DISCLAIMER: Criminal Minds and its characters are the property of CBS. No infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Wow, after a year in the making, it's finally finished! This is semi-AU, as in Emily never joined the BAU back in Season 2. Includes random spoilers for all four seasons. A huge thank you to Ann for beta (all mistakes are mine and mine alone), to cactusgirluk for fangirly support along the way, as well as to racethewind for putting up with my ridiculously ignorant questions.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Keeper of the Winds
By lysachan


"Hello cowgirl in the sand
Is this place at your command
Can I stay here for awhile
Can I see your sweet sweet smile?"

- Indigo Girls: Cowgirl in the Sand


Rain fell heavily from the dark sky, the dry sand absorbing every drop of water as the vegetation desperately battled for the precious liquid of life. The night was darker than usual, a thick layer of clouds blocking even the faintest hint of moonlight there might've been.

A figure was hunched over a small hole in the ground, not noticing the wetness, or the nearly impenetrable darkness. A flashlight lit the area of a few square feet, giving just enough light for him to distinguish his immediate surroundings, but still giving adequate cover to hide from possible passers-by. With urgency, a big, black duffel bag was dropped into the quickly dug hole, and the man took one final peek at the square plastic bags inside. Satisfied by what he saw, he grabbed a shovel and quickly covered the treasure with moist earth, his breath coming out in white puffs. To finish off the job, he dragged a large stone on top of the exact spot, so that it could easily be recognized when needed.

With a final huff, the silent figure stood up straight and glanced around to make sure no one was watching. He picked up the shovel and the flashlight, and started making his way through the rain and further into the darkness, a lightness in his step now evident as the mission had been successfully completed. What he didn't know, however, was that although he had been extremely careful, creeping through the night seemingly unnoticed, someone not too far away had been watching his every step through the curtain of rain. The observer, hidden from the view by a large rock, watched the digger walk further and further into the blackness of the night, a faint smile playing on full lips when the darkness finally swallowed the unsuspecting figure completely.


Chapter I

The scenery flashed by rapidly, the desert sand refracting sunlight with different shades of yellow and orange, and the stunted and barely green vegetation desperately trying to survive in the dry land. But Jennifer Jareau didn't really pay attention to her surroundings. The car sped along a narrow road, raising a thick cloud of dust in its wake and, thus, alerting anyone within a two-mile radius of its whereabouts.

From the backseat, JJ glanced briefly at the middle-aged man behind the wheel, silently noting that the promised half an hour journey had already turned into 45 minutes. Not that she was in a hurry, quite the contrary; for the first time in what seemed like forever, she had all the time in the world.

Dropping her eyes at her entwined hands in her lap, JJ wondered, for the millionth time, if her decision to take a vacation had been a good idea after all. It had certainly been long overdue; she had enough vacation days to have six months off if she wanted. But being the team liaison for the BAU was a job that required dedication, and, during the last five years, JJ hadn't even thought of taking time off unless forced. Not until now.

It had all begun innocently enough, a sleepless night here and there, a bad day every now and again. It wasn't until the past few months that she'd realized how stressed out and utterly spent she was and how her lack of motivation for her work affected the entire team. And that's when she had known she needed to get away for a little while. Because when you can't do your job because of your job, it was time to consider what your priorities were.

Aaron Hotchner, their team leader, had immediately granted her the vacation time – the speed with which he'd agreed to her request told JJ that she hadn't simply imagined the graveness of the situation.

Three months. Three months to do anything but think of her job. JJ had protested at first, thinking that 90 days was a lifetime and that she'd go crazy in that time, but Hotch had remained adamant and told her to take it in such a tone that she hadn't even contemplated arguing. A quick detour to Garcia's office and a few well-placed keystrokes, and she'd booked herself a three-month vacation on a remote ranch near Santa Fe in New Mexico.

It certainly isn't Virginia, JJ thought as she glanced through the window and saw nothing but cacti and sand with rocks scattered randomly around. The change, compared to the East, was so radical that she involuntarily swallowed, once again desperately trying to convince herself that she'd made the right decision. She'd only been to New Mexico once before, when a string of ritualistic murders had peaked the BAU's interest a couple of years previously.

Suddenly, JJ's phone in her jean's pocket began vibrating, and she gingerly dug it out and peered at the flashing screen. The text spelled 'Will calling,' and a wave of exchaustion shot through her. Promptly pressing the red button, JJ ended the call before it could even begin, and at that moment, she knew she'd done the right thing by simply leaving everything and only giving time to herself for once.

Turning off her phone and pocketing it once more, JJ leaned her forehead against the window and let out a relieved sigh. She'd be just fine.

It was exactly thirty minutes after the promised arrival time that the driver drove through a wooden gate with a sign that read "Sunrise Valley," and the car came to a halt a few minutes later. JJ stepped out gingerly and inspected her surroundings that would be her home for the next few months.

It was your avarage ranch, all right. There was a bigger, two-storey house to her right that had to be the main building with rooms for the guests, but then there were also several smaller houses in the distance and all around her. On the far left, JJ could see the stables and other buildings that weren't meant for accommodation, and when she turned around her eyes landed on a small river—a tributary of the Rio Grande no doubt—that lined the southern border of the property.

All in all, it was extremely idyllic, and JJ could feel her spirits rise a little with every new thing her brain registered as she looked about her.

"Good day, Ma'am," a booming male voice said from her left, and the blonde turned to see a man in his fifties swaggering towards her. He was dressed like a stereotypical cowboy, everything from silver-colored spurs and black boots to a handsome Stetson cowboy hat that he politely took off when offering his hand to JJ.

"You must be Miss Jareau." His smile was blinding. JJ took his hand and shook it while smiling back politely. "My name's Noah. Noah Jackson. I'm the owner of this paradise."

"Pleased to meet you." JJ nodded once. For some reason, she was slightly taken aback by Mr. Jackson, his large form and his over-the-top conduct feeling somewhat off. Pushing the immediate thoughts of profiling aside, JJ turned back to the driver who had already unloaded her two suitcases and was carrying them towards the main house.

"Let Juan take care of your luggage, we have a room waiting for you on the second floor," Jackson said when he saw her line of sight. "So, welcome to Sunrise Valley, Miss Jareau. Would you be interested in a little tour around our immediate surroundings before I show you to your room? So that you'd be able to explore the area more thoroughly on your own once you've settled in?"

JJ groaned inwardly, feeling the exhaustion of her long trip in every muscle of her body, but she didn't want to start off her stay at the ranch on the wrong foot and figured that a small walk wouldn't kill her.

"Sure," JJ gingerly agreed, her eyes still on the retreating form of the driver, Juan, who was now climbing the few stairs that led to the terrace and the main door. Juan had picked her up from the Santa Fe Municipal Airport—a service that was offered to all visitors—which had made JJ's life a whole lot easier. Tearing her gaze away from him, she turned fully to Mr. Jackson, smiled, and followed him as he started to make his way across the yard.

The area really was breathtakingly beautiful. With every new step, JJ mentally thanked Garcia whose idea it'd been to ship her as far away from the Virginia climate as possible. Mr. Jackson gestured animatedly at everything and explained enthusiastically the history and stories behind different buildings and other man-made structures. It amused JJ how everyone she saw and was introduced to on her makeshift tour had been dressed like they'd stepped right out of a John Wayne movie, but at the same time, she felt like she stuck out like a sore thumb in her blue jeans and white top.

"This is David," Jackson said as he introduced JJ to yet another cowboy. "He takes care of my cattle which are just over that ridge." He pointed towards a fairly large hill in the distance.

"Nice to meet ya," David said with a strong Texan-like twang as he tipped his hat in acknowledgement. He appeared to be thirty-something, blonde haired, and fairly well-built. He practically oozed confidence, a stereoptype which nearly made JJ roll her eyes.

"Likewise," JJ replied politely, and then they were walking again.

"I have about twenty-five people working for me around here," Mr. Jackson explained and tipped his hat to yet another cowboy look-a-like whose spurs made a faint clinking sound as he walked by. "I have people from riding instructors to maids, and they're all at your service as well, Miss Jareau."

JJ nodded politely and was about to ask him more about the possible pastime activities when there was excited yelling and commotion behind her, causing her to turn around. People, guests and employees alike, had gathered around a corral near the stables and were watching a figure riding a mean-looking horse in full rodeo style.

JJ craned her neck in order to see better, and, fascinated by what she saw, made her way closer to the fence. She barely noticed the slightly irritated look on Mr. Jackson's face, her eyes transfixed on the scene before her. The blonde was more than a little surprised when she got close enough to realize that the rider was actually a woman, a woman to whom this clearly wasn't the first time atop a rodeo horse.

Similarly to all the men JJ had come across since her arrival at the ranch, the woman in the center of the arena was also dressed in boots with spurs, jeans, a lapelled shirt that hugged her trimmed body, and a black cowboy hat that persistently stuck to her head even when the horse made abrupt, bucking movements.

"That's Emily, one of my stable workers," Mr. Jackson had to raise his voice in order to be heard as the crowd cheered wildly at the spectacle they were witnessing. JJ nodded absent-mindedly, strangely reluctant to tear her eyes away from the woman who seemed to be right at home and in her element as she fought against the clearly pissed-off animal.

"She's good," JJ shouted back, still not looking at the man she was speaking to.

"She's a show-off," he grumbled, and JJ had to hide an amused smile that threatened to make an appearance. Mr. Jackson was quite clearly jealous of the attention his employee was getting, and JJ could easily see why.

The black stallion bucked sharply, and the spectators gasped when it looked like the rider might finally come to the end of her road, but, like a true expert, she managed to hold on, only losing her hat in the process. It wasn't until after the animal bucked particularly violently that the woman lost her hold on the reins and fell to the ground, making a surprisingly graceful landing.

The people cheered as the rider stood up and grinned wickedly, curtsying as a joke. She picked up her hat and hit it against her thigh a few times so that the worst of the dust came off. People slapped her on the back as she made her way through the crowd, and JJ looked at her curiously, wanting to know what sort of a woman rode horses as well as what she'd just witnessed.

She was an incredibly beautiful woman, that's what JJ had noticed first. Her long, dark hair was in a braid, accentuating her delicate features and gorgeous, brown eyes that were shining with unadulterated joy. JJ suddenly felt envious of her, thinking that it must be incredible to feel so carefree – a concept the blonde wasn't even sure she'd recognize anymore.

"Emily!" Mr. Jackson called out as the crowd was starting to dissipate, and the woman JJ was so intently studying looked up. Their eyes met for the first time, and for some inexplicable reason, JJ felt her stomach do a nervous back flip. The brunette smiled and made her way over to her boss and their newest guest.

"Emily, I want you to meet Miss Jareau. She just arrived and will be spending the summer with us." Mr. Jackson said and gestured towards JJ. "Miss Jareau, this is Emily, my horse whisperer."

"Hardly, I simply enjoy working with them." Emily chuckled and offered her hand. "A pleasure to meet you, Miss Jareau."

JJ took the offered hand, not entirely sure why she felt so uneasy and beside herself in Emily's company.

"Please, call me Jennifer." It was out before she even had time to think about it. No one ever called her Jennifer, mostly because she didn't particularly like the sound of the name.

"Jennifer it is." Emily's smile widened a notch. "Well, I'd better go and take Rollo there back to his stall," she continued and gestured vaguely towards the horse that was still in the corral, scratching the ground. "He has a tendency to sulk if I leave him unattended for too long."

"It was nice to meet you," JJ said, still oddly spellbound by the brunette. She had expected to hear a deep, southern slant in Emily's voice as well, but, instead, the brunette's accent was clearly Eastern, which also set her apart from the rest of the people JJ had met today.

"Likewise. We'll probably be seeing each other quite a lot during these next few months. If there's ever anything you need, don't hesitate to ask." With one final smile and a small nod to her boss, Emily put on her hat again and sauntered to the corral. Mr. Jackson pursed his lips, his black mustache wiggling almost comically. Then he turned back to JJ who suddenly felt like she was under extreme scrutiny.

"I'll take you to your room now, Miss Jareau," Jackson stated in a sharp tone. He began striding along towards the house, and a perplexed JJ practically needed to jog in order to keep up with him as she tried to figure out why her host's mood had suddenly turned from hospitable to downright cold.

A thick, wooden door closed with a faint click behind JJ, and she was left standing alone in a cosily decorated room. Her suitcases stood neatly next to the big bed in the middle of the room. Placing her cell phone on the small table near a door that led to the bathroom, she walked to an open window that looked out on the front yard. It was full of activity, with other guests enjoying the not-too-hot afternoon sun and the ranch employees doing their various daily tasks.

