DISCLAIMER: Criminal Minds and its characters are the property of CBS. No infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story would never have been completed on time without the constant encouragement of five wonderful women. Thanks Debbie, Kim, Lisa, Maxi, and Shay - I am forever in your debt. Betas, hand holders, and so much more: The always lovely Debbie and the ever amazing Maxi. Story consultants and idea generators extraordinaire: The very talented dynamic duo of Kim and Lisa. Technical advisors: The much appreciated Shay and her friend, Tater – a fellow Texan, by the way. :)
CHALLENGE: Submitted as part of the Epic Proportions challenge.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Defining Moments
By Ann


"Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away." – Unknown

Moment of Acceptance – Affirmation of Belief in Something or Someone

In a tiny, one-window room located in the rear of the Sheriff's Department, Special Agent Jennifer Jareau sat in the hard wooden chair of the desk she'd commandeered from the local sheriff. She focused her tired blue eyes on the photo of the latest abductee, a blonde girl so much like herself when she'd been the same age JJ had felt an instant connection with the victim. Sally Anderson, hailed from the small town in northern Pennsylvania; she was athletic, smart, and driven to become a success. Her basketball coach had assured JJ that Sally was a shoo-in for a scholarship to a major university, and the young girl had already planned to major in Pre-Med. Sally's academic teachers all praised her intellectual abilities and were certain that she would become their brightest star, the only student in the school's history to become a doctor. They'd each held such high hopes that Sally would return home after medical school to set up practice in her hometown, but JJ knew better. She was certain that once Sally Anderson stepped outside the city limits, she'd not come back unless she was made to feel guilty and would only attend the occasional family gathering merely to assuage that guilt.

JJ closed her eyes and grimaced at the intense pain which had settled in her neck and was slowly making its way upward. She ran her hand along the smooth plane of her shoulder and up the right side of her neck, encountering knot after knot along the way. Using her fingertips and thumb to massage the area, she tried to work out the most painful of the knots, wondering if perhaps she should return to the hotel before the nausea set in. A couple of pain pills in conjunction with an hour or so of rest should do the trick, but JJ stubbornly remained in her chair, hoping the call would come, the one which would report Sally had been found alive and well. The phone, however, remained deathly silent.

In the grove of the native red spruces, Supervisory Special Agent Emily Prentiss stood off to the side and quietly watched as local law enforcement officers carefully removed the young girl's body from its shallow grave. The officers worked silently, deep sorrow etching their features as they tried to maintain their composure. Emily's gaze fell on the officers' gloved hands, the distinct outline of a wedding ring prominently displayed through the latex of both the male and female officers' gloves. She knew what was spinning through their heads. The body could easily have been that of their own daughter.

Glancing around the wooded area, Emily's focus changed as she followed the trodden path with her gaze, the crumpled leaves and twigs leading directly from the dirt road to the place of interment. Unsolicited, her own eyes filled with sadness at the senselessness of the death. Sally Anderson had been just 17 years old, her bright future snuffed out by the hands of the UnSub. Emily shook her head, casting the thoughts aside for later, as she walked over towards the team leader, Supervisory Special Aaron Hotchner. There was nothing left for her to do at the crime scene, but there was definitely something she needed to do elsewhere.

"Would it be okay if I went back into town? I'd like to tell JJ the news in person."

Hotch glanced up at his colleague for just a second before he turned his attention back to the grave, his concentration fully on the forest's vegetation which had covered the victim's body. Assuming her request had been dismissed, Emily readied herself to re-examine the scene, an area they'd walked dozens of times already, when Hotch's voice broke the incredibly loud silence of the dense woods.

"Go ahead, Prentiss; we'll catch up with you." Hotch never moved his focus from the shallow grave, so Emily merely nodded her reply, making use of her long strides to quickly flee the reminders of the broken and battered body. She had to get to JJ before someone else told her the news. For some reason not obvious to Emily, this case had crawled underneath JJ's skin and taken up residence. The communications liaison was going to be devastated to learn the flicker of hope she'd held that Sally would somehow escape the clutches of the UnSub had been extinguished.

Arriving at the sheriff's office, Emily was surprised to find JJ slumped over the desk, fast asleep, her blonde head resting at an awkward angle in the crook of a bent elbow. Emily silently closed the door, shutting them off from the rest of the world and away from prying eyes. Slowly, she made her way toward the desk, her eyes full of concern as she knelt beside the dozing agent. Emily took the rare opportunity to fully drink in the beauty before her. When this case was over, she vowed to cross the thin invisible barrier that was keeping the two of them apart. It was time to address what lay beneath the unspoken words.

Lightly brushing the hair from JJ's forehead, she whispered, "JJ?"

Eyelids slowly fluttered, followed by a low, pitiful groan. JJ was barely able to pry her eyes open, the normally clear blue irises clouded with utter exhaustion and obvious pain. She pushed the discomfort aside to focus on the dark eyes that held her own.

"Did you find her?" JJ struggled to sit up, but a razor-sharp stab of pain kept her in place. She slammed her eyes closed and swallowed hard, nausea making its presence known in full force. Emily's hand drew soothing circles over JJ's tensed back muscles.

"Hey, you okay?" Emily leaned closer, her breath brushing across JJ's ear, causing the other woman to visibly shiver. This wasn't quite how JJ had imagined their first intimate moment to play out. There were supposed to be scented candles which offered a sweet aroma and cast a soft glow around the room, glasses of wine, and romantic music playing in the background, not the smell of a musty room lit only by a single fluorescent light which occasionally shorted out, a cup of stale coffee, and drummers beating out an irregular rhythm behind her eyes. She struggled to focus on Emily's question.

"Yeah, it's just a little headache."

Emily slid her hand up the taut back muscles to rest at the base of JJ's neck, the tension under the skin palpable. "This isn't just a little headache, JJ; you're tied up in knots." She eased into a massaging motion.

"Oh, that feels so good; please don't stop." JJ rotated her head to allow Emily better access, never realizing the effect her words had on the other woman. Now, it was Emily's turn to swallow hard, pushing the less than pure thoughts away to focus on JJ instead. Rather, to focus on a clothed JJ as opposed to the naked one who'd uttered those very same words in Emily's dreams.

"Have you taken something for the pain?" Emily continued the light massage, slowly working her way past the corded neck muscles as JJ leaned further into the touch.

"No, I was waiting for word on . . ." JJ's eyes snapped open as the memories of the case came flooding back. She studied Emily's face, searching for any sign of hope, immediately aware that the sadness reflected back at her could only mean one thing. JJ closed her eyes in an attempt to shield her fragility from Emily, but she wasn't able to keep a single tear from tracing its way down her smooth, pale cheek.

Emily glanced at the door, only pausing a moment to make her decision, before she eased forward, placing her arm around JJ and pulling her against her body. JJ melted into the embrace, welcoming the shelter from the storm, her decision to allow the touch forever changing the dynamics of their relationship.

Moment of Inertia - Measure of the Resistance of a Body to Angular Acceleration About a Given Axis

Stepping through the door of her house, JJ released the heavy bag that barely clung to her fingertips, letting it slip from her grasp to fall to the carpeted floor below and land with a loud thud. She pushed the door shut with a booted foot and leaned back against the wooden structure as she allowed her eyes to close for the first time in the last twenty-four hours. The case had been another in a long line of extremely difficult ones, and with Emily away at some hoity-toity family function, JJ hadn't had anyone to keep the demons at bay in those few quiet hours when she'd been allowed to step away from the center of the investigation to retire to the hotel. She'd missed the strong arms and beautiful soft voice whispering reassurances in her ear that usually soothed her whenever she was at her lowest. Emily always seemed to know when JJ needed her touch, and even though the pair hadn't moved past the kissing stage, there was something so very intimate in the way Emily touched her, whether it be a loving embrace or just the interlacing of their fingers in the simple gesture of holding hands.

It had been six long weeks since JJ and Emily had finally accepted the underlying emotions that they'd both kept buried for fear the other didn't harbor the same feelings, and on some days, for fear the other woman felt exactly the same way. At the time, neither of them had known how to deal with either situation, as both were equally terrifying in their own right. JJ was just happy that they'd finally managed to knock down the wall that had separated them.

Sighing, JJ forced herself to push away from the door; her thoughts of Emily had her questioning why they'd been resisting taking the next step in their relationship. It seemed that one or the other always halted the progression of their kisses into something more, neither ready to move on at that particular moment. It was becoming increasingly frustrating for the one willing to push forward to accept the other's wish that they not move ahead. At those particular times, it was usually JJ who felt as if she was spiraling out of control, rotating round and round Emily, not able to breech the invisible force to make the contact she was desperately craving.

As she turned to reach for her bag, JJ groaned aloud at the ringing of her cell. She reached into her pocket and flipped the phone open, hoping Hotch wasn't calling her back to Quantico for some reason or another.


Hearing the weary voice, Emily slowly released the handle of her car door and moved her hand to rest on the steering column, her impromptu plan screeching to a halt. "Hey, it's me. I just got back into the city and wanted to see how you were doing." The fact of the matter was Emily had already spoken to Penelope Garcia. Garcia, the guardian angel of the team, had actually called Emily and asked if she'd mind checking on JJ, indicating that the communications liaison had had a difficult time with this last case. Emily had focused solely on the news and hadn't given a second thought as to why Garcia hadn't called JJ herself. She'd had no idea that the Goddess of Knowledge knew much more than Emily realized.

"Hey, I'm fine, how was your trip?" A tired smile crossed JJ's face as she leaned back against the door, this time choosing to slide down the smooth surface to settle onto the floor next to her bag. She fiddled with the worn luggage tag, running her fingers across the leather, while she waited for Emily to reply. Just hearing the other woman's voice brought an instant sense of peace and comfort to her mind and soul.

"Long and boring, but I don't want to talk about that now. How are you doing, JJ, really?" With the question about JJ's well-being, Emily softened her tone, wishing more than anything that she could be holding the other woman in her arms, offering JJ quiet strength and protection. She knew JJ had been caught up in some kind of inner turmoil for the past few months, and Emily was bound and determined to help JJ make sense of her confusion in any way she could.

Something inside JJ broke loose at the gentle words, and the floodgates opened, releasing a steady stream of tears. She wasn't able to swallow the sob that threatened to escape as it pushed past her lips without permission, and she silently cursed her inability to control her tumultuous emotions whenever she spoke to Emily.

"Damn it; I'm sorry, Emily," she said once she'd regained control of her voice. "I don't know what came over me; I'm just very tired at the moment." JJ pinched the bridge of her nose tightly, welcoming the mild pain it produced. A sudden knock on the door startled her enough to further distract her from her upset state of mind. She unconsciously scooted further into the room, moving away from the intruder.

"JJ, open the door!" Emily rapped her knuckles on the door's surface in rapid succession as she glanced around the neighborhood, still holding her phone to her ear. She'd shot out of her car and raced up the drive the minute she'd heard JJ's sob, grateful every step of the way that her car was already in JJ's driveway.

"Emily?" Confused, JJ looked over her shoulder at the door, and easing onto her knees, she slowly pushed to her feet. She brushed her free hand roughly across her cheeks to wipe away the tears from her face and then swiped it across her jeans before swinging the door open. "How'd you get here so fast?"

Without a word, Emily stepped inside, pushed the door closed, and pulled a willing JJ into her arms.

In the darkened room, Emily watched the images flicker across the screen, barely taking notice of what the television had to offer. Her true focus was on the soft down pillow, which was positioned in her lap, and specifically, the golden crown that lay upon it. She smiled as she eased a stray strand of blonde hair from JJ's face, wanting nothing more than to lean down and taste the lips she knew to be as velvety as the wine the two had shared earlier. However, Emily resisted, despite the strong craving, knowing how much JJ needed her rest. She'd just have to settle for being content to finally be with JJ. Time spent with her family was difficult at best, but being away from JJ had made the trip even more insufferable. A smile slowly grew on Emily's face in spite of the unpleasant memories. Her mother would faint on the spot if she could see Emily now.

