Author's Note: The very, very end . . . but just of the story, not the universe. More at the end.
Originally I had planned for mostly a narrative closing here, but, things rarely go completely as planned. So we ended up being 11k+ words because we're pretty much continuing to go 'live' for most of this wrap up. Well, mostly. You'll see :)
Story Title Prompt Set #24 (August 2012)
Author: Anthony Weller
Title Challenge: The Land of Later On
The Long Road Home
It took nearly four hours for them to climb back to the surface.
That was longer than Hotch and Emily had hoped . . . they had been hoping for three . . . but they hadn't anticipated having to stop quite so many times. But they really were in no condition to do anything at all, let alone climb God only knew how far up out of the depths of the earth.
It was an excruciating experience for both of them.
And though Hotch had no idea precisely how long it had taken the UNSUB to drag him down into the pit, Emily did know that she'd made her downward trek in somewhere around forty-five minutes. But again, she was going downhill . . . and she was half running most of the way.
She was no longer capable of running.
Actually she was barely capable of standing upright, let alone walking at anything approaching a brisk pace. And the air in the tunnels was so thick with moisture, that her lungs were screaming after twenty minutes of the upward exertion.
She wanted to scream alongside them after thirty.
And though Hotch did his best to help her along . . . the only time he let go of her was when they stopped for breaks . . . his condition was deteriorating almost as quickly as hers was. The strain of the walk had torn the clot on his calf, and also again opened up the slash in his side.
By the end of the second hour, the two of them had started leaving matching blood trails in the earth.
And with each tiny droplet she spotted, Emily's already wired state, was becoming even more frenetic. She was terrified that if either of them suddenly dropped, that the other one wouldn't have the strength to pick them up and keep them moving. And of course there was no question about one of them going on alone.
It would never happen.
And though they spent their breaks catching their breath, and retying each other's Purell soaked bandages, the latter activity wasn't doing them all that much good.
They kept bleeding through the thin cloth of their repurposed clothes.
So Emily honest to God nearly wept in relief when they finally stumbled up on the exit to the shaft.
The air had become much less humid, and up ahead . . . about twenty paces away . . . there was a faint bit of blue'ish light visible.
"We made it." She whispered breathlessly as they stopped for a moment to rest.
"Yeah," Hotch responded while sucking in his own ragged breath, "we did."
And then a few minutes later when they stepped out of the shaft, and the damp night air flooded their lungs, they stopped again. This time Emily had the rifle off her shoulder, and the safety off the gun.
She was covering Hotch.
Covering him while he leaned down to confirm what was already obvious from the glassy eyes staring up at them in the reflection from the flashlight.
Lonnie was dead.
His wounds might have initially been survivable . . . but not without treatment. An autopsy would tell the full tale, but most likely he had bled out. But of course he'd been lying there in the mud for close to five hours without so much as a tourniquet.
His death under those circumstances, was not unexpected.
Not that Emily felt any better about it. In fact she was surprised to feel a fresh wave of grief wash over her. Not for the world's loss of Lonnie . . . there was no loss there . . . but just that it was another body for their count.
And also though . . . she sniffled slightly . . . just that he got away with it. Nobody would ever really know what a monster he was.
There would be no trial.
There would be no punishment.
But then as Emily tried to blink away the unwelcome burning in her eyes, she realized that there really was no punishment that would have fit these crimes.
Nothing earthly would do.
So perhaps this day, this day where this terrible man had finally been overpowered by two of his victims . . . the victims here being a pair of FBI agents who had taken a random wrong turn off the highway . . . was as close to a judgment day that Lonnie would ever reach.
At least on this plane of existence.
And when Emily looked up and across the clearing to the other body lying in the muck, she knew . . . even from that distance . . . that Tom was dead too.
He was too still.
Of course though, they checked him too . . . because they had to be sure. So they limped over, wincing and grinding their teeth . . . their movements even slower now as time was continuing to pass, and the cooler air was beginning to stiffen their joints.
Emily was feeling every one of her thirty-eight years.
But once Hotch had pressed his fingers against that waxy skin, and shaken his head for a second time, she . . . unexpectedly . . . began to cry.
It wasn't sobbing . . . just a quiet weeping. The sound of her soul dying a slow death.
"That's five," she murmured with a swipe of her hand across her face.
But Hotch then shook his head for a third time.
"Six," he whispered back, his gaze snapping up to catch hers in the moonlight. She stared for a moment with watery eyes, counting again . . . and again . . . and then the stab of pain pressed into her gut.
The man in the tunnel.
The man with no face.
His death was on their list too . . . they owned that one. Good CHRIST, she thought not for the first time, but how the hell were they ever going to get beyond this?!
How were they ever going to go back to anything resembling their lives before?
Emily had no answers to those questions . . . not even an inkling of what their future held. And then she saw in front of her, Hotch slowly . . . and somewhat unsteadily . . . coming back up to his feet. He reached out and took her hand again.
His eyes were soft . . . sad.
Then his fingers curled around hers . . . and hers around his . . . and he pulled her back to his chest. And he held her as he had down in the tunnel.
"We need to keep moving," he murmured against her hair.
Though the physical pain in his voice was clear, his speech was steady. And for the combination of those two acts . . . for making that effort to reach out to her, even as he tried to cut his emotions away . . . she shifted around to hug him as she had before.
He needed it.
They both did.
So for a minute . . . perhaps two . . . they stood there in the middle of the forest. The pine trees were dripping down on their heads . . . a dead man was cooling by their feet.
They were alone in the world.
Or at least it felt like it. She wondered how long that feeling would last.
Years maybe . . . if not longer.
But then Hotch seemed to get a cramp. He winced and hissed, and feeling him freeze up for that moment with his body resting against hers, Emily remembered that she wasn't the only one that was hurt. He'd taken terrible a beating . . . two of them actually. Even in the shadows down in the tunnels, when she was fixing his bandages, she'd seen the ugly bruises forming on his chest and abdomen. And thinking about those marks again, a faintly metallic taste suddenly filled her mouth.
What if there was internal damage? What if he was bleeding to death from the inside and she couldn't even see it?
The thoughts came with a fresh slice of panic. And with that panic, came a nearly overwhelming need to again check his injures.
To see if she could see the invisible.
So her hands slid down his back, and her fingers moved to his front, fumbling along the lower edge of his t-shirt.
Then she stepped back slightly to lift the blood stained fabric from his skin.
And feeling a fresh ache in her chest, she reached out. Her touch was gentle as she ran the tips of her fingers over the purple and black marks.
She was particularly worried about the black ones.
"Can you taste blood?" She asked worriedly when her eyes locked onto the largest of the bruises on his sternum.
Hotch was quiet for a minute, his face blank, and then she saw him nod.
"A little. But one of my molars is loose, and I think I bit my tongue," he shrugged, almost like he didn't care, "the blood could be from anywhere."
Knowing then that that there was nothing to be done either way . . . internal injuries were beyond the reach of her little bottle of hand sanitizer . . . Emily's hand fell down. And then she fixed his t-shirt, biting her lip while she wished that she had something else to cover him in.
The air was cool and he was losing heat.
And though she knew that he was most worried about her condition . . . and she had admittedly been losing blood longer than he . . . she was more worried about his.
By her estimation, his body had taken the greater hits. And he was still putting out the greater exertion. Trying to help her, trying keep her moving.
Trying to keep her from dropping dead on this tiny mountain.
They began walking again then. Hotch's arm was wrapped around her waist and he was holding her to his uninjured side, obviously trying to take some of the burden off of her forward momentum. Her eyes started to sting again.
He really was a very sweet man. Very chivalrous.
She just hoped that chivalry wouldn't kill him.
Slowly they moved through the quiet forest, their breath still coming in pants and gasps as they shuffled and limped along. All the while Emily's eyes were darting this way and that, listening to the buzz of the insects and occasional calls from the wildlife.
She was trying to see into the trees. Watching for . . . well, she didn't know what really. She wasn't so worried about the animals . . . not the four legged variety anyway. And the two legged kind, the UNSUBs, they were all dead. They had to be. If there was another one in the shaft, he . . . or she . . . would have found them before they got out.
Really, they wouldn't have gotten out.
Still though, she was anxious . . . and frightened. And she didn't know if she had concrete reasons to be afraid . . . if it was instinct tickling the vertebrae on her spine . . . or if it was just the trauma of the day. Perhaps anxious and frightened was going to be her new regular state of being.
And how horrible that would be if it was.
In an effort to distract herself from the new psychological damage, both real and speculative, Emily took a slow, deep breath of that cool air. She hoped that it would rejuvenate her, reoxygenate her lungs . . . her body.
Make her feel better.
But it didn't. It just hurt.
Breathing hurt. She didn't know if that was a result of her injuries, or if that was also just her life as it now was.
Probably a bit both.
Feeling an odd sensation unexpectedly settling onto her skin, Emily's brow wrinkled as she reached up to wipe her hand across her cheek . . . it was all wet. Not tears though, she realized. It was the pine trees . . . it was a thicker overhang, and the rain had collected in a heavier concentration.
Though as she tried to wipe the moisture from her fingers, off on her pants, Emily deduced that the mixture falling, was partly sap, as well as the rainfall from earlier.
Everything around them was still soaked.
So much so that their boots were sticking in the thick muck as they staggered along. They'd now reached probably the halfway point of the old mining road that they'd hiked in on so many hours before.
Every step now though . . . at least by Emily's perspective . . . seemed to be harder and harder to make. It was almost like they weren't supposed to leave.
Like something wanted them to stay.
Feeling a fresh shiver run down her spine at the thought, she hurriedly reached into the ratty bag of one serial killer, to pull out the hunting knife from another.
This was the knife that had left the gash in Hotch's side.
She had been praying that he wasn't going to get an infection.
And though Hotch still had her pistol out . . . and they had the rifles on their shoulders . . . Emily felt a flood of relief at having her own close quarters weapon handy again. It wasn't like her to allow her safety to be dependent on people.
And that fact held true even if Hotch had stopped being just, people.
But then feeling the tension flood his body as he looked down to see the knife in her hand, Emily quickly moved to alleviate any new worries that she was giving him.
They had enough of those already.
"It's nothing," she said with a quick shake of her head, "just . . . the creeps."
The creeps. What a funny phrase she thought . . . and then suddenly she laughed.
Though nothing was at all funny.
And the sound of that laugh, the pitch and the tremor, it brought a hot flood of tears to her eyes. It was a crazy sound.
It scared the shit out of her.
Her free hand came up to clamp over her mouth . . . the laughter died away.
"I'm sorry," she whispered as her hand fell back down, "I . . ."
But she didn't get anything else out. Hotch just pressed a finger to her lips.
His eyes were watering too.
"No," he shook his head, "no apologies. You be yourself around me," he swallowed, "you promise me that. Don't hide things from me. If you feel yourself slipping, you let me know," he gave her a sad smile. "I'll go with you, okay?"
If they were going to do this, if they were going to be true friends and keep each other sane, then that meant that sometimes they might have to go a little insane for a while.
It was the only way out of this world full of madness.
And as he saw a tear spill over right before Emily whispered, "okay," Hotch felt a new pain in his gut. Though this one had nothing to do with his injuries. He'd just suddenly flashed on Emily as she was that afternoon when she'd handed him the bag of pretzels. Back then she was completely sane, and not skirting the world of just a tiny bit unwell.
But of course she wasn't a killer then . . . neither was he.
Irony notwithstanding, he would kill to go back to that moment again.
And though it hurt to have the pressure against his chest, Hotch shifted her closer then and patted her side . . . as though physical proximity would fix what was now wrong with them. Nothing would fix what was now wrong with them, nothing except perhaps time.
And that they had in spades.
Or at least they would if they didn't bleed to death before they got back out into the world.
"Let's see if we can move a little faster," he whispered while biting back a groan at the pull in his stab wound, "we're not going to be mobile much longer."
"Right," Emily cleared her throat and sucked in another painful breath.
Then they tried moving close to double time, but Hotch's limp was becoming more pronounced with each new step. And the faster they tried to move, the more they kept stumbling and sliding over the mud and the rocks.
It was like trying to run in quick sand . . . and they weren't even really trying to run.
It was a farce.
