A/N: A year and a half back, I calculated the age of Dr. Lecter using some of the hints in the books and ignoring the artistic freedom Mr. Harris had made use of (Hannibal's age during the great war, for example). The number I arrived at was fifty-four. Since it's been some time, I don't remember the exact details of how I arrived at that number but I've always taken him to be that age in all my stories, including this one. So that's that, for one. Secondly, this story begins on December 23, 1996, and, by this chapter, we've reached sometime in the January of 1997.

Long fluffy ears of a beautiful grey rabbit twitched and rose in attention as Starling, unknowingly, breached its intuitive circle of safety. One more step and it fled away.

I hate him! I hate him! I hate him! Fucking Casanova, promiscuous bastard! Who gave him the right to theorize my personal life based on random, unverifiable assumptions?!

A small voice intruded: "Random? Unverifiable? Nobody tricked you into some kangaroo court, Starling. You're the judge and the jury. You realize he was right, right?"

Starling's fists clenched at the treachery of her own mind and she screamed into the air: "Yeah, but how the hell could he know all those things?! I just wanted to get back at him ... for being the world's biggest philanderer! Is that too much to ask?"

Ignoring her question, the small voice prodded: "And...?"

"For being apathetic toward my feelings."


"For not feeling the way I do!"

"There you go. Let it out. Let it all out. Admitting what's bothering you is the first step in a meaningful and effective healing process."

Needing a breather, she stopped and leaned against a tree.

A moment of insanity and her old pal rationality was right up her ass!

Admitting the problem. Healing. Stupid passive words. And passiveness was equivalent to self-contempt in her dictionary. She punched the tree in frustration.

Why was her conscience acting so apologetic? She had no regrets. He deserved the earful he'd gotten. She earned the right to fling some profanities at him after everything she had to endure in the last thirty minutes.

Unable to fully convince herself of the chasteness of her actions, she looked up and groaned into the thick air. What was it that made her so confused when it came to Hannibal Lecter? Had it been another man, she wouldn't have stopped at verbal abuses. Broken bones, yes, broken bones would have been their reward, and she definitely wouldn't have spared a second more at the commotion than it deserved. But here, unfortunately, feelings were involved and that made it a teensy bit more complicated. She was still hurting badly, there was no denying that.

"Damn you, Dr. Lecter!" she cussed through gritted teeth. "Admitting the problem, my ass! The only way I'll heal is when I shoot you in the ass. That would be my salvation." She pumped some air into her lungs, and rotating on the spot, yelled like a maniac, "Do you hear me, trees? Animals? Birds? Everyone, listen. Shooting Dr. Lecter in the ass would be my salvation!"

Slouching at waist, hands resting on knees, she snickered. God! was she a mess; talking to herself and taking refuge in lame humor. Still, the break from her emotional tornadoes was welcoming, however short it may eventually turn out to be.

She opened the cap of her water bottle and took a few sips. Much better.

In control of herself for the first time since the fight, she became acutely aware of two things: One, the absence of a solid and reliable presence beside her in this wilderness, and two, the familiar shadow of proneness creeping upon her inch by inch, a feeling similar to free-falling without a chute, something that had departed her for whatever time she had spent with Dr. Lecter. Interestingly, that feeling of insecurity had been her constant companion for as long as she could remember, peeping through dark corners as if she were a prey, more psychological than anything no doubt, but there all the same, whether she was a little girl in an orphanage in Montana, or a Special Agent in the FBI in Washington. She had temporarily been rid of it in the company of a convict – a serial killer, no less! From fearing him to feeling safe with him to leaning on him on a daily basis. Strange, huh? Could there be a more over-simplistic word to describe it?

"What was the reason behind such a dramatic turnaround?" Old-Pal-Rationality demanded.

Starling was prepared for it. She closed her eyes and inwardly showed it the middle finger.

I don't need you badgering me about him all the time. Just go to hell! And while you're at it, take him with you.

The comeuppance, minor as it may be, flushed the disparaging array of thoughts out of her mind and fired up her brain cells. This was the Starling she recognized, the Starling who was blunt and bold, the Starling who never looked back, never gave a fuck about anyone else. The relief she felt as a result was gratifying. It probably didn't occur to her that such occasional flare outs only meant she was still angry and that her anger was simply manifesting itself in a form she was more used to.

