Eye of the Hurricane
Summary: As the BAU team deals with a killer who doesn't seem quite human, Reid must deal with the aftermath of being raped, and sort out his relationship with Hotch. Sequel to one-shot "Shelter from Storm".
Disclaimer: I do not own Criminal Minds, nor do I make money from writing about it.
Un-beta'ed – any mistakes are my own.
Warnings: References to non-con Reid/OC. Rated M for the slashy stuff. Supernatural plot-elements.
A/N: This is it, folks – the last chapter!
Thank you very much for reading along, and a special thank you to those of you who have taken the time to leave reviews. It means a lot to this humble writer.
I'm very sorry this last chapter has been so long in the makings – a death in my close family really put a stop to the writing process for some weeks.
I hope those of you who have been writing me messages of varying degrees of encouragement and frustration will sleep more easily now. :)
Chapter 9: Revelations, killer style
Aaron stares through the window as Rossi speeds through Carmine Falls. He can feel the weight of Al Black's stare at the back of his head, and as he catches the Deputy's eyes in the rearview mirror, Al Black smiles wryly.
"Still don't believe in werewolves?"
"No," Aaron replies, raising his eyebrows in query. "Do you?"
"No." Al Black laughs shortly, and Aaron looks away. He hates these conversations where both parties know the other is lying.
Aaron looks at Reid in the mirror. He is reading intently on his phone, and Aaron bets with himself on what the subject is.
"What have you found out about Karasek, Reid?"
"Well, it's rather interesting," Reid begins eagerly, and Aaron loves being right.
"Ivan Karasek was a jeweler, and one of the more ruthless types who had no problem at all exploiting poor workers in the mines until they died from exhaustion. The story is that apparently, he coveted his diamonds so much that he didn't want anyone else to have them, ever. So he made a deal with the devil, that in exchange for Karasek's soul, the diamonds could never be removed from his estate. Even when he was dead, he didn't want anyone else to own the diamonds. Karasek commissioned the wolf stone guardians from a European contractor, and when he built his estate, they were all placed around the top ledge, right below the roof, in a completely synchronic pattern. There are 16 of them in total.
And if anyone should ever dare to take one of Karasek's diamonds from his estate, one of the guardians will come alive and not stop until the perpetrator is dead and the diamond returned to its rightful owner."
"And Karasek's estate…" Aaron begins, and Reid interrupts, "… is now the museum, yes."
Al Black clenches his jaw, and Rossi takes the speed up another notch.
They arrive at the museum, which resembles a small castle placed in the middle of a picturesque park. As they exit the car, Aaron catches sight of the four wolf guardians on the front of the building. They all pause and stare at the guardians, who look oddly in place on the gothic-inspired and towering building.
"Let's find this Meissner," Rossi says after a minute, and they all stride into the museum.
Frank Meissner is a tall and thin man, with a thin moustache and a three-piece suit that makes him look like he belongs to a world fifty years ago. He instantly recognizes Al Black, and his greeting is smooth and brisk, his eyes darting to the agents with ill-concealed curiosity.
"Mr. Meissner," Al Black starts, his manner polite and no-nonsense. "These are agents Hotchner, Rossi and Reid with the FBI. They're here to help us investigate the recent murders. The werewolf killings."
As Al Black utters the word werewolf, director Meissner makes a sound like a strangled cough, his eyes bulging almost comically as he takes a small step back.
"Werewolf? How absurd!" He barks out a forced laugh, and stops when he realizes the rest of them are not close to even smiling.
"Surely you've heard the rumors," Rossi interjects with a small smile, and Meissner narrows his eyes as he shifts his attention to the senior profiler.
"Rumors, yes." His voice has a dry, jaded undertone. "I don't take rumors seriously. They don't concern me."
"Not even when a killer is very likely using your museum's history to murder several people?" Aaron hears his own voice coming out as silky and dangerous, and Meissner blinks a few times.
"My mu…. Oh! You mean the guardians? Karasek's guardians?" This time, Meissner's laughter doesn't sound forced, but rather genuine.
"Do you really think a lump of stone can come alive and go after some petty thief?" His disdainful look moves from Aaron to sweep over the other agents and Al Black, including them all in his scorn. "If some deranged person is using this old fishwife's tale to kill people, I hardly think it's my responsibility, or anyone else's."
"Mr. Meissner," Reid says quickly, "how come you didn't report all the thefts from the museum?"
