The Things That Define Us

The peculiar striations that define someone's personality are too numerous to know, no matter how close the observer. A person we think we know can suddenly become someone else when previously hidden strands of his character are called to the fore by circumstance.

Elliot Perlman

***

'We describe ourselves in terms of height, age, hair color. These things are shallow, skin-deep. The things that really define us – pain, loss, strength of character. These are the things that tell us who a person really is.'

'So you kidnapped and tortured twenty-seven women as a psychological experiment?'

'...yes.'

***

Her eyes blinked open, only to be met with impenetrable darkness. It was as cold here as it had been outside; the winter chill had come early. It wasn't even December yet. Something rough rubbed against her wrists – rope, she thought. Though she had been determined to avoid such experiences, she had grown to recognise the symptoms of capture. Low vision, hands bound, and that throbbing. Her head pounded with incessant agony, as though she had been trampled by a hoard of rampaging elephants. Slowly, she came to remember.

***

It was late. Late and cold. Neither were optimal conditions for searching a victim's house, especially when the heating was broken. Aaron Hotchner and Emily Prentiss stood on the threshold, on the verge of passing the proverbial precipice. Hotch's gloved hand was grasping the handle, about to turn, when his phone began to ring. He stopped, withdrew his hand, pulled off his glove.

'It's Haley,' he announced, staring for several seconds at the Caller ID screen.

'It could be important,' shrugged Emily. She had never known Haley that well, certainly not well enough to either encourage or discourage her supervisor from taking the call based on personal reasons. All she knew was that if someone was calling at this time, it was probably for a good reason. Hotch, apparently agreed.

'Haley.' He answered the phone curtly, though a softness in his expression indicated that it pained him to do so. 'Which hospital?' His expression had turned from one of calm to one of panic, his voice from detached to fearful.

'I can be there in a few hours. No, I'm in Virginia, but I'm working a case.' He moved the phone slightly away from his ear. Even through the tinny speakers, Emily could hear the barrage of Haley's yelling. She thought, perhaps it would be optimal to save Hotch some trouble.

'Go,' she told him. 'I've got this.'

He covered the microphone. 'Are you sure?'

'Of course I'm sure. Go. I'll call Morgan when I'm done. Get him to pick me up.'

He returned to Haley, the tiniest amount of relief gracing his face. 'I can be there in twenty minutes.' He hung up the phone. 'Thank-you,' he told Emily, and was off without further notice.

She watched the car pull away before she opened the door. It felt empty inside. There was an overabundance of furniture and ornaments, for sure, but it lacked the human presence that let you know a house was lived in.

This house hadn't been lived in for three months, one week and two days. The length of time their victim had been missing. No body had ever been found; all they had to give credence to the theory that the victims were dead was the word of the unsub.

Looking for attention, Emily had surmised to herself.

There was movement in the corner of her eye. She realised she had forgotten to clear the house. Haley's call had pushed any thoughts of possible hostiles in the house to the back of her mind. Her hand brushed her holster, ready to draw if the circumstances required it.

She didn't hear the dull crack as the heavy object struck the back of her skull, didn't hear the thud as her head hit the floor.

***

She heard a noise – footsteps. The echoed sound of sole striking concrete. A pause, then another sound. A click. The lights flashed on, a blinding juxtaposition to the former darkness. She clenched her eyes shut as white dots danced in front of her.

'Are you in pain?' A cold voice. It didn't seem concerned, nor was it sadistic. Curiosity seemed a better description.

'You've been unconscious for three days. Severe concussion. I stitched up the wound.' Finally able to see without cognitive interference, she took note of their unsub's – she knew it was their unsub – appearance. Tall, attractive. One of the world's Jeffery Dahmer's. He had something in his hand – an object she couldn't quite identify.

'You're with the FBI.' It wasn't technically a question, but the way he said it, the way his voice lifted at the end of the sentence. She knew he wanted an answer. She wouldn't give him the satisfaction he seemed to desire.

Emily Prentiss was no stranger to pain. Falling off her bike when she was seven. Breaking her arm at twelve. A rather severe mosh pit incident at seventeen. Cyrus. That, of course, was just the physical pain. To list the depths of her emotional pain would take quite a bit longer, and would probably require an alcoholic incentive. When the electric current arced through her entire body, touching pain receptors from head to toe, it was more pain than she had felt ever before. It hit everywhere at once, as though a flame had consumed her.

The pain lingered for a few moments, even after he had stopped. By the time it did, she was panting. It was hard to breathe. It had been so sudden, so unexpected, that the thought of screaming hadn't even entered her mind. A tear – an unconscious reaction – had escaped, but nothing that would have given any fulfilment to a sadist.

