The night air was cool on my skin. It might have been pleasant if not for the dead man's blood caking my clothes. You could only clean up so much using a tap and bucket. I needed a shower so badly it was almost a physical ache. I supposed I could have tried to get someone to drive me back to the hotel, but I had to be here even more than I needed to be clean. I had to see this through. It wasn't real until I saw them bring out the body bag.
That and, sadly, sickly, I never felt quite so alive as when I was in the middle of a hunt, and I couldn't quite let go of the last dregs of that feeling.
The farm was a hive of activity: colleagues, paramedics, local cops. Outside the perimeter there were even a small handful of gawkers: locals who'd been tipped off by friends in the know, no doubt. It was a small town after all. I stood apart from all the fuss and commotion, enclosed in my own little bubble of silence. Leaning on a battered wooden fence, I tilted my head up so I could look at the stars.
Orion ascendant. Figured.
Footsteps interrupted my reverie. Halting and arhythmic; only one person it could be.
I turned to face Morgan. "You should be in hospital," I accused.
He joined me at the fence, settling companionably by my side. I couldn't help but notice he leaned on it much more heavily than I did. Regardless, he still managed an amused grin.
"Did I hear you right? 'It's only a flesh wound' Prentiss actually thinks wounded agents should let the paramedics take them to hospital? Without protest?" He raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. "Can I get that in writing?"
Normally I'd bicker aimiably with him, but right now I just couldn't seem to muster the humour.
"You could have died," I said quietly. The words hung in the air between us.
"But I didn't." His expression now sober, he matched my serious tone. "Thanks to you."
"Yeah, well." I shrugged uncomfortably. "You should still have let the paramedics take you in."
"I'll go when we're done here."
"That's right, they listen to *you* when you insist you're fine. And Hotch. Even Reid, for that matter. Me, they practically dragged off kicking and screaming. Remember that car crash I was in?" Not that I was bitter.
But Morgan was starting to look uncomfortable. Time to take the edge off, in more ways that one. Somehow, I managed to scrape up a lopsided grin.
"I guess they probably figured nothing was going to get through that thick skull of yours. After all, the rest of us have been trying for years."
"Hey!" He put on an expression of mock hurt. "A lesser man would be deeply offended by that. But, since I'm the caring, sensitive soul that I am, I can make allowances for someone who's clearly suffering from badass syndrome."
I rolled my eyes. This from the Worf of the team? That is to say, being both the group's official Tough Guy and, simultaneously, paradoxically, the one voted most likely to go down like a chump on any given mission. Sadly, I felt that this was far too geeky to actually say out loud. Instead I restricted myself to: "Badass syndrome? Really?"
"A text-book case."
I called bullshit, of course. He responded. We were back into the groove in no time. Apparently I could manage banter after all. If I was in the habit of lying to myself, I'd say that meant everything was back to normal. But I'm not, and it wasn't.
Not by a long shot.
The night air is cool on my skin as I make my way from her apartment. Possibly a little chilly, but I am feeling a little too raw to really tell. The lust has left me, as it always does, leaving me hurting; a broken vessel.
I hate this part, but I also love it. Sometimes I'm a little twisted.
Instinct guides me to a secluded place, an alcove beneath a footbridge. Pressure, stopping my breath, driving me to my knees. Overwhelming. Unbearable. Something has to give, and that something is me.
I hold myself as the storm breaks. My soul is naked to its raw violence, my body wracked and shaken by the force of my convulsive sobs. Tears pour down my face; a cleansing torrent of pain and release. The storm scours everything in its wake. It leaves nothing untouched, nothing behind.
Nothing but me.
I don't know how long I stay there, letting my pain, my anger, my fear flow from me and onto the ground. An instant or forever, both and neither. It doesn't matter,
Finally the tears stop, and I'm left numb. Tired. Empty. Moving on autopilot, I retrieve makeup remover and tissues from my handbag and clean the remnants of my war paint from my face. Its job was done anyway.
I call a taxi and just sit silently in the back, letting the driver's talk wash over me like waves, merely nodding and smiling at appropriate places. Then I'm at home, and it's too much like work to climb the stairs to my apartment, so I take the elevator instead. I'll make up for it tomorrow.
Once in my bedroom, I divest myself of my clothes in clean, efficient movements, take care of my ablutions and curl up in bed. I grab a well worn book from my comfort pile and open its pages at random. Ah, Slaughterhouse Five. I barely read it, just letting the familiar flow of words lull and soothe me, before putting it down again and turning off the light.
