the column of her throat. She can feel his tongue tasting her skin. She can feel his body trembling against hers.
His lips move against the cup of her ear. He is whispering, he is murmuring softly, he is purring like a great black cat, but his passion has robbed him of words.
"Clarice . . ." she hears. Only that. It is all she can make out. "Clarice."
Only her name. Only that.
Orgasm, as sudden as death, overtakes her senses, first stiffens and immobilizes her limbs, then bursts through her and galvanizes her body into shuddering spasms. She is wracked and he holds her as she rocks, and although, not so long ago, she had screamed the first time, now she only sighs. There is too much pleasure in her, this time, to escape via her voice alone. She tosses in his arms and when she has at last begun to subside, he presses sharply inward again and she explodes anew. He is as merciless in love as he is in violence. She has climaxed three more times before he relents. Only his awareness of the law of diminishing returns, she imagines, stills his hungry hands in the end.
All the strength in her limbs has turned to water and all she wants to do is sink, ever so slowly, to the solid stairs beneath her. Only the support of his arms around her, the rigid tension of his body behind hers, keeps her upright. He does not pick her up, though, does not bundle her into his arms and sweep her up the stairs like Scarlett O'Hara. She guesses, somewhat idly, as she leans against him and listens to his ragged breathing against her throat, that he may consider such behavior to be somewhat disrespectful. She is a woman, not an infant. It is strength he admires, not fragility. He will never expect her to pretend to be weak. He will never treat her as though she is a doll.
And so, while he waits patiently and wordlessly, she recruits her strength again and when she is ready, continues to climb the stairs. She does not wish to disappoint him, and senses, as she climbs, that she has not.
When she reaches the top of the flight, she turns back toward him and draws him into her arms once he steps up to stand beside her on the landing. He is willing to come. She is somewhat amused. She has never before known him to be so tractable. She kisses him once and he allows that too.
"I think I'll let you make all our plans from now on," she tells him. "Climbing a flight of stairs, it seems, was a damn fine idea."
He smiles, but must disagree. "Oh, Clarice. You don't truly imagine that I've planned anything, do you? I'm still not entirely certain that any one moment of this evening so far has been real."
He pulls her a bit more tightly into himself and grins wickedly before bending toward her ear.
"You must endeavor to convince me," he whispers to her. She can hear his cattish smile in his voice. "Repeatedly. You must be persuasive . . . "
He is complimenting her, and he is also challenging her. He will never be a comfortable lover, she understands. His emotions are too intense, there is too much of him that she will never really fathom, and his moods will always shift like quicksilver. But he will never bore her, and his desire, though it might often be playful, and may sometimes frighten her, will never be complacent.
She finds that she can be satisfied with that.
They walk a bit further down this new, second story hall, hands companionably clasped, and come to an unplanned stop outside her bedroom door. She has left her door half open and her bedside lamp is lit. Further testimony to the complete spontaneity of the events of this night. Her room looks as though she has only just left it. She looks inside.
It looks pleasant in there. It is, after all a very pleasant room. He would hardly have given her an uncomfortable one, he is an accomplished host. The bed looks soft and inviting, and she knows, of course, from previous nights as a guest in this house, that the bed is every bit is comfortable as it looks. She realizes that she is tired only as she drifts, without any real volition, over the threshold. Her drifting stops only when she notices that the hand she has clasped in her own resists passing that same threshold.
She watches as he takes a deliberate step backward, and his hand slips out of hers. He is fully outside the borders of her door now, as though there was a tangible line of demarcation between inside and outside. His face is thoughtful and calm, but also quite determined. He will not cross the border.
"What . . ?" she asks.
"It occurs to me, Clarice, that you are still my guest. That you are entitled to some space of your own, some territory. Remember, recently, when we discussed your entitlements? We've put an end to many of our customary patterns of exchange tonight, certainly, but neither of us can know, yet, what new patterns will emerge. I think perhaps it would be best if you had a neutral ground to retreat to. A sanctum of your own to command. A bedroom would do, wouldn't it?"
She moves a bit closer to the door, watching him. She finds she is disproportionately moved by this stricture he appears to be imposing on himself, but she does not yet know why.
"My bedroom," she repeats. "You won't come in?"
He nods gravely in agreement.
"Your bedroom. As long as you are a guest in my home, I will never enter unless invited. Only at your discretion. Does that seem proper?"