"Why the smile?" JJ had opened her eyes to the feel of a gentle hand stroking her hair. With the look of concentration on Emily's face, JJ was certain that Emily wasn't even aware of what she was doing. JJ had watched quietly as the smile had eased onto Emily's face. It was so lovely that she just had to break her silence and discover what the other woman had been thinking that caused her to smile so sweetly.

"You are so beautiful." Emily's words were spoken with such reverence and conviction JJ was afraid to respond for fear of losing the precious moment. Instead, she slowly reached up to caress Emily's cheek, pleased to feel the pressure against her palm when Emily leaned into the touch. JJ lifted her head slightly, and it was all the invitation Emily needed. She closed the distance to press her lips against JJ's in a soft kiss, easing her hand underneath JJ's shirt to gently stroke the warm skin. In an almost unspoken agreement, the two women maintained a steady pace, mirroring the other's movements, neither slowing nor accelerating; each in perfect sync with the other.

The resistance by one or the other that had previously been present no longer existed; they simply allowed the natural progression of the moment to evolve into something so special, so profound, the intensity was simply too great for either woman to bear alone. Dark eyes snapped open and locked onto blue ones as Emily slid her hand into JJ's, their fingers intertwining tightly, forming an inseparable bond which protected them from the strong undertow that threatened to pull them under. Together, JJ and Emily rode their wave of passion until it crashed loudly onto the shore in a unified cry of happiness, joy, and pleasure.

Moment of Truth - a Moment of Crisis on Whose Outcome Much or Everything Depends

The click-clack of computer keys was the only sound in the room, save for the rhythmic humming of the multiple computer monitors that practically lined the length of one entire wall; the latter of the two sounds had become so familiar to the room's occupant, she no longer paid any attention to the high-pitched noise. A pair of fast moving hands suddenly came to a complete standstill above the keyboard, putting an abrupt end to the clicking sounds as Penelope Garcia stared, wide-eyed, at the far computer screen, not understanding at first what she was seeing.

Slowly, the image began to take shape, and the seriousness of the moment became clear, more so when she recognized the location of the news report. Without moving her gaze from the monitor, she groped for the phone next to her much like a blind man, already late for an appointment, frantically searching for his house keys on the kitchen counter. Garcia finally managed to grab hold of the phone, flipping the cell open with a flick of her wrist. She took only a second to look down at the display, hitting first 3 and then send. The time for the call to connect seemed to take an eternity as she could only hope that her fears were ill-founded.

"C'mon, JJ, pick up; pick up; pick up..." Garcia continued to whisper her mantra as she watched the thick smoke billow outward from the sides of the damaged building, making its way skyward, the blackness of it engulfing the clear blue sky.

In her office, JJ hesitated as she reached for her ringing phone, checking the display before determining whether she'd answer the call or simply allow it to go to voice mail. She relaxed momentarily when she read Garcia's name at the base of the tiny screen, and after releasing a deep sigh, she pushed the green button, schooling her voice in an attempt to hide her distress. JJ definitely wasn't in the mood to talk about what was bothering her at the moment and especially not to her good friend who would surely have plenty to say about the situation.

"Hey Garcia," JJ put on her best cheerful voice. "What can I do for you?"

"Um..." Now that Garcia had JJ on the other end, she was uncharacteristically speechless, but the rumble that sounded from her computer speakers seemed to rouse her from her trance. "Grab Emily and come down here ASAP. I have something I need to show the two of you." Garcia's eyes were permanently glued to the end monitor, her shock at seeing the front of the building collapse into a pile of concrete and steel evident in her expression. The sound of JJ's protesting voice slowly faded into the background as Garcia ended the call before JJ could come up with an excuse not to honor her request. Instead, the technogeek's gaze remained on the chaotic scene. "Oh, goddess; I hope I'm wrong. Please, please let me be wrong."

Down the hallway, JJ stared at the silent phone, wondering what had happened to the signal, but knowing that Garcia would continue to pester her until she complied with the rather abrupt request, JJ briefly thought about calling, or better yet, paging Emily to join her in Garcia's office. Instead, she decided to bite the bullet and go in search of her lover. Just the thought of Emily brought back the memories of the previous evening, and JJ paused in the doorway, allowing the scene to play out before her mind's eye, wondering how such a lovely evening had gone so terribly wrong.

JJ had been stuck attending a late meeting for FBI liaisons, and Emily had texted her lover to join her for a late-night dinner. When JJ arrived, she found that instead of their usual fare of take-out, Emily had cooked a delightful dinner of roasted chicken, topped with an out of this world mango glaze and served alongside JJ's favorite grilled vegetables. A glass of Petaluma Merlot rounded out the meal. JJ was in culinary heaven.

The conversation was light and relaxing with Emily occasionally tossing out remarks meant to tease her lover, and as usual, they'd hit their mark dead center, causing JJ to completely forget about her horrible day as she tried to one-up Emily. She didn't realize she'd gone too far until it was too late.

"You could have anyone you wanted." JJ paused, the intended tease inadvertently bringing out insecurities she'd long kept hidden deep inside. "Anyone in the world. Why would you want a small town girl from Pennsylvania?"

Their playful banter came to a screeching halt with JJ's words. The easy smile Emily had been wearing melted from her face, her forehead wrinkling with concern at the implication of JJ's question. Taking a moment to sip her wine, Emily hesitated in her reply, unsure of exactly how she should go about offering her reassurance, but the slight delay only caused JJ's mind to come to all sorts of wrong conclusions. Her next words were out of her mouth before she could censor them.

"Is there someone else? Someone you'd rather be with?" JJ traced the flowering vine pattern of the cream-colored damask tablecloth, not able to look Emily in the eye for fear of what she might see. Emily's eyes were the windows to her soul, and JJ would know instantly if her question held any truth.

"What?" Emily was confused, having no idea as to why JJ would ask such questions. She'd thought that she'd made it abundantly clear to JJ that she was the one Emily wanted, the only one she'd ever wanted. "Where is this coming from?"

JJ tried to shrug off the feelings of inadequacy, but lately, every time she looked at Emily, she wondered why someone of Emily's beauty and sophistication would be interested in her. The woman could easily be the poster model for elegance and style. She'd lived in different countries, dined with the elite of the elite, spoke multiple languages, felt as comfortable in a formal social setting as she did having a beer with team members at a local bar, and was highly educated. JJ couldn't help but wait for the other shoe to drop.

Placing her glass down gently on the linen cloth, Emily turned her full attention to JJ. "You don't seriously believe I'm interested in someone else, do you?"

Once again, JJ spoke without thinking. "Not at this particular moment, but I'm sure there'll come a time when you'll want someone who's more your equal, someone who's refined and has had the same experiences, someone you can connect with."

And that was the exact moment JJ knew she'd gone too far in revealing her fears. Emily's expression became unreadable, almost as if she'd donned a mask to keep her thoughts and feelings from her lover.

"I was under the impression that you and I shared a connection." Emily struggled to control her sharp tongue. She knew JJ had moments when she doubted herself and that she should be offering JJ reassuring words, but the day had been long, and she was tired, too. Just the implication by her lover that they didn't share a deep connection had hurt Emily more than a slap in the face.

"We do, but . . ." JJ should've stopped at 'do.' Any further explanation was cut off as Emily pushed to her feet and tossed her napkin onto the empty plate.

"Either we do or we don't, JJ; there are no buts." Emily broke eye contact and moved toward the window overlooking the Capitol Building. Wrapping her arms around herself tightly, she gazed out at the lights that shone across the Potomac.

Choosing not to follow, JJ instead stayed seated at the table, the distance giving her the courage to speak her thoughts. "I'm sorry, Emily. I shouldn't have said that, but . . ." She paused at seeing Emily's shoulders tense with the spoken 'but' and then slowly stood. Walking toward the couch, she stopped at its edge to finish her thought. "I can't help but feel that I'm not worthy of your love, Emily."

Emily continued to stare out the window, a sudden chill settling in her spine as if she could feel, firsthand, the cold temperature on the other side of the glass. She was somewhat comforted that JJ had at least acknowledged that Emily loved her, but she knew JJ's tone well. She still had more to offer, and even though Emily knew how important it was for her lover to express her fears, she was afraid of what would follow. She didn't have long to wait as JJ's softly spoken words made their way across the room.

"From the first moment I saw you, I was infatuated with you. I kept trying to figure you out, wondering why someone with your background would want to work in the B. A. U. And then you smiled, and I no longer cared why you'd joined the team, I was just thankful that you had."

Emily stared out the window and remained silent, knowing that anything she said might be taken in the wrong context and stop JJ from expressing her current train of thought - whatever JJ had to say needed to be said. Tightening her arms around her middle, Emily turned her eyes from the spectacular view before her to focus on the glass to the left of her, and specifically, the reflection of her living room and its surrounding area. The Capitol Building blurred in the background as the couch and the woman standing next to it slowly came into focus.

"Growing up, I learned very quickly not to allow myself to get attached to anyone. Every time I'd get close to someone, there was always someone else who came along that was more fun, more available – someone who didn't have to stay late for soccer practice or miss out on most of the weekend because of some tournament or another. After awhile, I quit trying to find that special someone who would love me enough to accept the times we could spend together. No matter how hard I try, Emily, I just can't stop looking over my shoulder for that perfect someone who will take you away."

Emily finally turned to face her lover, dropping her arms to her sides. "JJ, please tell me what I can say or do to make you believe that I want you and only you."

JJ smiled sadly and lifted her purse from the sofa cushions. "I don't know, Emily. I wish I did, but I truly don't know." With one last look at Emily, she turned and walked out of the apartment. She never saw the lone tear that made its way down her lover's cheek.

Pushing the unsettling memories into the background, JJ regained her focus as she stepped into the bullpen of the B.A.U. Quickly, she scanned the room, searching for her lover, but Emily was nowhere to be found. JJ briefly considered trying to pull Reid's attention from the book he seemed so engrossed in to ask if he'd seen Emily, but instead she decided that she'd talk to Garcia alone. If her friend's news was truly important, JJ could always relate it to Emily later. Decision made, JJ veered away from the profilers' desks and headed back into the hallway. Moments later, she was knocking on the doorframe of Garcia's office.

"Hey, Garcia. What's up?"

At the sound of JJ's voice, Garcia tore her eyes from the computer screen and focused on the doorway, craning her neck almost painfully to see past the blonde in the hope of spotting the dark hair of Emily Prentiss. "Where's Emily?"

JJ moved further into the room and plopped down in the chair next to her friend. She'd completely missed the hint of upset in Garcia's voice. "I have no idea. She wasn't at her desk."

"Oh God, I was hoping she'd been held up somehow and hadn't left for the city yet." Garcia was nearing the panic stage. "Call her. Call her right now, JJ."

JJ swiveled her chair towards Garcia, finally noting her friend's distress. "Okay, what's going on?"

"Please call her, JJ."

JJ reached for her phone but placed it on the desk beside her. She turned her focus on her friend instead. "Garcia, just tell me why you want me to call Emily."

"Please don't make me tell you, JJ." Tears welled in Garcia's eyes, and JJ shifted in her chair, reaching out to lay a steady hand on Garcia's trembling one.

"It's okay, I promise." JJ eased her tone, despite the sudden gnawing feeling that was beginning to grow deep in her gut. "Why don't you start from the beginning?"

Garcia nodded her head and slowly began to explain. "Emily came by to see me this morning. She was very fidgety and nervous, not at all like the Emily I know. Finally, she just blurted out that the two of you were having problems, and she didn't know what to do. She was beside herself, JJ; I've never seen her so out of sorts. She really loves you, you know, and would do anything for you."

