The phone was only halfway through its first ring when Penelope punched the button to answer it.
"You've reached Penelope Garcia, receptacle of all accumulated wisdom up to and including the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow. African and European."
Hotch didn't miss a beat. "Garcia, we're on our way back in. I need you to print copies of Schuster's chat logs for the file."
"Already printing, sir." Penelope rolled her chair across the floor and pulled a stack of papers from the printer tray. She tapped the bottom of the stack on the table to straighten it, then laid it face down atop a similar pile already waiting there. "I've got all the relevant e-mails queued up, as well. Everything will be bound and waiting for you on your desk when you get back."
"Okay, thanks. See you in a few hours."
"I, uh... I hope you won't mind, but I took the liberty of putting together a little surprise for Jack."
There was a pause. "For Jack?"
"Yeah. I kind of... I overheard you talking to JJ last week about how Jack likes to pretend he's a knight, so I made him some armor."
Hotch didn't reply.
"It's just cardboard and aluminum foil," Penelope added quickly, her brow furrowing at Hotch's silence. Maybe she'd overstepped her bounds, made him uncomfortable. Maybe even made him angry. "A little shield, and a sword, and a breastplate. Nothing much at all, really..."
Hotch cleared his throat. "Thank you," he said hoarsely, then cleared it a second time. When he spoke again his voice was stronger, but it was his Dad voice, not his SSA voice. "Thanks, Penelope. That's very... he'll love that. Thank you."
Penelope smiled. "My pleasure, sir. They'll be waiting for you on your desk, too."
"No, why don't you – " Hotch paused again. Penelope could hear Reid's and Emily's faint voices in the background. "Why don't you give them to him yourself?" Hotch said quietly. "Maybe you'd like to come by for dinner with us tonight."
Penelope nodded, though she knew Hotch couldn't see her. She didn't trust herself to speak just then. "I'd love that, sir," she finally managed. "The Happy Meals are on me."
Kevin was staring intently at his monitor, eyes wide and unblinking. Penelope could see the scrolling lines of code he was studying reflected in his glasses.
"Whaddya say?" she continued. "We could order in a couple of chimichangas, extra salsa, just the way you like it. Flan for dessert. A cold six of Dos Equis. Sound good?"
"Hey." She clapped her hands and whistled. "Ground control to Major Tom. Anyone in there?"
Kevin's head finally snapped up. "Hmm? What did you say?"
"I said, 'Mexican tonight?'"
"Oh." He tapped a few keys and ducked his head back down again.
Penelope understood the concentration involved in writing a new program better than anyone, but this was getting ridiculous. "So?"
"So. Do. You. Want. Mexican. Tonight?"
"Oh," Kevin said again. "No."
He shook his head. "No. I can't."
"What, you have plans or something?" Penelope smiled at the absurdity of the idea.
She did a double take. "You do?"
"Mmm hmm." Kevin tapped another key and closed the lid of his laptop. "I'm going to a bachelor party."
"A friend of mine."
"I didn't know you had any friends."
"Oh, that's nice," Kevin replied, but his tone was light as he put the laptop down on Penelope's coffee table.
"No, I just mean most of the hackers I know don't have many friends, and the ones they do have aren't usually the type to get married. I mean, you may or may not have noticed this about folks like us, but most of us aren't exactly overflowing with social skills."
"You have friends. Lots of them."
"Ah, yes. But I'm an amazing woman bursting with sparkling wit and charming personality." She flashed him her brightest smile to prove her point. "The exception that proves the rule."
"Is that so." Kevin lunged at her without warning, scooping her up into a tight hug that left her giggling as he huffed in mock irritation against her neck. "Just for that," he said, pressing his forehead to hers, "I'm not going to tell you about the stripper's secret trick."
"A stripper, eh?"
"No self-respecting bachelor party would find itself without one."
"Well, fine for you, Kevin Lynch. Just remember, looky but no touchy." She jabbed the tip of one finger into his chest on each syllable to emphasize her point.
"Mmm, don't worry." He leaned in to kiss her. "I save all that touchy stuff for you."
"Well, all right, then. I've got some stuff to finish up at the BAU. Why don't you call me when the party's over, and we'll meet back here for all the touchy we can get until Monday morning."
It didn't take too much digging to find the name of the stripper attending the party that night, or to get the details about the gimmick that made her locally famous. When the phone rang around 11:30 that night, Penelope was armed and ready.
"So, did she open your beer bottle with her butt cheeks?"
A sharp exhalation of breath on the other end of the line made Penelope's grin drop like a two-ton weight. She glanced quickly at the Caller ID; it wasn't Kevin.
"Excuse me?" It was a man's voice, gruff and authoritative. Penelope's fingers pulled up the trap and trace protocol before her conscious mind was even aware she had done it.
"Um... this is Penelope Garcia," she said timidly, wincing.
The man chuckled. "It's good to know some things never change."
Penelope cocked her head as the voice morphed into something familiar. "Agent... Agent Gideon? Is that you?"
"It's just Gideon now."