Cartharsis. It's not just a word. It's the hub around which my world turns.
As I fall to sleep, I can't help but feel that tomorrow is going to be a better day.
My mind was stuck on yesterday, screaming to itself as I relived, over and over again, that endless moment when I saw my partner go down. A door we hadn't seen. A figure bursting from the hidden room, charging into Morgan and slamming him against the wall. The sickening thud as Morgan's head hit the edge of a shelf. The soft, boneless way he crumpled to the ground. Blood; a spreading pool to stain the floorboards. His life, spilling out of him.
That was then, this is now.
I forced the memories back in their box, locking them away until I could exorcise them properly. That was better. I checked my reflection in the mirror, pleased to see I looked calm. My eyes were a little bloodshot, but that was probably more to do with the general lack of sleep while working this case than anything else. I would do.
As I exited the cramped aeroplane bathroom, I almost bumped into JJ, who was hovering nearby. I made to go around her, but she stopped me with an outstretched hand.
"Are you alright?" she asked quietly.
Concern in her eyes, in the tilt of her head. For a moment, it was like it used to be, like we could be friends without complications, Without distance. Without an edge to our every interaction.
But we couldn't, and we both knew the reason why. Or thought we did. I was oddly touched that she still cared enough to check on me, but somehow not surprised in the slightest. It was what she did.
And I do what I do. What I have to.
"I'm fine," I replied, with a meaningless smile and a careless shrug. "You know me."
I'm *always* fine, or something very much like it. For certain values of fine.
For certain values of always.
"I thought," she began, then shook her head and changed it to: "Okay, then." I wondered what she'd been going to say, but the habit of distance held the words back. I nodded and moved past her, heading for the main cabin. She turned in the other direction, towards the bathroom.
"Emily?" I looked back quizzically, already reaching for the curtain separating us from the others.
"Take care of yourself." And with that, the bathroom door clicked shut.
It was a sorry-looking group that rolled off the jet when we finally touched down. Morgan was walking wounded (the doctor at the hospital had only reluctantly discharged him, and only on the understanding that he have a check-up after the flight). Reid and JJ were both uncharacteristically subdued. Hotch was seething - in his own inscrutable way - over an encounter with the mayor just before wheels up. I didn't really know what it was about. I didn't want to know. Rossi was distant; he'd spent most of the flight back immersed in his writing. And me?
I was texting Celia. And I was just *fine*. At least I had every intention of making sure that I was.
The best that could be said for the showers at work was that they were adequate. At least the anaemic spray got the grime of the flight off. That would have to do for now. Anyway, I'd be able to go home soon. I could have gone straight there if I'd really wanted, but none of us would have dreamed of asking Hotch for permission. He would have granted it, no question, complaint or hesitation, but that wasn't the issue. It was a point of pride. Nothing got in the way of the job. Not injury, not shooting someone. Not your personal life. Nothing. So here we all were, for as long as we were needed.
Or, at least, until Hotch sent us home.
Low voices up ahead gave me pause. Morgan and JJ by the sounds of it, and they were in earnest discussion. I didn't thnk they'd appreciate me barging in on them. I should probably have headed back to the lockers to wait until they were done. I could have used the time to do something about my hair, which I'd just pulled back into a damp ponytail. But I didn't. Instead, I loitered a little way around the curve of the corridor, eavesdropping shamelessly.
"She won't even speak to me." There was genuine distress in Morgan's voice. My eyebrows shot up as I processed that information. Garcia wasn't speaking to her favourite Honey-Bun? Apparently, she really was upset with him.
"I don't blame her."
"What?" Morgan sounded as shocked as I was.
"What, 'what'?" There was a darkly amused edge to JJ's voice; one I hadn't heard before. I was willing to bet that Morgan's expression right now was a sight to see. "Were you expecting sympathy?"
"I guess I was kinda hoping for some... advice? On how to patch things up with her. I mean, I don't even know why she's so upset with me!"
"And that's the problem, isn't it? You don't understand." She stopped there, and I could hear her taking a few deep breaths; could practically sense her counting to ten in her mind to regain her self-control. "Look, Morgan: you want advice? Don't talk to me right now. Ask me tomorrow instead."
And with that, I heard rapid footsteps heading towards me. Too light to be Morgan; had to be JJ. I had a brief moment to think about ducking into a side-corridor. After all, did I really want to get involved in this? But then... JJ was a member of the team, and it sounded like she needed to talk. I didn't see Garcia - my usual JJ buffer - anywhere around, so that left yours truly. With only a smidgin of inward trepidation, I made myself stay where I was.