He doesn't know, she realizes. He has never been in a completely honest relationship with a woman before, and he doesn't know how he should behave. He's incredibly knowledgeable about human behavior, and he has a good feel for courtesy, but he's winging it, nevertheless.
She moves even closer to the edge of her threshold, and stares at him in fascination. She thinks of other lovers in her life, some who have mistaken one invitation for an unlimited number of invitations. Who have believed that being allowed inside her body once had given them the property rights in perpetuity. Some men, she has learned, do not believe they deserve such intimacy, and will count the woman who grants it a fool. And some men stubbornly persist in the absurd belief that no good woman ever wants sex for its own sake.
She finds Lecter's grave and unembarrassed inexperience appealing. He has been too long outside the world of normal social interaction, and is as free of preconceived notions of "decent" behavior as he is of conscience. He does not slight women out of blind habit, his ego is too monstrous to require shoring through sexual dominion, and he is not a man to harbor delicate illusions about female sexuality, or to need to.
He is a human monster of arrogance and fear, and this, paradoxically, is what makes him the most fair-minded lover Clarice has ever known. Sex, to him, is experience, not politics. She tells herself now that she must never bore him by playing the coquette in the future. She suspects that coyness is a quality that he would loathe.
Which, she thinks with a smile, is a fortunate thing. She is not coy, and never has been good at the pretense. Luckily, she now doubts he will ever require it of of her.
As she moves back across the artificial border of her territory to him, she also begins to understand that this "sanctum" he has given her is a valuable gift. It is not in his nature to respect the space of others. He invades space, minds, bodies, lives, as habitually as another man might cross a street, and with as little thought. Boundaries are virtually meaningless to him, and yet he himself has created one for her comfort, and has refused to cross it. He is acting against his own grain.
She has already begun to perceive that gift giving is an ironclad habit of his, as well as his great pleasure. She estimates that in times to come, he may well give her many gifts.
But she doubts he will often give her any as costly to him as this.
She does not intend to reject such a princely offering. But she does intend to reciprocate with another of equivalent value, and she hopes he will understand her intention.
She thinks there's a good chance he will. He is perceptive, after all.
She moves close to him and now that she is once again outside her own space, he pulls her to himself hungrily and his wiry arms twine around her. He plumbs her with a kiss before he allows her to speak.
Once he has finished his latest exploration of her mouth, he moves his head and begins to toy with her earlobe with his teeth. He does not harm her, although she knows, too well, that he could. But he is listening to her too, she feels that somehow, perhaps only in the attentive quality of his embrace. He is interested in what she will say.
"My bedroom," she repeats.
"Yes," he confirms, around the flesh of her ear in his mouth.
He now devotes his attention to the hollow of her throat. When she speaks, her throat vibrates, and he surprises her by licking the vibration, following its subtle path across her throat with his tongue. She gasps. She has never been listened to in such a singular fashion before.
"And you will not enter?" she has asked.
"No," he agrees, head now at the angle between her throat and shoulder, tasting it.
She moves a small space back, far enough that he raises his head to look at her, his own head cocked in a question. She has become familiar with that curious tilt of his head, and the gesture, so characteristic of him, succeeds in raising a slight lump in her throat. Through time and through familiarity, that rather predatory gesture has been transmuted into an endearment. She swallows the lump in her throat and ploughs on.
"Unless I invite you, is that right? You'll never join me in this room unless I ask you to?"
He stares at her, head tilted. He does not know exactly what to expect next , but he clearly knows enough to expect something.
"Never," he agrees, slowly. "Unless you ask . . ."
She grins. "Good. Glad we have that straight. Now come on in here with me. I'm tired. I want to go to bed. I'd like for you to come along. Come along quietly, if you'd feel more comfortable with some you're-under-arrest language."
He laughs, obviously delighted with the sharpness of this sally, if not with the invitation itself.
"None of the arresting officers I remember were anywhere near so eloquent, Clarice. I must commend you. Mostly, as I recall, there were only a few garbled Miranda warnings and a good deal of ill-tempered cursing. The phrase 'you crazy fuck' clings rather insistently to memory, for example. And poor Will, of course, had little more than 'glug-glug-glug' to say. Not that I couldn't extrapolate his meaning from the context. I am certain he would have said 'you're under arrest' too, if only he could have."
She is chilled by his casual remembrance, and by his apparently genuine amusement in it. He is the only criminal she has ever known who can honestly find the humorous side of being arrested for multiple murder. But despite her dismay, she finds the humor in it too, she must admit.
In for a penny, in for a pound, she thinks, perhaps a little grimly.