In the distance, JJ could see cattle grazing near the river and several figures on horseback keeping an eye on the herd. Further behind them, the low southern peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains reached towards the clear blue sky, and JJ made a mental note to find out if it was possible to travel to the base of the mountains and see the range up close.

With a final sigh of contentment, JJ made her way to the bed and flopped down on its mattress. Lying supine on the soft bedspread, she reached for her cell phone and turned it on. There was one text message she needed to send, after which she'd turn her phone off again to forget she ever had a life back East.

Garcia, you're the best.

This place is incredible.

I'll keep in touch.

She pressed 'send' and smiled. The whole mini-sabbatical thing? It actually might just work.


Chapter II

Within a few weeks, JJ had found an easy routine to her days. She liked to get up early when there weren't too many people around yet and, hence, no danger of getting into social situations before the essential first cup of coffee. After eating breakfast in peace, she headed outside for a walk that sometimes lasted for hours. The eight-thousand-acre ranch had so many places to explore and things to see that every day the blonde discovered something new and fascinating within the borders of the estate.

Once again, she walked across the main yard, said her good mornings to a few stable boys she passed, and made her way along the riverbank towards the faraway mountain tops in the horizon. It was so early in the morning that the sun hadn't risen high enough to shine scorchingly as it did during the day, and she could still see the last drops of dew that covered the vegetation.

After half an hour of trekking, JJ arrived at a small and charming boulder formation that forced the river to make a slight curve before finding its proper course again. Wiping sweat off her forehead, the blonde reached for her water bottle at the side of her backpack and took a long swig. The scenery was extraordinarily beautiful, even more so than usual. She hadn't seen this place mentioned anywhere, and it was strange that no one had brought it up with her when she'd asked around for information about the best hiking trails and destinations in the area.

Deep in thought, JJ nearly dropped her bottle when a voice sounded somewhere above her: "Two years I've spent on this ranch, and no one's ever found my secret hiding place before."

With an abrupt move, JJ turned towards the voice and saw Emily sitting leisurely on the crest of the rock. She was leaning back on her elbows, one ankle crossed over another and her dark hair shining in the sun. She was dressed in blue jeans and a flannel shirt with a white t-shirt underneath.

"I'm so sorry, I had no idea you were here," JJ automatically apologized, mortified that she'd obviously walked in on Emily's private moment of relaxation, but that only made the brunette chuckle in an amused manner.

"Don't be silly. Climb up!" Emily gestured invitingly with her hand, and, after a moment of hesitation, JJ placed her foot on a small crevice in the rock and began hoisting herself up. Emily extended her hand for JJ, and the blonde gratefully took it, allowing the other woman to pull her all the way to the top.

"Good morning." Emily's voice was chipper.

"Morning," JJ replied and noticed that the uneasiness was back with full force. There was a moment of silence when both women simply admired the view that appeared even more gorgeous from where JJ was now sitting. "So, do you come here often?" Emily grinned at the blonde's stereotypical question.

"As often as I can. I like to get up early, take care of the morning duties at the stables, and then ride up here and just admire the view for a little while if I have the time." The look on Emily's face was that of pure peacefulness, and JJ felt a pang of jealousy hit her again.

"It's beautiful up here," JJ said quietly, the serenity of the moment slowly seeping into her whole being.

"It sure is," Emily agreed, inhaling a lungful of fresh air. She was silent for a few moments and then glanced at JJ. "So, where are you from?"

"Virginia." Emily's eyebrows climbed high on her forehead at the response. "I know, I know. Quite a change." JJ smiled, shaking her head slightly.

"Sometimes change is good," Emily mused, and the blonde got the impression that she was speaking from personal experience. "Most of our visitors tend to be from the South. I guess the whole Wild West thing is beginning to get a little old for the Northerners."

"I just wanted to get away, to go somewhere completely different from what I'm used to," JJ said, surprising herself for actually saying it out loud. She quickly turned away from the brunette, feeling like, with that single confession, she'd shared far too much already. Anonymity and invisibility was what she'd come to look for in New Mexico, and that was what she was going to do. Emily seemed to sense her discomfort and let it be.

"So, what do you do, Jennifer?" Emily seemed genuinely interested, and maybe it was the exquisite way her named sounded when the brunette said it, but JJ didn't have the heart to tell her that sharing personal information with strangers was something she'd always been against. Especially when one's job was to catch serial killers – it simply came with the territory.

"I work for the government." JJ's reply was vague, and she hoped Emily wouldn't milk her for further details, because she'd have to lie. And, for some reason, she didn't want to lie to Emily.

"Mmmh, important work, I'm sure." Emily said politely and smiled in an encouraging manner.

"I'd like to think so." JJ smiled back, studying the older woman's profile. "How about you? How did you end up here? I mean, your accent kind of gives you away."

"Ah, you noticed, huh?" Emily laughed, shaking her head. "It's just one of those things, I suppose. I got fed up with my life back East and wanted to try something new. Ended up here."

"You just left everything behind?" JJ asked in awe, and for the first time, she saw the aura of happiness around Emily falter momentarily.

"Something like that. Not that there was that much to leave." The brunette stated somewhat sadly, seemingly staring to eternity for a few moments before the earlier mask slipped back on and she was smiling warmly again. "But it was the right thing to do. I haven't regretted my decision once, I love it here."

"This place is amazing," JJ concurred and sighed contently.

"The most beautiful spots are further along the river, and the mountains are absolutely breathtaking." Emily gestured towards the majestic peaks in the distance. "I could take you there sometime if you'd like. You can easily ride there and back when it's still light."

"Oh, I'd love to, but...I can't ride," JJ admitted sheepishly and stared at her hands in embarrassment. She couldn't quite recall the last time she'd felt so inadequate. But, instead of staring at her incredulously, or making some pointless 'too-bad-honey' comment, Emily looked almost excited.

"That's easily fixed. You can take riding lessons at the ranch." Emily explained enthusiastically. "I'd love to teach you."

"You teach riding?" JJ didn't know why it should make a difference, but it did.

"Yeah, among other things. C'mon, it'll be fun," Emily coaxed, and, irresistibly, JJ found herself becoming more and more excited about the prospect of learning to ride horses – something she'd never even thought of trying.

"I might take a few lessons, see how it feels." The blonde nodded, still slightly embarrassed at the whole ordeal.

"Excellent! I'll sign you up when I get back." Emily's smile was blinding, and JJ couldn't help feeling somewhat exhilarated.

They made polite small talk for a while, before Emily glanced at her wrist-watch and informed the blonde that it was time for her to head back. Oddly disappointed at the prospect of continuing her journey alone, JJ climbed down to the ground and watched as Emily produced her horse from around the other side of the boulder—the shadowy side so that the now nearly scorching sun hand't exhausted the poor animal—and gracefully hoisted herself up into the saddle. Then she turned back to JJ, still sporting that irresistibly contagious smile.

"I was serious about the riding lessons. I'll book you a few sessions, okay?"

"Looking forward to it already," JJ confessed, readjusting her backpack. "I'll explore a little further before heading back." She gestured behind her and saw Emily nod.

"There are some gorgeous rock formations a mile or so ahead, but be careful if you decide to climb any of them, you can easily slip on the uneven surfaces," Emily warned, tightening her hold on the reins in her hands as the horse was clearly eager to start the journey back.

"Thanks, I will." JJ nodded and had already taken a few steps to embark on her hike when Emily's voice stopped her.

"Hey, Jennifer!" The blonde turned back to the woman on horseback. "Thanks for the company." With one final smile, Emily pulled the reins, gave the horse a gentle nudge with the heels of her boots, and rode off. JJ could feel her cheeks redden slightly with pleasure.

The sun was high in the sky when JJ finally decided to head back for the ranch. She'd walked much further than she'd planned, but the exotic scenery had simply been too beautiful to resist. Instead of going back on the same trail, she decided to make a loop around the big rock formations which, she remembered, lined one side of the vast riding grounds right next to the stables. Digging out the last bit of a sandwich she'd packed for lunch, JJ walked towards the rocks that glowed with colours of orange and red as the sunlight bathed them in its bright rays.

The distance seemed much shorter than it actually was, but JJ finally reached her goal after half an hour of sweating and an occasional curse word or two. With great relief, she stepped out of the sun and into the wonderfully cool shadow formed by the first of many enormous rocks. Once she reached the other side, she was greeted by a sight of a big herd of cattle that munched whatever nutrition they could get from the dry earth. It was probably Mr. Jackson's cattle, JJ remembered him mentioning the pasture when she'd first arrived.

Carefully stepping over loose rocks and small bushes, JJ made her way slowly, but surely, forwards, every now and then leaning on the hard rock for support. She was about to round yet another rock the size of an SUV when she heard voices coming not far from where she was standing. Her first instinct was to simply keep going, to make her presence known to whoever was on the other side, but a strange feeling in her gut caused her to halt. Swallowing nervously, she put her hand against the rock for support and listened.

There were two male voices, and it soon became clear that it wasn't just a pleasant conversation between friends. There was a certain sharpness to the voices, indicating the exchange was business rather than pleasure.

"You sure about this?" the first voice asked, a tad of nervousness seeping through.

"It's all taken care of," the second one replied, and suddenly JJ recognised Noel Jackson's booming voice.

"It'd better be. We don't need any cock-ups at this point."

"Trust me, they're all on board, so stop worrying!"

"I probably don't need to remind you that this is our biggest undertaking yet, so I can worry all I want." The first voice was irritated now, causing JJ to take a small step backwards.

"Just do your part, Stenton, and be there on time when the bigwigs show up. I'll take care of my half," Jackson said in a way that indicated the conversation had come to an end.

JJ heard shuffling of feet and then the neighing of a horse; the two men were obviously parting ways.

"This is it, Noah. Don't fuck it up," Stenton stated menacingly and then rode off. JJ could hear Jackson mumbling in an annoyed manner before a second set of hoofbeats echoed off the rocks, indicating the departure of the ranch owner.

JJ stood still for a long while, not sure what to make of the bit of conversation she had just overheard. She wasn't sure why, but she couldn't quite shake the feeling of discomfort the odd dialogue had caused. For all she knew, it had simply been a chat about cattle purchases, but, deep down, she knew there was more to it - she'd been around profilers way too long.

"This is so damn typical," JJ murmured to herself as she finally continued her walk. She should've known she couldn't possibly take a vacation without stumbling into something shady. Not that it was any of her business if there was something going on, because she certainly wasn't in New Mexico as an FBI agent. She'd just let it be, let someone else deal with, well, whatever 'it' was.

But, just in case, she'd keep an eye on Noel Jackson from now on.


Chapter III

The dining hall was surprisingly crowded when JJ stepped through the door. The hall was the socializing place of the ranch, the place where the meals were served, and every night after dinner, it was turned into a small-scale bar. It was the first time the blonde had bothered to come and see the nightlife side of it herself, not really having been in the mood for it before. But, although she could've done just as well without pointless chitchat with strangers, she figured that becoming a hermit would do her no good.

So, there she was, standing at the door, her eyes scanning the room before her. Most people there she recognized: some were employees and the rest were guests just like she was. Feeling slightly out of place, JJ walked to the bar, exchanging 'hellos' and 'good evenings' with a few people along the way, and hopped up on one of the stools.

"What can I get you, Miss Jareau?" the man behind the bar asked, and JJ instantly recognized him as one of the kitchen workers who'd served her dinner on several occasions.

"Jack and Coke, please." The bartender nodded and soon JJ was sipping the cool liquid from an old-fashioned glass.

"Nice to see you finally found your way here," a smooth voice said from her left, and JJ turned to find a man in a cowboy hat casually leaning against the counter, his back to the bar.

"David, was it?" JJ remembered being introduced to him, but after that she hadn't had any contact with the man.

"David, indeed." He tipped his hat in greeting, clearly pleased that the blonde remembered his name, and studied her intently. His eyes travelled along the side of JJ's face knowingly before dipping lower, much lower, and JJ took another sip from her drink, cheeks burning with annoyance. Finally, David turned fully to her, and she cursed inwardly.

"So, what brings you to this neck of the woods?" he asked, clearly enjoying the blonde's discomfort and trying to use it to his advantage. JJ hated him instantly.

"Just wanted a change of scenery, I suppose," she replied, her voice laden with irritation, which didn't seem to bother David in the least.

"Ah, I thought maybe you were here to find out what real men are made of." He smiled smugly.

"Oh, please, David, don't flatter yourself," a familiar voice said from the other side of him, causing him to quickly push off the counter and turn around.

JJ leaned slightly forward, her eyes landing on Emily who was sitting at the bar and nursing her beer.

"Real funny, Em. You should start touring with that material," David said humourlessly, earning an amused smirk from the brunette.

"Just making an honest observation," Emily teased lightly before leaning towards him. "And if I didn't just completely misread the situation, I don't think Miss Jareau's interested." JJ could see David's jaw muscles tighten.