"Yes, of course. Well. This is a surprise." She swallowed uncomfortably. This was more than a surprise, this was a freaking bombshell. What the hell was she supposed to say? "Uh... how have you been, sir?"
"You don't have to 'sir' me anymore, Garcia. I'm a civilian now. But to answer your question, I've been fine. Thanks. You?"
"Just peachy." She stopped just short of calling him 'sir' again, substituting a quick cough. "We're all just peachy here."
"Actually, that's why I called. I heard about what happened to Haley." Penelope's breath caught for an instant, the way it did every time someone mentioned Haley's name. The memories of Hotch and Haley's last terrible phone call, the sound of the gunshots echoing with hideous finality in her headset, were never far from Penelope's mind. Sometimes she feared they would be last thing she remembered before she left the Earth herself. "How's Hotch doing?"
"He's – " Penelope wasn't quite sure what to say. Hotch wasn't "fine." He wasn't "good." He wasn't even "okay." He was doing his job, doing it just as well as he ever had, but there was something missing in him, something Penelope knew he would never be able to get back. "He's very strong," she said at last. It was the only thing she could think of to say. It said nothing about what was really going on, and it was still more than Gideon deserved to know.
"He's still with the BAU, then?"
"Oh, of course. He's no quitter." The moment the words were out of her mouth, she realized what she'd said. "That is – I mean..."
"It's okay," Gideon said. "I know what you meant."
Can you explain it to me, then? Penelope thought, rubbing her forehead with the heel of her hand. This was turning into the worst Friday night ever.
"How's everybody else doing?" Gideon asked. "Morgan? Prentiss?" He paused. "Reid?"
Penelope stared at her monitor. The words "No result" were blinking in the trap and trace window. He must be using a disposable cell. Of course, he would be. He obviously still didn't want to be found. She hovered one finger over the disconnect button, a sudden knot of anger tightening in her stomach. He had no right to be calling like this, out of the blue from his hidey hole. No right to be asking these questions.
No right to be asking about Reid.
"He looked for you, you know," she said.
Gideon didn't respond. She could hear the whoosh of his breath across the mouthpiece.
She squeezed her eyes shut. "I have to go now, sir," she said, forgetting herself. To her horror, her voice was shaking. "I have a call coming in on another line." It was a lie, and she was sure he knew it.
"Don't tell him I called," Gideon said quietly.
"Believe me, I won't." And she wouldn't. She wouldn't let Reid hurt for even one more second over this. "Why didn't you call Hotch directly?" she said.
"I have my reasons. Good night, Garcia."
The line went dead with a muted click. Penelope took her headset off and tossed it on to the desk. She knew exactly what his reasons were.
There were days when Penelope could come home from work and shrug the day off just by changing her clothes.
There were other days when she needed a long, hot shower and a huge mug of herbal tea before things started to feel normal again.
And then there were days like today, that required a stop at the local pet store to snuggle with the puppies and kittens, followed by an evening of classic 80s movies and a bag of microwave popcorn, accompanied by burning incense and surrounded by her mother's healing crystals.
Days like today happened far too often.
Her cell phone rang during the parade scene in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. She'd been expecting the call since Ferris's parents had gone to work.
"Hello, my darling one."
"Hi." JJ's voice sounded tired.
"You got home kind of late, eh?"
"Yeah. We had a delay getting off the ground in Ohio."
Penelope hit the mute button on her remote. Ferris continued his dance in silence. "Everybody okay?"
"Pretty much. Morgan jammed one of his fingers pretty bad, and Emily has a nasty cut on her arm, but they're going to be fine."
"And how are you, my sweet girl?"
"Better now." Penelope could hear Henry snuffling somewhere close by. She could picture JJ sitting in the rocker in Henry's room with the baby asleep on her chest, head tilted to cradle the cell between her shoulder and ear.
"He still have that cold?" Penelope asked.
"It's mostly gone, just a few sniffles yet." JJ sniffled a few times herself, then choked back the beginnings of a sob, getting herself under control again almost immediately.
"What is it, honey?" Penelope prompted gently.
It took a long time for JJ to answer. "That baby," she whispered. "The unsub and that baby. I can't get it out of my mind."
Penelope pressed her lips tightly shut to still their trembling. She hadn't had much success forgetting that particular image, either. Playing with puppies could only do so much.
"All this time on the job," JJ said, "and I still can't believe how much ugliness there is in the world. How horrible people can be to one another. And I keep thinking it can't get worse, but it always, always does."
Penelope's eyes started to prickle. She picked up the remote and clicked the TV off. Ferris's bouncy good humor was too much to take right now.
"And the thing that scares me most is wondering what I'm going to see tomorrow," JJ said. "If the next thing is always worst than the last, I just can't... I can't imagine –"
"Sweetie, you can't go there," Penelope said. "Don't make it worse than it has to be."
"I know. You're right." JJ sighed. "Sometimes, I think... I feel... Do you ever feel jealous of your parents?"
"Your parents. Are you ever jealous of them because they're dead?"
Penelope froze. "JJ," she said, fear rising in a lump in her throat. "What are you talking about?"
