by Amatia

Ardelia picked her up from the hospital. "Girl, you need to stop getting yourself into trouble," were the first words out of her mouth.

Clarice shot her a dark look. "You need to stop telling me what to do."

"I'm just sayin'." She threw the car into reverse. "And you know I only say it because I worry."

"I know, Delia."

"Is this why I haven't seen you in almost a month? You've been out chasing Hannibal the Cannibal again?"

"Basically," Clarice replied wryly.

"You could have told me," Ardelia said softly. "We may be in one of our off phases, but you could have told me. For once I would have actually liked to worry about you."

"I know," Clarice said again, looking at the street signs. "I thought you were taking me home."

"I'm taking you home with me for a cup of tea, a hot bath, and a night of you wrapped in my arms. No arguments." She looked over at Clarice, and her tone softened. "I want you close to me, Reece. I don't want to have to worry where you are."

"Okay." Clarice did have to admit that hot tea, a bath, and Ardelia holding her tight did sound pretty close to heaven after what she'd just been through. She leaned her head against her hand, propped up against the window. Her eyes drifted to Ardelia's hands, curled loosely around the steering wheel. "You still wear it," she said softly of the emerald ring on Ardelia's right hand.

"Of course I wear it. Just because we're not lovers all the time doesn't mean you're not my best friend." Said in a voice that almost dared Clarice to argue.

She didn't. "It's nice to know," she murmured instead, turning her head to look out the window. The last car ride she remembered taking had been with him. "Can we swing by my house so I can pick up my mail and some clothes?" she said suddenly.

Ardelia shot her an odd look that she missed. "Sure."

"Sorry to make you go out of your way."

"It's not a problem."

They were at Clarice's house, in her bedroom, before Ardelia said, "You know, you've got clothes at my place, Reece."

"Oh." Pause for breath. "I forgot, Delia."

"That's all right. I'll go get your mail from the box."

Clarice sat down on the bed when Ardelia was gone. The coverlet was smooth under her hand, but she hardly noticed what she was touching. She felt strangely disconnected again. A shiver went through her, and she wondered if he'd been in this room.

Ardelia came back with a sheaf of envelopes and a small package. Clarice glanced at the envelopes. Several from newspapers, a credit card bill, two from the Bureau. She ignored them, and picked up the package. It was postmarked Vienna. She raised it to her face, sniffed. General mail smell. Ardelia frowned at her. She opened the flap, carefully, sniffed again. Lavender. She slid the flat black box out of the envelope, lifted the lid.

"Whoever sent you that was an idiot to send it through the mail," Ardelia announced.

"Sssh," Clarice whispered before she noticed she was saying it. She stared at the pendant, deep green emerald cabochon set in rich gold. The stone had a lot of fire for an unfaceted cut. She lifted it from the cotton with remarkably steady fingers. "Please help me put it on," she said softly to Ardelia.

Ardelia took it from her, unclasped the fine gold chain. She dropped it in front of Clarice. Clarice raised her hair, and Ardelia fastened the chain. Clarice dropped her hair, and Ardelia stepped back to look at her. "It suits you," she said after a moment. "Do you have any idea who sent it?"

Clarice slipped her hand into the envelope the box had been in. At the very bottom there was a folded sheet of paper, and she slid it out.

"Dear Clarice," she read aloud, "You are a brave girl, thinking you would have to sacrifice a part of you. But you could not have made that sacrifice and remained what you are. I, on the other hand, could.

"Please accept this necklace as a token of my very deepest admiration. You have shown, Clarice, that you are what I always knew you were - the answer to Samson's riddle, il miele dentro la leonessa.

"Do not try to find me, it will not be worth your time. You owe me no more information and I will ask you for none. Perhaps from time to time I shall drop you a line, as it pleases me to put pen to paper in communication with you. Again I reiterate my promise to not seek you out. Remember, the world is more interesting with you in it. Your old friend - Hannibal Lecter, MD."

"You have to turn that in," Ardelia breathed.

"I don't think so." Clarice stood up, and placed the letter in the top drawer of her dresser.

"But that's obstruction of justice and witholding evidence," Ardelia countered.

Clarice turned and looked at her. "Only three people in the entire world know this letter exists. Only three people are ever going to know. Besides, Dr. Lecter uses a remailing service, there's no way to trace it. He uses paper and ink that can be bought in a thousand stationary shops around the world. And he had the jewler's name sanded off the back of the pendant." Her eyes dared Ardelia to contradict her.

Ardelia persisted. "There's other ways."

"Delia, people get letters from madmen all the time."

"Those madmen are the ones behind bars. And you're a Federal Officer."

"Not at the moment. Please, Ardelia. I can't deal with turning this in right now. It's only been a week. Please."

Ardelia sank lightly down onto the bed. "All right. I won't mention it again."

"Thank you," Clarice said. And she meant it.

"Get your clothes and let's go."

She looked at Ardelia for a moment. "I really don't feel like coming over anymore."

"Oh." Ardelia's mouth tightened into a thin line.

"I'm sorry, but I don't. I just want to go to bed. I'll come over tomorrow, and bring dinner, is that all right?"

Ardelia stood up. "Okay, Reece. You get a good night's sleep." She leaned forward, kissed Clarice on the cheek. "I'll let myself out."

"Thanks." She watched Ardelia walk out of the room, heard her go down the stairs. Then she went into the bathroom and looked at herself in the mirror. Paler than usual, she thought. She stripped off her jeans and t-shirt, removed her bra, dropped it all in the hamper.

Then she padded back out into the bedroom. She slid between the sheets, cotton smooth against her skin. The pendant was heavy against her chest.


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