Phases of Fire Part 1 by Sharon Bowers

Fandom: "The X-Files," "The Silence of the Lambs"
Rating: R for graphic violence and descriptions of murder scenes. Also includes f/f romantic encounters.
Summary: Seven years after the events of "The Silence of the Lambs," Clarice Starling partners up with Dana Scully on the trail of a serial killer.
Spoilers: Obviously all of "The Silence of the Lambs." Through Season Five of "The X-Files."(It's set right after the events of "The End" and before the events of the film "Fight the Future.") There are also references of Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta mysteries.
Disclaimers: Obviously I don't own Scully and Starling.
Feedback: If you shoot at me, I will duck and return fire from sbowers@bellsouth.net

The Phases of Fire - Part I: Embers

The phases of fire are craving and satiety. -- Heraclitus of Ephesus c. 540 BC

Chapter 1

Quantico, Virginia

Black... blacker than night... blacker than velvet... a darkness so complete that it could only exist in a dream... Or in the mind of madness... She ran, faster harder farther... her breath a ragged pant in her ears, louder than the sound of her footsteps crashing through the darkness. Pursuit was not far behind, and the best she could do was to keep running, keep fleeing... until her heart burst...

Or the madness caught up with her at last...

With a strangled scream, Clarice Starling sat bolt upright in her narrow bed. The sheets were a sodden, tangled mass around her waist, and the blankets had been tossed to the floor in the nightly struggle with the wraiths of her sleep. She could see the shadows now... which was how she knew she wasn't still dreaming. No, God help her, she was finally awake.

"Fuck."

Running a shaky hand through dark hair matted with perspiration, she glanced at the dully glowing red clock resting on her night stand-- 2:17am. Groaning low in her throat, she extricated herself from the sheets and found her way to the bathroom, flicking on the overhead light as she passed.

Turning the sink's cold water faucet all the way on, she held her wrists under the pounding stream until the thundering pulse points cooled beneath her skin. Then she cupped her hands together and splashed the water generously over her face, letting the icy rivulets stream unstopped across her bare shoulders. The face that stared back at her in the mirror was austere... the years had eaten away the soft curves of her youth, until she was nothing but stark angles and lines... with a pair of painfully brilliant blue eyes staring out of its center. Ardelia used to call her "beautiful," but Starling doubted that even her old friend and lover could do that now. With an easy, practiced movement, she twisted the damp hair off her face, securing it into a pony-tail. Shrugging on an old denim shirt, she padded out into the tiny galley kitchen of her apartment.

She didn't think of this place as "home," even though it held clothes, a computer-- things that were "hers." Given who she was and how she spent her life, Starling had never really understood the concept of "home." Her career... her job... her life... meant invading those places... sorting through the things once held dear and hoping for some hint to help understand the horror that had befallen their owners. By the time Starling reached a residence, it was a crime scene or a last known address.

Anything but a home.

Opening the pantry, she studied the half-full bottle of Jack Daniels resting at eye level on the shelf and opted instead for the package of Swiss Miss hot chocolate mix sitting beside it. She set a panful of milk to warm on the stovetop and sat down at the table, thumbing through the work she had brought home.

Hot chocolate and crime scene photographs.... It might seem incongruous at best, a sickening parody of domesticity at worst... but Starling had no prying eyes to question her nocturnal habits. She hadn't for a long time.

Not since Ardelia.

They had met and become lovers at the Academy, before she had been indoctrinated into the cult. Before she had become the High Priestess of the Macabre. They had called her boss, Jack Crawford, "the guru," and spoke of him in hushed, reverent tones reserved for the Wisest of the Wise. Now they wanted her to ascend to that position... to run NCAVC and teach at the Academy all she had learned in her caliginous travels.

Starling had seen Jack Crawford destroyed by his wife's death and Hannibal Lecter's last game, watched his successor John Douglas sell out to the media and hush his demons with money and celebrity, and-- most recently-- mourned Benton Wesley with Kay and Lucy when he was murdered by yet another monster they couldn't catch.

She rebelled against that fate... preferring to remain at large, working cases, hip-deep in the horror... because deep inside she knew that if stepped back for a single minute from the way she spent her life... there was a very good chance that she would surrender to the insanity that hounded her even now in her dreams. As long as she didn't have anything to contrast to the way she lived... then she could convince herself that being able to tiptoe around in the minds of monsters and to commune effortlessly with evil was, in fact, normal.

Starling had loved Ardelia... known that as surely as she knew that her heart beat and her lungs breathed in the oxygen that gave her life... but the base instinct to love, to caress, to hold dear hadn't translated into a relationship. She clung deep into the night to her lover's strong body and used the passion they shared to return her from the atramentous depths she traveled in search of the monsters.

"I can't do this, Clarice..." Ardelia had finally told her one long, sweating night. She had been transferred to Atlanta as part of the new division of the National Computer Crime Squad, and Clarice had come to see her on her way back from a crime scene in Birmingham. The case had turned out to be a wild goose chase, not part of the string of murders she was obsessed with at all, but she had given them a quick profile and pointed them in the direction of the real killer without too much difficulty. It was so easy to tell the difference now-- between the workings of the insane and those of the truly evil. If Starling had stopped to think about that statement... it should have frightened her beyond all reason. As it was, she was just wanted Ardelia-- wanted her skin in her hands, her taste in her mouth. "Clarice... stop..." Ardelia had pushed her away, even though Starling could smell the rising desire between them, hear it in the ragged harshness of her lover's voice.

"What's wrong, Del?" She gazed into the soft caramel eyes of her lover and found a stranger there.

"I don't want to do this," she repeated, pushing away from Starling's half-clothed body and searching the room for something to cover herself.

Clarice crossed her arms over her bare breasts and regarded Ardelia with an arched brow. "Maybe you could have mentioned it a little sooner," she said pointedly, trying to catch her breath.

"You didn't exactly give me time," Ardelia retorted. She sighed heavily and tugged on a pair of FBI sweats that lay tossed over her ten-speed. "Look, Clarice. I love you... but I can't live like this. Watching you slip further and further away. Every time you catch one of those bastards it eats away another part of the person I love." She ran her hands through her disordered hair, her face aching with pain as she regarded the slim form of her lover. "When was the last time you laughed, Clarice? When was the last time we went out to dinner or did something stupid like go to the movies? Or just held hands and watched the TV?"

Rubbing the bridge of her nose, Starling pinched the line of tension rising behind her eyes. "Exactly when am I supposed to do this, Del? I've got six hours before I have to be in Quantico to attend a postmortem. I've got four case files sitting on my desk, and I'm hoping to God that none of the UNSUBs involved decides to go on a bender before I can catch up with their paperwork. Did I mention that Benton Wesley just resigned? That means that there's no one running the Investigative Support Unit and no one's in charge of NCAVC." She took a deep breath and looked at her lover, blue eyes flaring in outrage. "I don't have time to hold your goddamned hand. And if I did, they'd probably run us both out of the goddamned FBI. Jesus, Del, that's what they did to Lucy. Is that what you want to happen?"

Ardelia stared at her. "I can think of worse things."

"I can't." The words were out and gone before Starling had even realized she had spoken them. Two words that were irrevocable and unalterable. The one constant Starling had always counted on had now vanished.

"Then I guess there's nothing really left to say," Del replied flatly, her eyes darkening and turning away. "Good-bye, Clarice."