I hoped I wasn't going to regret this.
JJ slowed as she caught sight of me, eyeing me warily but not speaking until she'd put some distance between her and the site of her conversation with Morgan. I assumed Morgan had fled the scene, but better safe than sorry.
"How much of that did you hear?" she demanded.
I shrugged. "Enough. I heard that yesterday was difficult."
She gave a short bark of laughter, a sound devoid of humour. "You could say that."
"Want to talk about it?" I offered, cautiously. She might have checked up on me on the plane, but that didn't mean we'd reached the 'braiding each other's hair' stage. After what she said to Morgan... Let's just say I felt some caution was merited.
JJ gave me an appraising look. "Are you offering to listen?"
"I suppose I am."
I could see the question in her eyes, but she didn't ask it. Instead, she leaned against the wall, arms crossed loosely over her stomach.
"I've never had to talk down a would-be lynch mob before."
Oh. I see.
I had only found out about this after the fact. Apparently, while most of us were out in the field, some bright sparks decided to seize the opportunity to 'deal with' the former mutants in custody at the station.
Stopping the potential violence would certainly look good on her CV, I mused, but she probably didn't want to hear that at the moment.
"Sounds like you did a good job, though. The way Rossi told it, you sent them all home feeling thoroughly ashamed of themselves."
"It was a close thing." Her gaze was distant and shuttered. "Too close. What if I hadn't...?"
"But you did." I took a step forward. "It happened how it happened. Don't second guess it; just learn from the experience and move on."
She shot me a Look. "Wise words," she commented, sardonically.
I nodded. "Yeah. Not mine, but I'll quote 'em." It had taken my younger self a while to see the wisdom in the words. I wasn't blind to the irony of me trying to pass it on to someone else.
JJ closed her eyes for a moment, then met my gaze directly. "It's not just what might have been," she said, quietly. "It's that people could feel such hate, such violence towards people who never did them any harm. That they would see them as something less than human. Like... Like animals to be put down." A brief hesitation, and then: "What makes someone feel that way?"
A loaded question. Double-edged words. A minefield I didn't need right now. Didn't need ever, if I had my way.
"Human nature," I answered, shrugging. "Hate what you fear; fear what you don't understand. If we fully understood the whys and wherefores, our jobs would be a hell of a lot easier."
"I guess," she said, quietly. The trite answer didn't satisfy her, but I could tell she wasn't going to push. That was probably for the best. If she wanted philosophy, she could go hit up Rossi.
"Hence the conversation with Morgan?" I enquired. It seemed a reasonable guess.
Another Look came my way. "Pretty much. Any other time, I might have been able to explain it to him without the use of vulgarity. But that is not this day. The whole subject's still a little raw."
She gave me an almost guilty smile, which then faded. "You would." There was a hint of something else in her voice, something I really didn't want to get into.
But... in spite of everything else, she was still a friend. "Do you want to meet up after work?" I asked, trying to keep any hint of reluctance from my voice. With work colleagues *wasn't* where I wanted to spend my evening, and it would definitely take its toll. I guessed that in some ways, I was still a sucker.
She looked at me with more than a little surprise. "Sure. Garcia and I had already decided to make a night of it, and you're welcome to join us."
At least she wasn't going to be alone. No need for me after all. "I'll see if I can make it," I temporised.
JJ nodded, the polite excuse noted for what it was. "If you can, we'll see you in the usual bar."
This was getting entirely too touchy-feely for my tastes. I gave her a smile, and headed off to my desk.
The door to Hotch's office opened just wide enough for him to stick his head out. "Go *home*, people." I glanced at my watch. Right on cue. The door closed again. He wasn't taking his own advice, I noticed. I thought half-heartedly about trying to finish off the pile of "I shot a guy in self-defence" forms in front of me before heading out, but fuck it. They could wait until tomorrow.
I had things to do.
"Yeah?" I looked up as Morgan leaned on the corner of my desk. Go-bag already in hand, my skin practically itched with the need to be out of this place. Keeping the edge from my voice took more effort than it should have.
"Fancy going out for a few?"
"Thanks, but I think I'll pass." I frowned as a thought struck me. "Anyway, should you really be drinking with a concussion?"
He rolled his eyes at me. "For your information, Dr Prentiss, I was only planning on having one beer. Maybe two. Figured I'd switch to soft drinks and watch the rest of you make jackasses of yourselves."
