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Best of Three

copyright 2001, by Zircon

Disclaimer:    The characters Dr. Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling were created by Thomas Harris.  They are used herein without permission, but in the spirit of admiration and respect.  No infringement of copyright is intended, and no profit, of any kind, is made by the creator, maintainer or contributors to this site.

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PART 1


Scenery flew by in a blur, but Clarice barely noticed her surroundings as she ploughed on through the driving rain. The industrial estate offered stacked crates and piles of refuse between looming warehouses. The occasional standing light reflected the precipitation eerily in the darkness of these small hours before dawn. Nothing registered with Clarice, as she was focused completely on the chase. Her senses were honed to detect any motion in her immediate vicinity. She moved quickly and fluidly around the obstacles thrown in her path, now scaling a chain-link fence, then skirting a stationary truck.

She had lost track of who was hunting whom.

She took a moment to recover her breath, crouching low behind a wall enclosing a generator, tacked on to the side of a warehouse. Her line of sight was good. She scanned the surrounding areas constantly, tension wracking her frame. The support of the wall was welcome as she waited, and her thoughts reviewed the past two hours.

The sighting of Hannibal Lecter had seemed almost accidental at the time. Clarice had become convinced that the man she alternately thought of as her nemesis and her closest ally, had lost himself in one of the larger European cities. She had been fairly certain that their paths would cross again, some time before one of them died, but had not thought it would be any time soon. When she had glanced across at the car alongside her own, stalled at the lights on Nance Street, and seen his familiar profile, the shock had left her numb for several seconds.

Of course, nothing was accidental, with him. And the car chase which had ensued, as she tailed him through the city and into this industrial wasteland, had been quite exhilerating. More fun than working surveillance or running background checks.

She hadn't called for back up, nor even registered her position with the authorities. She was off duty, having spent the previous eight hours stuck in a motel room with an earpiece and a cassette recorder. She didn't need sirens and blue lights and other agents and officers here, because involving others would mean that some would inevitably die, and she was not prepared to initiate that kind of bloodbath. If it was going to be finished tonight, Clarice had decided to do it alone.

Lecter's car had sped away from her as she was forestalled by a reversing tanker on the edge of the estate. When she had continued on her way, she had come across the Jaguar she'd been following, deserted at the side of the wide, empty road. She had parked beside it and checked her firearm and handcuffs, then zipped her jacket as far as it would go, looking daggers at the stormy night sky, which had been unimpressed by her glare and drenched her as soon as she got out of the Mustang.

And the pursuit had continued on foot.

Movement had caught her eye; deliberately, of course. Clarice had rolled her eyes at the game, but had set off anyway. For a time, he had always been just ahead, before their first face to face encounter of the evening.

~~~

Her throat was beginning to rasp and her chest tighten, with the chase. She had not warmed up before the run and her muscles were protesting. Clarice was confronted with irrefutable evidence that she was no longer twenty years old.

She picked her way through a freight yard, uniform rows of containers providing a thousand hiding places. One moment, her eyes were straining through the dusky luminescence afforded by the spotlights mounted in each corner of the yard; the next moment, a weight slammed into her back, forcing her face first against the side of one of the containers. Taken by surprise, she barely had sufficient time to turn her head and avoid a broken nose. Her gun arm was twisted across her back and her weapon wrenched from her grasp.

She struggled for a moment against his grip, but Lecter possessed a wiry strength which had her pinned. They grunted and gasped as they fought, before Clarice let her body sag against the supporting wall in defeat. Her cheek was pressed against the cold, rain-soaked, corrugated metal.

"Well, Clarice ... it's been a while," his voice sounded, directly into her ear.

Bravado surged through her. "Not long enough!" she spat into the wall.

"Oh, I don't think you mean that," Lecter countered. "Haven't you missed me? Even a little?"

She chose not to answer the question, for the good of her peace of mind. "What the hell are you doing in DC, Doctor?"

He sighed, the air from his lungs warming her ear. "I appear to be running around in the rain." There was a rumble, so close to her face that she could sense Lecter's lips vibrating. "It isn't healthy, you know. Not at my age."

The comment was ludicrous, and she couldn't help but huff a laugh, even there, painfully crushed against a metal box, at the mercy of a killer with a penchant for blades and the taste of human flesh.

"You're right," Lecter's voice continued lightly. "This situation isn't without a certain humour. We always did have fun, didn't we, Clarice?" He reached under her jacket, and tugged her handcuffs free from their clip at her waistband. His hand lingered over the curve of her hips. "You've been keeping in trim, I see. Your dedication does you credit, not to mention being very pleasing on the eye." The sound of a chuckle. "Or the hand." He patted her with familiar affection before withdrawing.

Lecter clipped one of the cuffs on to the arm bent across her back, and the other to a clamp protruding from the container. There was a thud, as her weapon was tossed on the wet ground, and then he spoke again.

"You do have a key, of course?"

"Of course," she muttered into the metal.

"Good girl. Well, let's play a while longer, then. Shall we say ... best of three? That's one-nil to me, I think."

He leaned in to her neck and planted a kiss there, too lingering and intimate to be dismissed as a formality. Clarice felt her knees tremble, and Lecter murmured agreement.

"Mmm. Me too, Clarice. Me too." His body pressed even closer for a moment, before he whispered, "See you around," and then his warmth was gone. By the time she had retrieved her key to unlock her binds, he had disappeared.