Over a year had passed since that conversation. Ardelia had been the only lover Clarice had ever taken, the only one she had allowed to see even a hint of the fear, pain and terror that nibbled away at the edges of her psyche. Though her body ached for contact, for the feel of hot slick hands inside her... the adjustment hadn't been too bad. Crawford had called her the only true Stoic he had ever known... and she had known then by his tone that it wasn't a compliment. But life went on. Mourning over something she couldn't have, a life she could never live, wouldn't accomplish anything.

Returning her attention to something more productive, she glanced through the photos of the dead women... girls, really... sitting on her kitchen table. If there was one constant in her work, it was the seemingly unending supply of young, pretty women who fell prey to the evil that stalked them. Had she been of a more philosophical bent, Starling might have considered the inevitable attraction of evil to good, but right now all she saw were four dead young girls and the waste of their lives.

Four months, four deaths....

They were all found in secluded areas... in the rain. The death site was not the crime site, and the girls had been posed, as if the UNSUB knew they would be discovered quickly. Little or no trace evidence had been found, and the time between death and discovery of the corpse usually varied.

Somebody in the office had pegged it early on as a lunar cycle... but Starling had done some digging and found a couple of other cases, three and six months back respectively that looked a lot like their guy. A very similar MO with a distinctive geographical progression. He was headed straight towards her. What she didn't know for sure if these two earlier cases were tied in... which would mean he was beginning to unravel and decompensate as the killings came closer and closer together to satisfy his cravings-- much like Bundy did before Chi Omega. Or if it was indeed someone who was just getting started.

If the same UNSUB was responsible for all six deaths, he had remained remarkably consistent and controlled throughout what was presumably a collapse of the last vestiges of his mind. And that made Starling uneasy. On the other hand, if he was only responsible for the four deaths in the last four months, he showed an equally remarkable control, with none of the hesitation marks or panic usually evident in the first kills.

Great... I get my choice... bad or worse.... 

The shrill ringing of the phone interrupted her musings, and with a quiet sigh she picked the cordless up, clicking on the receiver.

"Starling."

Years of working with Clarice Starling had taught her team members that early-morning phone calls rarely awakened their boss. An early nickname, given to her by the press following the Bill case and the revelations of her conversations with Lector, had been Bride of Dracula, which of course, metamorphosed itself into Vampirella as Starling's late night wanderings became known. "We've got another one. Blue Ridge Mountains, just outside of Asheville. Chopper's waiting at Quantico."

"I'm there." Starling clicked the phone off and ducked into her bedroom, grabbing the eternally packed kit that always sat by the bedroom door. It was the first thing she did every time she came back to Virginia. Unpack the kit, remove the dirty clothes and replace them with fresh. Taking the time to pack when a chopper was waiting was a waste of vital time. She dressed in layers, knowing that it was probably raining in North Carolina-- if it was their guy, and if he remained consistent. First thick, well-worn khakis that wouldn't feel nearly as uncomfortable as jeans once they were soaked through with rain. Then a T-shirt, a long-sleeved dark blue corduroy shirt, then an FBI windbreaker for good measure. Study Timberland hiking boots-- one of four pairs she owned-- fit comfortably on her feet. Her gun and ID were the last things she clipped into place, and she grabbed an FBI baseball cap on her way out just to keep the hair out of her face.

She left her apartment in darkness, the rooms as silent as they had been when she was there.

Chapter 2

FBI Academy Quantico, Virginia

The wind blew restlessly around Starling as she jogged over to the helipad, the whirling rotors filling her ears with their roar. In the floodlights surrounding her, she made out the familiar form of Evan Tellis, her favorite chopper pilot, sitting comfortably in the front of the army helicopter. He turned around and grinned, giving her a thumbs up as she clambered aboard. As her eyes adjusted to the sudden dimness of the chopper's interior, she realized that she wasn't alone.

As if aware of the sudden scrutiny, the woman looked up and Starling could see-- even in the uncertain light-- that the pale blue eyes glimmering back at her bore no traces of sleep. A tiny puddle of light from the overhead compartment revealed the woman's hair to be a burnished red, framing an oval face that had a strong air of intelligence and stubborness about it. A small laptop sat on her knees, and her fingers were poised over the keys as she gazed evenly back at Clarice, who had a sudden inexplicable urge to apologize for interrupting. She wore a darkly elegant black trenchcoat that made Starling feel clumsy and awkward in her FBI hat and bright blue windbreaker.

They hung suspended in each other's glance-- blue gazing upon blue endlessly-- until the stranger broke the tableau by closing her laptop. Offering a slim-fingered hand, she smiled. "Hi, I'm Dana Scully. You must be Starling."

---------------------------------

The roar of the chopper made conversation almost impossible, but by taking the seat beside Scully, they were at least able to hear each other.

"Who are you? And why are you here?" Starling tried to keep her voice light. She always worked alone, everybody knew that. A full support team worked behind her, but whenever she went out to a site, she always did so alone.

It was easier to talk to the demons that way....

Scully looked slightly nonplussed, irritated that the woman beside her had been unaware of her arrival. Another long winded explanation... Thanks Skinner... she thought silently. Since the X-Files had been shut down, both she and Mulder had been shuttled from department to department, case-to-case. Nobody, it seemed wanted them, or their eclectic talents. Both she and Mulder had been working unfettered for so long that the stolid hierarchies of the other departments drove them crazy, and in turn made the other agents view them as something close to loose cannons. At least it was true in Mulder's case... her own reputation seemed more or less intact-- surprising after having spent five years with "Spooky" in the basement-- but at least other departments seemed willing to accept her at face value. She supposed she had her eternal skepticism to thank. What most people didn't realize is that at the end-- it had been Mulder who had lost his faith in their mission.

Still, the resentment that she faced as Mulder's partner-- filtered though it was-- was wearing to the agent, and she found herself drifting back into the medical end of her skills. That meant more time at the Academy. Seeing the fresh-faced young students, with their serious demeanors and earnest desire to serve their country reminded Scully of her own days, before she discovered the cynicism and the corruption that infested the Agency. Before the cancer had discovered her and shadowy men had made her their victim. She had survived-- hurt, barren, and scarred-- but alive. The conspiracies she had faced had ruthlessly disabused her of her ideals and faith; the disease and trials had carved away the softness of her face, the curve of her hips... until she was as lean and sleek as a racing hound, with the haunted eyes of one who had endured a cruel master.

She had been asked to teach a pathology course at the Academy for the spring, and she was seriously considering staying on. Scully was at a cross-roads. While she had used the weeks at Quantico to try and regain some inner peace that she so desperately needed, the last five years had instilled in her a love of the hunt that seriously rivaled Mulder's. She just didn't know if she could go back to the safe, but confining, life that the laboratory and teaching theater promised.

When Clarice Starling's request for an FBI pathologist had come to her attention, she had been unable to resist the lure. Although the NCAVC was in a bit of a leadership crisis, her offer of assistance had been accepted with alacrity. Scully had only assumed that whatever powers-that-were had informed Starling.

Obviously, judging from Starling's surprised and slightly irritated expression, this wasn't the case.

"You requested a FBI pathologist to follow up on the four previous cases and any future ones," Scully offered diffidently.

Starling pursed her lips thoughtfully. "I did. But that means I shouldn't see you until the decedant makes it to autopsy. What are you doing here?"

