Your head is splitting because it's full of ghosts.
Maybe it was the warmth, or the soft, sparse glow of the lanterns, or maybe it was the spring night and all the scents it held. Nothing was dark here except the sooty shadows spilling out across the grass, and nothing was, for once, wrong. Everything was gentle and peaceful, and a profound thankfulness to be alive seemed to permeate the very air. Reid was very much aware that it was a fleeting thing, a stretch of time taking a shape it almost never took, and he saw the same awareness in the faces of his team. But it was okay. They would take what they could get.
He watched JJ and Will and Henry, and after the boy was put to bed he watched his parents, watched the utter bliss in Will's face crowd out the pain of his injured shoulder, watched the serenity in JJ, that calm she had always possessed settling and swaying in time with the music. She was a vision in her white dress, and he couldn't remember ever being angry with her, not even when Emily waltzed past with Morgan right next to the newlyweds, a reminder if there ever was one. He couldn't remember Emily being officially dead all those months, couldn't remember the cravings or the increased frequency of his nightmares, couldn't remember the way the headaches had seemed to take physical forms in the dark corners of his apartment. This night, just this once, it didn't matter.
It was a dull density at the base of his skull, now, nothing more. But then, he had grown accustomed. He'd found the right mix-and-match technique with ibuprofen and beta-blockers and was well-acquainted with the benefits of a single glass of red wine before bed. The pain itself seemed to have grown into his backbone. He had no memory of what it was like not to feel it. And tonight it was distant, vague, as though it was purposefully keeping to the sidelines.
It was nearing midnight. The party was getting wilder, loosening around the edges. Several couples had ventured out onto the shadowy lawn, and the music was fast and urgent. When Garcia whirled out from the dance floor and stretched a graceful hand towards Reid, leaving a dazed and ruffled Kevin in her wake, he had already made up his mind.
"One more," he said sternly, and let himself be manhandled onto the bathing lantern light on the parquet pieces. Unlike Garcia (and most of the others, for that matter), he'd stuck to his habit and only had one glass of champagne. Whenever he had more he felt compelled to go to a meeting, so it was more of a practical precaution than anything else.
Garcia held on to him like a lobster for two and a half songs, and then Emily was suddenly there to save him. Or so he thought.
"One more?" she suggested and smiled, holding out her hand palm up. Her nail polish had not quite managed to disguise the fact that her fingernails were bitten to the quick.
"You okay?" Reid asked as they moved slowly between Rossi dancing with Beth and Kevin attempting some deranged version of a tango with Morgan.
"What?" said Emily absently, her eyes on Garcia, who was laughing and pointing at the latter couple.
"You seem distracted," Reid clarified. "Is there something in your mind?"
Emily looked at him, then, abruptly and sharply observant. "Is there something on yours?" she countered. Reid inclined his head.
"You caught me."
"The anniversary's coming up." It wasn't a question, and Reid felt his eyes narrowing.
"Now you're trying to distract me."
She looked ashamed for such an infinitesimal fraction of a second that Reid couldn't be sure he hadn't imagined it, and then there was sympathy in the lines around her mouth. "I'm serious," she said softly. "It'll be five years ago."
"I know," Reid sighed. Very briefly like a camera flash, there and gone, the overhead lanterns seemed to glow a little brighter.
"You feeling okay about it?"
"I was planning to visit him, actually." Reid said, without having intended to. Emily looked startled.
They were both silent for a moment, dancing and listening to the music and the laughter. Then Emily took a long, shaky breath.
"I'm gonna go."
Reid met her eyes. They were steady.
"Me, too," he replied, trying to interpret the tightness in her jaws. He was unsuccessful; she was too good for him. Always had been.
"It's late. And my head's kind of killing me," he added, lying for good measure.
It was sudden and unexpected and Reid had no time to freeze; she reached up and placed her hand on the side of his face. They had stopped dancing. For a strange, surreal moment, Reid thought he could feel her pulse through that light touch, and that it was racing.
I just don't understand any of it anymore.
"You're so much stronger than me," Emily said quietly, almost a whisper. Reid frowned. He would have argued, but there was something in her face, in her dark, striking eyes, that stopped him.