But was this unsub a sadist?

She didn't think so. He was searching for something, and it wasn't pleasure.

But that didn't mean he wouldn't find pleasure along the way.

***

Every cop had one of those cases. The case where the killer was left uncaught, or the victims left unavenged. The case that almost felt like it couldn't be solved. For dozens of law enforcement officers across the country, the Ladykiller case was one of those cases.

It had been christened as such by a Miami Detective, in spite of there being no evidence that such a name was at all descriptive of the crimes being committed. The case had caused three marital breakdowns, one suicide, a mid-life crisis, nine cases of police brutality and six resignations.

When the unsub was ultimately captured (the result of an anonymous tip), Emily Prentiss had been missing for eight months, two weeks and one day.

***

Derek Morgan found himself accompanying a SWAT team into the dark, dilapidated building. The swiftness with which it went down, it was almost as if the unsub had been waiting for them.

'Where is she?!' His gun was pressed up against the bridge of the unsub's nose. His fingers were shaking. He longed so much to pull that trigger.

'Downstairs.' His answers came without any "persuasion".

'Watts?' Morgan looked over towards one of the SWAT guys.

'We haven't seen a downstairs,' Watts responded. Morgan turned back towards their unsub, pressing just his weapon just a tiny bit harder.

'Guest bedroom. Trapdoor, under the rollaway bed. First door on the left,' he added helpfully, as Morgan ran for the guest bedroom. The whole time the SWAT team had been in the house, the sly smile – almost a smirk – hadn't left the unsub's face.

Downstairs, there was a long hallway. Tall, menacing doors threatened Morgan to guess what was behind them. Macabre possibilities raced through his mind. Torture chambers, lined with whips and pliers and other paraphernalia. Slaughterhouses, where the unsub would dissect his victims, keeping organs in jars, limbs in freezers.

Derek Morgan was a better profiler than even he knew.

The first door on the left was locked, but a tiny key hung on a hook beside a light switch. He flipped the switch and unlocked the door.

A tiny figure, curled in the corner.

'Emily!' He rushed over towards her, and without considering her state of being, pulled her into a tight hug. She didn't resist his embrace, nor did she seem to be accepting of it. Finally, he let go, contenting himself to grasp her thin hand. He knew if he had the inclination and the anatomical knowledge, he probably could have counted every single bone that he felt now, jutting into his hand.

'It's going to be okay.' He couldn't bear to look at her face; she would see the lie in his eyes.

Into his wrist mike, he spoke the words he'd so desperately wanted to say for months. 'I've got her.'

***

Hotch sat in his car, staring up at the hospital. He didn't know if he could bring himself to go inside, to see her.

***

'What methods did you use to find "definition?"?'

'Torture, rape, deprivation. I could have used other methods, of course. But these were the most brutal. The hardest hitting. You can't find definition by just doing something that's only a little bit traumatic. You know what I mean?'

'What did you find?'

'It varied a fair bit. For example, your girl Emily. She refused to succumb for a while; two weeks, or so. That's the longest any of them lasted. For a while after that, it was fairly unchanging. Then she almost seemed to stop feeling the pain altogether.'

'You sound almost impressed.'

'She was different.'

'Special?'

'No...just different.'

***

He didn't talk at first. He would just keep her company. She couldn't bring herself to cry in front of him. He would think her weak, useless. She didn't seem to think it strange, being self-conscious about the thoughts of a hallucination. This was her mind, trying to comfort her in some way.

After several days, he finally did talk. He put a hand on her shoulder. She could feel it, even though she knew it wasn't really there. That he wasn't really there. His voice – Hotch's voice – spoke, and that calmed her more than anything.

'It's okay to cry,' he said. As though she needed his approval, his blessing. He held her then. If the unsub looked in, which he did often, he would have seen a sobbing woman, arms wrapped around herself.

Showing definition.

***

The small hospital room seemed so much smaller, crowded as it was. One doctor, one patient, and five concerned FBI personnel. There was one glaring absence, one that nobody wanted to mention.

Hotch.

The doctor was surprised at his patient's medical condition. There had been extensive trauma over the cause of her ordeal, but it had been all treated expertly, either healed, or on the course of healing. She hadn't even needed surgery. Those five public servants knew what the doctor did not, that their unsub had a medical license, albeit an expired one. That he had treated those wounds only so that he could create new ones, to see just what it would take for his victims to show definition.