Meissner shrugs and plucks an invisible thread off his jacket.
"I saw no need to. The items were returned the next day. And I didn't want any rumors to start circulating that the staff of the museum were taking the items in some kind of insurance scam."
"And you didn't wonder why the items suddenly appeared the day after?" Reid's voice is insistent, and Meissner frowns.
"Of course I wondered! I just assumed that the thief in question was one of the usual drunken high school dropouts with nothing better to do, and his mother or girlfriend made him see the error of his ways and return the things! Besides, none of the things we had stolen were expensive pieces. So usually, if one of my custodians reports a theft from their area, I hold off a day or two reporting it to the police. And it's only been necessary in very few cases."
"How come you restored Karasek's guardians?" Al Black asks the question, and Meissner looks pleased to be asked.
"They belong to the building. It's one of the oldest and most renowned buildings in the state, if not in the whole country. It's very widely recognized especially in Europe, where history tends to be more preserved and respected than here." He gives a disdainful sniff. "I received an offer from a museum in Germany, that in exchange for a special display of German historic art here at our museum, they would be willing to pay half the price of having the guardians restored and put back up. It wasn't really an offer I could refuse. I've been wanting to do it for all of the 17 years I've been the director here, but the funds have never been plentiful. People around here don't appreciate art." He sniffs again, clearly not impressed by the local support.
"And you've never noticed anything odd about the guardians? They've never gone… missing?" Al Black falters slightly at the last word, as if he realizes his mistake even before the sentence is completed. Aaron groans inwardly, and Meissner fixes a cold look on Al Black.
"Deputy, I do not appreciate you coming here and mocking me in my own museum." Meissner's voice is cold as well, and he cuts off Al Black as the Deputy tries to interrupt. "Now, unless you gentlemen wish to arrest me for something, I suggest you leave. Good day." Al Black opens his mouth again, and Meissner barks out, "good day!"
"Thank you for your time, Mr. Meissner," Rossi says smoothly, and Aaron places his hand on Al Black's elbow and firmly applies pressure until the Deputy follows him out of the room.
"Sorry, I messed that one up," Al Black says ruefully, and Rossi pats him on the shoulder.
"Don't worry about it, Al. It was clear he had no interest at all in telling us anything. Perhaps we should take a look around?"
They all move down the hall, and Aaron has to firmly push at Reid's back a few times as the younger agent stops to look at an exhibit.
"Sorry," Reid mutters. "It's just so interesting." Aaron can't help but smile, and Reid rolls his eyes in response.
The voice coming from an open office door is low and cautious, and as Aaron pauses he sees a man hovering inside the office. His uniform is that of a custodian, but he looks rather disheveled; his eyes are roaming around with a slightly panicked sheen, he is sweating and he keeps clenching his hands together.
"Yes?" Aaron doesn't approach the man, and he senses Rossi, Reid and Al Black pausing behind him.
"Look, I know Meissner didn't tell you anything. He doesn't… believe in the curse of Karasek. But," the custodian swallows convulsively, "some of us do. And we want it to end! But he won't listen! You have to do something – please!" His voice rises in agitation on the last word, and Aaron holds out a hand placatingly, and modulates his voice to a calm level.
"Relax, sir. We'll listen to what you have to say. I'm agent Hotchner with the FBI. These are agents Reid and Rossi, and Deputy Black."
"Yeah." The custodian relaxes visibly, nodding briefly at Al Black. "I know you, Deputy. I'm Sam Hauser. Please, come inside."
Aaron nods, and they all file into the small office. It's rather cramped, and Reid has to squish himself inside between Rossi and Aaron, the slight pressure of his arm and the warmth of his skin a peripheral, familiar comfort to Aaron.
Sam Hauser is pacing in the small space behind a desk, his hands wringing together in a frustrated gesture.
"It's the cursed statues. I know it. People think I'm crazy! But do you think it's a coincidence that the murders started after they were restored and put back up?"
Hauser fixes a slightly crazed look on the agents, his pacing coming to an abrupt halt.
"I know you think some psycho is using the story to kill people. But this is not the work of a human! You've seen the victims! They're shredded! Torn apart!"
His voice rises in hysteria, and Aaron senses Rossi take a step forward, his voice soothing as he speaks.
"Relax, Sam. We believe it's not a human who's the killer. We believe you. Please, tell me about the statues. Do you mean Karasek's guardians?"
