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 3 Flame

Chapter 13

Motel 6 Asheville, North Carolina

Clarice woke to the unfamiliar feeling of a strong, slender body wrapped around hers. Throughout the long night, the sinew and muscles of Scully's arms had not shrunk from their burden, and even now they cradled her gently.

For the first time in longer than she could remember, she had slept without dreams.

And now... now Starling was torn between squirming away from this precious tenderness and relaxing into its silent strength.

The kiss had come from nowhere... an impulse buried so deep she didn't know who was more shocked by it: Scully or herself. When their lips had finally parted... long after Starling had kissed away any traces of the Scotch still on Scully's lips... Clarice had started to mumble an apology.

Directed at whom, she wasn't sure.

Scully had silenced her with gentle fingers on her lips. "Don't," she whispered. "You can explain it all away in the morning. Okay?"

When they arrived back at the hotel room, Starling had awkwardly changed into her sleeping sweats-- feeling as though the ten-ton pink elephant that was her desire personified was sitting squarely on the center of her bed.

So it only made sense to accept the gently proffered hand and slip quietly into Scully's bed and the waiting arms that brought her dreamless sleep.

In the faint pre-dawn dimness, Scully stirred against Clarice. She contentedly nuzzled the back of Clarice's hair, and her fingers entwined with Starling's own.

"Tell me it isn't time to get up yet."

Half asleep and hoarse from the long night, Scully's voice was more a purr than anything; and it wound itself in the lower depths of Starling's consciousness. Whatever else happened, she would never forget the quiet morning resonance in Dana Scully's words. The embrace of this woman-- of her words, her body-- surrounded Clarice in an intimacy that she had always fled.

Until now.

I could love you, Dana Scully...

The words-- no more than a synaptic impulse yet to be given vocalization-- hung in her throat. All she could manage was, "You're choppering out at eight."

In response Scully's arms tightened around her, pressing the lengths of their bodies closer together. A shock wave of warmth reverberated through Starling's body, her own muscles almost crying out in pleasure at the embrace. "Oh good," Scully murmured. "I don't think I could move if I wanted to."

"Don't you?"

"Don't I what?" The husky sleepiness was leaving Scully's voice, and Starling knew it was only a matter of moments before she would have to look Dana in the eye.

And say what? "Sorry I jumped you, Scully and I'd promise it would never happen again, but quite frankly the way you're holding me now makes me want to do it all over again. Along with some other things I really don't want to mention."

It was no longer a matter of just admitting that she wanted Scully. Their kiss last night had done more than just acknowledge Starling's desire and confirm it was mutual. The taste of Scully on Clarice's mouth had ignited a flame that even now sparked tightly in Starling's belly, raising the temperature of the blood that raced in her veins and pounded through her organs.

"What's wrong, Clarice?"

The cool, crisp consonants of Scully's words matched perfectly the clear-eyed investigator Starling was coming to know. Cutting through the awkwardness that was so much a part of moments like these. "Do you always offer your partners such tender loving care?"

Feeling Scully's body stiffen behind hers. Knowing that it was the cruelest thing she could have said.

Not knowing why she said it.

"Actually... no." Scully shifted slightly, and Starling felt the barest hint of breath on her neck. Dana's arms hadn't retreated yet, and she wasn't quite sure why. "Don't do this, Clarice. If this... isn't what you want... Don't... Not like this."

Starling could no longer avoid Scully's eyes. She rolled over and propped herself on one arm, ready to confront the disappointment she knew would be written all over Dana's face. That look had become a staple of her time with Ardelia, and she didn't know why Scully would be any different.

"Look... Scully..." She took a deep breath and steeled herself, meeting Dana's eyes. Instead of censure, the blue of Scully's eyes were filled with... understanding? But why...? Red tendrils of hair tousled from slumber fell softly around her partner's face, and the last vestiges of sleep still clung to her eyelids; but there was an unmistakable depth of understanding in her eyes as she regarded Clarice that made the other woman long to just bury her head in Dana's arms and weep like a child. "I..." Her voice trailed away, speechless.

Scully chuckled ruefully. "I know last night I promised you the opportunity to explain all this away, but... I think I'm having a change of heart." Hesitant fingers reached up and brushed a loose strand of hair away from Clarice's face. "I think..." A warm blush lit the pale arcs of Scully's cheeks as she took a deep breath. "I care for you, Clarice. And I really don't want you to stop what I think is starting between us."

"Scully..."

"And I'm pretty sure you don't want to either..." Her quiet voice overrode the trembling Starling could now feel running through Scully's arms. "If you'll just... let it happen."

"How can I?" The question-- born in the black night of all Clarice's fears-- blurted itself out before Starling had could think of anything more... logical... to say.

"Well... I think last night was a good start." Scully cupped Starling's face gently in her hands, as if the angular planes and smooth cheeks were the most precious object in all the world. She grinned. "In fact I'm pretty sure of it. But... other than that, I don't know."

"What do you mean?"

"All this is kind of new to me," she admitted with a wry look.

Starling flung herself backwards on the pillows. "Jesus Christ on a pike!" Rubbing the sleep from her own eyes, she regarded Dana with skepticism. "You don't act like you've never been kissed."

A pale brow arched. "Did I say I'd never been kissed?"

"You said..."

"I said all this was new to me, Clarice. Waking up with anyone-- male or female-- isn't something I do lightly." Her next words interrupted Starling before she even had time to voice the thought. "Whether we make love or not. Something happened between us last night-- something important-- and I think you feel it too." Her eyes resolutely locked on Starling's. "Or you wouldn't be so absolutely terrified right now," she finished softly.

Ordinarily Starling would have challenged Scully's assumptions about her terror and defended the implacable facade that was her only defense against the terror. But Dana had seen all through that. There wasn't a need for subterfuge any longer. So she ignored the statement, asking instead, "What about Mulder?"

Scully frowned briefly then shook her head. "More than anything-- more than a priest needs his God or a junkie needs his fix-- Mulder needs the X-Files. What he needs from me-- what I've given to him-- isn't my body or my heart, it's..." Her eyes left Starling's, searching the ceiling as if it could give words to the bond between herself and her tormented partner.

I don't think they have a word for what he is...

"Lecter and me," Clarice whispered.

"What?"

"It's the same thing that's between Lecter and me," she repeated. "And it doesn't have a name. It just is..." Scully stared at her in horror, and Clarice could see her mouth twitching, almost hear the denials that sprang to Dana's lips-- but Scully remained silent, finally nodding in weary acquiescence. "We don't choose our soulmates." It was small consolation, but the only one she could offer.

"Is the line between us and them really so thin?"

"There is no line, Dana. Or if there is, it's constantly shifting. I remember Lecter once said something to me about Buffalo Bill. He said, 'Billy wasn't born evil. He was created through years of systematic abuse...'"

Scully looked at her skeptically. "Do you really think that's what happened to Lecter?"

"Do you really think Mulder was born that bent?" She propped herself on her elbows, staring hard into Scully's eyes. "Or did circumstances in his life trigger something that was already buried there? And didn't you ever wonder that if maybe, just maybe, if what had happened to him hadn't happened-- then none of it would have ever happened?" She didn't pause to give Scully time to answer. "Do I think Lecter's evil? Sure, if evil is the combination of pure amorality and genius. Honestly, Dana, I don't know if Lecter was born or made-- and quite frankly I don't ever want to-- but I can't get away from what he's done to my life." She took a deep breath. In the seven years since she had first crossed paths with Hannibal Lecter, she had never discussed him with anyone.

Not the FBI staff psychologist.

Not Crawford.

Not Ardelia.

The closest she had ever come was with another woman who had a larger-than-life figure looming over her past, her present, and her future.

She had first met Lucy Farinelli when the young computer genius had approached her with the CAIN prototype wanting background and information. To everyone, Lucy had seemed the archetypal golden child-- gifted with genius, looks, and ambition-- but Starling had immediately seen the haunted-- and hunted-- look in the young woman's eyes. Dr. Kay Scarpetta was a devastating legacy to have to live up to. Their friendship had begun tentatively over beers that Starling had bought for the then-underage student. It was deepened when they acknowledged they both shared a desire for the love of women. And it was cemented when they both realized that they shared something much deeper-- the presence of unwanted and unforsakable mentor. She had watched with horror as Lucy became involved with Carrie Grethen, unable to do anything to stop the impetuous young agent from making a mistake she knew would haunt her the rest of her life.

Starling felt something akin to shame for the gratitude she felt when Carrie had killed Benton Wesley and not Lucy.

Still... the most she had ever managed to say to Lucy was a few nondescript words-- merely an acknowledgment that the specter was there, a darkling shadow that trod in her steps and would one day overtake her.

Somehow she had ended up in Dana's arms again, and this time, Starling didn't fight it. She allowed herself to curl into the heated warmth of this woman who moved her in a way no one else ever had. In Scully's arms, the tenderness was bearable. "Dana..."

"Shut up, Starling," Scully murmured. "Just let me hold you."

She couldn't help asking. "Why?"

A long pause. One that Starling feared Dana wouldn't be able to fill.

"Because it feels right," she admitted at last. "Because it helps."

Chapter 14

Raleigh North Carolina

The short chopper ride from Asheville to Raleigh wasn't nearly enough time for Scully to figure out what the hell was happening to her. Frankly, she doubted a non-stop flight around the world would allow her to even begin that process, much less complete it.

Get a grip....

The mental reprimand didn't work and, indeed, only served to highlight the absurdity of her situation. Finding herself attracted to another woman wasn't the problem-- okay, maybe it would be one day-- but it wasn't the one that consumed her now.

She wasn't sure of anything at this point, except that the hand that had seized her heart wouldn't let go. Last night Clarice Starling had unknowingly touched something deep within Scully-- something Dana herself hadn't know was there until now. In Clarice, Scully saw everything she admired, everything she had aspired to in her own life, and the terrible price they had both been required to pay for their ambition. But somewhere along the line that invisible distance that separated her from everyone-- even Mulder-- had begun to dissolve, until she was holding Clarice in her arms and finding herself wishing she never had to let go.

The powerful emotion was so out of character, Scully didn't even have a vocabulary for what she was feeling. Whatever its name, it had burst into the quietly centered calm where she lived and made itself a home of tumult and aching need. Yet through everything, there was a clarity-- as if the fun-house exterior of her emotions had a rock solid crystal center-- that guided her actions. For the first time in her life this morning, Dana Scully had spoken her heart; unafraid of propriety or convention, wisdom or logic.