There was a slight, but unmistakable, edge to her voice that raised the hackles on the back of Scully's neck. She knew all about Starling-- or at least the version that FBI gossip put out-- and having experienced the effects of the poisonous grapevine herself, she knew a lot of that had to be dismissed with the proverbial grain of salt. However, Starling's accomplishments couldn't be denied... nor could her solitary persona. Scully had never heard of anyone partnering up with the woman the kind gossips called "Mindwalker" and those not so charitably inclined called "Vampirella." Scully smiled icily. "I've spent the last five years out in the field. There's a lot that the death scene can tell you that the autopsy room can't. I assume you DO want to catch this guy."

The message was loud and clear to Starling: Back the hell off and let me do my job...

--------------------------------------

Starling studied the classic profile of the woman beside her and absorbed the well-modulated timbre of her voice, Lecter's voice echoing in her head...

You know what you look like with your good bag and your cheap shoes? You look like a rube... A well-scrubbed hustling rube... With a little taste. Good nutrition has given you some length of bone, but you're not more than one generation from poor white trash....

Lecter would have never described Dana Scully that way...

No doubt he would have spoken of her in rapturous tones, invoking Modigliani or Rosetti to explain the pale glow of her skin, the perfect curve of her red hair. The glittering intelligence in those blue eyes would have fascinated him, pulled him into an exchange with her...

Just as it did Starling.

"What's a pathologist doing working in the field?" A half-grin played over Starling's face, indicating that Scully's message had been received and understood. "I thought they kept you guys locked away at Quantico."

Scully nodded almost imperceptibly, accepting Starling's unspoken detente. "I started out there after I finished my Academy training, but the next year I was assigned to the X-Files." She held her breath, as if waiting for dramatically lifted brows, suppressed chuckle, or the exclamation of disbelief to accompany her revelation.

Instead, Clarice Starling only nodded. "How is Fox? I heard they shut you guys down, but I didn't realize you were his partner."

Scully stared dumbly at the agent for a moment before recovering. "You know Mulder?"

Starling shrugged. "Not really. He was just leaving NCAVC-- well, back then it was Behavioral Sciences-- as I graduated the Academy. Jack Crawford thought the world of him in spite of his..." she hesitated, "...Unusual... career choices. He hated to see Fox go. Several of his profiles are part of the core curriculum at the Academy. No matter what you think of his extra-terrestrial obsessions, you have to respect his accomplishments."

As Scully smiled-- the first genuine one Starling had seen from the agent-- Clarice noticed the way it reached up into her eyes, seeming to heighten the already lucently vivid blue there. Slowly, the pathologist shook her head. "Your attitude is rare. Most people..."

"People think he's a freak," Starling said bluntly. "I understand that. Those same people think I'm a freak too."

"But you're not," Scully objected, looking at the collected visage of Clarice Starling-- the clenched set of her jaw, the sharp lines of her face. Only her eyes-- that looked almost eternal in their weariness-- gave evidence of the things she had seen. This woman seemed reassuringly sane-- almost unbelievably so.

Clarice laughed ruefully. "Oh yes I am. So is he. Fox and I are a lot alike. From what I've seen and heard, I think there might be only one real difference between us."

"And what is that?" Scully asked, intrigued in spite of herself.

Starling glanced out the window at the darkness beyond. "He thinks evil is out there somewhere..." She tapped the window. "Brought down upon all of us innocents." Starling sighed heavily, the exhaustion of her sleepless nights sinking in unexpectedly. "Unfortunately, my experience has taught me otherwise."

Scully leaned closer to hear the words falling softly from Clarice's lips. "And where do you think it lives?"

Starling smiled tiredly and gently touched the place over Scully's heart and then her own. "In here."

Chapter 3

Blue Ridge Mountains, North Carolina

The rest of the hour-long chopper ride had been a quiet one. An unspoken d�tente had been reached, pending-- Scully suspected-- what Starling thought of her performance in the field. She felt a little like she was back to square one, having to prove herself to Mulder, and that annoyed the pathologist no end. She was five years older, five years wiser... and no one could take away the things she had learned. No matter what Clarice Starling thought, Scully knew she was a damn good agent-- maybe one of the best the Bureau had....

So why do I feel like a rookie fresh out of the Academy? she asked herself ruefully.

Maybe it had something to do with Starling's reserved, but nonetheless commanding, presence. Instead of leaping out of the chopper and shouting directions as most agents would do, she listened quietly as they drove to the scene to the local trooper's report of how the body had been discovered.

"It was around 8:30 last night," the Smokey earnestly explained. He looked painfully young, the shell-shocked expression still in his eyes hours after he had viewed the body. "There's lots of hiking trails just off the main highway, and a couple of folks had stopped to take the short trail that led down to the river."

Scully frowned. "What we're they doing hiking at 8:30 at night?"

"Well, ma'am, it doesn't really get dark this time of year until after nine..." He smiled sheepishly. "And it's kind of a romantic spot down there..." The reddened flush of his cheeks indicated he had first-hand knowledge of this little tidbit.

Scully and Starling exchanged bemused glances.

"So they were hiking down the trail..." Starling prompted as they arrived at the scene and clambered out of the car, still listening to the young officer's story.

"Yes, ma'am. And they said they could see..." Stumbling over the memory of what he had seen, he cleared his throat and tried again. "They said they could see her clearly from the trail. Plain as anything."

"Ritual," Starling muttered so low Scully barely heard her and the Smokey remained oblivious. "What happened then?"

"One of 'em-- I think it was the guy, he had a cell phone and called 911. They got us up here, and we called the county folks. They're the ones that called you I think."

"Not exactly standard procedures for a county sheriff to call the Bureau," Scully murmured to her new ad hoc partner.

"We've got us a hot dog." Starling grinned at her in glee. "Somebody plugged the details of the crime scene into VICAP, got a hit."

Scully arched a dubious eyebrow as she clambered down the steep incline with Starling. "Here?" In the middle of nowhere with a Smokey who looks like he should be doing Clearasil commercials instead of carrying a gun?

"It's the electronic age, Scully." She shrugged blandly. "All you need's one of those little laptops like yours and you can do just about anything." A particularly narrow part of the trail thrust the women together, and Starling's hand shot out to steady the pathologist. "Careful. It's slippery."

Scully grimaced as she regained her balance, cursing her worn boots softly. "Yeah, and my Timberlands are about shot. I keep meaning to replace them, but..."

"Too much time in the teaching theater," Starling replied dryly, but the quiet gleam in her eye belied the comment. She had taken in the pathologist's well-cut trousers and thick cotton shirt with an approving glance. Scully was obviously no stranger to the field, and she moved along the uneven terrain with a practiced air-- her slick hiking boots notwithstanding. Starling felt her anxiety level drop a notch in the face of the other agent's obvious familiarity with their circumstances.

For her part, Scully merely arched a contemplative brow and continued her trek along the pathway.

It didn't take much to reach the site-- the place was floodlit with spots to ward off the shadows of the coming dawn. Starling immediately noticed a dapper man in completely impractical shoes pacing impatiently at the scene's edge. She nudged the pathologist. "I'll bet you dinner tonight that's our hot-dog."

Scully snorted. "No argument there. He looks like a poster child for an episode of Miami Vice."

"Well, let's see what our boy has to say," Starling replied. "At least he had the smarts to use VICAP, most local people don't."

"That's because most local departments barely have the money to keep their officers on the street. Forget about computers and training." An enthusiastic disciple of the cult of technology, Scully had little patience for those who saw computers as an instrument of Satan and the coming Y2K problem as the first sign of the Apocalypse. "They just don't see it as important."

