DISCLAIMER: Criminal Minds and its characters are the property of CBS. No infringement intended.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Thanks to Ann for the beta.
SERIES: Fourth story in the 'Five Senses' series.
Beyond These Walls
They told you life is hard
Misery from the start
But I tell you life is sweet
In spite of the misery
There's so much more, be grateful
(Natalie Merchant, Life is Sweet)
In a nearly futile attempt at finding that one elusive clue that would crack the case, they scoured the desert once again. At least that was what JJ thought she and Emily were doing. She had the distinct impression of being watched; not by Emily, though heaven knows JJ'd had that feeling before, the prickly sensation on her skin of a pair of eyes resting on her as unmovingly as a carnivore flattened against the ground in low grass and ready to pounce. She'd never caught her, always glancing up to find Emily deeply engrossed in some document or other, or opening her eyes to see the other woman staring into the voracious nothingness of night outside the airplane window.
Here, it was the endless vastness, the absence of confines created by man with concrete, steel, or glass, the almost terrifying openness of the land that made JJ uncomfortable and had her looking over her shoulder more than once, eyes narrowed against the occasional gust of wind that carried the finest grains of sand with it. The lack of protection, not from physical harm but from being seen, left her feeling uneasy. The fact that no one else was treading this remote patch of earth and that she didn't have to hide what she was doing did little to appease that feeling.
What exactly she was doing, JJ wasn't entirely sure. When Emily had asked her to accompany her to this barren wasteland, she hadn't hesitated, mostly because she'd needed to stop staring alternately at the water-stained ceiling and the yellowed wallpaper of her hotel room, but, perhaps, also because she longed to be near Emily, though she was reluctant to admit that, reluctant to acknowledge the velvet wind that breathed air between cobwebs of almost forgotten corners of her heart each time Emily's dark eyes danced across her face.
JJ had thought that they were following a lead, in spite of the late hour, but as she watched Emily stand in the desert, her black shoes covered with dust that had cumbrously risen from the cracked earth to settle quietly on the faintly reflective leather, staring into the distance where the silvery line of the horizon blurred with retreating heat and approaching dusk, she knew that their current case was not the reason they were here.
The hard, sun-bleached ground, bearing marks of erosion long past, crunched only slightly beneath the soles of JJ's boots, barely relenting to the pressure of human feet walking upon it, the impression only fleeting in an infinite jumble of past, present, and future. When JJ stopped before her, Emily's gaze refocused easily on her, a flicker of something evident in her eyes, something that, JJ felt, drew her own soul closer to the surface, the shielding reflection of that which was concealing it now rippled and disturbed.
It was a peculiar atmosphere, those mere minutes when night hovered on the edge of day and the sun had disappeared, its golden evening light having abandoned the sky, leaving it grey and dull, but still clinging to the ground and bathing it in the most glorious colours before losing its futile battle with darkness.
The mahogany tone in Emily's hair disappeared, and beneath her cheekbones, a ghost of a shadow was left, lending her an almost haunted look. Her eyes, too, seemed to grow even darker and took on the look of a lake in a forest after nightfall, surrounded by thick tree trunks, their branches and leaves extending far across the water, creating spaces that light never touched. Deep, black, silent, a little eerie. JJ watched her closely and thought she saw something fall within Emily's eyes, if that was even possible, and she imagined that, simultaneously, she felt something drop inside her, too. Out of place, or perhaps into place, she wasn't certain.
"Emily." The whispered word slipped from her lips and got caught in the wind, tossed up and down and left and right like a ball from a child's hand, dipped into the dust, then twirled in the still warm air, and finally carried away to nearly touch the clouds.
Then, Emily kissed her.
JJ had tasted many things in her life. One of her earliest memories was the flavour of ripe strawberries secretly plucked from the backyard of her aunt's neighbour, sweet and lush, the juice dripping down her chin and inevitably giving away the small crimes of childhood. Closing her eyes, she'd always imagined tasting the late July sun and the care with which the plant had been tended to in the strawberry's texture on her tongue.
That she was able to associate flavours with things that were thought to have none would have seemed strange only to others, but not to herself. Every October when the soccer season began, she waited for that taste of hard play and victory, of sweat rolling from her forehead down her nose and onto her lips, of fog during early-morning training sessions, and of crisp autumn air burning in her throat and rushing into her lungs in a whoop of joy after a goal had been scored.
Every flavour was inseparably tied to some emotion or other. With some tastes, a memory that had lain dormant for an eternity flared up wildly, while others were linked to daily routines, and then there were those shattered images in her head, brilliant shreds of pictures torn apart a long time ago, for which JJ obsessively sought the flavours that belonged to them, rarely succeeding in putting together some of the worn pieces of her life's puzzle. Most tastes she remembered the simple, unspoiled clarity of childhood, the sharp pang of reality of youth, the intricate spices of adulthood, some foul, some pleasant, but most of them tangy and gentle, bitter and sweet, intense and light. Some had become reassuringly familiar, others uncomfortably so, and a few were stale by now. She thought she knew them all.
But this, this was different.
When Emily's mouth touched hers, the tip of JJ's tongue grazed Emily's full bottom lip, just a flick across skin a little dry from the desert wind and with a subtle hint of salt. It wasn't an extraordinary taste, not even one that was particularly pleasing for her senses. What really pulled JJ in, what nearly made her recoil and stumble backwards, were the possibilities, the promise the taste held. When Emily exhaled softly, releasing a long breath JJ realised she'd been holding for weeks, JJ understood why they were here. She inhaled Emily's warm breath and closed her eyes. Something subtle tickled across her tongue, something that would have been overpowering had it been present in its full intensity, but that was, right now, as discreet and restrained as Emily herself, eliciting a deep craving to have just a little more of it. It conjured up a picture somewhere deep inside JJ's mind, an almost frighteningly sharp and detailed image of a lavender field in France that she stood in the middle of, between rows of bushes that stretched towards the horizon on the wavy ground. It was August, insects buzzed around sea of pale lilac blossoms brushing her hips, she heard someone call out Emily's name, and she wasn't certain that this memory was her own.
