DISCLAIMER: Criminal Minds and its characters are the property of CBS. No infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: It seemed to take forever to get this done but here it is! A thank you goes out to all the people who encouraged me to keep going and of course to Em, the coolest beta ever.
CHALLENGE: Written for the first International Day of Femslash.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
An Ordinary Day
By Major Roon
"Bye, guys!" A black haired figure waved and started to walk slowly down the street.
"Hey! Wait up!"
The woman turned and slowed down. She narrowed her eyes and tried to make out who was hurrying to meet her. The man jogged past a street lamp and she smiled. "Can I walk you home?"
"Um," she looked down the street then she nodded. "Sure."
So they walked, at first in companionable silence then the man started talking to her, he made jokes and she laughed wholeheartedly. He was a funny guy and a nice guy; she was glad she had met him and that he was walking her home.
"C'mon, let's take this way." He pointed to an alley.
"I don't know "
"C'mon. Before you know it you're back out again."
She followed him somewhat reluctantly but felt relieved when he kept a steady pace, never ceasing his joking around.
They were about to walk around a corner when he suddenly stopped and stared at her. "What?"
He shook his head and grinned. "Nothin', let's go."
She never should have gone into that alley was all she thought as small drops of sickening smelling blood hit her face.
Garcia peeked through the curtains and outside. A car was waiting in front of her house, the driver casually leaning against it and studying the neighborhood through big sun glasses.
Penelope smiled for a brief moment, remembering how that composed and controlled façade of the woman had crumbled right here, in front of her door just two days ago. It was strange to see her again it had only been two days but to Garcia it felt like weeks. It was strange to see her like this, recognize her, know her and her lips but still see that stranger leaning casually against a car.
Penelope gathered her stuff, threw a lollipop into her handbag and searched for her keys, thinking about that woman. She had thought about her constantly over the past few days; she had smiled at those fresh, vivid memories of their date, of how they had met.
That strange but pleasant feeling, that warmth inside her told Penelope that this was right, that Bailey was right, right for her.
With a content sigh she opened the door and left her apartment, walking down the stairs and stepping out into the new morning. The sun tickled her nose briefly and she moved to escape the rays of light.
Bailey grinned softly and stood a little taller as she took off her glasses. An awkward moment followed as they both didn't know how to greet each other but then Penelope was being hugged tenderly. "Hey " Bailey whispered into her ear, "It's good to see you."
"It's good to see you too." They drew apart slowly and Garcia got her first good look at the woman. "Wow, you look awful. Like something the cat dragged in a very, very filthy cat."
Bailey huffed and opened the car door for her passenger. "Well, thanks. And here I thought the Red Bull I had for breakfast had somehow erased all traces of sleep deprivation." Before Garcia could respond to that, Bailey closed the door again and walked around the car to get in as well.
"Sorry," Penelope said sheepishly.
"Don't be. I almost screamed in pure horror when I saw myself in the mirror this morning, so I get it." Bailey turned the key in the ignition and started to drive towards their destination.
"Why didn't you take a day off," Penelope asked, now really concerned. She studied Bailey for a moment then put her hand carefully on her arm in silent support.
"I volunteered to take this shift, most of my team did, we're short staffed at the moment and it also gave me an excuse to have breakfast with you."
Penelope just slapped her on the arm. "Sweet talker."
She should try the coffee at this new place, she thought.
Emily looked at the café from across the street but entered the Starbucks she always got her coffee from anyway. Today was another one of those days; the sun was up in the sky but only spending a few rays of soft light, the air was crisp, it was spring and it was annoying.
Normal people liked such days, Emily mused as she ordered her coffee. The waitress still didn't know her usual though she had been coming here ever since she worked for the BAU. That fact didn't bother her at all because it wasn't something Emily cared about.
This day was just like any other, it was a beautiful day; a day Emily Prentiss would spend at work, doing her job.
She didn't love her job but she loved doing her job, at least when she was doing it well and prevented yet another human being from being victimized.
Emily stepped out onto the sidewalk and glanced briefly at the new café again. Tomorrow she would go there.
"I'm looking forward to tonight," Penelope said shyly. Since she met Bailey she was that a lot; shy that is.
"Me too." The black-haired agent smiled and unbuckled her seatbelt. Penelope knew she would get out and open the door for her and she let her because it was just the way Bailey was.
Garcia also wasn't concerned that people might see them. Though she hadn't really become accustomed to the idea of being with a woman yet, being afraid of what people might think of her just wasn't Penelope's style. She wouldn't be doing anything else if she cared that much.
Bailey opened her door carefully and offered her a hand to help her get out; the blonde didn't need help but she took the hand anyway. "I had fun as always," Garcia said wistfully and grinned.
"Yeah. Me too "
"At least you tried the strawberry flavor, I'm really proud of you."
Bailey bit her lip and pulled a face. "I'm not used to my coffee being sticky but it really wasn't that bad, I admit." She took a small step closer to Penelope, leaving only a few inches between them.
"Well, that's good 'cause I love strawberries, you know? I love everything tasting of strawberries " Garcia tilted her head to the side cockily and smirked as a brief flash of recognition crossed Bailey's features.
The black-haired woman chuckled then bent down confidently and let her strawberry flavored lips touch Penelope's. After a moment Garcia smiled into the kiss then broke away slowly. She felt shy again, not for long though.
"Good?" Bailey asked.
They both chuckled quietly and let go of each other then Bailey nodded to someone over Penelope's shoulder. The blonde looked who it was and saw Emily waiting, sipping a cup of Starbucks. "I should get going. Emily's the one who's always late so..."
Bailey nodded and kissed her on the cheek. "Okay. See you tonight."
"Bet you will, hot stuff bye and don't harass the fledglings so much." With that Garcia turned and hurried over to Emily who was grinning from ear to ear. The two women bumped their shoulders together and started walking.
"Wow," Emily said smirking. "I didn't know you were into that."
"What," Penelope narrowed her eyes. "Women?" They left the garage and made their way over to the building where the BAU was located.
"I meant the dark, broody, mysterious type of girl."
"Oh." Garcia looked at the ground for a moment, feeling slightly guilty for thinking Emily could actually disapprove. Of course, Penelope wasn't naïve, she knew that eventually someone wouldn't like what she was doing but no one had given them an angry stare yet, no one had said anything mean to her and she hoped it would stay that way for just a little while longer.