Starling smothered a smile at the quiet irritation in Scully's voice. She nodded in the detective's direction. "You want to talk to him while I take a walk around the scene? Then we can switch?"

Although the statement was framed as a question, there was no mistaking the tone of authority in Starling's voice. Scully suspected that the command had less to do with her own capabilities and much more to do with Starling's preference for working alone. It only made sense that she would want her first impressions of the scene to be unsullied by an unfamiliar partner's presence.

"No problem," she acceded gracefully, noting-- but not commenting-- on the relief in the other woman's pale blue eyes.

Starling nodded with a tight, controlled gesture, her eyes already scanning the coldly lit area around her. Her mind dismissed Scully, who sighed softly and shook her head as she watched her new partner absorb her surroundings.

---------------------------------

"Such a clever girl, Clarice. You're so close to the way you're going to catch him..."

Lecter had taught her the first rule-- simplicity. Everything she needed to catch her killer was right in front of her. She just had to see it. Starling prowled silently at the edges of the scene, getting a feel for the portrait the killer wanted to paint. Over the years she had seen cops and agents go immediately to the body-- as if held the only evidence of consequence. But vital information was all around them-- in the choice of the location, in the position of the body, in the pattern of disturbed plants on the ground.

Spring was nibbling gently at the edges of these Carolina foothills. The days were sunny and warm, but the nights were still cool. And while the hour of the false dawn wwas the coolest time of all, the shiver that ran down Starling's spine had nothing to do with the weather.

The harsh floodlights made the crime scene eerily reminiscent of all the latest Hollywood blockbusters. According to the movies, there were only two kinds of men-- cops and killers. And only one kind of women-- victims, all. Unfortunately for the the young woman that this corpse used to be-- when those floodlights were turned off, she wasn't going to get up, wipe off the makeup, and go home.

The portrait before her was almost boring in its repetitive familiarity. The body lay on its back, knees up and legs spread in a grotesque parody of the missionary position. The base of a currently unidentifiable object-- which Starling knew from the UNSUB's last victims would turn out to be an all-too common sex toy-- protruded from the dead girl's vaginal opening. Her hands had been cut off and neatly placed just to the right of the victim's head. Her left breast had also received similar treatment and now resided in the victim's mouth. There was a significant lack of blood at the scene-- indicating that the UNSUB had either killed his victim elsewhere, or that the injuries had been inflicted postmortem. Judging from the lack of disturbance in the foliage and the open nature of the area, Starling feared that the girl hadn't been spared any pain.

It was a picture she had gone to sleep with the last three months... the live memories of the scenes she had visited mingled seamlessly with the photos she studied, posted to her task board, and left sprawled carelessly around her kitchen table. She lived with those girls now, and their faces were among those who silently bore witness to her dreamscape's flight. They were legion now... never joining the pursuit, never questioning why she ran... and they were eternally silent....

Catching Bill had silenced the screaming-- Lecter was right about that much. But it hadn't sent them away. Now as they watched, each victim's face bore witness to her own suffering, just as she had seen and re-lived theirs.

By rights they should have offered her some sort of peace, of comfort-- at least Clarice had brought their killers to judgment-- but they did nothing of the sort. Instead they watched her-- not with the vacant, staring eyes of death-- but with the vibrant blues and browns and greens that they had possessed in life. And did nothing. They watched her run... heard her gasping for breath... and, more rarely, scream... Still they did nothing.

Another pair of eyes were regarding her now-- she could feel their cool focus-- and she turned to find Dana Scully's gaze fixed upon her unwaveringly. Instead of the ghoulish anticipation that she had seen mirrored in so many other people's glance, Scully's eyes held only a detached professionalism that was oddly reassuring to Starling.

She crossed the few steps that separated her from her new partner. "How's it going?" Scully asked in a low tone.

"It's our guy," she replied without hesitation, only fleetingly wondering how it so quickly became their case and not hers alone.

"You're sure."

"Dead bang."

A impatient clearing of the throat brought Starling's attention to the hovering detective in the impractical shoes. "Clarice Starling, this is Robert Merriam."

"Agent Starling--" He pumped her offered hand enthusiastically. "You're the SAC? Boy, you guys move quick. It couldn't have been more than an hour after I got the VICAP hit that I got a call you were en route."

The jargon-- and Scully's wry smile-- clued Starling in to a thing or two. Merriam had ambitions, and he saw this case as a means to achieve these ambitions. "Agent Scully and I are working the case, yes," she answered noncommittally.

"Was I right?"

"On the surface it seems to match a pattern of recent homicides, yes. Agent Scully is a pathologist and she'll be able to tell more about the specific circumstances of death. Until then, we really can't say."

His clear, angular features frowned in serious agreement. "I understand," he intoned, although he clearly didn't. "I just want to keep apprised of the situation."

He just wants to make sure he gets any credit due...

Starling thought to herself, but without guys like this, her job would be twice as hard. Taking a deep breath, she smiled at him. "Of course you do. I appreciate the call. It was some fast thinking to feed it into VICAP. I can't thank you enough."

He flushed under the quiet praise, and Starling saw just how young he was. Doesn't this town have any adults? she wondered, looking from the detective to the Smokey to the young couple who sat miserably in the back of the Sheriff's SUV police vehicle. "Those the witnesses?" she asked, more to Scully that Merriam. She would read the detective's report later and confer with Scully about what she had learned from him, but right now her attention was on the scene and those who had first stumbled upon it.

Scully glanced down at her notes. "Sally Hughes and Darrell Patrick." She paused. "They're pretty shaken up. You want to go talk to them?" She tucked the small notebook away and pulled a pair of latex gloves from the same pocket. "I'll take a look over here." Before pulling the gloves on, she rain a hand through her damp hair, pushing it off her forehead. The drizzle had stopped, and the air around them was fragrant with the earthy smells of life and-- Scully thought sadly-- death. "If you've seen everything you need to, I'll finish up with the site so we can get her out here."

Her-- not the body-- Scully was beginning the long process of restoring the dead girl's humanity, and Starling nodded her assent with grateful eyes.

As she studied the lean figure of her new partner striding confidently to the site, a dawning thought warmed Starling's chilled skin... This might just work out, after all...

Chapter 4

Motel 6 Asheville, North Carolina

The only thing Dana Scully wanted right now was a long hot bath and a glass ...or three... of wine. Though she had told Starling she would "finish up with the site," the process had taken several hours before the victim could be loaded into an EMT van and moved to a local funeral home. To her chagrin, she had discovered that the coroner in Asheville was an elected position-- meaning the man in charge wasn't a pathologist-- and all their wrongful death cases were sent to the state pathology office in Raleigh for autopsy. The rest of the morning and afternoon were taken up by a preliminary examination of the victim, in which she and Starling were forced to confront up close the horror of what had befallen this young girl.

Although her head ached from hunger, she was perversely grateful that she hadn't had time to eat. For the first time in her career, she wasn't certain she could have stopped her stomach from rebelling at the combination of food and the task before her. Since medical school she had dispassionately dissected bodies, both in labs and morgues. She had examined the victims of foul play, seen everything from corpses burnt beyond recognition to those killed by gunshot wounds to those who had died by means still unidentifiable to human eyes. Nothing, however, affected her the way deliberate cruelty did. Violation-- and what had happened to this girl and the six others previously was nothing short of the ultimate violation-- was abhorrent to her. Her linear mind made her the perfect complement to Mulder's abstract patterns of thought, but it rendered her almost incapable of comprehending a person who enjoyed inflicting this kind of ferocious savagery. On this case she was completely at sea, lost for what to feel about it.