I really don't want you to stop what I think is starting between us...

Was it really that simple?

Thinking back over the few people in her life who could have said they laid claim to her heart, Scully admitted how woefully short they had fallen of their mark. They had been stymied by the crisp precision that ruled Dana's life, unable to pierce the smooth curves of her calm or the enameled barrier of her intelligence.

How had Starling broken through?

The answer to the question came almost as quickly as the thought itself.

Starling hadn't.

Some instinct, more primal than anything Dana Scully admitted to having, had voluntarily lowered all the defenses that she might possibly have against this woman who was so much like her.

"Ma'am? Ma'am?"

Scully looked up to see a fresh-cheeked military pilot-- why are they so impossibly young?-- looking inquisitively at her.

"I'm sorry?"

"We just touched down, ma'am. At the hospital?"

Scully nodded distractedly, realizing that the last thing on her mind right now was the young woman whose remains were now in her care.

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

Twillby's Diner Asheville, North Carolina

"Well, well, well... you and Dana Scully. Talk about the Ice Queens Cometh. Whoda thunk it?" Belinda Harris loomed over Starling's table, impossibly larger than life, insinuating herself into Clarice's thoughts.

Starling glanced up and groaned silently before returning her eyes to her waffles. Her musings this morning had almost been pleasant-- pondering the sweet smell of Scully's hair and ignoring all the warnings that reverberated off her heart-- but Belinda, of course, would put an end to all that nonsense. "I don't know what you mean," she replied as blandly as possible.

"Oh you know what I mean, Agent Starling," Belinda answered knowingly, sliding into the booth bench opposite Clarice and signaling the waitress. "The question for our home audience is, does the fair Agent Scully? I'm betting that she does." She repeated the ritual from the previous morning of dousing her coffee with liberal amounts of sugar and milk, her eyes never leaving Clarice's.

"How can you drink that stuff?" Starling asked abruptly. "You can't even taste the coffee."

"That's how. I hate the taste of coffee. Always have. But what else is there to drink at crime scenes? You should know that." She smiled coyly, in bizarre imitation of a coquette. "However, we were talking about you."

"No, Belinda, you were talking about me-- as you usually are, I might add. I don't recall saying much of anything."

"Oh, but you are, Starling. You say so much with those beautifully cold eyes and that sternly sculpted jaw-- I'd have to be blind not to notice. You don't like talking about Agent Scully very much, do you?" She tsked reprovingly.

"Maybe I just don't like talking to you. Scully has nothing to do with it."

"Oh that's priceless, Starling. Why would you bother denying it, if there weren't at least some grain of truth to be found there? I know you don't like talking to me-- I have the crown to prove it." She lifted one corner of her upper lip-- oddly reminding Starling of a snarling hound-- and indicated one of her incisors. "Remember Dallas?"

"I could ask you the same question."

"Ooh... are you threatening me, Agent Starling?" Belinda rubbed her hands together gleefully. "Now we're getting somewhere. Tell me, how did you and Scully meet? It's not like you two would naturally cross paths. I heard old Spooky kept her locked up in that dreadful basement office of his. Only let her out for autopsies."

"Belinda..." Starling ground her teeth together.

"Give me a break, Starling. You know I'm gonna find out. And maybe if you answer the easy questions, I'll let the hard ones slide."

For now...

was the unspoken end of that sentence. Clarice knew well enough that once Harris got her teeth into something, she would worry it relentlessly until she got the answers she sought.

Quid pro quo.

A simple exchange of services. A practice as old as time really. And how she had started down this long dark road so many years ago.

One more exchange. What would be the difference? Deflect her for now-- she'll get her nose on to something more juicy when she finds out that there's nothing really going on between me and Scully. Her thoughts conveniently overlooked the warm taste of Dana's mouth the night before, aware that Belinda would most certainly not consider their kisses nothing.

"I might even have something of interest for you on this guy you're looking for."

Starling's head jerked up of its own volition, and she stared intently at the reporter opposite her.

Sweeten the pot. What could she know? And would it be worth sullying what was happening-- no, what was beginning to happen-- between her and Dana?

Lecter would make the trade without hesitation. Hell, he'd probably be the one making the offer, but still Clarice hesitated, letting her thoughts swim free of the mire.

Red gold hair that mocked the sunset with its brilliance and blue eyes clearer than any Montana sky she'd seen as a child...

Scully...

This morning Scully had revealed an impossibly gentle heart and a fearless tenderness beneath the cool intellect that was her mark upon the world. It had been her gift to Clarice...

And she would be damned if she would offer it up on the altar of quid pro quo. There was always another way.

"No deal, Belinda," she said finally, rising and tossing a handful of singles on the table. "Find another client to whore your information to. I'm not buying."

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

Motel 6 Asheville, North Carolina

"'Lo?" A groggy voice murmured into the phone. There was a muted thud, followed by more audible cursing, then the voice returned. "Who the hell is this?"

Starling chuckled, but kept her voice stern. "Is that any way to greet an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation seeking cooperation from a sister agency?"

"Fuck the Bureau," Lucy Farinelli said succinctly. "You, I'll talk to. What's up, Clarice?"

Starling had stormed out of the cafe and circled the few blocks between it and her hotel room before the anger had subsided. At this point she didn't know what terrified her more-- that fact that she was so protective of her feelings about Scully, or that there were already so damn many of them. Returning to her hotel room, she had forced herself to comb through the current case files, trying to apply the woefully small amount of information they had gleaned on this trip to what they already knew. Unable to come up with any angle other than those she had already covered, she called her old friend intending to leave her a message. Sometimes just thinking about the hop-skip-jump way the young woman approached things enabled her to cast a different light on her problem. She never expected to hear Lucy's live voice crackling over the line.

"Lucy, it's almost one o'clock in the afternoon. Do I even want to ask why you're at home, much less why you're still asleep?"

There was the sound of rustling papers and bedcovers-- Starling could picture the lanky agent rising, her dark red hair tumbling wildly about her shoulders as she pushed it out of her face. Lucy Farinelli-- even a sleep-encrusted, cranky Lucy Farinelli-- was a beautiful sight. "Huh? Oh, I caught a wild case last night about midnight, was out on it until about 8am. Our firebug up here in Philly is getting careless. I think we might actually come up with something on him this time."

"Oh... I'm sorry." Starling was immediately contrite. She was used to a much more reckless Lucy, but since she had joined the ATF about a year and a half ago, she seemed to have been straightening out a little. Philadelphia-- not to mention her superior Teun McGovern-- had been good for her. "I'll call back later."

"Don't bother," Lucy replied, almost cheerfully. "I'm up now." As chewing noises began to accompany her conversation, Starling wondered about the size of Lucy's living quarters. Either she had finally invested in a portable phone, or Lucy was reverting back to her single-room college days. She remembered that the three bedroom townhouse in DC Lucy had shared with her lover always made the younger woman feel uncomfortable. "As long as you don't mind me having breakfast as we talk."

"By all means."

"Okay, Clarice. What's up?"

"Wanted some input on a case."

"I'm not Bureau anymore. You've got full access to CAIN. Dunno how I can help you."

"Lucy, you created CAIN. Don't tell me you can't help me."

"Did you input your queries?" A controlled tightness began creeping into Lucy's voice, and Starling knew she had to watch her step. The young agent's dismissal from the Agency-- although technically termed a "Voluntary Resignation"-- was still a sore spot, and Clarice had no desire to cause any more pain.

"I did-- and got some hits--" She got that far before Lucy interrupted her.

"So... what do you need me for?"

"I'm convinced that there's more out there. We're just not working the system right."

"What do you mean?"

"Oh come on, Lucy. You know as well as I do all the techies did was input my inquiry exactly as I typed it. I know you can massage it..." She let her voice trail off in what she hoped was an enticing manner.

A grudging chuckle. "The guppies giving you problems?"

They called the technicians who did the actual searches for VICAP and CAIN "fishbowl profilers." These agents were technically members of NCAVC and usually had some background in behavioral science, but their real strengths were computers and programming. Part of their job as input specialists was to use their own knowledge and background to enter compatible searches and queries that might turn up substantial leads in addition to the primary agent's own query. It was one the FBI's few attempts to encourage its agents to "think outside the box," and so far the results had only been middling.

Lucy had a unique gift for angled thinking, so much so that Clarice had been really sorry when she hadn't been able to convince Lucy to join NCAVC. By that time, however, Clarice's superior-- Benton Wesley-- had become involved with Lucy's aunt. And Lucy herself had unknowingly become the lover of a serial killer. Instead Lucy joined the elite Hostage and Rescue Team until she left the Bureau and joined the ATF.

"Come on, Luce..." she cajoled.

"I don't have access anymore, Clarice. And I know you're not going to give me your codes over an unsecured phone line."

"You don't have backdoors?" she asked skeptically. Knowing good and damn well that Lucy could hack her way into just about any system around-- her own would be a piece of cake.

"Would I do something that unethical?" Lucy asked in mock innocence.

"In a heartbeat."

There was a long pause, during which Starling heard Lucy finish her chewing and drink what had to be an entire gallon of what she assumed to be orange juice.

"L--u--c--y...."

"I talked to Ardelia last week."

The abrupt statement came from nowhere, and Starling stared at the phone in shock. She hadn't talked to Ardelia since the night almost a year ago when the other woman had banished Clarice from both her bed and her life. Lucy had been a friend to them both, but in the intervening months, the young agent had been unusually silent regarding their breakup.

Figures she'd bring it up now...

"Really?" To her own ears, her voice sounded normal. She had put their failed relationship in the darkened corner of her soul reserved for those things she was unable to bear contemplating. Her father's death lived there. As did her mother's abandonment. She had tried to confine Lecter there, but he refused-- the memories resolutely staying with her, growing and enlarging, until finally it was as if a sub-unit of his consciousness lived in her mind.

"Clarice?"

Realizing that Lucy would misinterpret her silence as something impossibly romantic-- like a pain-filled longing-- she replied, "Sorry, Lucy. I was just pouring myself a cup of coffee. You said Ardelia called? How is she?"

"Got a new girlfriend."

A significant pause-- one that Starling knew Lucy wanted her to fill.

"Really?" she repeated.

"Yes, Clarice, really," Lucy mocked. "But she asked after you."