"Well, you're the expert. We all know what way you swing, Emily. Don't we?" he retorted with a scoff. Readjusting his hat, he grabbed his beer from the counter and made a hasty exit.

"Bastard," JJ heard Emily whisper under her breath. Then the other woman's demeanour changed and she turned to look at the blonde sitting next to her.

"Thank you so much," JJ said and breathed a sigh a relief. "I'd no idea how to get rid of him, tactfully anyway."

"My pleasure. He can be a real asshole sometimes, you have no idea." Emily rolled her eyes, and JJ stiffled a laugh.

"No love lost between you two then?" JJ asked, still a little puzzled by the malice she'd heard in David's voice.

"You could say that." Emily snorted, drowning the last of her beer and signalling to the bartender for another one. "He tends to think of himself as God's gift to women. And when someone doesn't fall for his cheesy lines and over-the-top innuendoes, he takes it as a personal insult."

"Ah." JJ knew the type all too well. "Talking from personal experience?" Emily's eyebrows rose expressively, making the other woman laugh.

"Yes, sorry to disappoint, but you aren't his only one." Emily shook her head, feigning sadness.

"Well, I have to say, I'm not that surprised he made his move on you," JJ said and then blushed, realizing how it had sounded. Emily stared at her for a few moments, surprised, and the blonde could feel her cheeks burn.

"Thanks," Emily finally said and smiled almost shyly, easing JJ's embarrassment a little.

They sat in comfortable silence for a few moments, both concentrating on the drinks in front of them. For some reason, the brunette fascinated JJ. Whenever Emily was in the vicinity, JJ was completely captivated by her, her mannerisms, the way she spoke, how her eyes sparkled when she smiled. She couldn't quite wrap her head around it, but no one's presence had ever affected JJ quite the same way.

"So, you ready for your first riding lesson tomorrow?" Emily's voice brought the blonde back to reality.

"Huh? Oh, yeah. Definitely!" JJ couldn't believe how excited she was about the lessons.

"Great! You'll love it, I'm sure. Just come by the stables at nine and we'll take it from there, okay?"

"Sounds good. Aren't there any other people learning to ride?" JJ asked, not wanting to acknowledge just how much she wanted Emily to say 'no'.

"No, surprisingly many of our guests never even come within a hundred feet of the stables. And those who do usually know how to ride already," Emily explained. "It's a shame, really. The setting for riding is excellent here."

"Oh." JJ nodded and tried to hide the pleasure she felt when she thought about her, apparently private, lesson the following day.

Yes, JJ liked Emily. Tremendously. She felt like the brunette somehow understood her better than most of the people she'd ever met, and knowing that she'd get to spend more time with Emily filled her with nothing but giddiness.

"But don't worry, you'll learn much faster since you'll have me all to yourself." Emily grinned mischievously, and JJ could've sworn the other woman was flirting, but she quickly perished the thought. Feeling her cheeks redden again, JJ gestured to the bartender for another Jack and Coke.

Actually, she thought, better make it a double.

JJ knew she was early, but she headed for the stables anyway. The weather was excellent, with no clouds in sight and a faint wind cooling the air. As JJ got closer to the wooden buildings, she spied someone riding in the field, and, instead of going in, she leaned her forearms against the fence, her eyes glued to the figure on horseback. Captivated by the smooth movements she was seeing, JJ chastised herself for not taking up riding sooner.

It took the blonde a few moments to realise that it was Emily she was watching, and she involuntarily leaned closer. The older woman took off the cowboy hat she was again sporting and wiped her forehead on her shirt sleeve, the glittering beads of sweat evidence of her morning riding exercise. Placing her hat back on her head and grabbing the reins tightly, the beautiful golden horse under her was soon galloping fast through the field again, leaving a small dust cloud in its wake.

Emily seemed so happy and content, her hair blowing in the wind, that JJ found herself smiling simply at the sight of it. A cheerful "Woo-hoo!" could be heard as the horse made a sharp turn, flawlessly following Emily's subtle signals to a 'T'. The act of freedom JJ was witnessing brought back the familiar feeling of jealousy; it must've been the greatest feeling in the world to ride through an open field without a worry in the world.

"Jennifer!" Emily finally noticed her standing at the fence, forcing the blonde to push all the depressing thoughts aside. She waved, uncertainly, and a grinning Emily raised her hand in return.

"That looked like fun," JJ commented once Emily was closer, feeling the first butterflies of nervousness flying in the pit of her stomach. Whether it was because of the approaching riding lesson or the woman before her, she wasn't entirely sure.

"Oh, Thorton here is an excellent riding partner." Emily jumped off the saddle and tenderly stroked the gentle-looking horse that was now curiously eyeing JJ. Slowly, the blonde reached out and stroked Thorton's muzzle.

"You ready to take the reins yourself?" Emily asked, grinning, and the younger woman swallowed hard. The brunette reached for the reins again, the movement causing the lapel of her shirt to move sideways, and JJ realized that Emily was wearing an extremely flattering white wife-beater underneath it.

"As ready as I'll ever be," she replied with a thin voice, sensing that a herd of butterflies had now taken up residence in her stomach.

"Oh, don't be nervous." Emily momentarily put her hand on top of the other woman's, and JJ felt her skin tingle. "Horses are gentle animals, you'll love them."

Yep, but it's not really the horses I'm worried about, a small voice at the back of her head said, but JJ quickly silenced it and followed Emily inside the building.

The ground was surprisingly far beneath her when JJ sat in the saddle, gripping the reins as if her life depended on it. Her entire body tensed, and all she could think about was how to prevent herself from falling. The headgear she wore slipped over her eyes, and she raised a trembling hand to straighten it. She was absolutely terrified.

"Relax, Jennifer," Emily's voice finally penetrated the blonde's panicky thoughts, and she looked at the brunette who was standing next to the horse's head, facing her.

"I'm trying," JJ said with a small voice, swallowing as the animal beneath her moved.

"Horses are wise animals. Just like dogs, they can sense people's moods. Tara, here, knows you're nervous, she won't do anything radical," Emily explained, maintaining eye contact with JJ the entire time. Releasing a deep breath, JJ was finally able to relax her muscles a little. "That's better." Emily nodded her approval.

"Okay," Emily continued. "Riding may look physically unchallenging, but, in reality, you need to use pretty much every muscle in your body. Do you have good stomach muscles?"

"Yeah," JJ replied, her voice tilting in a questioning manner.

"Good, because you're going to need them." Emily winked and started slowly leading Tara forwards to begin the lesson.

It didn't take long for JJ to get used to being on horseback, and she actually enjoyed the feeling immensely. Emily taught her how to hold the reins properly and how to keep herself in the saddle, which was what concerned JJ the most. By the end of the lesson, she was already revelling in the experience, rather than fearing it, and to her surprise, she was disappointed when Emily glanced at her watch and congratulated her for surviving the first lesson.

"Same time on Thursday?" JJ asked when they were taking Tara back to the stalls, her voice hopeful. Emily chuckled.

"See? I knew you'd be hooked." The brunette lifted the saddle onto a wooden rack next to various reins and currycombs. "Just come by on Thursday morning, whenever you're ready. I'll be here."

"Great!" JJ realized, for the first time during her vacation, she felt like she was truly enjoying it. She followed Emily out of the stables and watched as the other woman began to sort out a pile of ropes that lay on the ground.

"Thank you so much for this. I can't believe you'd take the time to teach a complete novice," JJ said, suddenly feeling nervous again.

"Are you kidding me? I love teaching, and you're an extremely fast learner, so my job was pretty easy." Emily smiled encouragingly, wrapping a rope around her hand and elbow to wound it into a coil. They looked at each other, smiling.

"I should...," JJ began, gesturing behind her, but, for some reason, was unable to tear herself away from the other woman just yet.

"Yeah...no problem." Emily nodded, but didn't break the eye contact either. She was about to say something else when someone called for JJ, and the blonde was forced to turn around. Her eyes landed on Noah Jackson, and suddenly, she felt highly annoyed.

"I'll see you on Thursday then," JJ said apologetically, though she wasn't entirely sure why she should feel that way.

"Definitely." Emily nodded, and with a final smile, JJ made her way to Jackson who was patiently standing in the middle of the yard.

"How are you today, Miss Jareau?" he asked in his typically pompous way, but JJ was in too good a mood to let it bother her.

"I'm good, thank you." She nodded politely, burying her hands in the back pockets of her jeans.

"Excellent. I take it you're enjoying your stay here? I haven't been able to catch up with you during the past few weeks. I've been rather busy. Lots of work to be done." The self-satisfaction in his voice made JJ want to cringe.

"Oh, I'm very much liking it here. I just had my first riding lesson, actually." She couldn't help the grin that spread on her face.

"Is that so?" Jackson asked, and it didn't go unnoticed by JJ that his eyes flickered to Emily on regular intervals.

"Yes. Emily's a wonderful teacher," she genuinely complimented the other woman.

"Good, good," he said, but JJ could hear the resentment behind his words. "Right, well, I must get going. I'm glad your stay has been successful so far, Miss Jareau. Again, if there's anything you need, don't hesitate to ask." With that, he brushed past JJ and made his way towards the small warehouses to the right of the stables.

JJ turned to watch him go, but her eyes involuntarily turned back to Emily. The brunette's gaze was nailed to Jackson's retreating back, the look on her face unreadable, but completely void of the previous joy and blithe JJ had witnessed earlier.

Frowning, the blonde turned around, her thoughts again on the bit of conversation she'd heard only some days previously. Maybe there was something to it after all.


Chapter IV

The rays of the sun lit up the room when JJ drew back the curtains and peered out of the window. She couldn't believe a month had passed since she'd arrived at the ranch, but a small pocket calendar on her desk informed her that it was already the 30th of June. It had been the right decision to take time off and come here; there was no doubt about it. She'd actually been able to spend her nights sleeping soundly without nightmares or pagers interrupting her. It was something she could easily get used to.

Turning away from the window, JJ plopped down on the bed and grabbed her cell phone that lay on the nightstand next to the newest Kay Scarpetta mystery she'd brought with her from home. She'd made sure the phone was turned off whenever she didn't need it, because the last thing she wanted was her real life back home interrupting the current bliss when she still had a chance to ignore it.

Once the phone was on again, she quickly scrolled down her contacts list and chose the one that said 'Garcia'. Penelope Garcia, the computer guru of the BAU and her best friend, was the only person she'd stayed in contact with during her stay in New Mexico. She wasn't terribly close to her "real" family anyway – the team at the BAU had taken the number one spot in her mind a long time ago. And she knew that Garcia would let the others know that everything was well with her.

The phone rang a few times before it was picked up, and a wide smile spread on JJ's face the moment she heard her friend's voice.

"Well, if it isn't the BAU press liaison extraordinaire," Garcia said in her typically chipper way.

"Morning, Garcia. How's life back East?" The blonde leaned back on the bed, propping herself up with pillows.

"Oh, you know, same old, same old." Clicking of keys could be heard in the background. "The team's in Ohio, a particularly weird case. Jordan said-." Garcia's voice sobered momentarily before the cheerful tone made a comeback: "But you so don't need to hear about that!"

"Yeah, I prefer a serial killer-less vacation, thank you very much." JJ chuckled.

"What's new over there? Still literally trying to stay in the saddle?" Garcia asked innocently, and JJ blushed, although the computer whiz couldn't see her.

"Garcia, that only happened once! Besides, I was dismounting anyway, so, technically, I didn't fall," JJ explained for the millionth time, which only made Garcia giggle even more.

"Still, the visual is priceless, Jay-J."

"Emily said the same thing has happened to her more than once," JJ explained, but it didn't ease the embarrassment she felt in the slightest. Her face flushed as she remembered how the brunette had quickly wrapped her arm around her midsection and helped her back on her feet.

"And how is the wonder woman named Emily?" Garcia asked.

"What's that supposed to mean?" JJ wasn't quite able to sound as oblivious as she wanted.

"C'mon, girlfriend. She must be something special, the way you keep talking about her." A silence. "Are you sure it's Emily and not, say, Edward?" the woman on the other end asked knowingly.

"What are you on about, Garcia?" JJ asked incredulously. "Emily, she's...nice. We're good friends." She suddenly felt uncomfortable.

"Uh-huh." Garcia's voice was teasing. "Well, it's good that you have a friend there. Quantico and the brilliant presence of yours truly are so far away."

"Yeah, and I'm really enjoying myself. Truly," JJ said truthfully.


JJ shook her head, amused; it was wonderful to hear her friend's voice again.

"You could always come and visit," JJ noted jokingly and heard her friend gasp audibly.

"JJ, me and all that countryside stuff? Match made in hell," Garcia said, making the blonde laugh.