"You wouldn't deny the wounded hero his entertainment, would you?" He made with the puppy dog eyes. "Come out with us. At least for a little while. Everyone's going to be there."
"Well, all the guys." He shrugged a little awkwardly. "I think the girls have their own plans."
"So, I'm one of the guys, am I?" I looked down at myself pointedly. "Gee, thanks, Morgan. I know you said it took balls to take down that unsub, but I didn't realise you were thinking that literally."
Morgan glowered at me. "You know I didn't mean it like that." Any other day, he'd have probably grinned and gone with the joke. The whole business with Garcia seemed to have really shaken his cool.
I took pity on him. "Yeah, I know. But I still have to pass. Have a good one, alright?"
"Alright. You too, Prentiss."
I waved an acknowledgement as I shouldered my go-bag and made for the door.
A good one? Maybe, maybe not. A necessary one? Definitely.
As always, Celia's welcoming smile warms me like sunlight. As always I find myself smiling helplessly back.
"Hey," I say as she envelops me in a tight hug, and for a moment my world is light. As always.
"Hey," she replies. "Go on, put your coffee down so I can start the interrogation."
"Great," I say a touch sardonically, placing the mug carefully on the table in front of us. "Sometimes I think that being your friend should come with legal protections."
"If you widened the definition to include 'political ally' you might find enough support to get that law passed."
"If I didn't despise politicians so much, then I might consider trying that."
She widens her eyes in mock hurt. "Present company excepted, I hope."
I pretend to think for a moment, with a twist on my lips. "I'll get back to you on that."
She mimes throwing something at me. "Don't think that snarking at me will save you from my prying."
I blink innocently at her.
"Get to it, then!" Her eyes flash commandingly, and I'm taken back to our time together at one of the many schools I attended.
And just like then, I am helpless to do anything other than comply. I sketch out the 'highlights' of my last case, editing out some of the more recognisable specifics. And I let the last of the stress, the pain, the fear go, as she gives me the only absolution I need or desire these days.
"I believe that you mentioned something about relationship woes," I say afterwards.
"Speaking of relationships, when are you going to start to look for one?"
At any other time, such a question, even from her, might make me bristle and retreat behind a wall of ice. But not now, not at the moment, not while I have been cleansed by the night's activities. And she knows this, curse her.
Instead I reply: "Why would I want to have a relationship? It's not like I have time for one. Besides, this life suits me."
She looks at me, eyebrow arched. "Really?" she asks, as though she isn't the poster child for one night stands.
I smile at her, unforced, unhurried. She makes it easy for me. "I'm happy." And I am. Well, content at the very least. And, really, what more can you ask?
"You," she pokes a finger in my direction. "Were not meant to be single. You can't let that little shit Amanda still control you." I'm too mellow for even the mention of *her* to blemish my mood. "You have too much love to give."
I don't tell her that it's fine, really. I don't tell her that I already have someone I love. And I certainly don't tell her that the special person is her. My straight best friend. I'm a walking lesbian cliche. If she knows, she has certainly never brought it up. And, really, that's good. I didn't focus my affections on her because I expected her to reciprocate. Quite the opposite. A nice, happy and altogether safe option that I never have to worry about the stresses and strains of a real relationship with.
Just what I want. Just what I need.
I may not feel quite so alive, but I never feel more unforcedly *myself* than when I'm with her like this.
So instead of engaging with her response, I just shrug and say "I believe that we were actually talking about your latest relationship." I smirk a little. "Give."
She grins and gracefully accepts my redirect, "Oh very well, my little carrion crow."
I let the sound of her voice relax me as she tells me about her latest (mis)adventures in dating.
The office is just starting to come to life as I make my way in. I wander in the direction of the coffee machine, nodding greetings as I go, before making my way to my desk. Paperwork awaits me like an evil curse, but it's a curse I've gotten used to. I sigh and start filling out forms. It's just another part of my merry-go-round life, my job, my sporadic hunts, my friends. I may not have everything that I dreamed of when I was younger, but it's enough. I'm content. I may even be happy.
And it's a bright day. A good day.
I wonder if we'll get a new case.
This is continued in Falling, which covers the period of time featured in Faces from Emily's perspective, albeit with a very different focus, featuring a lot of events that didn't get space in the original story. (And can be found in my profile.)
As ever, reviews, thoughts and criticisms are gratefully received. This story is a somewhat different beast to Faces, and pretty much utterly lacking in romance, but I hope it was enjoyable.