"What did you tell her?" Starling asked apprehensively. She knew Lucy had a "creative" streak as well as an annoying tendency to play matchmaker. These months, Starling had interpreted Lucy's silence as disapproval; and she was half-afraid that Lucy was going to try and get them back together.

A month ago, Starling realized, she would have passively welcomed this; but now...

Now there's Scully...

And a whole new world of possibility opened in front of her.

"I told her you were seeing someone," Lucy's voice intruded upon her thoughts. "I know it's not quite true, but..."

"I am seeing someone," Starling interrupted quietly.

The clattering sound of shattering glass filled Clarice's ears for a moment before Lucy's voice-- a little breathless-- returned to the phone. "I'm sorry, Starling, I thought you said you were seeing someone."

"I did."

"You are?"

"Yes." Starling took a deep breath. "And I think I'm falling in love."

Chapter 15

"Starling, April Fools Day was two weeks ago. This is a hell of a time to be developing a sense of humor." A pause. "That was my favorite coffee cup."

"Was it the Danceteria one that Janet gave you?" Clarice asked, referring to the rather whimsical party item that circulated among some of the closeted gay members of the Bureau. The royal blue cup was decorated on one side with the a clever likeness of the FBI seal with the words J Edgar's Danceteria in place of Federal Bureau of Investigation. The other side read Open 24 Hours. Clyde Tolson, Proprietor.

"Yes," came the sullen reply.

"I'm sorry."

Silence.

"Lucy?"

"Yeah."

"About me seeing someone?"

"Yeah?"

"I wasn't kidding."

Another silence. Then a muttered, "Holy shit, Starling. Why haven't you said anything? I mean, Clarice, I thought we were friends, and I kinda hinted to Ardelia that you were, well, you know..." Lucy was off and running. From past experience, Starling knew she had to stop this express before it got too far out of the station or she'd never get another word in edgewise. Plus, Lucy would have her talked into a long weekend with Scully in Philadelphia, and there was no way in hell Starling was ready for that. "... And she thinks you guys might get back together..."

"Lucy!"

"...Even though she's seeing someone, I know she still loves you..."

"Lucy!"

"... You can hear it in her voice..."

"Her name is Dana Scully and she's Bureau, okay? Is that what you wanted to know?"

That shut Lucy up. "Holy shit, Starling."

"You've already said that," Clarice pointed out. "Twice."

"When did this happen?"

A wave of giddy laughter rose in Starling's throat. All morning she had hugged the memory of their fleeting kiss tightly to her. The images had replayed behind her eyes again and again, superimposing themselves over everything she had said and done. Now, with the exchange of a few words, it became so shockingly real, and Dana's words came back to her all over again...

"I really don't want you to stop what I think is starting between us..."

"When? Give..." Lucy demanded.

"Now. Today," Starling replied, clamping down on the laughter but unable to hide the sound of the smile in her voice. "We.... I just..." She took a deep breath to center her thoughts. "It's gonna be okay, I think," she added, more as an affirmation to herself than anything.

The silence on the other end of the phone grew darker.

"Lucy?" Starling held her breath.

"I know her, you know."

"No, I didn't."

"No biggie, I had a class with her at Quantico. I took her section because Aunt Kay was teaching the other one. Forensic Pathology."

"She's a medical doctor as well as a field agent."

"Knows her stuff, that's for sure. I had to work my butt off in that class."

Coming from Lucy-- the golden child to whom everything academic came easily-- that was quite a compliment. Sometimes Starling thought half of Lucy's problem was that so many things did come easily to her. She had entirely too much energy left over for other conflicts.

"I think my aunt knows her too."

Ah-ha...

Starling's mind chortled. "She never mentioned it. She's actually been assigned to the X-Files for the past five years."

"What the hell are they doing assigning a pathologist to crazy old Mrs. Rochester?" Lucy asked, referring to one of Mulder's other, more derivative nicknames. "Have they gone just as crazy as he is?"

Starling smothered a giggle. It wouldn't do to be snickering at Scully's partner. "Luce-- he's not the madwoman in the attic."

"No, he's the madman in the basement. She must have fucked up really badly, huh?" Lucy snorted. "Hey, look at it this way, if I had stayed with the Bureau, that's the job they probably would have given me. Hey, Clarice, you could be dating me right now," she teased.

"We are not dating!" she objected. Then her mind centered on the statement itself. "Stop that mess right this second, Farinelli. What would Janet say?"

"Janet would probably say, Good riddance to bad rubbish, and wish you better luck than she had."

Starling stared at the receiver in shock. She had known that Lucy and Janet had gone through some really tough times, but she always suspected that their relationship would endure. Despite all of Lucy's problems, Clarice knew the young woman loved Janet beyond all reason. If something had happened to change that, it must be killing her friend right now. And hearing about Starling's unexpected brush with romance wouldn't help matters any. "Something you wanna tell me about, Lucy?"

A sucking sound whooshed through the phone as if the breath had been knocked out of her. "Naw, Starling. I can't. Come on up to Philly sometime after you've caught your latest monster and I'll buy you a beer and cry in it. 'Kay?"

"I'll hold you to that, Farinelli."

"Counting on it, Starling."

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

Pathology Labs Raleigh, North Carolina

The macabre business of death wiped any blossoming thoughts of romance from Scully's mind as she worked. It was a blessing, really, because somewhere deep inside, Dana suspected that if she had time to dwell on the darkly uncharted waters into which she was about to dive, she'd just catch the next boat to shore and skip the proceedings entirely.

As it was, she was able to focus all of her formidable intellect on the job at hand-- which was finding the secret to a killer's touch in this young woman's body. A secret that all the other victims had refused to yield up so far.

"Victim is a twenty four year old caucasian female." She began the familiar litany of identification, almost identical to the one she performed in Asheville, this time for a different record. Scully recorded the position of the ligature marks, noting that she found them consistent with those used in strangulation with ropes or belts. It was her professional opinion-- as she had shared earlier with Starling-- that the UNSUB had strangled his victim with a belt and not his bare hands. In fact, nothing she found deviated in any way, shape or form from the other victims.

Until she got to Kimberly's uterus.

"Bingo," she whispered. Here was the damage that Starling had been looking for and hadn't found.

Doesn't this all seem too tidy to you, Scully?

she had asked.

Looking at the ruins of the young woman's reproductive organs, Scully had to say it didn't look very tidy at all. The vibrator-- an object designed very specifically not to do damage-- had pierced the uterus itself and all but shredded Kimberly's ovaries. Kimberly very likely would have bled to death if her killer hadn't strangled her first.

"So he doesn't kill them beforehand. He'd have to have someplace permanent to work if he did this to them alive," she muttered. Her mind raced over the autopsy protocols from the other victims. To her recollection, none of them had mentioned the condition of the uterus. "Or maybe there just wasn't anything to note. If this is a first time thing, there might be something else..." Sharp eyes ran over Kimberly's body again, this time zeroing in on her hands and fingers. "If she was alive when the bastard did this do her, I bet she fought like hell..."

I know I would have...

"There might be something under her fingernails. The very something that the other victims hadn't had."

Clarice's voice echoed in her mind, patiently lecturing her about the mind of madness. "The UNSUB keeps doing this and doing this. Each time getting less and less satisfaction, until he has to change. Up the ante. We call it decompensating. That's the best time to catch one of these monsters. They get careless because they begin to lose control over the scenario because they're losing touch with reality. It's how they caught Bundy and Lecter..."

"But Lecter wasn't..." Scully had carefully let her question trail away.

"Losing touch?" Starling had chuckled darkly. "Nope. Not at all." Her eyes took on a faraway cast as she considered her erstwhile mentor. "Sometimes Scully," she took a deep breath and another long swig of Rolling Rock. "Sometimes I think he did it because he got bored."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, how can you prove you're the smartest person in the room when nobody knows you're there?"

Scully's brows had furrowed.

"In Lecter's universe he was god. He had the power of life and death. He chose who would escape his wrath." Starling shook her head. "You're a Catholic, Dana. Think about it. What would your God be like if he didn't have anyone to worship him?"

"Good grief..." Scully had muttered.

"Insanity didn't bring Hannibal Lecter down. Hubris did."

Scully shook her head to clear the conversation from her thoughts and to focus on the delicate task of taking scrapings from Kimberly's hands. According to the chain of evidence, Kimberly's hands had been bagged immediately upon discovery of the body, and hadn't been touched since.

Of course, the task was a little easier this time. Kimberly's hands now rested neatly in a Ziploc bag beside the young woman's head.

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

Bell Chere Festival Downtown Asheville

Starling thought about going to the Bier Garden for lunch, but at the last minute swerved her steps away from the restaurant's beckoning door. Usually eating alone didn't bother her-- in fact, it was normally her preference-- but sharing meals the last two days with Scully was threatening to change that. Shaking her head at her foolishness, Starling crossed the street and made a bee line for a small lunch-counter that she had seen a block or so down. The place had the hectic bustle typical of an establishment increased by the ebb and flow of a happy-go-lucky Saturday crowd populating the arts festival.

Hot dog in one hand and soda in the other, Starling began to stroll the main drag of the festival, allowing her mind to drift in that "diagonal" way that always irritated and baffled Jack Crawford. Crawford, along with John Douglas, had attempted to make profiling as close to an exact science as they could. They categorized, classified, documented, and patterned their way through countless volumes. They had been the driving force behind VICAP with its crisp clear input queries. When Benton Wesley had introduced the first CAIN prototype and the young computer genius behind it, the older men had both almost gone into apoplectic shock. One of the truly innovative things about CAIN wasn't that it was a simple database. What Lucy had added to that relatively straightforward program was an input query that basically allowed the operator to free associate. CAIN would then string the words together in various combinations until something helpful to the operator came out. In a way it was limiting, because it relied on the ingenuity of the user. Of course Lucy had her Aunt Kay and Benton as her role models, so-- for her-- the user's intelligence had never been in question.

Now as far as the rest of the Bureau is concerned...

VICAP remained the preferred method of cyber-research for 90% of the Bureau, but others-- Starling included-- loved its diagonal method of search. It was how she had discovered her latest UNSUB's previous handiwork.

"Lovely color, isn't it?"