"Do you need a ride?" he said instead. "I took my car."
They made their good-byes to JJ and Will, but left the others to their revelry. JJ looked into Reid's eyes a second or two longer than he was comfortable with, and he pulled her into a long hug. He didn't want her to worry. Not tonight.
"Oh my God," Emily said when he led her down the drive to his Amazon. "What is this thing?"
"It's a classic, and shut up," Reid said firmly, opening the passenger door for her. She looked between him and the cracked leather seat, and pulled her wrap tighter about her shoulders. For a second it looked as though she'd refuse, but Reid knew for a fact she'd come here with Morgan and had no other way out.
"That doesn't sound good," she complained when Reid turned the key in the ignition and the engine sputtered weakly. "That really doesn't sound –"
"I guess it's not all that far to walk to the subway from here – two point four kilometres, in fact, provided you get through the rougher neighborhoods in one piece in that dress …"
"I'll shut up," Emily said quickly. Reid smirked, jabbed the key once more and applied some violence, and turned a toothy grin her way when the car revved into life. Emily, having gripped the door handle with one hand and splayed the other over the glove compartment, didn't appear to see it.
She didn't complain once during the drive, but nor did she say anything else. Reid happily ignored the half-chocked sounds that might have been curses, and the way she squeezed her eyes shut at the left turns, and when he dropped her off, she first seemed keen to get as far away from him as possible.
Then she paused on the curb, her black hair shifting in blue under the cold streetlights. She turned to lean down by the window. Reid rolled it down, admitting the cool, smoke-scented night. Her face looked pale, different than it had done under lanterns.
She was quiet for a while, just looking at him from under a pensive frown. When she finally spoke, it was hesitant, and didn't sound like her at all.
"Do you think it's a good idea to visit him that day?"
"Why do you ask?" Reid enquired slowly.
"I just think, maybe … isn't it better to move on?"
"You think I haven't moved on?" Reid said, unable to keep a tiny bite out of his words. Emily closed her eyes.
"No, I … uh …" she floundered, voice trembling, "I mean, don't you want to forget?"
Reid searched her face. Let the silence between them fill with the city. A siren sang somewhere far away. "Do you think we can?"
She blinked, perhaps not sure she'd heard him right. Reid waited, watched her gaze slide off to the sides, watched her remember that there was a door at her back. Tension crept into her back and shoulders, and he felt guilty.
"I'm sorry," he mumbled, face heating, "I – I didn't mean to equate, I mean, your experience differed from mine on a wide variety of integral points –"
"Yours was worse," Emily cut him off. She looked at him levelly, and Reid heard the air seep from his lungs in a thin sigh. Again he found that he wanted to argue, and again something in her face warned him not to.
"I'm going to go to bed," she said, sounding almost like herself again.
"Me, too," Reid lied, and returned her smile with one of his own.
Five years felt like forever. The decision had been long in the making. He reasoned that it could be chalked up to the state of the economy more than anything else. He'd bought it for almost nothing; the realtor had in fact been overjoyed to be rid of it since, at the time, it had seemed like an impossible task getting it sold for anything remotely approaching what it had fetched back in '02.
This was America. Houses dropped in value because they were rumored to be haunted. There had been plenty of such rumors, here, and they had been the least of the realtor's problems.
Lydia had not been pleased. She had been knee deep in wedding plans by the time David learned (from Lydia's father, no less) that the police were letting the house go. He'd secured an appointment early on a Monday morning; a time set, he knew, to avoid ghouls. At the time, he hadn't been entirely certain he didn't fit into the category himself.
He didn't know how many afternoons he'd spent, waiting for Lydia to get home, just staring out the window across the street. On occasion there would be people on the curb, sometimes with cameras. Well into 2008 there had been a security detail ready to respond exclusively to any break-ins or disturbances at the address, and he'd seen them drive past more than once, had even seen them stop and get out once or twice just take a lap with their hands on their Tasers before driving off again. It was a nice house. Fresh. The owners between '97 and '02 had renovated the kitchen and bathrooms. It looked a lot like the house David lived in, only larger. And David didn't have a basement.
