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 4 Satiety

Chapter 19

The forest was bathed in brightness, flooding across her body and filling her eyes. Trees dappled the light that warmed her skin, and she could see its movement in the gently swaying leaves. Long grass rustled softly against her bare legs, and the breeze riffled her hair lightly. Clarice had never seen anything like it, yet this place was instantly familiar. She looked around again, her dream eyes widening in surprise. This was the forest of her nightmares... the dark path that she fled down nightly. The faces were gone-- their silenced, butchered countenances vanished, at least for now. She smiled in the quiet splendor.

This is what the sun looked liked, dancing across her soul...

The motion of cool silk sliding across her skin was an unfamiliar one to Clarice Starling. Yet, this morning she was awash in the sensation as her hands ran over the smooth curves of Dana's back and tentatively brushed over the other woman's fiery hair. They had found each other's body in the night and wrapped themselves tightly against one another, as if to ward off some unspeakable demon.

Starling didn't know what might haunt Scully's nightscape, but she knew the closeness had lulled her own furies into an odd silence.

She had seen the other side.

"Hi there." Conscious now of somber blue eyes blinking up at her.

"Hey." She smiled in pure reflex, at the beautiful sight of Dana Scully in the morning. "How you feeling?"

Scully squinched her eyes together, moved slightly as if to stretch, then immediately recoiled. "Like a small bus hit me."

"Or a small Volvo, anyway, huh?"

"Har har... Comfortable enough to tease me now, are you?"

"Sorry," but Clarice continued to smile. In fact, she realized, she could no more wipe this stupid grin off her face than she could stop breathing. Holding Dana in the intimate enclosure of her arms was, she concluded, unmistakably right. Perhaps the most right thing she had ever done. "You want me to let you go back to sleep?"

Scully yawned and regretfully shook her head. "No, I think I need to move around. Try and work some of this stiffness out." She glanced down the length of their entwined bodies. "Although I'm really hating that right now." She tilted her head up and silently captured Starling's lips with her own. The kiss was sweet and chaste, an awakening of their senses to match the one in their souls. The morning proved the night before had, indeed, not been a dream. Scully nuzzled the smooth hollow between Clarice's shoulder and neck, instinctively kissing the warm skin.

Starling shuddered pleasantly in response. "You can't be feeling too bad, if you're doing that."

A throaty chuckle rumbled from the small redhead, who kissed Clarice's pulse point again before lifting her head to consider her bedmate. A look of slightly dazed wonderment crossed her eyes. "I'm not really sure what I'm doing. I've never been much of a cuddler," she confessed.

"Could have fooled me," Starling teased gently, remembering how easily they had touched these last few days. To her surprise, Scully blushed and buried her head in the crook of Starling's shoulder again. The movement was charmingly innocent, and Clarice had a glimpse of what kind of girl Dana might have been. Before her father's disapproval, the X-Files, and Mulder had scarred her soul with their brands. Starling pressed a quiet kiss into the silk of Dana's hair, inhaling the warm scent of sleep and the woman in her arms. "I like it," she admitted. "And I'm definitely not a cuddler."

"Could have fooled me," Scully echoed from the depths of her burrowing.

Loathe to leave their comfortable embrace, but knowing it was inevitable, Starling gently prodded the other woman. "How about a shower?"

Scully was completely still, then her head jerked abruptly, and Clarice could see the blush flooding her pale features once more. "Uh..." she stammered. "You uh... you mean... together?"

Starling's eyes flew open wide, the last traces of sleep shocked from her system. Mentally she slapped herself upside the head, then laughed at the comical expression on Scully's face. "Umm... no... I thought a shower would help work out some of your stiffness." Seeing the relief creeping over Scully's features, she couldn't resist adding, "Unless you want someone to wash your back."

Scully's jaw dropped another fraction before she realized she was being teased again, and she shook her head in amused bewilderment. "This is going to take some getting used to, isn't it?"

"For which one of us?"

Scully looked suddenly serious and gestured at their embrace. "Both, I suspect. None of this comes easy for either one of us, does it?"

Starling considered the question, the past few days, and the undeniable response that Scully had evoked from both her body and her heart. "It's coming a lot easier than I had ever expected, Dana. Honestly, I think that's the scariest part."

Scully's brows arched quizzically; and she gingerly shifted her position on the bed, reluctantly disentangling herself and sitting up. "What do you mean?"

As she followed Dana's example and sat up in the bed beside her, a new shyness flooded Starling's body. Everything they had said and done to this point had taken place at night, when the permissive light of the moon gave its blessings to even the unlikeliest romantic entanglements. The wan sunlight struggling through the clouds this morning changed all that. She had lied last night when she said they hadn't done anything irrevocable. The line had already been crossed, at least in Starling's heart. Maybe even in her soul.

"Clarice?" Dana's voice sliced through the thick morass of her thoughts, filled with concerned.

Her eyes focused once more on the exquisite woman beside her, and Clarice's lungs constricted violently with the breathtaking impact of Scully's beauty. Starling's life had been filled with violence and the dark shadows that bred it. She had fled beauty-- and normalcy-- because her eyes could not stand watching others become filled with revulsion at her life. Yet, right now, Dana's porcelain features were marred by neither blood nor horror at the things she knew Clarice was. This fearless, unhesitating woman had sought to reach through the darkness to the battered and bruised remains of Clarice's soul.

Starling could no longer refuse what Dana Scully was offering.

Sanctuary.

Peace.

Love.

Silently, Starling saw her own hand reach out to Dana as if in a dream. She caressed the smooth line of Scully's jaw, her fingers dancing lightly over the skin and coming to rest on Dana's lips. Across from her, blue eyes widened in surprise; and Scully's hand came up to tangle its fingers in Clarice's. Gentle kisses fell lightly across Starling's sensitive palm, and she cupped Dana's cheek, lost in the warmth of this woman's skin. "I think..." she cleared her throat, astonished at how weak her voice was in the face of such splendor. "I think, I've got something that might work out the stiffness in your back and shoulders."

A pale brow arched slightly. "What's that?"

Dropping her hands to Scully's shoulders, she placed gentle pressure there. "Lie down."

Scully began to recline, but caught herself on her arms at the last minute. Starling's heart had crawled between her ears and was hammering there so loudly, she almost didn't hear Scully's breathless command. "Wait..."

"What's wrong?" she asked quietly, fear leaping to her throat.

"Nothing," Dana assured her quickly. "I just... uh..." Now she blushed. "I want to brush my teeth," she confessed.

Starling's brows knit together, then one lifted wryly. "No teeth involved here. I just thought a back rub might help."

"I figured," Scully replied dryly, a glimmer in her eye alerting Starling that her fib had been detected. "But uh... why don't you go make us some coffee or some juice or something."

"Do you really want coffee?" Clarice was honestly perplexed.

Scully sighed in amused exasperation, and then smacked Clarice in the face with a pillow. "No, but I don't want you in here, listening to me in there." She pointed to the bathroom.

Starling caught the pillow-- and the clue-- lobbed at her with little grace. "Oh. Oh..."

"Yeah, Starling. Oh." Scully shook her head. "Now out."

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

Scully watched Clarice scramble off the bed as ordered, stopping only to retrieve her own toiletry bag as she left. Starling's charming befuddlement had eased her own awkwardness about the intimacy lurking just around the corner. Her heart had threatened to pound out of her chest when Clarice touched her cheek, tracing the line of her jaw. She heard the thick-throated desire in Starling's voice, felt the answering need in the heated roil of her stomach. The reckless bravado that had carried her thus far was rapidly deserting her; and, as she contemplated her reddened face in the bathroom mirror, she couldn't help but ask herself one simple question.

"Am I out of my mind?"

In her three plus decades of life on this planet she had been many things to many people. At various times in her life, she had bent her formidable talents to being William and Maggie Scully's dutiful daughter, an overachieving student and scholar, and a loyal and devoted soldier to the seemingly pointless cause of the X-Files. Along the way, she had staged small, ultimately inconsequential, rebellions as a way to keep herself from becoming lost in the myriad roles she had to play. Randy kisses stolen from smoky stranger's lips in college. A renegade love of good Scotch. A fondness for silk pajamas and elegant underwear. All were these things that could be easily concealed or explained away in the face of who she was supposed to be at any given moment.

What could Clarice Starling possibly want her to be?

Scully ran cold water through her fingers, cupping them together and then running their lengths over her flaming skin. Facing her own visage once more, Scully confronted the staggeringly simple answer.

Starling didn't want anything from her. She simply wanted her.

And that was the most frightening thought of all.

Starling was the most intelligent, complex, and tortured soul that she had ever met. That was saying something coming from the woman who considered Fox Mulder her best friend. During the few short days they had known each other, she had been constantly challenged by this extraordinary woman-- forced to think, act, and feel at her own highest capacity. It was the most exhilarating feeling of Scully's life.

Running still-damp fingers through her hair to tame the most recalcitrant strands back into place, Scully shook her head. No, she concluded with a mocking grin, she wasn't out of her mind. In fact, falling in love with Clarice Starling might just have been the sanest thing she'd done in a long, long time.

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

Starling was standing uncertainly in the bedroom doorway, holding a tray with two black mugs, two glasses of orange juice and a plate of toast. "Is there somewhere I can put this?" she asked.

Scully's brows knit together in confusion. "Sure. Let me clear off the night stand." Hastily she moved the stacks of medical journals and books that cluttered the table beside her side of the bed. She pushed the alarm clock and the slender lamp flush against the wall. "Here." Starling settled the tray in position, rescuing one mug of coffee and handing it to the red-head. "Hungry all of a sudden?"

Starling shrugged, a small smile playing on her lips. "I figured if we were going to pretend to have coffee, we might as well pretend to have juice and toast too."

"Good idea." The mug was warm from the hot liquid inside, sending a completely unnecessary heat pulsing thought the palms of Scully's hands. She returned it untouched to the tray. "Come to think of it, I'm not really thirsty."

Starling seemed to study her for a moment, her blue eyes shockingly vivid against her pale skin, taking in Scully's whole being. Nothing about Dana escaped her glance-- not the mauve pajamas covering her shoulders, not her suddenly shallow breathing, and certainly not the slight tremble in her fingers as she set the mug down.

"Are you scared?" Starling asked softly, taking a hesitant step closer.

Scully nodded mutely, dropping her eyes to the tray and seeking refuge in the quiet swirls in the dark liquid.

"Dana..." A hand brushed over her hair. "Nothing has to happen..." Her voice trailed away as Scully brought her eyes once more to focus on the brilliant blue of Clarice's eyes.

"The idea of you touching me isn't what scares me," she murmured, steeling herself for her final confession. "It's how much I want you to that terrifies me."

She could see the astonishment flicker over Starling's face, heard the slight hitch in her breathing. Time seemed to freeze in that instant, before she was in Clarice's arms, feeling silk sliding against silk and reveling in the deceptive strength of the other woman's arms. "You are... incredible..." Clarice whispered in her ear before pulling away.