Starling's head whipped to the side, eyes landing squarely on a slender, middle-aged woman with long black hair streaked with gray. She gracefully wore a long, baggy taupe skirt and matching scoop-necked blouse. The delicate lines of crows feet had just begun their spidery journey across the woman's face, and Starling had the sudden instinct that this woman smiled a great deal. The stranger carried on her shoulders the quiet dignity of someone who is at peace with their life.

Starling involuntarily smiled back, appreciating her charm. Following the line of the woman's sight, Starling's glance settled on a delicate silk scarf hanging elegantly with a number of others in one of the booths. Although it was only one of many, Starling knew instantly the one to which the woman was referring. The combination of greens, golds and burgundies seemed to sing to her. It was the sort of thing that Starling would never-- could never-- wear. To wear a silk scarf of that color and vibrancy took a elegance that she knew she was never have.

It would look fabulous on Scully.

"It's beautiful," she admitted, unaware of the slight coloring in her cheeks-- courtesy of her thoughts of the other agent.

"Try it on," the woman suggested, moving towards the silk.

"Oh no," Starling held out her hands. "Not for me."

The woman's head lilted slightly, appraising Clarice with benevolent grey-green eyes. "For a friend, then. Yes?"

An unwilling smile crept around the corners of Starling's mouth. Soo busted... Lucy's voice chortled in her ears.

"Is this yours?" she gestured at the tiny booth, lush with cool silk and ardent color.

The woman inclined her head in acknowledgment.

"Amazing..." Starling muttered softly, her hands running over the material of a hundred different patterns. "Do you have a shop here?" She fished in her blazer pocket for her identification and money, careful that her service piece remained concealed.

"No, I live in Minnesota, but we always come down here for the spring season." The woman chatted easily as she wrapped Starling's purchase in folds of tissue paper to protect it. "The weather's so lovely around here for so long that there are literally hundreds of festivals like this. We just travel from one to the other. Then, when it starts getting hot and uncomfortable, we go back home." She took Starling's cash and opened a tiny locked box to make change.

"Isn't living in hotels hard, though?" Starling frowned. "And how do you store all these beautiful things?"

The woman laughed warmly, and Clarice decided she liked that sound. "No, no... If we had stay in hotels..." She shuddered. "There's no way I could do that. No matter how good the money."

"Then..."

"We have a Land Cruiser. All the comforts of home, without the home." She laughed. "Honestly, I think that thing really is bigger than the first house we owned."

The hairs on the back of Starling's neck prickled. She had wondered how... "Where do you park it?"

"Well, you don't exactly just park it. There are lots camp grounds around here. The mountains are just beautiful. There are places that have electrical and running water hook up. So you just drive right up."

Her mind was racing. "Are there more..." she chose her words carefully, "Secluded camp grounds?" She elaborated, "You know, like if someone had one of these things, but wanted to be alone."

"You mean camping, but not really?"

"Exactly."

"Oh sure. There are lots of things like that." The woman nodded. "But Chris and I really like our comforts..."

Starling forced herself to concentrate on the last of the woman's words until she was slowly able to extricate herself from the conversation. Taking her package and tucking it under her arm, she waved amiably at the woman and lost herself in the crowd, her thoughts tumbling over themselves haphazardly-- like the churning ocean in a hurricane.

That's how he can work on them and still not leave anything at the body site. He's working them over in his Cruiser and then dumping them. Nobody's gonna look twice at a Land Cruiser parked on the side of the road. God knows, I didn't. There are so goddamned many of them around here. How could be I so fucking stupid... You are losing it, Starling...

Her self-castigation was cut short by the chortling of her cell phone.

"Starling."

"Starling, it's me."

A pause. "Scully... I think I know how..."

Scully's voice cut roughly into her, the agent's tone almost as excited as Starling's. "He's getting careless, Clarice. We got scrapings."

Starling thought her heart would stop. "How?"

"Under Kimberly's nails. There's something... different this time, Clarice. I think he's beginning to decompensate." Through the unsteady crackle of their cell phone connection, Starling could hear Scully moving rapidly up a flight of stairs. She knew Scully was going up by the increasing harshness of her partner's voice. "I'm choppering these samples to DC right now. I've got some people in the Bureau's lab who'll rush this through and do it right. You wanna grab a flight up here for the results?"

Starling hesitated, thinking about her news. But if he really was decompensating, that probably meant he was going to stick around a while. Not to mention the fact that he had perfect camouflage.

"You could pick up some fresh clothes." There was a pause, then more quietly. "And I could take you out for a proper dinner."

The analytical part of Starling's mind screamed in outrage. Not only was this not the time or the place for personal involvement, it was seriously beginning to hamper her effectiveness. Maybe if she hadn't been so preoccupied with Scully during their first meetings, she would have paid more attention to her surroundings. Seen the Land Cruisers and made the connections earlier...

But while her thoughts objected vociferously, Starling found herself replying with a smile in her voice. "I'd like that, Scully."

Chapter 16

J. Edgar Hoover Building Washington, DC

Lightning tentacles of exultation gripped Scully's chest as she stepped off the elevator and strode through the corridors of the Laboratory Unit in the J. Edgar Hoover building. The faces on this floor were familiar, and several people looked up and nodded respectfully as Scully passed. She returned their taciturn greetings with nods of her own before entering a glass enclosed workstation. "Barry?" she called quietly. "You here?"

One of three figures identically clad in pristine white lab coats detached himself from a high-powered microscope and crossed the room. He was conventionally FBI-issue handsome, with the prerequisite square jaw and close cropped blond hair. A smile creased tiny wrinkles into his eyes. "Agent Scully," Barry Winfield-- head of the DNA Unit #1-- greeted her, an unmistakable tone of pleasure in his voice. "Don't tell me you've finally come to your senses. Welcome home. Got your microscope all warmed up for you."

Scully's refusal to work for the "lab-coat cowboys"-- as Barry's division was known-- had been continuous and unhesitating. He had been recruiting her since she had come to the Academy, and now, after she had turned him down-- both personally and professionally-- the offer had become something of an easy joke between the pair. She had chosen forensic pathology because it enabled her to combine the best of what brought her to both the FBI and medicine.

Scully chose medicine because she wanted to serve people. She chose the FBI because she wanted to serve her country. While she recognized that pathology required a certain amount of detachment, she still had a name and face (usually) to place with her work. Barry's people were immersed in fluids, fibers, and swatches. Human life was reduced to it most basic components here-- and that was a degree of detachment she never wanted to achieve.

"Sorry to disappoint, Bar--" she grinned at him, some of her excitement bleeding through. "But not today."

"Then I suppose you have something for me?" He quirked his brows at the Ziploc baggies in her hand. "Please don't tell me it's labeled, Unidentifiable matter, possible extraterrestrial origin." He held up a placating hand. "It's bad enough I'm in the lab on a Saturday."

Scully chuckled in mock sympathy. "Nope, regular old crime scene. But it's hot, Barry. I need this like now."

The tall agent cocked his head and narrowed his eyes. "Scully, that's the single most romantic thing I think you've ever said to me."

"And it's about the only one," somebody called over his shoulder.

Barry rolled his eyes mournfully. "See what I have to put up with? This is why I need you with me. I pour my heart and soul into these people and what do I get?"

"Abuse... Nothing but abuse." Came the chorus of voices. Barry's comedic litany of woe was a familiar one around the lab. He drove his people ruthlessly, demanded more from them than they ever thought possible-- but in return he drove himself just as hard, demanded just as much from himself, and protected his people fiercely from the field agents who thought their case was always the most important one and the brass upstairs who thought "lab error" was the perfect way to pass a buck. The FBI labs had been under attack for years now, culminating with the cluster-fuck that had been the OJ Simpson case-- but Barry's people had remained above reproach. In a departmental shuffle that had replaced the heads of three of the five Laboratory sections-- the forensic and scientific analysis sections had been hardest hit. Of all the forensic unit heads, he was the only one who remained.

"I give, I give," he surrendered to his staff. "What's the Spooky-special today?" He gestured towards his "office," a separate laboratory station through a narrow hallway. "Let's take a look. What's it from?"

"Serial killer."

Barry's blond head jerked up from where he had been focusing on the baggies resting on the stainless steel table. "They got Mulder working NCAVC?" He whistled softly. "Didn't think he'd go back, especially with the section in such a mess."

Scully suppressed an spear of irritation. "I'm not working with Mulder," she snapped. Seeing Barry's surprised green eyes, she appended. "At least on this case." Mulder's disgrace had become hers, and some primal coil deep inside made her defend him-- and by extension, their partnership-- even as another part of her scrambled for freedom.

Barry pursed his lips slightly and shrugged. It was well-known around the bureau that inter-agency politics didn't interest him. Scully did, but only because-- as he had told her a dozen times-- he thought she would be a perfect addition to his team. "How'd you get involved?"

"The SAC requested help from pathology. I volunteered. This is the first break we've gotten in seven vics."

"Seven?" Scully could almost see Barry's brain whirring. "Starling?" he asked incredulously.

Now it was Scully's turn to shrug. "She wanted another pair of eyes on the autopsies."

"Good thing." He nodded at the bags. "You got something."

"I think it's timing more than anything. He's beginning to escalate."

"And the Bird-dog's on his trail," Barry sang off-key.

Aware that her growing feelings for the other woman was heightening the adrenaline rocketing through her veins, Scully choked off the sharp retort about Starling's nickname that sprang to her lips. Rumors got started around the Bureau at the drop of a hat-- less really-- and for the first time, she considered that all those stories circulating about Mulder and her might not be a bad thing. Instead, she decided to have a little fun. Smiling coolly and asking, "You know, there's something I've been wondering," her voice seemed to lower and her eyes darken mysteriously.

Barry swallowed convulsively. "What's that?"

"Well, I know they call Mulder, Spooky, and Starling, Bird-dog. I've even heard someone call Skinner, Chrome Dome."

"Yeah?"

"So, Barry..." Scully arched one perfect eyebrow. "What, exactly, do they call me?"

"Well... uh, Scully... you see..." he stuttered. "I don't think that's really important."

"And why's that?"

"Uh... 'cause... well, you see... I think it's about to change."

A warm, low laugh rippled silkily around the room as Scully nodded. "Change is a good thing, Barry. Keep that in mind."

"I'll do that."

She glanced at the evidence on the table. "When can I have the results?"

Instantly Barry snapped back to attention. That was one of the best things about the man, Scully thought, he knew how to take a joke and not take it too far. In that way, he was like Mulder. She could see the calculations running through his head. "Well, it's not like I have too many plans for this evening-- since you haven't offered to take me to dinner or anything."