"I'm probably going to fall into a coma the moment my head hits the pillow," she explains to him. She is not really joking, although she tries to speak as casually as she can. "If you're not there when I wake up, I'm likely to think this whole evening was a dream. Like it never really happened. And I just don't think I can go through this whole thing from scratch all over again. I am just not sure I'm up to that."
"Ground zero?" he asks, because he cannot help but needle her.
"Square one," she replies, allowing herself to flow into his needling, rather than resisting it. She slips out of his arms and moves back toward her door, his scarred left hand grasped lightly in her right. She tugs very gently, more to communicate than to actually pull.
"Come on. I'm inviting you. Come sleep in here with me."
"Traditional vampire mythology, Clarice, suggests that although the creatures do not intrude where they are not invited, once given entry, they are exceedingly difficult to be rid of again. Perhaps we can stretch the superstition far enough to be applicable to our own situation. Are you quite sure it's wise to offer carte blanche to me, Clarice? I am not a man of . . . mild disposition. Are you quite sure you want to?"
She tugs at his hand harder, enough to communicate some of her irritation at his resistance, and, perhaps, some of her disappointment. She knows what kind of man he is. Who knows better? She steps inside the room, past the invisible barrier, and tugs some more.
"Come inside," she says. "I'm asking you to. Sleep next to me, tonight. Christ Almighty, what's the big argument? Does everything have to be a philosophical debate? Is everything always going to be like this with us?"
He smiles again, watching how she pulls at his hand. "I fear it may well be, Clarice," he answers, truthfully. There may be many things that he does not know about himself, but there are also many things that he does.
"Come in," she says once more, unwilling to engage in the rhetoric of formal argument. She lets his hand go. She will not ask again. "Don't you want to?"
He is still in her vision a moment, head still slightly cocked to one side, dark eyes on her, regarding her gravely. He is still.
In the next moment, he is only a blur of rapid motion, and in the next, he is past her door and over her threshold and in her space and all around her, arms and hands and mind and body. His voice is in her ear again, in her head. She can't keep him out. She doesn't want to keep him out.
"I didn't say I didn't want to, Clarice . . ."
After they have celebrated this latest breakthrough with several kisses, she turns her head toward her bed for a moment. He has followed her gaze, and has released her. Now he watches to see what she will do next.
His obviously fascinated scrutiny is making her self-conscious, even though it also gratifies and excites her. She has always seen him as a weird and fabulous creature, half man, half mythological chimera. It occurs to her now that perhaps he sees her in much the same light. Now she is the one who is not certain how she should behave, and her own movements feel a touch awkward to her.
Going to bed, she thinks. Focus on that. I'm going to bed and there is a finite procedure to that familiar and homey activity that I can follow, that we both can follow. Smooth the blankets, turn down the coverlet . . .
Thought transforms itself into action and she neatens the bed that she has napped in earlier on this day. She fluffs the pillows and turns down the spread. She can feel his gaze on her like a weight as she moves, as though he has never before in his life seen anyone perform such utterly amazing feats of housekeeping.
Wait till he sees me vacuum, she thinks. He'll faint!
She is laughing and blushing slightly as she turns away from the bed and looks at him. She notices, for the first time tonight, that his clothes are seriously disarrayed. His trousers are fastened, but his belt has disappeared. His shoes and socks are likewise MIA, and his feet are bare. He is wearing a white shirt, but it is gaping indecently, because most of the buttons are missing. The cuffs, unbuttoned, hang limply around his slender wrists, and the collar is wrinkled and askew.
I did that, she thinks, and her blush deepens while he returns her regard with a small, amused smile. I'm the one who tore the fucking shirt right off his back, and not that long ago, either. I have not behaved in a perfectly ladylike fashion tonight, I'm afraid.
Her flushed cheeks redden still further when she realizes that she too must present an equally disreputable appearance.
She remembers her high school dating years, for a moment, remembers the quick, guilty fumbling with her clothes after a heavy back seat session. How she would set herself to rights in her steady's car, straightening her clothes and combing her hair in the rearview mirror before he would drive her back to the Lutheran Home after a date. How she would occasionally reach over to her boyfriend, whichever boyfriend it might be, and would kindly straighten his collar for him, or wipe a smudge of her lipstick off his mouth.
The man who is with her now has once posited the theory that these sessions of her youth had been sticky and tedious. And, in many ways, he had been right. But he has overlooked the gentle and foolish pleasure in them, the natural camaraderie of young people experimenting with the explosive substance of love. Perhaps his own memory lacks such innocent adolescent landmarks, and he is unable to fully understand them.