~~~

The generator wall joined the higher side of a warehouse building, and the overhanging roof provided some degree of shelter from the tumultuous rain. Clarice huddled in closer, her breathing normal again, waiting for a reason to leave her hiding place and resume the search.

She scanned the nearby buildings. Straight in front of her was a series of portable cabins, jammed together like a hamster-maze. To her right, the warehouse stretched for fifty metres and then gave way to an open loading yard. Behind the generator and to her left, lay the main road. Beyond it, a filling station for the road freight passing through.

No movement.

Her Bureau-issue jacket was keeping the water from her T-shirt beneath, but her heavy cotton pants were soaked through. The wet fabric made her legs itch. Clarice shifted uncomfortably and checked her gun again. She prepared to move out. There was no point in staying huddled in a corner all night.

But a few more minutes wouldn't hurt. She needed the chance to consider just why she had let him go ...

~~~

Clarice picked up her gun and spent a few minutes scanning the freight yard before heading off in a run, following the direction Lecter seemed to have taken. She felt slightly humiliated, that she had been collared so easily, and that her assailant had felt the need to toy with her before deciding on a rematch.

She felt something else, too.

She reached the main road in time to see blurred movement around the side of the concrete building housing the go-kart track. Clarice went to follow, then paused. She scanned the front of the building, noting the entrance porch with its lower roof and the rock-salt skip beside. Ambush planned, she tucked her gun into the small of her back and clambered up on to the roof.

She pressed herself into the angle formed between roof and wall, lying flat. Her already wet clothing became soaked, as she found herself stretched out in puddles of rain. Ignoring the discomfort, she waited.

Lecter returned via the same corner around which he had disappeared. Clarice kept her head down for the count of fifty, knowing that he would immediately be assessing the surrounding area for hiding places. It was only when she heard his footsteps heading back towards the freight yard that she slowly lifted her gaze.

There was no time to think. Her body obeyed a deeper, more instinctive rhythm, as she rose up on all fours, then lifted to a crouch. The next thing she knew, she had launched herself from the edge of the porch roof and landed squarely on Hannibal Lecter's back.

His grunt of surprise was music. They tumbled forward, Lecter falling to his knees, and Clarice wrapped her arm around his neck to support herself whilst reaching for her gun. Then they were flat on the wet ground, her body lying atop his and her firearm securely nudged into the back of his neck.

"You aren't even going to think about reaching for that Harpy, are you, Doctor?"

"Under the circumstances ... no, I'm not." Lecter was still. "Looks like round two to you, my dear."

"This is not a game, Dr Lecter."

"Of course it's a game. Everything is a game."

"Just shut up. I'm going to get up, now. The gun will be on you all the time. On my word, you'll get up slowly and not make any sudden movement. Are we clear?"

"Can't we stay like this for a while? It's rather nice."

She wanted to scream, but curbed her frustration. "You'll catch your death," she answered wryly. "And we've already established that I don't particularly want to see you dead."

"Mmm ... but what a way to go."

Clarice found that she couldn't help it. She was smiling. "Are you trying to charm me into letting you go?" she demanded.

"I don't know, is it working?"

"Of course not, I'm a professional."

"So my gesture earlier meant nothing?" Lecter risked shifting then, raising his head from the tarmac.

"That isn't how law-enforcement works."

"Oh, Clarice, Clarice, that's exactly how law-enforcement works. You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours." Lecter rolled his shoulders. "Speaking of which ..."

"Oh all right, Doctor, it's working!" It was nothing more than an exuberant rush of adrenaline, but it was enough to make Clarice clamber off the doctor's back and return to her feet.

She didn't even bother to continue pointing her gun at him.

Lecter stood and spent a moment brushing his coat down, before raising his gaze and meeting her eyes. "We did say best of three."

"No, you said best of three. I said -"

"'This is not a game, Doctor ...'" drawled Lecter. "Yes, yes, I heard. But I'll offer you this free and gratis, Special Agent Starling of the FBI - for something that isn't a game, this is the most fun I've had in months." He leaned closer, peering into her face. "And it's certainly making your eyes sparkle ..."

