A/N I am so terribly sorry to have let this go for so long! This fic was originally supposed to be something I sprinted through, just a quick cleanse of an idea I had sitting around collecting cobwebs in my head, and it ended up dragging for months! Well, anyway, here's the final installment! Thank you to all who read and reviewed, and a special thanks to all those who have stuck with this story for this long!
Scars And Souvenirs
"We may have parted ways that day, but we were always connected. For once I had a group of friends to depend on, ones who accepted me. And from that day on we also had direction, we knew exactly what we were to become together. We wanted to save lives, not only those of the victims, but the wayward souls who perpetrated the crimes as well. Our lives were never the same from that day, and, though I can't speak for all of us, but I feel I've gained more than I lost. I gained five friends, a deeper appreciation for human life and for the feelings of others, I gained perspective on my own problems, and I gained humility and mercy. That day left us all changed, but I dare say that without that day, none of us would be standing here. Twenty-five years ago there was a shooting at Powell Secondary School. The people I met and experiences I encountered changed who I was. That is why I joined the FBI." I finished, listening to the darkened lecture hall around us explode into applause. Looking to my sides, I saw the faces of my friends, SSA David Rossi, SSA Aaron Hotchner, SSA Derek Morgan, Dr. Spencer Reid, Technical Analyst Penelope Garcia, and our Communications Liaison Jennifer Jareau, all shining with pride and nostalgia.
Usually we hate having to do these lecture circuits, the cases piled on JJ's desk always seemed more pressing than public speaking. But this talk, one about why we joined the FBI hit us harder than most, causing us to look back to the first day we met. That shooting ended lives, and it changed lives. Being among the survivors, we almost felt a duty to change for the better. It was that duty and those nine hours, forty-seven minutes, and twelve seconds shared in a dingy girls washroom, that brought us here today. The applause died down, and we headed off the stage, congratulating each other on the excellent talk. But I still had a nagging feeling, an obligation of something I must do.
"Hey guys, I've got to go do something, I'll see you back in the bullpen, 'Kay?" I headed down to my car, sitting silently in the driver's seat until the opening of a door broke my thoughts.
"Hey." it was the face of my wife, JJ, peering into the car. One hand of hers was gripping the car door tensely, the other one rubbing small, soothing circles upon her blossoming, pregnant belly.
"Hey." I replied, patting the passenger's seat as an invitation for her to sit. She entered silently, taking my hand in hers as she sat down. No questions were asked, no words exchanged, we didn't need any of that to know what the other was thinking. I put the car into drive, crawling down familiar streets until we reached Powell High.
I got out, taking her hand again, and walked towards the only new aspect of the building. A square marble obelisk reached for the sun, with flowers and candles laying at its base and the names of victims in the middle. I knelt at the base, not caring how the rough sidewalks bit at my knees, and ran my fingers over the names. They were engraved in the stone in the flat print of a tombstone, and it was as if feeling the letters ripple beneath my fingers would help me better recollect who they were. A cheerleader, a football player, an art student, a computer geek, a loner. All strata of high school life, united in death. It seemed bitterly ironic.
But it was the last name my fingers touched that brought the tears and sorrow bubbling up. I didn't even have to open my eyes to know who's name it is, the lines were sharp and new, untouched as of yet by erosion and wear. Elle Greenaway.
"It could have been me. Without you, I could have ended up just like her." I sighed, needing to talk, and JJ gladly listened.
"But you aren't her. And she had someone in the end, she had you." she rubbed my shoulder with her hand. JJ knew how hard I took Elle's prison sentence. I had followed the news updates on it every night, tracked the progression of the case, stood outside the courtroom as she was perp-walked upon her gangly, young legs down the pristine white steps, the guilt of nineteen murders and another ten attempts weighing upon her shoulders. Out of some deeper obligation, I wrote to her every month, told her about my life now, snuck in the occasional update on JJ, the wedding, the IVF treatments, the baby. Somehow, I wanted to show her a little bit of happiness, knowing she'd need it where she was now. Women's Federal Penitentiary wasn't the most cheery of places, but now, her name brought even drearier memories to mind. The day I received the letter, I knew something was up. In the twenty years I wrote Elle, I never once received a reply letter. It came with no flourish or importance, jumbled along with the bills and the junk mail. But as soon as I had opened the pristine white envelope and unfolded the sheet inside, I knew it was bad news. The font was a funerary black, typed on the computer by the somber yet uncaring fingers of a faceless officer. It declared, in so few words, that my final letter could not be delivered because the inmate committed suicide. They didn't even use her name, she was just another inmate, another frail woman with a baggy orange jumpsuit, another tortured soul with black eyes deadened by exposure, another number in the prison logs.
"She shouldn't have died." JJ whispered, voicing my thoughts. Ever since that day, I knew she couldn't fully understand my devotion to Elle, but to her credit, she tried her hardest.
"No, none of them should have. At the time it was all so messy, we all had each others' blood on our hands. But now, with the years passed by, all the bad seemed to boil away, leaving the dead with a white, innocent, blank slate much akin to sun-and-wind-bleached bones." I mused. My words seemed oddly poetic, but at the least, Elle deserved that, someone's thoughts.
"I-I can't help looking at her name engraved here, and think that they may as well have put my name there instead. A part of me died when I got that letter, when I learned of her death. I can't help looking at it as my failure, my failure to save her life, and my failure to even stick up for her in the first place." I fell silent, and I could feel JJ preparing her little rant about my innocence.