Her blush fades as she comes to him and straightens his collar. The shirt is ruined, and there are no figures of authority to question their moral rectitude here, but the friendliness in the action pleases her, and she believes it pleases him.
"You know you're embarrassing me, staring at me? You're making me nervous," she chides gently as she straightens. "I know I look a mess. You do too."
'And who, might I ask, is responsible for my current state of dishabille, Clarice? What thoughtless malefactor has messed me up? Shall I ask you to make an effort at an answer? And I don't think you look a mess, incidentally. I think you look supernally beautiful. I can't imagine how you could look any more beautiful than you do right now. I expect the stars in the heavens must be weeping with bitter envy. So I won't apologize for staring. But I'd advise you to abandon your efforts with my collar, as much as I appreciate the thought. The shirt is a lost cause."
He is teasing her. And he is also praising her, the kind of madly extravagant praise that she has begun to suspect he means every word of. He is, after all, crazy.
She gives the wilted shirt collar a final, comically neat crease and then goes to sit on the bed. It has occurred to her that without these absurdly skewed and abused clothes, both of them might look a good bit neater. She is a little unnerved by the thought of mutual nudity, but she doesn't think anything could possibly make them look more as though they've spent the evening fucking like minks than the ragged wardrobe they are currently wearing.
Besides, she reminds herself as she pulls off her own ruin of a blouse, we have spent the evening fucking like minks. Rabid minks. And the evening is not yet over.
He observes her undressing herself for a time, just long enough to cause another flush of color to rise in her cheeks. She knows perfectly well that it is purely deliberate on his part. Then he shows her another wicked smile and begins, slowly, to follow the example she has set. She notices that he is slightly hesitant as he casts off his elegant rags, yet she senses clearly that there is no embarrassment in him. He seems as oblivious to the vulnerability of nudity as a shark might be.
Once she is down to skin herself, she slips beneath the bedclothes and watches him. As more of his body is revealed to her sight, she begins to understand his vague reluctance to fully reveal himself. There is not a single superfluous particle of flesh on him. He is streamlined, roped with with sleek muscle, and there is a suggestion of torque in the way the muscles mesh as he moves. He looks as manifestly designed for speed as a jaguar does. His skin is pale, and gleams palely in the amber light of her bedside lamp. It seems to her more like a coat of smooth fur than like the bald skin of a human being, but he is not a particularly hirsute man. And there is something in the sharp angularity of his structure, or in the tricky surface of his skin, or perhaps in the brutal economy of his flesh, that baffles the eye. His body, in some odd way, resists being seen.
He wears clothing not to protect himself, she realizes, but to disguise himself. Clarice remembers that he has spent many years playing the social role of a privileged, upper-class professional. He has sat on boards with well-fed yuppies, he has feted the wealthy and the accomplished and the socially prominent in his own home, he was once accepted in the most rarefied circles of Baltimore society at face value.
But no one who had seen him in the nude could ever have fully believed in his public identity as the prominent and possibly slightly stuffy Baltimore head-shrinker again. The more his expensive and beautiful threads come off, the more fully he is clothed. He is clothed in his true nature.
There is a kind of harsh beauty in his born predator's body, and perhaps she can only see it because she no longer feels he poses a physical threat to her. Although he may pose other, far more arcane threats. She knows that many of the forensic psychiatric community who have interviewed him have come to the peculiar conclusion that he is not entirely human. Previously, she has always believed this to be a thoroughly unprofessional finding. Looking at him now, she is no longer as certain.
But what she feels is not fear. It is lust. It is that strange and strangely sophisticated sexual craving for a unique partner that has fueled myths of mermaids, of gods and angels mating with human women, of romantic vampires and seductive sorceresses, of lustful serpents and lovelorn great apes, of incubi and succubi, and a thousand similar mass fantasies throughout time. There is something in the human psyche that is repelled by whatever is alien. And there is something else, some darker and less discussed something, that is inflamed by it.
He is as richly exotic and rare as a golden-eyed ram or a blue-eyed lion. It is the humanity in him that compels her love, but it is his strangeness, his alieness, that ignites her desire. She will want him again before she sleeps.
She wants him now. Her body shakes with her wanting.