And then Emily's boot got caught in a tree root . . . and before Hotch could scramble to catch her . . . his reflexes were not what they were . . . she went down face first.
And with her bad arm the only one with a free hand . . . after everything that had happened, she was terrified to lose a weapon . . . that's the arm she put out to try and catch herself.
An explosion of pain shot through her traumatized nerve endings.
It was followed immediately by sobs of pain when she tried to push herself back and off her knees. But she was mired down in the mud.
And then she felt Hotch's arm hook around her waist . . . and he was pulling her back.
"Oh Prentiss," Hotch murmured as he dropped down to the muck and pulled her to his chest. They just could not catch a break. And though they had to keep going, he was afraid of causing her more pain by pulling her back up too soon. So he just sat on the ground and held her while she cried and cradled her injured arm. There was nothing he could do to help her, so he just kept the flashlight moving on the shadows around them.
They were vulnerable.
Finally, some minutes later, he saw her attempting to take deeper breaths. His attention then snapped back fully to the woman in his arms.
"Think you can get up now?"
His words were soft, trying not to put pressure on her. Christ knew that they needed to get to the hospital, but it wasn't going to help anything if he made her feel like shit for falling.
Then he saw Emily sniffle and nod, but she didn't say anything. It was a subdued response.
And her eyes were on the ground.
And he saw then that she was embarrassed. And he hated that she was going to carry that memory too. So as they slowly pushed themselves back up to their knees, he put his hand out and touched her cheek.
She stopped moving.
Slowly her gaze came up, again catching his in the bright moonlight cutting through the overhang. One side of his lip curved ever so slightly.
"It was the tree's fault."
Feeling a fresh burn to her eyes . . . though these tears were the first in hours not fueled by pain or grief . . . Emily immediately gave Hotch a watery smile.
"Thank you," she whispered. But he just brushed it off with a shake of his head. Then his hand fell off her cheek . . . he took a deep, raspy breath . . . and pushed himself back up to his feet.
After a few deep inhalations and one slow exhalation, he reached down and pulled Emily up beside him. She was shaking and huddled over like an old woman.
With his brow now creased with a fresh worry, Hotch quickly rubbed his hands up and down Emily's arms. He was trying to warm her up.
The air had gotten colder just since they'd come up out of the shaft. But of course it was moving in on midnight, and they'd been walking for at least forty minutes . . . their panting breaths were now visible puffs of air.
And seeing the effects on Emily's body . . . and for the first time noting the gooseflesh on his own arms . . . Hotch began to start seriously worrying about exposure. Some part of his brain then tried to work out if the layer of cold mud now covering them would provide some insulation, or just suck the heat from their bodies.
Probably the latter.
That was about how their day was going. So with that thought . . . that they couldn't afford a core temperature drop on top of everything else . . . before they started moving again, he took a second to try to wipe the worst of the mud off of them.
He didn't have much luck.
The gunk was thick and sticky with sap, pine needles, and God only knew what chemicals that had leached into the earth from all of the mining equipment that had passed through.
It was something that looked coppery in the light, but Hotch didn't think it was copper.
Finally he looked back at Emily, still with gunk covering half of her body, and shook his head.
"Fuck it," he muttered, and she nodded.
"We'll still be freezing either way," she murmured back. And with that realization . . . that body heat might help offset that other heat loss a little . . . he again pulled her against his side.
And then they started forward once more.
Though this time Hotch had a much tighter grasp around Emily's waist, and a much closer eye to the unevenness of the ground in front of them.
They couldn't afford another fall.
They couldn't afford a lot of things. To lose any more blood . . . or any more time. But he knew that it couldn't be too much farther out to the truck. The initial hike in wasn't a great distance, it's just that it was taking them so much longer this time around. But it couldn't be more than another fifty paces maybe . . . he calculated in his head . . . it couldn't be further than that.
And so he began to count.
It was something to do. A task to keep his mind busy.
When he got to twenty-seven steps, Emily was shaking violently under his arm . . . by thirty-four steps, he was ready to fall back into the mud . . . but then they got to forty-six steps.
And that's when they came around a slight curve in the road . . . and ahead of them . . . perhaps another ten paces, was the truck.
Thank you Christ!
They staggered along the rest of the way, Emily's teeth now chattering loudly as she huddled against him.
The shaking worried him . . . it worried him a lot.
She'd lost so much blood, and then she was down in that mud. And she had no fat on her at all.
Blood and mud.
The words caught in Hotch's head for a moment. But he shook them away.
They were too close now to get caught up in thinking.
He just had to keep moving.
Once they reached the pickup, Hotch let go of Emily to yank open the driver's side door . . . that action came with a creak that sliced through the silence of the forest.
And then there was the brightness of the cab light.
It was like a beacon being shown in the darkness.
And for a moment they both froze, as though they had just brought attention to themselves. As though somebody else from this nightmarish family was now going to come running out with a pickaxe to try and stop them from leaving.
Ordinarily that would be a paranoid thought. But given all that had happened, and all of the people that had tried to kill them that day, it wasn't a completely irrational one. So Hotch pushed Emily slightly behind him as he waited for just a second, watching the brush. Watching for movement.
He turned back around, hurriedly tucking Emily's gun into his waistband before he slipped his arm around her back. Then he helped her up and inside the truck.
While he turned around to check the woods again, she slowly pulled herself across the bench seat.
"Okay," she half gasped, half whispered . . . and he turned back to see big, fat droplets of crimson that she'd left smeared on the seat and the dashboard. He felt a fresh stab of fear.
She shouldn't be bleeding like that again.
She hadn't been bleeding that badly in hours.
So after they'd locked themselves in, and Hotch had started the ignition . . . he'd pulled the keys from a dead Lonnie's pocket . . . he turned the cab light back on again. Then he turned to Emily.
"Let me see your arm."
She shifted slightly, biting into her lip as he reached over to loosen the belt . . . and then tighten it again.
This time going back to one of the notches that he'd used when she'd first been shot . . . and then he pulled it one further than that. It was as tight as he could make it.
And seeing her eyes immediately water in response, he slipped his hand down to squeeze her fingers.