"The fireplace is fully functional," the estate agent had chirped, leading him through the hall to a spacious living room. "Not electric. It's very nice, a classic modern style, and the chimney's well-tended. Since this is a valley it gets nippy in the winters, and it's just priceless to have a nice fire going on those dark nights."
David had smiled. He hadn't told her his house had an identical hearth.
"Hardwood floors, only ten years old. There haven't lived any children here since the mid-nineties, but it is very child-friendly with a bit of work. The smallest of the three bedrooms used to be a study, but it would be perfect for a nursery." David had mentioned he was engaged.
She took him to the doorway of the former study and stopped, and his eyes skated over the slight indentations in the floor where a desk must have stood. She didn't go in, and David, for some reason, didn't either.
"It's a wonderful kitchen, if you ask me," she'd said warmly and spread her arm wide, indicating the gleaming countertops. "The windows lets a lot of light in, especially in the summer."
David's eyes had sought out the heavy steel door situated in a little dip in the wall. It was painted the same white as the plaster. The agent had seen him looking, and her eyes had turned briefly to slits. She had waited a beat, before seeming to decide he didn't look like someone she wanted away from her sale as fast as possible.
"I have to ask, sir – are you aware of what's happened in this house? Because I'm obligated to law to tell you, and if you already know … well, then I won't have to say it out loud."
She smiled awkwardly, seemed on the brink of giggling, and pursed her lips all in under a second.
"I know," David had sighed. He'd hesitated. "Fact is, I live across the street. My girl and I, we'll be looking for something bigger, and I … I don't know. I knew the guy a little."
The estate agent had frozen. She's peered at him. Had tilted her head to the side.
"Do you want to see it?" she'd asked quietly. "The basement?"
David had opened his mouth to say 'yes'. He'd stared at the painted bolts all around the frame of the door. Then he'd shaken his head.
As it turned out, Lydia didn't want to live in the house. After asking David ad infinitum if he was mentally ill, she'd insisted that she wanted out of the street altogether. She wanted an apartment.
"What about those kids you've always wanted?"
"You can have kids in an apartment!" she'd shouted, and there had been a whole week when neither of them were sure whether or not they were having a fight.
"Nobody's going to buy that place," David complained. "It's going to stand there and wilt. Like a ghost."
"But why do you want to buy it?"
He hadn't been able to answer her.
And then, in early 2010, he'd come home and found a teenaged girl standing in the street outside number twenty-four. Liddy was inside, bedridden due to complications with her pregnancy, and David had stopped, briefcase in hand, to gape as the girl pulled a set of wire cutters from her backpack and proceeded to cut a hole in the five-foot fence that had been put up last year. He'd taken a step down the driveway, then another, as the girl folded the cut portion out of the way and climbed cumbersomely onto the property. She had Converse sneakers on her feet and spiky hair dyed a garish red.
David had wanted to cry out, to protest somehow, but he found himself closing his mouth tight, dropping his briefcase to the ground, and starting at a half-jog towards number twenty-four.
The girl had thrown the wire cutters aside in the brown shrubbery flanking the driveway. David vaulted the fence and paused, looking around for her, before he heard glass breaking.
"Shit," he hissed and sprinted around the house for the back, where there was a small patio and a back door to the living room. The girl was reaching through a jagged hole in the glass to unlock the door. She did not hear David crossing the parched lawn, and popped the door open when he was right behind her.
"What are you doing?" he asked. The girl screamed. She stumbled away from the door, her feet catching on the bag she had dropped on the patio boards, and fell.
"Whoa," David said, raising his hands. "I'm not gonna hurt you."
The girl was not afraid. She was perhaps fifteen, maybe younger, and her eyes, which were a distinct, pale blue, were daggers on David. She picked herself to her feet, and raised a small can of mace that she had pulled from her bag.
"Get away from me, pervert! I'll call the police!"
"You should do that. Tell them there's a break-in in progress." David said, his hands still aloft. The girl glared.
"What do you care?" she said, her face suddenly contorting with rage. "It's not your house."
"Actually, it is."
She blinked. "What?"
"It's my house. I bought it last month."
She opened her mouth, closed it again. Looked past David towards the fence, then behind her. Locating escape routes.
"You wanna tell me why you're breaking in to it? There's nothing inside. It's empty."