Hauser looks slightly mollified, and his eyes lose the glazed look as he wipes a sweaty hand on his equally sweaty forehead.
"Yes, the guardians. Sorry, I'm a bit unsettled. I'm…" He takes a deep breath, the buttons on his custodian's uniform jacket straining with the effort.
"I tried to talk to Meissner, but he laughed it off. I was afraid he'd fire me if I pushed it any further, or went to the police. Hell, I was afraid you'd all lock me up on the spot!" He looks at Al Black and barks out a mirthless laugh. "The stone guardians were put up by Karasek when he founded the museum. The story goes that he made a pact with a demon from the blackest part of Hell. In exchange for his soul, the demon cursed the guardians so that they would come alive and hunt down anyone who tried to take what was rightfully Karasek's. Since he founded the museum, the curse apparently includes all of the museum's property, and not just Karasek's diamonds. Actually, I don't recall anyone ever trying to steal one of those. Security is too tight. Some of the less guarded items, however….. small paintings, sculptures…"
"Idols?" Rossi asks smoothly, and Hauser nods.
"Yes, an idol was stolen two nights ago. It turned up this morning. It's always… I mean, the items are always left in the basement. That's how we find out they're stolen. In the last months…" He swallows convulsively. "In the last months, whenever I've found an item, I've also read about a killing in the newspaper later in the day. It's no coincidence!"
Hauser's voice rises in agitation once more, and Aaron speaks quickly before the man can work himself up again.
"Hauser, have you considered the possibility that this is the work of a man? Can you think of anyone among your colleagues who hates thieves, and who would want to punish whoever stole something from this museum?"
Hauser looks slightly stricken.
"No! I can't think anyone of my colleagues would... murder people in cold blood! It's the guardians! You have to believe me!"
"I believe you." Reid's voice is calm and sincere, and Hauser's attention shifts eagerly to the youngest agent. "Sam, can you please show us the room where the guardians were kept until they were restored?"
Hauser blinks a few times, then looks at the bundle of keys that hangs from his belt.
"The room? Oh, uh, sure. No harm in that, I guess."
His posture betrays his words, however, and before Aaron can speak, Rossi's calm voice sounds.
"The stolen items – they were returned to that room, weren't they?"
Hauser nods, his lips drawn tightly together, his face pale.
"Why don't you lend me your keys and show us the way, and we'll see for ourselves?" Rossi makes the suggestion in a cajoling voice, but Hauser shakes his head.
"No, no, I can't let you do that. It's my responsibility to… I'll go down with you and unlock the door. But then you're on your own."
Rossi nods in acceptance, and they all leave the small office, a reluctant Sam Hauser leading the way.
"Some of us always thought there was something dodgy about those guardians," the custodian says as they walk along a long corridor. "Like they watched you wherever you went. And when Meissner and the board decided to restore them and put them back up…" He swallows convulsively. "We didn't want to believe our own superstitions. But only three days after they were set in place, the first killing happened."
They've reached a door which Hauser unlocks to reveal a narrow staircase, and the man falls silent as he leads them down. After a few paces, they stop before a solid-looking iron door.
"This is it," Hauser says, and his face has gone from sweaty red to waxy pale.
"Thank you, Sam. If you'll just unlock, we'll go inside and look around. You can leave if you like." Rossi's voice is calm and he places a hand on Hauser's shoulder, which makes the man jump slightly, then relax. He nods and jangles his keys as he searches for the right one.
"Here you go. I—I think I'll leave." Hauser's voice is barely a whisper, and before any of them can reply he's already heading back up the stairs.
Aaron and Rossi exchange a look, and then they both step into the room at the same time, Reid and Al Black right behind them.
"It's kind of musty in here," the Carmine Falls Deputy remarks, his nose cringing in distaste. Aaron nods in agreement – in fact, the clammy atmosphere of the room seems to seep through his suit and cling to his skin in a way that makes the hairs on his arms rise.
The room is rather large and very bare, with dark concrete walls and a few ventilation ducts. It seems to be permanently lit by a row of soft lights fixed in the ceiling.
In both sides, there is a hole in the wall which presumably leads to smaller side-rooms. Aaron heads for the right one as Rossi heads for the left, and Aaron notices that they both reach for their guns at exactly the same time.
A quick search of the right room reveals exactly the same as the main room – a ventilation duct, bare walls, bare floor.