"It's just like you said before, life is messy, and we're bound to make mistakes. But you had no idea that it would turn out this way, and that's not called failure, that's called being human, that's called life. You, in no way, shape, or form, failed that girl. You saved her life. You ventured straight into her nightmare, and you talked her down. You prevented her from a slow, painful, fear-stained death in a dark corner, surrounded by the bodies of her tormentors. Most of all, you reminded her that she was a human being. We all saw it, that unabashed relief on her face as you two walked out together, because you touched her. After years of being an outcast, an untouchable, below all sort of respect, you touched her and reminded her she wasn't some diseased, leprous cripple. You touched her, and saved her life. How she treated that life after the fact, it was out of her hands. But I have to believe that she's happier now." I was on my knees crying now, beyond caring about my appearance. The shrill, metallic shriek of the school bell split the air, and instantaneously we were surrounded by a raging torrent of teenagers, rushing from the school doors as if in exodus, running from nothing more than homework and teachers. I knew we earned a few stares from passers-by, kids stopping to whisper about the weeping woman at the foot of their school. A sharp, skinny shoulder jabbed me in the side, belonging to a made-upped, perfectly pressed, preppy girl with her own entourage of clones.
"Sorry." she drawled uncaringly, shooting me a sarcastic smile. They walked away giggling, tossing about hurtful words that struck fresh in my memory. While I watched them disappear, I saw them obviously whispering and pointing at a haggard, bony girl with heavy makeup and black clothing. Somewhere off to the side, two taller boys with fancy hats and perfect hair were yelling at a shorter boy, chuckling as he ran away in fear.
"Nothing has changed, hasn't it? All those children died, all those lives ruined, and still things stay the same." I felt a sudden sense of defeat overtake me.
"You're only human Em, and that one event, though etched in our memory, is simply a story to them. They have to learn their own lessons, I only hope that they learn theirs easier than we learned ours." her words seemed to echo within the hollowness in my chest, filling it only with the mocking repetition of the phrase. We didn't learn a lesson, we were all branded like cattle, forced beneath the scalding iron as it seared painful memories into our souls. Painful memories that still evoked chills and panicked breathing to this day. JJ simply stood behind me, rubbing my shoulders in a constant reminder that she was still there. That we were safe and happy and no longer in peril.
"Excuse me Miss, are you alright?" a quiet voice asked. It belonged to an average-looking girl, with honey-brown hair and turquoise-framed glasses. She looked half-scared to death, still young and innocent enough to retain a little fear of talking to strangers. You lose that fear pretty quickly when strangers take the form of the officers that saved you and the doctors that helped you.
"Uhm-yeah, I am." I covered, masking my sobs with a lifeless chuckle that sounded like it was drowning beneath my tears.
"Were you there?" she asked, wide-eyed from behind the glasses as she gestured to the memorial. Despite the privacy of the question, I didn't feel overly guarded to her. I took no offense to this girl's curiosity.
"Uhm-y-yea-" I spluttered, tears returning once again as I was thrust back into a flashback. They'd become diluted and muddled over the years, and the only thing not worn dull by time's march, was the icy blade of fear that twisted in my gut as I remembered snippets. The click of lone shoes down a vacant school hall, the little dazed cough someone gives in the second before they realize they're hurt, the cries of a murderer, already entrapped in the amber of her own hell.
"Yes. Both of us were." JJ curtly replied, not wanting to be rude, but letting her protective nature overtake her. She rested her hands on my shoulders, as of she thought I'd run off or disappear.
"Oh. I'm sorry. There have been so many people visiting here the past few days that we've almost stopped noticing. We had an assembly recently about it. It's horrible what you had to go through." she admitted. I shook my head in a daze, not even aware I was making the motion. I only realized it when I saw that the earth shaking around me, and figured that it couldn't literally shatter like I was starting to. Perhaps I wasn't ready to go back. Perhaps twenty-five years still wasn't long enough for these scars to heal. The unfamiliar girl seemed to recognize it, and with the same wide-eyed innocence that I had once faced the world with, she backed away, not before laying a small wildflower at the base of the memorial. The simple action provoked even more tears, while JJ kept rubbing my back.
"She'll have to grow up too. Like us. You can't remain innocent forever. We're stronger because of that day." she murmured, reading my mind. When had she gotten able to do that? I could swear that it had been ever since that day. That day. I couldn't even make myself say the word. Shooting. It was ugly and too big for my throat, like the eight letters grew a life of their own and resisted my saying them by digging their little claws into my lungs and heart.
"C'mon." JJ encouraged, pulling me to my feet and into a soft kiss.
"We survived." she stated in awe, trying to force the victory down my throat to quell the choking there. "We survived, we survived, we survived, we survived, we survived. We. Survived. We survived Em, and I'll remind you that as many times as you need me to. Because I'm no longer the blonde, alpha-female and you're no longer the moody geek. We survived all that and now we can move on. We have a future full of light and happiness and this new baby girl or boy of ours to move forward to. I know this isn't something one surmounts immediately, but we've been making progress all these years. I'll stand by you as long as it takes, but with each baby step we take we need to remember that we survived. We were allowed to keep this amazing gift of life and we would be spitting on the memories of all these people," she ran her hand wistfully over the stone memorial "who didn't get that chance." she finished, wiping tears of her own face. I leaned in and kissed at one of the renegade ones, blotting it from her honey cheek while her eyes fluttered shut at the contact.
"Okay." I murmured, nuzzling her face softly, trying to lose myself in my future and forget the past. My future was full of Jennifer, soft and patient and endlessly kind. She's right, we survived. I could feel her cheek flush with warmth to reassure myself of the thought. So I wreathed my hands in hers, resting them upon her belly for a second, before bringing them down to hip level. With one final look back at the square marble obelisk glowing dimly in the setting sun, I fixed my sights ahead, where the entire curve of the earth was lit up in the day's swan song. Miraculously, despite the years of tears and scar tissue and clinging memories, I took a step forward, in time with Jen at my side, and suddenly, I was a little bit freer than I had been before.
"Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars."