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 II: Craving

Chapter 6

Running again... familiar darkness. Glints of light shimmering off the irises of watchful eyes. She knew she wasn't alone. But that wasn't a comforting knowledge... It merely signified another addition to the gallery of faces that watched her mad rush to escape the pursuit... Her muscles were cramping, and the rasping harshness of her breath was the only sound accompanying the frantic pounding of her feet on the earth...

It was gaining on her....

Scully didn't know what woke her from her pleasantly heavy, wine-fueled slumber, but her eyes were immediately drawn to the moonlit figure of the woman in the other bed.

She could clearly see that, despite the night's coolness, Starling's body was covered in sweat, and the covers were twisted into a snarl around her legs. Continuous shudders wracked her small frame, and Scully realized that Starling was in the middle of a hell of a nightmare. The paralyzing, deep REM sleep kept her from moving and held Starling completely at the mercy of whatever horror played itself out behind her eyes.

Without thinking, Scully slipped from her own bed and knelt beside Clarice. Hesitantly, she placed a cool hand on the side of Starling's neck, feeling the frantic pulse underneath the skin. "Shh... Relax..." she murmured, not wanting to wake Starling but only to rouse her from the deepest part of her sleep. Clarice's own body would do the rest. Instinctively, she knew that Starling wouldn't welcome this invasion-- unwitting and unwilling as it was-- into her privacy.

As she slowly stroked Clarice's forehead and cheeks with soft touches to gentle the woman from her terror, Scully was forced to revise her assessment of her new partner. Throughout the day, she had been shocked and a little appalled at the ease with which Starling had seemingly accepted the grisly nature of her work. Now, however, she realized that not only was Starling affected by her work-- she was so deeply affected that her conscious mind wouldn't acknowledge it. Starling could only allow herself to feel the horror when she was alone in the dark.

An unfamiliar pain twisted deep inside Scully's stomach for this woman who had carved out such an absolutely solitary existence for herself. But then again... Scully mused silently, What choice does she have? How many people would share this? Thinking about what they had seen earlier in the day and the dead young women whose lives had been reduced to stacks of grim crime scene photographs and dismembered body parts. Those girls had dreamed at night too-- and never imagined that they would become fuel for the nightmares of their avenger's sleep.

Clarice's shudders had almost stopped, and she turned slightly on her shoulder, towards Dana's touch. Recognizing that Starling would be okay now, Scully knew she should return to her own bed-- but irrationally she remained by Clarice's side, watching the sharply chiseled line of her face. That's what she is, isn't she? Scully wondered. An avenger. She's taught herself to see through a monster's eyes, not so she can understand him, but so she can understand what happened to those girls. And keep it from happening again. She couldn't protect those girls' innocence, so she brings them the only thing she can-- justice.

Do you think of yourself as an avenger, Clarice?

she asked silently. She considered the sleeping form of the woman in front of her-- the dark arc of her brow, the austerely beautiful planes of her face, the shuttered eyes that hid an exquisitely intense gaze... Or are you something else entirely? Are you one of those people who in another time would have been a paladin? Would you have roamed the countryside, slaying dragons and protecting the innocent?

The image oddly suited the taciturn woman she was coming to know, and it brought a slight smile to Scully's lips. Starling was no Joan of Arc, that was certain, but there was something undeniably noble about her... something that had refused to bow to the pressures of the Bureau, the clamor of the media, or-- apparently-- the very human craving for comfort in the darkest heart of the night.

Allowing her fingers to trace the angle of Clarice's jaw one last time, Scully leaned over and tugged the blanket back into place. The night was cool, and Starling would be needing its comfort now.

Rain... gentling over her face... washing the sweat and blood away... soothing the clammy heat of her skin.... She lifted her face to the darkness, to the rain... and tasted its sweetness on her lips...

In her sleep Starling sighed contentedly and burrowed into the pleasant mist of her dream...

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

The following morning, if Starling remembered anything from the night before, she gave no indication. Scully did notice, however, that the woman seemed a bit more at ease with her-- and the circles under her pale blue eyes were lighter than they had been the day before.

"Sleep well?" she wasn't been able to resist asking.

Starling paused, as if giving the matter significant thought. "Yeah..." she said slowly, almost surprised by the answer. "I did."

Scully couldn't stop the hint of a smile from tugging at her lips. "Good. Me too. You want the shower first?"

Ancient memories of dorm life orchestrated their movements as they vied for space in the small room, getting ready with a minimum of fuss and awkwardness. Scully mentally blessed the instinct that had prompted her to pack an extra couple pair of slacks and shirts as well as an additional blazer. Though she was no stranger to having to recycle her wardrobe because of unexpected delays, the very thought of spending another day in the clothes she had worn yesterday was abhorrent. The smell of death was on them, and she knew she wouldn't wear them again until they had been dry cleaned. Several times.

Her sidearm nestled comfortably on her waist, concealed now as she slipped on her favorite black blazer. The Hugo Boss jacket had been an extravagant indulgence two years ago, but its fine cut suited her perfectly and she had allowed Melissa to talk her into buying it. That shopping trip had been one of the last days she and her sister had spent together, and the clothes she had bought that day remained her favorites-- reminders of a happier time before the world had turned itself absolutely inside out. Now Melissa was dead, Scully herself was scarred for life, and nothing would ever-- ever-- be the same.

"Scully?"

The quiet voice drew her from her musings as she turned her eyes to Starling, smiling involuntarily at her partner. Starling was dressed almost identically, except her blazer was an earthy brown tweed and her slacks dark brown instead of black like Scully's. "We look like cops."

Starling frowned. "We are cops." Then a half-grinned tugged at her mouth. "Besides, I look like a cop, you..."

"What?" Scully prompted, intrigued by the almost normal banter.

"Don't."

"Don't what?"

"Look like a cop."

Scully glanced down her body, surveying the blazer, gun, tailored trousers, and sensible black boots. "What do you mean? If I don't look like a cop, what do I look like?" The question slipped out before Scully had time to consider whether or not she really wanted the answer.

Fortunately, Starling's answer was interrupted by a loud pounding on the door that by most standards would have been considered obscenely early. Guess it's a good thing we're early risers, Scully thought ruefully, opening the door.

And was confronted with the unmistakably tall, imposing figure of Belinda Harris.

One of the things Scully had hated most about Harris-- irrational though it was-- was how damned tall the woman was. Harris stood easily at six feet without her shoes, and the bloody woman insisted on wearing boots that had two inch heels at the least. Or she had the few times Scully had been forced to deal with her.

Today was no exception.

She towered in the doorway, obliging Scully to crane her head to make unwavering eye contact. Dark brown eyes bored ruthlessly into her own blue ones and furrowed in vague recognition.

"I know you." came the statement.

"Can I help you?" Scully asked, ignoring the implied demand for her name.

"I'm looking for Clarice Starling..." The frown smoothed into a smug smile as recognition gleamed in Harris' eyes. "But this is an added pleasure, Special Agent Scully. Although I would think this is a little out of your realm of expertise."

"Ms. Harris--" Starling's clipped voice was back, all traces of the ease of their morning gone. "Special Agent Scully is a forensic pathologist." She hesitated only briefly over the next words. "As well as my partner."

Belinda's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Since when? And since when do you work with a partner?"

"Since I requested her assistance," Starling smoothly answered. "Now is there something specific you want, or are you just here to annoy me?"

Scully watched the exchange with interest, not sure what was more surprising-- the acidic tone in Starling's voice or the small fib about her requesting Scully's assistance. What Starling had requested was someone to follow up on the sometimes haphazard autopsies the local jurisdictions had provided.

What she had gotten was a partner who expected to be involved in every aspect of the case until they caught this son-of-a-bitch.

I guess she's okay with that now... Hmm... will wonders never cease?.

Belinda bounced a glance between the two women, seeming to absorb the details of their persons the way a hunting dog inhaled the scent of its prey. "Whatever," she replied, waving a hand. "And Clarice, I'd think you would be a little happier to see me. After all, I'm here to help."

Scully couldn't stop the snort that escaped from her throat. She coughed unconvincingly. "Sorry," she shrugged. "I'm having a phlegm problem."

Starling chuckled darkly before Harris interrupted her. "So I guess you two wouldn't be interested in a lead on the dead girl's identity?"

"I suppose it would depend on if that information was reliable or not," Starling replied blandly. "And what the provider of that information wanted in exchange."

Harris smiled thinly. "Oh, this information's gold. I promise. As for what I want, we'll start with breakfast. Then maybe a little quid pro quo." She paused, watching avidly as the color in Starling's eyes flattened in warning.

Witnessing the exchange, the hair on the back of Scully's neck rose. Everyone had heard the tapes Dr. Chilton had made of Lecter's talks with Clarice-- and their quid pro quo conversation was the most famous one of all. "Why don't we skip breakfast and instead haul your ass off to jail for obstruction of justice?" Dana's calm voice sliced cleanly through the tension in the room. "If you have relevant information on this case that you're withholding, you're in violation of easily a half dozen state and federal statutes. Would you like me to recite them now or after I read you your rights?"

Harris' glance skidded over to the other woman in the room. "Waitaminute there, Red. What's the matter, you get up on the wrong side of your partner this morning or something?" She shot a knowing look at Starling. "Clarice and I have an understanding. She knows how much I want this guy caught. Maybe even more than she does."

"I know about Veronica," Scully replied flatly. "But right now you're not acting much like a grieving sister. In fact, if I didn't know any better I'd say you were just another avaricious reporter looking to make a buck and damn the cost to anyone else."

Starling couldn't wipe the astonished expression off her face. Not only was Scully's defense of her totally unexpected, but it also efficiently cut the sometimes overbearing Harris down to size. Silence flooded the room until Harris' booming laugh echoed off the bare walls. "Damn, Starling, you've got a live one here. I hope you don't piss her off regularly." She inclined her head, granting Scully victory in this round. "Geeze... I wonder why they make you work regular cases and don't just keep you reserved for interrogations. You've got the Gestapo attitude for it. At least feed me before you haul me off to the pokey, okay Scully?"

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

As she accompanied Scully and Harris down the crowded Asheville street, Starling considered that she couldn't be in the company of two more diverse women. Looking at Belinda Harris, the only word that came to mind was Amazonian. It was a clich�, granted... but one that was nevertheless true. Not only was she tall, she was also broad-shouldered-- and if she was a little overweight, she carried it well, the bulk distributed evenly on long arms and legs. Her chestnut hair-- the same color as her eyes-- was pulled away from her face and piled carelessly on top of her head, out of the way of busily swinging earrings and wildly gesturing hands. Everything about Belinda was larger-than-life and that kind of vibrant persona always set Starling's teeth on edge. People like that disturbed everyone they came into contact with-- their sheer size impinging on personal boundaries of all sorts. That's probably how she gets most of her information... Starling mused. She just walks right in there and stirs things up until she gets what she wants.

Scully, however, didn't seemed disturbed by the woman in the least. She had withstood the initial onslaught of Harris' shenanigans without blanching and earned the reporter's grudging respect. As they were seated, Clarice listened with one ear to their conversation and was surprised to learn that Harris not only knew of Scully and her X-Files exploits, but that she had approached Scully about doing a book.

"How did you talk her out of doing it?" Starling asked when Belinda excused herself to go to the ladies' room.

Scully shook her head. "I didn't. She kind of lost interest on her own." She chuckled wryly. "I guess I wasn't spectacular enough for her."

I don't know about that...

The sentiment ambushed Starling from the primal backbrain of her subconscious, and she ruthlessly crushed it out before it could blossom into something truly threatening. It rippled across her face and shimmered down her spine, becoming absorbed into the knots of tension in her lower back. She shifted slightly in her chair, adjusting to the new pressure. As Scully glanced up from her waffles, Starling found herself regarding her partner's eyes anew. Their clear blue depths reminded her of a photo she had once seen of the waters off the coast of Saba. Ardelia had brought the pictures of the Caribbean island home one night, hoping to entice Clarice with their peaceful beauty into taking a vacation. The colors in that photo had been so rich and vibrant that Starling had wanted to dive into their richness and lose herself into the beckoning coolness of the water she saw there. But she hadn't then and now... had she even wanted to, she wouldn't know how to go about trying.

The silence between them was pleasant-- despite Starling's renegade musings-- as if something had settled during the night, although for the life of her she couldn't figure out why that was. Listening to Scully evaluate the forensic evidence yesterday evening had eased the last of the questions in Starling's mind about her competence. The woman obviously knew what she was doing, and Starling decided to attribute her newfound ease in Scully's presence to that.

And nothing else.