"I know," she said, warily.
"Then why …?"
"Because!" she spluttered inarticulately. There was something, some quality in her voice that David didn't like. She was too young for it.
"What's your name? How old are you?" he asked, lowering his hands. "And put that down."
The girl looked at the mace like she'd forgotten she was aiming it, and grudgingly slipped it back inside her bag. "I'm thirteen," she said, with a hint of pride. "And it's none of your business what my name is."
"Really? Because I think the police might want to know, you know, when I call them." He reached into his jacket for his cell phone.
"Wait!" said the girl. She was quiet for a moment, seeming to contemplate her options. She looped her pack back around her shoulders. "It's Rose. Rose Preston."
"Okay, Rose Preston. Why are you breaking into this house?"
She stared up at him, her forget-me-not eyes intense and unearthly. David saw the roots of her hair; they were golden brown, almost blond against the angry red.
"My father died in this house," she said.
Her tone said she wanted to shock him, but that burning depth in her gaze, the desperate, pleading something in her features, said otherwise. David's mind came to a standstill.
"Your … father. Your father was …"
"Michael Preston," Rose supplied. "He was murdered in the basement of this house."
He gazed down at her, his thoughts hurtling back to the myriad of articles that had followed in the wake of the arrest, the indictment and the conviction respectively. Then there had been the anniversaries, the coverage of the search for the missing bodies, the interviews with the bereaved …
Those eyes had stared back at him from photographs. A young man, too young-looking to be a father, with golden brown hair and lovely, lovely eyes. He'd been one of two victims who had children, and consequently of more interest to the media than the rest.
"I guess we don't need a key, huh?" David said to Rose, and led the way through the back door into the house.
That was the first time he saw the basement. He hadn't been down there since, and wasn't expecting to have to make that descent any time soon. He still dreamt about it, and Rose's childlike, guttural, desperate weeping wound through those dreams like piano wire.
Now the five-year anniversary of the murders was just around the corner. Michael had been promoted twice and had spent two years turning the house into something it hadn't been. They had worked from top to bottom, knocking out no less than seven walls and ripping out the pristine kitchens and bathrooms to place them elsewhere. There was an addition on the ground floor, poking out onto the back lawn and swallowing the old patio, and Alexander's room took up a portion of the old master bedroom.
They hadn't gotten to the basement yet. Rose came, every year on the day of the discovery of her father's body, to sit in the middle of the floor for ten to twenty minutes. She talked to him sometimes; feeling dirty and perverted, David had listened at the top of the stairs.
He thought it was her at the door that Monday morning. He didn't know why. It just slipped into his head that it had to be her, she had come early this year. It was a fluke that he was even home. He'd dropped Alex at his kindergarten and seen Lydia off and decided, on a whim he couldn't really explain, to work from home. It was a beautiful day, warm and full of birdsong, and he'd taken his laptop and a thermos of coffee out onto the deck.
He padded barefoot through the hall, past the staircase and to the front door, where he peered through the peephole, firmly expecting to see Rose's eerie blue eyes. He never knew what color her hair was going to be, and for a confused second, as he looked upon a head of wild, golden brown curls, he thought she had decided to strip the dye. Then he saw the eyes.
He opened the door, acknowledging a sensation like falling rapidly swooping though his gut.
"Can I help you?"
"I don't know," mused the man, throwing glances down the sides of the house. "This is number twenty-four?"
He sounded dubious.
"Yeah," David confirmed. "Sure is. Can I help you with something?"
The man frowned uncertainly, still looking at what parts of the exterior of the house that he could see from the front step. He gazed at the driveway for a few seconds, then seemed to force his eyes back to David. They were large and brown and set deep under thick, frowning eyebrows. He was tall, taller than David, and skinny as a reed. The smile on his lips was tentative, awkward. David's mind leapt to the assumption that he was a student at the college, even with the rumpled black suit he was wearing. There was housing in this neighborhood, and the dorms weren't far.
Something blue caught his eye, and no sooner had he identified the ancient Volvo parked a little ways down the street before the kid spoke again, throwing David completely off guard: "I'm with the FBI."