JJ frowned slightly, not quite ready to have this particular conversation with her friend. She was having a hard enough time trying to deal with her insecurities in her own mind as it was. "What else did she say?"

"She was terribly upset; she just kept going on and on about how she was going to lose you and that she had to figure out a way to assure you that you were 'it' for her. She was really scared, JJ." Garcia stole a quick glance at the computer monitor, suddenly feeling a fear just as intense.

"Okay, so what advice did you give her?" JJ held her breath. There was no telling what Garcia had told Emily. She just hoped that Emily hadn't jumped on the first plane and fled the country.

"We just talked it through. Emily's a bit old-fashioned in her way of thinking."

JJ smiled at the understatement. "Yes, I'm quite aware of that."

"She had the idea of surprising you with something special, so I'd suggested a ring tone for her phone, but she had another kind of ring in mind. We did take a few minutes to download a tone though. Wait until you hear it, JJ, it's perfect. Emily chose it herself. It's . . ."

"Ring?" JJ had stopped listening when Garcia had mentioned Emily's idea of a ring.

"Oh yeah." Garcia was so wrapped up in her memories, she'd temporarily forgotten about why she'd called JJ to her office in the first place. "And no store hopping for Ms. Prentiss. Uh-uh, that woman is pure gold. Don't you dare mess this up, JJ; when she gets back from that bank of hers, you . . . oh God, the bank." Garcia's jaw went slack, and her face lost all color. "JJ, the National Capital Bank's main office on Pennsylvania Avenue just exploded!" Garcia pointed towards the end monitor, and JJ followed the direction the finger indicated, halting her gaze on the screen. Smoke continued to rise up from the collapsed building.

Garcia elaborated on her fears. "Emily called Hotch to tell him that she needed to run an errand in downtown DC, and Hotch asked her if she'd mind dropping off some papers on her way. Damn, I can't remember which federal building she was supposed to go to, but dear goddess, I hope she's still there."

JJ looked from the monitor to Garcia and back to the monitor again, slowly piecing together what her friend was trying to tell her. Emily banked at the National Capital Bank main office, but JJ was confused as to why Emily would go to her bank.

"Garcia, you said Emily was talking about a ring. I don't understand why she'd need to stop at her bank. Couldn't she just use her credit card?"

"The ring is at the bank, JJ, in Emily's safety deposit box. Her grandfather gave it to her when she was just a little girl. It's the ring he gave to Emily's grandmother when he asked her to marry him, and it's been passed down from generation to generation. He said since there were no more males in the family to pass it on to, he wanted her to have it. She was going to drop off Hotch's papers and then head over to the bank afterwards."

"Oh God." JJ fumbled for her phone, finally snatching it up from the table. With a single push of her finger, she lifted the phone to her ear and prayed; her focus split between the monitor and the ringing in her ear.

A dense fog settled across the winding path of consciousness, the condensation so thick, it was next to impossible to breathe, and the visibility so poor, movement of a hand in front of one's face would go undetected. Emily struggled to pull herself free from the confines that held her captive, her mind clouded with a haze of its own. A single sound pushed its way past the confusion, and Emily zeroed in on the beacon, allowing it to guide her through the maze in which she was trapped.

Almost immediately, the sound disappeared, but Emily had been able to follow the tone past the darkness that had enveloped her, fighting tooth and nail to conquer her current state of mental confusion. She'd been able to identify the noise, and her recognition of its significance gave her the strength to navigate her way across the last layer of the fog. The refrains of the song Garcia had programmed into her phone were firmly embedded in her mind as she clawed her way to the surface, finally opening her eyes to her own soft voice – 'You make me feel like a natural woman.'

Her singing came to an abrupt halt as Emily glanced around slowly, taking in her surroundings. An overhead light hissed viciously as it struggled in its fight to draw from a backup power source, the strobe-like effect creating a distorted view of the shadowed area and causing Emily to squint in order to see more clearly. Walls of steel greeted her gaze, the shiny surface on one side marred with an occasional irregular black pattern indicative of a blast of some sort. Emily tilted her head in confusion – blast pattern? Where in the hell was she?

A droplet of something warm and wet fell on the back of her hand, and Emily looked down, mesmerized by the deep red color against her fair skin. She continued to watch, as the liquid was no longer able to defy gravity as it made its way slowly toward her thumb, finally picking up speed to land on the ground below. With her other hand, Emily reached up to touch her eyebrow, immediately finding the source of the blood in the form of what felt like a jagged cut over her left eye.

"Great. First a 2 x 4, and now this; I'm definitely going to have a scar this time."

Searching for the object that had caused her injury, Emily glanced around the room once more. It was then that she noticed her position, a frown forming on her face as she wondered how she had ended up on the floor. She focused on the chair lying beside her as she tried to piece together what had happened, whispering her thoughts aloud as if hearing them would help in her quest to clear the confusion. "I must've fallen out of the chair when I was . . . the ring!" The memories came flooding back as Emily frantically sought out the safety deposit box that she'd been opening when everything had faded to black.

Just a few feet away, the long, metal object sat next to the table leg, the table leg that appeared to be bolted to the floor. The unusual safety precaution triggered another memory, and Emily recalled hearing and then feeling the explosion. She again noted her position in relation to the table and accurately concluded that she'd hit her head on its corner when she'd been knocked from her chair. Her gaze moved back to the dark blast patterns on the wall, and she wondered, yet again, what the hell was going on.

Grabbing hold of the table's edge, Emily pulled herself to her feet and then bent down to retrieve the box from the floor. Carefully, she laid the metal case on the table, and after a thorough inspection, she slowly lifted the lid and peered inside. The contents had shifted to one end with the rough treatment it had endured, but Emily immediately spotted the reason for her impromptu trip to the bank. Reaching inside, she removed the small black, velvet box and laid it gently, almost reverently, on the table. She stared down at the ring box before, finally, lifting it with a shaky hand. Taking a deep breath, Emily slowly opened the box and gently removed the ring from inside, placing the box back on the table without a second glance. Her entire focus was on the family heirloom she held in her hand. Holding the ring with the fingers of her right hand, Emily eased it onto her left ring finger, the fit just a little too snug. However, the ring would fit perfectly on JJ's long slender finger.

The square-cut diamond of the platinum ring sparkled brightly despite the low lighting as the three diamond baguettes on either side cast a steady glow of their own. Emily was spellbound by the beauty of the ring, having always admired the heirloom even as a baby. Her grandfather had told her that whenever her grandmother had held her, Emily would zero in on the ring and the rest of the world would come to a standstill. If she'd been crying, she'd stop; if she'd been laughing, the cute baby sounds would abruptly halt, and if she'd been trying to talk, as she often did according to her grandfather, her gibberish would come to an end. Her big dark eyes would settle on the ring and nothing anyone else could say or do would draw her attention from it.

Emily remembered the day her grandfather had given her the ring. She was so excited and couldn't wait for her hands to grow big enough to wear it. Her mother had immediately burst her bubble saying that she'd keep the ring safe until Emily had found someone to marry. The Ambassador had held out her hand, and Emily had reluctantly placed it in her palm. Her mother had given her a slight smile and walked away. It was her grandfather's words that had soothed her.

"One day, Emily, you'll find your true love, and the ring will once again shine."

At the time, Emily had no idea that it wouldn't be her finger that would hold the ring. She'd always expected to find some nice man to marry and settle down with, but by the time she reached college, she knew a man would not be in her future. She'd figured the ring's magic had died with her grandmother, but her grandfather's words had spoken the truth. She'd found her love, and the ring was once again shining brightly.

Thoughts of JJ had Emily placing the ring carefully back into the box. She palmed the small box and slid it into the pocket of her pants as her focus moved to the vault door. Walking over, she wasn't at all surprised to find it closed, figuring that the initial blast had more than likely triggered some sort of automatic safety feature. The door being slightly ajar at the time of the explosion would also explain the dark patterns on the wall directly across from the opening.

Emily stepped closer and began to steadily beat her hand against the thick steel, calling out in a loud voice, "Hey, anybody out there? Can you hear me?" The image of the young security guard standing just outside caused her to pause for a moment, her hand halting in midair. Emily wasn't certain where the bank employee had gone after leaving her alone in the vault with the safety deposit box, but the guard would have been directly in the path of the explosion. Leaning her head against the door, Emily prayed that the man had somehow survived the blast.

"Are you sure Prentiss was in the building when it exploded?" Hotch stood on the opposite side of the table from JJ and Garcia, arms folded across his chest and a look of concern etched upon his features. Reid and Morgan flanked the two women on their right and left, respectively, while Rossi chose to perch on the small table next to the wall, one leg suspended in the air, rocking slowly back and forth, while the other remained rooted to the floor. His ear was on the conversation, but his gaze was on the flat screen that was mounted on the front wall of the room as he continued to watch the emergency workers stream onto the scene of the explosion.

"She's not answering her cell. It just goes to voicemail." JJ spoke in an almost monotone voice; her mind realizing the implication of Emily not answering her phone, but her heart hoping against hope that Emily had just forgotten to charge the battery. She was going to kill her lover for being so thoughtless, right after she pulled Emily into her office and kissed her senseless.

"Maybe the battery's dead." Reid's words mirrored JJ's thoughts as he turned toward her and offered a reassuring smile.

"Yeah, Reid's right; Emily could very well be on her way back here now. We shouldn't jump to conclusions," Morgan said, nodding his head but keeping his focus on Garcia. She'd been jittery and jumpy ever since they'd convened in the conference room. There was definitely something she was still holding back, and, as if sensing Morgan watching her, Garcia blurted out her secret seconds later.

"Emily's battery isn't dead." Garcia spared a quick glance at JJ, seeing her friend stiffen in her chair. She immediately turned back toward Hotch before she could make eye contact with the blonde. Garcia hadn't told JJ that she was perfectly aware that there wasn't a problem with Emily's cell battery, choosing instead to let JJ have something to believe in. "She came by the office earlier and asked if I could help her with a problem she was having with her phone. The battery showed a full charge."

"What kind of problem? Maybe whatever it was has returned and is causing her cell to malfunction." Reid turned his attention to Garcia, anxiously waiting to discover if his theory was sound. Garcia just shook her head back and forth.

"No, um, it wasn't a problem with the phone itself. She just wanted to ask me about some of its features." Garcia wouldn't dare to look in Reid's direction. If she did, she'd have to face JJ, and she just wasn't ready to see the look of devastation in her friend's eyes.

"Okay, we'll just assume that it's not a battery problem then," said Hotch, directing his gaze toward Rossi, an unspoken request passing between the two. Rossi just nodded his head and pushed off the wall.

"I'm on it." Walking from the room, Rossi left the others to stare at the empty doorway. In unison, they turned their attention back to their leader for instructions. Hotch didn't disappoint.

"Okay, Garcia, go back to your office and see if you can find out what caused the explosion. Morgan, go with her; two sets of eyes and ears are better than one." Garcia hurried to her feet, eager to have something to do. She hesitantly reached out to gently pat JJ on the shoulder before she left the room with Morgan in tow.

Tearing a sheet of paper from his legal pad, Hotch scribbled down several digits before extending the freed page out in front of him. "Reid, call this number and see if Prentiss made the delivery I asked her to. I want a timeframe. I want to know the exact second she left that building." Reid jumped from his chair and reached for the paper. Hotch waited until he'd stepped from the room before he turned his gaze on JJ.

"JJ, why don't you go back to your office and wait? I'll contact you when we know something. In the meantime, you can review some of your files. Staying busy will help." The softly spoken words were barely out of his mouth when JJ snapped back.

"What? No way! I'm not sitting this one out! I'm a member of this team, too." JJ pushed to her feet and glared at her superior, her professionalism kicking in at the last moment as she added, "Sir." JJ fought to control her shaky voice, knowing Hotch was watching her closely. She certainly didn't need to give him any more signs of how upset she truly was; her body language was telling enough.