Nevertheless, familiarity bred complacency. This was the closest she had gotten to her former-self in a long time and she'd hold on to it for the time being.

All right, Starling. You're on your own now. Heard of the wise adage: Prioritize to survive, right? So, what's the first order of business here?

As if on cue, her stomach groaned loudly. Food it was, then.

One leg outstretched, the other bent at knee with a hand resting on it and head tilted at a small angle, Dr. Lecter sat lost in his thoughts. Beside him, skewers laid unattended. The precious meat on them was soiled and just fodder for ants by now. But he didn't care. There was something else he hungered for more – mental stimulation, naturally.

He was replaying Starling's outburst in his mind again and again. Those clenched fists at her sides, those furrowed brows and the searing eyes beneath them simmering with rage, the pallor of such raw emotions renting her face, and that tongue – my, my, that vile tongue! He wasn't the kind of person to tolerate tantrums. He had known people, who, when asked to bend, preferred to crawl; people content with being others' punching bags; people without a backbone. The Doctor most certainly was nothing like them. But sitting here and looking back, he couldn't but conclude that Clarice did deserve her outburst and that he deserved being at the receiving end of it. He did cross a line, after all.

What made him do it? He had known she was trying to provoke a reaction out of him – and he had obliged her! Not the reaction she had wished for, obviously, but he was never one to play into the hands of his opponents. And the rage he had felt at her lies ... the first in so many years – that was all the more unlike him. As a matter of fact, he couldn't recall the last time he'd been so angry as to lose control of his formidable faculties – maybe once or twice in his more younger days, when the blood is highly prone to sudden fits of wrath, but certainly not very recently. So, what had made him do it exactly? That was the million-dollar question. Adept at following several trains of thought simultaneously, he, in line with his fundamental trait of never letting any question go unanswered, dedicated one to this specific query. The others he focused on the problem at hand.

It had been more than an hour and he judged the worst was over. Clarice's anger must have quelled by now, perhaps not completely but to a reasonable extent. He decided it was time to sort things out with her. That was both logical and, indeed, the only way forward.

He stood up, dusted the seat of his pants and sniffed his way onto her trail. He could detect cinnamon – with a sharp note of pepper. A smile appeared on his lips. Fiery vixen, was what she was! A little fiery vixen with an acid tongue.

When Dr. Lecter finally found Starling, she was a sight to witness. Straddling a thick branch of a tree approximately fifteen feet above ground, she was slowly springing forward. To get her hands on a score of beautiful red-skinned fruits hanging close ahead. The whole setup was so ludicrous that he couldn't stop a chuckle from escaping his lips.

His heavy laughter hoofed about Starling in waves of a supersonic jet blast and she swayed on her spot a little, surprised.

Looking down at him, she frowned. "What the hell?! I think I made it abundantly clear that I don't want to see your damned face ever again."

"Yes, I–"

"You would think that directness of approach would get your point across BUT you seem to be quite an exception," she fired his own words back at him. And with twice the sting.

Dr. Lecter took a deep breath. He knew confrontation was the last thing he could afford at the moment. She seemed exasperated to the hilt. "All right, I deserved that. And I deserved your earlier outburst–"

"Outburst? That was no goddamned outburst. It was the truth, for Christ's sake! You are arrogant with a capital 'A' and you have always treated me like shit!" she lashed out.

"You know that isn't the truth, Clarice. You are one of a select few people whom I place in high regard," the Doctor replied quite truthfully, hoping to pacify her anger.

"Oh well, when you put it like thaaat," she mimed elaborately, feigning shock and placing her hands over her mouth. "Hannibal Lecter says he places me in high regard. What do I know? Maybe that's an honor more worthy than the fucking Presidential Medal of Freedom! At just thirty-three, by God, have I peaked early?!" Her hands fell away from her mouth and her features went back to rigid. "Is that what you wanted to hear? Have I stroked your ego enough for today, Majesty?"

Dr. Lecter closed his eyes and emitted an exaggerated sigh. She sure knew how to push his buttons – the only one in the world with that ability, he'd have to give her that.

Satisfied with his reaction, Starling decided to ignore him and continue with her efforts to get to the fruits.