"There's something in here," Rossi calls, and Aaron reacts to the non-urgency in his voice and stays relaxed as he quickly crosses the main room. Reid and Al Black are already lined up behind Rossi, and Aaron allows his hand to rest on Reid's shoulder as he looks between them.
Rossi has his gun trained on something big and lumpy, covered by a white sheet. Aaron catches his eye and nods, gently shoving at Reid until he and Al Black step back. Then Aaron raises his gun to aim at whatever is covered by the sheet and Rossi slowly reaches out a hand. He nods at Aaron, and then quickly yanks the sheet away.
Aaron firmly tells himself that werewolves don't exist, that he shouldn't expect something out of the ordinary under that sheet, that he's been in this job long enough to not be scared by anything – and despite himself, he feels his heart skipping a beat, and the moment before his eyes focus on the thing beneath the sheet seems to be drawn out for several seconds.
Al Black lets out a breath that's halfway a laugh, and Aaron lets his gun train on the floor as he stretches and relaxes.
"Ugly fellow," Rossi remarks, and they all stare at the big lump of stone under the sheet. It's one of the wolf guardians, and it's obviously been left behind because its right hind leg has broken off and no attempt has yet been made to mend it.
"Yeah" Al Black agrees, "even uglier up close. Look at those teeth. No wonder the custodians are freaked out by it."
Aaron watches with bemusement as the Deputy warily prods the guardian's shoulder, as if he expects it to come alive. Their eyes meet, and Al Black flushes slightly. Before he can say anything, though, Aaron's phone suddenly gives a single ring and then is silent.
"The connection must be rather sporadic in this concrete basement," Rossi remarks, and Aaron nods as he inspects the display. Lost call from Derek Morgan.
"I'm going outside," he says, and as he moves out of the room and into the hallway, the phone suddenly rings again.
"Hey, Morgan, we're in the basement. The connection is bad."
"Hotch, we're in the parking lot. Where can we join you?"
Aaron quickly guides the three agents to the entrance, and after a few minutes Morgan, JJ and Prentiss are bounding down the stairs.
"What did you find out?"
Aaron carefully watches JJ's face as he asks the question, and she offers him a slightly shaky smile in return. Prentiss takes a small step forward, as if to shield JJ from Aaron's view.
"I spoke with Mrs. Coleman. She says the crucifix could definitely have been stolen from the museum. Apparently, Hills' friend was 'that type of fellow' who would steal from anywhere to make a few bucks. And from the short glimpse of it, she thought it looked rather ornate and expensive, not something you would buy, or steal, at the local drugstore."
"And Greene told me there's plenty of talk of the museum," JJ takes over. "He also feels stupid for not realizing the connection sooner. But in his generation it's mostly seen as an urban legend, because he wasn't even alive when the guardians were taken down. The younger people in town think the older people are superstitious and hysterical."
Morgan is nodding, and starts speaking when JJ pauses.
"Yeah, I talked with Hamill about the report from the other day. Turns out Meissner was away at a conference and the report was made by his second in command, a guy named James Ashley. Meissner actually called Hamill the day after to retract the report, but no-one managed to have the time to do it in-between the murder investigations."
"I'm not surprised," Aaron says wryly, and he quickly fills them in on their conversation with Meissner.
"Seems his biggest concern is the museum's economical reputation," he finishes, and JJ curls her lip in disdain. "He's worried the return of the stolen items makes it look like an insurance fraud."
Morgan purses his lips and nods. "I can kind of see where he's coming from. It does look rather dodgy from the outside."
"More dodgy than a killer made of stone?" Rossi's dry voice sounds from behind them, and they all turn to look at the older agent, who smiles lopsidedly. Morgan gives a quick smile, and amends, "well, maybe slightly less dodgy than a killer made of stone."
Al Black appears behind Rossi, his phone clutched to his ear.
"Dex? Dex! Oh, you hear me now? What? Hello? Oh, stupid concrete." The last words are muttered in annoyance and the Carmine Falls Deputy paces up and down the hall in an attempt to find a break in the electronic dead zone.
"Wanna see a broken version of our would-be killer?" Rossi asks, his face and voice deadpan as he looks at Morgan, JJ and Prentiss. Aaron watches how the two others give JJ a very quick, concerned look – and she notices it too, because she gives a little shake of her head as she steps towards the door and Rossi.