Clarice couldn't deny the vitality she felt in that instant. "You want me to close my eyes and count to fifty?" she asked dryly.

"Don't you want your reward first?"

"What reward?"

"Well, whatever you want. I stole a kiss, myself. A trifle ungentlemanly, but I trust you to keep that between us. What can I offer you?"

"Your wrists, so I can cuff you."

"Mmm ... kinky. But that might leave me at a disadvantage for the final, match-winning round. Let's be fair about this."

"Fine. Then I ask that you answer a question, and answer honestly and directly."

Lecter lost some of his teasing façade, and raised a suddenly intrigued but wary eyebrow. "Very well. Ask your question."

"Why are you here in Washington?"

She immediately berated herself for her choice. Options careered around her mind, screaming disapproval that they had been ignored in favour of something so mundane. Still, the die was cast. Clarice looked down to the way her hand still clenched her firearm, and decided that she had already crossed a line. She tucked it away under her jacket once more.

Lecter took a step nearer. He breathed deeply. In a few seconds, his mood had altered completely, from frivolous fun to utter sincerity.

"I heard about Jack," he said, simply. "And I know how friendless you have felt, in the last months. I heard about Jack, and I wanted to make sure you were all right."

Clarice didn't try to hide her cynicism. "So you thought you'd offer me consolation in the form of a nocturnal chase through a desolate industrial estate."

"Well, lillies would have been so predictable."

"Dr Lecter, I don't think you're here for me. I think you just wanted to dance on Jack Crawford's grave."

"Oh, by no means, Clarice." Lecter's expression hardened. "I never wished the late Mr Crawford dead. What would have been the point of that? Though his hatred of me was quite manifest, I couldn't have conferred any worse a fate on him than the one he grasped for himself."

She felt a rush of loyalty for her former mentor. "He was a good guy," she insisted.

"He was manipulative when you needed a guide, and ineffectual when you needed support. Oh, I'm not surprised by your continuing loyalty, because it's part of what makes you Clarice Starling, but I will not pretend to understand it. Now, does that answer your question?"

"It's an answer," she nodded.

"And, indulge me, Clarice - are you all right?"

"I'm fine."

"I thought we didn't tell each other lies."

"I said I'm fine."

"How did you -"

She snapped an interruption. "Don't analyse me, Doctor!"

"Very well!" Lecter held up his hands and for a moment, Clarice was confronted with a vision of impatience which was chilling. The reminder was clear; she was standing in the middle of a rainstorm, isolated from help, conversing with a serial killer. She tensed, wondering whether she needed to draw her gun again, but the doctor broke into a small smile. "Though you might as well ask me not to breathe."

She stared at her boots and shrugged a half-smile in return. "If you're going to run, do it now before I change my mind."

Though her gaze was locked on her feet, she sensed him stepping closer to her. Pressure from his hand coaxed her head up to meet his eyes. Lecter's expression was strangely jaded and weary. He sighed, and his fingers didn't leave her skin.

"You look at me ... and you see the root cause of everything that has left an unpleasant taste in your life. The sensationalism of the wrong kind of headlines. The wary looks from your colleagues. You probably even associate me with the traumas from your childhood which you shared with me so many years ago."

"I don't hold you responsible for any of those things."

"But you still see them, when you look at me."

"I see them," Clarice acknowledged. "And more besides." She narrowed her eyes at Lecter. "And you'll understand that I'm going out on a limb, when I tell you that not everything I see when I look at you has negative connotations."

Lecter wrinkled his brow. "Smooth-talker," he accused, but his maroon gaze appeared mollified. He leaned forward and rested his lips on her forehead for a moment, then pulled back from the kiss. "Look at me, I didn't even win this time and I'm still being ungentlemanly."

"I'll let it go, just this once."

"You're too kind. Ready for round three?"

"I think we'd better get on with it, before one of us says something we might regret."

"Wise words." Lecter stepped away. "What time do you have?"

Clarice checked her watch. "Ten after three."

"My, it is late, isn't it? Shall we say five minutes?"

"Five minutes."

Lecter winked at her and then spun away, walking off down the road at a brisk pace. Her eyes followed him until he ducked from view past a prefabricated office, and then she glanced down at her watch again.

"You just let a convicted murderer walk, Starling," she muttered to herself. "Wouldn't Mr Crawford be pleased about that?"