Scully's body groaned at the loss, and her fingers tangled in Starling's. "No..." she objected in a lazy mutter, not realizing she spoke aloud.

A sensuous smile curved across Starling's face. "I'm not going far. I promise." She nodded at the bed. "I promised you a back rub."

Scully started to protest that a back rub wasn't what she had in mind, but something about the knowing light glimmering in Clarice's eyes told her not to argue. "All right," she acquiesced. She began to slowly undo the buttons of her pajama shirt, keeping her fingers steady by the sheer force of her will alone. She swore she could feel each thread of the fabric as it slipped down her hypersensitive skin, and the slight rustle of the shirt dropping to the sheets echoed in her ears.

"Dana..." Her name a reverent breath on Starling's lips.

Naked now from the waist up, a wave of strength washed through Scully's veins; her heart thundered powerfully in her chest. She saw herself mirrored in Clarice's eyes-- and she was proud of the straight line of her shoulders, the defined muscles in her arms, the full curve of her breasts. In Starling's eyes, she was the most beautiful woman who ever existed.

At that moment in time, Dana believed it with every fiber of her being.

"Lie down," Starling said hoarsely.

She obeyed, though why she wasn't sure. All her body seemed to want to do was grind itself into the slim, angular woman opposite her. Slowly, she turned away from Starling and lowered herself to the cool sheets, sighing as the cotton came into contact with her flaming skin. She suppressed a moan that became a purr.

Scully closed her eyes at the onslaught of sensation. Vision would be too much at this point. Instead, she concentrated on touch, sound and smell. Faint remnants of her shampoo and perfume wafted from the sheets, along with... something else... that smelled of heat and smoke, musk and need. She buried her nose in the pillow, willing herself to focus on the 200-thread count Martha Stewart specials, but when she felt Starling's slender weight come to rest on either side of her back, she couldn't stop the gasp that escaped her lips.

"You okay?" Starling asked, quite unnecessarily.

"Oh yeah," Dana breathed.

"I'm not too heavy?"

"Oh god, no."

Clarice chuckled at Scully's instantaneous reply and continued her ministrations. Starling's hands were at once cool and warm against Scully's skin. It was a fact that Dana attributed to conflicting electrical impulses within her own system, until her poor neurons became so overloaded that she was forced to give up trying to keep track of her body's responses and just go with it. "That feels so good," she rasped, enjoying the novel sensation of a woman's hands caressing the hidden pains she found.

Scully had encountered more than one professional masseur in her time, but nothing in her experience could compare to Clarice's hands seeking out the deep, aching tissue in her muscles and working out the soreness there. Starling's fingers seemed to know unerringly where Scully was both sore and sensitive; and she expertly stroked the tension out of one area and into the other.

Starling paused, then dropped her hands to Scully's sides, tentative fingers curling into the waistband of Dana's pajamas. It took Scully a moment to recognize the question, but only an instant to answer it with a slight arch of her hips. The loose garment fell quickly away, and cool air caressed her newly-exposed skin.

There was silence, and then Starling stretched out along the length of Scully's back. The touch of Clarice's bare skin was almost too much for Dana, and she whimpered lightly at the contact. "You are absolutely beautiful, Dana. Did you know that?" Starling chuckled softly, almost as if she were talking to herself. Her voice was low and ardent in Scully's ear, telling her secrets that only lovers could share. "People must tell you that every day."

"Not anyone who... matters."

The gentle stroking of her arms stopped; Scully became conscious of it only after the motion had ceased. "Do... I... matter?"

Scully twisted her head around to capture Starling's eyes in her own. "You do, Clarice. More than I ever thought possible."

They kissed, Scully's mouth surrendering to the gentle invasion... with her touch wanting to free Starling from her silent pain, and by doing so release the ache of her own soul. She had lost so much these last years-- her freedom, her faith, her child and very nearly her life. Pain layered upon pain until she no longer recognized the weariness in her shoulders or the indefatigable strength it took to just bear up under the burden. Starling's touch eased more than just the simple bruises-- her fingers worked a soothing salve into a battered and fragile heart.

But their touch was not just about healing, it was also about a passion that crested through her body. "I want to see you," she muttered, arching her back against Starling's torso. "Please...."

Clarice was suddenly kneeling over her, looking down with a heavy-lidden gaze as Dana's eyes traveled up the length of her bared skin.

A lean waist emerged from black pajama bottoms, pale skin covering muscles resting just under the surface. Clarice's breasts were high and firm, and Scully knew without a doubt their precious weight would cup perfectly in her palms. Trembling hands traced the path her eyes forged, watching Starling's stomach clench reflexively at the touch. "Ticklish," she murmured. Her fingers continued their exploration, testing the muscles in Starling's arms, admiring the clean angles of the woman above her. Reaching the curve of Clarice's breasts, she paused only a moment before following the gentle shape and circling the tips until they hardened in aroused awareness.

Starling's eyes closed at the touch, her head dropping forward. "Dana..."

As she touched Clarice, her own breasts ached in erotic sympathy; and the embers coiling in her belly these last few days burst, finally, into flame. She sat up, wrapping her arms around the other woman, her mouth finding Starling's and binding them together.

Clarice's hips rocked against hers, and wordlessly Dana allowed herself to be lowered to the sheets. Starling's mouth left hers, her lips sparking tiny flames in Dana's skin as they worked their way over her neck and across her shoulders. Clarice found the tiny, sensitive hollow of Scully's throat where her collarbones met. Her tongue outlined the delicate bones beneath the surface and suckled gently at the thundering pulse point she found there.

"Are you okay?"

The overwhelming sensations stopped, and Dana looked down to see Starling's concerned gaze fixed on her. Scully's fingers wove themselves into Clarice's thick, dark hair. "God, yes," she whispered, her hands urgently guiding Starling back to her task.

A throaty chuckle reached Dana's ears, and then all conscious thought stopped as Clarice's mouth found Dana's breasts. Her body sang in relief; and her hips surged forward, seeking purchase against the slick fabric of Starling's pajamas. "Off," she growled, hands ferociously pushing at the stubbon material. With a heretofore hidden dexterity, she managed to remove the offending garment without breaking the delicious contact of Starling's mouth.

Clarice's thigh slipped between Dana's legs, pressing against the hot wetness hidden there. Both women groaning softly at the contact, their bodies moved effortlessly into one another... as though two wandering souls had finally found their home.

Starling's hands were covering hers now, moving them from where they had come to rest on Clarice's hips and pressing them into the bed. "Slow down, Dana," she gasped.

"Wha..." Scully opened eyes she didn't know had been closed and focused on the pulsing blue of her lover's irises. "What's wrong?"

"Not a goddamned thing," Clarice assured her, laughing softly. Her eyes swept the length of their intertwined bodies. "I just don't want... this to be over too soon."

Scully freed her hands from Starling's and cradled the other woman's face. "This will never be over," she whispered.

Dana could see the flame blazing high now in Starling's eyes as their lips met again. Her hips picked up the gentle rhythm they had fallen into, hoping to coax her lover back. Clarice refused the enticing sway, instead working down the length of Scully's body, tasting and teasing the red-head while she explored the landscape of Dana's skin.

Swirls of sensation transmuted into color danced before Scully's closed eyes. Starling seemed determined not to let a centimeter of her flesh go unadored, and each touch fed the conflagration that had become Dana's desire. Arousal had never before blossomed into need with Scully-- she had always controlled her passion as she had controlled everything in her life, lest it be too unseemly for those around her.

She was helpless now, surrendering everything she hadn't ever known she could be before this complex and enigmatic woman.

"Clarice..." she murmured.

"I'm here, Dana." Starling's whispered reply reassured Scully in some obscurely fundamental way; and one of Clarice's hands found hers, gripping it tightly.

She opened her eyes to see Starling nestled comfortably between her legs, almost as if she belonged there. Blue met blue in unspoken question and reply before Clarice dipped her head to the center of the flame.

"Ohgodohgodohgodohgod..." Scully's head slammed back down to the mattress, and her hips bucked into Starling of their own accord. Clarice's mouth seemed to possess her, taking custody of all Dana's cravings, feeding the flames, and taming them to her will. She made extravagant promises with her mouth, and answered them with her tongue. Stripped down to nothing but flesh and bone, sinew and nerves-- Dana Scully was revealed by her lover's touch.

And saved.

Chapter 20

The insistently annoying chirp of the telephone dragged Scully back from the depths of the most intense erotic dream she had ever had. She opened her eyes to a tangle of limbs, bared skin, and rumpled sheets... and realized what had happened between Starling and her this morning had been no dream.

Unbidden, a lazy smirk crept around the edges of her lips as she uncoiled one arm from its resting place on Starling's back and reached upwards for the phone.

"Scully," she answered, her voice thick with sleep and satisfied desire.

"That you, Scully?" Barry Winfield boomed through the phone. "You still asleep? Half the day's gone. Girl, you field agents have all the luck. I've been working half the damn night to get you those results."

"You got them?" At the mention of the case, Scully's blood quickened. While the it had never been far from her thoughts, between the car accident and the recent developments in her relationship with Starling, her concentration had unfortunately been focused elsewhere. She sat up in bed, dislodging Clarice who rubbed a hand through her hair and looked at her quizzically. "You mean the blood and scrapings I dropped off yesterday?" she added for the benefit of her newly awakened partner.

"Of course I mean the stuff you dropped off yesterday," Barry replied in exasperation. "What else would I be talking about? You get your brains scrambled, Scully? You're sounding a little off your game."

Scully laughed wryly. "As a matter of fact, I was in an accident yesterday after I left your lab. So yeah, I'm still a little scrambled," she fibbed, although Dana suspected that there were so many endorphins currently rushing through her veins that somebody could have dropped an anvil on her head and she wouldn't have felt it. "Sorry."

Barry was immediately contrite. "You okay? I mean it wasn't serious? Geez, Scully, I'm sorry..."

"Don't worry about it, Bar. Just give me those results."

"Yeah, no problem." A slight rustle of papers echoed through the static of Barry's portable phone. "Her blood's clean. Toxicology came up completely clear. You were expecting that, right?"

"Right," Scully grunted, leaning over Starling to grab the notebook and pen she always kept on the bedside table. She scribbled the words "Tox clean" on the paper and showed it to Clarice who nodded. "We still don't know how he grabs them. What about the other?"

"You got yourself a nice pretty DNA sample that is inconsistent with the victim's own DNA. If you've got anybody to match the sample with, I'd say you got him dead bang."

Her heart lurched. They were suddenly so much closer to this monster than they had been before. Silently she blessed Kimberly Ellis and the spirit that wouldn't let her die without fighting back first. "What can you tell me about him?"

"The usual. White. Type O blood."

Scully sighed and slumped back into the headboard. "In other words, half the known world."

"Just about," he replied cheerfully. "I'm not a genie, you know. Scully, you're getting about as bad as the rest of the cowboys who think I just do that voodoo that I do and can tell them who their man is."