They would keep her in hospital nonetheless. After an ordeal as long as hers had been, it would have been criminal not to.

She wasn't talking. They weren't even sure that she registered their presence. She simply stared into the corner of the room, as though something wasn't there that should have been.

One by one, they left. There was nothing they could do there now. A psychologist was coming after lunch.

Maybe they would have better luck the next day.

***

'She struck me as someone who had felt pain before. I would say that pain plays a strong part in defining her, as it does us all...'

***

Morgan and Reid found themselves back at the house. They knew if they had a greater understanding of what their colleague had been through, they might be able to get through to her.

The first door on the left of the long, narrow hallway. Morgan had been here once before, but hadn't taken in his surroundings. He had been distracted by something else.

It was a small room, barely three feet by six. An old bucket stood in one corner, the only defining feature of the otherwise stark room. The smell that still emanated from it gave the two profilers a fairly weighty clue as to the purpose of the bucket.

The second door on the left. Morgan opened it quickly, as if he thought he would chicken out if he took his time. Even then, he almost backed out of the room after seeing its contents and its purpose.

The scene hadn't been processed yet. The CS techs would be there as soon as someone was free; today, it seemed, was a busy day for criminals. One of the SWAT agents had given a quick rundown of the rooms in the basement of the house. Even that didn't prepare him for the deadly, sinking feeling that came from being in this room.

One chair in the middle, leather straps at the arms and legs. It wasn't as though she would have been escaping anyway; he had sliced her Achilles tendons in the first week.

Surrounding the chair, strange instruments lined walls and tables. Reid recognised most of them – for once in his life, he was regretting his own memory. He wished he didn't know what those tools were for, the kinds of screams that were imprinted upon those tiny pieces of steel, blood that would never wash clean. Souls that had been lost inside this one room.

For one fleeting moment, he thought that maybe, just maybe, this was as bad as it got.

He knew he was deluding himself.

***

It was amazing; the things one could do with a single knife. This blade was thin, sharpened to the finest point. Just brushing the blade along your finger could draw a drop of blood. He was doing more than brushing.

He would make the same mark every day. He would start just next to her eye, and follow the path down her bare chest to just below the navel. At first she thought it strange – a sign of emotional investment in a man that didn't seem that emotionally invested. It was almost a sign of ownership.

Soon, though, she stopped seeing him as a person, her tormentor, and starting seeing him as a static presence. The moon, the sun, and her endless pain. He was not alone in his fixed nature. Ironic that the one thing that kept her sane was a figment of her imagination.

Every second he wasn't there, she missed him. She grew reliant on him. A strange addiction to the man that kept her safe.

She wondered if that was love.

***

It was late. Late and cold. Aaron Hotchner wrapped his coat around him and entered the hospital.

***

When he appeared, it was like a candle in the darkness.

'You're here,' she whispered into her pillow.

'How could I not come?'

'I thought...maybe you were afraid. Afraid of what you might see.'

A hand grasped hers. It felt so real. Warm flesh, blood pulsing. She reciprocated the squeeze.

'What is there to be afraid of?' Hotch asked her. She imagined his eyes to be dark and serious, even though she couldn't see them.

She didn't answer. She didn't think she could.

***

'...and loss. How we can rely on something so much that losing it will break us. A person, usually. Mother, husband. Child...Tell me, have you ever held a fetus in your hand, tiny heart still pounding?'

'...No.'

'It really makes you understand the fragility of life. In her case, though...that was the day she stopped screaming. It was so much more than a physical loss.'

***

She was on the floor, shivering. The pain was overwhelming, but physical and emotional. The hand on her shoulder was of little comfort.

Nothing seemed to matter anymore.

'It's okay. We'll get through this together. I'll always be here for you. You don't have to feel the pain.'

And she didn't. Not anymore.

***

The third door on the left.

The room was full of bodies. Perfectly preserved snapshots in time. The first twenty-six victims. Should they be grateful that there was no twenty-seven? Reid couldn't answer that. Not yet.

'Some of them are missing limbs,' Morgan noted. A finger here, a toe there. One woman had her entire left leg removed.

'Back wall,' said Reid. Jars upon jars of what appeared to be those missing limbs. A kidney in one. Eyeballs in another. 'The jars are numbered. Corresponding to which victim the object was taken from.' He couldn't refer to them as anything other than objects.

'Check for a twenty-seven.' Morgan's voice was cracking. It was a struggle not to break down.

'One jar.' Reid examined the jar on the shelf. It didn't exactly take his expert knowledge to identify the specimen. Bile rose in the back of his throat. Here was real physical proof of what she had been through.