"Nothing, really. I sometimes... I get jealous of my sister, that she doesn't have to face this shit anymore."
"JJ, you're not saying you're thinking of killing your —"
"No, no, of course not. I'm just... I'm guess I'm just really tired, and talking crazy. I'm sorry."
"Because you know everything your sister gave up when she died, right? All the holiday parties and family vacations and late night sisterly chats and being with you and Will and..." Penelope let her voice trail off.
"And Henry," JJ finished.
JJ started to cry in earnest now. Her sobs were soft, so as not to awaken the baby, but Penelope bet JJ's whole body was shaking with them. Henry was probably getting an extra tight hug just then. "You're the one who told me not to let this stuff stop affecting me," JJ said finally, her voice clotted with tears.
"I know. But you can't let it destroy you, either."
She sat in silence for a few moments while her friend pulled herself back together. Henry started to fuss, and Penelope heard JJ shushing him gently. The creak of the rocker was loud enough for Penelope to hear through the cell. She closed her eyes.
"Can you come over?" JJ said at last.
"Of course, my dove."
"You got it. And Bender and Spicoli and Inigo Montoya. See you in a few."
Penelope snapped her phone shut. The light was sparkling on the surface of one of her mother's crystals. Hell no, she didn't envy her parents, no matter how horrible the world was, and how much of that ugliness she had to see. If she'd been in the car with them that night, she never would have met JJ. Or Kevin. Or Derek. She'd never have known how funny Hotch could be on those very rare occasions he let his humor shine through. She'd never have known how endearing Reid could be when he did a magic trick or tucked a loose strand of hair behind his ear.
You can't let it destroy you.
She wiped her eyes with the hem of her sweatshirt, and got up to pack an overnight bag.
Penelope's fingers flew across the keyboard, fingernails clicking like castanets as a cascade of windows opened on her monitor. The search parameters Derek had given her were pretty vague (the unsub was a highly intelligent white male in his late thirties to early forties, had served time in at least two different prisons in the Midwest, and was either Irish or of Irish descent; he also had a thing for ice picks Penelope would rather not have known about), but no more so than dozens of other cases they'd worked on. Her eyes darted from one window to another and back again, comparing the data, evaluating the possibilities, working out patterns in the chaos. The answer was in here somewhere. It just had to be uncovered.
The phone rang again, and she answered it without taking her eyes from the monitor. "Nothing yet, sweet cheeks," she said. "You have anything more for me to work with?"
The silence that greeted this question was thick and somehow ominous. This wasn't Derek. Penelope's hands stilled as the silence drew out. Then someone coughed on the other end. It was a productive cough, coming from deep within the chest, and went on far too long.
"Hello?" The hair on the back of Penelope's neck was rising to attention. The silence stretched on until she thought she might scream, but she dared not hang up. Trap and trace was running, though she knew it was an exercise in futility.
Finally, a man's voice, smooth as silk and with the faintest hint of an accent, said, "When you tell your team about this later, be certain to mention the mercy I showed in allowing one last call."
Penelope's mouth dropped open. "What? What are you talking about? What last call?"
Reid's voice was small, broken. The way it had been when Hankel had beaten him, ordered him to confess. The voice of a frightened child.
"Reid?" she breathed. Goosebumps broke out all over her body, and a shiver of fear passed from head to foot. "Oh, Reid. I'm here, honey. I'm here. Where are you?"
"I don't know."
"Are you hurt?"
Reid coughed, the same awful, rumbling cough she'd heard earlier. He'd been fine when the team left Quantico two days ago. That cough left no doubt as to the answer to her question.
"Hang on, Reid, I'm calling Hotch as we speak. You hang on for me, okay?" She stabbed at the speed dial button, missed, stabbed at it again. Her heart was in her throat as the call went straight to Hotch's voice mail. Fuck. They must be in an area with no cell service. That meant Reid was probably separated from the others by a good distance.
"Garcia, listen to me." Reid's breath was coming in short, panicky gasps now. "Do you still have that recording I made for my m-mom?"
"Yes," she squeaked.
"If you don't hear from me again, will you –"
The smooth male voice came back on the line. "I think you get the idea," it said, and then Penelope had nothing but dead air on her headset.
It took half an hour for her to raise the team; by the time she finally got through, she was close to hysterics.
"I'll call you back as soon as I know something," Derek promised. "You stay strong for me, baby girl. Stay strong."
She waited, because there was nothing else she could do. She prayed. She cried. She listened to Reid's recording over and over again. She cursed Reid for wasting his last phone call on her rather than calling Hotch, or Derek, or Rossi, someone who might have actually been able to help him. And then she refused to acknowledge his reason for doing so when it finally occurred to her what that reason was: he'd known it would do him no good.
And she waited.
It was almost 5:00 AM by the time the phone finally rang. Penelope jabbed at the button so hard a section of ragged, chewed fingernail splintered away.
"Derek?" she said breathlessly. "Did you find him? Please tell me you found him."
"We found him," Derek said. His voice was lifeless. Cold. Penelope knew his hands were covered with blood. "We were too late."