When he is completely innocent of clothing, he appears to think for a moment, then moves toward the bed she occupies. He is still unsure how to proceed, she sees, still formulating his actions one step in advance of taking them. He has decided that lying down in the bed beside her must be the next logical step, and once he is swathed in the same bedclothes that she now wears, she will no longer be able to see him as she does now. She wants him near her, she wants to touch him, but she is not quite ready to stop looking at him. She has, after all, never seen him like this before. She realizes, with a sharp emotional thump, that not only has she never before seen him unclothed, she has never seen him, outside of a prison cell, demonstrably unarmed.
She sits up in her blankets as he approaches, and makes a vague warding gesture with the palm of her hand.
"Wait," she asks, without any pretense or social nicety. "Stop a moment. Let me look at you."
He complies with her request without demurral. He has no self-consciousness about his nakedness, and he understands that she is curious about him He understands curiosity better than most. He returns her scrutiny calmly, waiting until she will have gazed her fill. He watches her watching.
Her vision makes a leisurely circuit of his body. She locates a small teardrop shaped scar near the bicep of one arm, and she makes a mental note to ask him about it later. He has one tiny red birthmark on the arch of his right hipbone, but otherwise, his skin lacks any natural mark. He does, however, bear unnatural marks, souvenirs from his stay at Muskrat Farm. His left side is bruised blackly along his ribs, and there is a bad burn around his right nipple. His sex is not completely quiescent, a legacy, no doubt, of their erotic activities on the seventh riser of the stairs. In this respect, he is still just slightly rigid.
But we can improve on that, she thinks. The thought makes her smile, a slow, almost greedy smile.
"All right?" he asks, having detected the change in her mood from the expression on her face.
"Enough for now," she agrees, still smiling.
"Good," he says, and swiftly comes to the bed and slides under the covers. "I'm glad you're satisfied. I'm freezing."
She is tempted to giggle but manages to resist the temptation. "Take a pitchah," she quips in a comic Bronx accent. "It'll last longer . . ."
He is making something of a production out of arranging himself comfortably in the bed, and as he moves, one of his feet touches her ankle. She can feel how icy it is to the touch. He doesn't immediately answer her. But he does find the time to roll his eyes toward heaven at her comment.
"Oh, Agent Starling. Surely you can understand by now that I prefer not to be photographed?"
She can play too. "Damn," she says. "That's right! I forgot. And I was thinking of having one of those photo calendars made!"
He likes it when she teases back. She can see it in his pleased grin, and in the red glints in his eyes. She can see it in the way his posture relaxes a touch. But she also sees that he is still uneasy, still somewhat unsure how to proceed. Has he never been a guest in a woman's bed before? She can't believe this could be true. No psych student alive could ever hope to get through basic Freud without at least a little practical experience to fall back on. Besides, he has already amply demonstrated that he clearly knows how to fuck. It's not the sex that's bothering him, she is certain. It is something else.
His uneasiness communicates itself to her, and though she would like to touch him now, she is no longer sure that she should, so she hesitates.
He burrows under the covers, trying to get warm, as he laughs at the notion of posing for beefcake shots for some serial-killer-of-the-month calendar.
"Patent flattery, Clarice," he comments airily, and allows his head to fall back into his pillow. There is a kind of deliberation in this action, as though simply relaxing, for him, requires an effort of conscious will. Once he is satisfactorily swathed in blankets, he allows his gaze to drift upward, towards the ceiling. He murmurs absently, as though musing to himself. "I hate to be cold."
She feels a sudden coldness at her own center at this offhanded remark. He has told her only a very little about his early life, but she has learned enough to guess why he might hate to be cold, even if he does not.
She is across the small gap of mattress between them and has thrown her arms around his shoulders in the tiny space of time between one beat of her heart and the next. This is not a night for cool caution and hesitation. She has twined her legs around his and has pressed the length of her body against him and has flattened her hands on his back, fingers splayed, before thought can catch up with action. She touches as much of him as she can reach at once. She doesn't want him to be cold. She would loan him every last degree of warmth in her body, if she could.
He is somewhat surprised by the tension he can feel in her touch, she sees, somewhat puzzled. He turns his face to her, and his eyes look into hers from only an inch or two away. But he does not respond to her sudden clinging with any touch of his own.
"Clarice?" he asks.
"That was thoughtless of me," she answers. "To keep you standing in the cold like that. I'm sorry."
He smiles faintly, clearly a bit relieved to learn that the origin of her apparent distress is a only small matter, after all.
"It's not important," he assures her.