"She actually isn't that broody and not dark, not dark at all. She's just a lot of fun "
In the elevator Emily put an arm around her shoulders and squeezed gently. "I'm glad this is working out for you." She smiled and Penelope felt kind of relieved that someone showed her acceptance. "And, of course, that Bailey is so smokin' hot."
They arrived on their floor and exited the elevator. Derek was already sitting at his desk and tried to avoid looking at Penelope.
She knew he felt awful for what he'd said and she felt awful for not telling him she was sorry too and that she forgave him. She had forgiven him and Garcia just didn't know what to say; he was the profiler after all, he should've figured something out already.
Penelope sighed internally and followed Emily to her desk. The black-haired agent just slumped down into her chair and acted as oblivious as possible.
"Good morning," Morgan said quietly.
Penelope fiddled with one of her rings for a moment then she cleared her throat and spoke uncertainly. "I show you a good morning, hot stuff."
Derek looked up a bit startled and blinked a few times. "Bet you will."
Emily leaned back in her chair, pleased that they were at least talking again. "Bliss Morgan and Garcia reunited."
Penelope rolled her eyes but grinned.
"Hey," JJ interrupted, walking by in a hurry. "Don't get too comfortable. We've got a case!"
Penelope was still in a blissful haze as she sat down at the table next to her colleagues. She knew the warm, fuzzy feeling wouldn't last because in a moment she would be confronted with all those horrible and gruesome things again.
She would see pictures of dead people, of murdered people and it was that knowledge, that someone took their lives, which made her so sad and angry and frightened.
JJ started relaying the details and she showed the team pictures of the victims; a man, a woman, a man, a woman, another man Garcia closed her eyes, opened them again and glanced down at the file on the table in front of her.
"The second victim stayed missing for over a week then turned up murdered in an alley. Coroner's report says that she's been severely abused. Bruises, cuts " JJ pressed another button on her remote and new pictures appeared on the screen.
Penelope looked at the couple for a moment. They looked so happy and then there was Mr. Carson, lying on the ground of a filthy alley, dead, just like that.
"Mrs. Carson's body was discovered five days later. Also signs of abuse. COD blunt force trauma to the head."
Garcia sighed quietly and averted her gaze again. She had seen hundreds of such pictures but she had never gotten used to them; she would be scared if she ever got used to them or found it bearable to look at them like the rest of the team.
"So he kills the husband instantly, abducts the wife keeps her for a few days, abuses her and then kills her," Rossi mused rather than asked.
"Precisely. Except for the last couple. Ernesto Hernandez, killed like the others in an alley, he wasn't married though. Witnesses say he left with a young woman, Mary Caplan, he met at a local bar. He offered to walk her home just another two blocks and she would've been home in safety. That was two days ago "
The team looked thoughtfully at the picture of the young woman. She smiled brightly into the camera, obviously content. She looked innocent; she probably was, just like the others.
"Two days, she might still be alive," Emily said after no one else said anything.
"Why did he change his MO," Reid wondered out loud. "It seems like he studied his victims, like they weren't random. He had to know that they were married."
JJ lifted an eyebrow delicately and turned the screen off. "Maybe he made a mistake?"
"No," Morgan said, "looks like he got impatient. He's looking for something in these women and hasn't found it yet. Maybe he got too impatient to study his next victims and just snatched Mary Caplan because she triggered something?"
Hotch nodded slowly. "Let's hope he's still patient enough to keep her alive for another few days."
Emily looked out of the window of the driving car.
Chantilly wasn't far, a mere hour drive. Morgan was concentrating on the road and JJ was scribbling away on a notepad and making calls to prepare everything for their arrival.
Emily looked over at Derek and studied him for a moment. "Sure," she said lightly and resumed watching the world rush by. Everything was alive, she could see that now away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Colors everywhere. It should've been a nice thing to look at but at the moment Emily felt not much at all.
It was strange somehow because when she had been a child she had appreciated these things; they had impressed her and made her feel as if the world went on despite everything she had heard and seen as the child of Ambassador Prentiss.
Something her mother had said once came to Emily's mind; something that she probably wouldn't say these days but had a long time ago. Back then it had meant a great deal to Emily, back then her mother had been funny and loving. Never too busy to have her child around and care for it.
Emily remembered the words so clearly because they had made an impression on her; she had been a child but still, she had packed all those beautiful memories, all those beautiful years with her mother into these words, so that she would never forget that there had been better times.
And in the end, it's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years.
Somehow, Emily thought, her mother, or rather Abraham Lincoln must've been right.
Penelope couldn't concentrate. She tried of course but her thoughts kept wandering to Bailey and the 'thing' they were having. She wasn't sure what it was they were having, she just knew she wanted to spend more time with Bailey, much more time.
Was she in love?
Garcia didn't think so but somehow knew she was well on the way. The thought scared her a bit; this was new to her after all and it, whatever it was, progressed fast.
She also started to question herself, her life. Her love life to be more precise. Penelope was fairly certain that she didn't just 'turn' gay one day but she also knew that she had never felt anything like this for another woman before.
So, what am I?
Penelope made a few clicks and sent an e-mail out to the team containing detailed information on where the victims were found and thought that she wasn't really into labels. She looked down at herself and lifted both eyebrows at what she saw.
There was no label which could actually describe her even remotely, so why start now? She was just Garcia and she wanted it to stay that way.
The team had just arrived and already they were making progress, or rather the local police was making progress. A leaf had been found at the crime scene and one officer had realized that it should not be there, it shouldn't be in Virginia, it shouldn't even be in the US of A but in England. How convenient.
At the moment the team and several officers and detectives were going over the evidence found at the other crime scenes to maybe find another leaf. Emily meanwhile called Garcia.
"Help desk, how may I be of service?"
Prentiss smirked slightly, wandering around the table where the team was seated. "Garcia, we sent evidence over to Quantico, it's "
"A leaf, yeah, I know. And you want me to mark it as 'urgent' and remind the techs that we don't have all day?"
Emily halted for a moment. "Uh, yeah." Her slight irritation must have shown because Morgan started chuckling to himself. "You know, why don't you call us instead of the other way around, oh mighty oracle?"
"Hey, I wouldn't be able to answer the phone like I always do. Now, where's the fun in that, Agent Prentiss?"
Slowly Emily started to turn away from the team, a smile threatening to show on her face. "You know, I would call you anyway, just to hear your lovely voice."