"I know it hurts," he whispered, "I'm sorry, but Emily, you cannot afford to lose any more blood. I'm amazed that you're still conscious. Now," he dropped her hand to reach across and get the passenger's seatbelt, "we should hopefully be able to get to a hospital within the next forty or fifty minutes. I know that seems like a long time, but," he started yanking the strap down, "we need to be realistic. So we'll just leave this pressure on until we get back out to the highway on-ramp. I'll loosen it a notch then."
If he didn't loosen it, then she'd potentially lose the whole arm. But really, he was more concerned about her life at the moment than the limb.
Though from the look on Emily's face, he wasn't so sure that she would have agreed with his assessment.
But fortunately she didn't argue with him . . . she might not have had the energy. So once he'd slipped the belt across her chest and around her waist . . . careful to pull the strap down and away from her shoulder . . . he clicked the metal into the square lock on the seat.
Then he turned back to grab his own belt.
Another quick check of Emily's condition showed her fighting the rapid blinks . . . she wasn't long from passing out.
"Prentiss," he raised his voice slightly as he clicked off the overhead light, "I need you to stay awake for me, okay? It's just a little bit longer until we get off this mountain," he reached for the shift, "up the road, around the tree, and back to the highway." He took his foot off the break, "it's not so far. You can stay awake, right? Just stay with me until we get help."
If he lost her after all this, if she died literally minutes from them getting help, he didn't know what he would do.
"I think so," Emily murmured back as the truck began to move, "but please hurry. It smells like death in here."
Hotch had nothing to say to that . . . because it did indeed smell like death in there. Only God now knew how many rotting limbs and corpses had been carted around in the back of that truck.
More than he could bear to think about.
So he made himself NOT think about it. He made himself not think about anything. He just focused on driving. A task he ordinarily could perform completely on autopilot, now took all of his attention.
Emily wasn't the only one on the verge of drifting away.
Now that they were out of danger, the adrenaline that had been pumping for hours, was now fading. And adrenaline was really all that had been keeping him going.
His body so badly wanted to shut down.
But there's still Emily to take care of . . . his conscience suddenly reminded him . . . and if he passed out driving, then he was going to kill her.
And that would be seven.
The thought was enough to send a fresh jolt through his body. His eyes popped open wide again. And so with that new artificial clarity . . . some days it felt like all clarity was artificial . . . Hotch put his foot down on the accelerator. He was driving as fast as he could manage in the darkness, pulling up his memories of the drive in . . . and reversing them.
The straight, bumpy road . . . that went on for a couple minutes . . . and then he slowed as he saw the clearing . . . and then a turn. This time it went to the right.
And then down.
Down, down . . . down the little mountain. Twisting and turning, bouncing along.
Thank God for the seatbelts.
And then they reached the bottom. The main road. The one where they'd stumbled over the human totem pole.
The one where they'd been kidnapped.
Emily's left hand fell onto his thigh . . . his right hand fell down to cover it.
He left it there.
And then he took his foot off the brake, and turned the truck again. This time heading back out towards the highway.
The road was still wet . . . and the darkness was still all consuming . . . though at least here they were on pavement again.
So he took advantage of that.
He dropped his foot down until they were going fifty, but after about five minutes of that speed, Emily's fingers pressed into his leg . . . he eased up.
She was warning him . . . the tree would be coming up soon.
The UNSUBs had never left them . . . and they would have been the only road crews around here . . . so it had to still be blocking the road. And sure enough . . . he downshifted as his foot pressed hard on the brake . . . it was still there as they'd left it.
As was their car.
He pulled far to the outside, slowing to a near stop . . . it was the only way to maneuver around the tree. And as the branches brushed against the passenger side window, Emily pulled her hand away from his leg. Out of the corner of his eye, Hotch saw her leaning the other way. Her hand was pressing against the glass.
He wondered what she was thinking.
He didn't dare ask.
Once they'd cleared the oak . . . a tight squeeze . . . for the first time, Hotch started to feel something akin to genuine hope.
They were going to make it. It was a clear shot now to the highway.
They were almost back to the real world.
He fumbled his hand across the seat, reaching again for Emily's fingers.
"Not too much further."
She didn't answer, but her hand did tighten around his . . . so at least he knew that she was still conscious. So on he drove . . . and finally the high beams flashed over the back of the battered metal sign that they'd seen when they'd first gotten off the highway.
Gas and lodging . . . death and dismemberment. Hell, they were all the same thing out here in the woods guys!
Feeling a little tickle of manic laughter begin to rise up in his throat . . . it was that same laughter Emily had fallen into before . . . Hotch coughed and blinked, trying to focus on such a simple thing.
Maintaining his sanity.
But then he pulled to a full stop in the middle of the road . . . because he'd just realized . . . he didn't how the FUCK to get back up to the highway.
At least not without killing them.
Because the exit ramp they had come down was obviously one way . . . and he couldn't see an option taking them back up to the other side of the Interstate. And he sure as hell wasn't going to start blindly driving around in the dark!
His head began to get cloudy with panic . . . how the FUCK were they going to get out of here?!
But then Emily squeezed his hand, and her soft voice cut into the frenetic haze settling onto his brain.
"Just go back up the way we came," she murmured, clearly back to the blinks again, "odds are nobody's coming this way. And if they are, the worst that happens," she huffed humorlessly, "we die in a head on collision."
He looked across the seat . . . she was right. That was the worst that could happen. And given their day so far, it would barely be a blip on the bad news radar.
The thought that they might actually hurt somebody else in a crash . . . a seven or an eight . . . barely crossed his mind.
So he said, "okay," and took his foot off the brake. Then he swung around . . . sent up a prayer . . . and headed back up the ramp.
Some part of him was a little anxious about the collision thing . . . it was twisting, blind curve with a nasty drop off to the side . . . but mostly he was just feeling relief wash over him.
They were almost out.
Almost back in the world of lights and hospitals, and cell phones . . . and nobody was trying to kill them. Well, most days anyway.
He started to hear noise . . . traffic.
And then they curved around the last thirty feet . . . and they were out. Sodium lamps lining the highway . . . cars and trucks screaming by in both directions.
It was beautiful.
He blinked to try and focus . . . which way? And then again, Emily's voice.
"Just drive Aaron. But stay to the far right," she sucked in a breath, "you're about to pass out."