~~~

Which brought her back to her huddle between warehouse and wall. Well over five minutes had passed now. She had seen no sign of Lecter. Clarice wondered whether he had decided not to ride his luck further and had simply headed back to collect his car and drive off.

The idea, once considered, seemed eminently possible. Of course, she didn't believe it for an instant. Hannibal Lecter was still close by, waiting his chance to win the game and claim his reward.

And that idea left her shivering harder than the rain did.

She couldn't delay any longer. Staying low, she sprinted for the nearest cover; the nest of portakabins dead ahead. Clarice tucked herself into a corner and waited, listening. The rain was drumming so hard on the offices that it was impossible to distinguish other sounds.

She decided to make her way back to the car. If she didn't come across her quarry - her hunter - before that time, then she could at least sit in the dry and wait him out.

Moving around the offices until she could see the main road, Clarice kept scanning the locale. No sign. She paused to get her bearings. The road looped around, to the place she had left the Mustang. The direct route would take her through the freight yard again, and she wasn't prepared to risk such terrain.

She made her decision. She would continue along the road, moving from cover to cover, falling back from sight if necessary. She would keep moving fast, because visibility was preferable to vulnerability, and she fully expected some trap to be laid for her if she dawdled.

Adrenaline coursing through her again, she pushed off from the side of the portable cabin and began to run.

Movement became instinctive. Here's a fence separating the next unit, low enough to vault. Now a scrap metal yard, too many hiding places, head for the front and avoid the darker corners. Through the gate and check the street. No sign of anything. Cross over the road. Steer clear of that building, the roof's too low. Keep moving, steady around the crates there ...

She was cutting a corner around the back of a brick built garage, moving in a narrow alley between ring fence and wall, when the game finished.

Immersed in the rhythm of her run, Clarice took a corner and found herself nose to nose with Lecter. Her gun, already loosely gripped in her hand, came up automatically, and she used her momentum to roll them together along the wall. When they came to rest, breathing hard, the muzzle was firmly lodged in the doctor's abdomen, and his weight pushed her into the rough brickwork.

"Round three?" she managed to say between gulped breaths.

"I think we'll have to call it a draw." Although Lecter spoke of the game, his expression was infused with a new danger. For the first time that night, Clarice allowed herself to feel afraid.

"What do you mean, a draw? If I pull the trigger -"

"Could you do it faster than I can sever your jugular?"

Clarice shuddered as she processed the tickling sensation at her neck and realised that Lecter's blade was poised to cut her throat. "A draw?" she repeated, though her voice was now strained and distorted, as she tried to speak without moving.

"I think that would probably be the best place to leave this."

"You're threatening the life of a law-enforcement officer. I'm within my rights to pull this trigger. Get that thing away from my throat, Dr Lecter!"

"Are we talking tough, now? After all this time?"

"This gun is a Colt .45. From this range, it will blow a hole in your stomach which might or might not be enough to kill you immediately, but it will certainly throw you back a ways, and it will definitely not be pretty. Drop the blade now!"

"And if I'm thrown back, can you be sure that my less technologically advanced but equally lethal Harpy will not slice that beautiful, slim, alabaster neck of yours?"

Clarice felt the stirrings of panic. "I don't think you want to kill me, Dr Lecter."

"Of course I don't. If I'd wanted that, you'd have been dead a long time, now."

"Then drop the blade."

"And leave myself at the mercy of your ... 'Colt .45'?"

The conversation was going around in circles. Clarice's poise snapped, and her voice, already adjusted to penetrate the drumming rain, became a shout. "Drop the damned blade, Doctor! I will not be threatened!"

"Neither will I, Clarice." For some reason, Lecter's voice needed no apparent volume boost to be heard through the storm. Clarice suppressed another shiver.

"So what are we going to do, stand here like this until we die of pneumonia?"

"I think my idea of calling it a draw was best."

"And then what?"

"Well, that's up to you. We can go somewhere dry and have a nice talk, or I can get in my car and leave."

