The Woods

Chapter One

She's running. Running through the woods. It's getting dark, but somehow she manages to get through without falling, without tripping, without running into the trunk of a tree.

Jennifer Jareau is eight years old.

And she is terrified.

Her life so far had been bright shining balloons, and vibrant butterflies that she could never quite manage to catch.

And then she went into the woods.

They had always warned her against venturing too far. They had told her that the woods were full of monsters. Her eight-year-old mind believed them.

She hadn't meant to come in this far, she really hadn't. But then she'd seen a Karner Blue, idly fluttering. She had only wanted a closer look. It wasn't until she was deep in the forested thickets that she realized she was lost.

Then, the noises started. There were creaks and moans, unearthly sounds that Jennifer had never before experienced. The world seemed to shift to complete darkness around her. This wasn't the place she knew, the place she loved. This was somewhere far more sinister.

She runs.

She runs, and she runs, and no matter how far she runs, she does not seem to find her way out of the woods. She had said she would return to the house before dark; her parents will be waiting. Waiting for a little girl lost.

Her eyes are soaked with tears. Now she knows. Now she knows why they told her never to go into the woods.

***

'JJ?' Hotch's voice tore the media liaison from her childhood flashback. She returned her gaze to the rest of the team; they were looking at her with profilers' eyes. Silent analysis, information catalogued for further usage.

JJ shook herself slightly, and turned back towards the projector screen. 'Roxbury, New Hampshire. Eight bodies found in the last two weeks, all with significant cuts and bruises. Local authorities believe that they may have been hunted in the woodland areas.' Her voice was strangely detached; it did not go unnoticed by the other members of the team.

'New Hampshire is second to only Maine as the most highly forested state in the country,' supplied Reid.

'What was the actual cause of death?' Rossi asked, his eyes not daring to leave JJ's.

'Blood loss, caused by significant trauma to the torso. M.E. couldn't determine the source of the trauma.' But JJ knew. She knew she had seen this before. She had seen this all before. It was more than just the world of her nightmares. It had actually happened, hadn't it?

For years, she had thought it was her mind, making up stories. False memories, they would call them. To acknowledge the tragic and unforeseeable death of her father was an event her mind could not fully process, so it had made up a story. Her father had been taken by monsters – because that's all death is in the end. A monster.

'JJ?' It was Emily's voice now, laced with concern. 'Are you alright?' The brunette had not failed to notice the blankness that had overcome JJ's face. Her expression was usually vibrant, even when discussing a case. This JJ was almost dead to the world.

'I'm okay,' JJ assured them. She sat down in the only remaining seat. 'I think I might be coming down with something though.' The lie came effortlessly, though she was unsure of whether or not it had been accepted. If it had, they would probably drop it. If it had not, they would bring up the subject again later, for sure. She knew, at the very least, she could fool Morgan and Reid.

It had been about the woods then too.

***

She hears her father, calling her. 'Jennifer? Jennifer, where are you sweetie?' His voice seems distant, as if he's calling from a dimension perpendicular to this one. As if he's in another place entirely.

'DADDY!' On some level, she hopes that her voice can break through whatever mystical barrier that separates them, but really, she's just a scared little girl calling for her father.

'Jennifer, where are you?'

'I'm in the woods, Daddy. Please help me!'

'I hear you, baby. I'm coming to get you, okay? Daddy isn't going to let the monsters get you.'

It felt like an age later when she is wrapped in her father's arms. She feels safe, in spite of the darkness, in spite of the howling noises that still echo. A little girl should always feel safe in her father's arms.

'Okay, Jen, I want you to hold my hand, okay? Never let go.'

'I won't.' She grips his hand tightly. She's not letting go. They're walking through the woods, and Jennifer thinks that she can see her grandfather's house in the distance. Dinner will be ready by now, she thinks to herself. Mommy had told her that they were having spaghetti tonight. The syllables seem almost lyrical to her.

Her father's hand loosens.

'What is it, Daddy?' She looks up (he's much, much taller than his little girl) and sees the look of shock on his face. Then, he lets go completely. He falls, and no matter how hard Jennifer tries to stop it, he hits the ground with a dull thud.

'Daddy?' Her voice is quivering now. She's leaning next to him. Her fingers touch the spreading pool of blood on his chest. She's seen blood before – tiny cuts and scrapes – but never in this quantity. This idea of human mortality is almost foreign to her. Though she knows of the concept of death, she cannot comprehend how someone can be alive one minute, and dead the next. She cannot comprehend how something so beautiful, so complex, can be snuffed out in an instant.

She will one day learn that death rarely makes sense.

Not really.

***

Hotch sat opposite her on the jet. They had become closer since her break-up with Will – as if they now had something in common, something that they could bond over. The break-up had been both mutual and rather pleasant as far as break-ups went. While they would be lying if they said they hadn't enjoyed their time together, neither party felt the devotion and commitment that was traditionally supposed to accompany long-lasting relationships.

Will had Henry while she was in New Hampshire, and he would return to her care upon her arrival back in Virginia. It was an arrangement that seemed to work for now, but it would have to be amended once Henry started school.

Before he even opened his mouth, she knew that he hadn't bought her lie in the conference room. She suspected that the rest of the team hadn't either, but it was Hotch that was bringing it up. That meant something to her, she realized.

'My father,' she blurted out, before he could say anything. 'He…his death was similar to the victims in this case. And I know it can't be related, but I still can't help but feel…shaken.'

He nodded. 'Just remember, JJ. We're here for you.'

He left the words he really wanted to say unspoken:

I'm here for you.

A/N: Yep, that's right. I started another one. It's a compulsion. A terrible, terrible compulsion. This will be an attempt at JJ-centrism, a concept I've never tried before. Will be JJ/Hotch, and because I can't help myself, Emily will probably creep into prominence at some points, so it could possibly be either Morgan/Prentiss or Rossi/Prentiss, but let me know your opinions. I value them highly before I throw them to the wind!