Silence ensued as the two stood across the table from each other; one, trying desperately to keep her emotions in check while the other finally had the answer to his suspicion. Hotch made a snap decision.

"Okay, go get Morgan and meet me in the parking lot. I'll go find Reid. We're going to the scene." Hotch noted the immediate look of relief cross JJ's face. He just hoped that by the end of the day, she'd have the very same look. "Oh, and tell Garcia that I need her to stay here and feed us information." Hotch hesitated, and then said, "Don't worry, JJ; I'm sure Emily is just fine."

JJ could only nod and start for the door before Hotch could change his mind. A sudden thought had her stopping inside the doorway and turning back toward Hotch. "What about Rossi?"

"He's already on his way to the scene."

The interior of the Suburban was deathly silent as the occupants were completely lost in their thoughts. Hotch gripped the steering wheel tightly, his usual stoicism even more prevalent, the muscles in his jaw tightening with each passing mile. From behind his dark glasses, he would spare an occasional glance at the passenger seat. Usually, it was occupied by the equally stoic form of David Rossi, but now held the tense figure of the team's blonde communications liaison. Two other pairs of eyes would occasionally stray toward the front seat as well; the men of the team intent on looking after one of their own, one that held a special place in each of their hearts, one they each knew had more to lose than any other member of the team.

JJ fought the urge to fidget, her body wanting so desperately to flee the confines of the SUV and run the rest of the way to the scene. Being confined in such a small space with her almost overwhelming emotions was proving to be one of the most difficult tests in her life. She knew, however, that the worst was yet to come; she would have to look at the collapsed building up close and know that in all probability, Emily was inside. It would take everything she had to keep it all together. Grasping on to the shoulder harness with her left hand, JJ squeezed tightly. Emily just had to be okay.

The ringing of Morgan's cell broke through the stillness, the sounds of Donna Summer's 'Hot Stuff' filling the silent airwaves and causing JJ to flinch as she recalled her conversation with Garcia concerning Emily's new ring tone. Morgan fumbled for the phone, and finally, brought it to his ear.

"Hey, Baby Girl, what have you got for me?"

"I got hold of the security footage of the bank before the explosion." Garcia's hands flew over the keyboard, her gaze jumping from monitor to monitor as she looked for any sign of Emily.

"How did you . . ." Morgan frowned, cutting off his own words. He knew the FBI hadn't officially been handed the case, but such a minor detail would never deter Garcia from finding her own answers. Now, more than ever, he was grateful for Garcia's superior hacking abilities. "So, have you found anything?"

"I'm going to need a little more time to run through all this footage. I still haven't spotted Emily in any of the frames, but I can tell you that the explosion was caused by a faulty gas main. So, everyone can relax; terrorism wasn't involved this time." Garcia continued to pound on the keys, searching for any sign of Emily on the bank's security tapes.

"Well, that's good to hear. You let us know if you spot Emily on any of those tapes." Morgan glanced up to see JJ looking at him expectantly. "Okay, Baby Girl, I'll call you when we get to the scene." Flipping his cell closed, Morgan addressed his team members. "Garcia said that a gas main was the cause of the explosion so terrorists can be ruled out."

"What about Emily? What did she say about Emily?" JJ turned almost completely around in her seat, her hand still gripping the shoulder harness tightly.

"No word, JJ, but Garcia is reviewing the security tapes. If Emily stepped inside that building, Garcia will know."

JJ bit down on her lip and nodded as she turned back around in her seat. Her eyes widened when she was finally able to focus out the front windshield. A huge cloud of smoke loomed in the near distance.

Emily sat on the floor next to the vault's door, her eyes closed tightly and her head leaned back against the wall. The raging headache that had surfaced earlier, practically incapacitating her, had finally subsided to just a minor irritation. Her attempts to capture someone's attention had failed, perhaps triggering the pain that had been lurking just below the surface, and she'd decided to save her strength for when she really needed it. She'd briefly considered firing her weapon at one point in the hopes that someone would hear the blast from the gun, but she didn't want to take the chance of causing a potential shift in the areas that surrounded the room. She certainly didn't need to add to her current problem. The room's stability was vital to her survival.

A single fluorescent tube of the overhead light still struggled to maintain its fight to stay lit, but the air inside the vault had become increasingly thin and stale. Emily had been grateful that the vents had automatically closed when the explosion had occurred, effectively keeping out most of the smoke and soot, but right about now, she wouldn't have minded breathing in a lungful of the dirty air. Her mind wondered just how long the current air supply would hold out, figuring her fate would all come down to whether or not she was found before she suffocated. She blew out a nervous breath.

"That's it, Emily; look on the bright side." Her whispered words sounded incredibly loud in the sealed off room. Opening her eyes, she stared up at the ceiling. At least her cut had stopped bleeding, although, Emily knew that was the least of her worries. With her cell phone continuing to blink its 'no service' message, she knew she'd have to find another way to alert rescue personnel to her location, but until then, she needed to figure out how to get some kind of airflow into the room.

The erratic light brightened for just a moment, briefly winning the battle before it was sent spiraling back to the land of low voltage. But in that single moment of time, Emily had spied what appeared to be some kind of latch located on one of the room's closed vents. Pushing her back against the wall, she slowly stood and walked over to stand below the duct, squinting in the dim light as she focused on the shadowed outlet. A small smile played at the corners of her lips when she was finally able to spot the small metal lever located on the right side of the vent, and she immediately began to search for something to use to help slide it into the open position. Her eyes fell on the safety deposit box.

A few moments later, Emily stood on top of the table and reached up with her right hand, placing her left on the ceiling to steady her balance. She tugged on the lever, and just as she'd figured, it wouldn't budge. Prepared for the negative result, Emily leaned down and grabbed the safety deposit box from the table's surface, hefting it up with both hands and aiming the box toward the metal protrusion. Gauging the distance and location of her target, Emily turned her head down and away and closed her eyes as she thrust the box upward, hitting the lever on her first attempt. A heavy shower of dirt and dust poured through the louvered openings of the vent, coating her hair and clothing and turning both to an ashen shade of gray, but seconds later, Emily was rewarded with the sensation of warm air on the back of her outstretched hand.

Shaking most of the grit from her hair, except for a fine layer that stubbornly clung to the dark strands, she swiped a hand across her eyebrows and slowly blinked her eyes open, removing most of the dirt from her eyelashes. She cautiously turned her gaze to the vent above, pleased to find that the airway appeared to be free of any obstructions. In fact, her hopes were lifted when she spied a tiny sliver of light from high above, and Emily said a quick prayer that there wouldn't be another explosion that might cause a shift and thus put an end to her current air flow. Climbing down from the table, Emily looked around the room once again. There wasn't much else that she could do to aid in her escape; she'd just have to have faith that the rescue workers would find her in time. Knowing her propensity for impatience, Emily knew she needed to find something to occupy herself while she waited. Her eyes fell on the metal box that had aided in her quest for air.

Righting the chair, Emily slid it across the floor to the other side of the table until she was settled closer to her only light source. She once again reached for the safety deposit box and dumped the remaining contents on the table's surface. A photograph of her grandfather landed atop the pile, freeing itself from the other photos that had been loosely bound together, and she gently fingered its edge before taking it into her hand. The kind, smiling face that greeted her caused the corners of her mouth to turn up.

Emily missed her grandfather; aside from JJ, he'd truly been the only person who'd ever understood her. Just the thought of her lover brought back the disagreement of the night before, and Emily reflexively reached for the pocket of her pants, using her fingers to trace along the edges of the box, reassuring herself that her plan was sound, that the ring would make everything right again, that it would confirm her commitment to JJ.

"Oh, Grandfather, I do love her so," Emily whispered softly. "It's just that JJ has had some bad experiences in her past and is having a hard time believing that I won't leave her. I understand her feelings a little better now. I just hope my realization hasn't come too late."

Emily traced the strong lines of her grandfather's face before placing the photo to the side and stretching across the table where a set of envelopes, stained yellow from age, had landed, their contents one of Emily's most cherished possessions – letters from her beloved grandfather. She eased open the top envelope and gently pulled the letter free. The bold strokes that greeted her comforted her just as they always had. The letters had been the shelter from the storm, the balm that had healed her when lonely times had been upon her. Life as a diplomat's daughter had been anything but easy, and even though she'd constantly been surrounded by staff and the occasional guests, Emily had felt so alone.

Carefully unfolding the letter, Emily read the first line and was whisked away to an earlier time, the image of a young girl of ten hidden away in her room, a letter clutched firmly in her small hands as she devoured each and every one of her grandfather's soothing words. The same words had the same effect today as Emily became lost in the lines and lines of text. Time and place were no longer important as the stack of letters slowly dwindled down until, finally, the last one had been read.

Emily eased the letter back into its envelope and wiped a single tear from her cheek. She still missed her grandfather terribly, but as always, he'd found a way to reach out when she needed him most. Sighing, Emily placed the letters to the side and reached for the small expandable file, its opening kept closed by an elastic band which stretched across the middle of the heavy cardboard-like material. She eased the slim, black barrier to the corner until the band slipped off the edge, freeing the flap and allowing her access to the file's enclosures. Removing the various papers, Emily thumbed through the stack, giving each only a cursory glance until one particular document stopped her cold. She slowly pulled it free from the others and stared down at the words emblazoned across the front before opening the document to read the first lines of the official text.

Last Will and Testament

I, Emily Ann Prentiss, being of sound mind and body, do solemnly bequeath . . .

Hotch wheeled the dark SUV next to its government counterpart and eyed the scene in front of him. Policemen, firemen, and medical personnel swarmed the area as the smoke still rose steadily from the mostly collapsed building. 'Controlled chaos' were the first two words to come to his mind as he shut off the ignition and turned to his team.

"Let's find Rossi, and then we can decide how we want to proceed." He focused on JJ and gentled his tone. "This isn't our operation so we need to make nice. I'm sure the local PD would love nothing more than to ban us from the area."

"Good luck with that," said Morgan, his hand gripping the door handle. "We're not leaving here without Emily."

Hotch nodded in agreement. "No, we most certainly are not." Glancing back at the scene, he spied Rossi threading his way through the throng of rescue workers. "C'mon, let's see what Rossi knows."

The four agents opened their doors in unison as they climbed from the SUV and headed toward their colleague. Rossi immediately spotted the foursome and veered their way, and not for the first time, JJ truly wished she were a profiler. She had no idea how to read their newest teammate, knowing that the expression he wore could easily be good news or bad.

"Find out anything, Dave?"

"It wasn't terrorists," the FBI legend began, pointing toward the nearby street intersection. "Maintenance workers accidentally breeched the gas main, causing a build-up and the subsequent explosion."

Hotch looked in the direction of the area that had been cordoned off, knowing firsthand how important it was to investigate immediately before evidence had been lost or, worse, covered up. He turned his focus back on Rossi. "Yes, Garcia was able to ascertain that bit of information. What about the occupants of the building? Have the rescue workers managed to get to any of them yet?"

"Just started actually, fairly organized operation, too." Rossi gestured to several areas where makeshift tent-like structures had already been erected. "The employees who were out of the building for one reason or another when the explosion occurred and have since returned to check on their co-workers are gathered under the far canopy." He indicated a second larger tent just down the block. "They've got a triage center set up around the corner from the bank. Some doctors and nurses are manning the center, sending those who need immediate care to the local hospitals by waiting ambulances. I was there when the first casualties arrived; Prentiss wasn't in the group."

Rossi uncharacteristically hesitated for a moment before continuing, "There's a third area where the dead are being taken." Upon hearing the rather blunt words, JJ stumbled back a step, and Morgan placed his hands on her shoulders to steady her. Rossi looked directly at JJ when he spoke his next words. "I checked every bag they've brought out so far. No Prentiss." He moved his attention back to Hotch, echoing the team leader's earlier question. "Are we even certain she was in the building?"