"So, you guys wanna trade or what?" Belinda's jarring presence in the booth beside Starling startled the agent out of her thoughts.

Just as well, I'm not getting anything accomplished this way...

"Trade?" Scully's voice was mild, but the lilting arch of her brow was a warning to the reporter.

"Just seeing if you're awake over there, Red. I thought Starling was supposed to be the strong, silent type. But I think you might just have her beat."

"How's that?" In spite of herself, Scully was almost amused by the reporter. She had spent most of her brief acquaintance with Harris avoiding her, but now, she had to admit-- there was something annoyingly ingratiating about the reporter.

"You're strong, silent and mean. It took you less than five minutes to threaten to throw me in jail. I think that's a record-- even for me."

Even Starling couldn't stop the smirk that rose to her face at Harris' quip. Scully nodded and added lightly. "Then perhaps you should keep that in mind."

"Okay, okay..." Harris held up her hands in surrender. "But I do expect some consideration. You know what I mean?"

"Well, Belinda, since it took you less than a day to find us and get a lead on the victim's ID, I'd say you're getting more than enough consideration," Starling replied dryly. "You're here eating breakfast with us, aren't you? I don't see any other reporter within a mile of us. Now it's your turn. Spill it," she commanded.

The waitress-- a blowzy woman with a generous mouth and vividly-dyed red hair-- stopped by their table and refilled their coffee. Scully nodded her thanks and watched in amazement as Harris poured three packets of sugar and two half-n-halfs into the small cup. She and Starling exchanged queasy expressions and sipped their own black coffee silently, waiting for the reporter to stop fussing.

"Okay. I spent most of yesterday playing nice with the editor of the local Citizen-Times."

"You mean sucking up," Starling interjected.

Harris scowled and started to offer a retort, but Scully's question interrupted her. "That's the city newspaper?"

"Yup," Harris nodded in answer and contented herself with shooting Starling a dirty look. "Forget the cops, this guy's so plugged into what's going on around here that I'd be surprised if there's anything he doesn't know about. Anyway... turns out that a local girl came up missing a couple of days ago."

"Why wasn't there a missing persons report?" Scully asked, hoping that Starling was going to let her lead this interview. Obviously Belinda Harris pushed the few buttons Starling had, and Scully didn't want to lose whatever information the reporter might have. On the other hand, Harris seemed to enjoy provoking her partner, and might say something she normally wouldn't just to get a rise out of Starling.

"I don't know that there wasn't. But even if there were, the locals probably haven't made the connection yet. They don't see a lot of stuff like this around here."

"It's basic procedure," Scully shot back, just to see where it led her.

"Look around you, Red. This is a college town without the big college. There ain't a whole lot of violent crime-- unless you count the injuries to farm animals during teen cow-tipping adventures. What you've got up here is a town whose biggest industry is tourism. That means the cops spend their time making sure the drunk visitors don't drive into that tall, phallic thingie on Main Street-- that sort of stuff."

Scully and Starling exchanged a glance that said, Somebody here was on the ball enough to use VICAP... Scully was confident that if there had been a matching missing persons report, Merriam would have been all over it. So, either Harris' girl wasn't the right one, or there wasn't a report. "Let's just say for argument's sake that there wasn't. Any reason the parents wouldn't have called the authorities?"

Harris leaned back in the booth. "Rumor has it that there was some friction between the girl and her parents. They might have figured she was holed up with one of her friends."

"So why does the newspaper editor know about this?"

"Because her folks are worried now. Especially with you Fibbies running around like America's Most Wanted. I told you, this guy knows everybody. Young old rich poor educated or dumb as a stump-- he knows them. He told her parents he'd keep his ears open, and when I showed up..." She let her voice trail off teasingly.

Scully was having none of it. "What's the girl's name?"

Harris sighed dramatically and rolled her eyes. "You are absolutely no fun."

"Give it up, Belinda."

"Kimberly Ellis. Nice girl apparently. Early twenties, just graduated from Converse College with a degree in Education. Was teaching Middle School for Buncombe County here. Blondish-hair, thinnish, blue eyes, about 5' 6". Had a bunch of scars on her right knee from a skiing accident in high school. Ring a bell?" She asked hopefully.

So she's not plugged in enough to have the site photos. That's something at least,

Scully thought. "We'll let you know, Belinda. Thanks for breakfast. Next one's on us." She rose gracefully from the booth and moved towards the exit.

"Waitaminute!" Harris leapt up in pursuit, allowing Starling to follow her partner's lead and make her own escape. The reporter's pursuit was interrupted as she stopped to pay the check.

Out on the street Starling and Scully exchanged glances, and Starling gave voice to the thought that occupied them both. "That's our girl."

Chapter 7

Partridge Ridge Asheville, North Carolina

There was nothing simple about telling two people that you thought their daughter was dead. Even worse-- telling them that she was the latest macabre entry in a serial killer's ongoing saga. As they stood on the tidy front porch of the Ellis residence, Scully felt the roiling sickness from last night return to her stomach. The acrid bile rose in her throat, and she swallowed hard-- her eyes looking anywhere but at the cream-colored door with its antique bronze knocker.

The yard was trimmed neatly, the first green of Spring poking up through last year's grass. A row of dogwoods lined the drive, and tiny buds dotted the trees' slender limbs. Similar buds for different flowers were also curling timidly skyward in various flower beds, and Scully found herself mulling the horrible irony of delivering news of death at a time that should be reserved for birthing life.

But then again... what is Easter all about?

Scully mused cynically. We get so caught up in the bunny rabbits and egg hunts that we don't have to think about the reason behind it all...

"Taking their time, aren't they?" Starling's comment drew Scully back from the uneasy precipice of her thoughts.

"Maybe they're not home," she replied.

"Maybe they don't want to talk to us."

"I wouldn't want to." Dana's quiet tone held an acid edge, and Starling's eyes jerked upward-- the remote coolness of the blue registering surprise at her partner's words. "I--" Scully bit off her words, shaking her head sharply the unasked question. How could she explain her revulsion at bringing death to someone's doorstep-- when that was how Starling spent her life? But as she stared evenly into Starling's eyes, she remembered the paralyzing nightmare last night that had gripped the woman beside her.

Maybe she wasn't alone in her horror.

To Dana's surprise, Starling replied softly. "I know." Their gaze met and held again, and Scully noticed that the unnervingly pale blue of Starling's eyes was clouded over with gray. Storm clouds on a still, summer's day.

Scully opened her mouth to speak, but her words were caught in the muted click of the Ellis's front door opening.

"Can I help you?" The woman who opened the door was rail thin and had the carefully groomed face of someone who's spent a lifetime adhering to the saying, "A lady never greets visitors looking anything less than her best." A pale pink blouse and soft, brown trousers complemented the woman's lightly tanned features, and her voice held the carefully modulated politeness reserved for door-to-door salespeople. Thanks but I don't want any...

In short, Elizabeth Ellis didn't exactly look the part of a distraught parent.

"Mrs. Ellis? I'm Clarice Starling of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. This is my partner, Dana Scully. May we have a word with you?" With mild surprise, Scully noted a gentle Southern cadence in Starling's voice had replaced her normally-clipped tones.

Kimberly Ellis' mother paled slightly beneath her healthy tan and pressed a hand to her chest. The undeniable crack in her genteel facade. "Something's happened to Kimberly, hasn't it?"

"Ma'am, it'd be best if we talked inside."

"Of course, come in. Please."

As Scully and Starling were ushered into the living room, the pathologist took in her surroundings. Contemporary Martha Stewart on a budget-- albeit a fairly substantial budget. Cool tans and discreetly muted pastels dominated the living room. There was an elegant Wyeth print over the back of the couch, and other equally tasteful smaller prints in strategic locations around the room. Family photos were gracefully matted and tucked into pewter frames, but their daughter strangely seemed to be missing from them all.

While Elizabeth Ellis summoned her husband from his study, Starling and Scully exchanged significant glances.

"Chilly in here, isn't it?" the pathologist murmured.

"You want my blazer?" Starling cracked with a dry smile. "Or we could ask Mrs. Ellis for a pair of mittens. I'm sure she has several extra pairs for dinner parties."

A pale brow flew skyward of its own volition at the comment, and Scully felt some of the tightly coiled tension in her belly ease. She grinned back at her dark partner and shook her head. "I'm going to have to be careful where I take you, aren't I?"

"Ardelia always said she couldn't take me anywhere," Starling replied softly, a faraway look creeping into her eyes.

Before Scully could ask who Ardelia was, the Ellises emerged from the dim recesses of the house.

Or to be more accurate, one of them did.

"I'm Martin Ellis. How can I help you, ladies?" Martin Ellis was every bit as well preserved as his wife was. If Kimberly Ellis was in her early twenties, Martin and Elizabeth either started young or worked really hard to appear that way. Flecks of gray were just invading his temples, and his body was only now beginning to concede to age's inevitability. His face didn't have the taut smoothness of youth, and Scully surmised that the lines etched into his face weren't the kind one got from smiling too much. His eyes were dark and cold... and Scully felt the chill that Starling's unexpected lightheartedness had eased returning.

Starling, on the other hand, didn't seem phased in the least. "We were hoping to talk to both you and your wife, sir."

The accent had eased a little-- Scully noted-- and there was a decided crispness to Clarice's tone that she liked. Her partner had apparently sized Martin Ellis up and come to much the same conclusions Scully herself had. From the top of his impeccably groomed dark hair to his pressed gray duckheads, Ellis radiated the confidence of someone who wasn't used to being questioned.

"This doesn't concern my wife. Whatever mess Kimberly's managed to make this time, Elizabeth doesn't need to know about."

"She seemed fairly concerned when she answered the door. I think she'd like to know what's going on." The crispness of Starling's voice took on a sharper edge.

After all, it's not every day the FBI comes knocking at your door...

Scully thought silently.

"I'll tell my wife everything she needs to know, Miss--"

Scully bit off the sharp retort that sprang to her lips when she saw Starling had already begun speaking.

"I don't think you understand-- sir--" The word as it fell from Starling's lips was as close to an obscenity as Scully had ever heard. "We are agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation--" She held out her badge. "And this is official business. Now may I suggest that you go get your wife so we can take care of our business. Do you understand me?"

Ellis stood appraising the two women in front of them-- and found himself pinned squarely by two icy blue gazes. "Fine. I'll be right back."

Watching him stride out of the room, Scully turned to her partner. "Makes me think that what Belinda said was true. Looks like there was bad blood in the family."

"Yeeaahh..." Starling drew out the word, looking thoughtful.

Dana recognized the look from last night. "What are you thinking?"

"Tell you later," she muttered as Martin and Elizabeth Ellis returned to the room.

"Please, sit down," Elizabeth murmured politely.

"Thank you, ma'am." The accent was back. "We won't take up much of your time... but what we need to ask you is very important."

"Of course."

"You said this had something to do with Kimberly?" Ellis interrupted brusquely.

Scully watched Clarice bite back a sigh and content herself with flicking Ellis an irritated glare. "Yes, sir. It does." She returned her attention to Kimberly's mother. "Can you tell me the last time you talked to Kimberly, or saw her?"

"I'll tell you the last time we saw her--" Martin answered for his wife. "It was two weeks ago Wednesday, when I told her not to bother coming back until she straightened herself up. I indulged her foolishness long enough-- it was time for her to pay the piper."

You have no idea, Mr. Ellis...

Starling's eyes never left Elizabeth Ellis's bloodshot brown ones as her husband spoke. "Is that right, Mrs. Ellis? It will have been two weeks on Wednesday since you've talked to Kimberly?"

"That-- that's correct, Agent Starling." Her gaze fled downward under Clarice's soft probing glance. Starling looked across and Scully who shook her head almost imperceptibly. It didn't jibe with their timeline at all. All the evidence-- what little of it there was-- pointed to their guy grabbing his mark, doing his business, and dumping the body all in a 24 to 36 hour period. There was no way in hell he had Kimberly Ellis for a week and a half.

"What's she done, agent?" Ellis' voice was a harsh dissonant tone in the quiet room.

Starling paused, considering both her words and the couple in front of her. "Well, sir. Kimberly hasn't done anything. In fact, we're afraid that something's been done to her."

"Oh my god..." The words were barely a breath of sound, but everyone's eyes found their way to Elizabeth Ellis once more. "Is it... I was watching the news... Are you those agents that they called about..." Her words trailed off, not wanting to reach their logical end.

Starling nodded at Scully, who discreetly stood and crossed the room. "Sir, if you could come with me please?"