"It was worth a shot." JJ shrugged. "We have a Fourth of July party coming up as well."

"What, you'll sing songs around a campfire and compete as to who can milk a cow the fastest?"

"Very funny," JJ said sarcastically. "No, there's supposed to be a big bonfire and fireworks. Jackson, the owner of this place I told you about at some point, he invited me a few days ago."


"And you sound so enthusiastic, Garcia," JJ teased back. Her daily doses of Penelope Garcia were the only thing she truly missed from home.

"I think I'll just keep on enjoying fireworks as my screensaver. You can keep the real things." Garcia sighed. "Unfortunately, kitten, I need to go. Hotch is calling, undoubtedly wanting to feed me more lovely images from the crime scenes."

"Urgh." JJ wrinkled her nose. She definitely didn't miss her job, which still surprised her. She was the epitome of a workaholic after all. "I'll talk to you soon."

"Call me anytime, Jay-J." The line went dead, and JJ sighed contently. Yes, she'd pick bonfires and fireworks over mutilated bodies any day.




"Another one!"




"One more!"


"Five out of five in six seconds!"

Colin, another cowboy look-a-like and a ranch employee, turned to his audience and raised his hat, while smiling charmingly. An enthusiastic round of applause sounded, and some people cheered as he slipped his revolver back into its holster, accompanied, of course, by a stereotypical spin. JJ politely clapped along, even if the snobby mannerisms she'd witnessed made her want to throw something at the man. The blonde glanced at the five empty tin cans on the ground, cans that now had a small, round hole in them, thanks to Colin's fairly good aim. Despite her aversion towards the guy, JJ had to admit that his shooting had been impressive.

"Anyone care to challenge me?" Colin looked around him, noting most of the people fervently shaking their heads, not even daring to look at him. "Anyone?" he urged, his eyes finally landing on someone standing somewhere to JJ's left. The resulting smile was smug. "Emily?"

JJ's head whipped around, and she saw Emily, her arms casually crossed, not too far from her. The older woman was eyeing Colin, her eyes narrowing slightly under the rim of her hat. There was a moment of silence when everyone simply looked at Emily, waiting for her response to Colin's challenge.

"You always try to trick me into doing that." Emily's lips quirked into a small smile of amusement.

"Every cowgirl needs to know how to shoot." Colin shrugged, and the brunette canted her head to the side in contemplation. "What? You scared you won't hit any?"

"If you're trying to push my buttons, you're failing miserably." Emily stepped forward and stretched out her hand towards him. "I need to borrow your gun."


The tin cans were placed back on bases of various heights, and an atmosphere of anticipation filled the area. JJ could feel her heart hammering in her chest as she watched Emily load the old-fashioned revolver and then click the chamber shut. The faint murmuring among the spectators finally faded into complete silence as the brunette raised the gun and took aim. A man with a stopwatch cleared his throat and peered down at the small timer in his hand.


It was beautiful. It was flawless. In awe, JJ watched as Emily gracefully cleared one can after another from its perch, until there was only the last one left. The blonde had been practically ready to cheer out loud when she suddenly noticed Emily unnecessarily shifting her aim slightly to the right—a movement so insignificant that the majority of the onlookers probably missed it entirely—and the last shot missed the can by a mere couple of inches. Gaping incredulously, JJ heard the crowd gasp in disappointment and saw Colin's jaw muscles visibly relax.

"Oh, too bad!" Colin jeered, but the blonde hadn't missed his nervous swallow.

"Better luck next time, eh?" Emily stated and handed the gun back to its owner, all the while smiling calmly. She received several 'better luck next time' pats on the back as she made her way through the crowd. Now sufficiently recovered from his near heart attack, Colin proceeded to show other gun tricks to those interested, but JJ didn't stick around. Instead, she hurried after Emily, still feeling strongly about the injustice she'd just witnessed.

"What was that about?" she asked, her brows still in a frown when she reached the other woman.

"What was what about?"

"That last shot! You could've easily hit it!"

"Yeah?" Emily picked at an invisible piece of lint on the sleeve of her shirt.

"Yeah." JJ reached for the brunette's arm, urging her to stop. Their eyes locked. "You missed on purpose."

"I..." Emily struggled for words and finally just shrugged, smiling solemnly. "Yes, I did."

"Why the hell for?"

"Jennifer, look around you. I'm the only woman working at this ranch who isn't a maid," Emily explained. "Can you imagine the hell I'd be put through if I beat them at something so disgustingly manly as shooting? It's quite enough that I can ride better than any of them."

"That's so annoying!" JJ exclaimed angrily, making Emily laugh.

"Believe me, I know." They began walking again, the blonde secretly studying the woman next to her, suddenly feeling elated. They both knew what it felt like to live in a highly male dominated world, and through this new side of Emily, JJ felt like she bonded with the other woman on yet another level.

"Where did you learn to shoot like that?" she suddenly asked, remembering Emily's precise and unfaltering aim.

"Ah, I've picked it up along the way." The answer was ambiguous to say the least, but JJ reminded herself that she hadn't been very forthcoming about her own life either.

"Well, you definitely were the better shot back there," the blonde stated proudly. Emily couldn't stop the wide grin that spread on her face as she leaned closer to JJ.

"I totally was, wasn't I?"

The cool evening air washed over JJ as she stepped out on the porch. The bar had been rather crowded again, and the blonde had ended up playing darts with some of the other guests while drowning several bottles of beer. Her aim had significantly suffered as the evening had progressed, but she'd still easily beaten her competition. Her smile faltered slightly when she remembered that the last time she'd actually played had been just before the Hankel case – a case that would be forever burned in her memory. Those dogs had caused her nightmares for months, and they still visited her subconsciousness more times than her shrink, or JJ, would like. It had taken the team hours to get her to talk again after Morgan and the cavalry had found her in the barn.

Shaking her head to rid the unpleasant thoughts, JJ refused to go down that road again and, instead, she inhaled the fresh desert air and concentrated on the present. Her mind was still pleasantly buzzing because of the alcohol she'd consumed, and, content simply to enjoy the feel of cool wind on her skin, she leaned against the wall. Her thoughts turned to Emily, which didn't really surprise the blonde that much anymore, and she could feel a tiny sting of disappointment that the brunette hadn't been at the bar earlier.

JJ felt...different when she was with Emily, that much she did know. She didn't feel the need to pretend or impress, nor did she feel in any way threatened by the other woman. Somehow, Emily allowed her to just be herself, which both thrilled and scared her at the same time. Maybe it was the thick cloud of anonymity that still hung around them after all this time—JJ realized that she didn't even know Emily's last name—but the blonde had never felt as free as she felt with the other woman.

Deep in thought, JJ almost missed the small movement in her peripheral vision. Focusing her eyes to the far end of the yard, she could make out the outline of someone walking slowly across it. Instinctively, JJ pressed her body closer to the wall and into the shadows of the porch, her agent training automatically taking over her movements. The uncertain steps of the figure told the blonde that they probably didn't want to be noticed, which encouraged her to become as invisible as possible.

When the mysterious person was midway through the yard, JJ recognized the unmistakable form of Noel Jackson. A rush of adrenaline coursed through her, and she could feel her heart beating rapidly in her chest as she followed Jackson's every step. She probably should've ignored her instincts—how was any of this her business anyway?—but the Supervisory Special Agent side of her silenced the rational part of her brain, and quietly slipping off the porch, JJ carefully followed the ranch owner.

JJ made sure her boots didn't make a sound when she walked and stayed within a long enough distance from her mark to avoid notice. Part of her recognized how ridiculous all this was, but she still wasn't able to just ignore it. Something was off when it came to Noel Jackson, and JJ couldn't deny the ominous feeling she got everytime she saw him.

After a few minutes of trailing, JJ realized that Jackson was headed for the group of lodge houses at the brink of the river. He disappeared between two of them and, after a brief moment of hesitation, JJ followed suit. She rounded the first corner, but Jackson was nowhere to be seen. A small clicking noise drew JJ's attention to a building a good distance to her left—it looked like a garden shed—and in the faint light of the moon she could distinguish Jackson stepping through the door and glancing suspiciously behind him before silently closing it.

Unsure of what to do, JJ pondered her options when, suddenly, she sensed a presence behind her.

"Hey, what are you doing?" The blonde rapidly turned around and came face to face with a frowning Emily. JJ's mouth opened, but nothing came out. She felt like she had just been caught red-handed, but doing what exactly, she wasn't entirely sure.

"Just looking around," was the first thing that came to mind, and it was so lame that JJ visibly cringed.

"In the middle of the night?" Emily crooked her eyebrow, and JJ got the unsurprising confirmation that she had failed to convince the brunette.

"I just needed some fresh air, the bar was getting really warm and loud," JJ tried to explain.

"Ah, okay," Emily said in a non-committed way. JJ noticed that she peered at the building behind her, the one Jackson had disappeared into, but the expression on her face remained the same and gave nothing away.

"What are you doing here?" JJ asked, desperate to change the subject and shift the attention away from her and her odd nightly ventures.

"I live here." Emily's voice was amused. She tapped the wooden wall next to her. "My humble home."

"Oh." JJ had known that many of the lodge houses served as accommodation for the employees, but she'd never actually seen them up close.

"You seem a little...flushed," Emily noted, the corner of her mouth twitching, and JJ blinked nervously. "Just how long were you at the bar?"

"I...a while." JJ finally confessed and rubbed the bridge of her nose.

"I think it's time to get you home," Emily suggested, and the blonde didn't protest when she felt Emily's hand slide up her back, leading her forwards and away from the mysterious garden shed where she'd followed Noel Jackson to. JJ glanced behind her one last time, a faint hint of light in the darkness the only indication that someone was inside.

The walk to the main building was made in silence, but instead of it being uncomfortable and suffocating, the blonde only felt peaceful. Much to JJ's wonder, Emily hadn't withdrawn her hand, she'd only moved it on her shoulder, and the younger woman could feel the warmth of it through her thin blouse.

All the feelings and sensations coursing through her entire being baffled her. Mostly because she'd never felt them before, nor could she even name them all. The only thing she was certain of was that the woman walking confidently next to her was the cause of the state of uncertainty in which she'd lately found herself. Too often, JJ caught herself wondering when she'd see Emily again, or purposefully searching for her with her eyes when she walked past the stables. It was disconcerting, and the blonde was way too scared to contemplate what it all actually meant.

"Let me get the door," Emily said and hurried to open the door to the main building for her charge.

JJ smiled shyly, incredibly flattered by Emily's chivalrous act and stepped inside. She climbed the stairs to the second floor, conscious of the footsteps following her, and fished the key from her pocket.

"Right, this is me." She hoped the nervousness she felt wasn't as evident as she feared.

"Will you be okay?" Emily's voice was genuinely concerned, and JJ's heart skipped a beat.

"I will." She smiled. "Thank you for seeing me home."

"My pleasure," the brunette murmured. She leaned forward, kissing JJ's cheek softly. "Good night, Jennifer."

JJ watched as Emily disappeared down the stairs, her heart hammering in her chest and her face flushed. What the hell just happened? She hated how easily Emily could make her blush. The skin on her cheek tingled where Emily had pressed her lips, and she raised her hand to the spot. A faint trace of Emily's perfume still lingered in the air, and, for some strange reason, JJ was unable to stop the shy grin that spread on her face.

This is so not good, she thought, finally slipping the key into the lock and unlocking the door.


Chapter V

The Fourth of July festivities were in full swing when JJ came through the doors and stepped outside. There was an enormous bonfire in the middle of the yard and that, combined with the several lanterns of various colours that were hanging from ropes tied between buildings, lit up the whole area. The sun had set some ten minutes previously, but the horizon was still glowing with shades of yellow, red, and blue.

Noel Jackson had obviously gone all out for the party: there was live music in the form of a local folk band, the bonfire was constantly kept alive by two men throwing wood on it, and the tables were laden with all sorts of delicious things that made JJ's mouth water.

"Glad you could join us, Miss Jareau," Thomas, one of the stable boys, said smiling when he spotted JJ. Apart from Emily, he was probably the person JJ had interacted with the most during her stay, due to the blonde's newborn infatuation with riding.

"Yeah, I needed to take a short nap after my riding lesson this afternoon. I was totally spent afterwards." JJ smiled back. She really liked the boy and could easily see why Emily had chosen him to help her with the horses and other chores around the stables.

"Riding can do that to you," he concurred and nodded. "You've come a long way, though. I can't believe you only started a month ago."

"Why, thank you," JJ said and curtsied as a joke. Thomas answered by raising his hat and grinning.

Unable to keep herself away from the food any longer, JJ excused herself and made a beeline to the tables, proceeding to pile as much food on her plate as possible. She hadn't realised how hungry she'd been until her eyes had landed on the plethora of goods. She was munching on a piece of deliciously moist corn bread when Noel Jackson approached her.

