Author's Note: Finally moving overseas to catch up with Hotch and Emily. This is all Emily.
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TV Prompt Set Challenge #22
Challenge: Of Past Regret & Future Fear
News From Back Home
As I enter the bedroom that my husband and I have shared for the last ten months, our sleeping daughter sighs heavily against my shoulder. It's late and she's exhausted . . . we both are . . . but her soft crying and my aching breasts got both of us up an hour ago.
At her age . . . thirteen weeks . . . this is a regular occurrence for us both.
But now she's fed and changed and once again fast asleep in my arms. The faint tickle of her tiny breath warms my heart.
But then I look up.
Across the room I can see Aaron in the soft light from the lamp on the desk. Though it's almost three am local time, I can see him placing the embassy phone back into its cradle.
The tension in his body stops me cold.
"Who was that?"
My voice is soft so as not to wake the baby, but I'm also hoping that it's covering my level of concern at that moment. Though I know that there are many reasons for our phone to ring at this hour . . . none of them are good ones. And though I'm praying that it's just something to do with our work here . . . we now profile terrorist cells from the safety of our bulletproof offices . . . when Aaron turns his head, my heart skips a beat. It's the look on his face.
And suddenly all of those myriad reasons are boiled down to just one terrible truth. Because you see, my husband is the toughest man I've ever met, and given the company that I've kept since childhood . . . that's saying something extraordinary. And even with all of the monsters that we've hunted together . . . and all of the evil that exists in the world . . . I know that Aaron only truly fears one thing.
"What did It do?"
I refuse to refer to it as a man . . . it's not.
A moment passes, but Aaron doesn't answer my question. Instead . . . to my utter astonishment . . . his eyes begin to water. And then my terror jumps up another notch. My husband doesn't cry.
Not even when we took Haley off of life support.
He said he had to be strong. Strong for Jack. And when Aaron sets his mind to something, his will is unbendable.
He doesn't cry because he chooses not to.
And apparently he has just remembered this fact as well, because he quickly blinks away the moisture pooling as he stands up and pushes in the chair.
"Sweetheart," he whispers, his voice hoarse and strained with grief, "you need to give me the baby."
And now I'm absolutely terrified. If he won't answer my question until I put down the baby, that means that the clown isn't just back . . . it's already taken somebody that we love.
Oh Jesus . . . my own eyes begin to burn with unshed tears . . . it's all happening AGAIN!
As my body starts to tremble, Aaron quickly hurries across the room. After he brushes his lips against mine . . . the kiss is a comfort . . . he gently eases our child from my arms to his. And as he cradles her to his chest, I can hear his breath coming in short little puffs.
Almost like its hurting him to breathe.
My nails dig into my palms as he presses his lips to our daughter's downy cheek. Then he closes his eyes for a moment before his gaze lifts slowly back up to mine.
He looks so broken.
And though my fear has now become an albatross . . . I can feel it pressing against my chest, suffocating me . . . I don't push him again to speak. Because I know that once he has the words to say . . . that he'll say them.
But then he won't be able to take them back.
I decide to give us both a moment.
But the tension begins to mount as the seconds continue to tick by. It's been nearly a minute now since he took Lucy from me, and my imagination is starting to take over what's left of my rational thought. Still, Aaron's just staring at me.
And still, he has that horrible look in his eyes.
His only movement is that of his free hand . . . it's rubbing little circles on Lucy's back. And I want to reach out and touch him . . . but I don't know if I should. I honest to God don't know what to do. Until I know what's happened, I don't know how to make this moment better for him.
Just as I start to raise my arm . . . I'm going to touch his cheek . . . he shifts our daughter to his shoulder. Though I don't know for sure that his movement was intended to counter mine, for some reason I feel a small . . . petty . . . sting of rejection.
As though he doesn't want my comfort.
The thought is foolish . . . my husband loves me, he loves me more than I'd thought were possible . . . but still the thought is there.
And it hurts.