"Right." Prentiss could hear the wheels in Penelope's mind turn, assessing the comment. "You know you would totally lose in a one-on-one with a SWAT-agent. Buuuut we could have a very splendid affair if you're interested?"
Emily lowered her voice further, glancing over her shoulder. "When I'm back, meet me in the supply closet."
"Will do," Garcia answered dead-pan then hung up. Emily just grinned and clipped her cell back on her belt, turning she had a few pairs of eyes staring at her.
Penelope sighed happily and started the journey through the organized chaos that was her system to tag the new evidence as 'urgent'. That done she added a side-note for the techs; she had done it a hundred times before and didn't pay much attention, her thoughts wandering not to Bailey this time but to Emily.
They hadn't been flirting, not really, just playing and of course they had done it before but this time the innocent banter held another meaning for Penelope. This time Emily knew that she liked women or rather one woman in particular and she had not treated her differently.
It was a relief.
Somehow she knew of course that the team wouldn't treat her differently. Even Rossi. He was a catholic and all that but still, he knew more about what was going on in the world than most people and somehow managed to keep his faith while at the same time being incredibly open-minded.
This is turning out better than I thought.
When she had began dating Bailey all Penelope was concerned about was how everything would change; things changed indeed but for the better.
"You know," Emily said slowly after a few minutes of silence. "Bailey seems like a nice person."
Morgan glanced at her from behind the steering wheel, his face not really showing anything. "That's good. You talked to her?"
"Not really. Just a few brief words but I saw them today in the parking lot kissing."
"Kissing?" That apparently got Morgan's attention.
"Yeah making out."
Derek smiled obviously thinking about the blonde's antics. "True. Well, I'm glad she found someone who treats her the way she deserves to be treated at least I hope so." Although it wasn't a question it sounded like one.
"I'm sure. Bailey adores her. You don't need her to tell you that, it's plainly visible." They both knew what was going on here, what Emily tried to accomplish and Morgan was okay with that. They were friends, all of the team and friendship entailed looking out for each other and sometimes putting them back into their place.
"Penelope deserves this more than anyone. I really hope it works out." He added a smile to the sentence.
"Me too," Emily said quietly, her thoughts wandering to other places already. What was up with her anyway, Derek asked himself. He didn't dwell on it however, certain that when Prentiss was ready she would eventually talk to him or JJ or Garcia even, as long as she talked about it, everything was fine.
Morgan could not believe what he had done. He had turned his back on his partner and a possible suspect and now all he could do was pray.
He realized while sitting on the front steps of a house that it was more like a chain of events that led him here and he wished that it had never begun in the first place. It all began with a leaf found at the last crime scene. The one leaf in combination with the profile led the team to a specific neighborhood and ultimately to the door of Samuel Billings.
Samuel, or Sam how he wanted to be called was a nice guy. Really nice, open for questions, not afraid to help. He hadn't seemed like a threat in his gardening attire and the pleasant smile on his face so Morgan had turned away, had answered his cell. He faintly remembered hearing Emily ask about the garden, about plants and trees and that was when it dawned on Morgan.
Ending the call he had turned and what he saw made his breath catch in his throat. The front door was open wide and Emily was no where to be seen. She would never have gone into the house alone, never, Morgan knew that. As fast as he could he sprinted from the car to the door, his gun in his hand and just barged right in, ignoring protocol.
The house had been quiet and had reminded him of his grandmother's little apartment. The smell, the furniture, everything looked as if it belonged to an old lady, sophisticated, clean, pristine. He made his way through the house, rounding corners gun first, listening, observing. He heard a faint, muffled "Derek" somewhere and had followed the sound.
He found Emily eventually; with a gun to her head. "Let her go," Morgan had demanded but Billings didn't even blink.
"Push the button," he told Emily who remained still, her eyes fixed on Morgan. "Push it!" She did when the gun was not pointed at herself anymore but at Derek. The door closed with a hiss and Emily realized that she was indeed trapped, a hostage; how dare he
With newfound strength Emily struggled, kicking until she was shoved to the ground roughly and the gun was once more pointed at her head. "My mum always said guns were evil but mother's not here now, is she? Well this is unexpected " The guy moved towards a small cabinet and opened it, that was when Emily realized that there was another person in the room. It was Mary Caplan, sitting on a bed; actually, it was more like a cot.
The girl looked frightened but oddly enough her hair seemed to be brushed and her clothes freshly ironed; Emily moved without realizing it.
"No, no. Stay there. It's quite inconvenient that you pay me a visit today. I expected you to take a little longer to be honest. Oh, well. We should just make the best of it, shouldn't we?" With that said and faint smile firmly in place Billings moved towards her. "Now hold still." He tied her hands together with a tie wrap then used another to tie her to the metallic bed post. "That should do now, I know you're Agent Prentiss but care to tell me your name?"
He didn't get an answer, just as he had anticipated. With a small sigh Billings reached out and into Emily's pockets until he found her badge. "Emily how very nice." Right at that moment they heard a loud bang and they both realized it must've been Morgan shooting at the door.
Derek didn't know how else to help himself. He had tried opening the door manually but it wouldn't move a single inch. He had banged against it but the chance to break some bones was higher than leaving a dent in the door. Of course Morgan knew that a bullet couldn't really do much against steel but had shot at the door anyway. It was the last thing that came to mind in this situation.
And where was the back-up? Where?! Minutes ticked by and there wasn't even a siren. His cell rang suddenly and he guessed it would be Hotch again or JJ but it wasn't. It was Emily or rather Samuel Billings on the other end.
"Agent Morgan, hello. I have to say, Mary and Emily here are very disturbed by the terrible noises you produce out there."
"What do you want?"
"Oh, nothing really. Just that you leave my house please."
"No way!" Morgan banged against the door with his fist; it hurt but all this, it was just frustrating and terrible, just terrible. How could he let this happen?
"Agent Morgan, please. It would be just dreadful if, when this whole thing is over, and it will be over at some point no doubt, you would find Emily and Mary dead, wouldn't it?"
"If you hurt her you little creep "
"I don't respond well to threats, Agent Morgan. Now, leave the house or something terrible is going to happen, your choice. And close the door on your way out, please."
Her wrists hurt terribly but Emily just endured the pain. She didn't want to appear weak, she didn't want to show him how scared she was, that just wasn't like her. She wouldn't give him the satisfaction. No matter what.