"Enjoying the party, Miss Jareau?" he asked politely.

"Vewy mush," JJ replied, her mouth full. Jackson chuckled.

"I'm glad. This thing, the Fourth of July party, is turning into an annual tradition in these parts." He stood next to her for a moment, a distant look in his eyes. "So, you're from Virginia, aren't you?"

"Umm, yes." The question took JJ completely off guard.

"Lovely state. Did you know that eight of our presidents have come from Virginia?" He picked up a chicken leg from the tray next to him and bit down on it.

"Actually, I didn't." JJ lied, uncertain as to what had prompted this strange conversation. "Now I do."

"Yes, quite an interesting fact. What was it again that you said you do back home?" He asked, seemingly uninterested, and threw away the greasy chicken bone which was the only thing left of his snack.

"I don't believe I ever shared that information." JJ kept her voice conversational, not wanting to let on how uncomfortable his line of questioning actually made her.

"Oh, well, what do y-," Jackson began, but he was cut off by someone invading their space.

"Here you are! I was beginning to think you were a no-show." Emily was her happy self as she stood in front of them, one hand casually in her jeans pocket, the other curled around a glass of punch.

"Don't worry, I wouldn't have missed this for the world." JJ smiled radiantly and sent a silent 'thank you' to whatever higher power had sent Emily her way just then.

"Wonderful party, Mr. Jackson, as always," Emily complimented and raised her glass in salutation. Jackson's moustache twitched and he smiled a thin smile, not even trying to hide his annoyance at the interruption.

Either Emily was completely oblivious to Jackson's displeasure, or she pretended incredibly well that she was, but whatever the case, JJ was utterly relieved that she'd been rescued from the rancher. When had Emily become her personal bodyguard? First David and now this. The brunette's timing was impeccable.

"Thank you. Miss Jareau and I were just talking about Virginia. That's the state she's from, you know," he added almost matter-of-factly.

"I do know," Emily said slowly, and the blonde suddenly felt like she was a piece in some invisible mind game between the two.

"Where are you from, then?" JJ asked the brunette, her goal to steer the conversation away from her as quickly as possible.

"Massachusetts originally," Emily replied, sipping from her glass.

"Oh, I love Massachusetts. Boston is one of my favourite cities," the blonde said enthusiastically. It was all true.

"Have you ever seen the Boston skyline in the evening or night?" Emily asked and continued when the younger woman shook her head. "It's one of the most gorgeous urban things I've ever seen. Especially the south side of the Charles River."

"I'll have to make sure to go see it one day," JJ stated. The two women smiled at each other, both forgetting that Noel Jackson who still standing within feet of them. He cleared his throat and two sets of eyes turned to him.

"If you'll excuse me, I need to go mingle with the other guests. I wouldn't want them to feel neglected." He nodded curtly at JJ and let his eyes slide over Emily in near contempt before making his way towards another group of people standing nearby.

"What's his problem?" JJ asked, frowning.

"Women," Emily said simply, and the blonde had to agree that it made a whole lot of sense. "Or strong women, I should say. I'm sure he would've fired me ages ago if I wasn't so important to him."

"Well, thank you for saving me. He makes me...uncomfortable," JJ admitted, her gaze still aimed at Jackson's back.

"He's your typical hillbilly." Emily shrugged and downed the last of her punch.

JJ was about to ask the older woman for more information on her pompous host, but before she could open her mouth, there was commotion further in the yard, and they all turned to watch as a group of people were trying to line dance on the sandy surface.

Realizing the opportunity for extra entertainment, the band began playing 'Boot Scootin' Boogie', inciting the dancers even further. More and more people joined in, laughter and clattering of boots filling the night air, and JJ found herself enthusiastically clapping to the music as well.

"Come on!" Emily grinned widely and took JJ by the arm, leading her towards the centre of the yard.

"No! Emily, I don't know how to line dance!" JJ shouted over the music and other noise, freaked out by the prospect of making a complete fool of herself.

"Who cares? I'll teach you!" The brunette tugged her arm again and JJ relented, having no idea what she was getting herself into.

Much to her surprise, it was actually fun. She stared at Emily's feet as the other woman demonstrated the basic steps, and soon the blonde was stumbling along, giggling at the somewhat absurd situation. The music shifted to 'Achy Breaky Heart', and within no time, she'd mastered the basics. With silent mirth, she wondered that if someone had told her a mere six months ago that she'd be line dancing at a remote New Mexican ranch and actually, God forbid, enjoying herself, she probably would've punched them in the face.

The last steps of the dance session involved linking arms with whoever was standing next to you, and JJ found herself clinging to Emily while making a fast circle. The band played the final note of the song, and the line of dancers erupted into wild applauds and cheers. JJ was still holding on to Emily's arm, laughing alongside the brunette who didn't seem to be in any particular hurry to let go of her arm either.

"That was so much fun! I can't believe I just did that." JJ shook her head in awe, unable to stop grinning.

"You were great!" Emily shouted over the ruckus that still filled the air.

"I had a great teacher."

Emily smiled at the compliment, and when her eyes met JJ's, they were gentle and sincere, and the blonde simply couldn't look away. JJ wasn't sure what it was, but something transpired between them; she could feel it all the way in her toes, and it made her heart flutter. Her breath caught as Emily suddenly leaned forward to whisper in her ear.

"Come with me, I want to show you something."

JJ took one look at Emily's face and allowed herself to be led across the yard and towards the stables. Emily grasped her hand tightly, as if to make sure she was really following her, and with sudden clarity, JJ thought that the contact of their entwined hands was one of the most wonderful things she had ever experienced.

The brunette only let go of her hand once when they reached the stables door, and JJ was told to wait while the other woman went inside to fetch something. Soon, she emerged with a blanket that she'd tied up with rope and hoisted on her back. In her left hand she held a flashlight, the right one again immediately reaching for JJ's as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

"Come on," Emily whispered and tugged on JJ's hand, the blonde following willingly.

Emily lit the way with the flashlight, and the pair slowly made their way towards the large rock formation JJ remembered rounding when she'd stumbled upon the strange conversation involving Noel Jackson and the mysterious Stenton character. In the darkness of the night, the blonde could just make out the outlines of the formation against the cloudless sky.

It took them ten minutes to reach the first of the bigger rocks, and to JJ's surprise, she could distinguish a footpath going up the steep wall of the ridge. She'd completely missed it when she'd been exploring the area. Her hand still firmly in Emily's, she carefully followed the brunette over the loose rocks and small sagebrushes.

"Almost there," Emily finally said and slowed down. "This is the trickiest part. There's a small gap in the ground, so make sure you don't step on it."

With the help of the flashlight, JJ saw the opening and easily stepped over it, almost running into Emily's back as the other woman suddenly stopped. They'd arrived on a flat ledge that appeared to be almost ten feet wide. It looked down directly on the ranch that was illuminated by the bonfire, making it possible to estimate their whereabouts.

Emily laid out the blanket and gestured for JJ to sit down, which the blonde more than happily complied. Joining the younger woman, Emily sat down next to her and switched off the flashlight.

"Look up," Emily said. For a few seconds, all JJ could see was the darkness, but then her eyes began to acclimate and she gasped.

The sky was illuminated with stars, millions and billions of them. There were no clouds or air pollution to hinder the incredible brightness, and JJ was speechless.

"Oh, my God," she breathed.

"The stars have always been my favourite thing about this place," Emily confessed.


"I used to be able to find most of the constellations," Emily said wistfully. "My grandfather bought me a telescope for my tenth birthday, and we used to sit on his porch for hours on end, searching for stars."

"That must've been amazing."

"It was. Whenever we distinguished a new constellation, he would tell me the story behind it. That's how I remembered them all."

"Show me one," JJ asked solemnly. The brunette scanned the night sky for a while, as if deciding which secret could be shared.

"Okay, do you see that one?" She leaned towards JJ, her arm stretched out as she pointed to a group of bright stars above them. "The three stars that are clustered next to each other?"


"That's Orion. Or, rather, Orion's Belt. It's one of the most easily recognizable ones," Emily began. "It's also one of the oldest man-spotted constellations. In Greek mythology, Orion was a giant huntsman who Zeus placed among the stars, because he challenged the gods by saying he could slay every wild animal on earth. Well, that's one of the interpretations."

"Wow," JJ muttered, completely mesmerized by the stars and the story.

"Through the stories you can sort of see back thousands of years if you think about it."

"My God, this is truly the most beautiful thing I've ever seen," JJ whispered, her eyes firmly nailed to the miracle-like display of light above her. It was true: she had never seen anything quite so spectacular.

When there was no answer, the blonde tore her eyes away from the sky and glanced at Emily, only to find out that the brunette was quietly watching her, a faint smile gracing her lips. Emily's eyes looked almost black in the moonlight.

"I'm glad you like it," she finally said quietly, not taking her eyes off of the younger woman.

"I love it," JJ said sincerely. In fact, it was probably the most wonderful thing anyone had ever done for her.

Suddenly, the blonde was painfully aware of the warmth radiating from the body sitting so close to her, and she felt a small shiver go down her spine. Emily was still looking at her, those dark eyes alluring, but gentle at the same time. There was no way JJ could've resisted them, no chance whatsoever. Her eyes slid slowly to Emily's lips and then back up again, her heart hammering so rapidly in her chest that she thought it would burst.

She saw Emily leaning forward, or maybe she did so herself, but all she knew was that the brunette's lips were suddenly so close to her own that she could feel Emily's breath caressing her skin. JJ felt enchanted, possessed, the rest of the world shrinking away until there was nothing left but Emily and Emily's lips, which she was simply unable to resist. The few, final inches and -

A loud bang tore through the night, shattering the magic of the moment in a blink of an eye. Both women drew back, their heads whipping around and up to the sky where a constant stream of fireworks lit up open stretches of desert.

But JJ didn't really see the festival of lights before her. Blinking rapidly, she was unable to think of anything else but the fact that she had been within milliseconds of kissing Emily.

It was then that a realization of utter importance hit her. Her hands suddenly began to shake uncontrollably in her lap, and she squeezed her eyes shut tightly.

The noise of the fireworks echoed off the rocks as loudly as her sudden realization ricocheted in her head.


Chapter VI

The faint ticking of a clock on the wall sounded through the darkened room. It had to have been close to 4am already as the last time JJ had checked the digits on her mobile phone screen it'd said 3:09.

She couldn't sleep, and not because she wasn't tired, because she was. In fact, she was absolutely exhausted. This marked the second night in a row that she'd just lain there, unable to close her eyes even for a second without images of Emily, and stars, and kissing Emily under those stars flashing through her mind.

JJ wasn't quite sure what had happened after the fireworks, but they'd somehow climbed down from the ledge and had returned to the party without a single word spoken between them. Or, rather, JJ had pretty much made it known that she wouldn't talk, and Emily had honored her wishes. The blonde had fled the party as soon as she could and had barricaded herself in her room. It was an incredibly immature thing to do, she knew it, but she simply couldn't have handled it then. Not that she was having any more luck now.

The problem was that she was incredibly attracted to Emily. There, JJ thought, she had finally acknowledged it, even if only to herself. She had no idea how it had happened, but she just knew that the things she felt when she was with Emily were something she'd never felt for anyone else before. When their almost-kiss had been cruelly interrupted, for one brief moment she'd been certain she'd die without feeling Emily's lips on hers. She'd almost kissed her. And oh, she'd wanted it. She'd wanted it more than anything. And that? That scared the hell out of her.

Swallowing hard, JJ squeezed the phone in her hand, contemplating for the umpteenth time whether to call Garcia or not. But what would she say to her? Hey, I almost kissed a cowgirl whose last name I don't even know, and I think I also might be totally gay for her. Garcia would call the state police to come and pick her up in that instant. Actually, she'd probably send the FBI Critical Incident Response Team to raid the entire place.

JJ buried her face in her hands, feeling so incredibly frustrated and scared that she thought she might burst. And God knows what Emily was feeling. JJ had been a total coward; she hadn't left her room all day in fear of bumping into the other woman. She simply couldn't face her. Not yet. Was she being selfish? Maybe, but for all she knew, Emily had only been having a little bit of fun.

Yet, the moment the thought entered her mind, JJ knew it wasn't true. She hadn't imagined the look of desire in Emily's eyes; she knew the brunette was just as attracted to her. Besides, Emily's conduct on the ledge had clearly implied that she didn't bring people there very often. All that probably should've made her feel somewhat at ease, but it didn't, because it also meant that there might actually be something between them. Something that JJ doubted she was ready for. Or maybe she was and the whole freaking out thing was simply her brain's way of protecting her from the inevitable heartbreak.