Martin Ellis bounced a glance between the two FBI agents, clearly trying to decide if they were telling him the truth. Scully almost growled in anger at his arrogance. Damn him, we're trying to tell him we think his child has been slaughtered by a madman... and he doesn't want to be taken advantage of. If this weren't a serial case, I'd peg him as my prime suspect... "Sir, please... I need you to look at some pictures for me."

Scully had taken a series of Polaroids of the victim once they got her to the hospital morgue. This wouldn't count as an official identification, but if Martin Ellis indicated that he believed this was his daughter, they could proceed with releasing the dental records and officially identify Kimberly that way-- and spare the Ellis's the ordeal of having to look at the remains of their daughter's butchered body. Although in his case, it might knock some sense into him, the supercilious bastard...

She took a Polaroid out of her blazer and held it out to him. "We have reason to believe that the woman who was found on the Blue Ridge Parkway is Kimberly Ellis. Can you tell me if this is her?"

The photo was of her face, the sheet primly drawn up to her shoulders. And while the ugly purple-black ligature marks shown vividly against the girl's pale skin, none of the other damage to her was visible. Before they had taken the picture, Scully had found herself unaccountably disturbed by the wild snarls in Kimberly's hair and had combed them out as best she could with her fingers. She had noticed Starling staring at her with an inscrutable expression, and when she had asked her new partner what was wrong, Starling merely quirked a small smile and shook her head.

There was no noticeable change in Ellis's expression as he examined the picture of what the FBI had told him was his dead daughter. "Yes," he said shortly. "This is her."

"Oh my god..." The quiet mantra seemed to be Elizabeth Ellis's only words.

"Sir, we'll need your permission to obtain her dental records."

"Why? What do need with those?" Hard grey eyes fastened on Scully's trying to wear them down, it seemed to her, as if he were trying to find some crack in her professional facade. "I told you it was her."

"Sir..." Now it was Scully's turn to bite off the word. "Could you step into the other room with me please?" So I can shoot you... She lowered her voice. "The nature of official identification is sometimes difficult." She flicked a significant look at his wife. "I'd think you'd rather..."

Ellis nodded authoritatively. "Of course. Come into my study." She caught Starling's grateful nod out of the corner of her eye and left her partner to her work.

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

Starling smothered a smile at Scully's smoothly executed maneuver and returned her full attention to the quietly shivering woman in front of her. Although the day was sunny and warm, there was a coolness in the room that wasn't necessarily metaphorical. She placed a warm palm on the older woman's shockingly cold skin. "Mrs. Ellis... I'm so sorry. I can't imagine what you're feeling right now."

A well-intentioned lie. She knew very well what Kimberly's mother was feeling... just as she well knew what Kimberly Ellis had felt and experienced during the last moments of her life. The sheer, unadulterated terror of not just of knowing that your life was going to end but of seeing how it was going to end. And at whose hands.

Those moments of blindness all those years ago-- when Bill had stalked her and had crippled her sense of sight, leaving only the rancid odor of death's house invading her nostrils and the roar of a hammer cocking filling her ears-- she had been in Kimberly Ellis' position.

She had been faster than death that time, but as her dreams reminded her every night-- that wouldn't always be the case. Something would get her in the end... whether it was Lecter finally growing bored of their game or the madness that stalked her at every moment.

Given her druthers... she almost hoped it was Lecter.

Her thoughts had roamed during these silent moments of Elizabeth Ellis's grief, and the woman's quiet sniffling alerted Starling to her next move. "It's hard, I know. And it's going to be harder during the next few days... but I want you to know Mrs. Ellis--" She ducked her head, catching the woman's eyes and forcing their gazes to meet. "I'm going to do everything in my power to catch whatever did this to her."

Whatever

... not whoever... She wouldn't even grant this monster the status of humanity.

"Can you--" Watery brown eyes finally met hers. "Can you do that?"

"I have before," Starling responded evenly.

Mrs. Ellis nodded hesitantly as if that explained everything-- and in a way it did. This woman was in her home, telling her her daughter was dead, and promising to hunt down her killer. Elizabeth Ellis had no faith left any longer-- it couldn't hurt to believe this steadfast woman with the cold blue eyes. She gave the hand covering hers an almost undiscernable squeeze.

"But I need your help," Clarice continued.

"I--" The eyes fell again. "What can I do?" Soft, helpless words.

"You can tell me when was the last time you really talked to Kimberly." No pressure. No lectures. Just a request. Starling waited with held breath. She would almost bet her life that Elizabeth Ellis had talked to her daughter since Kimberly's banishment-- just as she would as quickly bet that her husband didn't know.

"Martin said--"

"I know what Martin said," Claire interrupted softly. "But I need to know what you say. It's very important." When was the last time someone told her what she said was important? Clarice wondered absently as she bided her time. She hoped to God Scully was keeping Martin Ellis good and occupied, because at the rate she was going, she'd be here hours. Flicking a glance at the doorway where Scully had disappeared, she decided to up the ante just a little. "Mrs. Ellis, we need to know as much as possible about what Kimberly did over the last two weeks-- to retrace her steps."

"But I thought she was..."

"No," Clarice replied. "She didn't suffer like that." Like that... A relative description at best. Could you really tell the difference between a day's torture and a week's? How long did it take for the mind to surrender the battle and just allow the body to endure? She still had no answer for that. "So you see... that's why it's so important. If we can figure out where she went, who she saw..." Who might have seen her... and why they liked what they saw... She found Elizabeth Ellis's gaze once more and finally read the connection she had been hoping for. "It's okay... I won't tell." A child's promise.

Cross my heart and hope to die...

Some days that was truer than others.

Whatever Elizabeth had been planning on telling Clarice was silenced by the blustering sound of her husband's voice. "What's going on here? What are you doing?"

Scully was a step behind the tall man, an angry scowl on her face. Starling knew she'd be in for an earful when they got back to the car.

Starling rose smoothly and stepped between Ellis and his wife. "I was just offering my condolences to your wife about your loss."

His nod was perfunctory. "Thank you. I'm sure you'll understand that my wife and I have a great many arrangements to make."

In other words... you want us to get the hell out of your house...

Starling almost smirked at the unspoken words. Instead, she nodded in reply. "I do.. and we'll be going now." She took a sleek leather case out of her inside blazer pocket and removed a business card. "This is my card, my phone number is on there. Please feel free to call us if you think of anything that might help with our investigation." She needed some way for Mrs. Ellis to get back in touch with her-- since it was painfully obvious that Martin Ellis was going to be of no use whatsoever in finding his daughter's killer.

"Let me show you out." To Starling's shock, Elizabeth Ellis stood and gestured towards the doorway. As they reached the entrance hall, she placed a softly trembling hand on Clarice's arm. "Kimberly had a... friend. I think her name was Terri." She paused, as if searching for her thoughts. "And she managed a restaurant called-- what was it? I can't quite remember... something strange-- it was on Grove Street." She nodded decisively. "I do remember that."

Starling smiled as though Elizabeth had just handed her the name of Kimberly's killer. "Thank you so much, Mrs. Ellis. And please if you do remember anything more...."

"Elizabeth?" Martin's voice echoed from the depths of the house.

"I'll try."

"Thank you."

Once the cream-colored door was shut firmly again in their faces, Scully and Starling exchanged a weary, bemused look. "A mystery woman named Terri and a restaurant called something strange on Grove Street. Wanna see if they're open for lunch?"

Walking to the car, Scully ran an exasperated hand through her hair. "Perfect." She unlocked the driver's door and dropped into the seat. "I only have one question."

"Which is?"

"Where the hell is Grove Street?"

Chapter 8

Downtown Asheville, North Carolina

Scully had been prepared to spend at least an hour, maybe two, driving around aimlessly in search of Grove Street. Five years with Mulder and his almost obsessive refusal to ask for directions had inured her to the frustrations of finding her way in a small town.

When Starling had suggested that they stop at a gas station named "Joe's Pump 'n' Pay" and buy a map, Scully had almost veered off the road in surprise.

Now, half an hour later, they stood in front of a restaurant on Grove Street called "Cahoots," eyeing its closed doors warily.

"This has gotta be it," Clarice remarked, tugging half-heartedly on the locked doors. "I think 'Cahoots' qualifies as a strange name in this town."

"Doesn't look like it's open for lunch." Scully glanced at her watch and mentally calculated the hours. Now that they had a tentative id on the body, the bureaucratic wheels had been set in motion to move Kimberly Ellis' body to the State Pathologist's office in Raleigh. She would accompany the body and perform the autopsy, confirming Kimberly's violent end. They would boil the skin off the bones in her arms to match the blade striations to the other victims. They would weigh and measure her organs, test her blood, and prove beyond a shadow of a medical doubt that a madman had strangled the life out of her twenty-four year old body and then mutilated it to his satisfaction. It was not a task she was looking forward to.

"You hungry?"

Starling's words brought a wry smile to Scully's lips. All morning food had been the furthest thing from her mind-- finding Belinda Harris at their door first thing had started the day off wrong... and it had just kept going downhill, culminating in her confrontation with Martin Ellis. Now, however, looking into the quietly inquisitive eyes of Clarice Starling, she felt her appetite returning. "I think I am."

"Good, because Merriam won't have that search warrant ready for Kimberly's apartment for at least a couple more hours. Plenty of time to eat and figure out what's next."

"Sounds good to me. You have anything specific in mind?" She arched a pale brow, half-resigned to the diner food that Mulder loved so much.

"I might." A small smile played at the corners of Starling's lips, brightening the normally stern countenance of the small woman's face, and Scully found herself smiling back. She realized with a start that she had thought of Starling in terms of angles and lines-- but now she saw that when Clarice Starling smiled, a delicate rounding in her jaw softened the sharp cut of her cheekbone. It was an echo of tenderness in a woman who had no cause to show it. Especially not to someone she had only known two days.

Suddenly nothing in the world sounded better than spending a leisurely lunch with this woman.

"You're very strong, Clarice. I think it would be quite something to know you in private life..."

Scully had no way of knowing those words that Hannibal Lecter had uttered to the young FBI student all those years ago... but if she had, she would have found herself in the odd position of agreeing whole-heartedly with a psychopath. Clarice Starling was unlike anyone she had ever met, and Scully found herself wanting to get behind the shadows that cloaked the painfully fierce blue of the other woman's eyes. "Sounds great to me. Let's go."

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

"I think it's just down here." Clarice peered around the bulky form of a man in a badly pressed gray suit and looked down the street. For a small town, Asheville had a lot of foot-traffic; and Starling absently wondered if it was always this way. It would certainly make it easier for someone to follow Kimberly Ellis unobserved. In fact, she noted wryly, she had no idea if anyone-- like Belinda Harris-- was trailing them now. "Yup...." she grinned, spying the elegant hanging sign that identified the Bier Garden. "It's just down there on the right."

Together they maneuvered easily through the noon-time crowds until they reach the glass doors of the restaurant. When she noticed Scully's discreetly crooked brow, she explained, "It's where I got dinner last night. You seemed to like it okay, so..." She trailed off as an enigmatic curve graced Scully's lips.

"Works for me. After you." With a small but courtly bow and a wry shake of her head, Scully opened the door and ushered her partner in.

Munch's "Scream" had been replaced with the more soothing silk patterns of one of Monet's water lilies, but otherwise, the maitre'd from the previous night was unchanged-- and it seemed as though the recognition was mutual, for his dark eyes lit up upon spying Starling's slim frame. "Oh hello there." He grinned at her conspiratorially. "Welcome back."

Starling unaccountably found herself flushing under the satisfied gaze of the maitre' d-- whose name she'd noted last night was Charlie. She had seen him take in Scully with an approving glance as he greeted them and knew what kind of conclusion he'd drawn. Not that she minded in the least-- Dana Scully cut a beautiful, if severe, figure through the small town crowds; and more than one head had turned as she passed-- but Clarice had a feeling that the admiration wouldn't be mutual. Scully was Bureau all the way-- and a Navy brat to boot. That practically screamed "Hands Off" to all passersby.

"Can I show you ladies a table or are you eating on the run again?" Charlie's voice provided a welcome detour for her thoughts which had rapidly been heading down the road to nowhere.

"A table would be great, thanks." To Starling's surprise, Scully answered for them. "Do you mind putting us in the window over there?" She pointed to a discreet round table that gave them a complete view not just of the traffic in and out of the restaurant but along the entire street.

Charlie beamed-- beautiful women in the window was always good for business. "Your wish is my command. Follow me."

He led them on a winding tour through the crowded restaurant to the table that Scully had requested. "May I take your coat?" he asked, pulling out Scully's chair.

Starling and Scully exchanged amused glances. "Um..." she hesitated. "I don't think that's a good idea."