"Do you know which fruit is that?" Dr. Lecter asked a moment later.

When he didn't receive a reply, he answered it himself, "I think it is kokum, an inedible fruit."

Starling stopped abruptly, just a foot short of her target. Inedible? Could he be right? Granted, fate had been her wrecking ball lately, but surely her luck couldn't be that bad. Or could it? Yes it could, Starling, the voice of experience rang in her ears. When it comes to Dr. Lecter, believe me, you don't want to take any chances. Yes, yes, she knew that! But could she possibly turn away from that little window of opportunity that may allow her to rub it in his face merely on that pretext? Huh-uh, it was too tempting. And yet... Argh!

She alternately bit her nails and lower lip – just some inconsequential activities – as she pondered things over in her mind. What should she do? Follow the path of revenge, knowing the risks associated with it, or play safe and turn back? Quite a dilemma, one would suppose. It was not, actually. With every passing second, the 'fuck him and go ahead' camp was gaining traction over the 'don't do this' camp, but, to her credit, she was resisting to give in.

A confused minute twitched by and she finally said aloud, "Are you a hundred per cent certain?"

"Well, not exactly a hundred per cent but–"

In an energetic voice, "Aha! I knew it. Not completely sure but you had to poke your nose in, didn't you? That's your nature in a nutshell – intruding, boastful and, and ... pejorative." That last quality was irrelevant to the discussion but she added it anyway, just to rub it in his face while she could.

Dr. Lecter refused to indulge in a retort and that only made her cockier. "You're not a PhD in survival studies, Doctor. I'm sorry to break it to you but you can't always be right. And this time you are definitely wrong. Take it from me, I'm a hundred per cent sure." She wasn't, but, in her defense, neither was he!

She reluctantly turned her attention back to the fruits and began to hop ahead. Dr. Lecter simply shook his head and walked directly underneath her. He had an inkling of what was going to follow.

Slowly, steadily, Starling managed to reach the fruits and plucked one. It looked delicious. She wiped it clean using the tail of her shirt, and without any further delay, sunk her teeth deep into its flesh.

Her smug and contumelious expression contorted as the pungent taste exploded in her mouth, and she recoiled. The gag reflex kicked in as she groaned in disgust and coughed and spit it out.

Told ya, came the inevitable mocking from the voice of experience, eerily sounding like him at this stage.

Her whole body began to shake with unmitigated rage as she stared at the inedible fruit in her hand. She growled at the top of her lungs and threw it away with such wild force that she lost her delicate balance. She began to capsize to her left, arms flapping and flailing to get ahold of the branch but failing, and, ultimately overturning, she fell off it. She knew her struggle was useless now, so she bundled up into a ball, closed her eyes and waited for the painful impact.

Which never came.

Dr. Lecter caught her just in the nick of time.

"You seem to be making a habit of this, Clarice," he remarked jokingly. "This is the third time in a month, do you realize that? If I didn't know better I'd say you particularly enjoy being held in the bridal fashion."

His voice broke through her haze of morbid apprehension and her eyes opened in slow motion, as though they were bandaged closed for a week. She saw his face, then glanced over at the hard and unyielding ground below, and cried in relief. Sighing, she curled up against his chest like a cat.

That is, until her brain overcame the initial shock. One could have guessed the precise time it began to function as she jerked her head back, looked up at him and scowled, "Oh, crap!" She moved up and down, shaking side to side, trying to wriggle free from his clutches, and managing it at last.

She didn't look at him this time round. Just picked a direction and started walking, not sparing any thoughts on the route she was taking.

Dr. Lecter, on her heels, urged, "Pray stop, Clarice. I think we should talk."

"Maybe you do. I don't. I said everything I had to say to you earlier in the day. And you before that. There's nothing left to talk."

"Come now, Clarice," he said, placing a hand on her shoulder. "You're being childish."

Starling, incensed by his touch, turned to him and roared, "Do NOT touch me. And refrain from using your degrading adjectives on me, I warn you."

Dr. Lecter, ever so full of banter, couldn't help but quip, "So instead of receiving a word or two of gratitude for saving you from a decidedly severe injury, I get a warning. Where are your manners, Clarice?"