One thing was certain, the heartbreak was coming. JJ's entire life was in Virginia. At the beginning of August, she'd be heading back home, because she couldn't drop everything indefinitely; Agent Todd was only available as a replacement for her until August anyway. And Emily's life was here, at the ranch. The way she'd spoken about her old life back East wasn't terribly heartwarming, so it wasn't like Emily was planning on leaving this particular lifestyle anytime soon. And JJ was probably completely jumping the gun, because she had no idea how Emily felt about the whole situation. Another wave of guilt washed over her.

"You're such a coward, Jareau," she whispered in an annoyed tone as she flipped over, burying her face in the pillow.

Walking – the best way to sort out your thoughts. JJ had always resorted to long walks or jogs when she had too much on her mind and needed an outlet for it. She'd always feel refreshed and more in control once she got back – except now. If anything, she was even more confused and at a loss than before. The afternoon had already begun to turn to an early evening when she saw the first employee lodge houses in the distance, and she quickened her step so that she'd be back to the main house before it was too dark.

Following the river back towards the ranch, JJ was momentarily distracted from her personal problems by the memory of Noel Jackson going into one of the buildings in front of her. She bit her lower lip, pondering what to do, but, once again, the agent side of her finally won over, and she made her way towards the mysterious shed.

Fortunately, it was dark enough for her to move somewhat invisibly, and she tiptoed around the corner of the first house and slowly approached the one she was the most interested in. The windows were all nailed shut, and it was so dark inside that JJ couldn't see anything through the small cracks between the boards. Rounding to the front of the shed, she saw that there was a heavy padlock on the door, making it practically impossible to get in without making too much noise. She contemplated picking the lock, but she didn't have the necessary equipment, nor could she risk someone walking in on her.

Pursing her lips, JJ had to admit that she hadn't discovered anything new and let out an annoyed sigh. She ran a hand through her hair and decided to head back to her room; it wouldn't do her any good to just stand around. She obviously needed more planning.

Just as JJ had begun to walk across the yard, she spied Emily approaching from the opposite direction, and her heart dropped into her stomach. The brunette had probably finished her daily duties at the stables and was walking home, but JJ could only think that the timing simply couldn't be worse. Panicking slightly, she realized that she was too far from anything she could hide behind, and the colour drained from her face.

As if sensing she was being watched, Emily looked up and their eyes met. JJ could see an array of emotions pass across the other woman's face as they both stopped abruptly. Emily took off her signature cowboy hat, still intently looking at JJ, and was clearly about to walk over when the blonde spotted David walking her way. With a quick sidestep, she looped her arm through his, clearly taking him by surprise.

"David, hi. Would you mind walking me home?" She knew it was a horrible thing to do, and she didn't have a clue what had possessed her to do it, but there was no turning back now.

"Why, certainly." He tried to smile charmingly, but it was more smug than anything else.

As they walked towards the main building, JJ risked a glance at Emily, who was still standing in the same spot. The brunette was fiddling with her hat, her eyes cast down to the ground in defeat, and JJ's heart broke at the sight.

JJ felt an enormous pang of guilt hit her when she looked up at the clock. It was well past nine already, which meant she was late for the morning's riding lesson, again. It was the second lesson she'd skipped, and much to her relief, Emily hadn't come looking for her.

Well, no wonder after the ridiculous way you've been acting, a familiar voice of conscience nagged at her, and JJ felt twice as mortified. She'd truly been horrible towards Emily without actually saying a word to her, but that hadn't been the worst. In order to avoid a confrontation with the brunette, JJ had resorted to David, and the sad excuse of a man had happily accepted the assignment.

"Some feminist you are," JJ scoffed and stared at the ceiling, all of a sudden having an overwhelming need to talk to someone. She had to call Garcia.

"Ooo, is it really my favourite cowgirl calling?" Garcia answered the phone after the second ring.

"Garcia, I really fucked up." She suddenly had a terrible urge to cry.

"Jay-J?" Garcia's voice immediately sobered up, and JJ knew she had the other woman's undivided attention.

"I just...I don't know what to do, and I just needed to talk to someone." She felt a tear roll down her cheek, and she brushed it away angrily.

"JJ, what's happened?"

"I did something really stupid, and now I don't know how to make it better," she explained miserably.

"Okay?" Garcia said uncertainly. "Why don't you tell me everything, start from the beginning."

"You're going to hate me," JJ whispered.

"Sweetie, you know I could never hate you. You're too cute for that."

Gingerly, JJ began relating her story, but soon she realized that it was actually rather easy to confide in Garcia and that she really needed to get it all off her chest. The tech queen of the BAU listened silently, only uttering an encouraging word here and there. When JJ came to the end of her story, there was a brief silence on the other end.

"Well, I have to say, I was not expecting that," Garcia finally said, but the tone in her voice let JJ know that she wasn't, by any means, freaked out by what she'd just heard.

"I can't help it, Garcia," JJ said quietly, incredibly relieved now that her secret was out. "It's just that when I'm with her...I feel whole." She rolled her eyes at the cliché.

"And that's why you've been parading around with some local hillbilly the past week?" Garcia asked disapprovingly, making JJ's cheeks redden.

"I panicked, okay?"

"That's a load of bull, and you know it."

"It's not that easy!"

"Sure it is. You're just too afraid to accept any kind of happiness life might offer you, and I can't quite grasp why that is."

"I'm not afraid!" JJ felt anger rise within her at the implication.

"Yes, you are." The blonde agent had never heard Garcia be quite so serious and frank, and it unnerved her. "Why do you think you've been trying to kid yourself with Will all year?"

"Just leave him out of this. He has nothing to do with anything." JJ was ashamed to realize that she hadn't even thought about him during the entire time she'd been at the ranch.

"JJ, he has everything to do with it. Look, you called me because you wanted my advice. Before you can even think about sorting out this mess, you need to be honest with yourself first," Garcia said frankly, and JJ swallowed, knowing deep down that it was true.

"I need to go," she said after a few moments of silence and heard her best friend sigh.

"Take care of yourself, Girlfriend." JJ was glad the other woman let it be.

"I will." She disconnected the call and threw the phone on the bed, rubbing her eyes with the heels of her palms.

This is such a nightmare.


Chapter VII

JJ let a few days pass by before she figured she'd had enough. She couldn't hide in her room forever, no matter how much she feared facing the truth. Maybe it was the general frustration she felt, or the need to distract herself from all the angst, but something prompted her to find out more about Noel Jackson's strange antics.

Standing at the window of her bedroom, the blonde glanced up to the sky, noting the dark clouds that were gathering above, indicating an upcoming weather front. The yard and its surroundings seemed almost deserted as people had fled inside, away from the impending rain. JJ fiddled with the various, somewhat improvised, lock picking tools in her hand and then finally pocketed them, taking a deep breath before heading to the door.

Avoiding the certain floorboards that made a nasty creaking sound when stepped on, JJ managed to climb down the stairs and slip out of the door, hoping no one had noticed her departure. It was dark already, the ominous clouds making it seem like it was much later than it actually was.

Cautiously, she inched closer and closer to the mysterious building which stood at the brink of the river. Just like last time, it was dark inside, the cracks between the boards revealing nothing. JJ looked around her in the semi-darkness and, not seeing anything suspicious, squatted down so that she was on eyelevel with the gray padlock. Withdrawing the tools from her pocket, she got to work.

It had been awhile since the last time JJ had needed to pick a lock, but she hoped it was just like riding a bike. She soon noticed that the lack of light was, indeed, problematic and contemplated on using a small flashlight she'd taken with her, but finally decided against it. It would simply be too risky. Although the small warehouse was located on the edge of the housing area with only one side facing the houses that served as accommodation for the employees, JJ wanted to play it safe.

And really, she didn't actually have a clue what she was doing. She had no real evidence that Jackson was involved in anything shady or illegal, only her gut feeling which definitely wouldn't stand up in court. JJ shook her head as the ridiculousness of the situation dawned on her, once again.

The small click of the lock giving way sounded horribly loud in the quietness of the evening, and JJ hurriedly looked around her. Slowly, she slipped the opened lock through two metal rings that, together with the lock itself, had effectively kept all the undesired people out. She couldn't help feeling satisfied with herself when the door slid open as she turned the handle. With one final glance behind her, she slipped in and closed the door firmly behind her.

For a few seconds, JJ simply stood still in the pitch black room, not sure if this had been such a good idea after all. This really is the most insane thing you've ever done, she scolded herself, but figured she might as well go all the way since she was already more than halfway there. She switched on the small flashlight and looked around her, taking in her surroundings.

It was, indeed, a garden shed of some sort. Shelves and racks lined the walls from the floor to the ceiling, and there were four tall set of shelves in the middle of the room as well. It all seemed perfectly innocent: blankets, garden tools, mops... JJ walked closer, her eyes scanning the plethora of items around her. It wasn't until she'd rounded the first set of shelves in the middle that she noticed two large, metal boxes lining the back wall. Both were locked with two padlocks, albeit smaller ones than the one on the door, and JJ frowned.

Holding the flashlight between her teeth, she quickly picked the locks, curiosity bubbling inside of her like a geyser. Holding her breath, she slowly raised the lid of the first one, and her eyes widened when she saw what was inside.

Guns. Dozens of them and various kinds. JJ's eyes landed on a handgun similar to her own service one back home, and right next to it laid an M240G machine gun. She peered into the second box as well with the same result, finding at least two dozen firearms neatly organized inside. The bad feeling JJ had about Noel Jackson tripled in an instant, and with rapid movements, she slipped the locks back in place.

There was no way all the guns were legal, that much JJ was sure of. And what would a ranch owner need with a machine gun used by the US military anyway? Plus, although the guns were behind various locks, the warehouse was still an awfully public place to store them. Considering all the gardening tools and other everyday items, the employees must have used the shed pretty much daily. The risk of people stumbling upon the hidden arsenal at the back of the room was incredibly high.

The realization hit JJ like a ton of bricks.

"Unless they're involved in it as well." Again, whatever 'it' was.

JJ smacked her palm to her forehead, reproaching herself for being so thick. And then an extremely unpleasant thought crossed her mind, her hand sliding slowly off her face. Emily worked for Noel Jackson. She couldn't possibly...there was no way she would... JJ refused to acknowledge what her new theory clearly implied. She liked to think she knew Emily, and even if she didn't know her background, exactly where she came from, she knew Emily, the person. And the person she knew would never get mixed up in anything like this. A small voice at the back of her head sneered at her for being so incredibly naïve, but she effectively ignored it.

The first drops of rain fell from the sky when JJ hurriedly closed and locked the door behind her, all the while stealing glances over her shoulder to make sure she was still alone. It didn't take long until the rain came down with full force, soaking her blue shirt before she had a chance to take more than a step or two. Shit! Hurrying forward, she rounded the corner of the first house, only to run into something solid. She stumbled backwards, her eyes landing on the woman who had controlled her every waking thought for weeks now.

Emily looked just as surprised as JJ felt herself, and for a few, torturous seconds they simply stared at each other. Water ran down Emily's face, and her check-patterned flannel shirt stuck to her skin, accentuating the perfect curves of her body. JJ caught herself staring at the utter perfection in front of her and tore her eyes quickly away.

"Sorry, I wasn't looking where I was going," she mumbled, not meeting Emily's eyes, and proceeded to walk past her.

It didn't really surprise her that much when she felt a hand grasp her arm, effectively, but not forcefully, stopping her. She looked up into sad eyes and took a steadying breath to calm herself. She could feel the warmth of Emily's body, just like that night on the ledge when she'd almost kissed her, and her heart automatically started beating faster.

"What?" JJ asked, her voice audibly quivering.

"Have I offended you somehow?" Emily asked, not letting go of the blonde's arm.


"Have I done something to upset you?" The amount of anguish in the other woman's voice made JJ want to cry.

"No." The reply was barely a whisper.

"So why are you avoiding me then?"

"Let go of me, please." She wasn't ready. She wasn't ready for this.

"Not until we sort this out," Emily stated adamantly, not giving an inch.

"Please, Emily." Her voice was so pleading she wanted to die.

"Jennifer, I thought we were friends. You've given me nothing but shit this past week, and I think I have the right to know why!"

"I don't need to explain myself to you, okay?" JJ's eyes flashed. She brushed matted hair off her forehead, challenging the other woman with her gaze. She expected an angry retort, a frustrated comeback perhaps. Anything, but the softening of Emily's eyes and the searching look she aimed at her.

"What are you afraid of, Jennifer?" Emily asked quietly, the words barely audible above the woosh of rain.

"Nothing." She wrenched her arm away, and Emily didn't resist.

"Yes, you are." Their rapid breaths came out in white puffs as the rain had significantly lowered the temperature, but neither of them noticed.