The colours of the picture faded and the edges blurred when the lavender brushing against her hips became Emily's fingers, their touch just as light and hesitant as that of the blossoms, the latter kept in motion by the lazy summer wind, the former unsure where they had the right to settle. Languidly, Emily swept her tongue across JJ's lips, once, twice, before she pulled back, and JJ was surprised how unsettled Emily looked, how little there was left of the quiet reassurance that seemed to inhabit her features so naturally on any other day.
The last light of the day was nearly gone, and JJ slowly retraced the path of Emily's tongue on her own lips, tasting darkness, or Emily, or maybe it was her own fear. She brought her mouth close to Emily's again, her breath a caress on sensitive skin, and their eyes, though barely a gleam in the desert night, came to a silent agreement.
This time, JJ didn't stop at Emily's lips. The flavour of strong coffee on her tongue didn't surprise her, perhaps a little too bitter, perhaps a little too persistent, certainly not to everyone's liking, but pure and sincere. There was a humbling strength to it, not crude like a knife driven through flesh and bone or words tearing into souls with such cold menace that they could never be mended. This strength was of the warm and nourishing kind, and JJ's muscles twitched and burned as it travelled into every limb of her body.
She touched her fingertips to Emily's bare arm and felt the skin tremble underneath them, a fine tremor that extended subtly into their kiss. Emily's breath hitched, and her strength seemed fragile now, jarred by the reminder that it was breakable and withdrawing from the power of human touch.
For a split second, Emily clung to JJ's lips with fierce despair, a flash of fear and loneliness darting along JJ's tongue, so brief she thought she'd imagined it. When it was gone, Emily softened, and JJ sought out what had taken its place the self-sufficiency she was used to seeing in Emily, the quiet sophistication, the flawless composure.
She could no longer find them whole, suddenly aware that she herself had ripped them apart, their tattered edges revealing thin threads that reached into a vacuum, loose ends that had lost their connection to one another. Cowering behind them, in the same dusk that blanketed the desert, were the flavours that had evaded JJ previously, the taste of what she now found to be not images broken apart in the past, but pictures that had not yet been put together, incomplete fragments of what was to come, with a few pencil strokes missing and paint applied too thinly for them to shine, their shapes too angular to fit together.
JJ swirled her tongue around Emily's in a slow dance that lured out everything that was still concealed and reluctant to reveal itself for fear of being crushed. There was the comforting caramel of a dark-haired girl with awkward limbs, still sticking to Emily like the sweet brown mass clinging to a child's hands, but hidden well and guarded carefully. It was accompanied by a hesitant reserve, much like a mild herb that only unfolded in its full intricacy when tended to with the right ingredients and that was easily submerged by its bolder companions, unnoticed and untouched.
Both were followed by a deep, implicit trust, a soothing taste that JJ vaguely remembered from her childhood and that she now rediscovered with a quiet joy on the velvet warmth of Emily's tongue; or maybe it was her own. Stroking the fine hairs on Emily's forearm again, she felt slender fingers slip into her other hand to curl inside it, and JJ wasn't certain whether it was a subconscious act to keep her close or the simple need to feel anchored in a place that water rarely touched.
JJ gently wrapped her fingers around Emily's and pulled back from the kiss slightly to trace Emily's lips with her own. Right there, on the surface, she found Emily's respect for her, as quiet and abiding as time itself. That she'd never had to struggle for it made it all the more valuable to her. In a manner that seemed to contradict the complicated nature of their work, Emily simply, and without question or doubt, respected JJ's keen mind, including her choice to surround it by an air of calm confidence that was sometimes hard to get past.
There was a silken tenderness on Emily's lips, too. It had slipped between everything else and taken spaces it found unoccupied, in the same way that rivulets of rainwater seek their path down a cobbled street in the maze of furrows between the stones. It was unexpected, not because Emily struck JJ as incapable of it, but because this tenderness appeared to be reserved for her only, waiting patiently, and JJ's heart tightened at the thought that Emily had held it inside for so long. She breathed it in, felt it skim across her tongue, breathed it out and imagined seeing wisps of steam against the night sky until the desert sent them back to her. This emotion, in some distant future, would have a stronger potential to break JJ in a moment of anger than fiery words ever could, but right in this moment, it began to put everything together.
It was no surprise to find such comfort in Emily's taste. Even as a child, JJ had preferred to let things speak for themselves, without words getting in the way, words that never seemed to be quite true to what they described. It wasn't that flavours were always clear and without complexity, but they didn't deceive on purpose, they weren't embroidered with little lies that had become so common and they weren't tainted by make-believe, as words so often were. It was the same for humans. Identities could be disguised, for shame or out of pride, and words created hollow constructs that were admired for their flawless finish and never cared for enough to see beyond the façade.
Oftentimes, JJ had heard people speak of the bitter taste of truth. She disagreed. In mere minutes, she had seen Emily's reality and her own, difficult at times, certainly, but beautiful in their raw honesty nonetheless. Pulling back fully, she raised her hand and ran her fingers along Emily's temple, the gentle motion eliciting a small noise of approval as Emily licked her lips slowly.
JJ's fingertips moved to tickle along Emily's ear. "I wouldn't mind terribly if you put that into words," she teased lightly.
The corners of Emily's mouth twitched, and even in the darkness, her features looked softer than before. All other words being too much for now, she settled for the simple answer that said it all.
"You taste most wonderfully of ripe strawberries."
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