"No, Barry, it's just that DNA's a big red neon sign that says 'I did it.' and we can't tell who's holding the sign. It's frustrating as hell."

"I'm with you, there. Sorry I can't be more help."

"You've been great. I owe you," Scully reassured him.

"Then come work for me." He laughed. "Later, Scully."

Scully tossed the phone back in its cradle and regarded the woman beside her. Starling's eyes were glittering with interest. "If we can find him, we've got the nails for his coffin."

"The scrapings were his," Starling muttered.

"Well, there's always the possibility that she scratched someone else. If she and her ex-- what's her name--" Scully snapped her fingers in frustration.

"Terri," Starling supplied.

"Right. If she and Terri physically fought, then it could conceivably belong to her."

"Nothing in the reports about a fight. Just an argument."

Scully nodded. "I'm betting it's his."

"We just have to find him."

"Right." Their voices trailed off as the contrast between their intimate situation and the ugly business that had brought them together made itself known. "I guess it's back to the real world, huh?"

"In a minute," Starling agreed. But she made no move to leave their sanctuary.

The forest green sheets were pooled around their waists, and Scully felt Clarice's eyes brushing softly over her skin. The evidence of their lovemaking hung heavy in Dana's nostrils and renewed itself between her legs as she rested under the tender gaze. Her muscles were still liquid with the pleasure of this woman's caress, and she felt a tightening in her loins that was her body's clamor for more. "You have to stop looking at me that way," she found herself murmuring.

"Why is that?" Starling replied huskily, leaning towards Dana.

"Because it's like a touch," she whispered before her mouth was captured in a gentle kiss. Scully could taste the faint traces of Clarice's earlier, far more intimate, kiss; and she parted her lips further to invite her lover closer.

The kiss lingered for long moments, until Dana drew herself away and dropped her head on Clarice's shoulder with a muffled groan.

"I know," Starling whispered in her ear. "We don't have time." She slipped her hands into Scully's hair and pulled Dana's eyes into her own. "There's still so much..." Clarice swallowed hard and continued, her voice thready and hoarse. "Dana... What's happening between us-- I can't stop it now. We've gone too far. Not even if I wanted to."

"Do you?" Her hand was resting on Starling's heart, and she felt her own heart pick up the frantic cadence she found there. "Want to?"

Starling shook her head vehemently. "Not for a second. But I need to know from you, Dana. No regrets?"

Regrets?

The word pinballed wildly through Scully's thoughts. How could she regret anything that happened between them-- from the delicate opening of her heart to the passion that Starling had wrenched from her body? Clarice had unwittingly taught Scully so much about herself-- not just about the pleasure that she was capable of feeling, but about the reawakening of her own soul. She thought she had been dead inside for so long, when in fact there were parts of her that had never really been alive. Something had been born these last days with Clarice Starling, something wondrous and completely unlike anything she had ever thought she would be.

"One day, Dana, you will become the woman you always wanted to be. Even if you didn't know it."

It was something Melissa had told her a long time ago, when she was in one of what Scully called her "empowerment" phases. She had laughed off her sister's New Age-- and somewhat pompous-- proclamation and insisted that she was exactly who she was supposed to be already.

"Not supposed to be. Want to be. What do you want to be?"

"When I grow up? I'm already grown-up, Missy. Give it up."

Melissa had only shaken her head sadly at her sister and did as she was bade, letting the subject drop. It had only been a few months later that Melissa had died in her place, and Scully had vowed that the innocents in her life would never again suffer because of her. She had begun to shut out everyone that she loved, fearing for their lives, until there was only Mulder and the Files. Now that one was burned beyond recognition and the other slowly morphing into something she could no longer recognize, she had despaired of finding any meaning in it all. Five years... and all for nothing.

Or maybe not. The trials she had faced with Mulder had taught her something about her own strength of purpose. A formidable will that was unmatched when she set her mind towards something. From the moment she had seen Clarice Starling, something in the other woman's taciturn manner-- the straight set of her shoulders and unwavering glance-- had called to her. Spoken in a language she thought uniquely her own.

Looking at Clarice now, she realized that she was no longer alone.

A state of being she had accepted as her lot long ago-- Scully had perfected solitude into a fine art. Men she had met were intimidated by her unflinching honesty and intellect. Women... well, that had been someplace she had been afraid to go. She could admit that to herself now. She had filed all those smoky kisses under the heading of "youthful experimentation" and willfully ignored the resonance that they possessed even now, so many years later.

"It's not like I've never been kissed,"

she had told Clarice. Oh, she had been kissed. And kissed and kissed. But never had she taken it the next step. She had danced; she had laughed; she had cupped rough hands in her own, steadying them to hold a light for her cigarette. But she hadn't ever allowed them the liberty of roaming over her skin.

Not the way Clarice's eyes did now.

"Dana?"

She opened her eyes.

"Come back to me," Starling beckoned.

"No regrets," she whispered hoarsely. "Not a single one."

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

Water streamed down Starling's face, slicking her dark hair against her skull and tightly outlining the sharp features of her face. She stood in the shower alone, Scully having shyly declined her offer to share with a slight coloring of her cheeks. It was the first time Dana had hesitated in their uncertain courtship dance, and the refusal oddly reassured Starling that her formidably competent lover was as moved by their new bond as she was.

She said no regrets....

and now Starling searched for her own and found none. Lecter's chiding commentary was gone, as if silenced by her consummation. Clarice felt centered now, at peace in a way that she had never felt before-- even before Lecter, if such a time were still imaginable to her. Her passion for Dana-- and the red-head's for her-- anchored her now, tethering her as she traveled the atramentous path that led to Kimberly Ellis' killer.

They would find him.

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

"What's that I smell?" Starling asked, emerging from the shower and into the kitchen.

"Burned bagels," came the reply.

"Mmm... my favorite."

"Everybody's a critic," Scully complained, but snickered softly. "I forgot to check the setting. Mulder likes his bagels charred beyond recognition. Go figure."

Mulder again. Every tawdry rumor that Starling had ever heard about the two partners surfaced in her unwilling mind. They did make such a devastatingly beautiful couple. "He here for breakfast much?" she asked, hoping her voice was nonchalant, for the sudden pounding of her heart certainly wasn't.

Scully's wryly arched brow told her she had been busted. "Unfortunately he's here more often than I'd like. He has a way of just showing up and making himself comfortable whether I like it or not. Since the Files were burned it's gotten worse. I'm pretty much the only tie to the real world that he has left." She ran a weary hand through her hair, pushing red tendrils away from her face. Her expression softened with understanding. "It's different with Mulder."

Not trusting her voice, Starling only nodded.

Wordlessly, Scully wrapped her arms around Clarice's frame and captured the other woman's mouth with her own. Breaking away, Dana murmured, "I chose you, Clarice Starling. Don't you forget it."

Starling smiled ruefully. "It's kind of hard to believe, you know."

"Not from where I'm standing."

"Then you'll have to lend me your view occasionally."

"Anytime." Scully grinned. "Now, can I interest you in some only-slightly-burned bagels and coffee?"

Arms still loosely linked, they crossed the small kitchen and busied themselves slicing the bread and pouring coffee. Scully stuck her head in the refrigerator. "Cream cheese?"

"Is it real?" Starling made a face. "I hate the fat-free kind."

Scully emerged triumphantly, holding the silver foil package. "Ah! A woman after my own heart. Of course it's real."

Settling themselves at the small table, Starling regarded her lover across a cup of coffee. "You going to tell him about this?" Not needing to elaborate on who he or what this was.

Dana studied the swirls the knife made in the cream cheese a moment, then answered. "Probably not. At least not right away." Seeing Starling's darkening expression, she held up a hand. "And not for the reasons you think. It wouldn't bother him that I was with a woman." She laughed. "I think he actually expects that from me, sooner or later."

"Then what would bother him?" Clarice asked. "That you were with someone at all?"

"Mulder and I have a kind of claim on each other. For the last five years we've been the crazies in the basement. We've seen things nobody else wants to believe." Her eyes glimmered with a sadness that resonated with Starling and the horror of her own nightmares these last seven years. "And we've lost... so much, Clarice. So many people..."

"I understand about death."

"Not about death that you caused. Mulder's father and my sister were murdered because of our involvement with the X-Files. And that was just the beginning." Anguished blue eyes focused on Starling. "You can't begin to imagine what they've done to me..." Scully's voice trailed off as her shoulders began to shake, fighting off tears.

"Dana--" Starling moved towards her slender lover, but Scully waved her off.

"No." Hastily, she wiped her eyes. "I'm okay... and I'll tell you all about it. Soon. But we've got so much to do first." She gestured at the pile of case folders sitting on the kitchen table. "I want to be someplace, away from all this when we talk."

Scully's promise was both reassuring and worrying, because it implied something beyond the right now for the couple, but seeing the obvious pain Dana was in filled Clarice with trepidation about its source. She managed a small smile for her lover. "It's a deal."

Their hands clasped and a quiet peace settled over them. Their respective pasts had been acknowledged, as had their potential future. All they needed now was time.

Scully nodded at the case files, ending the moment filled with silent promises. "Shall we get to work?"

Chapter 21

"I still don't get how he grabs them." Scully rubbed a weary hand over her face. After her own quick shower, she had pulled on one of the dozen FBI sweatshirts she owned and a pair of jeans. With her hair pulled back into a tiny ponytail and no makeup, she presented a far different-- and equally entrancing-- woman than the one Clarice first met. To Starling, the contrast was fascinating. The rapier sharp intellect was still there, but the face and body had softened considerably. "How are we going to catch a ghost?"

The question uncomfortably reminded Starling that her mind most definitely wasn't on business. Blowing out a breath she didn't know she'd been holding, Clarice shook her head. "Sometimes I've found it's helpful to concentrate on what we do know rather than what we don't."

Scully nodded thoughtfully, nibbling on a piece of bagel. "Okay. We know... what? He kills women."

"Let's start there."

"Okay? Why does he kill women?"

"Remember, concentrate on what we do know. We don't know why. Look at the end result."

"The staged death scenes."

"Right." Starling leaned over the cluttered kitchen table and pulled out the sets of crime photos from the five victims. "Look at this scene. He's trying to tell us something here. Make a point. We have to figure it out."

"Like a performance artist," Scully muttered. "I'll never look at mimes the same way again." Starling snorted into her coffee, and Dana pulled a wry face. "Sorry, sometimes I think Mulder's sense of humor-- or should I say sense of the absurd-- has rubbed off."

"Don't worry about it. Actually the performance art analogy isn't a bad one. Okay-- look at this. All the women were found in the outdoors, posed, their faces uncovered. What does that tell you?"

"He wanted them to be found. He wanted us to see what he had done."

"Right, but look at it from his point of view. What is he trying to tell us?"

"About himself?"

"About these women."