For one fleeting second, he wondered about her chances of recovery. For one fleeting second, he doubted.

***

He hesitated to enter the hospital room. He didn't know what he was going to find. Before he had a chance to change his mind, the door opened.

'Aaron.'

'Haley.'

She stepped aside to let him in.

'He's asleep,' she said softly, watching Jack's chest rise and fall with each breath.

'What did the doctor say?'

'Pneumonia.'

It was late. Late and cold.

***

It was after twelve when JJ and Garcia returned to the hospital. Neither had felt right, going home when Emily was like this. They had returned independently of each other, meeting by chance in the parking lot.

'You're Agent Prentiss' colleagues?' a nurse in the ward asked them.

'Friends,' corrected Garcia. 'Colleagues and friends.'

'How's she doing?' asked JJ, voice the slightest bit fearful.

'Asleep now,' said the nurse. 'But she was talking to herself earlier tonight. It's a start, I suppose.'

JJ and Garcia entered the room. By the dim light, they could see her clutching at the bedrail in her state of slumber. 'It's a start,' JJ said.

***

A bed. She was cuffed to a bed. Even in her delirious state, she could see where this was going. The same way it had the last hundred times. A hand caressed her gently. She said nothing, felt nothing. He kissed her neck softly. His technique was changing. It had begun rough, forceful. The whips and chains on the wall were for more than show. Now he seemed to be taking the experience a different way, as if it were for both their pleasure instead of just his.

She imagined those hands were someone else's. It wasn't hard. They were so similar in so many ways, murdering psychopath aside. Long fingered, strong hands. Lean, sculpted muscle. If she closed her eyes, she could almost be somewhere else.

This was her addiction.

This was what defined her.

***

'When did you realise you were in love with her?'

'I don't know if I'd call it love. It was more of a mutual understanding. After all I put her through, she felt nothing. Just like me.'

'I don't think you feel nothing.'

'No?'

'Defining yourself through love, that's not feeling nothing.'

'It wasn't love. I told you that?'

'Then what was it?'

'I don't know...Addiction? Solidarity. But not love.'

***

The fourth door on the left.

Each room had been terrible in its own way. This room only exacerbated the nausea that had washed over Reid upon viewing a fetus in a jar.

This was where that tiny child had grown from. Seeing a bed had never been a more painful experience for the two relatively seasoned FBI agents.

'He's into bondage,' observed Morgan. 'I'm betting that bed isn't the only place that did it.' To be so cavalier was the only way he could possible talk about this without punching the wall. It was that compartmentalisation thing that Emily had always been so good at. He wondered about the state of her mind now. Whether she had compartmentalised to the state of complete breakdown.

Whether she would ever really recover.

***

He stayed by his son's bedside. After a while, Haley came and sat beside him.

'I'm moving to Phoenix,' she said suddenly, though Hotch knew it was anything but sudden. This had been building up for a long time. Whatever he wanted, it definitely wasn't this. He barely saw Jack as it was. In ten years time, he wanted Jack to know his father as a person, not as a concept.

Sitting there, by Jack's side, he finally fell asleep. Ironically, it was one of the best sleeps he had ever had.

He hadn't had a full night's sleep since then.

***

Emily woke up to a strange sight. On a chair in the corner of the room, JJ and Garcia had fallen asleep on each other's shoulder. Her mouth twitched. It could almost have been called a smile. Hotch must have left some time while she was asleep.

An intern came in with breakfast. Someone on the team had obviously been nice to the hospital staff; both Garcia and JJ had been brought breakfast as well. The wafting smell of pancakes brought the two out of their awkward slumber.

While the pancakes had brought them there, they were ultimately distracted by the change in Emily's demeanour.

'Hey, Emily,' JJ tried, wondering if she would get a response.

'Hey JJ.'

'How're you doing?'

'A little better.'

The understatement of the century. JJ hadn't realised that sleep was so healing. She resolved to sleep more.

'Where's Hotch?' Emily asked. JJ faltered, finding herself unprepared for the question. She knew it would have come eventually. In the background, Garcia froze.

'He...'

'He blamed himself, didn't he?' Emily asked.

JJ nodded, partially relieved. If Emily understood, then the pain might go down a little easier.

Because nothing would bring Hotch back.

***

Footsteps woke her. Then the light switch. It was the same every morning. Every morning but this one. It wasn't the unsub. It wasn't Hotch.

It was Derek.

And that made it real.

He pulled her into a tight hug. Stunned, she said nothing. Did nothing. He held onto her hand.

