Author's Note: I wrote this to the song Give me Strength by Snow Patrol. I'm crying as I write this because this has been such a long journey. It's over two years ago that I started this story. I know that's a long time and I'd apologize for it, but all I really want to say it … thank you. Thank you to the people who are reading and who read this while I was in tenth grade, and now I've finished my first year of college and it feels like a journey in itself.
Yes, this is the last chapter of this story – even though we have an epilogue.
I want to say thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
"My friends we've seen it all,
Triumphs to drunken falls,
And our bones are broken still,
But our hearts are joined until,
Time slips its tired hand,
into our tired hand,
We've got years til that day,
And so much more to say."
Blue eyes darted ahead, towards the hospital room door. A pale hand finally free of IV tubes reached up to rub her brow. The dying light of the day streamed weakly through the window, reminding JJ of the hours of paperwork that had delayed them until now.
"I don't need the wheelchair." She murmured, eyes going to where Hotch stood, just slightly in front of her. "Really." Eyes playful, she straightened out a leg to show him. "I can walk, Hotch."
There was really nothing she wanted more than to walk out of the hospital, on her own two feet, determination in her eyes as she faced the reporters, the media, that she knew would be there, waiting for her. Waiting to pick apart weakness – but maybe that was just her. She knew she was being critical, and overly so – but she couldn't help it. A fallen FBI agent – the media would treat her kindly. Nobody was going to pick her apart.
Nobody but herself.
It tasted like sharp disappointment.
"I know, Jayje." Prentiss said from just behind the wheelchair. "But it's-"
"Hospital policy." JJ repeated the words she'd heard more than once in the past half hour – by nurses, her doctor, Hotch … she rolled her eyes.
She was going home. There was a vaguely unpleasant mixture of excitement and anxiety rolling in her stomach. Home, after the case that felt like it would never end. Home to another world of uncertainty. Where the ought of Will sometimes brought a nervous roll to her stomach. When she still sometimes screamed in the morning because she thought she could see Bennett's eyes. And though Morgan didn't have to stay the night as often as he had, she still woke up screaming.
How was she supposed to go back to Will, to Henry? To be normal and do her … her job? Could she do that?
She wanted to. That was all she knew. All she was certain of.
"Sorry," Prentiss said, ghosting a hand over JJ's shoulder. The word said much more than being sorry for the wheelchair. Sometimes it was easy to forget that everyone she knew was a profiler.
They'd made the decision not to have the whole team there while she was leaving, though each of them had been there throughout the day – anything more than two people now was going to cause a commotion. Garcia, Rossi, Reid, and Morgan were waiting in the SVUs to follow them back.
It was Will who was waiting in their car – Will, with Henry, waiting with their son to bring them home. Sometimes it still felt like the world was something spinning, chaotic, madness all around her and she couldn't control it. That the thoughts – Will can't love you now – were never going to leave.
She wasn't quite sure how to handle that.
"Ready?" Hotch asked, a brow raised. His face was lighter than it was during the hours of work. There was something playful and warm in his eyes that she wished was always there, that the job didn't take away from each of her teammates.
But she knew this job. She knew it like the back of her hand, knew what it did. That light in Hotch's eyes went into hiding the moment pictures of a mutilated body jumped across his screen.
JJ realized she hadn't answered him when he stepped closer, kneeling down in front of her. It didn't bother her when he did that, when the team did that – it meant something different when they did it than when someone else would. It wasn't demeaning.
It was just them. Because they were profilers. Or maybe just because they knew her. And she knew them.
Like the back of her hand.
What she meant to say was, "I'm ready."
Instead, she heard herself say, "He's not in the hospital anymore?"
It was something she hadn't been able to bring herself to say for the past few weeks when she was in the hospital. He'd been brought to the same hospital as her, and she knew that – knew that he was chained to the bed and there was no way he was getting inside of her room. But somehow… stepping outside of this room for the final time was different.
If it was possible for Hotch's face to soften further, it did. She felt Prentiss' hand on her shoulder, clasping gently.
"He hasn't been here for a long time, Jennifer."
She nodded once, brushed away stray hairs that had fallen in front of her eyes.
"Right. Let's do this, then."
Hotch returned her smile.
The hospital halls were lit with the fluorescent lights she hoped she'd never have to see again for such an extended period of time. Hotch walked by her side, Prentiss pushed the wheelchair … the halls rolled by, halls she didn't have to come back to. It was hard to imagine that after everything, she was going home.
But with every inch of hallway that was behind her, it was another inch of hallway she was never going to see again.
And she couldn't help but smile.
It was on the ground floor, near the reception desk, that Hotch held out a hand and Prentiss stopped the wheelchair. The hand he'd used to stop Prentiss was suddenly held towards her.
"That's against policy," She said, but there was a teasing lilt to her voice.
"Screw policy," Came Prentiss' response, and then they both had her hands and she was standing, walking, step after step towards the hospital doors, walking like she had in physical therapy but this was different.
This felt like control. Like power.
The air smelled like springtime.
And JJ laughed.
Reporters asked their usual questions. How are you feeling? Are you ready to put this behind you? How's your baby boy, Henry, right? Is there anything you want to say?
"I'd love to eat something besides hospital food," she told that reporter, and felt her heart soar by merely speaking into the microphone again. It felt like… like home.
Questions were tossed at her even as Hotch and Prentiss walked with her towards the car where Will and Henry waited (and she hardly recognized that they were no longer holding her hands, that there were tears in Prentiss' eyes and Hotch was smiling in a way that he hadn't in a very, very long time.)
Agent Jareau, will you be rejoining the Behavioral Analysis Unit?
She stopped walking, waiting for the cold feeling of doubt in every decision to creep back up.
Only, it didn't.
"It's too early to know what I want just yet," She said into the microphone, meeting eyes with Hotch, and then Prentiss. "I'm going to have to see where life takes me."
Control felt good.
But letting go felt a little bit better.
She stepped back towards Hotch, reached towards him, and pressed a kiss on his cheek. "Thank you, Aaron. For everything."
She enveloped herself in Prentiss' arms. "Thank you for what you said." A tear hit her collarbone, but JJ didn't know if it was hers or Emily's.
And then she slipped into Will's car, into the front seat, next to him.
"Jen," He said, and then she was kissing him.
Doubt was a cruel, vicious thing. Self-doubt was even worse.
Sometimes, it felt like the thoughts were never going to leave.
It was in moments like this that they did.
"You dragged me up and out,
Out of the darkest place,
There's not a single doubt,
When I can see your faces,
My friends we've seen it all,
When it made no sense at all,
You dare to light my path,
And found the beauty in the aftermath."
Give me Strength, Snow Patrol