Scully studied the macabre pictures, the almost identical images running together beneath her gaze. Involuntarily she flashed on a image of herself in that position, legs grotesquely spread in an abominable parody of sexual pleasure. A wave of shame and violent horror washed through her body, and she shivered. "He wants to humiliate them," she whispered. "They've done something unforgivable."

Watching her lover closely, Starling suppressed the urge to wrap her arms around Dana's slim form. Scully was her partner this morning, not the woman she was falling deeply in love with. "You're right. What else?" she prompted, seeing Scale's eyes leap from picture to picture, beginning to make the elementary connections that would lead them to their killer.

"He cut off their hands."

"And?"

"Did they take something from him?"

"Possibly. Or..."

The doctor in Scully spoke up. "You amputate a diseased limb. Their hands were unclean, full of sickness."

Starling leaned back in surprise. The idea had never occurred to her. "And their breasts?" she prompted.

The analogy didn't hold true for the damage done to the women's breasts, and Scully frowned. "He hates women. He wants to disfigure them."

Starling shook her head curtly. "Don't think about what he's telling us about himself. Remember, he's trying to tell us something about them."

"What kind of woman doesn't have any breasts?"

"Not any. Just one," Starling corrected absently, her own eyes roving over the pictures so familiar they were etched into her memory. And would remain so forever. "He only cut off one breast."

Silence descended, broken only by the quiet hum of the refrigerator nearby. Scully's hands played with her coffee mug while she continued to examine the photos before her. The red-head went very still as her eyes rested on the photo of the only victim she had seen in person. Kimberly Elise. "Amazons," she murmured.

Starling's brow furrowed. "What?"

"Amazons, Clarice. Legend-- an inaccurate one, I might add-- says that they cut off one breast to make it easier for them to shoot a bow and arrow. They were also an all female society. No men."

"Kimberly Ellis was..."

Starling and Scully stared at each other with dawning awareness. "Starling, were all these women gay?"

Clarice thought for a moment, then shook her head. "I know at least one of them-- the first victim, Deborah Thomas-- had a boyfriend. In fact, the local blue boys looked long and hard at him as a perp. That was before they found out that he was with fifty other people at some Baptist retreat when Deborah was kidnapped and murdered."

"Had they broken up?"

"Yeah, but he was real tight-lipped about the reason. That's why the locals liked him."

Scully cocked her head. "Could have been embarrassing for him, if she'd left him for another woman. That's not something I can imagine most men admitting easily."

"But he's clean. He's got half a dozen ministers vouching for him."

"I'm not saying he's the perp, Starling. But..."

"But that might be our link between the victims. And it could give us a lead on how he's targeting them." Starling pounded her fist gently against her forehead. "Why didn't I see it sooner?"

Dana captured the injuring hand in her own and brought the palm to her lips. "Shh... Don't do that. I happen to like what you've got up there." She traced the quiet arc of Clarice's brow. "Okay?"

"I didn't ask the question, Scully."

"You didn't have any reason to. The only reason that we knew about Kimberly Ellis was because of Belinda Harris' tip that there was bad blood between Kimberly and her parents. Otherwise she was pretty closeted."

"It just never occurred to me that all these women..." Frustration filled her voice. "There wasn't anything in their houses. I saw magazines and books at Kimberly's house. But the others..." She shook her head savagely. "Maybe I just didn't look hard enough."

"Well..." Scully hesitated.

"What, Dana?"

"It is sort of close to home."

"What do you mean?"

"Clarice..." Scully glanced around the room, her gaze encompassing their close chairs and palpable sense of intimacy between them. "You're gay."

Starling gestured abruptly as if to say So what? and leaned back in her chair.

The movement away from Scully didn't go unnoticed by either woman. "And you're not exactly comfortable with it."

Folding her arms across her chest defensively, Clarice stared her new lover down. "So you're the poster child for self-acceptance now? After one night?" Somewhere in the recesses of her mind, Starling knew she was being unreasonable, that Scully was trying to comfort her for royally missing what should have been obvious. Lecter's chiding singsong echoed in her ears, tsking in disapproval.

"Clarice, no... That's not what I'm saying at all. I have no idea how this..." She shook her head and then corrected herself. "How my feelings for you are going to change my life. It challenges everything that I've been. My family, my job, my faith-- I can't think of a single person in my life that's going to be happy about this." Scully pushed away from the table and turned to face the shuttered features of her new lover. "But that's not what we're talking about here."

"What are we talking about, Dana? Because I've forgotten," Starling retorted angrily. "I thought we were trying to catch a killer and instead you're deconstructing my psyche."

Scully wouldn't back down. "But isn't that how you catch your monsters? You let them so far into your head that you can't help but see what they do. You become this perfect vessel that they fill up with their insanity, and then you... " She continued, her voice fading into the roar in Clarice's ears. Starling shifted uncomfortably in her chair, wanting to deny Scully's words, wanting to deny Scully herself-- but their time together had already been irrevocably imprinted on her. Bracing herself for the familiar, angry litany that was to follow and hearing Ardelia's sadness and frustration murmuring beneath Dana's words; Clarice silently placed herself at the mercy of the woman standing over her, hoping there would be something left with which to carry on after it was all over. She brought her gaze back up to rest on blue eyes that narrowed then widened as they regarded Starling with new awareness. "He never knew, did he?

This was the last thing she expected to hear from Scully's mouth. Bewildered by the non sequitur, she asked helplessly, "What?"

"Lecter. He never knew about you and Ardelia. It's the one thing he never figured out about you. The one thing he could never see."

Unease filled Starling's body, and her eyes darted wildly about the room as if seeking some refuge from the unerring accuracy of Dana's words. Scully was so close to uncovering something that no one else had ever touched. Not even Clarice herself understood why her mind worked the way it did-- why she was able to prowl the nocturnal corridors of sanity when it drove so many others over the brink. She simply functioned the only way she knew how, absorbing all the lessons her triumvirate of fathers had taught her and reflecting them back through the unique prism of her mind. Her time with Ardelia had been separate from all that-- warm moments of heat and sex, tenderness and laughter-- a haven from the nightmarish landscape that occupied her waking hours and bled into her dreams. "Nobody knew."

Scully shook her head wearily, an unfathomable sadness coloring her eyes as the last piece of the puzzle that was Clarice Starling clicked into place. "Oh, Jesus, Clarice. I'm so sorry. I should have seen..." She dropped to her knees in front of Starling's chair, bringing their eyes level. The depth and resonance of their connection made Clarice's stomach clench with need. "All this time, I thought you were ashamed, but... it was just the one thing they couldn't touch, wasn't it? You had to keep something separate just to stay sane. And you chose that part of yourself. No wonder you didn't ask the question about these women." A strangled laugh snarled Scully's throat as she pushed away from Starling. "Or want to get involved with me."

Clarice caught her arm before she could break free. The momentum pulled both women to their feet, holding them suspended in a chaotic embrace. "Dana... Wait..."

"I made you cross that last line, Clarice. Goddamn me. You wanted one thing for yourself..."

Starling interrupted the litany of self-reproach the only way she knew how. She tangled her fingers in Dana's hair and brought her lover's mouth to hers. The kiss was fleeting and gentle, stopping the avalanche of pain that threatened to consume them.

"They've been all over your mind and soul..." Scully murmured.

"But not my heart, Dana. Never that." Doubt and fear welled in Starling's lungs, constricting her breath. Ignoring the warning cries of her instinct for self-preservation, she instead concentrated on the warm memory of Scully holding her. Even before they became lovers, the silent strength of Dana's arms had sheltered her from her nightmares like nothing else ever had. Her body, it seemed, had trusted before her mind. Now she met Dana's eyes with renewed resolution. "That's why..." The unfamiliar words stumbled from her tongue. "That's why I need you. You make me feel safe, and you make me feel strong. And I've never known anything like this before, Dana. I don't want to lose it now. Not when we're just beginning."

Scully stared at her lover, her face a mixture of incredulity, gratitude, and undeniable love. "But what about this?" She gestured to the haphazard pile of crime scene photos and lab reports scattered over the table. "What about keeping something separate?"

"I don't know," Starling admitted. "But I do know that the life I've been living... it's just no good anymore. It hasn't been for a long time. I'd... like to try something different."

A kiss, more tender than anything had a right to be, was Scully's reply to the halting and fearful declaration that placed Clarice's soul in her hands. And in the quiet silence of their embrace, Starling realized it was the easiest decision she had ever made.

The shrill whine of both their beepers simultaneously erupting ended their moment of peace. Starling reached hers first, groaning at the 183 message. She looked at Scully, an eerie paleness descending across her face.

"He's gotten another one."

Chapter 22

Once more Starling and Scully found themselves seated together in the close confines of a military helicopter hurtling over the tree-topped mountains, only this time the nightmare was still unfolding. What they had wasn't another dead woman, but a reported abduction.

They were getting closer.

"He's got to be completely falling apart, Scully. I don't get it. The precision of the last scene-- and then this? He grabs someone on one of the busiest streets in the town, at a fairly early hour when anyone could have been passing by?" Starling grimaced as she stared sightlessly at the panoramic view beneath her. "It's too fast."

"Well, there is the internal damage he did to Kimberly Ellis. I checked the posts from the earlier victims. No reported damage to the uterus. He shredded hers. So there's some indication that he was beginning to lose it."

"Did you confirm with the ME's on that? Did they actually check the uterus?"

Scully shook her head briefly. "I left messages with all of them, but I haven't heard back yet. I was going to follow up this morning. I figured we had some time. I'm sorry, Starling."

Before she could stop herself, Starling captured Scully's hand in hers, bringing it close. "Don't go there, Dana. We all thought we had time."

"But we knew he was beginning..."

"Beginning, Scully. That's the operative word. It's not the obviousness of his actions that confuses me-- I mean, when Bundy finally decompensated, he literally ran through the Chi Omega sorority house randomly killing women. It's the suddenness." She gently traced the curve of Scully's palm with her thumb, lost in thought and unaware of the intimacy or the bemused smile it brought to her partner's face. "It's almost like there was a trigger of some sort. Something specific that set him off."

"Could it have been something he saw? Maybe this woman he grabbed reminded him of someone?" Scully offered.

"Maybe." Starling's mind was scuttling about in a thousand different directions, none of them concrete, randomly processing the information they had assembled to this point. It wasn't completely impossible, she supposed, this UNSUB's decompensation accelerating-- but it just didn't feel right. Her years of experience told her there was a trigger for this-- and a massive one at that.

"We're close, Starling. We'll get him." Scully's quiet words were punctuated by a gentle squeeze of her hand, and with a shock Clarice realized their fingers were still intertwined. She glanced at the alabaster profile that had become as familiar as her own over these last days. In making love to Dana and accepting all the possibilities held in those pale eyes, she had stepped from behind the barricades she believed had protected her sanity all these years. Dana was right when she had realized that Starling had fearfully kept her love for Ardelia far, far away from the darkness in which she walked. When she had met Dana Scully, however, she had been forced to make a choice.