"Did I say I wanted to be saved?!" she shouted in his face. "And by the by, if you hadn't come after me, I wouldn't have fallen in the first place."

"If you hadn't left, Clarice, you wouldn't have climbed the tree at all."

Starling pushed to intervene but the Doctor, making use of his abjectly dominant personality, bought a few precious moments for himself. "There's no end to this line of argument, don't you see? It is better if we sort our differences out in an amicable fashion. Wouldn't you agree?"

"No, I won't!" she ground out, defiant. "I told you there's nothing left to discuss. You go your way and I'll go mine."

She was about to walk away again when he held her by her elbows. She flinched and bawled, "I told you not to touch me!"

"Yes, you did," he said, withdrawing his hands and holding them up demonstratively. "See, not touching. I'm not going to touch you. I only want a minute or two of your–" he had to make an extra effort to not be sarcastic "–invaluable time. May I, at the very least, have that?"

Starling didn't make any attempt to move, but neither did she answer him. She simply stood there, looking over her shoulder and not at him, to convey that she could be least bothered about what he had to say.

"Good. Now then, allow me to tender my sincerest apologies to you. I shouldn't have said what I did say, and definitely not the way I said it. I was undoubtedly out of line there. I was rude and discourteous, and I couldn't be more ashamed of my behavior."

"Are you done yet?" Starling inquired, acting as if she were bored. "Can I go now? I will have the advantage of daylight only for so long, you know, and I need to find something to eat before sunset. Not everyone had the luxury of eating two skewers full of snake meat like you, Doctor." She knew she was acting like a bitch but he deserved that. It wasn't on her conscience.

He ignored the spite in her voice and said, "Just a moment. I know my words and insinuations hurt you badly and–"

She was quick to respond, "Don't flatter yourself, Doctor. You didn't hurt me. The only thing you did was open my eyes to your true face. And I cannot thank you enough for that."

"I see. Well, then, I suppose it wouldn't make much of a difference were I tell you that I wasn't being thoroughly truthful during our earlier conversation. A pity, really."

"No, it would not," she replied and spun around. She was about to walk away when her brain made sense out of his tacit words. Hope hankered inside a crevice in her heart. She spun back and noted that he had taken two or three steps back and was himself about to walk away. "Wait!" she called out. "'Not being thoroughly truthful?' What do you mean by that?" She had gone for a flat-ish tone, and yet, it belied her nerves.

"Just what you think it means, my dear," Dr. Lecter answered simply.

Hope was blooming out of that crevice and spreading fast. It was dangerous. She knew it was dangerous, more so for her heart.

"Don't play with me, Doctor!" Starling warned.

There was such sternness behind her words that, for a second, the Doctor was taken aback. He realized, in that moment, how terribly he had actually hurt her.

Time for course correction. Grasping the full significance of the opportunity he'd created for himself, Dr. Lecter dived right in, "I'm not playing with you, Clarice, the universe shall vouch for my truth." A beat while their eyes met and held. "Perhaps, if you were amenable to asking that question of yours one more time, I could give you an authentic reply presently, hmm?"

He smiled, showing his small white teeth. Starling, for her turn, smiled as well. Though it was feeble and hesitant, it was one of the most gorgeous smiles he'd seen.

Starling was brimming with hope now. "Umm, okay. Did you court and fuck any women during your time on the run, Dr. Lecter?"

"The answer to that particular question, my dear Clarice, would be zilch, zero, shunya."

Everything stood still. Starling looked deep into his eyes for confirmation. He'd lied to her before. Why should she believe this time was any different?

And then she found it! That tiny speck of honesty gleaming in those irises. She could have bet her life on his truthfulness right now, if it came down to that.

She blinked once, and the magic happened! The gloom of sepia lifted and everything was colorful once again. The trees were green and the sky was blue. The sun was warm, and she suddenly wasn't so hungry anymore. A weight had been lifted off her heart. She literally felt suffocation giving way to that bright, sparkly 'something' in her chest cavity. And then to top it all, she heard herself giggle for no reason. She was going crazy. And she couldn't care less.

Knock-Knock! Humph. Once again, rationality was ready to play the spoilsport. But Clarice, in her giddiness, was more than willing to listen. She had been disdainfully tough on it before. All said and done, logic was still her best friend. And it was logic that made her ask, "Never? Not once in seven years? It must have been difficult. I mean, you're a man. I understand you have needs."