If he decided to kill her, so
Emily closed her eyes briefly. She didn't want to think about dying knowing she probably should. Maybe she would find a solution to all of this, maybe she would come up with something if the thought of getting killed fueled enough rage in her but instead she suppressed all thoughts of dying.
She just couldn't. Not yet. Thinking about it felt like giving up somehow because she wasn't prepared; she wasn't ready to die and she wasn't ready to seriously consider that to happen.
"What is it?"
He was talking to her and at least he didn't sound enraged or nervous, at least he still had control over himself.
"Nothing," Emily said quietly, averting her gaze.
He shook his head like he had all the time in the world and crouched down in front of her. "What were you thinking? Were you thinking about me? About getting out of here?"
"Actually yeah, I was thinking about you," she lied. "I was trying to understand why, um, why you're doing this to women."
He just grinned and stood up, wandering over to the steel door once more. "I don't do anything to them, they do things to me."
Apparently that wasn't the right approach, Emily thought.
"I mean you should probably not be doing the job you're doing because you don't understand at all." He fiddled with his gun, somehow troubled, but Emily knew he wouldn't make a mistake. He knew what he was doing with that gun, so she wasn't really worried he might accidentally shoot her. If he shot her, it would be on purpose.
Penelope sat at her desk, motionless. There wasn't anything she could do right now which drove her crazy. She wanted to be able to help, find new information, just something.
This whole thing was so confusing; one moment Emily was fine, working on the case and the other she was a hostage, a victim, suddenly she was in danger.
Penelope wasn't someone who got angry easily but right now she was furious. "Garcia? You still there?"
The blonde blinked as JJ's voice tore her away from her thoughts. "Uh yeah. So, what's going to happen now?"
"I don't know."
"This is just just " Tears made her vision blur. "Why don't you guys do something? Like bursting in there and stuff! Just something."
JJ sighed on the other end of the line. "We can't I'm gonna I've got to the media, they're here. I have to go " Then the sniveling was gone and Penelope realized that JJ just hung up.
What now? Penelope didn't know. This was all messed up, this wasn't supposed to happen. With a deep breath the blonde went back to work; it wasn't like she could do anything else anyway, so she did her work, sent everything over JJ had asked for then sat staring at the computer screen.
Oh my god, Bailey!
Penelope pushed two buttons then waited for someone to pick up. "C'mon," she whispered to herself. "Pick up please." Tears formed in her eyes once more.
"Hey it's me," the blonde sniveled. "I won't make it to dinner today sorry."
She could hear Bailey sigh on the other and a bunch of other noises. "That's alright considering."
"Yes. We're on our way there right now. Agent Hotchner requested we take over for the police SWAT of Chantilly."
"Oh." Tears ran down her cheeks, leaving trails of salty water in their wake.
"I'd be with you if I could."
"It's okay. You need to help Emily make her come back, bring her back here, okay?" Bailey didn't respond and Penelope knew why she didn't; the SWAT-agent didn't make promises she might not be able to keep.
"Are you gonna be alright?"
"Yeah," Penelope answered quickly, holding back a sob. "Yeah, sure. I I'll be fine. Be careful."
"I always am bye." Bailey hung up and left Penelope once again alone with her thoughts in this tiny, tiny office, surrounded by lifeless beeping and blinking.
Two hours. Almost two hours and still nothing. Still pacing. Still worrying.
Morgan looked down on his watch and breathed faster, trying to control his emotions, his anger. He wished they had never found that leaf. He wished it had been just some leaf. He wished 'Sam' didn't have those trees in his backyard.
He wished for a great many things right now; that he didn't turn away or that he could've reached for his gun faster or that a hurricane buried 'Sam' under one of his fucking trees.
But wishing didn't get you anywhere, he knew that. Morgan also knew that he had to deal with the situation somehow. But how does one deal..?
"We'll get her out of there," Hotch's eyes were on him and Morgan felt somehow grateful that Aaron Hotchner wasn't a touchy-feely kind of person. A hand on his shoulder would've been too much.
Two huge vans parked neatly next to a police car, blocking the reporters' sight behind a mass of metal and big, bold letters reading SWAT. As soon as the vehicles came to a halt the rear doors opened and a few men jumped out then the engines were cut and out of one van came Bailey Garcia.
Officer Roy chewed his gum slowly as he started to realize what was about to happen.
"You in charge?"
A woman, fantastic. "Yeah. What's this?" He tilted his head towards the vans and lifted his eyebrows.
"What does it look like," Bailey responded. "I don't want a pissin' contest, alright? An agent is in there, she's one of our own, you'd want your own team going in there too, if it were one of yours. Let's just concentrate on getting in there and taking that fucker down." She held her hand out to him, looking him expectantly in the eye. "Bailey Garcia," she introduced herself.
Roy rolled his eyes for good measure and grasped her hand. "Peter Roy. You better have some extra training at the FBI, you sure gonna need it."
Bailey just glared at him then let her eyes sweep around. "Frank!"
Frank, the oldest team member and driver was by her side in an instant. "Get us up to date, Roy's gonna help you with that." Officer Roy watched wearily as the obnoxious chick ordered her men around. She was efficient, he thought, bossy, a chick but efficient and he just hoped she was good.
He would never admit it, never say it out loud but this was a big one and he was glad someone else had to take responsibility if anything went wrong
Bailey turned again and eyed Roy. "You have construction plans of that safe room yet?"
"On the way. Constructor bringing them over himself."
She just nodded, not wasting time with niceties and stalked off.
"Hotchner," Bailey called over the voices of police officers and the crackling of their radios. A dark haired man had already spotted her and moved in her direction, his face showing not much emotion but that was normal for him, at least Penelope had said so.
"Bailey Garcia, I presume?" They shook hands briefly then made their way over to where Morgan was pacing back and forth.
"First I need a detailed profile of this guy."
Morgan held a file out to her. "Was anyone in the house?"
"I was, but just briefly."
"I need you to tell me everything you remember. Show me on the construction plans what you saw; tables, chairs, anything "
Two hours. Two hours. Two hours and one minute.
Emily averted her eyes from the clock on the wall and sighed internally; better not make too much sound.
"Well don't you look pretty now?"
Emily looked at Mary, sitting there, cowering. She was such a brave girl, holding still for 10 minutes while Sam brushed her hair. "Manners."
"Thank you, Sam," the girl responded dutifully.
"You're welcome. Emily? Would you like me to brush your hair also?"