She needed time to process what she had seen-- and even more, to absorb Clarice Starling's almost nonchalant acceptance of everything that had happened-- so when the desk clerk cautiously inquired if she was "that FBI lady?" Dana shot him a cold look.

"Is there a problem?" she asked quietly, the steely tone belying the soft words.

The clerk-- another underage cherub, Scully noticed with a weary eye-- flinched under the gaze. "Well, ma'am, it's just um... you see..."

"Scully!" Starling's clipped voice cut through the low murmur of traffic around them. "Hey... we're in Room 491."

A pale brow lifted lazily. "We?" This was something new. Icy eyes swiveled to pin the already-squirming clerk.

"It's Belle Chere," the clerk gulped by way of explanation.

"Who is Belle Chere?" Scully inquired, feeling her blood pressure inching towards the explosive level.

Starling chuckled dryly, seemingly oblivious to Scully's rising temper. "It's not a who, it's a what. Some kind of art festival. The entire town's packed." She lowered her voice so that only Scully could hear. "Which means finding our boy's going to be twice as hard. But given the crowds, he may stick around a little while." Her eyes seemed to shrug at Scully, the pale blue saying, We've got to take the good with the bad.

"What does this have to do with my room?" she asked Starling, seeing that she was getting nowhere with Opie Taylor there behind the desk.

"You don't have a room," Starling explained. "If they had told me you were coming, I would've had standing orders for an additional room. As it is..." Her voice trailed off.

"I'm bunking with you." If Scully hadn't been already close to passed out on her feet, she probably would have cried.

"It's a double," the clerk offered helpfully.

At least I get my own bed... Scully thought balefully, wondering what she would have done if this had happened with Mulder. He probably would have slept in the car... she mused... Or spent the night at a porno theater.. It then occurred to her that there weren't any porno theaters this deep in the Bible Belt, so Mulder's absence was probably a good thing.

Her eyes returned to Starling, who was gazing at her almost sympathetically.

Clarice extended a hesitant hand, the slender fingers falling short of Scully's sleeve. A slight gesture carried them out of their clerk's hearing range. "Look... I'm going to go pick us up something for dinner. There's another storm on the way, and I figured you wouldn't want to be out in it anymore than I do. Why don't you go on up to the room, take a shower and peruse the old case files? I don't know how much time you had to get familiar with the priors..." Her voice trailed off, leaving an opening for Scully who nodded with ill-concealed relief, hating herself at the same time for so desperately needing the time alone.

"I was able to glance at them, but I wasn't expecting to get called less than twenty-four hours later," she confessed.

"I never am either," Starling agreed with a wry grin that disappeared almost as quickly as it arrived. "G'wan upstairs. Any preferences for dinner?"

Scully shook her head tiredly. "Nothing greasy," she answered, recalling Mulder's fondness for local diner cuisine.

"Agreed." Starling half-turned to go, then swiveled back to face her new partner, an uncertain look on her face. "Uh... I was planning on stopping by the local ABC store. Something I can pick up for you?"

Discreetly not mentioning that they were both technically on duty and such beverages were verboten under the circumstances.

Scully mentally debated the point-- it was academic really. Were she at home, the wine would already be open. "Some chardonnay would be great," she admitted. "It's been..."

"A godawful day," Starling finished for her, the enigmatic half-smile reappearing.

Scully fleetingly wondered if the woman were capable of a smile that reached the arctic depths of those implacable eyes. Remembering the agent's response to the day's events, she doubted it. "Yeah, something like that."

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Chardonnay...

Starling thought as she crossed the busy downtown street towards the restaurant the clerk had recommended.

"A census taker tried to test me once. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti..."

Involuntarily her mind flickered back to the only gourmand she had ever known, and a macabre thought occurred to her. "He'd know what kind of wine she'd like," she muttered aloud, ignoring the swirling crowd around her. She didn't know what it was about Dana Scully that... unsettled.. her so much. Oh get real, Starling... She intimidates the hell out of you... she ruthlessly told herself, remembering the agent's impeccable tailoring, her no-nonsense demeanor, and her ruthlessly efficient-- yet compassionate-- way of handling their UNSUB's latest victim.

After they'd printed and photographed the girl-- officially determined for the record she'd been the victim of foul play-- Clarice had found the nearest soda machine and punched out two Cokes, handing one to Scully. The agent had looked blank-faced at her until Starling had cracked her half-smile and lifted her dark hair, placing the icy can at the base of her neck.

Scully had nodded imperceptibly at the familiar gesture and did the same, audibly sighing in relief at the coldness. "Where'd you learn this?"

"Habit I got into early on," Starling offered diffidently, unwilling to confide so readily in this woman, although something told her that she could and that her words would remain sacrosanct. Maybe it's the cross she wears... Starling had thought at the time, noticing the discreet pendant, the only jewelry the red-head wore.

Jerking herself back to the present tense, Starling looked intently at the streets signs, searching for Haywood Street. The clerk had said that she couldn't miss it... it was one of the biggest streets in an already small town. So she flowed easily with the traffic, content in her wanderings and knowing that Scully probably appreciated the time alone as much as she did.

She found the restaurant, a place amusingly named "The Bier Garden." Starling chuckled softly, taking in the traffic around her-- cataloguing the people around her almost automatically and recognizing that none of them posed a threat. She carried a gun at all times, although the baggy width of her blazer concealed it gracelessly. Unlike Special Agent Dana Scully... she considered ruefully. Scully's trenchcoat was trim and tailored and had effortlessly hidden the Sig P220 that she wore on her hip. Starling had exchanged the glaring dark blue and yellow FBI windbreaker as quickly and discreetly as she could after they left the scene, the hackles on the back of her neck rising as she watched Scully take in and seem to find wanting the Macy's off the rack blazer she had put on in its stead.

"What?" The inquisitive, bright eyes of the maitre d took her off guard. Shaking her head to clear the fuzziness-- a combination of the exhaustion of the day and her scattered thoughts about the new woman who was her partner-- Starling smiled at the young man, the gesture not reaching her eyes.

"Table for one?" he repeated. Starling took in his figure. Thick dark hair fell casually around his forehead, framing a strongly shaped face. The white shirt did attractive justice to his dark skin, and she noticed that the tie he wore was a silk version of Munch's "The Scream."

"Uh... no, actually..." She looked around the small restaurant. Discreetly elegant lighting flickered in scones along the walls, and plants hung from every corner of the room drooping down bare inches above the patron's heads. The clientele was a confident mix of eternally upwardly-bound young people, with well-fitted clothes and impressive degrees. It was exactly the sort of place that normally made Starling's skin crawl... but oddly, she found herself regretting she was ordering to go. Maybe Scully and I can come back later... The thought escaped before she had time to put a leash on it, and mentally Clarice smacked herself upside the head for the larcenous thought. Why are you so determined to impress this woman? she asked herself as she ordered the special for herself and a chicken Caesar salad for the woman waiting back in their hotel room. Well, she said nothing greasy. The maitre'd took her order with a professional nod, and Starling surprised herself again by asking for a wine recommendation.