"Sure, lead the way," the blonde agent proclaims, and they all file into the room, Aaron last.
"Ugh, what a climate," Prentiss remarks, shuddering her shoulders in distaste. Reid pops his head out of the left room, and beckons towards them.
"Hey, guys, the guardian is in here. It's fascinating! The design is dominantly gothic, but there are some details that make it very unusual for that period…" His voice is muted slightly as JJ, Morgan and Prentiss follow him into the small room.
Aaron is exchanging a slightly amused glance with Rossi when there's suddenly a loud bang. They are both instantly reaching for their guns, scanning the room, and Aaron's gaze falls on the now closed door.
"Dave." The older agent is looking at the door as well, nodding grimly. Aaron moves across the room, knowing that Rossi has his back, and he jiggles the latch. It's locked, and Aaron doesn't want to damage his shoulder by throwing himself against the solid planes of iron.
The single word from Rossi makes Aaron's neck prickle as his hair stands on end. He's never heard that particular tone from the senior agent before. He turns, warily, and tries to meet Rossi's eyes, but the other agent is looking at the floor in the direction of the right room. Aaron follows his gaze, and feels his stomach clenching once, suddenly.
On the floor is a beautiful vase. It's small, probably around the size of Aaron's fist, and looks to be part of a collection from the Ming dynasty.
It looks eerily like it belongs in a museum.
And Aaron is certain that it hasn't been there the whole time.
"Someone placed it here while we were in the hall," Rossi concludes. His voice is strangely subdued.
"Reid." Aaron raises his voice in not quite a shout, but loud enough to make the younger agent abruptly cut off his explanation of gothic art design and join them in the large room, the other agents right behind him.
Reid looks incredulous as his eyes flicker between Aaron and Rossi, both frozen in the middle of the floor. Then he looks at the vase on the floor, and he takes a small step back, eyes wide, hand going for his revolver.
"Is that…. Shit!"
JJ makes a strangled sound, and Morgan immediately places a hand on her shoulder.
"Let's not panic," Aaron forces himself to say, though he can feel his own body tightening in the early stages of fight-or-flight-reaction. "Anyone could have put that in here."
"Sneaking past all of us in the hall?" Prentiss sounds utterly doubtful, and Aaron can't really disagree with her.
"I was in the side room the whole time," Reid states, "and I didn't hear anything at all. And…" He cuts himself off abruptly, darting a look at the left room, and Aaron is willing to bet good money that the younger agent was about to state that the broken guardian was lying motion- and lifeless the whole time.
"There must be another entrance," Aaron states flatly, and they all simultaneously look at the ventilation ducts.
"Al is outside. He must be returning in a moment. Let's try to contact him." Rossi whips out his phone, and suddenly they're all in motion.
Aaron isn't quite sure how it happens.
Morgan is pounding on the door, shouting out for Al Black. Prentiss is eyeing the ventilation ducts thoughtfully. Rossi is moving around with his cell phone, trying to find a spot where the connection can go through the concrete walls. JJ is standing near the far side wall, her cell phone in hand as well. And Reid is standing near Morgan, telling the other agent something Aaron can't hear.
Aaron is the only one close enough to hear the low growl, and the sound reverberates through his bones as he feels the hair on his arms rising in the reptile brain's most primal defensive mechanism. He reaches for his gun, but before he can turn around, three things happen simultaneously.
The door suddenly flies open, displaying Al Black's confused face on the other side.
Reid makes a move for the open doorway.
And something huge and gray and snarling lunges past Aaron and heads for the open door as well.
Aaron's shout mixes with the sound of JJ's scream.
Reid spins around, his face both shocked and alert.
The next few seconds seem to happen in slow-motion.
Aaron watches the… creature reach the open door in three jumps from powerful hind legs. Reid makes a move to get out of the way – Morgan is reaching out as if he wants to yank the younger agent out of danger's way.
And then the creature clears the only obstacle standing in its way.
Aaron sees the front legs extending, sees the reflection of huge claws gleaming in Reid's eyes, sees the creature seeming to sail through the air until it collides with Reid, claws raking over his body, pushing him over, making him fall hard onto the floor, making his head impact with the cold, hard, steely gray concrete floor.
Aaron barely registers the exploding sound of three gunshots ringing out as he suddenly finds himself in the open doorway. He isn't sure how he moved across the floor. He hears Rossi shouting at JJ to cease fire, but the sounds are subdued, muddled, as if he's breathing through water...