So I watch silently as he goes over and shuts our bedroom door, and then he turns the deadbolt that he installed the day we arrived. Though the entire embassy is already secure . . . the private residence doubly so . . . now we're in a personal little cage of reinforced titanium and steel.
It's now just us and our children alone in the world.
And I watch with clenched fists as my husband goes over to slip through the partially open side door that leads off of our room.
Jack's room of course.
Aaron disappears for a moment, but I know what he's doing . . . checking the other deadbolt to the corridor.
It's a ritual that we do every night. But of course the ritual is unnecessary. Not only do I know that the door is locked now . . . Aaron checked it when we went to bed at eleven . . . but more to the point, the door is locked always.
It's one of our rules.
Now checking that door has simply become a habit that we cannot break. And we cannot break it because our rituals keep us alive.
They're what we have instead of faith.
So I wait for him to return from checking a lock that is never turned. And a moment later he once again appears in the doorway. This time when our eyes lock, I can see that the moisture has returned.
But again he blinks it away.
Then he turns and slowly pushes the door shut . . . he leaves just an inch of open space into the darkness beyond. It's another one of our rituals. The door stays open just enough for us to hear anything that might go bump in the night. For some young parents that would be overprotective, but for us there's no such thing. And in fact simply allowing Jack to sleep in his own bed is progress in our family. Because for the first three months at the embassy, Jack slept with us.
Newlyweds with a four year old in their bed.
But it was the only way that any of us could sleep.
And thinking back on those terrible weeks right after Haley's death, I can hold my tongue no longer.
"Honey please," I whisper hoarsely, "who did It take this time?"
The question that I hoped never to ask, causes my voice to crack.
But still Aaron says nothing but, "not yet sweetheart," as he comes over and takes my hand.
He walks me the few feet over to our bed.
The grip on my fingers is loose as he sits me down . . . but then suddenly I feel the pressure increase. And I wince as my eyes snap down . . . Aaron's knuckles are turning white.
He's hurting me.
But I hide my pain from him because it's not just my flesh that hurts, but also my heart. I know that this is a moment of weakness for my husband. His fear . . . and his panic . . . they're leaching through his control. And it would embarrass him to draw attention to it.
So though my fingers are starting to go numb, still I say nothing. Instead I just hold onto him, as tightly as he's holding onto me. But of course that's my default position in all aspects of our life.
To keep my little family always within my grasp.
But then Aaron suddenly lets go.
His hand . . . and the strength it gives me . . . is taken away. And with it, that little unwelcome . . . unkind . . . sting of rejection returns.
As much as I adore my husband, and as much as I know that that emotion is returned tenfold, I fear that he'll never need me as much as I need him. It's that shell of his. Those layers that he's built up over the years. It's what's allowed him to keep his rigid control under the most hellish of situations. I think . . . if the worst came to be . . . that he could go on without me.
I can't say the same.
And my heart twists as he stands, and then I watch as he walks over to place our baby in her bassinet. My fingers come together. They knot into a tight little ball in my lap as Aaron tugs Lucy's pink blanket up her tiny chest.
He stops just shy of her little shoulders.
Then he pauses for a moment, his palm resting lightly over our child's belly. And seeing him standing there . . . standing guard . . . with his strong hand covering her fragile body, it all becomes too much. I'm not as disciplined with my emotions as he is.
I never will be.
"Aaron," I whisper hoarsely as my left hand rises up, reaching out for him, "please come back. Please tell me what happened before I go mad."
At that he finally turns, his watery gaze catching my terrified one.
"I'm sorry sweetheart," he whispers as he pulls his hand away from the baby and starts walking back to me, "I was just collecting my thoughts."
When he sits down again, he once more takes my hand. But I know that this time he's doing it for my comfort . . . not for his.
And that means that this time he won't let go.
He starts slowly.
"That was Rossi on the phone," his fingers tighten around mine as he clears his throat, "some things have happened back home . . . some terrible things."
His eyes shift to lock onto mine.
"You need to prepare yourself Emily."
Though I know that Aaron's doing what he can to soften the blows that are coming . . . and I love him for that . . . I also know that there is no preparation for what he's going to say.