Two dark brows knit together in consternation. "Is there a problem with the temperature? I could--"

"No, no," Scully assured him quickly. "I just don't think you want us to be flashing these in front of your customers." She held her blazer open slightly, giving him a swift glimpse of her Sig. "You know what I mean?"

Charlie's eyes widened as comprehension drifted over his face. "Now that's what I call packing," he muttered as he settled both women in their chairs. "You're those FBI people, aren't you? The ones they called about that girl they found."

"What makes you say that?" Starling asked.

"Well, I hate to admit it, but I do know most of local authorities-- and most of them are a little on the Cro-Magnon side if you know what I mean. You two-- on the other hand-- look like Cagney and Lacey, only better dressed." He shrugged gracefully and topped it off with a charming smile. "Two and two-- and here we all are. Now do you want to hear about the specials?"

Starling was about to nod her agreement when she noticed the thoughtful look on her partner's face. "We trust you, Charlie. Why don't you just bring us something we'd love?"

He beamed at them, then winked softly at Clarice. "Guess the wine went over well, huh?"

Busted, Charlie... Thanks a lot...

Starling thought as she managed to eke out a weak grin at the question and ignored Scully's quirked brow.

"Okay, back in a jiffy with something." He rubbed his hands together gleefully and left Starling at the mercy of Scully's inquisitive gaze.

"Something I should know?" she prodded.

"Oh, that." Starling waved a hand. "What I know about chardonnay wouldn't fill a wine glass, so I asked him for something nice." Her eyes darted about the room searching for anything to focus on other than those disconcerting blue eyes.

Scully frowned momentarily, then smiled softly. "You could have just picked up whatever was on special. I wouldn't have minded."

"I-- well, whatever." Starling desperately wanted to change the subject to something-- anything-- other than her unexpected solicitousness.

As if sensing her discomfort and signaling her willingness to let the matter rest, a low chuckle rumbled from Scully's throat. "In fact, if I had asked Mulder to pick something up for me, he probably would have brought back Mad Dog 35." The humor in her eyes faded as she added, "In the mood I was in last night, I would have drunk it too."

Clarice Starling had spent years in the dark, chasing monsters and eluding the demons of her sleep. In those years she had never shared the horror with anyone else-- unwilling or unable to trust that a lover, a partner or a friend could bear up under the weight of the load that she bore on her own slender shoulders. Working with Scully over the last two days had shown her that the agent was more than capable in the field and in the lab; however, now in Dana Scully's quiet admission of pain, she found someone who was not only able to bear that load, but who was willing to share it with her. At least for now...

At last, Starling was able to meet Scully's eyes, unable to stop herself from responding to the strength, sadness and resolve she found there. In that silent moment, Dana Scully and Clarice Starling cemented their partnership-- each finding in the other something they never had before.

An equal.

"Some iced tea to start off with-- or can I get you something stronger?" Charlie's smiling visage reappeared, interrupting-- but not severing-- the birthing connection between them.

"Tea's fine, thanks," Scully replied absently, her eyes finally leaving Clarice's face and locking onto the discreet patterns in the table cloth. Whatever had just happened, it simultaneously put the worries in her mind at ease and set something in her spine to tingling. And it all had nothing to do with the case they were working on.

"You want to tell me what you're thinking?" Starling asked when their drink order had been taken.

Not particularly...

Scully's mind automatically answered. Aloud, however, she replied, "Charlie's a chatty guy."

"That he is."

"It's a small town."

"That it is."

"Only a few nice restaurants around here."

"True."

"So it stands to reason..." her voice trailed off.

"He might just know who this Terri girl is."

"It's a long shot," Scully admitted. "But..."

"We don't have a hell of a lot more to go on right now." Starling glanced around them before returning her eyes to Scully. "His chattiness could be a bad thing, though."

"Belinda." The name came out flat, uninflected, but the expression on Scully's face left no doubt about her thoughts on that particular subject.

"It bothers me that she got such a hot lead so quickly."

"Makes sense though," Scully replied, following Starling's train of thought easily. "Newsfolk tend to travel in packs. And she does have a reputation. Her books sell--" She paused. "Whatever we think of them. It makes perfect sense that a small town newspaperman would want to be chums with the superstar."

"You think the editor was just looking for his fifteen minutes of fame?" Starling's voice was skeptical.

"We could always ask him."

"Yeah, I think we might want to."

Scully nodded her agreement. "After lunch, why don't I let you talk to him and take a look at Kimberly's apartment while I make sure everything's ready for the autopsy tomorrow? Then I can join you at the scene?"

And after I've had a chance to feel my way around. Scully, you are amazing...

Starling thought silently. If I'd had a partner like you back when... Clamping down firmly on her musings, she looked up to see Charlie emerging from the kitchen with their lunch in hand. "Looks like here comes our shot. I wonder if all their customers get this kind of personal attention?"

"He does seem fond of you," Scully replied with a grin.

Starling snorted. "I don't think I'm quite his type. You know?" Something occurred to her as Charlie sat two steaming plates down in front of them.

"No grazing for you two today," he pronounced solemnly. "It's kind of chilly out there, so you get the white chicken chili special. It'll keep you all warm and cozy until you can get in front of a nice warm fire." He grinned significantly at them both.

At the comment, Starling wanted to crawl under the table; while Scully merely looked puzzled. However, the comment confirmed her suspicions, and she decided to take advantage of Charlie's assumptions. "Actually, we were hoping tonight to take in some of the... nightlife around here this evening. A friend of mine was telling me about a place called Cahoots. You know anything about it?"

It was a loaded question in more ways than one; and depending on how Charlie answered it, it might tell her more than she had expected to learn from a stranger about their victim.

To her surprise he was nodding emphatically. "Oh yes, fabulous place... although..." He paused, looking them over significantly, "Sometimes it gets a little... uh... leathery. Might be a more than you're used to. But with the guns... who knows? You'll probably fit in just fine. Great restaurant upstairs, great dancing downstairs."

"You go there often then?"

"Oh lordy, child, no. It's tres upscale... bring your gold Amex. On my poor salary I couldn't afford one of their swizzle sticks. But I do like to wander in and look occasionally. Sometimes the girls and I go after work. Bob the doorman turns a blind eye when we show up... although I'm sure Terri wouldn't approve."

Bingo.... "Who's Terri?"

"She's the owner. Beautiful lady, if you like that sort of thing. She's always there, charming the patrons, making them feel all warm and fuzzy." He frowned. "But come to think of it, I haven't seen her the last few times I've been in there. The gossip was that she had finally fallen madly in love and wasn't at the bar as much as she used to be." He snorted and rolled his eyes. "That would be a first. I've never known Terri to be able to commit to a conversation. And don't get me started about her mating habits... I mean, do the words 'crazed weasel' mean anything to you?" Scully and Starling's muted chuckle seemed to snap him out of his monologue. "Oh listen to me, here I am running off at the mouth about people you don't know and your lunch is getting cold."

"Don't worry about it, Charlie. It's nice to hear an insider's view of a place before you go. Kind of lets me know what to watch out for."

"Well, if Terri's there, you best watch out for her. She's a handful. Definitely got an eye for the ladies-- in spite of what they say. And don't piss her off. That girl's got a temper. I saw her get mad at a bartender once-- she heaved a bottle at him and took out a whole wall of glassware. Didn't think a thing of it either. Just chunked the bottle at him and went back to her conversation like it never happened. Damnedest thing I ever saw. Anyway... there I go again. You enjoy your lunch, and if there's anything else you need, don't hesitate to give me a yell." He patted Starling on the shoulder fraternally.

"We will. Thanks, Charlie."

"Don't think a thing of it, dearie."

They both watched Charlie greeting patrons and chatting with them casually as he worked his way back to his stand. Starling and Scully glanced at each other, both absorbing the facts and nuances of the information Charlie had unwitting imparted in the name of gossip.

"Well... that was interesting," Scully offered.

"Uh huh."

"You have any thoughts on it?"

"A couple."

"Such as?"

"Well, I think I know what the bad blood was between Kimberly Ellis and her parents was."

"Terri."

"In a word."

"So..."

"So Scully, you want to go out dancing tonight?"

Chapter 9

Derrington Apartments Asheville, North Carolina

Silence-- yearning, empty, aching silence-- greeted Clarice as she entered Kimberly Ellis's apartment. With silence as her familiar throughout her long travels into the shadows, Starling had spent a career walking into mourning rooms. This one was no exception, filled as it was with the emptiness of a house that was no longer a home. She trod quietly among the things that had once been Kimberly's-- a smattering of keepsakes, photos and a lot of books. They were mostly teaching manuals, she observed-- anthologies of classics, guides to the best books for children. Looking at the uniformed spines, Clarice concluded that Kimberly was either someone who loved her work-- or else was determined to succeed.

The apartment was furnished tastefully-- if sparingly-- in light woods and pale pastels. Blues, sea greens, and rose-colored accents surrounded her with their soothing hues. She inherited some good taste from someone, Clarice mused, remembering the elegant decor of the Ellis family home. No dust gathered yet-- Kimberly had only been gone a short while, and the place still had the echoing feel of one whose owner has just run out for coffee. That would change soon enough when the forensics team waiting outside came in. There weren't as many men waiting for her signal as there would have been if this had been the crime scene, but there were enough to chase away the last traces of Kimberly's living memory from these rooms.

Starling heard the impatient shuffle of the team just beyond the door, but dismissed it as she continued her exploration of the deserted rooms. A few subtle changes marked the bedroom-- the space was a little messier, a little more cluttered. A paperback novel was turned face down on the night stand, on top of a current copy of The Advocate. Seeing its creased pages, Starling's eyebrows rose slightly. Looks like I might have been right about the reason for the trouble between Kimberly and her folks. How, or even if, it tied into the young woman's murder, she still didn't know.

Careful not to disturb anything, she made a complete circuit of the apartment, noting what pictures she wanted pulled and duplicated before turning over to Kimberly's parents. One picture that particularly intrigued her was of Kimberly and another woman. The shot, despite its obviously public setting, had an undeniably intimate aura. Fleetingly, Clarice wondered if this was the notorious Terri that both Charlie and Kimberly's mother had mentioned. Definitely need a copy of that, Clarice thought wryly, Once her father gets a look at it, he'll probably burn it. Looking around at some of the art on the walls-- richly colored Georgia O'Keefe and Tamara de Lempicka prints-- she realized, He'll probably burn all of it. Everything that undoubtedly doesn't fit what his daughter was supposed to be. She didn't know why she had such an unreasoned dislike of the man. After all, she had dealt with blowhards all her life-- even Jack Crawford, whom everyone saw as her mentor and some saw as more than that, tried to dismiss or bully her when it suited his purposes. Martin Ellis really wasn't that much different, but still, he set Starling's teeth on edge. Perhaps it was the passionately disgusted look on Scully's face earlier that afternoon when she walked out of the study behind him that sealed his fate in Starling's eyes. Although she had only known Dana Scully a few days, Clarice knew without a doubt that she never wanted to inspire such a look on her partner's face.

"Uh..." A minute shift in the room's air and a quiet clearing of his throat alerted Starling to Robert Merriam's presence. The young detective looked around the room with shy, darting eyes-- as if there were something shameful to be seen-- or perhaps it was just out of respect for the dead woman's things. "Umm.. Agent Starling? Is it.. is it all right if we come in now?"

What do they think I'm doing, holding a s�ance? Contacting Kimberly's dead spirit to find out who murdered her?

Starling appraised the clean-cut features of the Asheville officer. Certainly he looked respectful-- and not a little afraid of her. "Sure, bring your team in, Merriam, we've got a lot of work to do."

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

Office of the Coroner Asheville, North Carolina

"Hey, Scully. It's me." The disembodied but unmistakable voice of her old partner crackled through the cell phone.

"Mulder?" Scully asked, more out of disbelief than anything.

"What's up? I heard you choppered out of Quantico in the dead of night. I can't believe they ran you out of town before me."

"No, Mulder, I'm on a case." Scully shifted the phone to her other ear and resumed signing the roughly 8 million forms that authroized her to take charge of Kimberly Ellis' mortal remains-- at least long enough to take them to Raleigh and perform the autopsy. She found herself gripping the institutional blue Bic pen a little too hard at the sound of Mulder's voice. Their partnership was at a formal end, although more often than not they still found themselves paired together-- enjoying the best shit jobs the FBI has to offer, she had noted on more than one occasion. When they were separated, however, Mulder had taken to calling her at odd times-- mostly obscenely late at night, usually in some state of intoxication. From the tinny, jovial sound of his voice crackling through the line, she could tell he had already caught the train to Margaritaville. With any luck, it had just left the station, and she could extricate herself fairly gracefully.