David was inclined to believe he was making some sort of joke, before he pulled out a very real-looking badge from an inside pocket of his blazer. Definitely not his car, then. Who drove that thing? He'd have to ask around at the next barbecue.
"I was hoping to have a look at the house as part of a conclusive inter-departmental article on the Riverside Stalker case; it's standard procedure at the five-year mark. I assume you've heard of the case, but if not, I'd be happy to summarize it for you."
"Of course I … uh … okay." David blinked and shook his head. The agent had stated his business very fast, without breathing, and David was stepping back from the doorway before he even knew what he was doing.
"Thank you sir, that's very helpful," the kid – the fed – speeded on, carefully yet absently working the soles of his loafers over the rug inside the door with the air of someone who had walked into many strangers' homes.
He stretched out a long-fingered hand. "I'm Dr. Reid."
"David Malcolm." He shook the hand; it was dry and cool and all knuckles. "But – doctor? I thought you said you were FBI."
"I am," said Dr. Reid. "I'm also a doctor."
David half-wanted to ask of what, and how old was he anyway, but it recalled his first exchange with Rose and found himself pushing the words away before he said them. "So … what do you want to see?" he asked instead, scratching the back of his neck. He thought the little hairs there were standing up. But why would they?
"You've done some extensive remodeling," Dr. Reid stated, looking around. He didn't answer the question.
"Yeah," David agreed as he followed the lanky creature into the house. "Yeah, we … we wanted to change it."
"Understandable," said Dr. Reid. He was at the staircase, and glanced upwards as he passed it. They reached the kitchen and dining area, where a row of sliding glass stood open to the morning. The sun was on the deck from morning until the late afternoon, and David's thermos and open laptop glinted like mirrors.
"You don't suppose I could get a cup from that?" asked Dr. Reid politely, indicating the thermos. "I've had a long drive."
"Oh – of course. Let me just …" David crossed to the kitchen, took a mug from a cabinet and doubled outside to fill it.
"Sugar?" Dr. Reid enquired, and David took the three steps to the kitchen again to oblige him. He said 'stop' after an alarming amount of spoonfuls, and David felt compelled to joke, "You really did have a long drive."
"That's what I said," replied Dr. Reid, looking puzzled. He gulped his coffee like it was Diet Coke.
"How long have you lived here?" he asked, spidering through to the living room. He had long legs and moved as fast as he talked, and David had to jog a little to keep up.
"Two years. Why are you – do you really need to see the whole house? Isn't it just the …"
He trailed off. Dr. Reid had come to a halt by the fireplace, the only thing that was unchanged from before the remodel. He was studying the family pictures on the mantle. David couldn't see his face, but his back was very straight and he was standing very still.
"That's Alex," he said, moving up beside the agent and taking down his favorite photo of his son. "He's two. Like the house."
"He's beautiful," Dr. Reid said quietly, his dark eyes following the picture of the laughing child as David put it back on the mantle.
"Thank you. He's a good kid."
"I'm sure," Dr. Reid said. He'd finished his coffee in less than ninety seconds, and now turned to place it carefully on the coffee table. As soon as he'd put the mug down, his right hand went to his left arm, where he rubbed at something through his sleeve like he was in pain. He did not seem aware that he was doing it.
"Would you mind showing me the basement, Mr. Malcolm?"
David didn't go down there himself; Lydia had stored her bicycle and some other odds and ends at one time or another, but David didn't utilize the space. There was no need; it was a big house. He still had no idea what he wanted it for. Filling it with sand had frequently seemed like a good idea.
Now, with the agent at his back, he flicked the switch, which was outside the door. He thought he could hear a little intake of breath from Dr. Reid, but had no time to dwell on it since the very sound of the basement door made every hair on his body stand on end, not just the ones at the back of his neck.
It was bright and white down there, the steps steep and hard. Alex couldn't work the heavy door open by himself, but when he got older they would have to keep it locked. Anyone could kill themselves falling on those steps.
"I hope you don't have a dust allergy," he said over his shoulder to Dr. Reid as they began to descend. "We don't use it. Haven't decided what to do with it, yet."
Behind him, Dr. Reid stopped on one of the topmost steps. "You haven't remodeled it?" he asked quietly. The door had closed behind them, and his voice sounded spooky, whispering past David down the steps into the empty hole below.