Right on cue, Morgan's phone once again began to ring out the familiar tune of 'Hot Stuff,' but this time the profiler was able to snatch it from his belt after only a couple of notes. "Got something?" asked Morgan, choosing to forego his usual flirty greeting, knowing this was neither the time nor the place for it.

"Got her." Garcia's quick reply had Morgan switching to speaker, and the others gathered around to hear what the analyst had to say. "Emily entered the building, spoke briefly to an elderly man who was on his way out, and then headed directly for an office around the corner from the teller area. She went inside and shortly afterward left the room, following another woman. I was able to zoom in on the woman's nametag – Amanda Miller, Senior Vice-President of Branch Operations. The two got on the elevator, but the cameras were focused too low; I couldn't see the floor indicators to tell where they were headed."

"What about . . ." Reid's thought was interrupted by Garcia's answer to his unvoiced question.

"Yes, I thought about that, too. I pulled up a plan of the building and located the safety deposit vault in the basement. So, I found the feed from the basement's camera and rewound the time stamp to the exact time when Emily and the employee entered the elevator."

Garcia paused for a moment, the sound of clicking keys indicating that she was pulling up another window. "Okay, then I picked the two up again, getting off the elevator on the basement level. The woman directed Emily down the hallway, past a security guard, and into the vault. A couple of minutes later, the woman stepped out and pushed the door partially closed. She gestured toward the vault and spoke briefly to the guard before heading back to the elevator. Approximately two minutes later, the feed cut off, and the screen went to black." Garcia hesitated, adding, "Um, all the feeds cut off."

No one needed to speculate as to why the cameras had shut down, but the team now had a definitive answer as to whether or not Emily had actually been inside the building when it had exploded. Hotch didn't allow the realization to take root and paralyze the team. He immediately began to issue assignments.

"Morgan, I want you to stick close to the triage area. Reid, I need you to talk to the employees. See if anyone knows anything about the structure of the vault."

Morgan nodded and gave JJ's shoulder a squeeze as he trotted off toward the large tent while Reid headed toward the smaller canopy.

Rossi looked over at the third tented area. "Want me to stay close to the site itself?"

Hotch sighed softly, grateful that Rossi could practically read his mind. The makeshift morgue was located just to the side of the site. "That'd be good, Dave, thanks." The older agent just nodded and walked away.

Left alone with the team leader, JJ spoke for the first time since they'd arrived, her focus on the collapsed building. "Do you think she's alive?" Her voice sounded unusually calm, given the seriousness of her question.

"I do." Hotch spoke with confidence. "These older buildings are solid structures, and I'd imagine the vault is especially sound. Its location in the basement is even more advantageous."

"You really think so?" JJ moved her gaze to Hotch, needing desperately to believe in his words; however, the flash of the sunlight on an approaching car caught her attention before Hotch could answer. He held his reply and turned to see what had distracted JJ.

A long, black limousine pulled in next to where the agents had parked their SUVs, the stretch limo's bright finish shining even brighter amidst the gloomy scene in the background. JJ watched as the back door slowly opened and Erin Strauss stepped out, gazing directly at the two team members, her look a mix of disappointment and anger. Pulling her shoulders back, JJ prepared herself for the section chief's wrath, but she was momentarily confused when Strauss instead turned back nervously to peer inside the vehicle. Seconds later, a well-dressed older woman stepped out and strode directly toward them; her usual easy confident stride was unnatural, as if it was being forced. Not wasting any time on pleasantries, she addressed the B. A. U.'s leader.

"Agent Hotchner, have you located my daughter?"

Years and years of experience in the field, coupled with his short stint in the courtroom, served Hotch well. He smoothly replied to Ambassador Prentiss without even so much as a flinch. "No, Ambassador, but we believe we've narrowed down the section of the building in which Agent Prentiss was last seen. I was just about to go in search of the rescue coordinator and inform him of our findings."

"Good, good then." Elizabeth Prentiss nodded her approval and looked past Hotch, getting her first glance at the destroyed bank. "Oh my God." She could no more call back her words than she could keep the color from draining from her face. Hotch stepped into her line of sight, cutting off her view of the building.

"Ambassador, if you don't mind me asking, how did you find out about the situation so quickly?" Hotch's query served two purposes: One, he wanted to distract the diplomat from the collapsed building, and two, he needed to know if Strauss had once again used poor judgment. What kind of leader, or better yet, what kind of woman would bring a mother into this sort of situation?

"What?" The Ambassador turned her attention on Hotch, her own experiences as a diplomat not allowing her to fully give in to her emotions. "Oh, John Sterling called me. He's the President of the National Capital Bank and an old family friend. He'd just left the building minutes before the explosion and spoke to Emily on his way out. I tried to get in touch with your office, but I was directed to the section chief instead. She volunteered to ride with me to the scene."

Hotch nodded, grateful that the idea hadn't been Strauss'; however, he was none too happy that the section chief hadn't been able to dissuade the Ambassador from visiting the site. Knowing the situation was one thing, but seeing it play out in front of her required a different mind set. One's imagination of such an event rarely came anywhere close to the sheer magnitude of the destruction that had actually taken place.

"There's a coffee shop across the street," said Hotch, gesturing toward the quaint little shop, its colors warm and inviting. "Why don't you let Agent Jareau escort you over for a cup of coffee? I'll keep in contact with her, and she can in turn relay messages to you." Hotch purposefully avoided JJ's gaze, knowing full well the agent wanted to stay on the scene, but this was the perfect opportunity to remove both of Emily's loved ones from the front lines and away from any potentially tough decisions.

"I'll accompany the Ambassador; Agent Jareau is needed here." Strauss, who'd been quiet during the initial exchange between Hotch and the Ambassador, suddenly came to life, needing to remind Hotch who was ultimately in charge. For the first time ever, JJ was actually pleased with words that had come from the section chief. Now, she'd get to stay close to the scene, and more importantly, close to Emily.

"I'd rather go with Agent Jareau, if you don't mind?" The Ambassador's reply may have been in the form of a question, but her tone brooked no argument. JJ was clearly her choice. The diplomat managed a forced smile for the section chief. "But, thank you for riding over with me. I appreciate your assistance in getting me past the various checkpoints." Elizabeth Prentiss turned toward JJ, effectively dismissing Strauss with her words. "Agent Jareau?"

"Yes, Ma'am," said JJ, gesturing for the Ambassador to take the lead. "This way."

With pen in hand, Emily marked through a line of text and made another notation in the margin, the sides of the document now spotted here and there with her bold strokes. As was becoming her practice, she moved her free hand back and forth across the rough material of her pants pocket, the ring box acting as her touchstone to JJ. Determinedly, she stroked through an entire paragraph.

The will had become Emily's sole focus. She'd made a few changes and added a codicil or two to it through the years, the last time being when she'd first joined the B. A. U., but she hadn't given it another thought since she'd completed her initial case with the elite unit. Now, if worse did indeed come to worse, Emily wanted to make certain that JJ received a part of her estate – the part that truly mattered to Emily: her apartment and its contents, plus the monies she'd earned from her salary and from investments she'd made through the years. She knew her mother would more than likely contest any direct gift of Emily's inheritance, so she'd been careful in her wording to keep the original amount intact with a large percentage of interest to remain in the family's name. She'd also indicated that the ring that was safely tucked away in her pocket would become the sole possession of JJ. With one final flourish of the pen, Emily initialed all her changes and read through the document one last time, the fluorescent tube seeming to sense the importance of Emily's work as it offered the best light it could possibly muster during the alterations to her will.

Pleased with the result, Emily flipped back through the envelopes containing her grandfather's letters, searching for the one in the best physical condition. Making her choice, she slid the letter out from inside and eased it into another envelope before placing the will into the now empty container. She tucked the flap into the back of the envelope and wrote in large printed letters across its back:

Attention: Aaron Hotchner


I trust you to ensure that my last wishes are carried out.


Signing her full given name below the shortened printed version, Emily propped the envelope against the safety deposit box, positioning both so that the metal container and the letter would be the first thing her team would notice when they entered the vault. She knew the profilers of her unit would eventually find the letter regardless of its location, but she wanted to ensure that they knew of its importance to her. A prominently displayed position would do just that. Emily glanced at the envelope one last time before moving her focus to the rest of the room, wondering what else there was for her to do to occupy her time.

Moments later, a tube of lipstick sat perched on the corner of the table, surrounded by half a roll of breath mints, a small bottle of Tylenol which now had two fewer pills, the black pen which had been used to amend her will, a miniature sewing kit, a gun, a nail file, a set of car keys, a wooden puzzle, the useless cell phone, and a first edition copy of The Little Prince, a treasured gift from her grandfather.

In her hand, Emily held her wallet as she began the process of removing the various items from their different compartments. Rearranging the contents of her purse hadn't been her first choice for something to do, but she'd figured it wouldn't be very professional or 'daughterly' of her to snoop in her mother's safety deposit box that had been loosened from its holding slot in the wall, along with several other boxes, as a result of the blast.

Something slipped free from a side compartment of the black wallet and landed on the floor, the slow fluttering movement catching Emily's attention. Bending down, she retrieved the two objects and immediately recognized what she held in her hand – ticket stubs to the first Broadway show Emily had taken JJ to – evidence of their first real date. She smiled at the memory of JJ's excitement when Emily had suggested that they travel to New York for the weekend and perhaps take in a show or two. Ever since being taken in by the big screen version, JJ had wanted to see Chicago on the stage and Emily had known that and had used it to her advantage. Seeing JJ's eyes light up at the loud, fun, exuberant musical had been worth every penny of the premium seat prices and assuaged any guilt she'd felt at taking that very advantage. JJ had held onto Emily's hand tightly during the entire show, her gaze never leaving the stage for even a second. She'd raved about the musical for weeks after they'd returned as well as about the meal they'd shared at Candle 79.

Emily chuckled aloud as she recalled JJ's reaction when she'd discovered the menu offered only organic vegetarian cuisine. Her lover had been less than thrilled with Emily's choice of restaurant, but she'd gamely pasted on a smile and gone along with the idea. However, the beaming smile JJ had worn when the pair had left the restaurant, hand in hand, had been as genuine as the raving commentary of the fabulous meal. The memory of the delightful Tuscan Lasagna made of grilled zucchini, peppers and onions, tofu basil ricotta, and seitan ragout topped with a tomato truffle sauce triggered a low rumble from Emily's stomach, and she reached down and rubbed it gently.

"I know, I know; I shouldn't have skipped breakfast." Emily's words only served to make her hunger more real as another loud growl erupted. She turned her attention to the rest of the items on the table, now needing something to distract more than just her mind. Her eyes swept past the wooden puzzle and fell on her copy of The Little Prince.

Taking the small book in her hand, she opened the front cover and passed her fingers lovingly across the familiar inscription.

My dearest Emily,

You must always hold on to your inner child tightly and never lose sight of the important things in life. Follow your heart and guard those you love. Keep your eyes on the stars – they will navigate you through life's rough patches and show you the way back to love.


Emily gently and reverently turned the pages past the dedication and focused momentarily on the illustrations that surrounded the text. Pulling her gaze from the small drawings, she began to read as memories of time spent with her grandfather in France became clearer and clearer with every word: Lorsque j'avais six ans j'ai vu, une fois, une magnifique image, dans un livre sur la Forêt Vierge qui s'appelait "Histoires Vécues" . . .

JJ stood in the line leading to the coffee shop's counter and stared up at the large chalkboard that hung high on the wall and advertised the different varieties of coffee the shop had to offer. Her focus wasn't on the lattes or cappuccinos or espressos, but instead, on the colorfully decorated vines someone had drawn in the corners and along the edges of the chalkboard. Each individual vine separated from the others as it gnarled its way down the sides of the board, some stopping halfway, others three quarters of the way, while still others pushed onward until they could go no further, the end of the slate keeping their growth from continuing.