The middle of the day... that's a new one.

"Case? Where are you? I heard it was the middle of the boondocks. Scully, are you investigating exsanguinated cows without me?" There was an echoing buzz in the background that Scully vaguely hoped wasn't a blender.

"Not really, Mulder. One of the NCAVC folks requested a pathologist. I volunteered." Better than spending another week lecturing bright eyed recruits who haven't been let in on the lie, she finished cynically to herself.

Dead silence.

"Mulder? Are you there?"

"NCAVC?" Scully could almost hear the alcoholic fog lifting from his thoughts. "That's interesting. Anybody I might know from the old days at Behavioral Sciences?"

Like that idiot ex-partner of yours?

Scully asked silently. You know, the one who stole your profiles and almost got you killed? Aloud, she replied, "I don't think so. Do you know Clarice Starling?"

A long, low whistle shrilled through the line. "Huntin' with the big dogs, aren't you, Scully? Keep this up and Skinner won't be able to keep you in our little doghouse."

Scully bristled at her partner's tone-- by turns mocking, wounded and envious-- and bit back the sharp retort that sprang to her lips. Our little doghouse-- that's it, isn't it Mulder? You're terrified that you're going to be left all alone to rot in your FBI hellhole of an exile. At least so far I've been along to keep you company. "Is there something I can do for you, Mulder?"

A pause. "No, no..." The whirring sound again, and this time Scully knew it was the blender. "Just wanted to see what you were up to. You guys wrapping it up down there?"

"I'm not sure. We've got a couple of leads that we still need to follow up on, and I've got to perform the post." She shifted the phone again, waiting for Mulder to pick up the conversational ball and carry it to its conclusion. A few awkward moments later, she realized she would have to do it herself. "Look, I'll call you when I get back into town, okay? We'll have dinner and I'll tell you all the gory details."

"Sure, Scully. Whatever... hey look, I've got to run. Catch you later."

He was gone before she could say good-bye.

She tucked the phone back into its pocket and ran her fingers over her suddenly aching temples. Ever since the X-Files had been burned and their office closed, things for Mulder had been steadily going from bad to worse. The only time he showed any sparks of life at all was when he was obsessively reconstructing the charred remains of the files-- desperately trying to reassemble his reason for living all these years.

The past few months had taught Scully a lot about her relationship with Mulder. She knew now that they were well and truly bound to one another-- and the shackles were beginning to chafe. She had given up a career in medicine to join the FBI and had willingly done the Bureau's bidding again and again as it had cost her her sister, her child, and very nearly her life. Mulder had been with her every step of the way. Now that she wasn't willing to sacrifice the only thing she had left-- her career-- to his martyrdom, he clung to her all the more tightly. She was fast becoming his only link to sanity, and Scully knew from past experience that his will was more formidable than her own. She couldn't save him now.

He could only drown her.

Thoughts of Mulder and their five-year partnership sent Scully's thoughts careening into an unexpected direction: Clarice Starling. She didn't have to ask to know that Starling didn't work with a partner, and it puzzled her that the taciturn agent was willing to do so now. The dark-haired woman reminded Scully of a Chinese puzzle box that her father had given her one year for Christmas. Its mahogany sides were burnished with age and worn by the fingers of countless others who had tried to divine its secrets, but as sound, strong and as beautiful as it had been the day it was carved. She had taken to carrying it around in her knapsack during college and working it during the odds and ends of time that every student has, no matter how overburdened her schedule.

It had taken Scully close to a year and a half to unravel the combination of moves that would open the box. Her father had even forgotten he had given it to her when she presented it to him with a flourish. The delighted smile she received from Ahab remained with her still.

For Scully, unraveling Starling's secrets would be a much more personally satisfying experience.

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

Derrington Apartments Asheville, North Carolina

It always amazed Starling how in the crime novels and thrillers-of-the-week on TV the detective in charge always found a clue of significance in the deceased's home. Unless the crime had taken place there, such an occurrence was rare indeed, and Kimberly's apartment was no different. There were no incriminating love letters, no tell-tale footprints, no mysterious diary found.

What a surprise...

Starling mused, watching the techies wrap up their equipment. They had taken the photos for duplication and dusted for prints, but she seriously doubted that Kimberly had either brought her killer home or confronted him here. Nothing she had seen about the dead young woman struck her as the type who brought home tricks, and if he had taken her forcefully from her home, there would be more evidence here. Evidence that just didn't exist.

He grabbed her. Snatched her right off into thin air... That was why Kimberly's whereabouts over the last three days were so important. If they could find the last logical place Kimberly had been before her abduction, then they could start sniffing him out. Talking people up, jogging their memories. Jack Crawford would call it "catching his scent." Like she was some sort of hound... Starling shifted uncomfortably at the analogy, however appropriate others deemed it. It implied she was Crawford's creature-- to be controlled and turned loose at his discretion, brought to heel when deemed necessary.

Now they were asking her to be the master of the hounds.

Starling suspected that the offer had been made out of desperation by the powers that be. When Benton Wesley had stepped down following the revelation of his involvement with Kay Scarpetta and Lucy Farinelli's resignation from CAIN, it had been bad enough. Then when Wesley had fallen victim to a serial killer himself-- albeit one with a very personal interest in his demise-- a panic had gripped NCAVC the likes of which Starling had never seen before.

Starling had no interest in either obtaining or wielding power. Make no mistake, she had a healthy respect for it-- having almost been crushed under its relentless wheels on more than one occasion; but filling Wesley's shoes held no appeal for her. Perhaps it was because she had observed too closely the powers that be at work. As a student she had been dangled and manipulated at will by Crawford-- threatened, bullied, and ultimately almost expelled because of his desperation to catch a killer. She had a gift, and Crawford had recognized it long before anyone else had. He threw her into murky depths that she had been prepared for in no way...

"A job's come up and I thought of you... more of an errand really, an interesting errand..."

He left her to find her own way to the surface... with the help of an unlikely mentor...

"I'll give you the one thing you crave most, Clarice... advancement..."

And had been almost patronizing when she not only swam, but finished ahead of everyone else, including himself...

"Congratulations, Clarice. Your father would have been proud..."

That still stung. Father figures had populated and tried to dominate her life. Crawford, Lector were just the first two. Douglas had wanted to be... but Wesley had wisely steered clear of her, recognizing that she neither needed nor wanted camaraderie or compassion. Just let me do my job... She had almost convinced herself that she didn't need anyone. Only the aching emptiness left by Ardelia's departure still echoed in her soul, reminding her-- much to her chagrin-- that she was as human as the rest of them.

You can't be human when you're chasing monsters... Would that be the first lesson she taught the recruits at Quantico? Would she tell all the beautiful young men and women who had known nothing but golden success whatever their backgrounds, Flay yourself alive... peel back mercy, peel back compassion, peel back tenderness until there's nothing left but muscle and sinew... pain and terror coursing through your synapses... that's what it means to do what I do.

How could she tell someone that? How could she show them? It was the reason she didn't work with a partner. Partnership implied trust beyond reason-- and she couldn't even give that to the woman she loved. Taking someone with her down these sanguine corridors was unthinkable.

But isn't that what you're doing now, Clarice?

The voice was Lecter's. A question he had never asked, but one that Starling knew unerringly he would if given the opportunity. Lecter's voice in her thoughts was nothing new... it was as if he had imprinted himself upon her thought patterns during their brief acquaintance. Now that purring, cultured voice often spoke to her, and she knew one day she would hear it in the flesh again. For now, however, the question brought her up short.

And so, she thought about Dana Scully.

Smart, cultured... And beautiful, Clarice. Don't forget beautiful. Do you think she's a natural redhead? Do you want to find out?

Starling shook her head angrily, attempting to chase the voice from her thoughts.

She chases monsters, Clarice. She's been their prey before. And survived them all. Would you like it better if she had a ragged scar down that beautiful porcelain face? Do you want incontrovertible proof of what you see in those eyes?

Starling left the apartment to the techies and clattered down the stairs, hoping to drown out the silky interrogation.

That's why you trust her, Clarice, in spite of yourself. When you look at her you see reflected in those clear blue eyes something you've never seen before. Yourself.

Chapter 10

Motel 6 Asheville, North Carolina

I guess I'm all tied... And I'm stuck like glue to you... Cause I ain't Never I ain't Never Loved a man... The way that I love you...

Music echoed in the small room as Scully pushed the door open and crossed the threshold. The combination of the sound of rushing water and the steam billowing out of the tiny bathroom clued the red-head into her partner's whereabouts. Although she couldn't see into the room, a startled flush warmed her face as she realized the door was open. Averting her eyes quickly, her gaze landed on Starling's narrow bed and the open "Gap" bag with its contents-- jeans and a shirt as near as she could tell-- strewn across the comforter. Her puzzlement only grew as she saw an identical dark blue bag sitting somewhat more neatly on her own bed.

"You're back. I didn't hear you come in." Starling's low-pitched voice greeted her from behind, and only years of control kept Scully from betraying her surprise.

Unfortunately, however, she had missed whatever had been said. "Pardon?"

"I didn't hear you come in." Clarice jerked her thumb towards the room she had just exited. "The noise from the water..."

Scully chuckled. "And I thought it was because of the music."

It could have been just the heat from the shower, but Scully could have sworn Clarice's face reddened a shade. "Whoops. Sorry." She crossed the tiny room and turned down the radio where Aretha still declared her undying devotion:

I ain't never... I ain't never.. No, I ain't never... Loved a man... The way... The way that I... I love you...

"Starling, it's not a problem." Scully shook her head. "Honestly, most days I come home and head straight for the bath, stopping only to turn up the stereo." And to pour myself a glass of wine... Speaking of which... She opened the compact refrigerator that operated in lieu of room service and held up a leftover bottle of Rolling Rock. "You want this? I think I'm going to have what's left of the wine." Not mentioning that there was a half a bottle left. Somehow I don't think our straight-arrow agent would appreciate that... Swiftly, she decided she needed the Clos Pegase's medicinal effects more than she needed to maintain her image. She had been feeling slightly... well, unhinged... all day. Scully didn't know if it was the combination of the case, her bewildering surroundings, and Mulder's call or-- to be brutally honest-- if it was simply the slight, but imposing, presence of her new partner that had caused her to feel increasingly out of her depth as the day wore on. The mountain of paperwork she'd had to deal with today was nothing unusual, and preparing Kimberly for transportation was-- while not the most pleasant task in the world-- routine. Something she had done a thousand times.

"You're hunting with the big dogs, Scully...."

Leaning back into the refrigerator, she muttered under her breath, "Damn you, Mulder." Mulder rarely admitted being impressed by anyone. And while Scully knew him well enough to write off his sardonic comment, the shocked pause following the revelation of her new partner's name had told her far more than he ever would.

Mulder was scared.

In a heartbeat, Scully realized that Mulder saw Starling as her ticket out of the self-created hell where they both now dwelled. Medicine wasn't a threat to her old partner-- he knew she would never be content to spend the rest of her life in the teaching theater. Five years on the X-Files had seen to that.

But Starling...

Starling offered her the chance to make a difference once more. To do the work she had originally come to the FBI to do. Using all her formidable skills and knowledge, Scully had a chance to walk the shadows with Clarice Starling and bring down the monsters that haunted the twilight.

The only question was: did Starling want a partner?

"Scully?"

Her name on Starling's lips brought her abruptly back to reality, and she found Clarice staring at her with an odd, almost bemused expression. "Sorry about that," she excused herself. "It's been a long, weird day."

Starling nodded, accepting the proffered beer. "I figured something had hung you up when you didn't make it to Kimberly's apartment before the techies wrapped up."

"Some nice, helpful young man made sure I dotted all my i's and crossed all my t's. The post is scheduled for noon tomorrow. I was going to chopper out to Raleigh about eight. You want to come?"

"Probably. It depends on what we find out tonight." Starling, wrapped only in one of the thin, hotel towels, settled comfortably on the bed and ran her fingers through her wet hair. "Kimberly's apartment didn't give us much, except to confirm she didn't meet our boy there, and that she probably was gay. There were a couple of magazines and books." She leaned over the bed and tugged some pictures out of the side pocket of her canvas attach� case. "I think Terri is in some of these pictures. Look at the third one from the top."

Scully thumbed quickly through the duplicated photos to the one of Kimberly and a dark eyed, intense woman. To Scully's eyes there was an air of elegant decadence that seemed to emanate from the woman's image. It was at odds with the fresh-faced openness of Kimberly's smile. "Terri?" she asked, holding up the picture.