And discovered it hadn't been a choice at all.

From the first, Scully had walked beside her through the labyrinthine maze of this monster's thinking. True, she had been horrified and sickened by the things she had seen, but she hadn't flinched from the burden of finding their quarry. Had that been the extent of her interaction with Dana Scully, Starling would have considered herself lucky to have met the other woman.

But Scully hadn't stopped there. She had willingly stepped into Starling's nightmares and, with the slender shape of her body and the quiet murmur of her words, brought light to the terrifying realm of Clarice's nightscape. In Dana's arms, the madness retreated.

Had she really been running from herself all that time?

Suddenly, the last place in the world that Clarice Starling wanted to be was on a helicopter on the way to a crime scene. Right now the woman who had told Ardelia Mapp that she couldn't think of anything worse than being forced out of the FBI wanted nothing more than to take the woman beside, retreat from this pursuit, and explore the unique soul of her new lover. She wanted to wrap the red-head around her and learn the meaning of the marks she had found on Scully's torso, the delicate tattoo on her hip, and the tiny scar on the back of her neck. Starling knew that Dana had her own nightmares, and she wondered if this newfound love held them at bay.

The pilot's tinny voice crackled through their headsets. "We're coming up on Asheville now. Won't be too much longer."

Seeing Scully's thumbs up to the pilot, Starling shook her head, trying to clear the treasonous thoughts from her mind.

"What's wrong?" Scully voice queried close.

Clarice smiled ruefully. "Just wishing I was somewhere else."

"Without me?" The question was lightly phrased, but their serious meaning didn't go undetected.

A quick glance at the pilot showed him to be completely occupied with guiding them through some small turbulence. She pressed a soft kiss against Scully hand. "Never. I just want to be with you, away from this."

A small flush warmed Scully's skin as she absorbed the silent declaration behind the quiet words. "We will be, I promise you, Clarice."

"Not soon enough," Starling muttered.

"Look at it this way, at least we're together now. And if this guy's unraveling as fast as we think, hopefully it will all be over in the next couple of days."

"If we're lucky..."

Scully ignored Starling's cautionary phrase and continued. "And I know a great little bed and breakfast in northern Virginia. It should be beautiful this time of year, but a little early in the season, so we'll be pretty much alone. The whole place used to be a tobacco plantation, but it was burned to the ground during the Civil War. When the owner came back from the war, he planted these oak trees that are still there. The gardens are amazing--" Scully halted in mid-sentence at the expression on Starling's face. "What is it?"

"We're together..." Starling repeated Scully's words as if to herself. "We're together..."

Not comprehending, Scully shook her head, a harder edge to her voice. "Does that bother you?"

Abruptly, Starling jerked her eyes to Scully, focusing on her partner. "Not me, Scully. Him. He's seen us. He knows we're together. That was his trigger."

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

The chopper touched down before Scully could ask any one of the millions of questions that crowded her brain with their sudden presence. They were hustled into an unmarked police car by an almost manic Detective Merriam and chauffeured to the station. The detective's edgy presence kept her silent until they found themselves momentarily alone, waiting for the kidnapped woman's partner to be roused from a fitful sleep. "What do you mean, he's seen us, Starling? How? Where?"

Blue flames snapped and sparkled in Starling's eyes. "Any one of a dozen places. Asheville's not that big. More to the point-- lots of UNSUBs like to hang around, watch the cops work. He could have been watching us from the very beginning."

Scully lowered her voice. "But we weren't-- together-- then."

"Didn't stop Belinda Harris from making the same damn assumption." Irony glittered in her pale eyes. "And she was right, too."

The red-head's voice was skeptical. "So he sees us, makes some astounding leaps in logic, and freaks out because the people hunting him are the very ones that he hates. That doesn't make any sense, Clarice."

Starling shrugged. "Lecter killed people because they had bad table manners. It makes sense somehow to him. That's what we have to figure out."

"So how does he target these women? The latest vic and Kimberly Ellis were grabbed outside a gay bar, but how did he get the others? Belinda Harris' sister was taken from her home. How does he know to pick them? I mean, I've heard of gaydar, Starling, but this is a little beyond that."

"Maybe he stalks them. We thought he was on a lunar cycle because all the women were found on or around the same time of the month, but I checked. The moon wasn't in one of its significant phases-- either new or full-- during any of the murders. I thought it was just an anomaly, but maybe he was using the time to travel and to scope out the new terrain. Maybe he simply goes to gay bars, picks his mark, and then studies them. Waits until the timing is right, and the whoosh." She snapped her fingers. "Right into thin air."

"And grabbing Kimberly outside of Cahoots is just another sign of his decompensation accelerating."

"Exactly."

Scully whistled softly. "I'll be damned."

"The murders coming every month were themselves a sign that he was coming apart. There were two previous murders-- three months and six months-- before the four we've been tracking, but I wasn't sure it was him. Now I'm wondering if I should have gone further back. He could have been doing this for years, Dana. And we're just now catching up to him."

"Why didn't the ritual nature of the kills flag something in CAIN or VICAP sooner, then?"

"Well, if he's moving from place to place, you're dealing with lots of individual jurisdictions. And if they don't plug in the info--"

"Like our hot-dog Merriam did..."

"Right, CAIN and VICAP wouldn't know it. Before she left the Bureau, Lucy Farinelli was working on something she called 'The Good Son.' She said it was sort of like a computer virus-- all the locals would have to do is download it to their system, link to CAIN, and the program itself would go in and flag any anomalous cases and send the data back to Quantico. It would have caught these and brought them to our attention. The way it stands now, we're just catch as catch can."

Scully saw the darkening look in her lover's expression and knew Starling was chastising herself for all the lost souls she hadn't been able to avenge. "Stop it," she commanded in a low voice. "We're going to get him now. That's the best we can do. Let the rest go."

A rueful smile slunk onto Starling's face, and she shook her head in mild disbelief. "You're good."

"I'd like to think I'm getting to know you pretty well, Clarice Starling," she replied. "And I plan on getting to know you a whole lot better, too."

"That can be definitely be arranged," Starling lightly rejoined. "But in the meantime..."

"Back to our regularly scheduled crisis," Scully finished for her partner. She nodded at the steaming coffee pot and the stack of styrofoam cups beside it sitting on a corner of the conference room table. "You want some?"

"Oh yeah. I think we're gonna need it."

Scully crossed the room, conscious of Clarice's eyes following her as she moved. Her gaze wasn't sexual or possessive, merely intensely aware-- almost as if Starling could see the muscles working below her skin or hear her thoughts before they fired the synapses in her brain. Beneath her lover's scrutiny, Dana felt vibrantly alive-- her intellectual, emotional, and physical selves united in a way like never before. "So why did he pick this woman?" she asked, her back still to Clarice. The prosaic question countered the extraordinary sensations racing through her blood and drew her mind to the task at hand. "Just dumb, bad luck on her part?"

"I'm not sure," Starling replied. "We'll know more when we talk to her companion."

As if on cue, Merriam rapped once on the door and opened it, guiding a woman into the room. To Dana's surprise, this woman didn't have the shell-shocked vacancy of most victims; but instead a bereft loneliness surrounded her, as if her most vital part had been severed. She stood a head taller than Scully and Starling; and long, dark hair streaked with gray settled around her shoulders. Even in her rumpled clothes and obvious distress, she carried herself with a quiet elegance that Scully admired. "Agent Starling, Agent Scully, this is Grace Fitzsimmons. Ms. Fitzsimmons was involved in the kidnapping last night."

"Thank you, Detective," Scully replied, knowing that Starling wouldn't want Merriam's palpable tension interfering in their interview. "We can take it from here."

Confusion descended on the handsome young cop's face, but Scully thought he accepted his dismissal rather gracefully. "Uh... sure... well, I'll be in the squad room if you need anything else..." He turned towards the door.

"Detective?" Scully called him back. "We're going to need your help later. Try and get some sleep, okay? It's going to be a long couple of days for us all."

He grinned at her, knowing now that they weren't just farming him out and intent on taking all the credit for themselves. "Will do, Agent Scully."

Turning to Grace Fitzsimmons, she offered a hand in greeting. "I'm Special Agent Dana Scully and this is my partner, Clarice Starling..." Scully's voice trailed away as she realized that Clarice was looking at the woman in strange recognition and dismay.

"I know you," Grace murmured.

"Yes, ma'am," Starling replied, her sadness evident in the quiet words. "We met yesterday."

She studied Starling for a moment longer, then a faint smile creased her features. "How did your friend like the scarf?"

To Scully's shock, Starling blushed violently and ducked her head in embarrassment. "Um.... I haven't had a chance to give it to her yet."

The smile deepened as Grace's gray eyes flickered from Starling, focused on Scully for a moment and then found their way back to Clarice. "It will look lovely on her."

Starling returned the smile with one of her own. "Yes, ma'am, I'm sure it will. And as soon as we get your Chris back, I'll give it to her."

"You remember her name?" Surprise echoed in the woman's musical voice, followed by a low chuckle. "Of course you did, you're an FBI agent. I should have known it that day-- you didn't seem the type to be flitting about art festivals. You're here to..." Here her voice stumbled for the first time, revealing the extraordinary depth of her pain. "To catch him. Right?"

The hope infused in that last word was heartbreaking to Scully, and she found herself replying for both herself and her partner. "That's exactly what we're here for."

Starling picked up the cue to start the formal interview itself. "And we need you to help us." She pulled a chair away from the conference table and offered it to Grace. "We need to know everything that happened last night, even if it seems totally inconsequential. I know you've already gone over this with the uniformed officers and Detective Merriam, but I'm afraid I have to ask you to do it again."

"Of course," she replied, instinctively responding to the strength in Starling's voice. "Let me just get my bearings."

"Would some coffee help?" Scully asked.

"I'm not sure anything can help right now, Agent Scully, but I appreciate your offer. Yes, thank you."

While Scully busied herself pouring coffee, Clarice settled Grace in the chair and sat down beside her. "Whenever you're ready, Ms. Fitzsimmons."

"Well... Chris and I aren't usually ones for bar-hopping." She smiled self-deprecatingly. "We're both getting a little long in the tooth to enjoy all that smoke and noise. But every once and a while we like to go out and take a look around, see what's going on. The girls and boys today are so different than in our day-- so bold and proud. Twenty years ago the only places you found gay bars were in big cities, or out in the middle of nowhere on some country back road that you'd never find in a million years. Of course, I suppose that was the point."

"So you went to Cahoots last night?" Starling prompted gently.

"We'd had such good sales Saturday, and the festival was winding down... so we thought we'd reward ourselves. Chris had heard some of the other artists talking about it, and it seemed harmless enough to me..."

"Do you know about what time you go there?"

"It couldn't have been too terribly late. Probably around nine or so. We decided to have dinner first, much to the irritation of their hostess. I think she took it as a personal affront that we hadn't called first."

Scully and Starling exchanged wry glances at the memory of their seven-foot, buckskin-clad, cross-dressing hostess. "I can imagine."