The new life at the end of each vine caught JJ's attention, and she couldn't help but feel a bit of empathy for the young sprigs wanting nothing more than to grow and prosper, to extend outward adding to the character of the original vine. The new growth was stunted only by an outside force as the sprigs could not extend past the confines of the chalkboard, whereas JJ held herself responsible for not allowing the vines of her own personal relationships to flourish past the friendship stage. Emily's sprig was the first she'd allowed to run free, but like the chalkboard, she'd found a way to keep it confined, her own insecurities acting as a barrier to the tender vine.

"Can I help you, Miss?" The young employee smiled brightly and waited for the attractive blonde to make her choice. It was apparent to the redheaded girl that her next customer was having difficulty deciding from the many offerings.

"Huh?" JJ pulled herself free from her deep musings and stepped up to the counter. "Um, I'll have a coffee – no cream, no sugar – just black." The young girl's cheerful expression fell from her face at the rather bland request, but the rest of JJ's order brought back a semblance of a smile. "And, a tall skinny latte."

Pulling her wallet free from the confines of her purse, JJ thumbed through her cash as she waited for her order to be rung up. She quickly glanced back toward the front of the shop to see the dark-haired woman staring out the window toward the street. JJ had shown the Ambassador to the booth with the best view of the partially collapsed bank and had dutifully asked her lover's mother what she'd like in the way of coffee. The older woman had turned her gaze toward the large picture window and asked for a cup of black coffee – just black coffee, nothing else. JJ had simply nodded and moved to the end of the line, thankful for the time to compose herself, before having to attempt to carry on a conversation with the Ambassador – or rather Emily's mother, she'd quickly told herself.

JJ was stuffing her change back into her wallet when her cell chimed. She fumbled for the ringing phone and lifted it to her ear.

"JJ?" Hotch's voice filled the airwaves, his tone and cadence indicating he was on the move. "Reid was able to locate John Sterling, the bank President, and I'm on my way to meet with him now. One of the rescue engineers is there, too, and they've already started to look over the blueprints of the building. It appears that the area above the vault has collapsed, but the ground itself is stable. Mr. Sterling has indicated that the vault is as solid as the rock which surrounds it." The sounds of voices could be heard in the background; Hotch had apparently reached his destination. "I'll get back to you as soon as I know more."

The call ended as abruptly as it had begun, and with a shaky hand, JJ eased her cell back into her purse. Opening and closing her fists a couple of times to steady her hands, JJ thanked the employee and reached for her order. The Ambassador certainly didn't need to have her coffee spilt on her because of JJ's nerves, and at least she'd have good news to share with the other woman. Sending up a quick prayer for her lover's safety, JJ made her way over to the booth.

The Ambassador sat stiffly in the seat and looked out at the area that used to house her bank. The whole scenario was surreal, and she was grateful for a few moments alone to try to get a handle on the situation. Emily, her Emily, was somewhere beneath the rubble of the collapsed building, perhaps badly injured or worse. Elizabeth Prentiss clenched her jaw and swallowed hard, not allowing herself to think of the worst-case scenario. Emily was strong and determined; she was a survivor. Now was not the time to doubt her daughter as she'd done countless times in the past.

Elizabeth frowned slightly at the thought. Had she really doubted Emily or had she just been hard on her daughter, pushing Emily to strive for perfection, wanting her to be the best of the best? She knew that she'd let Emily down time after time during the years, but she'd always tried to make it up to her daughter, even if her efforts had been seldom appreciated. It just seemed that every time something important happened in Emily's life, something more important happened in the Ambassador's.

As Emily had grown older, Elizabeth had often wondered what incident would be important enough to take her away from Emily's wedding, but as time had moved forward, it had become a moot point. Or rather, it had become abundantly clear that there would never be a wedding; a commitment ceremony perhaps, but not a wedding. Although, Elizabeth had begun to doubt that even that would occur; that was, until a certain blonde communications liaison had caught Emily's eye. Agent Jennifer Jareau always seemed to make her way into the recent conversations between mother and daughter.

The few times when Emily and Elizabeth had actually had time to meet face to face, the Ambassador had been able to witness firsthand the way her daughter's face had lit up and the gleam that had sparkled in her eyes whenever she'd spoken of JJ. Elizabeth had held her tongue, not wanting to spoil the enjoyable moment between the two of them. It was so very rare to just sit down with Emily and have a quiet conversation without something or someone destroying the moment, and so Elizabeth hadn't asked any questions; she'd smiled and listened to her daughter speak of the one she so obviously loved.

A motion caught the Ambassador's attention, and she turned to see the blonde agent walking toward her. She briefly studied the other woman, noting the proud carriage, the schooled expression, and the confident stride. The only sign that there was something troubling JJ was the slight tremble in her hands. Elizabeth marveled at the way the agent was able to conduct herself in the face of potential devastation. Emily had chosen well.

"Agent Hotchner called," said JJ, as she managed to reach the table without spilling a drop from either cup. "He's meeting with Mr. Sterling and an engineer to study the area where we believe Emily is . . ." JJ halted briefly, the word 'buried' scorching her tongue with its unwanted syllables. Extending her hand to offer the Ambassador her cup of coffee, she amended her wording, ". . . located."

Elizabeth reached for the cup, surprised to find her own hands trembling. She covered the motion with a question. "Why was Emily visiting the bank at this time of day?"

JJ slid into the seat across from the Ambassador and took a quick sip of her latte, the treat she allowed herself every so often tasting bitter on her tongue. Placing the cup on the table, she looked across at the other woman. How could she possibly tell Emily's mother that she, JJ, was directly responsible for Emily's impromptu trip to the bank?

"I believe she was dropping some papers off for Agent Hotchner at a government building nearby and stopped off to get something from her safety deposit box." JJ decided that honesty was the best policy even if she did have to place her hands in her lap to keep from fidgeting.

Elizabeth narrowed her eyes and tilted her head, the gesture so familiar it made JJ's heart ache. However, the look the Ambassador was giving her was much more pointed than any Emily had directed her way.

"Safety deposit box?" Elizabeth spoke the words aloud, but the question was purely rhetorical in nature. The wheels were spinning fast and furiously in her head, and finally, a look of understanding crossed her face. She'd been right. The next words left her lips in a whisper.

"The ring."

"See this airway which leads from the vault to the first floor?" The engineer pointed at the blueprint of the bank's layout and eased his finger along the location he was speaking of. He waited for Hotch to nod his head in acknowledgment before continuing. "Whoever designed this building must've intended for the basement vault to serve as a fallout shelter of some kind." He shrugged, indicating he wasn't entirely certain why the security measure had been incorporated into the design of the building, and continued, "Anyway, the air filtration system leading to the vault is made of reinforced steel. If we can find the opening, I think we can get into the vault without even digging."

Hotch glanced away to look over at the area in question where piles of debris and concrete littered the ground. "We'd better get started then." Pulling the cell from his belt, he punched in the first of three cell numbers as he made his way toward the search area. "Rossi, I need your help . . ."

Fifteen minutes later, the male members of the team stood somewhere near the vicinity of where the bank's lobby was believed to have been. Rossi and Morgan both blew out a frustrated breath, knowing they were readying for a search that would make a needle in a haystack look like child's play, while Reid looked out past the flattened area, his eyes narrowed in thought. Hotch straightened his already perfectly aligned sunglasses and said, "Okay, let's get to work. The rescue crew could only spare two men to help. So, it's up to us to find the air shaft. The engineer indicated that the cover could still be in place, or that it could've been blown free."

"Man, I sure wish we had a better idea where to look." Morgan shook his head, already moving his focus to the ground around his feet, squinting every now and then to try to see between the layers of concrete. With the front half of the building destroyed, it was difficult to get one's bearings.

"I just hope we don't come across any more bodies, the count is already at fifteen," Rossi offered; the last body to be brought into the makeshift morgue bore the nametag of a familiar name – Amanda Miller. Deciding there was no need to inform the rest of the team of the death of the last person to have seen Emily before the explosion, Rossi kept his eyes lowered in concentration, hoping to spot any kind of stray anomaly in the uneven ground.

Reid glanced to the left and then to the right, focusing on the far ends of the building that still stood, the only remaining evidence of the historical building's existence. "Anybody got a compass and a protractor?"

"What? Don't you mean a shovel and a pick?" Morgan turned his attention to Reid, who continued to survey the outer regions of their search perimeter.

Hotch stepped closer to the team's genius. "What have you got in mind?"

Reid pointed to the distance. "The back columns of the building are still in place. Using the blueprints, if I mark the center between the two objects and draw a circle through the two points, then I can get a scale to work with using the radii from the center to the points. Drawing a line directly from the center to the air shaft, I can then approximate its distance from the center as well as get a general idea as to the size of the central angle from the segment to the radius. It'll be a rough approximation, but it'll narrow down the field somewhat."

"Go find the engineer," said Hotch as he returned his gaze back to the rocky area. Reid smiled and jogged away, leaving Morgan to stare in confusion.

"Am I the only one who hasn't got a clue as to what Reid just said?"

Rossi chuckled and moved further away, his eyes focused on the ground, while Hotch turned and walked in the other direction. And in what seemed like an afterthought, he called out to Morgan, "Why don't you call Garcia and ask her to give us a hand? We can use all the eyes we can get."

Nodding his approval, Morgan reached for his phone and had already started to punch the number two button on his cell's number pad, his speed-dial to Garcia, but a sudden thought had him addressing his boss instead of the technical analyst. Garcia had already answered, and her reply only served to further call attention to the seriousness of the situation when she bypassed her usual pet names and simply called him Morgan.

"Hey, Hotch, what about JJ?" Morgan held his hand over the receiver to yell out to the supervisor.

"JJ's needed where she is." Hotch took another step and leaned down to brush some debris out of the way. He didn't want JJ or the Ambassador anywhere near the search area until he was certain Emily had survived the blast.

Across the street, JJ glanced out the window and spied Hotch talking to Morgan. If she'd only known what the subject of the exchange between the two men had been, she'd have run from the coffee shop shouting her protest at the top of her lungs. Instead, she found herself having to come up with some sort of reply to the Ambassador's non-question.

The mention of the ring had nearly undone JJ as Elizabeth's words had hovered in the air between the two women like a tiny moth, its fragile wings working feverishly to traverse the distance to the light it sought. But it was darkness that JJ had craved, anything that would allow her to hide her emotions from her lover's mother. Instead, she'd stalled by drinking her coffee and watching her colleagues.

The Ambassador had done the same. She was accustomed to waiting for answers. This time, though, she decided to go against protocol and get straight to the point, in a matter of speaking.

"Agent Jareau? Are you in love with my daughter?"

"Ma'am?" JJ's voice rose two octaves, and she was eternally thankful that she'd swallowed the last of her coffee. Her head almost swiveled off her shoulders as she turned to face the Ambassador.

"Let me tell you a little something about Emily, JJ – may I call you JJ?" Elizabeth spoke softly and waited patiently for JJ's reply. A polite nod was all she got.

"Emily is loyal, true, and honest to a fault. She never does anything halfway, not when it comes to her family, her job, or to those she loves. You see, Emily never really had any real friends growing up; she was pretty much an adult by the time she was twelve. I blame myself for Emily not having a childhood, and I think, at times, she blames me, too. But despite it all, she's grown up to become quite the woman. I don't agree with her life's choices, but I stand behind them. And, I won't allow her to get hurt."

Elizabeth paused for a moment to allow her words to sink in. When JJ released a nervous breath, she asked her question once more. "So, are you in love with Emily?"

JJ looked the Ambassador squarely in the eye and swallowed the lump that had formed in her throat. As a lone tear escaped and slowly rolled its way down her cheek, she gave her whispered, but firm reply.