"And I'm not going to..."

"So I guess I could have something back tomorrow. Just to tell you the basics. You got something from the vic?"

She tossed him another set of baggies and pulled a manila folder from briefcase. "Here's the prelim on the autopsy. Blood work is coming out of Raleigh..."

"Where?" he teased. "Where's that?"

"But I brought you some too. Just so you wouldn't feel left out." She nodded at the small red vials. "We don't think he drugs them for the snatch-- or at least toxicology hasn't shown anything so far, but we're still not sure how he grabs them. You could test kinda off the chart..." She raised an eyebrow.

"Will do?" He cocked his head. "We, huh? You and Bird--" He caught himself. "You and Starling?"

Scully nodded.

"I didn't think she worked with a partner."

"Neither did I," Scully admitted. Then she grinned. "I told you, Bar. Things change."

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

Humming softly to herself as she watched the elevator floors tick downward, Scully felt a subtle shift in the energy enveloping her. Right now, the case was out of her hands and in Barry Winfield's very capable ones. There wasn't anything more she could do until they got the results back. If the news was good-- and deep in her gut, Scully suspected that the news would be-- they'd have their first break. She and Starling would be well on their way to catching this bastard.

You and Starling?

Barry's innocent question rang in Scully's ears, the three words filling her with an unexpected pleasure. The day's activities had consumed her, leaving no time for her to consider the possibilities that the words "You and Starling" implied. Now she had time aplenty and the enjoyable prospect of spending an evening with Clarice Starling far away from any possible crime scene.

She had surprised herself by asking Clarice to come to DC to await the results. As soon as the question had escaped her lips, she began mentally berating herself and waiting for Starling's polite refusal. If Starling had been having second thoughts about the rather extreme turn their relationship had begun taking, this was the perfect time to extricate herself. After all, Scully had fulfilled her professional responsibility-- once the autopsy was done, Starling didn't have to involve her in the investigation any further. She could have requested a fax to the hotel in Asheville, and Scully would have gotten the message.

She could have... but she didn't...

Unlocking the driver's door of her department issued gray Taurus, Scully began running a mental checklist. Her apartment was immaculate, as usual-- not even a magazine out of place-- although there probably was only a couple of bottles of wine in the pantry and some cheese in the refrigerator. "Not exactly the stuff of gourmet dinners," she muttered, backing the Taurus out its parking spot and heading for the garage exit. She briefly considered cooking for Starling and then rejected it. For Scully, there was something intensely intimate about cooking for someone-- and she didn't know enough about Starling to know how the other woman would receive the gesture. That solved the empty icebox dilemma quite nicely, she thought. "So we go out," she told herself. Several of her favorite restaurants were in Dupont Circle-- which, conveniently, was also the heart of DC's gay area. "Too obvious?" she asked the rearview mirror. Starling didn't exactly seem the type comforted by being around other gay people. "But it's not like everyone's necking on the street..." she objected. Then she remembered the last time she had taken Mulder to her favorite coffee shop. It was a little two-story walk up that used to be a private home, but like so many of the other houses in the area, had been converted to a commercial purpose.

She and Mulder had been enjoying a rare afternoon off. He had surprised her by suggesting that they get out of the dank basement office they shared. "Come on, Scully. It's gorgeous outside. Seventy-five and sunny. I think even Skinner's gone fishing. Let's play hooky." He gave her the pleading puppy look that always worked best in situations like this.

She allowed herself to be convinced, but only on the condition that she got to choose where they went.

Eschewing their Bureau car, they strolled through the neighborhoods like a couple of tourists until Scully steered them to the small house simply called, "Ma's." Claiming two iced mochas, Mulder gestured to the little courtyard outside. "Come on, let's sit out here."

They settled at a little wrought iron table and took out their sunglasses to shield their eyes from the Indian Summer glare. Scully sighed contentedly and began to watch the parade of human traffic in front of them. For once, Mulder seemed equally content with their silence, only offering occasional, wry comments. "Uh, Scully..." he ventured after watching the second set of hand-holding men pass in front of them.

"Yes, Mulder?" Scully answered, waiting for the next inevitable question.

"Didn't you say you came here all the time?"

"Yup, usually every Sunday when I'm in town. There's a terrific Italian place a couple of blocks down if you want to get some dinner later."

He lifted a hesitant brow and gestured at a passerby with a rainbow sticker on her backpack. "This neighborhood seems a little... uh... colorful for you."

"That bother you, Mulder?" She prodded, wanting to tease him even more and enjoying the red creeping around his ears. "That people around here probably think I'm gay."

"No way..." He shook his head emphatically. "They don't think you're gay."

"How do you figure?"

"You don't look gay, Scully. You don't give off that 'gay vibe.'" He rolled his shoulders for effect, grinning back at her when she laughed at his antics. "In fact, I look more gay than you do," he pronounced piously.

"You do, huh?"

"Absolutely. They probably all think you're my fag hag."

A spray of mocha shot out Scully's nose as she inadvertently inhaled and expelled the liquid just as rapidly. "Mulder!" she wheezed.

"You okay, Scully?" He whacked her on the back in a comically soothing manner. When she had regain at least some of the use of her lungs, he winked at her conspiratorially. "I bet I can get a date faster than you can..."

And so that was how she found herself unexpectedly double-dating that night...

She grinned at the memory of the evening, her partner's little boy charm. The pair they had dinner with that night had actually ended up being pretty good friends. It was been one of the last good times she and Mulder shared, before everything turned to shit and she lost the best friend she ever had. Impulsively she grabbed the cell phone in her pocket and flipped it open. Her finger hovered on the speed dial button, then she sighed and tossed the phone down, quietly mourning for the past. Lost in her own thoughts, she glanced up to see the light had turned green. She never looked to her right, to the station wagon that was sprinting through the intersection, trying to make it through a non-existent yellow light.

All she remembered was the abrupt, unexpected impact-- the feeling of a thousand baseball bats slamming against her body.

Then everything went dark.

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

Mercy Hospital Washington, DC

"Oh Christ..." she muttered, the weight of her head dragging the rest of her body down into a viscous darkness.

"Not quite." The voice over her was dry and quietly familiar. It tickled the edges of her awareness, and she didn't know why, but a warm feeling curled upward from her belly. "If this is your idea of a proper dinner, Dana, I dunno... I think I might have to reconsider this whole thing. I hate hospital food."

Scully's face formed itself into a smile before it realized that movement triggered pain. The smile became a grimace, but nonetheless remained on her face as she pried her eyelids open, winning the battle with consciousness. "Hey there."

"I hadn't even gotten good and out of the chopper before my cell phone went off," Starling continued, a sparkle of mischief covering the worry that had masked her eyes for the last two hours. "I thought it was you, so I answered the phone all sexy and all..."

"You did?" Scully asked skeptically, the urge to arch an eyebrow making her aware of the bandage over her left temple.

"I'm telling this story, lady, not you," Starling shushed her. "Anyway... it was the hospital. The dispatch guy thought he'd died and gone to heaven. They found my name and cell phone in your pocket. They were gonna call your mom too, but when they said you weren't in any real danger, I told them to hold off." She shrugged diffidently, remembering the phone call that told her of her father's fate. "I figured you didn't want to worry her if you didn't have to."

"Thanks." Scully sighed in relief. Her mother had been the forced to answer too many phones bearing bad news because of her. One less wouldn't hurt any. "I appreciate it." She glanced around and noticed that no one seemed to be paying them any mind. Silently, she slipped her hand over Starling's, unprying the other woman's fingers from the bed railing. The grip that returned hers was surprisingly strong.

"You scared me," Starling muttered, her words almost inaudible.

"Sorry."

Starling jerked her head towards the hallway. "Not as sorry as the kid that hit you. Seventeen years old and just got his driver's license."

"Is he okay?"

Seeing the worry in Scully's eyes, Starling nodded quickly. "Not a scratch on him, but his mom's car is totaled and he's terrified that the FBI is gonna take him away for hitting one of their agents."

Scully's heat hit the pillow and she groaned. "Oh no. Tell me it didn't go out."

"Ayup... when the blue boys ran the tag, they called it in. You had a room full of black suits out there waiting to scare the bejesus out of their skel-- which turned out to be a teenager." She grinned. "You got a hell of a response, seems like a lot of folks down at J. Edgar like you."

It was on the edge of her tongue to ask if Mulder had been there... and as if her thoughts made the flesh real, her partner strode through the swinging hospital doors, ignoring the harassed calls of the nurse. "Scully..."

Jeans, a hooded Redskins sweat shirt, and sockless Topsiders replaced the suit and tie she was used to seeing him in. His hair was longer than usual, and the cowlick fell almost into his eyes-- which were wild-eyed and almost frantic. He didn't seem to notice the woman standing quietly by Scully's bed.

"Mulder," she greeted him in the old way, a hint of a smile to welcome him and try to gentle that flicker in his eye. "This one wasn't my fault." She gestured to the bandage on her forehead.

"What happened? All I heard was the agent-incident code. Frohike couldn't tell me much... "

Starling had slipped her hand free of its embrace and stepped back a pace. Scully's fingers involuntarily curled into the sheet, missing the warmth of Clarice's hand clasped in her own.

"Frohike?" Scully frowned. "Don't tell me he monitors Bureau communications?"

"You think that Cancerman..."

Scully's eyes snapped coldly. "It was an accident, Mulder. It had nothing to do with him."

"How can you be so sure?" he persisted. "He won't be happy with the files just being..."

"It was a seventeen year old boy, Mulder. I don't think they're recruiting quite that young." Her head fell back to the pillow in weary irritation. Everything in Mulder's life tied back to the files. There was no room for coincidence, for life outside their dank grip, for hope. For love... she thought, glancing at Clarice.

The eye-contact brought the silent woman to Mulder's attention. "Oh, I'm sorry..." His glance flickered back and forth between the two woman, and Scully could see his brain trying to place Clarice.

"Mulder, this is Clarice Starling. Starling, Fox Mulder."

Taking her cue, Starling stepped forward and offered him her hand. Scully noted regretfully that it was the same one she had just been holding. "Agent Mulder, good to meet you. Douglas and Crawford speak highly of you."

Speak

, Scully noted, not "spoke." Not reminding Mulder of how far he had fallen.