That's why he hasn't said it yet.
So I cut to the chase.
"Aaron, please," I whisper, "please just tell me what happened."
Aaron's gaze is steady and his eyes are wet as his fingers tighten around mine. Then he slowly exhales.
"It killed Morgan. He sabotaged his car, and then ran him down on the side of the road."
My jaw drops. Again . . . there is no preparation. The Clown is a level of hell unlike anything else.
My immediate inclination . . . beyond the wave of grief and loss . . . is to scream at the universe to take it back. To make Morgan live again. It's a pathetically foolish thought for a woman leading a different life. As though the universe would ever care what I want. It never has before.
Haley's proof of that.
My nails dig into Aaron's palm as I double over gasping. And as his free hand starts rubbing circles on my back . . . I notice absentmindedly that it's the same thing that he did to Lucy not minutes ago . . . I'm trying desperately to get a full breath of air into my lungs.
But it won't come.
The hot tears are running down my cheeks, the salty taste fills my mouth. My last memories of Derek are racing through my mind. The hug he gave me . . . the kiss.
It was a new Glock. He gave it to me because he said you can never have too many weapons. I wear it every day to work. It's my backup piece.
My reminder of him.
It's been a comfort on my bad days, and there have been so many of them. But when I wore it I knew that even if we were separated, that he was still watching my back. A sob rips through my chest. Or at least he was.
But not anymore.
Not ever again.
I feel Aaron's breath on my ear.
"There's more sweetheart," he whispers sadly as his arms wrap around my waist to pull me into his lap, "so much more."
Then he kisses my temple and tucks me close . . . and then he proceeds to tell me the details of my new hell. Garcia's amputations and the fugue state that she's yet to return from. The horrific attack on Reid's group of investigators. The pile of dead law enforcement that were found dead and dying in the street.
Spencer's continued status among the missing.
It's all too much horror to bear. I honestly can't process it. I can feel my brain short circuiting, my little boxes trying desperately to assert some order to a chaos that's overtaken my world.
I'm transported back to the hellish days after Haley's abduction. First the days when all we prayed for was her safe return.
And then later the days when all we prayed for was her swift death.
I want to throw up . . . and I want to find Garcia and join her in her happy place. But I don't know which thing I want to do first.
So instead I just tuck my head against Aaron's chest.
And I weep.
I cry until I start to hiccup and I feel a little of my control returning. Then I sniffle as my arm snakes around Aaron's shoulders. He wraps me up in a hug so tight that for just a moment there's a window through my veil of grief.
My husband loves me. And our children are safe. It's all that I can hold onto . . . it seems that it's all I have left.
I think it might be enough.
So I kiss his neck and then take a breath that ends on a shudder. Finally I pull back to rest my head against his.
"Sweetheart," Aaron whispers, "I'm so sorry, but there's one more thing that you need to know."
His fingers come up to stroke my cheek.
"It's about JJ."
As soon as he says her name, says in that heartbroken tone . . . my stomach drops. My blood's turning to ice as my fingertips dig into his back.
She was the only one that he hadn't mentioned yet. I'd just been too overwhelmed to notice.
"Please," I plead as my eyes fall shut, "please, tell me that she wasn't taken like Haley."
I don't think I could bear it.
"No," my husband hurries to reassure me in a moment where there is no reassurance to be had, "no sweetheart, not that. JJ's not . . . she's not . . ."
Aaron stops for a second . . . he's at a loss for words.
Finally he picks some.
"She's with Dave. And she's . . . she's . . . she's, not um, physically hurt."
That was the first time that I've ever heard my husband stammer. If it was anyone but Aaron, at this moment I'd call him a liar to his face. But I know this man as well as I know myself, and I know that he's speaking the truth.
She's not physically hurt.
Though under other circumstances such a phrase would be a comfort, I know from that horrible stammer . . . and the fact that Aaron left her fate to be the last discussed . . . that on this day, this phrase, will bring me nothing but more heartache.
So I take a breath.