"I think so," Starling agreed. "We'll find out tonight." She sat up and pulled the jeans into her lap, pulling off the tags that were still attached. When Clarice stood up to tug them on underneath her towel, Scully discreetly turned away.

"What's this?" she asked, fingering the Gap bag.

"Well, since Charlie clocked us as cops the minute we walked into the restaurant this afternoon. I thought we'd try a more subtle approach tonight. So I did a little shopping. Like all good towns, Asheville has a mall. And like all good malls, it has a Gap. We're pretty close to the same size, I think."

Not exactly...

Scully thought, catching a glimpse of Clarice's narrow hips and flat stomach in the bathroom mirror. She was aware that the cancer had rendered her own body almost unrecognizable from its former lushness. Whereas before she had always carried a little extra weight in her cheeks, stomach and hips; the disease had mercilessly stripped it away from her. After the remission, she found that she had liked her new leanness-- the curious sensation of slicing through the air rather than displacing it when she walked. So she had begun a rigorous workout regimen, spending all her spare time at the gym; until the wasted devastation caused by the cancer was replaced by a lithe muscularity that had provoked more than one inappropriate comment from Mulder.

Watching the reflected play of muscles in Starling's back as she dressed, Scully found herself contrasting the natural angularity of Clarice's body with the manufactured one of her own. While she didn't think that Starling saw herself as any sort of ascetic, the look suited the agent-- granting her an air of purity in a Bureau ruined by its own corruption and greed.

"Okay..." Scully drew out the comment, a confused and not a little disturbed by the pattern of her own thoughts. "Does that mean we're going incognito? With Belinda Harris--"

"Not incognito, just low key," Starling corrected. "It's a small town gay bar. They're already going to be suspicious of strangers. Today we might as well have been wearing "FBI HERE" signs around our necks. People in that bar aren't going to want to be seen talking to somebody like that."

"The way Charlie described it didn't sound too 'small town' to me," Scully disagreed.

Tucking her shirt in and refastening the buttons on her jeans, Starling turned to face her partner. "Small town is small town. Doesn't matter how many decorators you hire or what you call yourself. Down deep it's always there," she said flatly.

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

Cahoots Restaurant and Club Downtown Asheville

Though the jeans were a little more snug than what she was used too, Scully had to admit that Starling had chosen well. The dark jeans she wore contrasted nicely with the pale blue T-shirt Starling had also picked out. She threw on the black blazer she had worn earlier that day to complete the outfit.

And cover her gun.

Cahoots was just beginning to pick up as they arrived, and she contented herself with just absorbing the atmosphere. Starling had clearly indicated that she didn't want to go in guns blazing-- metaphorical though they were. The club was casually upscale, with those little down-at-the-heels touches that let the patrons know just how much money went into maintaining this "casual" atmosphere. The clientele was similarly dressed-down in the way that only the moneyed can. She could feel the pulsing throb of the music from the club downstairs vibrating the floor ever-so-slightly beneath her feet. Scully breathed in the atmosphere, remembering the first time she had been in such a club...

Sylvia was two years her senior, a second-year resident to her fourth-year medical school student. They had been roommates for nearly a semester before the older woman revealed her deep dark secret: she was queer.

"So what?" was Scully's dead-pan response. "Don't you think I've noticed just how fond you are of Rita Mae Brown's novels? And how many times did you see 'Personal Best'? Sly, get over yourself and let's go get a drink."

It became a routine with the two women-- who became closer now that the secret was out. Sly didn't have to hide her extra-curricular activities, and Scully didn't have to worry about awkward attempts to fix her up with unwanted dates. It wasn't that she thought she was queer: it was just that medicine was her one, true passion. She had yet to meet anyone, of any gender, who could even begin to compare. Her roommate began taking her to the dark, mysterious bars that were unlike anything the young med student had ever experienced. Scully enjoyed these outings, had danced with just about anyone who asked; and yes, had even been kissed a time or two... but nothing had ever come of her occasional evenings out. Eventually Sly met someone at one of those smoky places and the invitations to "come dancing" stopped.

Still, the safe warm feeling of those nights remained with Scully, and sometimes-- when she'd had just about all she could stand from the "good old boys" club that was the Bureau-- she would seek out one those places and raise a toast in gratitude to her old friend and roommate.

"Judging from that look on your face, Scully, I'm not sure I want to know what you're thinking," Starling muttered to her partner in a low tone.

Scully chuckled and answered without thinking. "It just feels odd to be in one of these places on business."

"Come again?" The abrupt tone in Starling's voice drew Scully's attention from the wall decor and back to the woman beside you.

"You have to admit that it's not everyday FBI business that brings us to gay nightclubs," she replied lightly. "At least not since J. Edgar left the building."

"You visit many gay clubs in your spare time, Scully?" Starling asked tightly, her demeanor screaming an almost painful discomfort.

"Well, it's not the first time I've seen the inside of one, Clarice, no," she retorted, more than a little irritated at Starling's attitude. "Is this a problem for you?"

"How are you ladies tonight?" Both women jerked around at the purring, velvet question. The owner of the voice in question was towered over both Scully and Starling, topping out-- in Scully's best guesstimation-- at close to seven feet tall.

Not counting the six inches of hair piled on her... his? Scully wasn't sure... head. Cocoa skin was highlighted by a skin-tight white buckskin dress and matching white heels. Scully had the incongruous thought that if this wasn't a drag queen, then the WNBA was missing its mostly likely prospect this season. "Umm, two for dinner?" she asked hopefully.

The buckskin goddess frowned, as if considering the ridiculousness of such a request. S/he tapped her foot rapidly and consulted a heretofore unseen clear acrylic clipboard. "I think I'll have something in about 45 minutes. The bar's this way."

Not asking if they minded the wait.

Starling and Scully exchanged swift glances and then followed obediently along.

"Here's the bar, here's the bartender, have at it, ladies..."

Putting a gently restraining arm on their host/ess' arm, Starling inquired politely. "Is Terri around?"

Eyes so vibrantly green they had to be contacts narrowed at studied the two women appraisingly. "Are you friends of hers?"

"Friends of friends," Starling replied earnestly. "We know Kim from Converse, and she said the next time we were in town to look her and Terri up." Blue eyes peered innocently at the host/ess. "I've tried calling and calling Kim, but can never get an answer." She gestured at Dana. "We're only in town for one more night, and I thought maybe Terri would know where she is." A tiny shrug emphasized her loss for what else to do.

"I'll see if she's in," Buckskin agreed and stalked off, no doubt in search of more worthy patrons.

"Helpful little soul, isn't she?" Scully asked.

"As long as it gets us to Terri."

After they gave the bartender their order, an uneasy silence-- the first of their acquaintance-- settled over them. "Look, Starling, about earlier..."

"I'm sorry, Dana. I just assumed... well, let's just say when you add up Catholic, Navy and Bureau... someone who's comfortable in places like this isn't usually what you get."

"The Church, the Navy and the Bureau don't give me my opinions," Scully rejoined.

"Don't tell them that," came the dry reply.

A short bark of laughter escaped Scully's throat, and she shook her head ruefully. "That's the truth." She held up the newly delivered Scotch on the rocks in a quiet toast. "Here's to welcome opinions in unexpected places." A smile ghosted across Starling's eyes, dusting the pale blue with a warmth that went down well with Scully's Scotch. "So are you going to tell me why you're so uncomfortable here?"

Starling shifted in her seat, her eyes moving between the woman beside her and their surroundings. She seemed about to speak several times, but fell silent. After a few moments-- and when Scully concluded that she just wasn't going to answer, Clarice finally replied. "Look around you, Dana. All these people are holding hands with their lovers. But how many of them would do that outside this club or their own homes? How many of them lie to their bosses or families because they might get fired or worse? Where's the joy in that kind of life? Why is everyone here smiling?" Her eyes were faraway as she shook her head slowly. "I just don't get it."

Scully stared at her partner, dumbfounded. Clarice's words carried within them a raw, unhealed wound that was visible in the way she held her body rigid-- her fingers grasping the beer bottle as if it would ground her, separate her from the pain that was so obviously consuming her. Dana knew that she had wandered into a minefield in her partner's soul, and she wasn't quite sure what-- if anything-- she should do about it. She didn't know what shocked her more-- that Clarice Starling carried with her such a deep, living wound; or that she chose to share that wound with with Scully at all.

Much less right now.

"Whenever I hear that two beautiful women are looking for me, I always come running..."

Their conversation was abruptly interrupted as their barstools swiveled around to face a strikingly dark-haired, dark eyed woman. The woman was unmistakably the same one in the picture with Kimberly, and somewhere in the back of all Scully's thoughts, she knew they had stuck gold.

Onyx eyes darted from one woman to the other and then back again as the suggestive smile slowly faded from her full lips. She stepped back a pace and crossed her arms, her demeanor altering from seductive to sharp in an instant.

"You're cops."

Chapter 11

Scully and Starling exchanged a look that said, "So much for low key..." and took simultaneous deep breaths.

"Gee, and I had the Property of the Federal Bureau of Investigation tags removed three weeks ago," Scully deadpanned, ignoring her partner's raised brows. Judging from the dark look in Terri's eyes, this interview was mostly likely over before it had even began.

But there was no harm in trying.

"So... mind if I ask what gave us away?" she inquired mildly. Even if Terri didn't want to "talk" to them, the longer they could keep the conversational ball rolling, the better chance they had to pick up something. Anything at this point would be welcome.

A muted spark of humor fired in club owner's eyes. "Actually... nothing. Some reporter-- the one with the fat girl's name-- told me to be on the lookout for you two. Starling and Scully, isn't it? And I must say..." She surveyed the agents again with a knowing glance that made both women burn uncomfortably. "She didn't do you justice by half."

Scully shifted on the bar stool and crossed her legs, vaguely grateful she wasn't wearing a skirt. "I'm not sure that I want to hear that description," she muttered, just loud enough to be heard.

Terri smiled charmingly. "She just said to look for the pair of women with identical blue eyes and matching rabid, hunting dog glares."

"Sounds like Belinda, all right," Starling replied dryly.

"Oh, but she got it so wrong." Terri turned her dark eyes on Starling fully. "Your eyes aren't identical at all. And rabid?" She gave a delicate shudder. "Hardly."

"You'd describe us differently?" Scully asked, thinking that the description wasn't too far off the mark. Starling didn't start foaming at the mouth when she saw Belinda, but it was close there for a while.

Dark eyes flickered over her own pale ones and held them. "She got the blue part right. I don't think I've ever seen eyes quite that clear. Do you wear contacts?" She laughed lightly and waved her question off with a delicate gesture of her hand. "Of course you don't. Wire-rimmed glasses, right? And only when you're working. Some people would think they were a vain affectation if you weren't so damn smart. And vanity--" She reached out and caressed the tiny cross at the base of Scully's throat. "Isn't that one of the seven deadly sins?"

"Actually, it isn't." Scully leaned back, just out of the range of that slim fingered hand. "You're thinking about pride, most likely."

"Know your catechism, don't you agent? But tell me, do you still believe?"

Scully opened her mouth to object, but fell silent-- half hypnotized by the woman's resonant voice.

"Because that's what I see in your eyes." She ignored Scully's aborted protest. "I see doubt and betrayal there." Terri shook her head. "I don't know what altar you pray at or who your god is, Agent, but you're not very happy with Him at all right now."

"We're a little far off the subject here," Starling objected flatly, her eyes darkening with each exchange between her partner and the club owner. She had no taste for the game that Terri wanted to play. Not here. Not now. She desperately wanted just to get the information they needed and leave.

Terri turned on Clarice with questioning eyes. "You don't believe in anything-- except your own resourcefulness. You've known from the beginning that the game was all a big fix, and working from that theory has gotten you to where you are now."

Dime store Lecter,

Starling thought dismissively. He would have this woman for dinner... She paused and considered her musings. Literally. She cocked her head at Terri, taking in the sleek curves of the dark woman's body. Her clothing was tailored enough to show that she had a buff body and liked everyone to know it. She was taller than both Starling and Scully-- but that wasn't saying much-- and seemed to be mostly leg. That's where he'd start... The thought occurred to her suddenly. He'd braise her thighs and garnish them with her eyeballs. Or maybe he'd save those for dessert...

A shiver of revulsion coursed through Starling's body at the macabre timbre of her thoughts, and she knew she was exactly right.

Of course you are, Agent Starling... You've always known, of course, that we're more alike than different, Clarice. Always have been. Now the question remains... what are you going to have for dinner? Metaphorically speaking, that is...

"Really?" Starling's voice was disaffected, almost bored. "You got all that from my eyes? Or did you see the special that American Justice did on me about six months back?"

Flat black met even flatter blue. Checkmate.