"No," he said, turning on the steps to face the agent. Once again, the man was standing unnaturally still. He made David think of a deer that had wandered into the backyard one early morning last winter. Alex had been delighted. They'd watched it through the window for over fifteen minutes, the way it would freeze and look up with big soft eyes, apprehensive, whenever it heard something, however harmless. Bony and graceful all at once, ready to bolt at any given second.
"Why not?" asked Dr. Reid, still not moving. His doe eyes were fixed on David.
"Because …" David searched for a response. He didn't want to tell him about Rose, for some reason. That was none of his business. "Because we don't know what to do with it, I guess," he finished lamely. "We've been postponing. I think maybe, we don't want to use it."
Dr. Reid stared at him for another moment, then nodded slowly. He wet his lips, lizard-like. It occurred to David that he looked nervous.
"Should I …?" David said; Dr. Reid gestured vaguely for him to keep going.
When they were both standing on the basement floor, David felt a need to break the sudden silence. He hesitated, watching the doctor's hand rubbing at that same spot on his arm again, then said, "I read in the paper that they buried the last of those missing bodies. Los Angeles, was it?"
"Yeah," said Dr. Reid absently, his eyes traveling slowly over the blank, white walls. His Adam's apple was moving up and down the length of his throat. "Yeah, he was from there."
"It said you paid for it." David stood still as the doctor moved slowly, searchingly along the walls. He seemed only distantly aware that David was even there.
"I did, yeah," he said sluggishly. David blinked.
"You did? I meant that … uh, that the FBI did?"
"That's correct," said Dr. Reid in that same slow voice, like he hadn't heard a word.
David stared, transfixed, as the agent made his way into the far corner and stopped, his head bent low. He stood like that, rubbing his arm, as the seconds amounted to thirty and more. David's skin began to crawl, and he took a silent step closer. In the glaring light, the same lights that had illuminated the things that had happened here, he saw an ugly scar protruding from the crisp white collar of the doctor's shirt.
He stopped. His thoughts worked tiredly around something that wouldn't quite take shape. He opened his mouth to speak, to ask something, but his voice just sat unused in his throat.
When he finally moved, David was startled. The agent lifted his head, causing the scar to disappear back behind his collar, and raised his eyes towards the ceiling. David looked where he was looking and saw the rough holes in the upper portion of the wall where he had been told there had once been a camera and a set of speakers mounted. The doctor hadn't had to search for them; he'd known exactly where they were.
Still staring at the missing chunks of concrete, like bites out of a sandwich, the agent fumbled in his pocked and retrieved a cell phone. He snapped a picture of the holes, then turned to look at David. The intensity of his gaze struck David like a punch in the gut, and he studied that bony, pale face, the tumble-down hair that was almost the exact same color as Rose's father's had been.
"Would you mind leaving me down here for a couple of minutes?" asked Dr. Reid, and his voice was surprisingly steady. David had expected it to quaver. "I need to take some photographs, assemble some notes. If you don't mind, Mr. Malcolm."
"No," David bleated. "No, no. Of course not. Take as much time as you need. I'll be upstairs if you need anything."
He was already backing towards the stairs. Dr. Reid's face was lit by a fleeting, tight-lipped smile.
"You've been extremely helpful, Mr. Malcolm. Thank you for your patience."
He paused at the bottom of the stairs, and they looked at each other. Reid knew David had figured it out, and it didn't bother him. He had always known that Garcia's efforts to keep him anonymous would only work for so long.
The scar on his neck tingled, and he sucked down a stream of dank basement air. As David Malcolm hurried back up the stairs into his beautiful house, where he had raised his beautiful son with his beautiful wife, he told himself it didn't taste like anything.
It was just a basement.
AN: So, that was that. The End. Thanks for sticking with me. I love you if you review. I always want more!
Sequel planned for 2017, starring spunky young hacker Rosie Preston, whose sole purpose in life is to machete her way through the jungle to the protected identity of the man who survived what her father didn't. Meanwhile, someone is copying the Stalker killings and eluding the FBI ... just kidding. Maybe. No, I am. Kidding, I mean. Seriously.