Prentiss took a deep breath and put on a smile. "Yeah "
"Yes," Sam interrupted. "It's always yes. So, Emily, would you like me to brush your hair?"
"Yes. I would appreciate it."
"There," Sam smiled, pleased and knelt down next to her. "That wasn't so hard, now was it?"
"You're kidding. Please tell me you're kidding? It's a steel door for Christ's sake," Bailey put her hands on her hips.
"Actually it's 4 inches of steel," one of her men mumbled.
"Oh, really?! Well, thank you for lifting our spirits!" Bailey bit her lip, shook her head and eyed the team that gathered around her. "Alright. Make preparations while we modify your plan a bit this ain't Robocop after all. Frank, get Roy, we might need back-up if something goes wrong."
"This might take a little longer than anticipated, Emily. Your hair, and sorry for saying this but your hair is a bit in a disarray."
She slowly started to get this guy and she hoped she wouldn't mess it up with saying something stupid.
"Oh, Emily. This is my fault, I guess." Sam smiled down at her apologetically; the creepy thing was that he meant it.
"It's alright you're making it all pretty again."
"Yes, well," he shrugged humbly. "I try my best. But you do have lovely hair, Emily."
"Thank you," the brunette said barely above a whisper. "That's very sweet of you."
Hotchner's impassivity was becoming annoying; at least to Morgan. While Hotch was following the preparations of the SWAT-teams, he paced around impatiently. "How much longer is this gonna take?" He gestured at Bailey who was relaying the details once more to Officer Roy's and her team.
"They will be ready shortly," Hotch answered quietly and turned, looking for something. "Why don't you sit with JJ for a while?" Morgan caught sight of the small figure sitting in the opened trunk of an SUV wrapped in an FBI field jacket. "She could use the company."
Derek sighed angrily but relented and made his way over to the blonde while Hotch approached the SWAT-team. "How are the preparations coming along?"
Bailey turned, her shirt halfway unbuttoned but not really concerned with modesty or anything of the sort. "We're going in in 10 minutes." She pulled the shirt off her shoulders to reveal a tank top and thrust the article at Frank who in turn threw a Kevlar vest at her.
"You think your plan will work?"
Bailey snorted. "Wouldn't go in there if I thought it didn't." With a piece of tape she secured the pendant she was always wearing beneath her shirt to her chest. Then she pulled on a shirt, tightened her belt, stored various equipment in the pockets of her pants and put on her vest. "Can't say this'll be easy but we'll do everything we can to make this go down smoothly."
Hotch pulled on the fastenings of the vest to tighten it a bit more while Bailey spoke but then his eyes fell on Bailey's hand, in her palm a small photograph of Penelope. It was obviously the one the FBI had on file but it was printed on photo paper and in pretty good shape. The SWAT-agent seemed embarrassed for a moment but then she smiled faintly and tugged the photo behind the big letters that read 'SWAT' on her vest.
"Sound test." She jumped a few times, making almost no noise at all.
"I gotta go."
"Hope I won't need it," Bailey threw over her shoulder and met up with her team.
Sam looked at her with something akin to adoration and it was the creepiest look Emily ever got directed at her. The look on her mother's face, when she caught Emily smoking at the window on Christmas Eve when she was 16; nothing compared to this.
The first murderer she looked in the eye; it wasn't half as bad.
"Why thank you, Emily." He fingered a strand of her hair and smoothed it in its place. "Lovely."
He looked like he was about ready to fall in love; disgusting. "Sam?"
"Sam how long how long will we stay here?" Maybe it was the stupidest thing to ask, maybe not but Emily just wanted to know. She wanted clarity, she wanted to know.
"I cannot answer that, I'm afraid. It all depends on your friends out there now," he stood suddenly. "Would you care for a drink? I have wine."
Wine, of course. "Water would be just fine, Sam, thank you." Happy to oblige Sam opened a bottle of water and started pouring while Emily used the moment to take a look at Mary. The girl was shaking all over and strands of hair were sticking to her forehead here and there.
"Here you go," Sam's eyes fell on Emily's tied hands and he frowned. She could just hear him thinking "how inconvenient"; indeed. "Here, let me help you." He dropped down to one knee and held the glass to her lips carefully and if Emily didn't know what this man was capable of, she might have thought he was rather gentle.
"Thank you " Her eyes fell on Mary once again. "Sam? Could Mary have something to drink too?"
He turned, surprised and looked at the girl. "Oh! I almost forgot about her," he waved his hand nonchalantly. "You know, Emily, of all the wives I had you are by far the most extraordinary. Mary though," he looked dismayed at the small figure. "Mary I thought she was sweet and innocent and caring but she turned out to be a snotty little brat. Terrible."
JJ sat motionless in the trunk, her eyes fixed on the front door through which Emily had disappeared. The blonde's eyes started to sting because she held them open for such a long time, afraid she might miss Emily opening the door and coming back out.
The car dipped slightly as Morgan sat down next to her, his presence barely registering in her fogged brain.
"They're going in soon."
JJ narrowed her eyes at the door and took a breath, preparing herself to face her colleague. "Are they?"
"Yeah Bailey seems confident."
She said nothing further, just nodded once, not really interested in the details of it all.
"It's gonna be alright."
Alright? How could he say that? Nothing was alright, nothing. "How would you know?" JJ asked suddenly, waiting for an answer that made sense knowing there wouldn't be one. Morgan knew that too and so he kept silent.
A group of dark clothed people rushed past them, splitting up halfway to the door. "Garcia will be worried about Bailey," the blonde murmured impassively.
"I'm worried." Morgan put his arm around the fragile figure then stood and made his way through the throng of police officers and agents toward Hotch. JJ meanwhile seemed to sort through her scattered thoughts, hitting speed dial on her cell, waiting until she heard Garcia on the other end to inform her that the woman she was falling in love with was now entering a building to rescue Emily, her friend.
"Just look at her," Sam went on. "No dignity. She's a mess."
"Well, maybe some water would help," Emily suggested quickly.
"You think so? Hmm " He poured a new glass for Mary, sat down next to the shaking girl who scooted away from him. Sam didn't like that but he had patience apparently and scooted closer. Mary ended up drinking the water, crying the whole time and then she spilled some because she couldn't hold still any longer.
"Mary. See, this is exactly what I was talking about." With an exasperated sigh Sam stood, rolling his eyes. "Emily."
"Would there be a big mess if I just shot Mary right in the head?"
Emily held her breath and stared at him. "There it it would be a pain to clean it up again."
Sam grinned. "Oh, do you think so, Agent Prentiss?" He drew the gun and pointed it at Mary and Emily just asked herself how she could've been so stupid. Stupid, dense, dumb, an idiot, a fucking idiot.
"Sam please " Bastard. He made her say please like she meant it.
Sam moved slowly around the room and halted at the door. There was a noise, Emily could hear it too now. A scratching or something. Sam's eyes filled with rage suddenly and he moved away from the door, ducked and waited, listening and so was Emily.
The eerie silence stretched on as everyone waited for the big bang, hoping it would come but afraid of it nonetheless.
Hotch pressed the small earphone of his headset further into his ear to not miss anything. There wasn't much conversation going on but still
"In position " It was Bailey Garcia's voice. She sounded so confident, she always sounded confident but Hotch knew that she wasn't, not now but she had to project that image of herself to everyone in situations such as this one. She wouldn't be a good leader otherwise, she wouldn't be able to do her job.
"3 2 1 "
Somehow every time Bailey was about to get a show on the road as they called it, always the same feeling came over her. Whenever they moved into their respectable positions her heart started to beat so painfully in her chest and her arms started to feel heavy which made her almost panic about the rifle she was holding. One day, she was sure, she would drop it.
She crawled in position, Frank at her side holding a shield in front of them both. They didn't know what would wait for them in that room. They didn't know where the hostages were positioned so Bailey had decided to take a gun loaded with rubber bullets, just in case
"Okay 3 2 1 "
The charges detonated. The noise was deafening, terrible, almost unbearable. The door was ripped out of the wall, fell and suddenly they were engulfed in a huge cloud of dust. The CS was thrown in and inside the room the world turned white. Then a hand appeared, a gun, shots. Hotchner knew that this was gonna happen, he had known
A shoulder appeared, she could work with a shoulder. A shot and the gun dropped then the team rushed in while Bailey scrambled to her feet. Frank did not however. "Fuck."
"Subject contained. Situation under control."
At least. "We have an agent down! Paramedics, now!"
Frank looked up at her and tried to sit down carefully. "It's not so bad."
"Oh, shut up, Frank." Bailey shook her head and dragged him to the nearest wall where he could lean back and pretend it didn't hurt as much as he wanted.
Penelope had tried Morgan first then JJ, her calls had went straight to voicemail then she had called Reid; he said that Emily was fine and on her way to the hospital, which alarmed Garcia a bit. Reid explained that her eyes just stung a bit because of the CS gas and that alarmed her a great deal.
Then she asked about Bailey and Reid went quiet. He didn't know anything, just that a member of the team had been shot. He didn't know who.
"It was just this blur of black-clothed people," Reid explained.
Garcia called Hotch after Bailey didn't pick up.
"She's fine. A bullet grazed the leg of one of her men, she rode with him," Hotch said curtly which strangely felt somehow comforting.
"Okay, thanks. Um I'll try to reach the others again."
"They're in the hospital, so their cell phones are probably off."
Penelope didn't care about that right now. She called anyway, just to have something to do. Just sitting around, alone in her tiny office, wasn't helping. She wished she could be there and help, offer support and be with her friends.
Penelope's eyes widened as she heard the voice on the other end.
"It's me," she said after a moment. "Are you okay?"
Bailey sighed deeply, sounding a bit annoyed. "Yeah."
Penelope didn't understand her behavior, but also didn't take it personally. She had never been in a situation like that; she had never done what Bailey did, so she had no idea what Bailey felt at the moment. "Are you sure, you're okay?"
She heard someone talk in the background and the typical sounds and noises someone associated with a hospital and she heard Bailey sigh quietly.
"I'm sorry, but cell phones aren't allowed here. Could you please turn it off?" The unknown voice said.
"No. I'm sorry, I can't do that because right now, I've got to assure my girlfriend that I'm not dead. So could you possibly humor me please?"
That woman didn't sound at all like Bailey, Garcia mused. She had never heard Bailey be anything other than nice and friendly and polite.
"Penelope listen, um I'm fine. Just some cuts, nothing serious, okay?" Bailey paused, unsure of what to say. "Could we not talk about my feelings right now? I need to process this first."
So that was why Bailey behaved so strangely; she couldn't talk about it just yet, she needed time and Penelope understood perfectly. "Okay."
Awkward silence followed. Penelope found it quite odd, because that had never happened between them before; they always had something to talk about.
"How is your team member? I heard, someone got shot "
"Frank. He's alright, getting his wound cleaned up right now."
Penelope smiled at the light tone in Bailey's voice, the one she was used to. "Tell him I said hi and to get well soon who else is going to keep you in check when he's not around?"
The black-haired agent snorted. "Yeah, right, don't give him any ideas I've got to hang up, sorry."
"We'll stay in Chantilly tonight; I let you know when I'll get back."
Garcia nodded. "Sure," she smiled again. "Goodnight."
"Goodnight," Bailey said softly. "And Penelope thanks for calling."
Garcia sat motionless in her chair for a few moments after Bailey had hung up, trying to get used to the idea of caring about a woman so much. It still felt so unreal but not strange or wrong, not like something she wasn't. Not like something that didn't fit.
Penelope bit her lip, relaxing into her chair. She was relieved that Emily was out of that room and alright. It was still hard to grasp this, to understand what had happened but Garcia started to cope.
She was still frightened though she knew that everyone was in safety. But this could happen again no matter how hard they tried to avoid it. Sure, FBI agents were always in danger of getting shot or something else horrible happen to them but they chose that life, they chose it for themselves and lived with the knowledge.
But having your life threatened at one point makes it all the more real, Penelope mused and asked herself how Emily felt now. She hoped
Penelope's eyes widened suddenly, the reflection of her shocked expression staring back at her from several screens.
I've got to assure my girlfriend ohmigod
She looked around her office to find something else to focus on because right now the thought of being Bailey's girlfriend scared the daylights out of her.
Am I the girlfriend? Are we girlfriends? Are we going to get married?
Garcia swallowed heavily and tried to breathe in and out slowly, not really succeeding but she kept trying, not keen on dying just yet.
I think now I'm getting the U-Haul joke.
She forced herself to calm down, closed her eyes then opened them again hastily as she only saw her and Bailey kissing which was a very disturbing image at the moment.