Dr. Lecter could sniff potential of an interesting conversation.

"Needs, you say? What precisely do you mean by that?"

"Oh, you know, emotional needs." She could immediately feel him exuding disappointment her way. "All right, that doesn't apply to you, I get that. But physical needs? Surely, like any other man, you have those?"

"Tut-tut-tut. I didn't expect such blatant ignorance on your part, Clarice." A pause. "The age-old excuse of 'needs'. Yes, I meant to use that term explicitly – excuse. For that is what it is. An excuse to justify promiscuity. The ultimate weakness of the human character, they say." With that, the Doctor began to grin.

"What's funny?"

"The incongruity of it all is. It's comical when you look at it. Don't we use that excuse to justify our own affinity to lust? The lewdness and the sexual profligacy and the licentiousness! Overstep the bounds of your relation, of your kinship, and you have that excuse ready at your disposal. We are all slaves to our needs, they claim. We can't control it. But then, of course, you have your monks and your yogis with their perdurable self-control. Oh, but, they are exceptions, surely. We can't be expected to toil and strive like them every second of every day. For our characters are not so strong. We are weak, we are common, we are, after all, mere animals. Our DNA has evolved, certainly, but poor, wretched we humans are still animals at our roots. God, bless our souls!

"But don't dare use that term in a courtroom. It is reserved for murderers. Beasts, they say, they are. For only animals can kill their own kind. And animals are the worst. They even have a fancy term for an unintentional murder. Manslaughter, they call it. It's hilarious. Isn't it hilarious?"

"Murder? It's not hilarious to me," she answered, keeping a straight face. "The two-facedness of humans is. I get what you're pointing at."

Dr. Lecter took his time to say, "I have no doubt of that."

The way he said it got to Starling. Like he was being patronizing. Like he was dismissing her. Like he was sidestepping her derivations. Typical of him, she thought to herself. He really is full of himself. No surprises there. And that was the mental kick she required to crawl out of her dopiness. Her focus turned back to his earlier lie and it didn't take too much time for her to decipher his motives, nor to identify the pattern.

"Why do you do that?" she said dejectedly.

"Pardon me?"

"Play with me like that ... for your own entertainment. Not sparing a second thought on what it might do to me. You did that earlier in the day, didn't you? You were analyzing my reaction to your answer. It's clear to me now."

"That was merely some good-natured fun, Clarice."

"Fun? That fucking fun is exclusively for your enjoyment, and always at my expense! I'm not your plaything, for crying out loud!" she bellowed. "Can't you get it through that thick skull of yours, huh? Stop treating me like I'm inferior to you."

She was getting riled up again, although several notches lower than the all-encompassing rage she'd been experiencing until five minutes ago.

In that moment, the sun changed positions and sunlight, filtering through the canopy, illuminated half of her face. The other half was pale, sick and dark – a victim of her temper. Dr. Lecter observed this contrast with a keen eye and found it ridiculously attractive. He took a snapshot of it in order to be able to sketch it someday, with just one modification suggested by his artistic side – free hair, instead of that plain and wonted ponytail she always wore.

"I don't believe you to be inferior to me, let me clarify at the very outset. Your other inferences, though ... on the face of it, they do appear to have some weight. Nevertheless, you realize you're asking me to go against my nature, don't you? And that is as hard as it can get." His eyes crinkled as he completed, "I'll need all the help in the world I can get. Are you inclined to helping me?"

Narrowing her eyes, she replied warily, "Help you with what?"

A smile erupted across his face. She'd taken the bait. Again! "Make an example of me, Clarice. This very instant. Something harsh and branding to look back on when I get such worthless ideas."

"What are you talking about?" she asked, confused.

Dr. Lecter ignored her question and, in an excited voice, said, "Quick, when I lied to you during our lunch, what did you want to do to me?"

Now she was doubly confused. Everything was happening so fast! "Huh, what? I don't under–"

"Or better yet," he cut her off, "what will you do? Yes, that is a more appropriate question. What will you do?"

Starling watched the last remnants of amusement slipping away from his face, being replaced by a deadpan expression.