The only thing he sees is Reid's face, frozen in shock, the brown eyes wide open, unfocused, the still form on the floor, unmoving.
Aaron thinks he would scream out in agony if his heart hadn't lodged itself in his throat. He would tear something apart with his hands, if they weren't busy grabbing Reid's coat so hard his knuckles are turning white.
Morgan is next to him, saying something, and Aaron can't bring himself to hear it, can't bring himself to hear the words, to know that it's true that…
"Hey, Hotch, I can't see if he's hurt when you're hovering like this." Morgan's slightly exasperated voice somehow breaks through, and Aaron stares incredulously down at his own hands, stares at Reid's face, where the eyes are suddenly blinking, focusing, and the mouth grimaces in pain as Reid snaps out of his shock and discovers the pain from the impact.
"Oh, ow. That thing was heavy." His voice is cracking slightly, but to Aaron it's the most beautiful sound he's ever heard.
He feels a sudden, overwhelming urge to cry.
He wants to say Reid's name, but he's afraid to shatter if he speaks a word.
"Hey, shouldn't someone go after that thing, instead of standing around he—mmpf!"
Reid's sentence is cut short as Aaron pulls him up and into a tight embrace, effectively cutting off his breath.
Aaron clings to the younger agent, and his heart is beating erratically fast, and he can feel tears pressing behind the eyes he's shut tightly as he buries his face in familiar, chestnut hair, and he speaks soundlessly, lips barely moving as they make out all the words he's not ready to say out loud.
"Shut up, Morgan." The words are a growl, muffled by Reid's hair.
"I. Need. A. Minute."
As if to accentuate, he tightens his hold on Reid, breathes hard through his nose, tries to calm down.
He knows they all must be staring incredulously at him.
He doesn't care.
"Hotch," Reid croaks after not quite a minute, "need to breathe. Now."
Aaron is reluctant to let him go, but he softens his hold, then pulls back slightly, his eyes roaming Reid's face, registering the small smile, the slightly flushed cheeks, the reassuring warmth in the eyes.
"Spencer." Aaron's voice is breathy, vibrant with relief, and he barely recognizes it as his own.
"I'm okay," Reid whispers, and Aaron registers the barest shake of his voice, and worries for a moment, but then realizes Reid is unsure of how to react to Aaron's display of emotions.
Aaron doesn't think he's ever made a bigger effort to shake off an unwanted emotion, to compartmentalize – and he carefully folds together his mixed palette of emotions and stores them away in a private box in his mind for future analysis.
Then he let go of Reid and turns to Morgan, who manages to look completely unfazed by it all, as if this is how Aaron naturally reacts whenever someone from the team is knocked over by an unsub.
Al Black has taken up pursuit of the creature, and Prentiss and Rossi are right behind him. Morgan hovers, obviously wanting to make sure Reid is alright. Or maybe his doubts are more strongly directed at Aaron's unusually emotional behavior.
Aaron can't bring himself to care.
"Morgan, JJ." Both his agents look at him with a wary expression. "What the hell was that thing? Did you get a good look?"
JJ's face is pale, frozen, and Aaron notices Morgan shooting a look at the gun she's clutching in her hand.
"It was…. It looked like a wolf," she whispers, and Morgan makes an incredulous sound, draws his gun and heads for the left room. They all stare after him, and Aaron feels strangely disappointed when Morgan returns after a moment, his eyebrows raised, and says: "The broken lump of stone is still in there."
"Then it must be one of the others." Reid's voice is slightly timid, but his gaze unwavering as Aaron looks at him. Morgan snorts again, shaking his head.
"Oh come on, people! Stone does not come alive! It doesn't! It must be…"
He is interrupted by the sound of someone running hastily down the stairs and towards the room. Aaron recognizes the smell of Al Black's aftershave moments before the Deputy appears in the doorway, his face sweaty, chest heaving and eyes flickering.
"There's someone outside. Dead. Torn apart."
Aaron only takes a moment to make sure Reid can stand on his feet after pulling him upright, before he runs outside after Morgan and JJ.
Rossi and Prentiss are standing next to something that Aaron at first mistakes for a pile of leaves. But as he gets closer, he realizes it is in fact a human body, literally shredded to pieces. JJ makes a small sound and turns away, and Reid grimaces as he catches up.
"Looks like our killer is really pissed off about that Ming vase," Rossi states drily, putting his cell phone away.