"What happened to her?" I murmur against his throat.
For the moment I've pushed my grief over the others to the side. My thoughts are filled with images of JJ.
I've missed her so much. Her and Penelope. As much as I love my husband, I can't deny that I've so missed having a female friend.
Or any friends at all really.
All of our friends are . . . were, my grief corrects my tense . . . back home. And we don't make new friends. We don't trust people anymore. We just live in our little world inside the embassy walls, raising our family, vetting Jack's schoolmates and their parents and their parents' friends. Looking for weak links. Someone that might be exploited. Someone that might give us away.
Someone like that piece of shit that put our wedding announcement in the paper.
He's the reason that Haley's dead . . . except he's not. He was just an idiot. The Clown's the one that destroyed her.
The idiot just made it possible.
But the world's full of idiots, so this is what we've become. Those people. The paranoid gun toting, loners.
We might as well be living in a cave somewhere stockpiling for end of days.
But we have our reasons . . . I flinch as I flash on the moment we found Haley in the trunk . . . God knows that we have our reasons. And if JJ is now one of those reasons, I'm not sure how I'm going to go on from that.
So when the seconds tick passed, and Aaron still hasn't told me what happened, I lean back so that I can look into his eyes.
There's fear there.
I know that he would never lie to me, not after all we've been through together. And as I see him open his mouth . . . and then close it again . . . I know that unlike earlier when he simply didn't have the words . . . this time he has them.
He just doesn't want to say them.
"Aaron," I whisper as my hand rises up to cup his cheek, "I know that you don't want to, but you do need to tell me what happened," my voice thickens, "and you need to tell me right now."
Though I want to add, 'no matter what it is, it can't be worse than what's in my imagination,' I know that would be a lie. Because if the last year has taught me anything, it's that my imagination simply is not great enough to encompass all of the evil that there is in the world.
That's when the tears again fill Aaron's eyes.
One . . . just one . . . slips down his cheek.
He catches it, and wipes it away.
And that's when I know . . . this is what broke him before. Whatever happened to JJ was too much even for him to bear. So I lean my forehead against his. Our breaths mingle together.
"Just tell me."
"Okay. But please," he whispers as his hand rubs down my back, "please try not to wake the baby," he shakes his head sadly, "because you're not going to be in any condition to hold her."
At his words . . . and the pity in his tone . . . I swallow. Hard.
I know then that this is going to be so much worse than anything that my brain . . . or my experience . . . has conjured up so far.
Aaron closes his eyes . . . and then opens them again.
"After what happened to the others, Dave had all of the families in the unit moved to safe houses. For JJ's family, not only did they have the team that Dave assigned to them, but also Will and his partner were there too. They should have been safe. But," Aaron's voice fades, "something went wrong. When Rossi and JJ arrived later that day to move them, they found . . . they found . . ."
The stammer's back. He can't finish the sentence. But then his eyes shift and suddenly I know what happened.
He's looking at the little bassinet.
Horror and grief wash over me in equal parts. Again I want to scream, but instead a terrible moan rises up from within me. Even to my own ears, the sound is that of a wounded animal.
And seeing Lucy begin to stir, I suck in a breath and clamp my hand over my mouth. It's enough to stop the moan, but not the tears pouring down my face.
GOD, THAT POOR BABY!
It's my only thought . . . and it's running over and over in my mind. That and pictures of his sweet little face as I last saw him before we left.
He was just learning to walk.
My eyes are locked on the bassinette, but beneath me I can feel Aaron shifting his body around. He's pulling his legs up on the mattress. And then with one arm wrapped around my waist, he moves us both up to the top of the bed.
He's now blocking my view of the baby.
And as his body shifts again, this time to fold around mine like a warm blanket, I can't help but juxtapose this moment with him now, against the one with him of just a few hours before. Back when we were making love.
I can still smell the sex on the sheets.
The tears continue to run down my cheek . . . but now they're being absorbed by Aaron's t-shirt.
I hide my sobs there as well.