"You're good," Terri purred.

"You're not," Clarice shot back. Her discomfort with the club and the roiling feelings that her partner was unknowingly stirring up were suddenly getting the better of her. Let Scully charm the restaurateur all damn night if she wanted to, but Starling was willing to bet that Belinda Harris hadn't. Far too many times the crime reporter had been one step ahead of the FBI agent on this case. And it was going to stop.

Now.

"Touchy, aren't we?" The taller woman asked acidly.

"We--" Starling began, only to be cut off smoothly by her partner.

"We're not here to play games, ma'am. A woman is dead, and we'd like to find out who's responsible for that. Somebody told us you cared about her. I'd think you'd want to help."

It was a gee-whiz, awshucks line that usually only worked on small town sheriffs, but Terri seemed oddly charmed by Scully's unwavering gaze-- not to mention the slender hand that now rested on her wrist.

"All right," she acquiesced, sitting down beside Scully. "What do you want to know?"

"When was the last time you saw Kimberly Ellis?"

"Three days ago. Two days before they... found her." For the first time, Terri's cool facade cracked, allowing both agents a look inside the woman they were questioning. "Is it true what that reporter said? What... what was done to her?"

In mute fascination, Starling watched Scully stroke the woman's wrist with a light soothing gesture. Though the movement was meant to comfort someone else, Clarice could feel her own skin prickle in response.

"Don't think about that now," Scully murmured. "Think about the last time you saw her."

"She was mad at me." The glitter in Terri's eyes had settled, turning the restaurateur's eyes a dull obsidian. "If I'd known what was going to happen--"

"You can't know," Starling interrupted her. Going down the well-paved garden path of the guilty of soul wasn't going to get them anywhere. "There is no reason something like this happens-- at least not one sane people can understand. It wasn't her fault. Or yours-- for that matter."

"Well, I know she wouldn't have been out on that street alone. He wouldn't have been able to grab her the way that reporter said he did."

"He would have grabbed someone else," Starling replied bluntly, not bothering to curse Belinda for her loose lips. "And then we'd be talking to her loved ones, hoping for the same answers that we're hoping for from you. You can't predict madness, Terri. You can only try and stop it."

"That's what you're doing, right?"

Starling exchanged glances with Scully. "We're trying, yes."

"Loved ones-- that's an interesting term, Agent." She laughed softly. "I've been called a lot of things, but I don't think loved one has been one of them." Dark eyes narrowed. "You talk to her parents yet?"

"I take it you didn't like them?" Scully asked.

"Her father's a prick and her mother's a doormat, but K loved them." Terri snorted. "I think I would've offed them years ago for the insurance money. They're quite rich, you know." Terri glanced at the identical frowns creasing the FBI agent's faces. "Just kidding, guys. Take it easy."

"Try and remember you're talking to law enforcement officers," Scully deadpanned. "It will make our lives a lot easier."

"The long arms of the law, eh?" Terri flashed another rakish smile. "I could get into this."

Starling sighed and, rubbing a weary hand over her eyes, signaled the bartender for another round of drinks.

"Thought you were law enforcement officers?" Terri teased, seeing the motion.

"Well, I figure since you seem to have no trouble forgetting that, so can I," Starling replied blandly. "You didn't like Kimberly's parents. So they knew about you and Kimberly?"

"Thanks Ralph," Terri acknowledged the bartender who neatly placed three drinks in front of the women. "K was the straightest dyke I ever knew. She was a schoolteacher for godsakes... Wanted the house, the kids, the white picket fence."

"She just didn't want the husband," Scully finished for her.

"You got it."

"I'd think it would be hard to be a schoolteacher and be gay in these parts," Starling offered.

Terri shrugged. "You looked around this town lately? I think it's got more per capita dykes than any other place in the South besides Atlanta. Must be the fresh mountain air we love so much."

"Still..." Starling hesitated. "You know how some people are about gays and kids."

"Some people, Agent Starling? Do you count yourself among that number?"

"No, I don't," Clarice replied evenly. "But I grew up in a small town in West Virginia. We had a grade school teacher there--" Starling's eyes took on a slightly unfocused, faraway cast. "Name was Hawkins, if I remember right. He was an English teacher. Fussy guy, very well dressed-- for West Virginia, that is-- always wearing sweater vests and ties. Everybody called him Miss Priss behind his back, but nobody really minded him. Folks just thought that 'intellectuals' were different. Thanksgiving week one year, he had gone away for the holidays-- he always did-- some drunk kids got into his mail, and found some books that he had ordered. It wasn't anything bad or pornographic, but it had the word gay in the title. That's all it took for them to turn on him." Starling snapped her fingers. "Just like that, the whole town. He lost his job, his friends, his house. He finally ended up moving on. I don't know where he landed." Solemn blue eyes focused on Terri. "I know the world's changed some in the last twenty years, but not that much. You're telling me Kimberly wasn't in the closet?"

"Kimberly was in the closet to the people who cared. Most didn't."

"So her parents knew."

"Her parents wished they didn't. But, yes, for the record, K had come out to them." Terri shook her head. "God, I hate that term. Her mother kept hoping it was a phase and her father thought it made her an irredeemable degenerate. He probably thinks she got her just reward for violating God's law."

Scully flinched at Terri's last words, and Starling had a sudden insight into her partner's last conversation with the man. No wonder she had been so furious...

"What about you?" Scully prompted. "Where did you fit into this cozy little picture?"

"That's the real question, isn't it? One that K was asking me all the time."

"Did you have an answer for her?"

Terri examined Starling with a cool eye. "I'm not the... settling type," she finally admitted. "I never have been. And I thought K knew that."

"But she didn't?" Starling prodded. At Terri's short nod, she continued, "And you two argued about it the last time you saw her."

"More or less." The restaurateur stared into her wine glass as if it would give her the power to go back and change her words. "It was late-- probably about midnight or one in the morning-- and I'd had a few." She glanced around the bustling restaurant. "Schmoozing, you know? That's kind of my job." She sighed heavily. "I guess what I'm trying to say is that I wasn't too delicate about telling her exactly what I thought about the idea of settling down with her."

"So she was really upset when she left?" Upset enough not to notice a psychopath was following her... Starling closed her eyes in silent prayer for Kimberly's soul. She probably never knew what hit her...

Terri only nodded, not looking at the agents.

"Thank you Terri," Scully murmured. Starling noticed her hand was clasping the other woman's again, and she deliberately looked away, chasing away the unfamiliar skitterings of jealousy with the dregs of her Rolling Rock. "That's exactly what we needed to know."

"Is there anything else?" Terri's eyes brightened.

"No, but I would like you to talk to one of the uniformed officers tomorrow. He'll take an official statement about what time you last saw Kimberly. Think about what she was wearing, and if she told you where she was going, that sort of thing."

"You think she'd tell me that after I told her to get lost?" Terri shook her head incredulously. "K may have been Miss Light and Love about some things but she had her pride."

"Just think about it, Terri. Think hard." Scully handed her a business card. "My cell phone number is on the bottom. If you think of anything else, call me."

A lazy brow lifted. "Can I call you if I don't think of anything else?"

A deep flush painted warm roses over Scully's cheeks. She smiled softly. "You're a material witness in an ongoing investigation, so the answer to that is no. But thank you for the offer."

"Fair enough, Agent Scully. At the very least, allow me to treat you and your partner to dinner. Joy has a table all ready for you."

At Terri's words, the tall, imposing buckskin-clad host/ess appeared at Scully's side. "Follow me," s/he instructed the agents curtly, as the restaurateur slipped away quietly.

"Joy?" Scully mouthed the word to Starling, rolling her eyes in amazement.

Starling shrugged noncommittally, her thoughts preoccupied with her own inability to concentrate. Everything about this investigation was going wrong-- from having to deal with Belinda Harris in the middle of her investigation to her increasingly out-of-control response to her new partner. Scully made her think about things she had no time for-- like why she was so ill-at-ease in this place or what exactly the red-headed agent thought of her-- and it was distracting her from the job. Her only goal was to catch a killer.

She owed Kimberly Ellis that.

"Penny for your thoughts?" Scully's resonant voice intruded on Starling's self-castigation, halting it in mid-tirade.

Starling met the unwavering concern in Scully's blue eyes, felt an unfamiliar snake of desire begin coiling in her stomach. Maybe it was the Rolling Rock. Maybe it was the place they were in. Maybe it was simply the elegant line of her partner's jaw and the soft hair that brushed gently over the skin there. All Starling knew was that the last thing her mind was on was their business tonight. She shook her head. "I don't know."

"I'm not sure what to make of Terri's performance either," Scully agreed, misinterpreting Starling's remark. "A part of me kept watching her and thinking that the whole thing was a game to her."

"That's because it was," Starling replied absently, smiling faintly at Scully's single-minded intensity. That should be me... a little voice chided her. "I doubt someone like her knows how not to play games. Even when they don't want to."

"Her lover was murdered."

"And she feels guilty as hell about it. Doesn't stop her from playing games," Starling rejoined, copying Scully's motion and laying her napkin across her lap. Ardelia had been more of a drive-thru window kind of girl-- and that had suited Starling just fine. Occasionally, however, they did make it out to dinner, especially after Del was transferred to Atlanta and the prying eyes of the Bureau weren't peering over their shoulders. Ha... I'm sure I've got manners I haven't even used yet, Starling scoffed mentally, eyeing the abundance of silverware on the table. Wonder what they'd say if I asked for Chicken McNuggets?

"I don't get it," Scully said, draining her glass of scotch and nodding at the server's silent question. "Why the games?"

"You want the clinical answer?"

"What does he do, this man you seek? Thrill me with your acumen, Agent Starling..."

Starling squeezed Lecter's derisive voice out of her mind by concentrating on the intense interest in Dana Scully's eyes. This wasn't a test. "By turning her questioning into a game, the subject distances herself from the horror that has befallen the woman with whom she shared a bed-- and in some respects, a life. Studies also show that women tend to empathize more with the victims in crimes like this, very easily placing herself in the victim's position. Somewhere deep in her subconscious Terri knows very well that it could have been her just as easily as it was Kimberly. If Kimberly had been killed by, say her father in a fit of rage over her sexuality, we could at least make conscious sense out of that. But what sense is there in this killing? Quite simply Kimberly was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

"There's always a trigger that sets the killer off."

"Sure," Starling agreed, pausing to take a healthy drink of her new Rolling Rock. "But no one knows what that it is. Usually it's some physical characteristic-- hair, size, age-- but it's all stuff you can't change. Besides, it's all moot if you don't know there's someone out there hunting you. How can you hide from someone you don't know is there?"

Scully pursed her lips, absently studying the menu as she pondered Starling's words. "So you think she was flirting with me as part of her game. To distance herself from what happened?" She smiled wryly. "I've been hit on for worse reasons."

"No, I think she was just hot for you, Dana." Starling paused, watching with growing amusement as Scully's jaw dropped open.

A full-bodied smile broke over Dana's face as she shook her head in surprise. "Just when I think you don't have one, Starling, you bring out a sense of humor and clobber me over the head with it."

"Well, I wasn't sure if you'd recognize one. Last I heard, Spooky didn't allow humor down in the X-Files," Starling replied tartly.

"Oh, Mulder has a sense of humor all right," Scully disagreed. "It just takes you about three years to figure out when he's making a joke. And even then, sometimes I have to ask him."

"How's he handling them shutting the Files down?" At Scully's startled look, she added, "I know if they shut NCAVC down on me, I'd be lost. It's my life."

Scully thought about that loaded statement, the implicit admission in Starling's words. However obliquely, Clarice was giving Scully a way into her, and the red-head wasn't about to pass up the opportunity. She smiled softly. "Mulder goes to UFO conventions on his vacations. I'm sure you don't do anything analogous."

"No," Starling admitted, closing her menu. "I just don't take vacations."

"Ever?"

"It's not like there's a 'slack time' in my line of work, you know? We estimate there're 20-25 active serial killers in the US alone. That's not counting those who've gone inactive for some reason. There's a lot of death out there, Scully. Who has time for the beach?"

The silence of a thousand unsolved deaths rested between the two women as they regarded each other through the candlelight. The flickering light heightened the austere planes of Starling's face, reminding Scully again of her dream of Starling as the reluctant martyr. Saint Joan indeed... Scully silently mocked her fanciful musings. Nonetheless, it was that image which prompted her next question. "You can't save the world, Starling. What's left for you?"

"I'm not trying to save the world."