"A chardonnay?" he asked, reassessing the woman in front of him with a new eye. "Hmm... Well, it depends," he replied, his green eyes taking on a conspiratorial gleam. His voice rose an octave, and Starling recognized the shift in his expression from a boy doing his job to a brother recognizing a sister. She'd bet a million dollars that the lad had bumper sticker that said Hate Is Not a Family Value on his Honda Civic. His expression was so kindly she almost didn't regret being clocked. "If you're trying to impress... someone..." He paused significantly. "I'd go with a Clos Pegase. It's a California chardonnay so it's not too pretentious. But if... they... enjoy their wine... they'll notice." He grinned at her and raised a hand in the air as if to say, "Score!" "It'll be about fifteen minutes before your order is ready. You've got plenty of time to run down the street to Zack's. It's down a block and a half, take a right.. you can't miss it. Pick up your wine." He patted her reassuringly on the arm, and Starling looked up at him-- startled by the gesture. It was the first time in over a year that someone had touched her, and the unnatural feel of skin on skin further jolted her composure. "Your dinners will be waiting by the time you get back."

Starling glanced around uncertainly. "You sure?"

"Don't worry, darlin'" He waved a dismissive hand, a sparkle in his eye. "I'll take good care of you. Run along and get your wine now."

---------------------------------

The scalding heat from the bath had leached at least some of the tension from Scully's body. There was a small AM/FM radio in the room, and she had managed to find the local NPR station, but they were in the middle of a pledge drive. The incessant talking had forced Scully to abandon any hope for a nice Bach concerto and settle for the local classic rock station. She'd take Eric Clapton during his Derek and the Dominos years over pleas for money any day.

She slipped from the bath as Clapton serenaded Layla with wailing guitar and raw voice. Maybe they'd play "Cocaine" later, she mused, sliding on thick FBI sweatpants and a black T-shirt that had a picture of the Michelin tire man with an alien's head superimposed on the body. It had been her Christmas present last year from Mulder.

Sometimes her partner had a really sick sense of humor.

A quiet clicking at the door drew her attention away from the lap top that sat precariously on her legs, and she looked up to see Starling let herself into the room carrying two styrofoam containers and a weighty-looking brown paper sack.

Scully scrambled off the bed and helped the other agent with her parcels, sitting the dinners down on the closest matress. "You've got a handful there," she commented.

Starling nodded in greeting, taking in the damp tendrils of red hair that clung to Scully's forehead and the woman's unmistakably relaxed stance. The faint scent of bath salts-- the generic hotel kind-- tickled her nostrils. Looks like the time alone was a good thing... she considered silently. The forced intimacy of the situation compelled her to look at Scully with different eyes-- a gaze that she knew would be returned later in the evening, when she stripped off her own FBI protection and rendered herself just an ordinary woman.

"You said nothing greasy-- I got you a chicken Caesar salad." Starling awkwardly indicated one of the styrofoam containers.

"Great," Scully nodded, just as ill-at-ease with the agent. Her partnership with Mulder has been forged over the past fire years, tempered by life-threatening cases and shared trials. She didn't know how to begin to talk to this woman who was as taciturn as Scully herself on a bad day. "That's just what I need. Nothing heavy..." She forced a smile to her face. "Perfect."

Starling nodded, a little too vigorously for the mundane subject. "Oh... " She pulled a slender bottle from the bag in her right arm. "Here... You said chardonnay, right?" Knowing good and damn well what Scully had asked for.

Scully took in the bottle's label, a brow lifting approvingly at as she read. The first geniune smile Starling had ever seen from Dana Scully slipped over the red-head's lips, reaching up and brushing her eyes-- lighting the blue within.

Clarice Starling felt the breath catch in her throat, and the words she had been about to speak were forgotten as she simply relaxed into the warm regard of that smile and those eyes. Metaphors and similes had never been Starling's strong suite-- her powers of description were clinical in the best sense of the word-- but now she found herself reaching for comparisons beyond her ken, nothing in her experience preparing her for the simple beauty of the right woman smiling at her at the right time.

"Don't you feel eyes moving over you every day, Clarice, in chance encounters? And don't your eyes in turn seek out the things you want?"

Starling had never consciously sought out anything in her life before... but that expression in this woman's eyes... it was something she knew she would look for-- consciously or no-- for the rest of their partnership.

"You like it?" she asked hesitantly.

"It's one of my favorites," Scully replied, startled by the anxious look in the other agent's eyes. "Thank you, Clarice."

Starling brushed off Scully's gratitude with a wave of her hand, just as uneasy with the expression in Scully eyes as she was eager for it to return. "No problem," she said softly. "You hungry?"

Dana chuckled softly, surprised to find only a quiet rumble in her stomach and none of the anxious roiling she had carried with her all day. "Starving," she replied honestly. "Let's eat."

Chapter 5

Tacit agreement kept the subject of their investigation tabled during dinner. Instead, the two women made rather desultory small talk over names in the Bureau they both recognized-- until the two glasses of wine Scully downed in rather rapid fashion and the first of Starling's six pack of Rolling Rock began to hit home.

As the classic rock station slid into some endless music marathon-- beginning, they both noted ironically, with "Don't Fear the Reaper"-- Scully felt the last hours' tension begin oozing its way out of her muscles. The Clos Pegase was excellent; and while the salad took the edge off her hunger and settled her aching stomach, it wasn't exactly substantial. The combined result was a very pleasant lightheadedness that enabled the pathologist to slip outside the tumultuous eddies of the last hours and pay closer attention to the other occupant of the hotel room.

She's not much for small talk, that's for sure...

Scully considered, watching Starling methodically devour her roast beef and garlic mashed potatoes. But then again, neither am I... she admitted with an internal smile. There was something else, however, about Clarice Starling that was like no one else Scully had ever met.

Whether she liked it or not, the entire world knew who this petite, dark-haired, intense-eyed woman was-- Hannibal Lecter and Jame Gumb had seen to that. Succeeding where other legendary FBI agents like Will Graham and Jack Crawford had failed, Starling had connected with the wily sociopath Lecter and used his expertise to catch a killer. That she was still a student when she did so only made the legend more remarkable. Scully was no stranger to driving ambition herself-- her career trajectory attested to that-- and in Starling's quiet intensity she recognized a spark similar to her own. But while Scully knew that her own accomplishments were fueled by a desire both to seek the truth and to serve her country, Dana couldn't for the life of her figure out what would compel someone spend her life chasing monsters in the shadows.

"Are you still hungry?" the low voice from across the room jolted Scully back abruptly from her musings.

"Excuse me?"

Starling smiled wryly and opened her second beer. "You were staring at my dinner. I know that salad probably wasn't much. Want some of mine?"

Scully felt a deep blush rising in her cheeks. Starling had noticed her scrutiny but thankfully was willing to attribute it to something else. Way to go, Dana, alienate your new partner on the first day... but I guess she's used to it, huh? "I'm sorry, I didn't realize I was staring. I was just thinking..." she trailed off, at a loss for what to say.

"About the case?" The light in Starling's eyes quickened, as if that was all that mattered.

"Actually..." she improvised, "I was thinking how much this room reminded me of the dorms at Quantico." The words were true enough-- the Spartan accommodations of the Motel 6 uncannily resembled those provided to Academy students-- and the apprehension Scully felt in Starling's presence echoed the uneasy appraisal she had seen in her first roommate's eyes. It had been hard, walking in that door the first day, knowing that twenty percent of the students would be cut from the program-- regardless of their qualifications. Scully's Phi Beta Kappa, her Magna Cum Laude, and her recently acquired MD hadn't meant a damn thing to her Academy Instructors-- to them, she was just another golden child among many.

Looking around the room, Starling nodded her agreement. She didn't mention that the tiny 20' x 20' room she had shared with Ardelia had been the only thing close to a "home" she had known since the death of her father.