"What will you do if I, say, take a step closer to you?" he said and followed suit. "And another? And another?"

Starling watched with trepidation as he closed the distance between them, step by step, right until they were only a footstep apart. It reminded her of that time during their first encounter when she had stood pressed against the bars of his cell after her unfortunate tryst with that madman, Miggs, watching the rare spectacle of the Doctor agitated. Unlike that time, however, there weren't any bars or nylon net to separate them here. Funnily enough, she didn't wish for any either.

"What will you do, Clarice, if I violate your personal space?" he said, emphasizing the S's in the last two words.

Her breath hitched at the audacity of his words.

His arm shot out, went behind her back and pulled her toward him. Her hands, by reflex, landed on his shoulders. There was only an inch's gap between their bodies, but that, too, was surmounted when her nipples grazed against his chest as she breathed laboriously. His right arm remained steadfast around her waist, contentedly drawing lazy circles on her lower back.

The difference in their heights meant her forehead was at the same height as his chin. Starling, to the credit of her stubbornness, vehemently ensured that her eyes remained fixated lower on his chest. Dr. Lecter's eyes, on the other hand, bore down on her face – whatever little was visible to him at this angle – brashly, gulping down her shyness. It was exquisitely sweet.

A minute later, he raised his free hand behind her head, removed the elastic band tying her ponytail, tousled her hair and let the wavy strands fall freely. Then he bundled them up over her right shoulder and frisked them over to the left. Starling didn't object – she was too stupefied to object.

Slowly, very slowly, he brought his mouth to her naked ear, and whispered, "What will you do if I do this?" He blew into her ear and she was reduced to putty. She slipped her arms around his neck to hold onto him as she could no longer trust her legs. There was hardly any doubt about his intentions when he lowered his lips to her neck, and she was all but lost. Although brain-fogged, she rationalized some of the gibberish clogging her brain, which loosely translated into: No. Oh God, no, please. I stink!

Contrary to her lack of control, Dr. Lecter was still very much himself. It wasn't that he was unaffected – far from it – but his mind was too disciplined to stop performing at will. He was aware of a spike in the levels of testosterone and endorphins in his body. Additionally, he was registering an emergency signal originating from his cerebrum. He tried ignoring it in favor of the beautiful woman in his arms, but it was adamant and he was forced to concede.

The question he'd put before himself had finally been answered. What made him do it exactly? To be precise, what had made him lash out at Clarice after she'd lied to him earlier? The answer was obvious and yet he found it astonishing. Self-preservation. He'd acted in self-preservation because the picture she'd painted, even though a lie, was too distressing for him to digest. He couldn't imagine her with another man. The very thought of it filled him with uncontrollable rage – the reason why he'd lost his trademark cool at the time.

It was shocking, to say the least. But the revelation it inspired was even more shocking.

How far he had veered from his original goal! How unintelligently he had acted all this time! Clarice Starling was never meant to be an object of his affections. She was supposed to be a stepping stone for the resurrection of Mischa and nothing more. He had no business developing attachments with her. That was a red herring in his plans. Why had he acted so irrationally? What was wrong with him? What in the world was he doing? In fact, what was he doing now?!

He immediately removed his hand from behind her back and broke the lock of her arms around his neck. Starling, hazy and confused from his abrupt recantation, opened her eyes to see him taking a step back. For a second she thought she saw helplessness on his face but she quickly negated it as a trick of an addled mind. His features were never anything but passive.

Dr. Lecter didn't look at her when he said in a coarse voice, "I apologize for my unnecessary transgressions, Clarice." Had he looked, he would have seen the hurt on her face induced by his words as objectively as her eyes and nose.

"Now then!" he exclaimed briskly, clapping his hands together. "You said you were hungry? Let's do something about it, shall we?" He directed an artificial smile at her – an action that did not fool Starling for a second. Something was wrong. He ordered her to stay put and walked away.

Starling stared at his back until he disappeared in the greenery. Then she turned her face up toward the sky. Dark clouds were in the distance, ready to hide the sun. She was looking and not looking at the same time. It is going to rain, she thought to herself. Her unconscious mind, that noticed minute things without telling, nodded in affirmation. Indeed ... A storm is in the making.