His belief that it is not important for anyone to be kind to him, or to treat him as though he is human, has grown in him over many, many years of experience, she thinks. It has become a sort of prejudice. She resolves now that she will show him as many small considerations and little kindnesses as she can in whatever remaining time they will have together. It is the only method of combating his brutal disregard for his own humanity that she will have.
"But it was thoughtless," she insists, and rubs his cold feet with her own warm ones. "And I am sorry."
He watches her for a moment as he considers the way she is touching him and thinks about what she has said.
"That's nice, what you're doing," he finally decides. "I like that. But I don't agree that you are right to apologize to me," he adds, thoughtfully. "If we are to be lovers, then I think you must feel free to ask me to do the things you want. That makes sense, doesn't it?"
She smiles, amused. He is so deliberate. Perhaps next he'll want to draw up a written contract. Perhaps to be signed in blood.
"We-ell . . ." she agrees provisionally. "Within reason . . ."
Now he really laughs. She can feel his mirth shaking the bed they share.
"Ah. Reason. Very good. By all means, we must ever let reason be our guide in all things."
She laughs too, seeing the joke. Had either of them ever been inclined to reason in the past, they would not be here right now.
He has shifted onto his side to face her and now stares at her again. She notices his nostrils flare slightly as he raises a hand under the covers and suspends it an inch or two above her hip.
"And," he says. "I think that I must feel free to ask you for the things that I want as well. That is . . . reasonable, isn't it?"
She is not certain whether it is the cruel playfulness in the smile that curves his mouth or the real heat in it that makes her shiver as he asks this question.
"I want to touch you now," he says. She feels his forefinger briefly dimple the flesh over the arch of her hipbone, there and then gone. "May I? Here?"
Another game. She guesses now that as long as they are together, there will always be another game. She nods her assent wordlessly and his hand glides along the rounded contour of her hip like silk.
"Here?" he asks next, and touches the tip of her nose.
The bones of her wrist.
The mark on her cheek.
The bedclothes jumble and bunch as he continues to point out portions of her that he proposes to touch. There is no discernible pattern to his choices, no increasing element of intimacy. He chooses her right breast once, and chooses her elbow next. The entire process seems completely random, and, at the same time, seems maddeningly purposeful. The inside of her thigh, the cap of her knee, her navel, a spot at the very center of her forehead. And always, always, he first points, using only the tip of his forefinger to touch, and then awaits permission to touch more fully afterward, sometimes with his hands, sometimes with his lips and tongue.
It is unbelievably erotic. It shortly becomes an erotic torture, waiting to see what he'll choose next. He touches her with a sort of savage pleasure so intense that it almost borders on idolatry, yet always within the strict, formal confines of the game. This weird dichotomy between rule and misrule is utterly typical of him, and it quickly begins to fuel her own lust, fanning it until it blazes. It is utterly typical of him that he has found this singular way to please her so, and it is also typical that he torments her as he inflames her. And that he asks, and is granted, permission to do so.
It is also typical that he torments himself. As he forces himself to enjoy her only in tiny successive portions, his breathing becomes first uneven, then ragged, finally deep and gasping. He takes her scent with each deep breath, drawing it in over his teeth. His eyes widen and light and show red sparks. His hands begin to tremble wherever he touches her, and then she can feel the shuddering of his whole body. She revises her earlier opinion that he is unarmed, since she can occasionally feel the hard pressure of his sex against her, now as rigid and unyielding as any forged weapon.
He is driving her mad. He is driving them both mad. Yet he stubbornly adheres to the impossible rules of the game he has devised, far past the point of reason. Here? Here? Here?
The object of the game now, it seems, is to see which one of them will break first. Clarice plays as hard as she can. She can tell that her opponent is flagging, that his control is slipping. She has as much chance to prevail in this match as he does. He is not one to bore himself with games that offer no real challenge to him.
She suddenly darts her head to his chest and sucks, hard, on his undamaged nipple, while her hands seek and find the hardened weapon at his center, which pulses in her grip. Put plainly, she wins the contest by cheating. She would laugh if she wasn't so insanely aroused.
" Here!" she growls into his chest triumphantly. Her hands massage him without mercy as she listens to his guttural cry of response, chagrin mixed with unearthly pleasure.
"Here, here, here . . ." she chants, and then uses her teeth on the hard, hot nub of flesh she has captured.