She and Ardelia had been happy after a fashion... working their asses off... running the Yellow Brick Road until they thought they would puke... studying at all hours... and snatching quiet moments away from everyone else to hold each other in the dim light of a single candle. Ardelia had quieted the roaring ache inside Clarice's soul... quieted it, but never filled or silenced it. Invariably Clarice would turn away from her lover, unable to accept the invasion of tenderness into her soul...

"Starling?" Now it was Scully's turn to wonder what had brought the faraway look into her new partner's eyes.

"Sorry. Woolgathering." She made a brief attempt at a grin, but it failed miserably-- never even reaching her mouth, much less her eyes. "What was it like for you?" she asked abruptly. "The Academy, I mean."

Scully arched a pale brow at the unexpected question. It was an opening of sorts... odd though it was... a way to bridge the coolly professional distance they had established between them. Scully hesitated only a moment before accepting it. "Well, after the first day I thought I might have been insane for joining up. After the first week I was convinced I was." She laughed at the memory of the frazzled, exhausted, and completely overwhelmed young woman she had been. She had thought of quitting-- walking away from the brutal discipline the had Academy taught and returning to the comparatively simple life of a resident-- but failure was not an option in the Scully household. So, a young Dana Scully had dug deep inside... and discovered an unyielding backbone of steel at her core.

Quantico hadn't been the first test of her mettle, but it had certainly been the first one to make her question her own resolve, attributes, and abilities. The Academy had been her first test of fire... the craving for her instructors' approval and the satiety of success when they handed her that badge...

Special Agent Dana Scully.

Now, years later-- here she was, in a hotel room with a woman who brought all those niggling insecurities of that younger version of herself to vivid life.

"Joining up?" Starling's question interrupted the train of Scully's thoughts before it left the station. "You make it sound like the military."

Scully shrugged ruefully. "Sorry. Family hazard. I'm a Navy brat-- my father and two brothers. We never do anything halfway."

"Serving God and country, huh?" Starling looked thoughtfully at the small woman across from her. It made a perfect sort of sense, she considered, noticing-- not for the first time-- the straight set of Scully's shoulders and the easy grace in the way she moved. A uniform would look good on her... "Why didn't you just follow in your family's footsteps?" Even wearing sweatpants and that ridiculous T-shirt, the red-head exuded an unmistakable air of authority, and Starling had no trouble believing that others would follow her commands without hesitation.

"What do you mean?" Scully's eyes focused on Clarice with unnerving coolness.

"I'm sorry, it's none of my business." Starling retreated from the conversation, sensing she was on the very of going too far. "It just seemed like a natural path for you-- that's all." She shrugged and stood up, breaking eye contact and ending the conversation. "Look, I'm going to grab a shower. We can talk about the case afterwards. Okay?" Not waiting for Scully's nod of assent, she grabbed a bundle of clothes and disappeared with them into the tiny bathroom.

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With the door shut and the water sluicing off her skin, Starling turned the brief exchange over in her mind. Long ago she had learned that identity is constructed out of the intersections of experience and emotion. Sometimes those intersections were smooth-- either easy conjoinings or simply worn down by the passage of time and the shedding of many tears. Sometimes those intersections could be sharp-- painful or unexamined reminders of what had been, what might have been, or what never would be. Remembering the alabaster stillness of Scully's face, Starling knew immediately she had stumbled across something very sharp in Dana Scully's soul.

That surprised her. Based on what she had seen previously, Scully was smoothly tempered steel-- cool to the touch and impossible to get a handle on. Sharp people were unprotected-- the roiling conflicts in their souls made them vulnerable to others and left their soft emotional underbellies exposed. Sharp people let others in... unwittingly or no... and Starling couldn't imagine Scully allowing that to happen.

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Why didn't you join the Navy?

was essentially what Starling had asked her... and as Scully poured herself another glass of wine, she realized with shock that no one had ever asked her that question. She hadn't even asked it of herself.

Her family had been Navy through and through... each step along the ladder of rank was considered a promotion for the whole family, and everybody had their own part to play. Within Ahab's small inner circle of officers whose careers had paralleled his own, the men were officers and the women... well, the women were wives. For as long as she could remember it had been expected that the boys would follow their father into the service... and Melissa's own interests had never interfered with the expectations everyone had for her future.

But Dana... growing up she had been a miniaturized, red-headed version of her father. She had inherited his boundless courage, his reckless love of the sea, and his fiery temper... and Ahab had loved her for all those qualities.

To this day, Scully didn't know when that loving indulgence had changed. Somewhere between her adolescence and young adulthood, her father's fond smile had twisted into a thin line of disapproval. Act like a lady... replaced That's my girl... as his mantra, and pretty soon it seemed to the sixteen year-old Dana that her father had forsaken her entirely-- turning his attention to the the sons who would carry on his name and Naval tradition.

For Dana, however, pleasing her father had become such an ingrained habit, that she threw herself with all the passion of broken-hearted youth into the quest to bring that smile back to her father's face. The tomboyish blue jeans and baseball caps went away, along with her rebellious habit of arguing at the dinner table. But Dana couldn't turn off the inquisitive mind she was born with or stop the burning desire to be more than what everyone seemed to expect her to be.

Her father always teased her that the first word out of Dana's mouth wasn't "Mommy" or "Daddy" it was "WHY?" Why had she been born, why was there a day and a night, why was the sky blue. It was easy to answer her questions at first... but as she got older... those questions became harder and harder... until finally, Dana realized that Ahab didn't have all the answers.

She threw herself into science... something that could be measured, weighed, tested, and ultimately... understood. It was the path to medicine... to pathology... dissecting the human body to understand how it worked... never realizing that the need for love, respect and understanding could never be quantified or qualified by the Scientific Method...

Forcibly turning her thoughts away from the shadowy paths they had begun to explore, Scully focused instead on the stack of case files she pulled from her brief case. Their guy was remarkably consistent, she thought, studying the women who were posed so identically that-- except for their faces-- they were interchangeable.

Which, in a way, was exactly what they were. The six bodies-- now seven-- were grisly substitute targets for the rage this man couldn't take out on its true source. Scully ran an agitated hand through her hair and examined the photographs more closely. She understood killing in self-defense-- she had done that herself. She understood killing to protect one's home or family. But this... horror... that made no sense except to the man who committed these acts. Slowly, she shook her head. She didn't know what was worse-- the way these women died, or why.

Random luck seemed to have chosen these girls, for nothing in their physical characteristics or backgrounds tied them together. Of course, now they were linked forever. Seven girls. Seven identical rituals. Pale blue narrowed... How..?

Seeing Starling emerge from the bathroom vigorously toweling her hair dry, Scully gave voice to her thought. "How did the Bureau jump on this so early? I mean it usually takes at least three killings in a central area for a local department to start thinking serial-- and here you don't have that. Logically, we shouldn't even know this guy exists, much less have this much paper on him." She waved the case files at Starling who nodded tiredly and flopped down on the bed.

She was glad to see Scully's attention was on the case and not the uneasy conversation they had just had. "Noticed that, huh?" she asked, opening another beer.

"It's hard not to."

"Turns out one of the victims-- the Jackson one, Veronica Harris-- has a sister. Who just happens to be Belinda Harris." She waited for Scully to connect the dots.

"The true crime writer?" Scully groaned. Harris had approached her shortly after the Donnie Pfister case wanting to write about the Vampire Killer. Scully had steadfastly refused to talk to her, and when Harris discovered that Donnie had only actually killed one woman-- and just a prostitute at that-- mercifully she had lost interest in doing the book.