A police car turns into the parking lot on squealing tires, and it's barely come to a halt before the Chief emerges, his face red from excitement. Hamill exits as well as soon as he's stopped the engine, and the young officer's face revolts at the sight of the torn body on the grounds.
"Ugh, how disgusting! Did you see the killer? Was it really one of the statues?"
As on cue, they all look towards the roof – where a row of four guardians are sitting neatly in perfect synch, displaying their stone teeth in a twisted grin, looking for all intents and purposes like four very dead lumps of stone.
"Of course it wasn't," Morgan sighs, staring at Hamill until the young officer averts his eyes and shrugs.
"Look, whatever it was, it can't be far from here," Aaron interrupts, and for some reason he can't forget the sight of they gray…. creature lunging past him, the smell of sulfur and blood and… death that seemed to seep into his mind for a fleeting moment. "There was some kind of animal down in that basement, and…"
He is interrupted by a piercing scream from JJ, which sets his heart thundering and makes Hamill squeak in surprise. Aaron watches his blonde colleague go deathly pale, and he takes a step forward as Prentiss simultaneously grabs hold of JJ's arm to steady her.
"JJ?" Morgan's voice is shocked, but JJ is staring fixedly at the roof, her eyes wide and frightened, her lips barely moving as she says: "The west wall. There's…. one's missing. There's a hole. Look!" She screams the last word, making Morgan take a step back in surprise, his eyes wide as he, along with everyone else, looks.
After a second where time seems to stand still, Reid makes a sound that sounds suspiciously like a laugh, and when most of the people present look at him with varying degrees of incredulity, he shakes his head.
"Of course one's missing. It's lying in the basement with a broken leg."
Al Black lets out a slightly hysterical bark of laughter, and Prentiss joins him while Dex and Hamill look increasingly confused. As JJ joins in the laughter, though Aaron notices Prentiss hugging her closely when the laughter turns into a strangled sobbing, Rossi tells the two latecomers about the broken guardian in the basement room. Hamill looks relieved, but Dex keeps looking at the hole on the roof, frowning.
"I'm sorry," JJ sniffs, her face both guilty and relieved. "I forgot about that. I'm just… unsettled."
"We know," Prentiss says in a low, soothing voice, shooting Aaron a knowing look. He is about to nod, understanding Prentiss' intention of taking JJ back to the hotel, when a voice calls out.
"FBI! This way, quick!"
Aaron sees Sam Hauser standing thirty feet away, towards the corner that leads to the east side of the building. The custodian looks absolutely terrified, and Aaron halfway suspects they're about to discover another mutilated body. He strides towards Hauser, with everyone else in hot pursuit, and the custodian leads them around the corner. He stops abruptly and looks up, and Aaron follows his gaze to one of the guardians.
"Look at it," Hauser whispers, and as Aaron carefully inspects the guardian, he's slightly worried that the custodian has gone a little insane.
"What are we looking at?" Morgan's voice is skeptical, but Hauser doesn't flinch. Instead he keeps his eyes firmly locked on the guardian.
"It's facing north," Hauser croaks, and Aaron is certain his own heart skips three or four beats as he lets his gaze trail over the three other guardians on the east wall. Hauser continues, almost as if in a trance: "They all face south. Always. Did yesterday. This one faces north." The custodian keeps repeating the words, and Aaron keeps thinking it must be a mistake, that someone messed up when the guardians were put back up – but he can't convince himself that someone would overlook such an error; can't bring himself to believe that anyone else wouldn't notice what they're all staring at now: a row of four guardians, where three are facing south and the fourth is turned away from them, facing north, its stone teeth glinting in the sun as they are displayed in a devilish grin.
Aaron lets his eyes roam over the faces of his colleagues, discarding everyone's stunned expression before focusing on JJ's face, which is contorted into a mask of utter shock. He takes half a step forwards, ready to handle whatever reaction is coming from his blonde colleague.
Therefore, he is entirely unprepared as Al Black's eyes roll back in his head and the Deputy slumps to the ground in a dead faint, just moments before the Chief's ashen face contorts into a grimace of pain as he clutches at his heart.
"Goodbye, Carmine Falls."
Prentiss makes a mocking salute and Morgan chuckles as the plane slowly builds speed on the tarmac before taking off.