"Don't, Emily. Just...don't." JJ shook her head, trying to quell the tears that threatened to fall. The direction their conversation was heading was dangerous to say the least.

"What is it?" JJ couldn't stand the tenderness of Emily's voice. How in the world was the other woman able to get to her so easily and so effortlessly?

"No!" she exclaimed and turned around, wanting to flee the scene as quickly as she possibly could.

"Jennifer." That one word, that one goddamn word and the way Emily had said it, froze JJ to the spot. Afraid to turn around and face the other woman, she just stood there, shivering and unable to take another step.

"Look at me, please." With the amount of emotion Emily had been able to interject into her simple plea, JJ had no choice but to slowly turn around, her eyes unable to conceal anything from the woman standing before her.

"I can't do this." JJ shook her head, painfully aware of how much the older woman's presence affected her.

"Do what?"


"Yes, you can! What do you want, Jennifer?"

"I don't know what I want!"

"Don't give me that bullshit. What do you want?"

"Emily, I'm warning you."

"What do you want?"

"I want you!"

It was out before JJ had time to think, leaving only silence in its wake. She could feel her face grow pale and watched as Emily blinked once, twice, before taking a few, quick steps and then she was standing before her, her eyes dark and full of wonder. Warm, perfect lips landed on hers, and whatever barrier JJ had tried to maintain between her and Emily had been blown away like a piece of paper in a storm. Her arms wrapped around the brunette's neck, and she could feel herself melting into the kiss that, she was sure, would consume her whole.

"I just want you," JJ whispered between kisses and felt Emily's arms hold on to her even tighter. She didn't care that tears were still falling down her cheeks or that she was soaking wet from the rain. She didn't care that the whole thing was irrational and so not her and that there was still a side of Emily she felt the other woman didn't want to let her see. No, she only cared about the small jolts of electricity Emily's touch seemed to generate, about how wonderful Emily's lean body felt against her own, and how perfectly their lips fit together when they embraced.

"You have me." Emily's reply was just as breathless a whisper, her arms enveloping JJ in a warm cocoon she never wanted to leave.

The warm air washing over them raised goosebumps on their skin when they stumbled across the threshold to Emily's small living space. Clothes were scattered randomly on the floor, but neither bothered to pay attention to anything else but the other. Emily's lips were intoxicating, and JJ knew she was already addicted to them for life.

Emily's skin was smooth and perfect as JJ ran her trembling fingers across the brunette's chest, in awe at the perfection she discovered after every piece of clothing had been removed. Emily's mouth left JJ's and travelled down her neck, the blonde's nails digging almost painfully into the other woman's back in reaction. She felt the back of her knees hit the side of a bed, and with one gentle push by Emily, JJ found herself laying supine on the soft sheets, Emily's warm body covering hers.

It was the most natural thing in the world and just as perfect as it was supposed to be. Emily was everywhere, surrounding her, gentle hands worshipping JJ's body, leaving her gasping and breathless. The way Emily made love to her was pure magic, like she knew exactly where to touch her and when. Burying her hands in Emily's long, dark hair, JJ brought the older woman's lips back on her own and knew that she was forever ruined for anyone else.

It was warm and comfortable when JJ gradually woke up from a deep sleep she couldn't remember experiencing in a very long time. She inhaled deeply, the sweet scent of a certain cowgirl filling her senses, and a happy smile slowly spread on her lips. She pressed closer to the soft body under her and, in a movement that felt nothing but natural, buried her face in the crook of Emily's neck as if she'd done it countless times before. A hand lay on her back, drawing small circles on her naked skin, and a tiny shiver went down her spine and ended up somewhere south of her navel.

"Morning, beautiful," Emily spoke softly and kissed the top of JJ's head.

"Morning." The blonde's voice was partly muffled by Emily's neck. She stretched her legs and finally looked up to the gentle eyes she knew were aimed at her. The look of utter adoration JJ saw in them made her blush, a shy smile the only way she could respond.

"You're adorable when you blush," Emily murmured, leaning forward and capturing the blonde's lips with her own. JJ sighed contently, relaxing into the kiss and revelling in the feeling that she'd never before felt this content and at peace with herself after waking up with someone.

"You up for some breakfast?" Emily asked when they were finally able to pry themselves apart.

"I'd love some." JJ nodded, only then realizing how famished she was.

With one final peck on JJ's lips, Emily stood up and grabbed an oversized t-shirt from the closet next to the bed, throwing it on while she made her way to the small kitchen area on the other side of the room. When JJ was finally able to tear her eyes away from the other woman's backside, she truly saw the room she was in for the first time. It was small and simply furnished, and it didn't seem like Emily spent much time in it. There were no such personal belongings you'd expect to find in a person's home: no photographs of any kind on display, walls that were completely bare, and the whole place lacking the feel of hominess.

"Penny for your thoughts." Emily's voice brought JJ back to reality, and she studied the woman standing across the room from her for a moment before answering.

"I was just thinking that you probably don't spend much time here." She made a vague gesture with her hand.

"I only sleep here, really. Most of my days are spent at the stables and around the ranch," Emily explained, breaking an egg on the edge of a hot frying pan.

"When was the last time you went home?" It was the brunette's turn to be silent.

"I haven't been back since I left." There was something in Emily's voice that JJ couldn't quite decipher.

"Do you miss it?"

"Every now and again, I suppose." The older woman shrugged indifferently before turning towards the bed. "I meant what I said on that boulder. I don't really have anything to go back to, and I love working with horses, so it's not that bad."

JJ watched silently as Emily continued working on breakfast, putting the fried egg on toast, and adding a little salt. Her mouth watered as Emily approached the bed and handed her a plate, and it wasn't until then that her eyes landed on a small flower decorating the edge of it.

"Where did you get this?" she asked incredulously and carefully raised the white flower that looked like a fancy version of a daisy. In its simplicity, it was absolutely gorgeous.

"I went hiking the other day." Emily shrugged, clearly sheepish about the whole thing. "It's stupid, really."

"What's it called?"

"It's a White Marsh Marigold. They're typical for the mountains in the area."

"It's beautiful," JJ said in wonder, her eyes tracing the small and elegant petals. She looked up at the brunette who was still fidgeting next to the bed. "Thank you."

"I'm glad you like it." Emily cleared her throat, her cheeks red. She gestured towards the toast, clearly wanting to shift the attention away from herself. "It's nothing special. I don't really have much stuff in my fridge," Emily said apologetically, but JJ waved it off with her hand.

"This is really good," she said, her mouth full. Emily chuckled and fetched her own plate from the kitchen counter before returning to sit on the bed.

"This may sound weird, but..." JJ bit her bottom lip, pondering how to continue. "Although I don't know much about you, I feel like I...well, know you." She snorted. "Okay, that didn't make any sense at all."

"No, it did," Emily assured her, her eyes warm and understanding like so many times before. "I know exactly what you mean," she added, and JJ felt her heart skip a beat.

They finished their breakfast in silence, and Emily took the dishes back to the sink, JJ's eyes intently following her every move. The blonde couldn't understand how she could be so turned on by simply looking at someone, but Emily had that exact effect on her. JJ's eyes roamed up long, muscled legs and she felt her pulse quicken the closer she got to the hem of the t-shirt Emily was still wearing.

"You really should stop looking at me like that." Emily's voice was nothing short of amused.

"Like what?" JJ blushed. Again.

"Like you want to rip this t-shirt from my body." The brunette walked slowly back to the bed, but remained standing.

"Why?" JJ swallowed, the close proximity of the other woman already making her brain go haywire.

"Because otherwise I'm going to do this," Emily murmured and leaned down, capturing the blonde's lips in a passionate kiss that left JJ's head reeling.

"Well, you certainly don't hear me complaining," she managed to utter in a small voice and heard Emily laugh before plush, soft lips descended on hers again and thinking became a completely alien concept to her.


Chapter VIII

JJ could feel the strength and the beautiful elegance of the palomino beneath her as she sat in the saddle. They galloped through the field, and as the stables drew nearer, JJ pulled back the reins a little and the horse slowed down to a trot. It still boggled her mind that she was actually riding, really riding, without someone else holding her hand while she did it. JJ saw Emily leaning her back against the fence, her eyes proudly following the blonde's every move.

"That was perfect, Jennifer," she complimented when the horse came to a halt and JJ dismounted.

"I can't believe I never even thought about riding before," she said, her cheeks flushed and a wide smile on her lips.

"Well, you're a natural." Emily took the reins and stroked the horse's soft neck. Then she peered at JJ, looking almost shy. "Would you be willing to take that mountain trip next week, the one I was talking about when all this riding business started?"

"Wow, you think I could?" It was one thing to ride in the enclosure, but riding cross-country was a whole different venture.

"Easily. The path to the mountains is even and well-travelled; it'd be just like riding in the field here."

"If you think I can..." JJ cleared her throat, looking down at the ground to hide her nervousness; the prospect of leaving the safety of the ranch on horseback unnerved her more than she cared to admit. She felt Emily take her hand and was met with tender, brown eyes when she finally looked up.

"Jennifer, I would never ask you do anything I didn't know you were capable of," Emily said softly, her thumb gently rubbing across the back of JJ's hand.

How does she do that? JJ wondered for the millionth time and relented.

"Okay, I'd love to go," she said sincerely.

"Great! I have a day off on Tuesday, how's that for you?" Emily asked as they walked the palomino back to its stall.

"Tuesday's perfect," JJ agreed, excitement evident in her voice.

"It's a date then." Emily grinned widely as she closed the gate of the stall once the horse was inside and slipped the bolt in place.

JJ turned to head to the door, but before she could take more than a step or two, a hand on her arm easily spun her around. She bumped against Emily who was standing right behind her, and she saw the mischievous look in the older woman's eyes before soft lips captured her own.

"What was that for?" JJ asked playfully when they finally broke apart. She closed her eyes and giggled as Emily kissed the tip of her nose.

"Do I need a reason to kiss my favourite student?"

"You only have one."

"Doesn't mean you aren't my favourite."


JJ swore she would never get tired of kissing Emily. It was nearly impossible to describe what she felt when their lips locked and tongues fought for dominance. She'd never thought kissing could be such an overwhelming experience. Quite frankly, she'd always thought that it was highly overrated, but with Emily, she knew exactly what all the trashy romance books were talking about.

"Emily!" A booming male voice sounded from outside the building, and the two women couldn't have jumped apart faster. They were still standing in the middle of the stables, their faces flushed, when Noel Jackson walked inside.

"Mr. Jackson?" Emily asked nonchalantly, but JJ could hear a sheepish lilt in her tone.

"Ah, Miss Jareau." Jackson tipped his hat at her. "How's your day been so far?"

"Fine, thank you." JJ tried to sound as normal as possible.

"Excellent." Jackson said, but there wasn't a trace of sincerity in his voice. His eyes finally turned to Emily. "Emily, I was wondering if you have a moment." He quirked his brow meaningfully, and JJ saw Emily's demeanour change from the corner of her eye.

"Certainly," she replied tensely. "Jennifer, can you give us a moment?"

JJ looked between the two and nodded, making a hasty exit. She stepped outside, burying her hands in her jeans pockets and casually glanced back, her curiosity getting the better of her. She saw Emily nodding, her hands making a calming gesture to Jackson whose back was to the blonde. The brunette's eyes strayed to JJ for a moment, and she could see Emily swallow nervously before returning her attention back to the man before her.

Turning her eyes away, JJ took a shaky breath and walked over to lean against the fence. She rubbed her forehead anxiously and pondered what she should do. Nothing! It's none of your business, the rational part of her brain exclaimed, but the rest of her couldn't just let it be. Seeing the array of guns in the shed had convinced her that, besides running the ranch, Noel Jackson certainly had some other, most probably illegal, business on the side. But she couldn't very well run to the police and demand they arrest him, because she still didn't have enough evidence, and what she did have had been acquired only semi-legally. Nor could she do it anyway, because, in all probability, it would only spook whoever else was involved.

And then there was Emily. JJ closed her eyes and sighed. No matter what she thought about it—and lately she hadn't really thought about anything else—Emily had to be involved somehow; she just couldn't figure out how. There was something that JJ couldn't quite put her finger on, something Emily closed off from everybody, and it both frustrated and fascinated her at the same time.

The agent side of her was absolutely horrified that she was actually able to look past all that, but whenever Emily simply looked at her, JJ forgot about everything else. And the way Emily's eyes softened in her presence, the amount of happiness she could see in them, was all the proof she needed, because no one could fake the emotions JJ saw shimmering in those beautiful brown eyes.

Besides, she had no idea what was going on between them anyway. A summer fling before returning back to the grind? How high school-ish, she thought. All she knew was that she wanted to be with Emily all the time, and if she needed to give that up in a month's time, so be it. But right now, she simply wanted to enjoy the moment and that moment included Emily, criminal or not.