Hotch blinked again . . . pass out. What was she . . .? And then he realized just how SLOWLY his brain was processing everything. That she had to keep telling him what to do.
And then there was the blinking . . . and the haze . . . she was right.
He was on the verge of passing out.
But they couldn't stop now. They had no cell phones to call for help, and if he pulled off to the breakdown lane, the troopers might not find them for hours.
And they didn't have hours.
They'd end up like Lonnie and Tom.
So he did as she said, he drove. And staying far to the right, hugging the breakdown lane, they made another three or four miles. But still there was no sign for a hospital . . . or a state police barracks . . . and despair began to fill him. Though he knew cities and towns were always accessed by an exit ramp . . . he was absolutely TERRIFIED of pulling off on another exit ramp.
Not if he couldn't see EXACTLY where they were going to end up.
But as the cloud started to settle in over his brain, he knew that they had just hit a new world of trouble.
"I'm sorry Emily," he slurred . . . and then the wheel began to slip.
Emily had energy left to scream as they went flying across three . . . fortunately wide open . . . lanes of highway.
His eyes popped open again . . . but just for a second . . . just long enough to feel the wheel being jerked the other way. They started moving back to the right . . . but Emily was in no state to drive either.
And his foot was still on the gas.
The last thing he saw was the world turning upside down.
Hotch's eyes popped open onto clean white tiles. They had little dots in them . . . ceiling tiles.
The word came to him as the smell of disinfectant filled his nose. Then he blinked once . . . twice . . . and slowly turned his head.
Haley was sitting in the chair next the bed.
She was reading a magazine.
He cleared his throat . . . or tried to anyway, it was too dry to do more than croak . . . and her eyes snapped up to his.
"Aaron!" she exclaimed in surprise, her hand reaching out to touch his arm. The magazine pages fluttered as they fell to the floor, "you're awake! How do you feel?!"
Hotch stared at her for a moment, feeling groggy and out of sorts, but his memories were still fully intact. So his mind was clear enough to know one thing . . . he didn't want to see his wife. Not now. That was his other life. His other world.
And he knew that he was still in this one.
He blinked again and licked his lips.
His voice was hoarse, but again his throat was dry. The words ended up coming out as barely a whisper. He wanted some water. He felt dehydrated. And though his brain was fuzzy, and he was in pain . . . a lot of pain . . . the profiler in him was still working overtime.
That guy never could get off the clock.
And that guy took note of the clenching of his wife's hand, the curling of her fingers back into a fist . . . and then there was the shift of emotions that ran across her face.
Hurt. Rejected, and . . . something. Something else. Something that he knew should interest him, but at the moment . . . didn't. That was for the other world. So he ignored it . . . and licked his lips again.
Where was that water? And where was Emily?
He needed to find her.
These were the things that mattered, reading the full range of expressions on his wife's face, did not. And he was about to ask Haley again about Emily, when suddenly she stood up. She took two steps . . . and pulled back the white curtain.
And there in the bed next to him . . . with bandages on her bruised face, and tubes running into her black and blue arms . . . was the woman he was looking for.
Seeing her like that . . . so pale and vulnerable . . . broken. It made his stomach hurt.
"She woke up this morning," Haley said softly, "she was in the room next door. JJ was sitting with her. And she started screaming, she was completely incoherent except for your name. It must have been a nightmare. But even though she was conscious, she didn't seem to be coming out of it. Finally they decided to roll her in here . . ." Haley's voice faded, "she stopped screaming the moment that she saw you. And then she cried herself back to sleep."
Those screams were the worst sound that Haley had ever heard . . . the worst sound that she could imagine hearing. And it wasn't just her. Aaron's team, they were all there, they'd set up camp in the hospital waiting room . . . and the rest of them had all come running. And the looks on their faces . . . she knew that they were just as traumatized by that sound as she was.
And given what they did for a living . . . Haley's eyes snapped away from the woman in the bed . . . that terrified her probably more than anything.
With a faint biting of her lip, Haley's gaze traveled back over to her husband. She'd been so worried about him. He'd looked so UN-Aaron'like lying in that bed. He had always been so physically strong . . . and now he looked weak.
After she'd arrived . . . and gotten over the shock of his appearance . . . she'd stayed with him because she thought that he'd be happy to see her. Even with all of their problems, all of the fighting . . . all of the plans that she'd been making in her head . . . he was still the father of her child. And she still cared about him, very much. So she'd thought that it would be best if it was her face that he saw when he first opened his eyes. That it would be a comfort.
But now she wasn't so sure about that decision.
Because he hadn't looked happy to see her . . . and now he wasn't looking at her at all. He was looking at Emily.
His eyes had begun to water.
Haley's followed suit.
"What happened to you two Aaron?" she whispered, the stress clear in her voice, "Nobody knows. All they know is that you were in an accident on the highway in a pickup truck that they can't trace. A pickup truck that was covered in dried blood. It rolled into a ditch, and," her voice began to thicken, "they found you unconscious. Both shot, and beaten, and stabbed . . . and nobody knows why. Nobody knows where you've been," her voice broke, "please tell me where you went, Aaron."
For a moment her husband said nothing back. And then . . . still staring at Emily . . . he responded softly.
"Is she all right? Is her arm okay? She didn't," he tried to clear over the lump in his throat, "lose it, right? It's still there?"
He'd forgotten to loosen the belt . . . his head had gotten too foggy, and he forgot.
Jesus Christ, he forgot to fix her arm!
Haley stared at the man that she'd been married to for almost twenty years, and she realized then . . . he didn't care about her questions. He wasn't interested in them. He was a thousand miles away.
Off somewhere with the woman lying in the next hospital bed.
Haley wondered if he'd be coming back to her . . . and then she wondered if she really wanted him.
The thought shamed her . . . but there was no surprise there. Not really. Their marriage wasn't suddenly 'a good one' just because he was hurt. And though she felt horrible that he was in this hospital bed . . . no matter what happened between them, she would never wish him any harm . . . it was becoming clear that something had happened to bond these two people, in a way that she knew they weren't before Aaron had left for this trip.
Her husband's only mistress had ever been his job.
But now the way he was staring, and the way she'd needed to see him to stop screaming.