He is not a man to accept such a grave breach of etiquette without retaliating in kind. Nor is he a man who denies himself for long. He cheats too, and uses his superior strength to first flatten her body under him, and then to draw her thighs wide apart. He enters her before she can draw breath, and then steals her breath entirely with a long, slow, liquid thrust. Her entire body, inside and out, suspends itself, tight as a drawn fist, every nerve ending frozen in anticipation of the next fluid, piercing movement.
Which he withholds.
Now she does laugh, aloud. He is such a bastard!
"I think I'll just kill you," she tells him, panting like a racehorse. "Right after we're done."
He is panting too, breath passing in uneven bursts over his teeth. He can't stop the trembling of his body, against her and inside her, and his eyes just seem to glow, his gaze burns into her. But he manages to find enough of his voice to answer her.
"We're a long way from done, Clarice . . ."
And so they are. He drives her berserk with a succession of smooth, long, rolling thrusts into her. He drives them both berserk. She bends her knees and braces her feet against the mattress, the better to meet the rhythmic arching of his hips. His body shudders uncontrollably and hers does too. His head dips to her throat and he sucks at the place where her lifeblood throbs closest under her skin. The pace he has set speeds just as her body demands it, as though he can intuit her needs directly through the tissues of her flesh. She can feel her pulse in her head and ears throat like rolling thunder, and imagines that her heart must soon burst. His face is in her breasts now, and he begins to keen, cries that waver on a strange knife's edge between wailing and snarling, both plaintive and savage.
If she were hurting him, he'd never make a sound.
This thought pushes her over the edge and she breaks. Orgasm boils her senses once more, but she retains enough consciousness to be aware that he is right behind her, pushing so far into her that she thinks he might pierce her heart, shaking himself, it must be, she thinks, to pieces, as his body empties itself into her. He is all liquid, her bones melt, his bones melt, surely there can be nothing left of either of them, and again, he wails, the sound that resonates in his throat as he comes might be a death-cry.
She cannot catch her breath as he collapses into her, and she feels his full weight pressing her down into the bed. Only the hitching of his breath informs her that he still lives, although she thinks he may have blacked out, at least momentarily. She thinks she might have blacked out for a moment herself. He is surprisingly heavy, for a slender man, but it is a weight she welcomes. It is a weight she will always welcome, she predicts, a weight she would welcome forever.
In time, he begins to stir, and then he rolls his body a bit, so that he is no longer crushing her. She can breathe easier now that her chest is not so compressed, but she also, illogically, regrets the loss of his full weight. His arms remain clasped around her waist, and his head rests against her breasts. She comforts herself with that lesser weight.
After many silent minutes have passed, and she has begun to think she will soon doze off, he speaks to her.
"Talk to me, please, Clarice," he requests softly. "Tell me things."
She smiles faintly. They are to be lovers. He must feel free to ask her to do the things he wants.
"What things?" she asks.
"Confide secrets. Express opinions. Unfold confessions. Anything."
She thinks for a moment as he waits serenely, head comfortably pillowed in her breasts.
"I was thinking . . ." she begins, and stops for a moment, ordering her thoughts. "I was thinking that if I had been hurting you, a while back, you would never have let me hear a murmur of distress. And I was wondering-"
"Are you so certain that you weren't hurting me, Clarice?" he interrupts.
"No," she answers after a long moment. "No. I have no idea what I'm doing to you. Or what you're doing to me."
She can feel his smile against her skin.
"Time, I suppose, will tell. If there is time. What were you wondering?"
"I was wondering why, earlier, you seemed so uneasy. Unsure of what to do, how to go on. Almost nervous. I was wondering what was bothering you."
He raises his head to look at her, to look into her. There is a small, surprised, pleased smile on his face. But he doesn't answer her question.
He clasps her more securely in his arms and again lowers his head to her chest. She can feel the muscles and sinews of his body relaxing around her, against her, into her. Relaxing, for the first time tonight, completely.
"A question, I think," he murmurs faintly. "That we'll save for another night. Shall we sleep, Clarice? You mentioned, I believe, that you were tired. In fact, if I recall, you expected to fall into a coma in short order. Shall we sleep?"
Sleep. She is tired, yes, more deliciously fatigued now, really, than she can ever remember being before.
It doesn't take long for them both to fall into slumber. Ten minutes, if that. Less. Her last conscious thought, before sleep overtakes her and all waking thoughts are done, is that tonight, if she has counted the days since she last saw a calendar right, is New Year's Eve. The small clock on her bedside table is the last thing she sees before she drifts off.
11:40 PM, it reads . . .