"After dinner we went downstairs to the club. We danced for a while, and then we ran into some people that we met during the festival. We found a little table and all sat down, chatting about the things we had seen, mutual acquaintances, that sort of thing." Grace took a tiny sip of her coffee, grimaced at its strength and sat it back on the metal conference table. "We had been talking for, I guess, a half an hour at most, before the smoke started getting to Chris. She said she was going to get some fresh air and excused herself."

"Was this a usual occurrence?" Starling asked.

"What do you mean, Agent?"

"I mean, when you went out to clubs, did Chris step out for some air?"

Grace look perplexed for a moment, then nodded in confirmation. "Yes, actually she did. I never really thought about it. At the neighborhood pub we frequent, there's a small patio, so that's where she usually goes. But this place didn't have one."

"So you didn't really think anything of it."

"That's right. It wasn't until about, I don't know, ten or fifteen minutes had passed that I started to wonder where she was."

"Then what did you do?"

"Well, at first I checked at the bar, thinking maybe she had stopped off to refresh our drinks, but there was no sign of her. Then I went upstairs and checked with the bartender up there-- he hadn't seen her." The older woman took a long, shuddering breath; and a trembling hand passed unsteadily through her hair. "I went outside... The night air-- it was crisp, and I remember thinking that Chris would be cold without her jacket." Grey-green eyes met Scully's as she smiled sadly. "She catches cold so easily," she said, shivering as if in some synaptic sympathy with the memory of the cool night air. "I didn't see her at all. That's when I began to worry. I knew she wouldn't have gone far, most likely just strolled to the end of the street and back to clear out her lungs. I turned right and went all the way up the block, but I didn't see her. Then I turned the other way and began to walk back. That... that..." Her voice shook with the effort of recollection. "That was when..."

"It's okay, Grace..." Starling's hand gripped the older woman's. "Take your time."

"I saw her handbag." Grace wiped away the tears that had begun to form in her eyes and shook her head. "It wasn't really a handbag-- more of an oversized checkbook than anything. But it had her driver's license, some credit cards and her cash. She always carries it in the inside pocket of her blazer. So it won't fall out-- she always says. That's when I began to worry."

"You called the police then?"

"I went into the bar and they did, yes. The bartender got the owner, and when he told her what I had said, her face went white and she called that young man who brought me in just now. Detective Merriam."

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

After they had settled Grace back in Merriam's office, Scully and Starling returned to the conference room that was now their de facto headquarters. "Do you really think it's him?" Scully asked skeptically. "I mean, Merriam made it sound like we had a witness to the whole thing. All we've got is a lost checkbook and a missing woman."

"Don't forget about Terri," Starling commented. "She apparently thought it was him. She called Merriam in the first place."

"And you, Starling? What do you think?"

"I don't think, Scully. I know it was him."

Dana arched a questioning brow, prompting her partner to continue.

"He's been watching us, Dana. I wasn't sure before, but I am now."

"Why is that?"

"Because I was talking to Grace Fitzsimmons on the street in front of her booth not ten hours before her lover disappeared. He saw me talking to her. He took her to taunt me. He's laughing at us, telling us that he can literally snatch someone right out from under our noses."

Scully sucked in a sharp breath and studied her partner closely. "Don't you think you're making this a little too ad hominum?"

Starling looked at her ruefully. "Is that the face you make with Mulder? When you tell him his little green men aren't out there?"

"Pretty close, yeah," she admitted.

"Every single instinct I have is screaming at me, Dana. And they're telling me that this is our chance to get him."

Over the last five years, Scully had learned that belief without reason was the only altar upon with Mulder prayed. Though she had often stood accused of apostasy in this particular religion, five years of give-and-take with Mulder had established a rhythm between the two partners-- telling her when to press forward with her doubts and when to let him run with his gut. She was aware of just how much of a tempering presence she was for him and how he had come to rely on her sharply analytical thinking to keep him from the worst of his excesses. In a lot of ways she had been the quietly guiding hand behind their partnership, establishing some credibility-- however tenuous it had been-- for the Files in the corridors of the J. Edgar Hoover Building. In fact, she had been so successful that the Consortium-- which had allowed Mulder to operate unmolested on the lunatic fringe for years before her arrival-- decided that she and Mulder had gone far enough. With cruel strokes they had rendered her womb barren, her faith in shreds, her partner on the verge of self-destruction, and the Files in ashes.

Standing before her now was someone else asking her to believe without reason, yet Starling's eyes were not alight with the possibility of discovering something heretofore unknown to the human race. Instead, Scully saw an eternal weariness shading her irises with its blue sadness, an exhausted awareness of exactly what she would find if she failed to catch this particular monster.

Five years with Mulder. Five days with Clarice Starling. Could she believe that easily without reason? And yet-- by trusting her body to this woman, in letting the delicate hands now gripping the back of a chair stroke into her skin an undreamed of pleasure and release-- hadn't she already?

"All right..." she acceded softly, releasing a quietly held breath. Fingers brushed her cheek so fleetingly they almost didn't register, but the silent gratitude in Claire's face shone through. "How are we supposed to catch this son of a bitch? We don't even know where to look."

For the first time in their acquaintance, a muted exuberance glittered through Starling's subdued exterior. Scully recognized the fever of the hunt, when the final pieces are clicking into place and the end is inevitably near. One way or the other, it would end in this small Southern town nestled in the mountains. "That's what I didn't get a chance to tell you before you decided to play Derby Queen with your Taurus. I think I've figured out how he's able to spend so much time working on these girls and yet still be mobile."

Scully gestured impatiently with her hands for Starling to continue.

"Land Cruisers," she pronounced excitedly.

"Beg pardon?"

"Land Cruisers," Starling repeated. "Look over here." Impatiently, she tugged on Scully's arm, leading her to the second story window and pointing out. "See," she said, gesturing at two lumbering vehicles who edged dangerously through the narrow streets towards the highway that would lead them to the campgrounds.

"You mean RVs? Like what the Cleaver family used to go camping in?"

"Whatever," Starling waved the terminology off. "I got the idea when I was talking to Grace Fitzsimmons yesterday. She said that she and Chris traveled around in one of those things several months out of the year taking their product with them. 'All the comforts of home,' she said. The bastard has his own portable fucking crime scene! We've just been looking at it wrong."

"That's why there hasn't been any trace evidence," Scully muttered, the realization sliding easily into place. "It's because it's all in the RV."

"Now, look at this." Starling strode back across the room, grabbing her briefcase and throwing it open. Pulling out a well-thumbed road atlas, she flipped it open to a map of the United States cross-hatched with highway listings. "He starts here in California. In Eureka. Lots of hiking, outdoor stuff. An RV wouldn't look out of place there. Now he probably has to stick to the main highways because that thing really won't handle on the back roads, and there are places to stop where he wouldn't draw attention to himself. His next kill is in Flagstaff. If he comes straight down I-101 and catches I-40, the drive's only a couple of days at the max."

"But he doesn't kill for another month."

"Bingo. He picks out his mark, watches her, and waits until the time is right."

Scully's finger raced over the thin red line connecting Flagstaff to Elk City, Oklahoma. "It's a straight shot on 40 to reach Elk City. And the drive is shorter."

"He probably sticks around Flagstaff for a little while. Watches the local blue boys find the body. Maybe he even asks to help, but I doubt it. Then he goes to Jackson, Mississippi. Which I don't get."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, see... it's a straight shot from Flagstaff to Asheville across I-40. All the murders-- Flagstaff, Elk City, Murfreesboro and Asheville-- are on 40. Except the murder in Jackson."

"Murfreesboro and Asheville come after Jackson."

"Yeah. Like he got right back on 40 and just kept on coming."

"Eureka wasn't on 40. He had to drive down the entire coast just to get to 40."

"But he started out there, so that's where initial trigger probably was."

"What about the earlier murders? The ones three and six months before this series."

"Everett and Wenatchee. Both in Washington state."

Scully arched a questioning brow.

"I've got people up there now, asking around. Maybe he's a local."

"Portland's not too far either." Scully frowned. "Come to think of it, it's pretty similar to Asheville. Bigger, of course, but the same kind of artsy, outdoorsy crowd. I seem to remember a magazine article about it, calling it one of the best places to live for gay women."

"So he starts out in Portland? Drives down the California coast and then catches the I-40 so he can come to Asheville?" Starling pursed her lips and considered the map. "It's possible."

"Clarice..." Scully hesitated, not sure how to say the next words. Her own instinct was nudging her, set in motion by a conversation they had on the first night. "Don't you think it's time we stopped calling the killer he?"

"Meaning?" Level eyes stared back at her, unhostile, encouraging her to continue.

"That first night we talked about the murders, you said that it all seemed too tidy. You said the mental pathology classified the killer as a sexual sadist, but that the behavior wasn't entirely consistent with a true sadist."

"Not enough pure destruction." As if cutting off someone's breast and hands wasn't violent enough.

"Right. If we're right about the victims' sexuality-- the wounds take on an entirely different significance. A moral or philosophical one maybe. The killer isn't a sadist at all. In fact, I don't even think it's a man."

"Scully, historically 99% of the identified serial killers are men."

"That leaves 1% that isn't."

"I'm aware of that, Dana." Starling ran an agitated hand through her hair. "But women who commit multiple murders typically kill family members. The Aileen Wurnous's of the world are extraordinarily rare. And she killed men."

"Maybe this killer is some weird amalgam of both. Maybe one of the victims is a family member." Scully was rapid-firing off hypotheses, keeping the momentum of their exchange going. They were close, even she could feel it now. "Maybe the first one. That could have been the trigger."

"Maybe," Starling allowed, her eyes drawn back to the map beneath their hands. Idly she traced the I-40 route, veering off to the Jackson, Mississippi murder, and then back to I-40. Her finger stopped on the red circle, tapping it lightly. "Scully..." her voice shook raggedly. "Who was the third victim?"

Taken aback more by her partner's tone than the question, Scully flipped quickly through the folders, pulling out the appropriate file, her eyes fixing on the decedent's name.

"Veronica Harris."

Chapter 23

"Starling, are you sure this is the smartest thing you've ever done?" Scully grimaced as the creaking police four-door narrowly missed the on-coming traffic. "We're not even sure she's at the motel." They had left Robert Merriam and a few park rangers combing through aerial and terrain maps, searching for the most remote location in the area that still allowed RV access. It had to be someplace isolated, yet accessible to such a bulky vehicle, which narrowed down their choices considerably.

"She's there," Starling promised grimly. "She's waiting for us."

"We don't know that she's who we're looking for."

"I'm aware of that, Dana."

"Just making sure."

"But I think she knows who it is," Starling continued. "Or least has a very good idea."

"Why? What's the point? Why would she be letting us stew in our own juices for so long? Good god, Clarice, I know she's got her own agenda... but her own sister was one of the victims."