Something truly horrific had gone on out there.
And though she hated herself for it . . . hated that it was even in her . . . Haley was feeling hurt. And jealous. Jealous of this woman who had suffered God only knew what kind of horrendous physical torture, and emotional trauma. And Haley was jealous of this poor woman because . . . even in her sleep . . . she was capable of holding her husband's complete, and undivided, attention.
It had been years since Haley could say the same.
The tears that were hovering, began to pool in her eyes.
"She's okay," she finally whispered back, trying to fight crack in her voice, "her arm's okay. Or, they said it will be with physical therapy. Same with your leg. They gave you both fluids and dressed your wounds," she cleared her throat, "you have some stitches, a lot of stiches actually, but," she bit her lip, "you had a lot of injuries. Um, and . . ." her feet shuffled as her fingers wound together, "uh, we're in Shreveport. It was the closest trauma center. Penelope figured out that you landed here when your plane was diverted, and you rented a car and Emily bought some food, but that's the last she was able to track you."
He still said nothing . . . and the silence was killing her . . . so she just started babbling.
"There are um, detectives that want to talk to you. Morgan told them that he'd call when you woke up. You've both been completely out for the last two days. The doctors said it wasn't really, uh anything medical, just . . . you shut down. I flew in with the team yesterday morning after they'd identified your IDs through the local field office. Jack's home with my . . ."
And then she stopped . . . because she realized . . . he still wasn't listening. He still didn't care.
Not about any of it.
After she'd said that Emily was okay, his eyes had fallen shut. And when he opened them again, she saw that he was again just staring across the little aisle.
He was still a thousand miles away.
"I'm going to go find the nurse," she whispered as a tear finally slipped down her cheek, "you should, uh, they should check you."
And then she hurried out, wiping her hand across her face just before she reached for the door.
Hotch waited until his wife was gone, and then he bit his lip and pushed his blankets back. Slowly, he sat up, and swung his legs over to the floor.
His head was pounding, and his side hurt . . . like he was pulling the skin apart. But he couldn't feel any wetness, so he figured it was just the stitches catching.
His eyes dropped down.
Now that his mind was clearing, he took note of the white johnnie that they'd dressed him in. And he could see that most of his right leg had been shaved and there was a large bandage wrapped around his calf.
The gun shot.
It ached. He also had on a neck brace . . . he tossed that onto the floor . . . and then he reached up to touch his hairline, feeling along and to the back . . . there were at least a dozen stitches in his scalp. And those were in three different places. Probably part from the beatings, and also . . . his fingers slid down . . . there were two on his cheek, and a couple over his brow . . . so maybe more trauma in the accident.
Either way . . . his arm fell down . . . they were really itchy.
He sucked in a breath, and then reached over to pick up the plastic cup of water by the bed. He gulped it down. Then he placed the cup back on the table and grabbed for the IV stand.
Though he was still thirsty . . . he hadn't believed that he could BE this thirsty . . . he knew that Haley would be back soon. And she wouldn't be alone.
So with a slow exhale, he pushed himself up and to his feet.
For a second he stood here . . . feeling the world tilting slightly to the side . . . trying to get used to being vertical and somewhat drugged up.
Once he was sure that he was steady on his feet, or, at least steady enough, he used his IV stand to shuffle barefoot over to the other bed.
The floor was cold.
With his free hand, he pushed the curtain back a little further. And seeing the tears that had begun running down Emily's face, he knew that she was having another nightmare.
How many had this been since he'd last seen her?
Haley said that she'd woken up screaming this morning, but were there others before that? Had she just been trapped in her mind since they'd arrived? Did she think that he'd abandoned her?
That he'd left her there alone . . . his eyes started to burn . . . down in the dark.
With his teeth grinding into his lip, he shuffled another two steps. Then he gently lowered himself down onto the side of the bed. Fortunately he had his boxers, but the blanket was scratchy on his legs. He reached up, his stiches pulling again as his fingers brushed her tears away.
"I'm back Emily," he whispered, "and I'm sorry I left you," his voice started to catch and he cleared it, "but I'm here now," he cupped her cheek, trying to be mindful of the bruising, "you're not alone anymore. You can wake up now."
It took a second of him whispering and stroking his thumb along her jaw . . . but then suddenly her eyes popped open.
They locked onto his.
For a moment all he could see there was abject terror . . . and he knew that she was stuck up on that terrible mountain.
But then she blinked, and her watery eyes widened in recognition.
Though her voice was as hoarse as his was, the shock in her tone was obvious.
"Yeah," he nodded, "I'm here." Then he tipped his head.
"Where did you think I was?"
She bit her lip, her eyes sliding away from his and down to the blanket he was sitting on.
"Dead," she murmured back, "you were dead. Lonnie killed you with that shotgun. And then," she swallowed, "Tom dragged me away. He dragged me into the woods, and then down into the pit. And you were dead . . . and I wished I was too."
Hotch closed his eyes.
When he opened his eyes again, his voice was low, gentle.
"How many times have you had that dream Emily?"
"I don't know," she chewed her lip, "more than once. But I can't really remember anything before this morning. I mean," she jiggled her head slightly, "I don't remember the hospital before this morning. The rest of it," her eyes snapped back to his, "I remember all of that just fine."
Hearing a slight commotion coming down the hallway . . . and realizing that the team was about to come running in . . . Emily's hand creeped out from under the blanket.
Hotch picked it up.
Their fingers wound together as they had in the woods. And when their room was suddenly flooded with people that they knew, and people that they didn't . . . everyone in a state, stumbling over their questions, not noticing that they were providing no answers . . . they kept that link.
And then just as quickly the nurse was waving everyone back out. And Hotch could have kissed her for that. Because they weren't ready yet.
They needed a minute.
They actually needed a hell of a lot longer than that, but there were still people alive out there . . . hopefully. And they needed to send them help.
So once the nurse had given them water and the doctor checked their vitals and their dressings, the nurse helped them to the bathroom and back. Then the doctor left, and the nurse had a fruitless argument with Hotch about going back to his own bad . . . though it wasn't so much an argument, as him simply flat out ignoring her request.