New Year's Eve. By the time midnight comes round at last, both of them are deeply asleep, far removed from any knowledge of the changing year.
In Clarice's recollection, one night comes full circle and interlocks with the corresponding night, five years to the day later. The sights and scenes of that earlier night fade, and the fire lit chamber she occupies now solidifies in her sight.
Past and present mesh once more, and return to their accustomed, proper places in her memory.
It is New Year's Eve again, and Clarice suddenly resolves a mystery that has remained unsolved for five long years. The answer comes to her effortlessly, as though she had known it all along.
When Hannibal Lecter comes back through the oaken doors, bearing an opened bottle of Dom Peringion and cut-crystal champagne flutes, he immediately sees the tranced look of revelation in her eyes and sets the wine down on the coffee table. He waits to hear whatever it is that she has discovered.
Match. Match, she thinks, and laughs delightedly.
"You had never slept in a bed with another person before!" she tells him. " That's what was throwing you off, making you uneasy. Five years ago tonight!"
He stands, very still, beside the coffee table. His eyes glitter as he stares at her, watching her intently, as he has always done. He lets some small space of time pass.
"As a small child," he finally answers. "I had my own bedchamber. We were a wealthy family, and it was the custom at the time. Later, for several years after the war, I was on my own and was lucky to find such luxuries as beds and bedrooms at all. And for all the years after that, I was still on my own, although my circumstances had improved greatly. I had become adept, by the time I was old enough to indulge in adult pleasures, at leaving just after any romantic tryst without giving offense. Gifts and extravagant endearments, Clarice, can smooth over many shortcomings, as you yourself might testify."
He interrupts himself to smile, once, a self-mocking, almost bitter smile.
"It had become a habit, you see - solitude. And after that, of course, I was arrested and imprisoned, and made myself comfortable for many years on cots and bunks. Even after I escaped, I still seemed always to choose the most solitary resting places. Although I had long since ceased to think about it."
He takes a single step toward her, and then another. In time, he has come to her side, and lowers his voice as he continues the confession she has earned at last, through her hard-won perception.
"When I first rented the German lobbyist's home, I decided, quite deliberately, that I would take the master bedroom for my own. He had an enormous California king in there, the largest bed there is, and I felt I had slept in cramped places long enough. His bed was huge, a great endless plain of linen. I felt lost and unbearably small in that expanse, and after two impossible nights, gave up and went to sleep thereafter on the couch. That great, gaping desert of a bed had defeated me, Clarice. I couldn't stand it."
He is standing so close to her as she speaks, and it seems natural that her arms close around him. Even after five years have passed, they still exert a sweet gravity upon one another.
"The first night I spent beside you, Clarice, was the first night I had ever spent beside anyone. I confess to you now, it was something of a leap of faith for me."
He is finished with his admission, and to prove it, he kisses her, very, very lightly, on her mouth. His lips only whisper over hers.
"But once there, you never left again . . ." she observes, a bit awestruck. She remembers him standing outside her bedroom door, unwilling to cross the threshold without an explicit invitation. She remembers how he had drawn an ironic parallel to the traditional lore of the vampire as he'd hovered outside her chamber door.
He folds her into his embrace. "Yes. It was a rare invitation, and I was determined to accept it. And to retain it. I did warn you, after all, Clarice."
"Yes. Yes, you did," she agrees, and moves deeper into the circle of his arms.
"How did you know?" he asks, curious. "What made you guess, now, so many years later?"
It is disturbing, she thinks, that, for them, past, present and future seem always to be on the verge of melding into one. That the three finite streams of time should be separated only by the thinnest, most flimsy of membranes in all of their association. That one eve of the changing year can flow so easily into another, and that all of the years in between can either stretch back into eternity or dwindle into a brief moment with equal, elastic ease. It is disturbing, and it is immensely pleasing. It is a dark miracle that together, they habitually undo time.
That time circling into this time, and all circling into the next. A geometric figure without a beginning or an end.
"New Year's Eve," she breathes in explanation, and moves her head to kiss him herself. "It was New Year's Eve then."
He doesn't seem to require any further explanation. He takes her meaning perfectly. He returns the kiss she offers. He completes it.
New Year's Eve then, and New Year's Eve now. Outside, in the streets, midnight comes round at last, as it always does, and then passes a moment later. The old year cycles into the new one to the distant sounds of mass celebration along the Avenida Alvear.
But inside, it might be midnight, or it might be high noon. One new year is virtually indistinguishable from another.
Outside, the world turns. Inside, time is undone.