Her face contorted with indecision. "I can't let you go free!"

"You've already done so once tonight."

Clarice sighed, then froze as she felt the sting of metal against her neck and remembered her precarious position. "And I can't do so again."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes."

"Then you're going to have to pull that trigger." Lecter eyed her challengingly. "Could you do it, Clarice? Could you pull that trigger and end my life?"

"Having a fucking blade at my throat complicates the situation."

"Ah, I see. Well, I don't want you to feel confused about this, so I'll put the blade away for now." The stinging retreated, and Clarice heard a click, though Lecter's gaze didn't waver from her own. "Oh, my ... I'm afraid I've made a mess. May I help you?" Lecter leaned in slowly, giving her the time to pull back or voice her refusal, but she was lost. She was still trying to answer his question. "Could you end my life?"And she was terribly afraid that the answer was a resounding 'no'.

Lecter's eyes dropped as he moved closer, and when his lips clamped over her throat and she felt his tongue licking clean the trace of blood he had drawn, Clarice squeezed her eyes shut tightly and tried very hard not to swoon. She was glad of the wall at her back, then. Her gun hand trembled and she fought the urge to drop her weapon and reach to pull his head closer to her skin.

Just as the urge was almost too much to ignore, Lecter's head came up once again. She opened her eyes. His tongue flickered out to lick his lips, and she thought she could see the faintest trace of red. "So, Clarice," he said softly, his face closer to her own than was comfortable. "Does that clear up any confusion? It's just you, now. You and your Colt .45." His eyes widened in challenge. "Can you pull the trigger?"

She glared at him, angry that he had exposed her ambivalence so effortlessly with the night's game. Those knowing lips were as accomplished at talking her into corners as they were at caressing her neck.

"Did I taste as good as you imagined?" she asked, pointedly ignoring his question.

"Humm ... I'm not sure. I don't think I'll be sure without much more intensive study." Lecter's eyes were sparkling manically. "Do I detect a hint of evasion?" he continued. "You're going to have to make up your mind some time soon. Pull the trigger ... or walk away."

"Damn it!" Clarice threw her head back and looked into the night sky, glad of the cold rain which showered her face and offered her some semblance of normality. "You know I couldn't kill you in cold blood!"

"No, indeed. How about ... trying to escape?" Lecter was moving closer, pressing against the gun muzzle just as he pressed the conversation. "I could turn and run. Would you shoot me in the back, rather than let me escape?"

"I don't want to shoot you at all! I want to cuff you and take you in and I want this to be over!"

"That's the second lie you've told me tonight." He dropped his head, so that his brow nudged her own briefly. "If you can't be honest with me, at least try to be honest with yourself."

"What the hell do you want me to say?"

"I want you to answer the question!" Finally, the calm and controlled exterior snapped. His voice grew more rasping as his patience ran out. "You don't have to say the answer out loud if you don't want to, but I want you to form that answer in your mind." His brow tapped against hers in the rhythm of his words. "Could ... you ... shoot ... me?"

"No!"

There was silence for a while, broken only by the rain. Clarice slumped against the wall and retracted her firearm from its position at Lecter's gut. Automatically, she thumbed the safety and shoved it into a jacket pocket. The doctor pulled back far enough to rub a hand briefly over his stomach, easing the bruise which would no doubt be forming.

"No more than I could cut your throat," he finally said. And the burred edge to his voice, and the hint of distress in his eyes, were infinitely more unnerving than his sang-froid.

Clarice let her head fall back against the wall, and closed her eyes. Her back teeth were clenched so hard that her temples ached. For long moments, all she was aware of was the rain on her face and the heat where their bodies touched.

"It's quite ridiculous, really," Lecter's voice continued. "Here we are, running around in the middle of the night, in a rainstorm, playing Cops and Robbers, threatening each other with weapons neither of us has the slightest will to actually use."

It was only when she sobbed, that Clarice realised she was weeping.

"Oh, Clarice," Lecter murmured in response, and she heard him sigh.

"I'm going home," she announced suddenly, and opened her eyes. Tears cascaded down her cheeks along with the rain. "Let me go."

Lecter drew breath as though to speak, but then let it out again helplessly. He shrugged, and the jaded expression she had seen earlier that night haunted his features once more. He stepped back and let Clarice push past him. She didn't look at him again as she turned her back and set off, to return to her car.

FIN

Part 1 of 3

copyright 2001, by Zircon

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