"I think that's when it changed. If you remember, that's when she came to me," Starling replied grimly, wincing when the car's tires squealed as they skidded into the parking lot of the Motel 6. "Come on."

It took only a flash of Scully's badge and the sudden appearance of Starling's gun to persuade the clerk to tell them Belinda Harris' room number. After warning the young fellow that this was a federal matter, Scully and Starling took the stairs two at a time to the fifth floor. Pausing at the stair landing, Starling checked the clip of her Glock and replaced it in its holster, leaving the snap unlatched. "You really think that's going to be necessary?"

Starling shrugged, pausing a moment as if to consider her next words. "After I took Bill down, what the Bureau didn't tell anybody in its press releases was that I got there completely by accident. There was a moment-- no more than an instant, really-- where I could have ended it all in the kitchen if I had been a little faster, a little more prepared. Maybe he wouldn't be dead now."

"But what he did to those girls..." Scully protested helplessly.

"I took his life, Dana. That wasn't my right." She glanced at her lover. "I don't know how to explain it any better."

Scully brushed the sleeve of Clarice's blazer, barely touching the warm flesh beneath it. "When this is over..."

"I know-- you, me, and some long talks. You can tell me I'm crazy."

"You're not crazy, Clarice. In fact, you may be the sanest person I've ever met."

Starling rolled her eyes and gestured at the stairwell door. "I'd argue that statement with you, but we've got something more pressing to attend to at the moment."

In silent accord, they moved smoothly through the doorway, Scully going high and right, Starling slipping low and left. The hallway was deserted, and they found Belinda's door with ease. Despite the "No Smoking" symbol on the door, both agents could smell the stale odor of smoke and cigarettes. Thinking of other doors, other cigarettes and the man who smoked them, Scully unconsciously shivered.

"You okay?" Starling muttered.

Scully only nodded and pointed at the door. "Shall I?"

"By all means."

Knocking sharply on the metal door, the partners were surprised to hear Harris immediately reply. "It's open."

A brief exchange of glances brought both their service weapons out.

"It's Clarice Starling, Belinda."

"So what? Come on or stand out there shouting. I could give a damn."

Tentatively Starling twisted the knob until it clicked, then pushed the door open slowly with her foot-- each woman on either side of the doorway. They could see the king-sized expanse of the bed covered in a hideously pink-and-green comforter, a large overnight bag open on top of it with its contents strewn untidily about. "What are you doing, Belinda?" Starling called to the still-invisible woman.

Scully edged into the room, eyes roving constantly about her, looking for the ungainly bulk of Belinda Harris as Starling slipped in behind her. Pushing open the bathroom door, Starling couldn't contain the sharp bark of surprise that escaped her as she was confronted with the reporter's half-naked body leaning over the sink.

"Jesus!" The Sig bumped noisily against the bathroom molding as she lowered it, realizing her opponent wielded nothing more dangerous than a toothbrush.

"What are you doing?" Harris demanded, a smirk of amusement curling her frothing lips into some odd parody of a rabid animal. "Put that fucking cannon down before you hurt somebody." She vigorously rinsed her mouth, spitting emphatically into the sink and wiping her mouth. "Took you guys long enough."

Scully backed out of the tiny bathroom until she stood beside Starling, both their guns hanging loosely in their hands. She didn't know what was more disconcerting, the sight of the plain white, serviceable undergarments Harris wore or the fact that she was standing in this woman's hotel room with her lover, ostensibly looking for a serial killer. Suddenly feeling like she was in a very bad comedy of manners, Scully tossed the reporter a shirt from the pile on the bed. "Why don't you put this on?"

Harris caught the shirt easily in one hand and shrugged it over her shoulders, her eyes dancing between the women with interest. Noting the Glock dangling from Starling's hand and the larger Sig in Dana's, she snickered. "Who knew you were such a size queen, Scully?"

Starling ignored the comment. "I believe you have some information for us."

"You want information, watch CNN."

"Did you really lead us this far just to keep playing the same game?" Starling snorted. "I'm starting to get bored, Belinda. Time to take it up a notch."

"Who is she?" Scully asked. "We know how and we're pretty close to where she is. All we need is the who and the why will pretty much take care of itself."

"I think you missed your calling, Agent Scully. All the W's covered-- you could have been a reporter." Belinda sighed and dropped awkwardly into a chair by the window. "Who figured out that it was a woman?"

Starling jerked a thumb at her partner. "She did."

"From something Clarice had mentioned to me earlier."

"What teamwork." Harris leaned back and opened the tiny refrigerator perched on the table beside her. "Ya'll want a beer?" she asked, a soft Southern burr creeping into her voice. "I could use one."

"Who is she?" Scully repeated.

Belinda sighed and cracked the Rolling Rock open, taking a long drink before regarding the two women in front of her. "My sister," she said at last.

"Your sister's dead."

"My other sister, you nitwit. Ronnie's twin."

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

"It wasn't until Ronnie that... well, I realized what was going on."

"That's when you came to me."

"I should have known, after what happened in Portland, the way Ronnie left, that she would do something." Harris passed a weary hand over her face. "Renee's never been quite... right. But Ronnie always looked out for her. Took the brunt of the blame for stuff Renee got into when we were kids."

"What did Renee get into?"

Belinda looked at Starling scornfully. "I'm sure you're familiar all the warning signs, Agent Starling. I mean your Messrs Douglas and Crawford literally did write the book on criminal classification and the evolution of budding serial killers. She liked to destroy stuff. Smash it, burn it, kill it. Whatever she could do."

"Ronnie admitted to doing all this just to protect her sister?" Scully asked doubtfully.

"Of course not," Harris replied, as if to a particularly dull-witted student. "She covered it up. What she couldn't cover up, she managed to at least distort enough that nobody ever added up everything that Renee did and got worried."

"And you? Where were you in all this?"

"Watching," she said simply, as if it explained everything. And in a way it did. The bond between Ronnie and Renee had been absolute, inviolate. Belinda, the family recorder of events, never the participant.

"And now?"

She shrugged. "I should have known that it would finish here. It's where it all started-- where we all started."

Another piece of the puzzle clicked into place. "You're from Asheville." Renee's flight down I-40 had been a homecoming of sorts. Stopping only long enough to see her sister on the way. "You said something happened in Portland... that set all this off."

"Renee and Ronnie lived there. They had always lived together-- shared a room when we were kids, the dorm in college, and then later." Belinda seemed to hesitate, choosing her words slowly. "They were close."

"Were they lovers?"

Harris shook her head rapidly, a hot flush streaking her face. "I don't know," she replied too quickly. Scully shot a quick glance at Starling, but her attention was focused firmly on the woman across from them.

"What makes you think that Renee is responsible for what's been happening?"

"Because six months ago, Ronnie told me that she was leaving Portland. She had met somebody and fallen in love. That she had given Renee over thirty years of her life, and finally wanted something that was hers alone."

"And this someone was a woman."

"Some ex-military dyke who was moving back to Jackson. She wanted Ronnie to go with her."

"And Ronnie did."

"The murders started a month later."

"There were murders in Washington state three and six months before that."

Belinda nodded. "You do your homework, Agent Starling. Ronnie had figured out what was going on. That Renee knew she was seeing that woman-- and that was the last straw. I think one reason she moved to Jackson was because she was afraid Renee was going to come after Ronnie's lover."

"Why didn't she just go to the police?" Scully asked.

Harris shot Starling a look before answering Scully. "Don't you get it, Red? Ronnie never told. Telling would be like turning herself in. Renee and Ronnie were part of each other. Renee always said that they should have been Siamese twins, but that something went wrong-- and they were separated. Renee was always trying to get that back."

"So why did she kill Ronnie instead of Ronnie's lover?"

"She was coming home, Starling. She stopped in Jackson to try and persuade Ronnie to come with her."

"When Ronnie said no she completed the separation-- didn't she? She became someone Renee didn't know."

"A stranger," Belinda confirmed.

"So Renee tore her up," Starling finished.

"Do you think maybe you could have come forward a little bit sooner?" Scully asked, enraged that Harris could just sit back and watch, the way she had for so many years ago."

"She did, Scully," Clarice replied softly. "She came to me."

"And left out a few pertinent details," Scully replied heatedly. "Like Renee's name and description. Three more people are dead now, and a fourth missing because nobody in that family will tell on their big sister. That's crazy, Clarice. And criminal."

"Then arrest me, Agent Scully, because I really don't give a shit. I honestly thought it would stop after what happened to Ronnie."

"Something didn't just happen to Ronnie," Scully retorted. "Renee murdered her. Remember? And if either one of you had owned up to what exactly Renee was before now, maybe nobody would be dead and Renee might have gotten some help. Or at least been put someplace where she couldn't have harmed anyone."

"Scully, stop," Clarice warned, her voice low and ardent. "None of that matters right now."

"Then when is it going to matter, Starling? Is it going to matter Grace Fitzsimmons when we can't get to her lover in time? How many nightmares is her silence worth to you, Clarice? How many more faces do you have to see now because our reporter here only reports the news, she doesn't make it."

"STOP!" Starling's word was strangled and harsh, the syllable drawn out of the deepest part of her gut where her own burning need not to tell of the horrors she knew was buried.

A suspended silence dangled over the women broken only by the shrill cry of the cell phone in Dana's blazer. "Scully," she snapped.

"It's Robert Merriam, Agent Scully. We think we've located the RV. A couple of my guys tracked down the Forestry guy in charge of one of the parks. Says that he rented a real isolated spot to a single woman driving a Crown Marquis fifth wheel-- that's an RV pulled by a regular pick-up truck. Sounds like it could be her."

"You haven't gone up to the site yet?"

"No, ma'am," he replied vehemently. "I called you first thing."

"How soon can you be at the Motel 6?"

"Ten minutes, maybe fifteen."

"Good, get here ASAP, detective. You can show us the way."

"Will do, ma'am."

Scully flipped the phone shut and studied her partner. "Merriam thinks they've located the RV. He'll be here in about fifteen minutes to show us the way."

Starling opened her mouth, but Belinda Harris's quiet voice interrupted her. "She's not there."

"What makes you say that?" Starling's words were clipped, her eyes intent upon their subject-- as if she could make the invisible rise to the surface and dance.

"She wants to go home," Harris intoned. "Remember? Home isn't some cramped RV filled with the smell of death and blood. She's here now. She'll go home."

Scully could see the split second Clarice took to make her decision. "Scully, you and Merriam go check out the RV. If it is Renee's get a Bureau CSU out here. I've got one standing by in Charlotte that can chopper in within the hour. Don't let any of the locals touch anything."

"And where are you going to be?" As if she didn't already know the answer to the question, she asked it anyway-- hoping to whatever God she still believed in that the answer wouldn't be what she was going to hear.

"Belinda and I are going home."

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

"You sure Agent Starling's gonna be okay?" Robert Merriam's anxious face peered at her as the Asheville City Police Jeep Cherokee raced around the twisted roads leading them to the campgrounds.