"And good riddance," JJ mutters, smiling faintly at Aaron as he catches her eyes. He returns the smile, then turns his attention to the empty screen on his laptop, where he's supposed to write a draft of the report of the case.
The soft clinking sound of the ice in Rossi's drink distracts him, and he raises his eyes to look at the older agent. Rossi returns the look calmly as he takes a hefty swig of his scotch.
It's only 10.17 in the morning.
Aaron pushes his own glass of scotch slightly away from his laptop. He wants to keep a clear head for the draft.
"You know, I don't think I've ever seen an officer as embarrassed as Al Black," Rossi says with a crooked smile, and Aaron feels the corners of his own lips quirking in response. He rode with the ambulance taking the Chief to the hospital, where a very reassuring doctor told them the Chief was not going into cardiac arrest, but merely suffering from 'too much running around and not enough sleep – and in your age, Dex!'. The Chief had looked moderately embarrassed – but apparently not in the league of Al Black, if one is to believe Morgan's vivid description of the expression on the Deputy's face after waking up from his 'momentary bout of dizziness', as he insisted on calling it.
The Chief and the Deputy had both escorted the team personally to the plane. The Chief had taken off his sunglasses, giving Aaron a solemn look after the exchange of mutual promises on keeping the other party up to date.
"Look, Hotch – I don't know what the hell was going on here. But I talked with the Mayor last night, and he's going to tell Meissner to destroy those things. And I'll bet you good money that we won't have any more trouble like that ever again when it's done."
Aaron had looked at him seriously.
"Dex, I must repeat that as long as we don't have anything official to put in the report, my supervisor is not going to be happy about us dropping off the case."
The Chief had snorted, his lips turning into a wry grin.
"Hell, Hotch, you can tell her that I dismissed you! And I know you guys can't work with the local PD's unless you're invited to do so. You're no longer invited – and you can tell your dragon lady boss that!"
Aaron had smiled at the wry warmth underlying the words, and told himself to have a friendly chat with Reid later about how agents must and must not describe their section chief, no matter how accurate the sentiment is.
"Don't worry about us, Dex – we'll handle the paperwork. But I do hope you're right about having no more trouble."
The Chief had placed a big hand on Aaron's shoulder, giving him one of the most sincere looks Aaron had ever seen.
"Hotch, I know I'm right. Deep in my gut I know it. And I cannot thank you enough for all you've done. You're always welcome back in Carmine Falls. Heck, you never got around to trying our famous golf course!"
Aaron had laughed, feeling oddly liberated.
"Dex, if I ever get a craving for golf, you'll be the first I think of!"
And then the team had boarded the plane, after saying their goodbyes, and Aaron had turned around for a moment to see Dex and Al Black leaning against the patrol cars, sunglasses on against the rising sun – a reverse scene of their arrival only a few days earlier.
It has been the longest few days in Aaron's life.
And there's still a report to write.
"So," Rossi says, nodding towards the laptop in front of Aaron. "What are you going to write to Strauss?"
Aaron stares at the empty screen, and then almost on their own volition, his eyes seem to find Reid, who is dealing out cards to a game of poker, a reluctant Morgan and relaxed Prentiss on the opposite side of the table. Aaron smiles as he faintly hears Morgan's, "… still owe you at least twenty bucks from our last flight," Reid's smug, "that's okay, you can work them off," Prentiss' indignant, "hey, Reid, he was talking to me," Morgan's groan and Reid's totally innocent, "oh, I know – but a rash promise of a date doesn't mean you're already married to Rossi, does it?", and the welcoming sound of JJ's giggly laughter.
Rossi is a master of ignoring that which doesn't suit him, and he practices this fine art now, only raising his eyebrows slightly as he looks to Aaron for an answer.
"What will I write?" Aaron muses, and his eyes are once again drawn to Reid who expertly ducks out of the way as Prentiss throws a handful of peanuts after him, and as Reid's eyes meet Aaron's for a moment, Aaron sees the silent laughter and affection of camaraderie that's been absent for what seems like so long, and more so, he sees no hint of the shadows of fear or guilt that's been lurking for what seems like even longer. Reid offers a tiny smile before he turns his attention back to the cards, and Aaron turns his attention back to Rossi, who is patiently waiting for a reply.
"I guess," Aaron says slowly, "that I will just have to write the truth."
"And that is…?" Rossi looks expectant, and Aaron allows a tiny smile of his own to break free.
"The truth is… something happened that I can't quite explain."