"Okay I'm calm and collected. I'm totally cool I'm in my loving place "
Her ears were still ringing, her heart still pounding. Emily's eyes were puffy and stung but it was a pain she could endure as long as she had them closed. She heard her colleagues arguing in the hallway, the voices too hushed to be heard properly.
To be honest, she didn't care at all.
JJ had said she should sleep, rest a bit but how could she do that? How could she sleep with the bang still ringing in her ears? It must've been the loudest noise Emily ever heard as the steel door and some bits and pieces of the wall just disappeared in the fog in the CS gas.
She remembered 'Sam' yelling, she hadn't heard him but she had seen his lips move and then her eyes had closed involuntarily and she began to cough violently.
The gunshots Emily had heard were muffled, which was a weird experience somehow because gunshots were supposed to be loud. There had been shouts and at some point she had felt people surrounding her then the cuffs had been cut loose. Her eyes were forced open by an EMT and water dripped into them; everything was blurry and for a moment she feared she might never get her sight back.
She refused to be strapped to a gurney, she insisted on walking on her own. No one should force her into anything anymore. No one. She refused to be the victim, she refused to be treated like Mary Caplan, who was being carried out on a gurney. 'Sam' had made her press the button that closed the door and with pressing it she had taken away her own freedom, had made herself be trapped in this prison. Walking out of there on her own was something she deserved to do now.
Standing wasn't much of a problem but taking a step was one as dizziness made Emily weak in the knees. But she did it; she walked out of there feeling as though she would disappear in the mass of people. There was 'Sam' being shoved into the waiting arms of two police officers, his hands cuffed behind his back.
Emily's eyes followed him briefly as her feet tried to adjust to the gravel she was walking on. Everything seemed so quiet, everything seemed so slow and peaceful; how could that be?
The steel door just lay there on the ground and Emily found it astounding that something as solid as steel was just ripped out of a wall but she didn't look back at the massive hole, she couldn't. Instead her eyes found a black figure sitting on the ground; the man's face contorted, he was in pain and held his leg as EMTs took care of him. Emily was so focused on him that she didn't notice the person standing next to him, until a hand was carefully placed on the man's shoulder.
Bailey looked directly into her eyes and there was no compassion in them, no pity, no anger. The eyes came closer and Emily began to see the strength in them that she seemed to lack. They conveyed a certainty she didn't seem to possess and Emily felt as if those eyes drained her of all the life that was left in her.
The place that seemed to be her whole world in that moment became a blurry and dark place and before her legs finally gave out, Emily felt herself being caught
When Emily woke up, she didn't know when and for a moment not where, she caught sight of those same eyes yet again. For a second she thought she was dreaming. But she was in a hospital and she was awake and the eyes belonged to Bailey.
If this were a dream the SWAT-agent wouldn't look so disheveled and tired. "Agent Garcia "
The black-haired woman smiled down at her. "Bailey, please." She looked around the room until she found a chair. "Your eyes still hurting?"
Emily blinked then shook her head. "Someone got shot?"
Bailey leaned forward, keeping her voice down. "Yes. A member of my team, Frank."
"Just a flesh wound, he's gonna be alright. Actually, being wheeled out of the hospital is one of his bigger concerns right now."
That was reassuring; at least no one had died, at least no one got seriously hurt because of her.
"It's our job we know what we're in for."
Emily sighed and closed her eyes; she was still tired somehow, not really physically but her brain demanded rest and quiet. Forcing her eyes open once more, her gaze fell onto a small form huddle in an armchair in the corner of the room. Blonde hair, tousled, hiding JJ's face, a blanket wrapped around her; she was sleeping peacefully. A picture so serene in stark contrast to the reality of the hospital room.
"She's been here all night," Bailey said, chuckling.
A small smile touched Emily's lips as she watched her friend for a moment longer then brought her gaze back onto the SWAT-agent, seizing her up. "So have you by the looks of it."
"Oh well, sleep is entirely overrated." Bailey smiled briefly, remembering what Penelope had said about her and a filthy cat. "Penelope wants me to tell you to get your ass back to and she wanted me to pronounce it that way Quanticooh, go figure."
"Inside joke," Emily admitted grinning.
"Well," Bailey said after a moment, "I gotta go. Told the guys to pack everything up, including Frank if a nurse stops by and asks about a destroyed wheelchair, just say you don't know anything about that."
"Not a word."
Penelope had never set foot into this place, had never even come near the building even but today she was here and she felt very insecure in being so. She had no idea why that was but also didn't dwell on it much because she was on a mission and when Garcia was on a mission, nothing could distract her for long.
At first she had no idea where to go then she remembered Bailey telling her that they needed to take care of the equipment after the debriefing and so she asked the next best person where someone would take care of equipment.
Garcia walked past a few huge vans and into a garage. It was very silent, that was the first thing she noticed then that it was a bit dark. For a brief moment she thought that she didn't fit here at all. She heard voices coming from somewhere in the back but before she could investigate any further she met a young man, who was scrubbing the floor.
"Can I help you," he asked rather gruffly.
"Oh, um I'm looking for Bailey, is she around?" Somehow Garcia felt like a little schoolgirl, asking a mom if her friend was home and allowed to come out and play. "I'm Penelope," she added, as the guy just looked at her with a bored expression.
"Oh. Sure Garcia," he called loudly.
"Could you scream instead of yell, I really can't hear a thing you say," Bailey yelled back as she rounded the corner, wearing one of her smug smiles which quickly vanished as she discovered her visitor. "Oh hey."
"Hey " Penelope glanced back and forth between Bailey and the guy who was still standing there. He also seemed very amused by the way Bailey behaved and could barely conceal his grin. "I was wondering if you might want to spend a little time with me?"
Bailey tilted her head to the side, looking slightly caught off guard. "Um actually I've gotta help clean up the mess we've just made but " Three guys rounded the corner, one of them slapping her on the back so hard that she had to take a step forward to not land on her face.
"Don't worry 'bout that! We'll take care of it," he announced.
"I think I've never heard you say that before." Bailey smiled gently at him, thankful, and nodded her goodbye.
Outside Garcia let their shoulders touch briefly as they walked side by side towards the parking lot. "It's okay that I came here, right," she asked, concerned she might have done something wrong.