No...

Scully wanted to scream, no she wasn't sure at all that Clarice was going to be okay. She had just let her lover walk out of a hotel room in the company of the sister of a suspected serial killer. The deed to the old Harris house had passed into Belinda's hands upon her parents' deaths, and she had kept it-- unoccupied and untended-- ever since. Scully had given Clarice her cell phone and made her promise to call as soon as they arrived at the locale. Still, something indistinct and elusive ghosted the back of her neck, making the tiny hairs there rise with apprehension.

"Robert..." she turned to the detective sitting tensely beside her. "How long have you lived here?"

"Born and raised, ma'am."

"Would you call Asheville a pretty small town?"

"Well..." he hesitated. "It's grown a lot, mostly in the last ten years with a lot of folks coming here because they like the pace of the place. The mountains and the clean air, you know. But the heart of the town, yeah, I'd say it's still pretty small."

"I know this is going to sound crazy-- but do you remember a family, the Harrises?" Scully knew the odds of him actually knowing Belinda's family were a million to one, but she had to ask the question. If only because of this nagging sensation that she was missing something very important.

"The Harrises?"

"Right. They had twin daughters-- Veronica and Renee. And another daughter, Belinda. Probably a few years older than you. Well... more like ten years."

Merriam rubbed his face in recollection, and Scully could almost see the faces passing behind his eyes as he searched his memory. Finally, he shook his head slowly. "I'm sorry, Agent Scully, I sure don't."

Scully's shoulders slumped in defeat. "That's okay, Detective, it was a long shot. Thanks anyway." She glanced over the driver's shoulder at the winding road leading them closer to the campsite when she caught the quizzical brown eyes of the County Sheriff in the passenger seat regarding her in the rearview mirror. "There a problem, Sheriff?"

Thick brows just beginning to flake with gray furrowed together. "You talking about Paula and Stew Harris's girls?"

Feeling her mouth drop open in astonishment, Scully only nodded. "I think those were her parents' names. Let me check." The tight confines of the Cherokee made locating Veronica Harris's file difficult, but she eventually separated it and pulled it from her briefcase. "That's right, Paula and Stewart Harris. Did you know the family?"

"Well... I went to school with Belinda and Ronnie, but they weren't twins. And there wasn't any other girl." The sheriff's face twisted grimly. "And bein' honest, ma'am. After Belinda, I don't rightly blame them for stopping."

Icy tendrils began working their way down Scully spine, prodding dormant nerve endings into frightened awareness. "What do you mean? There wasn't a third daughter?"

"No ma'am. Just the two."

"What do you remember about them?" she prompted.

The Sheriff shook his head slowly. "Look... I don't know a whole lot about those fancy profiling methods you and the Bureau are always talking about, and I know that hardship can make a person do some awful stuff. But those two girls-- they never wanted for anything. Their momma and daddy thought the sun rose and set on them. But still... if I could say anybody was ever born bad, it'd be those two girls."

Missing pieces started falling into place, and Scully knew with painful awareness what she had been missing. "Give me your phone," she snapped at Merriam, beyond caring about protocol and Bureau relations. Snatching the small object from his hand, she flipped it open and punched her number from memory. The phone rang endlessly before the familiar hum of her voice mail picked up. Growling in frustration, she slapped the phone off and leaned forward to tap the shoulder of the driver. "Turn this goddamned Jeep around."

"What--" The driver half-turned in his seat, a questioning expression on his face.

"Sheriff, do you remember where her parents used to live?"

"They had a real nice house, out past Blackstock road. Rambling old place, with a creek in the back. I only went out there the once-- for a birthday party when Ronnie turned twelve. All the kids from the school was there. Her daddy gave her a labrador puppy, cutest thing. Everybody was filling up on cake and ice cream, never noticed them sneaking off with the pups. Except for me. I was kinda sweet on Ronnie, so when I caught sight of them disappearing around the corner of the house with the dog-- I followed them."

"What did you see?" Scully asked, bile rising in her throat.

"They drowned that pup, Agent Scully. Without even blinking. I think it was just to see the pain in its eyes."

Blood thundered in Scully's ears while her heart raced frantically to get out of her chest. Starling was alone with a madwoman. "Can you get us to that house?"

"I can try."

"Don't try, Sheriff. Do it."

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

"Ah... alone at last, Agent Starling." With some difficulty, Belinda pushed open the warped front door and bowed grandly at Clarice.

Starling proceeded her into the house, turning around to face the larger woman. "Isn't this what you wanted, Belinda?" she paused slightly. "Or would you prefer that I call you Renee?"

An eerily peaceful smile broke over the reporter's face. "How long have you known?"

"Since the hotel room."

"And you still came with me alone? Kinda dumb, if you ask me."

"Well, you've never thought I was the brightest bulb on the tree. Besides, I wouldn't dream of interfering with your scenario. Not when you've gone to such lengths to bring it about."

"And not to mention that you don't want your girlfriend anywhere near a psycho killer who likes to carve up dykes like her."

"There is that," Starling conceded.

"How gentlemanly," Harris mocked. "Shall we get to it?"

"First tell me where Chris is."

"Chris?"

"The woman you grabbed?"

"She's fine, back at the RV. That one was all your fault. You ran off to DC to be with your girlfriend-- I had to do something to get your head back into the game. So I grabbed the old dyke. That's gonna be you in a few years, Starling." Belinda shuddered delicately.

"Well, at least you won't have to worry about making it into your dotage."

"You never know, Agent Starling. Look at Hannibal Lecter. Now, there's a role model for an aspiring nut case."

Starling cocked her head, wondering where exactly this conversation was leading them. "Good to know that you don't take your mental state too seriously."

"Oh please," Harris snorted rudely. "I've been writing about people like me for years... and the one thing that always drives me crazy-- pardon the expression-- about them is how goddamn prosaic they all are. Not an ounce of style in the lot of them. Just hack-and-slash. Hack-and-slash. All the live-long day. No wonder you're so humorless."

Starling shrugged. "This isn't a Noel Coward play. Sorry about that."

"That's what I liked about your pal, Lecter. Now he had a sense of humor about his work. Snappy dresser too. Though for the life of me, I can't figure out what he saw in you. I mean, after all, that's why I started following your career. I thought to myself, 'If a man like that takes an interest, well, then there must be something special there.'" Harris looking at Starling with something close to pity. "But I gotta tell you, I just haven't found it. I mean, honestly, Clarice. I've been in your face for what now? Years... and you haven't noticed a goddamned thing. I had to read Crawford's fucking manual of crime classification and do a paint-by-numbers for you before you picked up on it. Do you know how fucking boring that book is, Starling? I should kill you just for that."

"You just hate being ignored, don't you Belinda?" Starling jeered. "I saw pictures of Ronnie," Clarice whistled low in her throat. "She was gorgeous-- before you got ahold of her. I bet you were the older, uglier, fatter sister. Everybody called you the 'smart one,' didn't they? Even though it wasn't particularly true. And you hated her for that."

"I loved my sister!" Belinda retorted hotly. Harris shook her head sorrowfully. "God, you really are dumb. No, Starling. I killed her, you moron, so I'd have an excuse to bring the motherfucking crimes to your attention. Get it? I never hated her and I certainly never wanted to fuck her. Although your Agent Scully seemed really quick to want to believe that." She pointed a thick finger at Clarice. "You might want to look into that, Starling. I heard she has a dead sister, you know.

"Ronnie was into that Amazon warrioress crap. I dunno. Is that a dyke thing or what? Anyway. She was moving from Portland to Jackson-- that's no lie-- and when she got to Jackson, she called and asked me to come visit. I was helping her unpack one day and found some rather... interesting photos that she had taken along the I-40."

Starling's stomach clenched convulsively. "She did the murders from Portland to Jackson."

"Oh, finally, Agent Starling joins the game." Belinda clapped mockingly. "About fucking time."

"And you picked up in Jackson."

"Textbook case of rapidly increasing decompensation, wasn't it? The crimes get closer and closer together, the killer's lustful frenzy ever-increasing, bringing her ever-nearer to the brink of complete madness. Only guess what? I'm not there yet. I can still enjoy this."

"Can you?" Starling leaned against a dusty, sheet-draped armchair. "Sounds to me like you're losing it."

"No the fuck I'm not."

"No? Look at it from my point of view. You said yourself that you'd been in my face for years-- I'm sure you don't just mean with your godawful books. But eventually that's not enough. You have to kill your sister to get my attention. And once my attention's on the case, it's not enough for you to just sit back and let it roll. No, you have to be one step ahead of me in the investigation. Coming here to Asheville, giving me the victim's id-- even that's not enough for you. You see, what separates a real master like Lecter from the wannabe's like you is that he had a tremendous sense of timing. He knew when to walk away. His signature was always faint, almost unrecognizable-- but always there if you knew where to look. But this? Confessing your crimes like the villain in the last reel of some '30s melodrama? Just so I'll notice you?" Starling tsked in disapproval. "Lecter would consider this amateur hour. In fact, he'd probably kill you just for being so clumsy. And you wouldn't even be one of his more interesting crimes. He'd just bludgeon you and dump you in a gully somewhere."

"Nice try, Agent Starling, but you're not going to goad me into killing you quickly."

"You're not going to kill me at all." Her voice was flat, unaffected.

"And why is that?"

"Because my partner is aiming-- what did you call it?-- her fucking cannon at the back of your head."

Belinda turned around to face Scully's grim smile. "Game over, Belinda."

Epilogue

Three weeks later...

It wasn't the screaming "True Crime Author Turns Criminal" headline, but rather the smaller sidebar article entitled "Noted Profiler Becomes Head of NCAVC" that caught his attention.

"Oh, Clarice, I'm so proud of you..."

Seemingly little effort located the quaint bed-and-breakfast where Starling was taking a long-needed and much-deserved vacation before assuming her new responsibilities.

Her companion, however, was a surprise to him.

He had never conceived of Clarice as anything other than solitary. Like him, her brilliance... her incisiveness... was supposed to render her eternally alone. Traveling down paths that others could not follow. Except now, there was someone new.

His thoughts were his own as he watched Clarice's companion-- the russet of her hair, her eyes a blue that rivaled his own. The breeze brought him the quiet music of their conversation; he could hear only the melody of their low-pitched voices, not the words they were speaking. The night before he had nestled in one of the centuries old oak trees that was closest to their balcony. The faint scent of their lovemaking quivered in his nostrils, and he had politely averted his eyes when he saw the shadowy outline of her lover's body surge over Clarice in pleasure.

The intimacy between her and this... other woman... was subtle, invisible to those who did not speak the language implicit in the tilt of a head or the slow curve of a smile. Seeing Clarice now was like returning to a much beloved masterpiece, only to find in the intervening years it had been restored. The muted soot and ash of a dozen years removed, the colors brilliant beyond belief.

Meaning shifted, darkness lightened.

Today, Clarice Starling sat before him, unaware.

And transformed.

FINIS

 

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