Mulder accepted the hand, shook it briefly, but Scully could see the shifting expressions on his face-- inscrutable to so many other people. He seemed to deflate before her eyes, the hollows in his cheeks becoming more pronounced, the haziness in his eyes returning until the fleeting glimpse of her old partner and his manic energy vanished, leaving only ruined magnificence in its wake.

He seemed to pause, take in the measure of this woman standing over his partner's bed, and nodded silently. "You okay?" he asked quietly.

She nodded. "My ears are ringing, but everything else seems to be working fine. I'll probably see if they'll spring me in an hour or so." She glanced at Starling. "I hate hospital food."

A flicker of a smile from the brunette in wry acknowledgment.

Mulder's eyes caught the look, and Scully saw his own glance probing the connection she knew he could sense there.

He hesitated and seemed to consider his words. "Okay. You want me to hang around? Your ride's kinda out of commission." Referring to the Taurus.

Her eyes involuntarily sought Clarice's, and she knew she was failing whatever test Mulder was administering, but she couldn't help it. A night with Mulder mean trying to reconstruct the past... when all she could see was the woman in front of her.

The future.

Chapter 17

Georgetown Washington, DC

"Thanks for running interference for me with Mulder..." Scully said as she flicked the last deadbolt loose and opened the door to her apartment. After a little haggling with the admitting resident, she had been released from the hospital with the stern warning to take it easy and not to be alone for the evening.

She and Starling had only exchanged quietly amused glances at this admonition and nodded seriously.

"He wasn't too happy about it," Starling grimaced, remembering the scathing look Mulder had shot her when Scully was signing the thousand-and-one pages that guaranteed her freedom from hospital food. Shouldering her own travel bag as well as Scully's, Starling stepped through the threshold for her first look into Dana Scully's private world.

It was as immaculate as she thought it would be and decorated in tastefully subdued pastels and whites. Involuntarily, her mind flickered back to the Ellis's house they had seen two days ago. There was a similar elegance here, but it seemed to Starling that Scully's apartment didn't try so hard. This was the home of someone for whom grace was a natural inheritance. Her eyes were drawn to a pair of Bass loafers resting haphazardly under the coffee table. Scully must have kicked them off one night after she had come home. To Starling, this was a comforting human reminder in an apartment that could have otherwise seemed intimidating.

No cheap shoes for her... hmm, Clarice?

Lecter's voice purred, returning once more to her ears. She's got that touch of class you've been nosing around for all these years. Think you can pick up a pointer or two before she catches on...?

Her back to Scully, Starling closed her eyes and shook her head softly-- as if that would stop the words that tumbled waterfall-fast through her hearing.

"Clarice?"

Turn around, Clarice... Look at her... So beautiful, even with that nasty bandage on her head... It does sort of lend her a wounded romantic air, though. Of course, you're a little more used to being the soldier coming home from war, aren't you? Where will she find your scars?

She was crazy to think that she would ever get away from Lecter... even if he was hundreds of thousands of miles away. He had been silent for years now, the odd-- always untraceable-- letters had finally stopped. However, something deep in her soul warned her that if she let this happen-- and she so very desperately wanted to-- she would become interesting to him once more...

Clarice in love... Hmmm.... interesting concept...

"Clarice?"

You want to touch her... I know you do.

"No..." she murmured, not realizing she had spoken aloud.

Can't think why you haven't really before now.

The voice paused, then seemed to chuckle-- a low roar filled her ears. Once you do, I'll know what it's like.

"No."

Touch her, Clarice...

"No.."

Touch her for me...

"No..."

Touch her for us...

"CLARICE!!" Scully was in front of her now, gripping her fiercely by the shoulders. Starling's eyes flew open and confronted Dana's frantic blue eyes.

"Oh Christ..." she muttered, quietly, allowing Scully to ease her down on the sofa. Ever-observant, she absently noted that the cushions were soft and welcoming, cradling her gently. Just as Scully had last night.

"Not quite," she repeated back to Clarice, smiling wryly.

A half-grin wandered fleetingly over Starling's lips. "Touch�."

"Want to tell me what's up? Where were you just then?"

Those eyes, still startlingly clear and blue despite the pain she knew Scully had to be in, beckoned Clarice. They invited her into their warmth and promised her succor. Even as she drew closer to Scully she knew it was wrong, knew that each step she took down this path would only end in disaster for them both. Her past would see to that.

"I don't think I can do this, Dana," she said softly.

"What? Go to dinner? Hey, I gave up my lime Jell-o for you," Scully teased her gently. "Do you know how much I love that stuff?"

"Dana..."

"I tell you what..." Scully glanced around the apartment briefly, as if sensing the location was too intimate for Starling. "Let's get out of here and go find some dinner. I know a really quiet place down in Dupont Circle. We can talk there."

"Your head..." Starling protested. "The doctor said..."

"I am a doctor," Scully interrupted. "And believe me when I say this is nothing. I've had much worse." She shuddered slightly, despite the warm apartment air. "Trust me."

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

Fabrini's Restaurant Dupont Circle

The restaurant was close enough so the two women could stroll down the bustling Saturday evening thoroughfares. Despite her worries, Starling actually loosened up enough to enjoy the crisp night air. Spring hadn't ended yet, but the sharp warmth of the night foretold of the humid summer days to come. DC in the summer had always been almost unbearable to her-- she had much preferred the piney crisp air of Quantico and its distance from things "relevant" in the world of the FBI.

Nights like this, however, held a hint of promise, of danger, and things long-desired yet always forbidden. Catching the sidelong glance of the woman walking quietly beside her, Starling had the sudden feeling that night-- of all nights-- might not be a good time to be out.

Once at the restaurant, they were seated quickly. Starling tried not to notice the pairs of appreciative eyes falling upon Scully as they wound they way to the table. Even with the discreet bandage, half-hidden by the locks of auburn hair falling across her forehead, Scully was remarkably beautiful. The golden light of the room warmed her normally porcelain features, and a fanciful imagination could have assumed the Ice Queen were finally melting. The thought gave Starling pause, and she considered the very little she knew about Dana.

Or Mrs. Spooky. Or the Ice Queen. Or even about the Navy brat and officer's daughter. What she knew about this extraordinarily gifted and thoughtful woman now seated across from her was precious little indeed. Lecter might argue that humans are but the sum of their parts.... Billy wasn't born this way, you know... but something in Clarice had always rejected this philosophy. From her own life, she recognized that if she were only the 2+2 sum of her childhood tragedies, she would never be here. She would be some miner's wife with a few kids, maybe more on the way. Clarice knew there had been something deep inside, driving her to break out of the confines of her gender and her poverty. It had brought her here, to the FBI, to Lecter, and now, to Dana Scully.

The muted thwap of a copper coin hitting her folded dinner napkin snapped Starling back from the life she might have lived and back to her present time and place.

"Consider that a down payment on your thoughts." Dana smiled softly at her, and Clarice felt her own features creasing into a smile.

"Will do," she replied. "What's good here?"

"Just about everything. Especially the wine list." Dana shook her head, looking regretfully at the menu. "None for me tonight, I'm afraid."

"Good advice, Dr. Scully."

Scully shrugged. "Truthfully, I doubt a glass would kill me."

"With that head injury?" Starling's brows crawled towards her hairline.

"Tell you what... Why don't you order a half carafe and let me sip occasionally from your glass?" The candlelight glimmered in Scully's eyes, granting them a mischievous sparkle.

"You know how much I know about wine, Scully," Starling replied dryly, seeing that she wasn't going to win the battle. "Why don't you pick one out?"

"The house chardonnay is pretty good, and it goes with just about anything on the menu. They don't serve too much red meat here."

"And that means?"

Scully opened her mouth to explain, then shrugged. "Absolutely nothing in the larger scheme of things." She nodded at the waiter who had just approached. "We'd like a half-carafe of the house chardonnay."

"Very good, ladies. My name is Nick, I'll be your server tonight." The young man's greeting and cheerful air reminded Starling of Charlie back in Asheville, and how he had been convinced she and Scully were a pair. Nick was younger, obviously a college student-- George Washington if she was looking at the ring on his finger correctly-- and his taste in ties was decidedly more whimsical. A rotund cartoon character wearing a blue cap and a red coat adorned his tie, proclaiming "I'm not fat, I'm big-boned." She had no idea what it was from, but the angry look on the character's face-- the perfect embodiment of a sullen child-- made her smother a quick smile. "Would you like an appetizer this evening? We have some excellent cheeses that would go well with your wine."

Scully shot a questioning glance at Starling who shrugged and nodded. "Go for it. I haven't eaten since breakfast." She scowled, remembering her encounter with Belinda. The reporter was far too canny when it came to sniffing out secrets. The trouble is, Harris was so good at bluffing, Clarice had no idea if she was really onto her feelings for Scully, or if Belinda was just playing the percentages. She wouldn't put it past the reporter to try and goad her about Scully so that Clarice might lose her temper and accidentally let something slip about the case. But then again, so far her sources have been better than ours...

"Whatever you're thinking about, stop," Scully warned.

"Why's that?"

"Because it looks painful."

"Belinda Harris."

"Ouch," Scully winced, screwing up her face. "She still giving us trouble?"

"Well..." Starling drawled. "That's one way to put it."

Scully waited until Nick had placed the wine and cheeses on their table and had poured a glass for each of the women. "Explain, please," she requested, pointedly ignoring Starling's glance at her glass.

Starling took a deep breath and a sip of her own wine, hoping that it would calm the butterflies suddenly let loose in her stomach. The wine slid smoothly home, and she took a larger drink, pleasantly surprised. She had never liked wine because it always seemed unreasonably bitter. Then again, she reflected, most of her wine experiences had been with stuff that came out of bottles with screwtops. There was, it seemed, a substantial difference. Thusly fortified, she brought her eyes to rest once again on a patiently waiting Scully. This was the beginning of a conversation Starling wasn't sure she wanted to have, but one look at Dana's calmly centered gaze told her that there was no way around it.

"Belinda Harris seems to think there's something going on between us."

"Something going on between us?" Scully echoed. "Like what?"

"Like..." Starling hesitated. "Something more personal than FBI business would require."

To her surprise, a rich chuckle drifted across the table towards her. Scully rolled her eyes and shook her head softly. "Is that all? Clarice, people have been accusing me of sleeping with Mulder since the first day I walked into the X-Files. Sometimes I think they wanted to believe that so they'd understand why I stayed there. Gossip doesn't bother me."