"Yes, Ma'am; I love your daughter with everything that I am."

Scrunching up her face in concentration, Emily stared down at the intricate Chinese wood knot puzzle and then at the only piece she'd been able to remove. Normally, she'd have the entire puzzle taken completely apart and would be well on her way to putting it back together again. In theory, her focus should have been at its best; there certainly wasn't anyone around to distract her, but her thoughts kept returning to the book she'd just read and the underlying meanings it held.

Her grandfather had patiently taken the time to discuss each part of the story with her when she'd been younger and had ingrained the importance relationships held in one's life, to always know what it was she was looking for as well as being aware of exactly how much of it she needed, and to constantly strive to keep a childhood perspective. She'd tried mightily to live up to the story through the years but hadn't always succeeded. As she'd gotten older, life had sometimes gotten in the way, making her lose focus on the things that truly mattered.

Reading the words of the fox in the story had once again reminded Emily that one only truly sees with the heart and that what is important is invisible to the eye. She knew without a shadow of a doubt what her heart was showing her, had been showing her for quite awhile, and she was eternally grateful that she'd managed to follow her heart despite what her mind had been telling her. She just hoped that JJ could also look into her own heart, to glimpse its true meaning and to finally see past her insecurities to realize that Emily planned to stick around for the rest of her life. Sighing, she placed the half-forgotten puzzle on the table and turned her thoughts to her lover and her team.

Surely people knew about the explosion by now, and it certainly wouldn't take Garcia long to put it all together and realize Emily had been in the building at the time of the blast. Were they out there looking for her? Did they even know that she was alive? Emily glanced up at the vent, recalling the small ray of light that had shone through from high above. What exactly had happened? How much damage had there been?

Closing her eyes, Emily briefly considered asking for divine intervention but wasn't quite certain if her prayers would even be heard, much less answered. Sure, she'd often offered up prayers for others but had never really asked for anything for herself. Praying on the behalf of others was different from praying for oneself, or at least, that was the way Emily saw it. She wasn't exactly a churchgoer; however, she'd always believed in God and the idea that there was something beyond life on earth. She had no idea what happened after death but truly believed one's spirit moved on in some way or another.

But, today was not the day to find out. Emily had no intention of dying; she had too much to live for. Pushing to her feet, she climbed up on the table and tilted her head to peer through the grates of the vent, the narrow beam of light now seeming much brighter to her eyes than before. With a determined expression, she hopped down from the table, and once again, searched through the items from her purse. This time, she had a definite purpose in mind.

Thirty minutes later, a tired and sweaty Emily lay on top of the table's surface and stared up at her work. She'd been able to remove the metal vent from the airway but had mangled both her nail file and three of her keys in the process. Surprised by the size of the hole left behind by the removal of the vent, Emily had been immediately rewarded for her efforts with better airflow; however, she'd decided against trying to shout up through the hole for fear that the sound, or its subsequent echo would cause a shift in the ground, and consequently, destroy her only tie to the outside world. Her only visual tie that was, the audio one she held tightly in her hand.

The first thing Emily had done after breathing in a lungful of air had been to grab her cell phone from the table and hold it up to the open air shaft. Her hopes had been dashed when the 'no signal' message had continued to flash. She'd uttered a round of curses and immediately sat down cross-legged on the table, her focus on the phone's display. With a few quick finger movements, the sound of Aretha had begun to play softly, and Emily had had to force herself not to play the tune over and over again, knowing there was always a possibility that she might acquire a signal at some point and would need the battery to show signs of a charge.

And so, now, she allowed herself time to rest as she occasionally checked the display for a signal, promising herself that at the end of every hour, she'd listen to the refrains of JJ's ring tone. With her hand resting on the outline of the ring box, Emily closed her eyes and pictured her lover's face.

Morgan wiped the sweat from his brow and pulled the rope taut, waiting for Reid to direct him another inch to his left or perhaps back to his right again. The younger agent had returned after only twenty minutes or so with a small bundle of stakes under one arm, a coil of rope hooked over his other shoulder, a measuring wheel being pulled behind him with his free hand, and some other kind of large-scale angle measuring instrument looped over the handle of the wheel. He'd looked like a tall, skinny pack mule as he'd slowly made his way across the rocky terrain to set up the equipment in the middle of the building's ruins.

Now, a length of the rope stretched across from one edge of the building's back corner to the other, while a second rope extended outward from the center of the first rope, forming a man-made central angle. Morgan impatiently held on to his end of the rope and waited for further instructions from Reid.

"Okay, one very small baby step to the left!" Reid yelled out across the distance, his eyes locked on the measuring instrument in front of him as he watched the rope ease to the desired angle marking. "Stop!" He glanced up at the now frozen Morgan. "Mark the spot!" With a slight smile, he placed the measuring device on the ground and jogged toward his team member, careful not to lose his footing on the slippery earth. By the time he reached Morgan, the rest of the team had already converged on the spot.

"So, Emily's under this stake?" asked Garcia, a bright green headband decorating her forehead. Her cheeks and arms held a rosy pink tint as a direct result of the physical exertion and the effect of the sun beating down on her fair skin.

Reid surveyed the ground that surrounded the stake with a critical eye. "Probably not directly below the spot, but the air shaft should be fairly close."

"Good work, Reid." Hotch still looked fairly fresh, every strand of his dark hair perfectly in place. The only sign that he'd been searching along with the others was the fine bead of sweat that had formed just above his eyebrows. "Okay, let's fan out from here and be more precise in our search. I want every single rock turned over and looked under."

The team members nodded as one and slowly began the painstaking thorough search. Less than five minutes later, Rossi had found the hatch to the air shaft. The problem was it had been blasted free of the hole. Reid wrinkled his brow and began to doubt his measurements, figuring the cover would've been blown quite a distance by the explosion.

"Maybe there's a problem with the scale on the blueprints. I wouldn't think . . ." Reid had just begun his reasoning as to what could have possibly gone wrong with his well-conceived plan when Garcia's shout caught his and everyone else's attention.

"Hey, I've found something!"

The technical analyst had slipped when she'd turned to wait for Reid's explanation and her foot had scattered rocks and debris everywhere as she'd struggled to regain her balance. Pleased that she hadn't taken a tumble, she'd breathed a sigh of relief and looked down at the rocky turf. The edge of a hole had begun to take shape before her very eyes. A very large piece of concrete blocked the entrance to the shaft, but damned if it wasn't there.

Moments later, with eight large hands and a pair of smaller ones placed in the middle of the concrete slab, it soon became apparent that more help would be needed to dislodge the cement barrier. The engineer, who'd been nearby, had caught sight of the problem and ran off to try and find a lever of some kind, while the other two rescue workers scurried away to secure equipment that would be needed for the actual rescue.

"Damn it! It won't budge." Morgan was beyond frustrated. He had been the first to arrive at Garcia's side and had actually thought that he could move the concrete by himself. Garcia had consoled him with a pat on the back and teased that even the Incredible Hulk would have had problems with the large chunk of cement.

"Joe will be back with help, but for now, I've got a camera and some monitoring equipment." Bob, one of the two rescue workers assigned to Hotch, had returned just as Morgan had vented his frustration. "I thought it'd be a good idea to see what we're dealing with." He opened the cover of the case he carried and removed a small camera. With a flip of a switch, both the camera and the monitor, secured inside the case, came to life. A fuzzy image of Garcia's pink and white Converse hi-tops filled the screen.

"Those are some ugly shoes, Baby Girl." Morgan's teasing comment drew a slap on the arm from Garcia, but it'd served its purpose – the mood was decidedly improved. They were closer to getting their team member back.

The two women sat on opposite sides of the booth, and each sipped from her second cup of coffee. No other words had been spoken after JJ had professed her love for Emily. The Ambassador had locked gazes with the blonde agent and nodded, the look in her eyes giving more comfort and understanding than her words ever could. Needing to escape the moment, JJ had fetched more coffee for them, and the two had quietly observed the goings on across the way. It was Elizabeth who broke the silence first, putting voice to her thoughts.

"What are they doing with that rope?" The Ambassador was studying the group of men as they first tied a rope to the ends of the building that still stood and then attached another rope to the middle of the first one.

JJ frowned as Morgan began to walk in their direction with the second rope in his hand. She watched as he suddenly stopped and pulled the rope taut before moving from side to side in micro-increments, seemingly following directions supplied by Reid.

"I have no idea."

Elizabeth moved her gaze across the littered area of concrete and steel to rest on a short, blonde woman dressed in a kaleidoscope of colors. She pointed in the direction of her direct line of view.

"Who's that woman?"

Not able to tell exactly where the Ambassador was pointing, JJ scanned the area in search of a female worker. She smiled when she recognized the familiar face of her friend.

"That's Penelope Garcia. She's the technical analyst for the unit."

"Does she always dress so . . ." Elizabeth hesitated, searching for the perfect word, ". . . colorfully?"

JJ chuckled quietly, trying to remember a day when Garcia had worn something that hadn't literally burst onto the scene in a flourish of color. "Most of the time, yes."

"If she's an analyst, why is she out in the field?"

"Hmm, that's a good question." JJ ran through the various possibilities of the usual reasons for Garcia to leave her beloved computers but came up empty. She was just reaching for her phone to get the answer from the horse's mouth when the team converged on Morgan's location. Following a short conversation, they spread out and slowly moved away from where Morgan had secured the rope to the ground. JJ reached for her phone once again when they all turned to Rossi a few minutes later, and then Reid seemed to be upset about something. In just a matter of seconds, Garcia became the point of focus.

JJ and Elizabeth watched in silence and confusion as the team members hurried to the technical analyst's side and jockeyed for position as they appeared to be trying to push a huge piece of concrete from its resting place. Then, when one of the rescue workers arrived on the scene, they turned their attention to him.

"Okay, that's it; I'm tired of being out of the loop." Punching in her speed dial for Garcia, JJ looked out at her friend and waited for her to answer.

Garcia seemed to be taken completely by surprise by the ringing of her cell, and she jumped in fright. Placing her hand over her heart, she pulled the phone free from her pocket and looked down at the display. JJ watched a smile form on her friend's face before she actually heard her words.

"JJ! Where are you, Sweetie?" The analyst had begun to twirl around as she gazed across the search area.

"I'm in the coffee shop across the street, the booth closest to the door." JJ supplied as she watched Garcia turn in her direction and raise a hand over the tops of her glasses to shield the glare. JJ offered a slight wave.

"Oh yeah, I see you now." Garcia waved back, but her hand stopped mid-wave when she spotted the woman sitting across the booth from JJ. "Oh God, is that who I think it is?"

"Yep, that'd be the one," JJ answered cryptically, although, from the expression on the Ambassador's face, she was fairly certain she hadn't fooled the other woman. JJ quickly changed the subject back to the matter at hand. "So, what's with all the excitement over there?"

Garcia turned back to watch her teammates gather around the camera and monitor. "Reid figured out how to pinpoint the location of the vault."

JJ's face lost all color. "What do you mean?" She hadn't thought there'd be a problem locating the vault once they'd found it on the blueprints.

"The engineer said there was an air shaft leading to it, and Reid figured out how to narrow down the search area." Garcia moved closer to her teammates, trying to get a better glimpse of the search equipment, her techno-geek side winning out over the conversation.

"So, why aren't you searching?" JJ was itching to run from the shop and offer her help, but knew she had to wait until Hotch gave her the word. Having to follow orders truly sucked at times.

"Oh, I found it! I practically tripped over it." Garcia's excited voice caught Hotch's attention, and he turned to face the analyst. Garcia didn't waver under his gaze. "They're going to lower a camera down while we wait for the equipment to move the concrete barrier."

"Lower it down where?" JJ leaned closer to the window, wishing for x-ray vision.

"Down the air shaft and into the vault."