"It's quite alright," Bailey said, now sounding more like herself. The woman spoke entirely different when she was with the guys or just at work, Garcia thought and hoped, rather than assumed that Bailey could at least be completely herself when they were together. "No, plans? No beer with the guys or 'my gun's bigger than yours' contests?"
The black-haired agent smiled slyly. "Nope we usually all just go home after things like this. Be with friends, family " Bailey shoved her hands into her pockets and let the sentence hang in the air.
Garcia just cleared her throat uncertainly, knowing what point the other woman was trying to make. She hadn't had much time to think about it with everything that went on, she also didn't think they were up for that yet; they weren't ready and so she said what she was thinking and feeling.
"Also with soon to be girlfriends?"
Bailey smiled briefly and nodded. "Yeah, how could I forget those?"
"I don't know, you should write that down somewhere." Penelope walked a bit closer, less freaked out about the whole girlfriend topic, now that Bailey had showed her it was okay to need a bit more time.
"Are you okay to drive," Penelope asked slowly as they neared Bailey's car.
"Sure don't worry 'bout it."
They halted in front of the car and Garcia asked herself why that was then she saw the gentle smile on Bailey's lips and knew that she was about to be complimented.
"You look beautiful, you know that?" Bailey touched her arms and let her hands glide over the soft material Penelope was wearing. "Silk?"
Garcia glanced down at herself briefly, studying the Japanese flower pattern on her blouse. "Mmhmm," she mumbled distractedly, letting her eyes wander up one of Bailey's arms, over her shoulder and finally settle onto the soft green gaze. The other woman smiled gently but sadly, Garcia thought, the smile didn't quite reach her eyes.
"You know, you don't have to always be charming I'd understand if you weren't feeling so well."
"Penelope I'm fine. It's my job " Bailey knew Garcia wasn't buying it and sighed, leaning back against the car, sulking.
"Look," Garcia said, "it's okay. Now, c'mere "
Bailey raised a skeptical eyebrow, which Penelope found utterly endearing, but let herself be pulled in an upright position anyway. "What are you doing," Bailey asked meekly, Garcia's arms already sneaking around her.
"Hugging you of course." Penelope did so, carefully.
Bailey hugged back tentatively. "Oh," she breathed and let her head sink into the crook of Penelope's neck where it rested safely, surrounded by the unique smell of Penelope Garcia.
They stood like that for a while until the blonde asked herself if SWAT agents were capable of falling asleep standing.
"Better," Penelope asked as Bailey finally let go again and nodded solemnly to answer her question then she kissed Garcia unexpectedly tenderly and then again just because.
Bailey lifted that eyebrow again but dropped her car keys into the palm of the outstretched hand anyway. Penelope just grinned wickedly and opened the door for the black haired woman.
"Where are we going," Bailey asked five minutes into the drive. She glanced at Garcia curiously as the other woman didn't respond right away and found her with a determined expression plastered on her face. Penelope just stayed silent and Bailey mused that she probably hadn't even heard the question.
The black haired agent kept studying her for another few moments, taking in the rosy skin that looked so soft and the sweet lips curled upwards in a tiny smile. Bailey averted her eyes and leaned her head against the window thinking that she had never met anyone like Penelope before and that this could be the reason why none of her relationships had ever really worked out yet.
She was just special that blonde whirlwind.
"Whatcha smiling about?"
Bailey, startled, turned her head but then just grinned at the woman behind the steering wheel.
"What?" Penelope glanced back and forth between her and the road ahead.
"C'mon. What did I do?"
Bailey shook her head and glanced out of the window. "Nothing. I just..." She sighed quietly and leaned her head against the cool glass. "I just think this day's gonna be a good one " Bailey smiled first at herself for being so corny then at Garcia who had a rather serious expression on her face.
"I think so too," the blonde commented wistfully then went quiet.
Bailey just shook her head in mild, content amusement and took a deep breath. "So where are we going?"
Penelope turned in her direction, smiling softly. "My place."
After all that happened she drove home. It was astonishing but scary.
Life goes on, Emily thought, it always goes on. Her mother used to say that sometimes and just now she realized how true that was.
Not even 24 hours ago Emily had been sure that she would die, that her life would end, that everything would just stop there. In a moment of utter panic she had the overwhelming feeling that everything was a waste. Everything wasted. So many opportunities, so many chances, gone to waste. Meaningless.
But now she was on her way home.
Emily gestured out of the window. "Could you pull over?"
Her blonde friend and colleague nodded and slowed the car down, worriedly glancing back and forth between the road and Emily.
They came to a halt at the side of the street and for a few moments neither woman moved. JJ inevitably had to look at Emily, her curiosity getting the better of her. Emily had the strangest expression on her face, nothing JJ had ever seen before. She noticed that her friend's eyes were tearing up and heard a small sigh leave Emily's lips.
"I'm getting some coffee," the agent said slowly, turning to look JJ in the eye, "you want some?"
The blonde blinked, unsure of how to respond to such a simple question. "Um yeah. That would be great."
"Okay." Emily smiled slowly, holding back what JJ now realized were happy tears.
The blonde reached out before the black haired woman could leave the car. "Are you alright?"
Emily contemplated for a moment, glancing out onto the street. "Yeah," she said finally and, after a brief moment, got out of the car and took a breath as she came to stand on the sidewalk. It was still morning, not many people were walking the streets, the air was crisp, the sun was shining, it was spring and Emily was in awe.
The fact that nothing had even come close to touching her heart since she had left that room and was now feeling so overwhelmed by a simple morning was slightly disturbing. The numbness she had almost gotten used to was gone and replaced by the urge to cry.
Emily felt like sinking to her knees and sobbing. Here she was and she almost couldn't believe it.
She swallowed heavily and took a deep breath. For a moment she looked at the Starbucks across the street but then just turned and stepped into that new café.
Inside it was warm and the red of the countertop and the chairs was bright. "Good morning," the woman behind the counter greeted with a smile.
"Morning " Emily looked over the assortment of all the different beans you could choose from and decided that something strong and spicy sounded perfect. The woman, Carol, brewed the coffee, filled it into two cups and packed a muffin in a little bag for Emily to try.
"Thanks," the agent said a little dazed.
"You're welcome. Have a nice day."
"You too." Emily turned and stepped outside, balancing the coffee and the muffin in her hands. She wasn't really hungry or in the mood for a muffin but maybe JJ was. She saw the blonde watching her concerned, trying not to be too obvious.
Then Emily took a sip of the coffee and it was even better than she imagined.
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