"No," Scully retorted, "Just everyone in it. All those innocents who don't know what walks around out there at night." She cocked a brow at her partner. "Who's going to save them when you can't, Clarice?" she asked, thinking about how Mulder's dedication became obsession, resulting in a kind of insanity that had helped the Syndicate bring down the X-Files. "What's going to happen when your single-minded dedication drives you mad?"

Cold fire leapt in Starling's eyes as they bore relentlessly into her partner. Silently she rose and threw several bills on the table. "This conversation is over, Scully."

Chapter 12

"Clarice! Wait!" Scully headed out of the club fast on her partner's heels. The words had come out all wrong, and she had regretted them as soon as they left her mouth-- but by then Starling was already moving, already shutting the tiny window into her soul that she had opened to Dana's scrutiny.

Kicking herself for her verbal gracelessness, she ran after Clarice's rapidly retreating form, wishing she could explain why she had been so tactless. The last few months had revealed a whole different side to Mulder-- a destructive bitterness and resignation that frightened her. For some reason she didn't want to see the same thing happen to the woman who was now her partner. From their first meeting she recognized that there was something extraordinary about Clarice Starling, and-- perhaps selfishly-- she didn't want to see that consumed by a quest that would only take from the gifted woman and leave her destroyed and lost at the end of the road.

"Clarice!"

The slender figure abruptly stopped, and Scully skidded to a halt in front of her, black boots scuffing on the dark asphalt. The night swirled coolly around them, making the warm glass storefronts of restaurants beckon to passersby hurrying down the sidewalk. Scully spared a glance for her surroundings and then focused on the blankly cold eyes of the woman in front of her. "Thanks for stopping," she said awkwardly.

"The last thing I wanted was for Belinda Harris to see you chasing me down the street," Starling replied curtly. "That damned woman seems to be everywhere these days, so she's probably lurking around here somewhere."

"Clarice--"

Starling held out a hand. "Look, Scully. You don't know me. I don't know you. After you perform the post tomorrow we never have to see each other again. So let's not worry about the warm-and-fuzzy here. Okay?"

The words were clipped, harsh, and precise; but Scully detected a wavering uncertainty underneath them. She had wounded Clarice, she realized. More than she had ever thought possible.

"I'm sorry, Clarice."

Simple words, and Starling blinked. Once. Twice. Seeming to take in her partner anew. "It's nothing." She brushed away Scully's overture.

"No, Clarice," Seeing her partner flinch with every use of her name. "It is something. And I'm sorry. What I meant to say-- it just came out all wrong--"

Starling looking desperately around her, as if searching for something to ward off Scully's invasion. "Just forget it."

"No." Scully shook her head. "I won't. Not until you hear me out. If you still feel the same afterwards..." She shrugged. "Then there's nothing I can do about it."

"Why does it matter to you?"

Scully's mind went blank. Reasons, logic-- they had always been her tools. Useless now. "It just does," she finally answered. She gestured to the wrought iron table of a convenient bookstore-cafe. "Can we sit down? Please?"

Starling shrugged nonchalantly but followed Scully to the table and reluctantly took a seat.

"Thanks." Scully ran trembling fingers through her disordered hair. Why am I shaking? her mind queried below the thousand-and-one-things that swarmed on the surface of her thoughts. "I--" She shook her head.

"Scully, just... let it go."

"No." Her voice, low. Emphatic. She took a deep breath. "I don't know if this is going to make any sense... but... For the last five years my life has consisted of one man's search for answers to questions I don't even think he remembers. I've seen and done things that I never thought were possible. There have been times when I've almost died." She paused before admitting a truth she had revealed to no one else. "And times where I just wished I was dead. Somewhere along the line it was like I had made a choice to let everything else-- everyone else-- in my life fall away... And that left only Mulder and the Files. I became like him. Only I didn't remember making that choice." Scully shook her head. "Then three months ago they burned the Files to the ground. Closed the project. Mulder and I were left with nothing." She laughed bitterly. "Except each other.

"I suppose I was the lucky one, I always had my medicine to fall back on. Although I knew after the X-Files that it wouldn't be enough anymore." She met Clarice's eyes for the first time since she had begun her story. "But Mulder... he's lost." Her eyes drifted away again from the intense figure before her, thinking of the last time she had seen Mulder. He had been half-drunk and disheveled-- as usual these days-- when he showed up at her Georgetown apartment at an ungodly hour. She had taken him in, given him coffee and a blanket when he fell asleep on her sofa; but silently she had raged at him, wanting nothing more than to grab this stranger and shake him until she shook her Mulder back out. Scully desperately missed the mocking, sardonic man who had been her best friend. You're my courage, Scully... he had said that night, looking at her through red-rimmed, hazy eyes. And you're my despair... she had thought at the time.

Now, looking into the clear-eyed blue of her new partner, Scully realized she had been wrong. Clarice Starling would never end up like Mulder. Her courage-- and her despair-- came from inside that shuttered soul. The only thing capable of destroying Clarice...

Was Clarice.

"How can you do this?" Scully asked abruptly, startling the composed woman across from her. "Day after day. Year after year." An uncomfortable anger began burning in Scully's chest, a building fury at Starling for so calmly accepting that her lot would be no more than this eternal hunt: chasing the darkness and the shadows away from everyone else while they slowly consumed her life. "There will never be an end to this, Clarice. You said so yourself. Evil will never be in short supply in this world. How can you carry on knowing that after you catch this one, there will just be another one to face?"

In the silence that fell, footsteps on the nearby sidewalk became thunder to Scully's ears, and the wind a dull roar. The wrought-iron beneath her finger tips cooled the mad heat of her skin and anchored her body which seemed to be in danger of flying completely away. The reckless beating of her heart threatened to burst the muscle in her chest; and a small detached part of her mind lurking beneath the chaos marveled that she was able to remain seated at all.

Across from her Starling regarded her evenly, and after that endless moment of silence-- when Scully was convinced that she had just made a complete fool of herself-- she rose.

The blue softened, blinked. A hand was offered. "Come with me."

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

Blue Ridge Parkway Outside Asheville, North Carolina

The drive was short-- only fifteen minutes or so-- Asheville wasn't that big a town. Starling wasn't sure she could remember exactly how to get there; but her body seemed to operate the car automatically, skillfully guiding the vehicle to its destination.

Her mind, freed from its responsibility to drive them safely, seethed.

She darted a quick glance to the woman beside her. She had known Dana Scully two days, and in that impossibly short time, Scully had asked-- demanded-- knowledge of her. No one else had.

Well, almost no one... Clarice, I'm hurt. How could you forget me?

And as before... she felt compelled to answer.

"Here we are," she said, parking the car and dowsing the lights. She leaned across Scully to pop open the glove box and became conscious of Dana's scent brushing over her nostrils. The other woman smelled of subtlety and intellect; of warmth, musk and skin.

Her mouth watered.

"Flashlights," she said and was shocked at the rawness in her own voice. "You coming?" she asked brusquely to cover the sound.

Together, the clambered out of the car and made their way down the meandering incline. The last three days of traffic through the area had cleared the overhanging branches and trampled down the brush that led to the place where Kimberly Ellis's torment had finally ended.

A crime scene? Oh, Clarice, how romantic...

Starling was conscious of Scully's graceful movements beside her as they wordlessly traversed the path. Her partner seemed oddly at peace having said what was on her mind, now-- it seemed-- it was Starling's turn.

"It was all over for her by the time she came here." Starling's quiet words broke the silence for the first time since they left the car. "God had her by then."

"You believe in God?" Scully's question was startled.

In the darkness Clarice cracked a wry smile. "That's a funny question coming from a practicing Catholic. Anyway... Crawford always said that in this line of work you'd be a fool not to." She shook her head. "I don't know what I believe. Never really thought about it much."

Never could afford to... Crawford wanted to think that all the bad guys went one place and all their victims went another. That there would be some reward for what was senseless suffering in this world.

"I just don't know..." she mused aloud. She focused on the dim outline of her partner. "It's a nice thought."

The investigators had left this spot, but the palpable sensation of the horror's presence still remained. For years after, Clarice knew, people would slow on the highway, point to the spot and whisper furtively. More macabre voyeurs would actually make the trek to the site, thrilling in the knowledge that this was where a killer stood... Whether or not they caught him.

She had followed that path once, herself. Three years after her first case-- after Lecter had first touched her life-- she returned to the house in Belvedere, Ohio where she had taken her first life. The papers and cops had called him "Buffalo Bill" but Lecter had always called him "Billy." As if he were a child.

As if he were a son.

She was more Lecter's child than Billy had ever been, but they had both been touched by Lecter in some odd fashion. So she had returned to that place, not knowing why, but driven there nonetheless-- by the nightmares, by the alcohol, by the breakup with Ardelia.

The house was gone by then... the realtors had demolished it shortly after the FBI had finally turned it over to Mrs. Lippman's heirs. The basement well that had been seven women's last stop had been filled in, the whole basement cemented over. But it didn't erase the eerie chill that seized Clarice's spine and shook her to her very core.

Billy was dead. Catherine Martin alive. And Lecter...

Lecter was loose. Waiting, watching.

"The world's a more interesting place with you in it, Clarice. You see that you extend me the same courtesy."

What would happen when Lecter called for her?

"Clarice?"

Starling cocked her head in the dimness. Decided she liked the sound of her name on Scully's mouth. Not answering, just to hear it again.

"Clarice?"

"Sorry. Woolgathering."

A quiet chuckle. Starling could almost see the sound rolling off Scully's lips. "We seem to do that around each other a lot."

"You make me think, Scully."

A surprised pause. "Really?"

"Not many people do that."

"No?"

"It's hard to have meaningful exchanges with people when they're busy thinking of you as the Bride of Frankenstein."

"Lecter."

Not a question. The first mention of her mentor from the other woman. Starling admired her restraint.

Isn't that what you brought her here to talk about?

The voice in her head mercifully wasn't his, but her own. The screaming. The silence. The dreams that she seems to know about without even asking. Did you sleep well, she asked me this morning. Was it only this morning? Seems like a lifetime ago... a lifetime with someone like Scully. What would that be like?

"There was one conversation between Lecter and me that Chilton didn't record." She didn't bother asking Scully if she had heard the other "Lecter tapes"-- as they were known around the world. The FBI agent would have had to have been dead to have missed them. Starling's laugh was brittle. "It was the punch line to all our conversations. Without it, everything before that seems so... anticlimactic."

"How so?"

Starling's voice was faraway. "The lambs... they were screaming during the spring slaughter. The noise was horrible, like nothing I'd ever heard-- even now. Not human, but close... If I were the religious sort, I'd imagine it was the sound a damned soul makes in hell. Wailing. Plaintive. Helpless.

"To make a long story short, I was twelve. Tried to grab a lamb and run, but I didn't get far. I just wanted... their screaming to stop."

"Their suffering, you mean."

"An simple extrapolation, isn't it? I always thought Lecter had it too easy where I was concerned. I suppose I had some image of myself as a knight errant... wandering the countryside... but..." Starling abruptly twisted the flashlight off, rendering both herself and Scully as twilit shadows.

The moon was close to full, the clouds parting to allow its gossamer rays through. Clear and cool, the air danced over them, lacking the warmth from the city just below them. Starling could see Scully shiver faintly in the night. "Joan of Arc," Scully said softly.

"Pardon?"

"Joan of Arc... Last night..." She hesitated, and Starling wondered what she had been about to reveal. "I looked at you last night, and I thought of Joan of Arc."

"I remind you of a cross-dressing virgin who heard voices and was burned at the stake?" Starling's question was wry, but underneath Lecter's voice snickered.

That's not too far from the truth, now is it? The virgin and the voices part... and they may still burn you if you're not careful...

Scully laughed softly. "You were the one who called yourself a knight errant."

"Well, I was wrong."

Scully's silence was question in and of itself.

"The screaming stopped... but..." Her boots scuffed already disturbed leaves from their rest. "The silence is worse," she whispered. A shameful admission that no one... not even her spectral hellish angel Lecter... would ever hear.

Scully was beside her in an instant. Less. Her mind reeled as soft fingers gripped her shoulders, and Scully's eyes seemed luminescent in the dark.

"Scully," she murmured, drawing the delicate lines of the other woman's face near. She didn't think as her own hands wound themselves in the thick auburn tresses, only faintly acknowledging that she had wanted to ever since she first laid eyes on the other woman. "Dana..." An apology in the name, knowing she was crossing a line that she had never crossed before. Ardelia had come to her; never before had Clarice in thought or action said I want....

Laid herself bare to another's rejection.

Her mouth was on Scully's now. Cool lips on the fire that raged in her soul. Dana's arms were strong, tight around her in the darkness, protecting her from the madness that lurked just beneath the shadows.

Continued in Part III: Flame.


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