And with those words, the breath left JJ's body, and the part of her brain that had been blocking out her very vivid imagination came to life. An image of Emily, lying on the floor of the vault gasping for air, pushed its way forward in Technicolor. JJ could see her lover, pale and bleeding, reaching out her hand toward her, begging JJ to help her. Snapping her eyes closed, she tried to remove the unsettling picture and didn't even realize when the Ambassador reached across and took her cell from her loose grasp, nor did she hear the few words Elizabeth exchanged with Garcia. When JJ opened her eyes again, the Ambassador was standing beside the table looking down at her.

"Agent Jareau. I need you to escort me across the street again." JJ glanced up dazed, the words finally sinking in. Hotch certainly couldn't fault her for following the Ambassador's wishes. With shaky legs, JJ pushed to her feet and steadied herself with a hand on the table. She gave a nod to Elizabeth.

"Yes, Ma'am."

The team, minus Morgan, gathered around the monitor and studied the walls of the air shaft as the camera was slowly lowered into the hole. Morgan lay on his stomach, partially wedged under the large cement slab, and fed the rope down into the shaft, inch-by-inch, careful to keep the rope as steady as possible so as to avoid knocking the attached camera into the wall. The going was very slow, but the image returned by the small camera was well worth it. From Reid's estimation, it appeared that the hole was just large enough for Emily to squeeze into.

"It'll be a tight fit, but I think Emily can be pulled up through the shaft," said Reid, his eyes narrowing as he used his spatial abilities to roughly figure the dimensions of the air shaft. "The walls seem sound, too."

"We'll get the engineer to do a few tests to be certain. Not that I don't trust you, Reid, but I don't want to chance a cave-in while Emily is inside the air shaft." Hotch glanced at Reid, his expression slightly apologetic, but at the same time, very serious.

"I understand." Reid offered a slight smile, not at all upset by his superior's words. Emily's life wasn't something to be risked on possibilities.

"Okay, we're almost there, just a few feet further." The rescue worker checked the display in the corner of the screen that kept up with the current depth of the camera. "17 ½ feet."

Crowding closer to the monitor, not a single team member noticed the arrival of the Ambassador and their communications liaison. All eyes were focused on the screen as the camera finally passed through the open vent and stopped, its lens dangling about an inch inside the vault. Slowly, it began to pan around the room, stopping abruptly on the figure lying across the table.

"Can you zoom in?" Hotch leaned closer, trying to assess the physical condition of his agent. Emily lay perfectly still, the low lighting casting an eerie glow on the surrounding area. The camera's operator began to slowly zoom in. All eyes were on Emily.

"Is that blood on her shirt?" Reid squinted and moved to the side of Hotch. "Wait, I think I see a cut on her forehead."

Rossi had focused on the most important aspect. "She seems to be breathing regularly. I think she's sleeping."

JJ blew out a relieved breath but stayed to the side of the monitor. She wasn't quite ready to see her lover's condition. The Ambassador, on the other hand, moved next to Garcia, and the technical analyst's eyes almost popped out of her head when she realized who was standing next to her.

"Hey, I think she's saying something. Her lips are moving." Reid bent at the waist to get even closer as he attempted to read her lips. "I think she's repeating the same thing over and over again."

"Can you tell what she's saying?" Hotch could barely see Emily's lips move much less try to figure out what was being said.

"I think so." Reid watched for a few minutes longer and then frowned. "You … you make me feel…you make me feel like a natural woman."

Garcia burst out in laugher and quickly clamped her hand over her mouth while JJ turned ten shades of red. Hotch stayed focused on the situation.

"Is there any way to communicate with her?"

"Not two-way, but we can drop a miniature speaker down. You can talk to her, but she won't be able to respond." The camera operator shrugged. "Well, except for hand signals."

"Get the speaker ready then." Hotch turned his gaze from the monitor to address the newcomer to the scene. "Ambassador, I think it would be best if you waited at the coffee shop." Hotch purposely ignored JJ. Now wasn't the time to discuss protocol.

"Actually, Agent Hotchner, I'd prefer to stay. I promise not to get in the way." Elizabeth Prentiss glanced around as if looking for someone. "Where's Erin? I'm sure she'd allow me to stay." The Ambassador knew perfectly well that the section chief had left the site soon after Agent Jareau had escorted her to the coffee shop. She'd seen Strauss climb into one of the black Suburbans and drive away.

"She was needed back at the office," said Hotch. "I'll allow you to stay, but please do as Agent Jareau says. She's acting under my direct orders."

"Certainly." Elizabeth nodded politely and walked over to stand next to JJ. A little misdirection had always served her well.

"Agent Hotchner, I'm ready." The operator looped the tiny speaker to the end of a second rope and handed it to Rossi. In turn, the older agent moved over to the air shaft and knelt down next to Morgan, slowly feeding the rope into the hole. It took several minutes before the camera caught sight of the speaker beside it. The operator handed Hotch a mic and then plugged it into the side of the camera unit.

"Okay, I think we're good to go."

Nodding, Hotch spoke a single word. "Prentiss."

Emily's eyes popped open, and she gazed around the room, expecting to see Hotch standing inside the vault. When she didn't find any sign of her superior, she slowly sat up and briefly wondered if she was dreaming. The sound of her name for the second time proved she was fully awake.

"Prentiss, can you hear me?"

"Yes, Sir." Once again, she glanced around the room. "Where are you?"

"Prentiss, I can't hear you; you can only hear me."

Emily resisted giving her classic 'duh' look, figuring there was a very good chance that Hotch could see her as well. She nodded her understanding to test her theory.

"Good idea. I'll try to ask yes/no types of questions, but first I need to fill you in on what we plan to do."

Emily listened carefully and looked up at the air shaft, immediately spotting the speaker and camera. She was temporarily grateful that the speaker wasn't accompanied by a microphone. Karaoke had never been her forte.

"Agent Prentiss, we're ready to lower down the harnesses. The air shaft seems to be stable, but I don't want to take any chances, so we're going to pull you up very slowly. It's going to be a very tight fit. You need to prepare yourself mentally before we begin, because once we start, there's no turning back. Understand?" The voice of the rescue worker was firm but supportive and tinged with something Emily valued highly – honesty.

Emily took a deep breath and nodded. She wasn't exactly claustrophobic, but she really wasn't fond of closed-in spaces. On the other hand, she wasn't fond of being buried underneath tons and tons of earth either. Gazing around the vault, Emily's eyes lit on the safety deposit box and the letter that was propped up against it, and figuring she had a few extra minutes before she'd have to buckle herself into the harnesses, she moved to the table and grabbed her empty purse.

Fifteen minutes later, Emily stood on top of the table and buckled the last strap of the harness. She looked around the vault one final time and then gave a hard tug on the two straps that disappeared up into the air shaft. Almost immediately the slack was taken up, and she was slowly lifted from the table. The size of the hole had indeed been deceptive; it was truly a tight fit. Pulling her arms in close, Emily shut her eyes and tried to become smaller.

Seconds later, she had completely disappeared into the air shaft, the purse that she had tied firmly around her ankle dangling high in the air inside the vault. The only sign that she had ever been in the room was the half finished roll of breath mints and the mangled nail file that she had left behind. She had taken everything else that was of any value with her.

Halfway up the shaft, Emily was ready to scream. It took everything she had to keep her focus on the finish line and not be swept up in the knowledge that she was basically wedged in a hole, one that was slightly smaller than she was, while buried underground. She really wished she had asked for an iPod or something to listen to while she made the journey through the tunnel of torture. She was going to be one huge bruise when she finally made it to the top, but at least, she'd put the ring in her purse before she had started her journey. The box would have been crushed by now.

Another few feet had Emily humming the theme song to 'Gilligan's Island,' and the ship had run aground on the shore of the uncharted desert isle twenty-seven times before Emily's head finally moved above ground level. She didn't even mind the medium-sized cut she sustained to her elbow as her upper body cleared the hole. All she knew was that she was safe and above ground.

JJ and the Ambassador stood helplessly by, watching as the different workers moved away from the air shaft the team had uncovered and the engineer had worked tirelessly to stabilize. Finally, Morgan stepped to the edge and lifted Emily up until she was free of the hole. He hugged her tightly against his body and whispered in her ear.

"Good to have you back." Morgan pulled away and grinned. "But don't you ever do that again."

"Don't worry; I plan to take the stairs for awhile." She winked just as Hotch and Reid moved forward to help divest her of the various harnesses. Emily took a moment to remove her purse from her ankle and slid it over her shoulder.

"Welcome back, Prentiss." Hotch offered his hand, and Emily took hold, allowing her superior to help her over the pieces of concrete that littered the rescue area as she slowly made her way to more solid ground. She smiled as Reid patted her on the back when she walked by while Rossi merely acknowledged her with a nod of his head.

Tears began to roll down JJ's face when she finally got a good look at her lover. Emily was covered in soot from head to toe, her dark hair was grayed from the dust of the explosion, a bad-looking cut slanted over her eyebrow, small cuts and bruises marked her arms, and her collar shone a bright red where the blood had dripped down from her head wound. And yet, to JJ's eyes, she was the most beautiful creature on Earth.

As the battered and bruised Emily limped slowly forward, she suddenly stopped and looked up, her eyes lighting on JJ. As if frozen in time, both women stood stock-still and stared at each other, each seeming to realize the importance of the moment – this was the defining moment of their relationship – the moment of truth.

From the corner of her eye, Emily caught a flash of blonde moving quickly in her direction and was just able to turn in time before being engulfed in Garcia's arms. The analyst squeezed hard and rocked Emily to and fro.

"I'm so glad you're okay!"

"Thanks, Garcia; me too." Emily smiled and tried to ease out of the bear hug as her gaze moved over Garcia's shoulder and was met by another pair of familiar eyes. Elizabeth Prentiss smiled slightly and slowly moved toward her daughter.

"Emily, are you okay?" A slight tremor in the Ambassador's voice was the only thing that gave away how worried she'd been, and Emily knew her mother would never voice such fears aloud. Stepping forward, Emily reached out a hand and offered a tired smile. Elizabeth looked at her daughter's hand, caked with dirt and grime, and didn't hesitate to take hold, surprising both of them when she pulled Emily into a warm embrace.

JJ stood by quietly as she watched her teammates and the Ambassador offer their words of thanks and relief that Emily was okay. She wanted nothing more than to take Emily in her arms and kiss her senseless, but she knew now wasn't the time or place. So, instead, she stayed on the sidelines, a spectator watching as others celebrated the victory on the field.

As if sensing JJ's turmoil, Emily slowly stepped from her mother's embrace and started toward her lover, her hand slipping into the side compartment of her purse and gripping the ring box. JJ could only watch as her lover drew nearer, not quite believing that Emily was really here, safe and relatively sound. A montage of all the moments they'd ever shared flashed before JJ's eyes, firmly cementing their edges together like fine Italian tiles. Every one of the fears JJ had carried within her to this point in time, especially of being the one always left behind, shattered into a million pieces. Taking a single step forward, she rushed headlong toward her lover, the future moments running along with her.

Emily was much more prepared for JJ's leap than she had been for Garcia's as she braced herself for the impact. Closing her eyes, Emily welcomed the warm arms that wrapped around her tightly and immediately felt the love and emotion being poured out from her lover. For the first time, she knew, JJ was seeing with her heart.

Locking eyes with Emily, JJ knew that there was no more doubt. She knew with certainty that she'd finally found all she'd been searching for - Emily.

Reaching for her lover's hand, JJ heartily accepted what her heart had been trying to tell her all along – Emily loved her as much as she loved Emily. She'd not doubt her love again.

With a smile of welcome, Emily took JJ's hand and pressed the velvet box firmly into her palm, knowing instantly the moment JJ recognized the gesture for what it was, the promise that forever was now within their grasp.

Neither woman had any intention of ever again letting go.

The End

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