This is a crime without measure, without punishment. This is a grief that only another parent can feel. And with my husband's arms wrapped tightly around me, I again turn my head to look at our sweet baby in her little cot.
Aaron was right to take her from me.
I would have dropped her.
My head swivels back so I can bury my face in his neck. Again, I'm muffling my sobs so as to not to wake Lucy. As Aaron had said, I'm in no condition to take care of her.
But of course, neither is he.
As stoic as my husband is . . . as he's always been . . . I can feel his body is also wracked with grief. Even if he doesn't allow himself to cry as I do, I know that he blames himself for the utterly gruesome death that little boy would have suffered.
The death that was meant for his son.
The death that is still planned for his son.
And even within the throes of my own grief, I want to comfort him . . . to tell him that's it's not his fault. But I know that it won't do any good. He'll blame himself regardless of what I say.
Regardless of the truth.
Because that's what my husband does . . . he carries the sins of the world on his shoulders.
Still though, I try. And I do this not just because again, it is the truth . . . it's not his fault. But also because I'm his wife.
And so it's my job.
"We couldn't have stopped this Aaron," I murmur weakly against his throat, "we couldn't have seen this coming. His focus was on us. Once we were gone we'd thought that the others would be safe."
I put push myself up to catch his eyes.
"They should have been safe," my voice breaks, "this isn't our fault."
Though I know that my words are true, as Aaron shakes his head and looks away, I can't deny my own personal guilt in that moment. It's swirling together with the horror and the grief that are already settled into my chest.
It's Survivor's Guilt.
It had started initially after Haley was taken . . . taken in my place . . . and it's never really let up since. Perhaps it's faded a little with time . . . most things do . . . but now the sensation is again fresh and new.
But I know that no matter how brokenhearted or guilt-ridden we are, paralysis . . . inaction . . . is a luxury that we cannot indulge. It's an act of cowardice.
These people . . . our friends . . . my tears begin to pool again . . . their colleagues and their families, they're all dying in our place.
In the place of our children.
And to allow those atrocities to continue unchecked would be an obscene act. Not only would it be a personal violation to everyone back home, but it would also undo every good, decent, thing that we've ever done.
We would no better than the monsters that we've hunted.
And I know that as Aaron presses his lips to mine . . . that he knows this too. Of course I also know that it's going to kill him to take me back. But as he breaks the kiss I lean up to press my forehead against his.
My tears begin spilling over once again. This time they're trickling down not only the curves of my face, but also his as well.
"It's time for us to go home and finish this."
My husband knows that this is not a question or a point of debate. Still though, I can feel his fingertips dig into my back. He wants to argue with me, he wants to tell me that I need to stay with the children. That they're too young to be left as orphans.
Really he just wants to protect me.
But we've moved beyond protection, and we've moved beyond arguing. We can't continue to live our lives this way . . . really it was never a permanent solution. Us off hiding thousands of miles away in a Marine protected fortress. Mostly this decision to come here came about because of necessity.
I was pregnant and Aaron was terrified that he couldn't protect us both back home.
But I'm not pregnant anymore. And we can't live the next forty years checking the locks on doors that don't open. That world has to end. It's time to fight. And this time we'll catch him. Or he'll catch us.
Either way . . . it'll be over.
Aaron's gaze shifts back to mine. His jaw is rock hard.
"If we don't make it back, I want the children to go to JJ. Agreed?"
I choke down another sob.
Restitution . . . our babies for hers. It won't fix it . . . it can't be fixed. But it'll be a reason for her to get up in the morning.
And right now she doesn't have one of those.
"All right then," Aaron closes his eyes.
"We're going home."
A/N 2: Finally, something got finished! I actually have a few items I should be able to get up over the next few days. It's just that this first person, in all it's overwrought over emotional glory, was the easiest to slide into this week.
As always, thanks for reading this least popular of all my tales :) And also, as always, not sure when the next one will go up. I can say that things are now winding down, as you can see that they're now lined up to where we were in the prologue. Just a chapter or two more and we'll be back with Emily again in that very bad place.