After all that . . . about fifteen minutes . . . they were cleared for 'visitors.' But Hotch didn't want 'visitors.' He wasn't going to do all of this in front of a crowd, not now.
So as the woman in the peach scrubs started towards the door, Hotch asked her to wait for a moment. She looked back at them, he looked over at Emily.
Though Gideon was the obvious choice . . . he had come with the team, and he was second in command . . . Hotch wanted nothing to do with him right now. Because if not for Jason going AWOL, then he wouldn't have had to take his place at that parole hearing.
And none of this would have happened.
It was irrational . . . and unfair, Jason too had suffered a terrible trauma . . . but that's simply the way it was.
Emily looked back at Hotch. She blinked, and then nodded.
"Yeah," her teeth sunk into lip. "Morgan."
Eventually they would have to tell all of them, plus the local police, an inquest, an FBI review board . . . and really, the list went on and on. But for now . . . she fixed the blankets back up tightly over her chest . . . they would start with Derek. He could get the search going . . . and he would clean up the bodies that they had left.
Because that's really what they were choosing.
The person who was going to go and clean up their mess.
And though she hated to put this on him . . . and she knew that Hotch did too . . . he was really the only one. It wasn't a task for JJ or Spencer, and as pissed off as Emily was at Gideon for taking off, she knew that he was in no condition psychologically to step up here.
He was still too fucked up from what had happened before.
'Yeah,' she huffed bitterly to herself, 'well thanks for letting us join the God damn club buddy.'
But she swallowed her bitterness when she saw the look on Hotch's face . . . guilt. Guilt that he was sending Derek off to do the job that he should be doing.
So she reached over and picked up his hand again. Though this time she also shifted the blankets around to cover them up. This development between them was their business.
It didn't need to be shared with the team.
And so it began. The nurse stepped out, and a few seconds later Derek came back alone. And they told him their story. And then he went back and he told the others. And on it went.
Agency to agency . . . up to the governor's office, and back to Washington.
Nobody outside the team believed them . . . or more particularly, nobody outside the team wanted to believe them. At least not right away. It was just too horrible to contemplate. But of course nobody outside the team contemplated these horrific things on a daily basis.
Their nightmarish world was a foreign one to the locals . . . and nobody wanted to learn the language.
But still, they were highly respected members of a federal law enforcement agency . . . he was a division chief, her an ambassador's daughter . . . their word was above reproach.
So red tape was cut as quickly as could be managed. A qualified interagency search party was formed, old maps were collected, mining experts were consulted, and equipment was gathered.
And then twelve hours later . . . they began to follow the breadcrumbs.
Back to the off-ramp, to the tree in the road . . . their rental car. Then further on, the human totem . . . by then the heads were rotting like old pumpkins, Derek's words . . . and finally the turn up the little mountain. The clearing . . . the access road . . . the decomposing bodies of two serial killers.
And then . . . the shaft.
It was the worst site that they could imagine trying to search. It took days to excavate. But slowly, out came the bodies . . . stacks of them. Nobody knew how many. More than two hundred, less than five. The problem was that they were in pieces. And some of them were old.
So, VERY, old.
Hunting humans for sport seemed to have been a family tradition, one that went back decades. Since the mine had closed perhaps, so maybe forty years of human hunting.
Either way, it was a perfect world for them. On the cusp of a protected national forest, far off the Interstate . . . no incorporated towns for miles around.
Everybody had left when the mines shut down.
Well, most everybody. Reid's researched showed that at least a few hundred people had stayed behind in that general area. That was in the last complete census he could find.
Back in 1952.
And those that chose to stay, they were the type that didn't mingle much with the outside world anyway. So nobody out in the world missed them when they were gone.
And God only knew when they'd been taken.
Somehow this family had continued to reproduce through the decades. And though their insanity had to have been mostly a product of their upbringing . . . again, butchery was the family pastime . . . it was also possible that there was inbreeding. Actually, inbreeding was likely under the circumstances of their physical isolation . . . but that was a theory that wouldn't be proven for weeks.
Not until the DNA tests were complete.
So they moved on to other theories. Stressors didn't seem to be relevant, this was just the way they were. And they had no idea how long they had been the way they were . . . operating out in the open, that is. But this generation certainly had shown no fear at all of badges or other people's guns. So it was clear that it had been a long time since anyone had held ANY authority over them.
And with no law to speak of, there was nothing to stop their evolution.
Perfect monsters, in their perfect little world.
From the IDs discovered down in the pit . . . and the automobile graveyard they discovered out in another clearing in the forest . . . they had been feeding off of anyone and everyone that came across their path. Campers and hunters . . . and then the people like Hotch and Emily.
The ones that had taken a wrong turn.
And paid dearly for it.
On their third day in the hospital, Hotch sent Haley home. He waited until Emily was asleep, and then he told his wife that he had to stay at least through the inquest, which wouldn't be for another week, and she might as well get home to Jack. And as he again saw that shift on her face, he knew that he was supposed to thank her for coming . . . that he was happy to see her . . . but he couldn't get the words out.
So instead he just kissed her goodbye.
And then ignored her tears as she left the room.
On their fifth day in the hospital, they got good news . . . that they were healing quickly, and that most likely they would be released in twenty-four hours. And then they got bad news.
Word of survivors.
But not ones like them. No, these were the other kind. The kind that Emily was in her dreams.
The kind that wished they were dead.
The couple from Arkansas that had gone camping in the forest last summer, the college buddies from Duke that had left for a cross country road trip back in May.
Four men had left on that trip . . . only two survived. One was killed in the initial abduction, and one they found dead in the mine shaft.
He was the man with no face.
And then there were the sisters from Oklahoma. They'd left for a trip to Mardi Gras and never come home.
They'd been missing for fifteen months.
The six survivors were pulled out on stretchers.
The men had been completely castrated, their eyes were poked out, they were starved, beaten . . . and a limb here or there chopped off.
And of course, they were raped.
Everybody had been raped. Repeatedly, and horrifically. Sometimes with objects . . . sometimes not. Tom had most definitely been an equal opportunity offender. And though the women had also suffered the same torture and degradations as the men, there was something more. Something . . . worse.
Two of them were pregnant.
Late second, and early third trimesters . . . far too late to abort. There was progeny about to be born.