"This kind should," Starling replied a bit more harshly than she intended.

"Why?" Scully shot back, her own eyes snapping in return. "Because we're both women?"

A sharp nod. It wasn't the whole issue, but it was a start.

"I hate to break it to you, Starling, but the FBI is not going to route out their best profiler because of the gender of her lover. Me, they might consider disposable because of all the fracas with Mulder. I'm not kidding myself about the status of my career right now. But not you. If the rumor mill is correct, they've asked you to head the NCAVC, right?"

"They hounded Lucy Farinelli out. And she created CAIN for Christ's sake. One more profiler-- or forensic pathologist isn't going to make a whole lot of difference."

Scully paused to take a sip of her own wine-- a tiny one, Starling's critical eye noted-- and considered this. "I had Lucy in one of my classes a couple of years ago, you know."

"She told me."

"And if I remember, the issue the Bureau had with Lucy's lover wasn't her gender, but the fact that she was a sociopath."

"Psychopath," Starling corrected absently.

"Beg pardon?"

"Technically Carrie Grethen was a psychopath. There was a degree of lust and pleasure in her crimes that separates your average sociopath from the psychopaths."

"Anyway..." Scully continued with a wave of her glass. "I think that had a little more influence on the Bureau than her gender."

"You might be surprised."

Scully considered that information before her next reply. "They never did anything about you and Ardelia Mapp."

Starling sucked in a hard breath, feeling the air settle thickly in her lungs and pressing into her gut. "Where'd you hear that?"

"Just because I ignore gossip doesn't mean I don't hear it. My point is, Clarice, nobody cares."

"They'd care if it got splashed all over the cover of one of Belinda Harris's true crime expos�s."

That shut Scully up. She leaned back in her chair, absently running a finger around the rim of her wine glass. "What happened this morning?"

"Let's just say Ms. Harris was interested in a little quid pro quo," she intoned the last words mockingly. She poured another glass of wine and motioned an eager Nick over to the table. "Better bring a whole one of these things." Then she glanced at Scully as Nick scurried away. "It's for me, Scully. I have a feeling I'm gonna need it."

Scully snickered softly and regarded Starling across the table. Clarice felt the weight of those blue eyes-- warmed now by the candlelight-- pressing against her skin as intimate as a touch. Perhaps more so, for Scully's eyes saw far more than her fingers could have felt touching the same places. Starling had met so many gazes in her time with the Bureau, staring unflinchingly in the face of everything from madness and rage to pure greed and stupidity. No one-- not even Lecter-- had unnerved her the way this woman did now. "What was her offer?"

"Well, I mean, she didn't say she was going to name her next book Serial Killers and the Lesbian Lovers Who Hunt Them, but it was kinda hard to miss the implication."

"That's a big assumption on her part." She blinked. "Hell, Starling, that's a big assumption on your part."

Nonplused by Scully's comment, Starling frowned. "What do you mean?"

"We've only known each other three days, and Harris has already concluded that we're lovers. You're acting as though it's fait accompli. Is that why you came up here, Starling? Sex?"

Everything seemed to suddenly tilt for Starling, as her mental world shifted rapidly beneath her. "No," she blurted, unable to think of anything more coherent to say. Sex was an old, familiar ache, easily assuaged by the knowing touch of her own fingers. No, sex wasn't what she wanted from Dana Scully.

It was so much more.

"No," she repeated.

Unhesitatingly, Scully replied. "But that's all I'm hearing from you. What Belinda Harris thinks, what the Bureau might think, what everyone might think..."

"But..."

"If we were sleeping together. Or, as Belinda would probably say herself-- if we were fucking."

"I can smell your cunt..."

Dana's words shocked her in a way that Miggs's hissing statement never had. Scully's voice was raw and mocking, chewing the small space between them. The redhead sighed heavily, her shoulders unclenching, and she leaned back in her chair. When her eyes returned to Starling's, they were sorrowful. "If you want someone to fuck, Clarice, go borrow some of Mulder's porno tapes and one of his 1-900 numbers. Share that with Belinda Harris and the Bureau. I'm not interested."

Starling wasn't a fool, she didn't entertain the notion for one second that Scully might be bluffing.

Put up or shut up time, eh Clarice?

The roaring in her ears drowned out Lecter's silky purr, and her vision narrowed to encompass only the crystal gaze of the woman across from her. She really only had two choices and one of them was to get up and walk away from the table.

So really, she only had one option.

"I'm not interested in fucking you, Dana."

Scully didn't move, didn't speak, didn't change her expression. Then slowly... ever so slowly to Starling's clenching heart... she began to smile. "Smooth line, Clarice. Does it work on all the girls?"

Nick propitiously chose that moment to finally return with the chardonnay and take their dinner orders. Both women breathed a quiet sigh of relief and ordered the special, not even having looked at the menu.

Emboldened by another glass of wine and their shared laughter, Starling confessed, "I told Lucy I thought I was falling for you."

A brow arched elegantly in exasperation. "Clarice, were you going to discuss your feelings about me with everyone but me?"

Starling frowned. "What?"

"Lucy, Belinda Harris. You even told Mulder that you'd take care of me. I haven't seen him look that panicked in years."

"His expression didn't change."

"That was his panicked expression." Scully chuckled lightly. "But seriously, Clarice..." she trailed away, expecting Starling to fill in the silence.

Now the hard part....

"Can I ask you a question?" she began.

"Sure."

"Why aren't you afraid?"

"Of what? This?"

Starling nodded.

An easy smile crested over Dana's face. "Because you're scared enough for both of us, Starling. I think I realized that if I let myself be as scared as I ought to be, this relationship would never get off the ground. Someone had to let go first."

"I wouldn't have pegged you as a carpe diem kind of woman, Scully."

Dana smiled ruefully. "I suppose not. And I suppose you'd be right." She shook her head. "Something happened to me a couple of years ago--" Seeing the quickening interest in Starling's eyes, she waved it off. "I don't want to go into it right now. But... I made myself a promise."

"Which was?"

"Not to let something I really wanted ever get away again."

Starling's breath caught as Dana's eyes linked with hers would not let go. "I've let a part of myself sleepwalk through most of my life. I've tried to be as many perfect things as I could. Mostly because I was afraid that if I let myself really want something... it wouldn't be good enough."

"For whom?"

Scully shrugged. "For everyone else. For all those people who would be aghast to find out if we were... fucking."

"And now?"

The light in Dana's eyes shimmered. "Now that part of me is waking up, and it doesn't give a good goddamn what everyone else thinks. My father is dead, my career's in the toilet-- probably permanently-- and my best friend has become someone I can't reach anymore. Tell me, Clarice, what else could I lose? And what is that measured against what I could gain?" Her fingers slipped quietly across the table and twined around Starling's.

The warmth swept immediately through Clarice's body, teasing her that perhaps she had been too emphatic in saying she had no interest in Scully's body. That was nothing, however, compared to the searing happiness that threaded its way through the cracks in the blackened armor guarding Starling's soul. It crowded out the silence that Lecter had brought and bubbled up through her throat in a strangled laugh. Wordlessly, she gripped the hand in hers and heard her soul's quiet thanks.

For now, fear was displaced, barred from its haunt of these last years. It hovered jealously in the shadows, waiting, like Lecter, for its time to rise again.

Chapter 18

During their dinner, a bank of thunderclouds had rolled across the DC sky, filling the cityscape with menacing cadet blue shrouds. Now, as the women departed the restaurant, lazy raindrops speckled their blazers, hinting at the storm yet to come. Automatically Scully flipped the collar up on her blazer, protecting the ticklish spot on the nape of her neck from trickling waters. Starling noticed this slight movement, and her eyes flicked to the yellow cabs passing by.

"You want me to grab one?" she gestured with her head, indicating an idling taxi at the red-light.

Scully shook her head briefly. "No, thanks. Let's walk." She smiled at Clarice's uncertainty, thinking it charming in the other woman. Starling seemed oddly young at this moment; perhaps it was the lack of subterfuge in her blue eyes. Dana's declaration had obviously taken her by surprise, and she wasn't sure how to handle it. Scully, on the other hand, had only felt the increasing certainty of what she was doing as the evening progressed. True, she realized, it might only last for the night and no more, but right now at this single instant in time, she knew exactly what she wanted.

She wasn't going to lie to herself any longer.

"Are you sure?" Starling asked, seeming to echo the refrain of her thoughts.

Scully threw her head back and laughed, a rich deep timbre that Starling had never heard. The laugh assured them both that Dana had never been more certain of anything in her life.

"I mean..." Starling stammered. "Your head..."

Scully turned to face Clarice, oblivious to the flowing traffic around them. A golden cocoon wove itself around Scully, freeing her from the darkness that somberly cloaked her everyday life. She wanted to reach out, envelop Starling in the shimmer of her truth. "Clarice, I've been shot, beaten senseless, left for dead, and kidnapped-- all in the last five years. A seventeen-year old boy and his mother's Volvo are not going to keep me from the one thing I've wanted all my life."

In spite of herself, Starling smiled. "And what's that?"

Scully cocked her head, returning Clarice's smile, feeling it stretch from her eyes to somewhere unidentifiably south. "To walk in the rain. Now. With you." She held out her hand. "Are you brave enough to try that, Clarice Starling?"

Starling hesitated, poised like the last of an endangered species about to flee for its life.

"Come on, Starling," Scully urged, her voice soothing, gentle, deeper than anything she'd ever known. "I dare you."

Five fingers... and a moment later, Starling's hand was clasped in her own. Silken and strong. Startlingly cool. Scully wanted to gasp at the unexpectedly visceral desire to hold that hand to her breast. Explore the network of veins and muscles under skin. Examine the whorls of Starling's fingerprints. Determine what made this woman so singular.

She had never liked holding hands with her lovers. Boyfriends seemed to take it as some sort of possession, trolling through shopping malls and restaurants as if they were afraid she would flee at the first chance. To her, their hands had lacked delicacy, grace. The ability to touch without grasping. To caress without pawing.

For a small woman, Starling's fingers were long and supple, the cuticle of each nail neatly trimmed and unpolished. Functional hands, she realized, as the pad of her thumb absently traced the subtly raised skin of a scar across the back of Clarice's hand. Hands that were used to taking control.