Starling nodded grimly. "The way her sister was murdered-- well, you can imagine that set off all sorts of bells and whistles in her head. She did a little digging and came up with Samantha Edwards-- murdered one month prior in an identical fashion. That's when she came to me."

"Why you?"

"Because she knew I'd listen," Starling replied, her mouth tightening. "And because she wrote that book."

That book was "Mating With a Monster: The Strange Bond Between a Killer and a Cop," and it had sat on the New York Times Bestseller List for weeks. Starling and the Bureau had refused any participation in the project, but the Baltimore mental hospital where Lecter had been locked up had proven about as secure as a leaky sieve, and the more peripheral players in the case had been most willing to talk. Harris had arrived in the big time. Jerry Springer gave her the whole hour. So did Sally Jessy, Geraldo, and Jenny Jones. For the most part, Clarice kept her head down and went on with her business, hoping that the circus-goers would find another freak to stare at.

She had lost her cool only once. Working a string of unsolved child homicides in Dallas, Starling had been tracked down by Harris and a camera crew from "Inside Edition." As she left the scene of the latest murder, Starling's mind had been swamped by images of this innocent who had mutilated so badly she didn't know how his parents were going to make a positive identification. Unfortunately for them, that's when Harris and crew pounced.

"Agent Starling... an inside source at the Bureau says that you and Jack Crawford have become lovers. How does he feel about your past relationship with Hannibal Lecter?"

Starling's body reacted before she even had time to think about it... her right hand shot out in a perfect arc, backhanding Harris and bloodying her nose. Brushing past the now-squealing reporter, Starling continued on her way without a word.

And, of course, the camera had captured it all.

"What does she want?" Scully's soft question broke her reverie.

Starling paused a moment, thinking. "I believe she genuinely wants to find her sister's killer." Then she laughed mirthlessly. "Of course, any ancillary benefits-- like a book and another shot at me-- are welcome just the same."

"She holding a grudge?" Scully remembered the camera incident vividly. It had produced a flurry of inter-office memos and reminders about "protocol when dealing with the press."

"Who knows?" Starling replied, wanting to get on to the matter at hand. "The upshot is that she's breathing down our necks." That word again... 'our.' Starling didn't stop to consider it. "She'll probably be here tomorrow. That woman's plugged into so many different sources, there's no way to freeze her out, and we'll just waste precious time trying if we try."

"I guess we'll deal with her then," Scully agreed, closing the subject and opening her notes on the victim they'd examined this morning. "We're going to have to go to Raleigh for the official post, but preliminary indications are that the victim died in a manner consistent with the other cases. Ligature marks and abrasions on the neck indicate that she was strangled. Probably with a rope or leather belt."

"What are you basing your conclusions on?"

"Well... when someone has their hands around your neck, like this..." She knelt beside Starling on the bed, wrapping her slender fingers around Starling's throat. "Feel how the pressure is distributed from each finger?"

Scully's hands were cool and smooth, covering the pulse that flared softly in Starling's neck. Though the touch was fleeting and clinical, Starling had no trouble feeling the shape of each of those fingers on her skin.

If Scully noticed the small start ripple through Starling's skin, she chose to ignore it as she released Starling and leaned back. "See how the ligature marks on the victims are in a relatively consistent and thin band? If the killer had used his hands the marks would be separated and distinct, all along the neck. And we'd at least have a good notion of the size of his hands."

Starling sighed regretfully. "We haven't gotten that lucky." Knowing that if they had his hands, they would have a strong foundation to base his build and size. "What about the wrist wounds?"

"I won't know for sure until I boil down the radius and the ulna, but judging from the tear wounds on the skin, I'd say a garden variety hacksaw. The tears were jagged and uneven, I'm betting the striations on the bones will show the same thing. An electric saw would give a smoother cut, although the skin would still be chewed." She flipped through the other cases, looking at the autopsy files and noticing the other pathologists conclusions.

"Do you think the wounds were postmortem?" Starling was running her through the basic questions, and Scully couldn't figure out if it was to review the most pertinent information on the case or to test her competency. She hoped after the day they had just spent together, that it was the former and not the latter motivating her new partner.

She shrugged. "It's possible, but without seeing the crime scene, I can't say for sure. Postmortem wounds don't bleed, but since the discovery site isn't where the murder took place, anything I say is pure conjecture. Same thing with the breast wound. What blood the killer didn't wash off-- the rain did." She glanced at her partner-- Starling's blue eyes were cloudy and unseeing, focusing inward and unmindful of the empty beer bottle she turned in her hands. "What is it?" Scully asked quietly. "What's bothering you?"

Slowly, the brightness returned to Starling's eyes as she fixed her gaze on Scully. "Doesn't this seem too... tidy to you?"

"What do you mean?"

Starling stood, running a hand through her damp hair, and paced the length of the room in short, measured steps. "Crime classification pegs this guy as a sexual sadist."

"Because of the object in her vagina and the mutilation to her breast."

"Right. But..." Starling shook her head. "There's not enough damage."

Remembering the girl's cut off hands and breast, Scully wonder how much damage would be considered enough. She arched a brow as if to say "go on..."

"What gets a sadist off is the pain he inflicts on his victims-- especially if he's impotent in other ways."

"As would seem to be indicated in this case."

"Right... but in most cases... those are the girls who get torn up the most." Starling rubbed her face, grasping for the words to explain what she dealt with every day. "He takes his inability to complete the sex act out on the victim-- usually by mutilating, stabbing, and disfiguring them. And if they use penis substitutes it's more likely to be something found at the site rather than an object specifically designed for sexual pleasure."

"Because he never plans on not finishing what he's started."

"Exactly. The ritual, the violence, the control gets him excited... so he thinks he can finish. But that's not what arouses him. So when he tries to complete the sexual part of the act, he fails. Loses control and..." Her voice trailed away, not wanting to complete the thought.

"Tears her up."

"Yeah," she said softly.

Both women fell silent, lost in their own contemplations.

Finally, Scully asked-- more to keep from downing in the awfulness of what they were dealing with than anything. "Is there anything significant about the kind of vibrator used?"

"Nope. It's the Cyberskin Vibrator. $19.95 at the Pleasure Chest in Washington. I tracked down the manufacturer and they said they sell over 50,000 a year through various stores, on line companies and catalogues."

"In other words, it's the sex toy equivalent of a gray four door sedan."

"Yup, everybody's seen one. Everybody's got one."

Even me... Scully thought ruefully, not sure she would ever look at her own the same way again. "Any guesses on it's importance in the ritual?"

"Not really. The killings are sexually oriented-- that much seems to be a given. The vibrator, the knees up and legs spread, the mutilation of the breast. It's odd though..."

"What?" Scully prompted, when no more information seemed forthcoming.

"The way he positioned the breast in her mouth..."

"What about it?"

"I've seen probably half-a-dozen other cases where this was done, and in every single one of them, the nipple was pointing out-- towards the viewer." She motioned at the crime scene photos. "In these cases the nipple itself is inside the victim's mouth-- not visible to the viewer at all."

"Does that matter?"

"Everything the UNSUB does matters," Starling stated flatly. "We have to be able to look with his eyes. Because once we see his 'creations'--" She used the word derisively, "--The way he does, then we'll be able to understand why he does it. Once we know why, we'll know what he's going to do next. And then we catch him."

Continued in Part II: Craving

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