Their family line would continue.
When Emily heard that . . . they were getting regular updates from JJ . . . she'd nearly fallen stumbling off the bed with her arm still in its sling. Then she ran to the bathroom.
Fortunately by then she was once again capable of running.
Still though, she barely made it to the toilet. And when she felt a hand on her shoulder, and then someone pulling back her hair, she knew that it was Hotch.
He'd sent JJ away.
And once she was done getting sick . . . throwing up the remnants of the first full meal she'd eaten from the night before, macaroni and cheese . . . he helped her up.
As she rinsed her mouth, she pushed down the pain from the pull in her stitches. Then she turned off the faucet and their eyes caught in the mirror.
Hers were blazing hot.
"That was us without guns," she hissed. "That was us and we left them there."
At her words of condemnation, Hotch's face twisted with pain and guilt. His gaze fell from hers.
It dropped down to the sink.
He watched the droplets of water sliding along the porcelain . . . they were slipping towards the drain.
"Emily," his hand unconsciously moved to her side . . . when they were alone he found himself touching her all the time, "you know that we had to leave," his red rimmed eyes shot back up to hers, "you know that."
"I do, I do know that we had to leave . . . and I know that we left them behind. And one fact doesn't change the other."
Her voice was hard . . . brittle.
Then she turned around and his arm fell away from her body, it dropped back down to his side.
His fingers dangled.
She stared up at him. He stared down at her. His stomach was churning with guilt and remorse for decisions he couldn't change . . . and wouldn't even if he could. And though his eyes burned with the pain of those choices . . . her eyes were clear.
"We're never going to get past this, are we?"
Emily blinked once . . . and looked away from him. Then the fury seemed to go out of her . . . she couldn't stay angry with him.
It just caused him more hurt.
So she leaned forward and rested her head on his chest. It was not the first time that she had done this since they'd woken up.
This was just how they interacted now.
And so he did what was becoming rote. His arm came up. He pulled her close. And he remembered that his decisions . . . made and unmade . . . were the reason that she was here with him now.
And that's why he wouldn't change them even if he could.
Emily's eyes fell shut as she breathed Hotch in. He had become her touchstone. A talisman that she reached for when she felt herself . . . or her sanity . . . slipping away. But she was going to have to give him back when they got home.
And she didn't know what she was going to do then.
But he was still hers full time now, and so she buried her face against his battered chest and took a deep breath. And then she finally answered his question.
"No," she murmured slowly, "no, I don't think that we will get passed this."
In the forest she had been uncertain about their future. Now that uncertainty had passed. The brutal truth of it was . . . this had changed them. They weren't the same people anymore.
And they never would be again.
But as she felt Hotch's chest hitch, and his fingers dig into her side, she registered the pain that she had caused him . . . and then she remembered his son. And that he still needed to be a dad.
And what if that was a part of him that was gone?
Suddenly she hated herself for answering the question . . . for saying the words out loud.
It was a cruelty he didn't deserve.
So she slid her arm around his waist, and tipped her head back. Her lips curved . . . it was almost a smile.
It was the best she could manage.
"We can try though," she continued softly, "and even if we never do move past it, we can maybe at least find some way to live with it."
Her words were again the truth . . . but this time they weren't so cruel. And as she saw him bite down on his lip, right before he pulled her back to his chest, she knew that those words had made an impact too. That they had pushed back a little of his hopelessness.
He rubbed his hand down her back . . . and her eyes fell shut again. A tiny spark of hope was lit there. A shimmer of a brighter world, a world currently beyond them.
Someday . . . maybe . . . they'd get back there.
Time would tell.
A/N 2: So there you go. Dark all the way to the end. But obviously, it was not a happy ending story. I mean, even with them surviving not violated and not dismembered, it just wasn't going to end well. Though, it did end on a slightly more 'upbeat' note than Epilogue B in Snake Pit! But of course, it would have to :)
I wanted Emily to be the stronger one here at the end because I saw the pregnancies being a catalyst to really tap into her rage at what had almost happened to them. And with everything so raw, I didn't see Hotch being ready for that, or more specifically ready to be a TARGET of that. Even if it was incidental. She was blaming them both for things that they couldn't control.
And I pulled Haley in here at the end, because a) it makes sense that if Hotch was unconscious in the hospital she'd jump on the plane too, and b) setting up the conflict between Hotch's loyalties to these women. Because the next story is going to be Hotch torn between whether he still wants to try to salvage his marriage, and this new relationship with Emily. Which though not romantic at this point, is VITAL for his continued mental wellbeing, so it's not like a normal situation where he can step back and say 'I shouldn't be connecting with this woman like this, I'm married.' That's not really relevant here. Also though, remember, in canon Haley was on the verge of leaving him right in this window of time. A fact alluded to here. So their marriage was on its last legs anyway. It's just that she doesn't feel she can leave him, NOW. That would be kind of dick'ish. But Hotch is going to be very different now than canon so he's going to be viewing his home life differently than before.
I'd love to jump into the next phase here, but I am trying to circle around to some other neglected stories first. And to that point, the conclusion of "Cranky Bastard" will be up this week. That's to proofing stage too. Beyond that, I have to see what else I can pull forward. I also think I can get 'Aaron & Emily' wrapped too. Not this week :) but this month. And I am also definitely planning to start the next story HERE before the end of the month. Aside from just relationship building, we'll be touching on some canon season 3 eps (in the same manner we did in Girl) but revisited with this completely different type of interaction between H/P. And ALSO, I do have another heavy, dark 'case fic' that will be sucking them in at a later date. So, I think the next story will be 'big.' And I'm kind of happy about that because (though I know you guys are waiting for updates elsewhere) most of my bigger stories (with the exception of SC) I can see the light in the tunnel. I know how many chapters until they wrap. And mostly, they're wrapping in single digits. So to keep the muse generally alive (i.e. not depressed that so many of these worlds will be shutting down) it is nice to have a big open canvas to paint on again. Something heavier, but with the ebb and flow story arcs already lined up like we had in Girl proper.
Thank you so much everyone who has been reading and reviewing all along here, much appreciated :) Especially when it is a much darker path we're wandering down. Not everybody's cup of tea ;)