She wanted to tell Starling so many things, before this reckless bravado passed and she was reduced to the daily banality of common sense. A true scientist, her skepticism would not be denied. Suddenly, walking down this street with Clarice Starling's hand tucked in hers, she knew with an uncanny sense what it was like to be Mulder. To be possessed of a certainty beyond all sanity. To know without proof. To trust without reason.

Not I want to believe.... but I have to believe...

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

Pulling Clarice into the apartment with her, Scully ignored the steadily blinking light of her answering machine.

Scully, what are you doing?

it seemed to reproach her with Mulder's voice. Bewildered. Lost. Not a little angry. She knew that damage repair would come tomorrow, along with the million aches and pains that her body would at last recognize. But for now, she was more than content to surrender to the curiously lightheaded sensation that was not borne of any painkiller or half a glass of wine.

Moonlight filtered through the half-slitted blinds, and the occasional wet whooshing sound of car tires on pavement punctuated the silence. Scully had cracked a window before they left; now the smell of trimmed grass and hedges mingling gently with the clean scent of the storm floated in the air around them.

Starling's eyes glimmered palely in the dimness, the only points of light in a darkened silhouette.

Tentatively, she brushed trembling fingers over the shape of Starling's face, memorizing like a blind woman the texture and silken smoothness she found there. The hissed intake of Clarice's breath was the only break in the silence.

Where had all her words gone? The formidable evidence of Scully's intellect, she used them to define, shape, give life to everything she had encountered.

There were no words now.

Only the outline of Clarice's face beneath her fingers, and her mouth... that severe, serious mouth, opening to hers now. She tasted the wine of Starling's mouth, sweeter than any Riesling ever bottled. A lethal intoxicant, it wound its way through her fragile system-- wreaking uncaring havoc with her heart, her lungs and threatening to boil the blood as it flowed through her veins.

No words indeed for a desire that threatened to immolate them where they stood.

Through her blood's roaring, she could hear the faint, tinny ringing of the phone. How long she didn't know, but she heard her answering machine click on, her own mechanical voice warning others of her absence. Her unavailability.

As she suspected, the voice of reproach was Mulder's, surprisingly sober. "Scully, it's me. Where the hell are you? I'm getting worried... I'm going to come over...."

Groaning, she tore herself away from the flame and lunged for the phone. "Mulder, it's me. I'm here. I'm fine."

Silence. "What the hell's going on?"

"Clar-- Starling and I went out to dinner. The doctor said I couldn't take my pain pills on an empty stomach."

"I've been calling for hours. I thought maybe your head..." The worry evident in his voice.

"I'm good, Mulder. I'm okay." She smiled into the phone, touched by the connection that remained between them. Mulder was slowly traveling a road to hell, but even that couldn't completely destroy their bond. She strengthened her resolve not to let him slip away. "Starling and I just got to talking."

"About the case?"

Her eyes flickered up and met the steady ones of the woman standing opposite her. Starling hadn't moved except to turn her head and watch Scully. Her arms hung limply at her sides as if they were waiting for something to fill them.

Scully.

"Scully?" Mulder's voice prompted her.

"Yeah, about the case."

"You guys got anything?" The worry in his voice had eased, as if things were settling down, returning to normal. Scully's voice on the phone and all was right with the world.

"Not really." She watched Starling move now; a supple walk, different from the brisk, professional pace she had seen in Asheville. Clarice felt around and flipped on a dim lamp in the far corner of the room, by the window. It illuminated the sharp edges of her face, blurred the brightness of her eyes. Scully swallowed hard as Clarice kicked her shoes off, took the off-the-rack blazer from her shoulders and laid it on the back of the couch. Starling's shoulders were narrow, and Scully wondered anew at the weight they had borne over the last years. They reminded her of the tremulous delicacy of bird's wings.

Then again, birds had the power of flight when humans were stranded on the mundane earth.

"I have to go, Mulder," she said hoarsely. "I'll call you later in the week, okay? We'll have dinner."

A peace offering to atone for her abandonment now.

He seemed to take it well, for he wished her goodnight without argument and told her to call him if she needed anything. It reminded her of the old days-- unable to sleep, she would call him; and he would give her a play-by-play of some nature documentary until she fell asleep. That ease had been long gone from their relationship, and she didn't want to take the time to mourn it just now.

She returned the receiver to its cradle and turned the sound off on her answering machine. Both she and Starling wore pagers, so if anything broke, they were still reachable. She crossed the few steps separating them.

Clarice smiled easily. "You are in no shape to do anything about that look in your eye, Dana."

Her face burned scarlet; she hadn't been aware the desire was written so plainly across her face. "What do you mean?" she asked unnecessarily.

"I mean your body may not realize it right now, but it's been through a lot today. You're going to hurt like hell in the morning."

"I already do," she admitted ruefully, recognizing the aching pain in her shoulder and legs. It was nothing, however, compared to the one in her soul clamoring for the perfect fit of Starling's arms around her and the hesitant touch of their lips.

Clarice reached out to her, clasped their hands and drew Scully near. "If it's real-- it will last," she whispered into Dana's hair as if reading the frantic, unspoken fear in Scully's desire.

"What if it's not?" Scully searched Starling's eyes for answers she didn't particularly want to know.

"Then we won't have done anything irreparable." She laced her fingers through the thick red hair and touched her forehead to Dana's. Scully sighed into the touch, her body relaxing against Starling's.

There was strength in the arms that surrounded her, despite their slenderness. A resolve in the shoulders and spine that Scully suspected was unbreachable. She wanted so much to seek out and brush her hands over that sacred space in Clarice Starling's soul. Knowing she would find scars there, but unable to imagine their depth.

Hannibal Lecter had been there before her and had raped Clarice's psyche of any remaining innocence. Starling's road would have been a hard path already-- because of her past and her dogged earnestness-- but Lecter had added his own sickening twist. He had taught her about monsters-- worse yet, he had placed her on an intimate footing with her own demons. Scully suspected they visited Starling in a way that most people were spared, and her heart ached for the pain she saw etched deep into the furrow between Starling's eyes.

Devoutly, she pressed her lips to that tiny place-- felt Clarice shiver in response, the hands tighten in her hair. "Come to bed," Scully murmured, ignoring the silent, internal gasp reverberating in her ears. Little Dana Scully didn't say things like that. Never had and-- until she heard those words just tumbling out of her mouth-- never would have. Then again from the very start, these feelings for Starling had been about breaking all the rules she had known.

"Dana..." A warning plea.

"To sleep," she soothed, placing another quiet kiss on Starling's forehead. "I want to hold you." She lifted Clarice's eyes to meet her own, noted the blue in Starling's eyes was muddied with something....

Desire?

It was different from the glazed look of her male lovers when she had taken them to her bed. Their need was frantic, even when they were trying to be leisurely-- like the racing of an internal clock. At times more frenzied than others, but always pressing.

No, the look in Clarice's eyes spoke of something entirely different. What it was, she could not fathom, but her body trembled with the need to discover.

"Come on." She tugged gently at Starling's hand, expecting the other woman to balk again. But Clarice only searched her eyes for a moment longer, then-- almost imperceptibly-- nodded once.

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

Scully opened the window slightly, letting the lightning-dappled night into the room. She eschewed the harshness of the bedside lamp and the romance of a candle in favor of this uncertain illumination. It somehow seemed fitting.

Starling seemed at ease now, as if some internal hurdle had been crossed. She waited patiently while Scully fussed with the blinds, accepted the pair of silken pajamas Dana handed her without comment. They changed with their backs to each other, curiously shy now... both knowing that any further delay was only academic-- to give their troubled minds time to assimilate what their bodies had known from the very start.

They were a perfect fit.

Scully bit back a moan as Clarice slipped between the sheets and into her waiting arms. She was slightly smaller than the other woman-- Starling's form was leaner, more angular-- but still, Dana could hold her without awkwardness. The intimacy was almost unbearable, and Scully thought about the few people she had cradled to her breast. Only with Mulder had she felt this kind of connection-- and theirs was a spiritual bond, not a sexual one. She could no more imagine making love to him than to her own brothers. But this...

"You okay?" The words whispered into her neck, and she trembled at the light touch of Starling's breath against her skin.

"What makes you ask?" she replied, trying to keep the shimmer from her voice.

"Because it feels like your heart's about to beat its way out of your chest."

A strangled laugh died in Scully's throat as she considered the absurdity of her situation. She could clinically diagnose the responses of her body, knew without a doubt that she had never been more aroused in her life. Just from the simple act of cradling this woman in her arms.

Maybe she was crazy.

Or maybe she was just falling in love.

She pressed a gentle kiss against Clarice's head.

"You scared?" Starling murmured.

"Uh-huh," she admitted on an unsteady breath.

Starling cocked her head and leaned slightly away from Dana to get a better look. "I thought you weren't a stranger to being kissed."

Dana chuckled. "Kissed is about all. I..." she hesitated. "I wouldn't know how to go about doing much else."

Expecting disappointment or irritation reflected in Starling's face, Scully was surprised to see a knowing, sexy smirk there. "Well, you sure got that part down right."

Their lips met again, as if in affirmation. Once more Scully felt a heretofore somnolent flame begin to flicker. She moaned as Starling's mouth opened to hers, felt the gentle brush of Clarice's tongue against her own. It was as if she were sinking and flying all at once, Starling's strong arms anchoring her to the bed while her own dizzy desire simply continued to spiral up and up...

She groaned, "Clarice..." her mouth aching as Starling slipped away.

"You need to sleep," Clarice admonished, her own desire pulsing through her eyes. Reaching out to Scully, beckoning.

"I need you..." The words escaped her lips stealthily, hovering on the air between them.

Starling hesitated only a moment. "You have me, Dana." She traced a gentling path along the curve of Scully's jaw. "It's not a dream. When you wake up in the morning, I'll be here."

"But..."

"Shh..." Her fingers rested lightly over Dana's mouth. "I promise."

Looking into Clarice Starling's eyes, Dana saw something more than truth... she saw tomorrow. And the next day.

And had she been a believer in precognition, she would have seen eternity.

To be concluded in Part IV: Satiety.


You Are On
The Pink Rabbit Consortium
(click the above link to break out of frames)
Send Comments or Questions to Pink Rabbit Productions
pinkrabbit@altfic.com

| Home | Subtext Zone Art Gallery | Subtext LinksWhat's New | HTDTZ? |
 | Xena Fanfic Archive | Buffy Fanfic Archive | In Process |