She should have felt relieved. Overjoyed. Finally, she had been rescued.

Instead, she felt nothing.

***

'Do you feel guilt?'

'I'm sorry?'

'Do feel guilty, that she was missing for almost nine months before you could save her?'

'It comes with the job.'

'But this case. This was personal.'

'Yes, I feel guilty. I feel guilt every damn day. But I did what I could. For her, anyway.'

'You feel responsible for Agent Hotchner's death?'

'We could have stopped it.'

***

Just as JJ was about to tell her, Morgan and Reid entered. They looked grim, the expression only worsening at the scene before them.

'Emily...After your disappearance, Hotch killed himself.' She got out those words as quickly as possible. It was as though they were staining her mouth. She hadn't wanted to say them, and at the look on Emily's face, she probably should have waited.

Her mouth was open slightly, astonished. Her eyes widened. It couldn't be. She couldn't believe this. 'No,' she whispered. 'No. No. No.' She tried to turn away. She didn't want to look at them.

She couldn't escape it all.

'Don't you see, Emily.' His voice. Why was he here, if he was dead. 'You killed me, Emily. That's why I've been haunting you all this time. I'm dead because of your carelessness.' She put her hands over her ears, but his accusing voice permeated even that.

Now, she was human, she knew.

Because all she could feel was pain.

***

He turned his phone back on as he left the hospital. It rang almost immediately.

'Hotchner.'

'Hotch, it's Morgan. Where the hell are you, man?'

It was nearly lunchtime. He should have called them, told them where he was.

'I'm at the hospital. Jack has a pretty bad case of pneumonia.'

'Emily isn't with you?'

Hotch stopped in his tracks.

'She didn't show up this morning?'

'No, last I heard she was searching our vic's house last night with you.'

'She searched the house by herself. She was supposed to get you to pick her up.' There was panic in his voice. A sudden realisation, as though he knew what happened without any further evidence. His glass was half-empty.

'She's not answering her cell,' Morgan said.

'I'll go to the victim's house. You check Emily's apartment.'

He knew that if anything happened to her, he would never forgive himself.

***

'She felt responsible for his death.'

'We all did.'

'You seem to have recovered fairly well.'

'Constant guilt only leads to psychological problems. I have one last question for you.'

'By all means. This is my last supper after all.'

'You called the tip line. Why?'

'Constant guilt. Maybe you're right. Maybe I do feel something after all. May I ask a favor in return.'

'That depends on what it is.'

'Capacity for recovery. Another thing that defines us. I'd like to know how Agent Prentiss is doing.'

'I don't know. How about you ask her yourself.'

***

Half an hour later, they left the interrogation room. David Rossi cast a glance at his former colleague. She seemed taller. Older. She didn't really smile anymore. Her dark hair was braided down her back. A defining scar snaked from just beside her eye to the collar of her shirt. He knew that the scarring went further, deeper.

He hadn't spoken to her in three years.

'When's the execution?'

'Thursday. They needed someone to do a custodial, but apparently I'm not allowed alone in an interrogation room with him.' She gave a dark look to the ceiling. 'I can't imagine why.'

'So this is why they pulled me out of retirement,' Rossi mused.

'Morgan's in the New York field office. Reid's in Atlanta.'

'How're they doing?'

'I don't know. Haven't spoken to them. Listen, I have to go. Serial rapist in Michigan. Team's not going to lead itself.' She made to leave, stopping only when he began to speak.

'Hey, Emily. Try not to define yourself by guilt.' Without another word, he left.

She turned to her left. He was standing there, in the corner, dark eyes not missing a thing.

'What do you think?'

'Think about what?'

'Am I defining myself through guilt?'

'That's a pretty stupid question.' She looked at him, realised. She was standing there talking to the very manifestation of her guilt.

Of her pain.

Of her loss.

'Yeah,' she reasoned. 'It is.'

Of her addiction.

A/N: Well that was interesting and fun. The point of this initially was to do a H/P fic, something I've never really done before. Let me start at the beginning. One of the very first CM episodes I saw was Fear and Loathing, which had some really great M/P moments. First impressions are pretty lasting, so I've only really shipped M/P to any extent since then. Once I start reading other fics, I realise there are a phenomenal amount of H/P shippers out there, and I'm not sure I understand it. So I decided to write one. Only it went from a fic about an actual relationship to a fic about a hallucinated relationship. But I hope you enjoy it anyway. Oh, also, enjoy the time jumps. It's the only way I could preserve the ending. Don't forget to Read and Review. Thirty seconds is all it takes.