JJ was so engrossed in her thoughts that she hadn't realized Emily was again standing next to her until she felt a hand on the small of her back.

"Jesus!" She nearly jumped out of her skin.

"Are you okay?" Emily chuckled at her reaction.

"Yeah, sorry. I was...thinking," JJ explained, a shaky hand still on her chest.

"What about?" Emily asked, propping her elbow against the fence and leaning her head against her hand.

Like always, Emily's eyes were nothing but sincere, and JJ decided to bite the bullet.

"I was actually thinking of Noel Jackson," she admitted and leaned against a fence post.

"Okay, can't say I saw that one coming. Should I feel threatened?" Emily joked and chuckled, receiving a playful slap on the arm.

"I'm serious. There's something weird about him."

"What do you mean?" Emily stood up straight, the nervous reaction not lost on JJ.

"It's just this feeling I get whenever he's around. Like he has something to hide."

"Everybody has something to hide, Jennifer."

The comment hung heavily between them.

"I just don't trust him, that's all," JJ finally continued, not willing to acknowledge that she was hiding a big part of herself as well, a quite essential part.

"Noel Jackson is your stereotypical chauvinist straight guy," Emily said and shrugged. "Just try to ignore him."

"I...I have a friend back home. She works for someone who has access to certain...resources." JJ hesitated momentarily before continuing. "I could ask her to check him out, just in case-,"

"No!" JJ's head snapped up at Emily's harsh tone.

"I just-," she began, but was cut again off by the frantic Emily.

"No, Jennifer!" She shook her head, her hand gripping JJ's arm. "Don't go anywhere near him, do you understand me?"

"Emily, relax." JJ frowned, taken aback by the sheer panic that loomed behind Emily's eyes.

"Promise me, Jennifer." Emily still wouldn't let go of her arm. "Promise me, you'll leave it be."

"Okay, I promise, I promise," she assured the brunette, raising her right hand to a calming gesture, much like she'd seen the other woman do with Jackson only minutes earlier.

"Good." Emily let out a sigh, her whole being gradually relaxing again. "It's just that he can be really nasty when he wants to. Better not piss him off any more than we need to," she tried to explain. JJ nodded, but she knew Emily didn't believe for a second that she had the blonde convinced.

"You up for some dinner?" JJ finally asked, cutting through the awkward silence that had fallen between them. She saw Emily smile in relief.

"I'd love some." She gestured towards the yard. "Lead the way."

And just like that, things were back to normal.

JJ's phone lay in the middle of the bed, the blonde eyeing it from where she was standing at the window. Biting her lower lip, she nervously tapped her fingers against the window sill and tried to reach a decision.

"Oh, for God's sakes," she finally muttered, snatching the phone off the bed and sitting down on the soft mattress. She was an FBI agent. The curiosity would kill her.

"Well, good morning sunshine," Garcia answered the phone in her usual eccentric way.

"Garcia, I need you to run a name for me." JJ opted to go straight to business.

"And here I thought you wanted to talk to your best friend who you miss so much it's unbearable," Garcia feigned hurt, but JJ heard a chair creak as the computer tech wheeled herself closer to her beloved monitors.

"Noel Jackson. I want to know if we have anything on file."

"Noel Jackson? As in the ranch owner?" JJ could practically hear the frown Garcia was more than likely wearing in her voice.

"The one and the same. I just...I have a weird feeling about him, that's all," JJ explained, not wanting to let on just how much she knew.

"I thought you were supposed be vacationing, taking some time off from criminal hunting. Right, let's see." Garcia's fingers tapped against the keyboard, and JJ bit her nail in anticipation. "Hmm. That's odd."

"What is?" JJ stood up, unable to stay still.

"There's a file, but it's confidential. Only accessible to people way above our heads."

"Well, can't you get past that? It is an FBI file."

"Of course I could get past it, Sweetie. Remember who you're talking to? It's just that if I do, it's bound to leave a trace and, quite frankly, that's the last thing I need."

"Damn," JJ muttered, not liking this new twist at all.

"What's this about, JJ?"

"I told you, just a weird feeling I have," she replied absentmindedly.

"Uh-huh." Garcia obviously wasn't convinced. "Did you need anything else?"

"Actually, yes." She squeezed her eyes shut tightly. She just had to know. "Can you pull the employment records for Sunrise Valley?"

"JJ..." Garcia's voice was hesitant.

"Garcia, I need to know."

"Fine." Garcia relented. "What do you want to know, O' Curious One?" she finally asked after a moment of typing.

"You know what I want to know."

"I'm so going to regret this later," the computer whizz mumbled, but obliged nevertheless. "We have one Emily Thomas, is that her?"

"I..." JJ suddenly realized that she still didn't even know Emily's last name. Thomas? "Yeah, there's only one Emily here as far as I know."

"Wow, this is quite odd as well."

"What?" JJ was afraid to ask.

"It says here that she was employed by Jackson a little over two years ago, but when I try going further back, there's nothing."

"What do you mean there's nothing?"

"Exactly that. There's nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. It's like she didn't exist before 2006."

"What, you mean like a Witness Protection Program kind of a thing?" JJ asked incredulously.

"All I know is that your Emily has a driver's licence, a social security card, and the works, but they're all dated post January 2006," Garcia explained.

"Right." JJ suddenly felt nauseous and sat down on the side of the bed. "That doesn't look too good, does it?"

"Jay-J." Her best friend's voice was full of sympathy. "It does look a little shady, yes," she finally admitted, sighing.

"God," JJ muttered and covered her face with her hand. "Just my luck, huh?" she said miserably.

"There might be some other explanation," Garcia tried to reassure her.

"Yeah, I'm sure." JJ scoffed.

"I'm sorry, Hon."

"Yeah, me too."

"What are you going to do?"

JJ pondered the question for a few moments, contemplating her options.

"I don't really know," she answered truthfully. "I mean, I'm leaving in three weeks anyway, right? Might just as well enjoy the time we have left."

"Sounds like a plan," Garcia said softly.

"God, why is my life such a mess?"

"We can't choose who we fall in love with, JJ."

"What? I'm not...," JJ tried to deny it, but then realized it was pointless. Garcia had always been able to see right through her. "This is shit, Garcia."

"Girlfriend, when life gives you lemons, you stuff them in your bra to make your boobs look bigger."

There was a brief silence before JJ started howling with laughter.

"God, I love you, Garcia," she managed to utter between giggles, so very grateful for having someone like Garcia in her life.

The ride to the mountains had been just as easy and uncomplicated as Emily had said. Although being completely out of her comfort zone, JJ had enjoyed every minute of it and followed Emily's lead with ease. The sun had been scorching hot, and sweat had glued JJ's white shirt to her skin, but now that she was looking over the desert plain that spread out for miles before her, she figured that it'd definitely been worth it.

Snuggling closer to the warm body behind her, JJ sighed contently, wishing they could stay where they were forever. The dry and inhabited land seemed like a paradise to her. She felt calm and free, a combination she hadn't realized she missed, but now was certain she couldn't live without.

"What are you thinking about?" Emily asked quietly, her arm wrapping tighter around the blonde's midsection. They were sitting on a ledge very similar to the one of the Fourth of July festivities, but this time they were much higher up from the ground.

"That I wish I never had to leave this place," she replied truthfully.

"I know what you mean," Emily said wistfully, and JJ covered the hand on her stomach with her own.

"I don't think I've ever been this happy," JJ confessed quietly, surprised that it was so easy to confess something so personal out loud.

She felt Emily move slightly, and then there were fingers under her chin as Emily tipped her head up and brought their lips together. It was perfect; the kiss, the scenery, everything. And JJ couldn't understand how someone mixed up in illegal activities could be so, well, perfect.

"Jennifer..." The hesitation in Emily's voice was clearly noticeable. "There's, umm, something...something I need to tell you. About me."

JJ swallowed, preparing for the worst, and leaned back slightly so that she could see Emily properly. The look on the brunette's face was that of indecision and uneasiness – something JJ had never witnessed before.

"What is it?" she gently probed, although she wasn't certain she was ready for the answer.

"I..." JJ could practically see the wall go back up, before Emily turned her eyes away. When she glanced back, her gaze was warm and loving, but the earlier vulnerability was long gone. "I'm really happy with you as well."

It was said with utter sincerity, and although JJ felt a small pang of disappointment somewhere deep inside her, she couldn't help the watery smile that spread on her face. Leaning forward, she captured Emily's lips with her own and decided to simply enjoy the moment – her personal motto during the past months.

"Where did you learn to kiss like that?" JJ asked playfully when they'd settled back into their previous position. She buried her head in the crook of Emily's neck – a place she now loved the most in the world. She felt completely safe in the brunette's arms, which, again, didn't compute with the idea she had about being in the company of criminals.

"Summer camp." Emily's reply was dead serious.

"Oh, really?" JJ chuckled.

"Oh, yes. It was Kelly, my first love. We couldn't take our hands off of each other."

"What happened to her?"

"The last time I heard she was married with three kids."

"Oh well, more for me," JJ quipped and kissed Emily softly behind the ear. She felt a shiver run through the older woman.

"I don't want you to leave." The admission was said so quietly that JJ almost didn't hear it. She pulled back, her hand cupping Emily's cheek as she looked into sad brown eyes.

"I don't want to go either, but I don't have a choice. My job, everything..." she trailed off, shaking her head. "Can we just forget all that? We still have more than two weeks."

Emily nodded, putting on a brave face. She covered JJ's hand with her own, entwining their fingers together, and took a steadying breath.

"Two weeks is a long time," she said. JJ wasn't sure if Emily was trying to convince herself or the blonde. "We'll get you riding real cross-country by that time." Emily cracked a smile.

"Yeah, right." JJ snorted. "How long have you been riding, anyway?"

"Since I was three."

"Wow. I was still learning how to walk properly at that age."

"My family owned a farm, with horses, so it was just a natural step to take." Emily's voice had taken on a nostalgic tone.

"I bet they didn't teach you rodeo back then," JJ said, remembering the first time she'd seen the brunette atop a bucking bronco.

"No, that came when I was a lot older." Emily chuckled. "Not that I ever seriously considered taking it up. It can be really cruel to the animals. Rollo, he's the only horse here who has the temperament for rodeo, but we only do it for show at times."

"Well, you were amazing."

"Thank you," Emily murmured, clearly flattered by the compliment.

"My parents couldn't really afford any fancy hobbies, so I just played soccer."

"Were you any good?"

"I got a college scholarship to play," JJ admitted sheepishly, feeling like she was boasting.

"Really? You must've been brilliant." Emily was sincerely impressed. "Yeah, I was an only child and my parents were...sort of diplomats, so I guess money wasn't really an issue. We travelled a lot, though."

"So you lived abroad a lot?"

"Most of my childhood."

"Wow." The lifestyle Emily had just described was so unfamiliar to JJ that she couldn't even begin to imagine what it would be like.

"It had its advantages, like learning different languages, but it also meant that I couldn't create any lasting friendships, or get accustomed to things before I was dragged away to yet another country again." Resentment in Emily's voice came through loud and clear.

"So you can speak other languages beside English?" JJ decided to stay on safe ground.

"A few." Emily's answer was elusive.

"Say something in some other language."

"Like what?"

"Anything. Say something in...Spanish."

Emily was quiet for a moment, and JJ was about to repeat the request when the brunette began to speak in a whispered tone.

"Creo que te quiero, cariño. Te quiero mucho, y no sé que hacer." JJ was mesmerized by the softly spoken words.

"That was beautiful. What did you say?"

"Oh, just...just something random." Emily cleared her throat, sounding uncomfortable, and JJ didn't pressure. She only wished she'd taken Spanish in high school instead of French.

They fell silent, both simply content to be. The sun had reached its zenith long ago, and with every passing minute, it descended closer and closer to the Western horizon again. JJ heard Emily sigh, knowing that the other woman was aware of the dwindling time as well. She pressed closer to the warm body behind her and closed her eyes, wishing that time would just stop and leave them alone.


Chapter IX

JJ knew she'd miss this sensation terribly, waking up in Emily's arms, feeling happy and well rested. She sighed contently and rolled over to glance at a small alarm clock on the nightstand next to the bed, tiredly squinting to see the time: 4:43. Groaning at the insanely early hour, she rubbed her eyes and then turned back to the sleeping beauty lying next to her. Emily looked so peaceful when she slept, and JJ tenderly brushed a lock of dark hair off the other woman's forehead.

One day. She only had one day left, before she would need to pack up her bags and leave the best thing that had ever happened to her behind. The happiness she'd felt slowly turned into overwhelming sadness and anguish, and JJ tried to blink away the tears that threatened to fall. Had her vacation been a premise for some sappy Hollywood movie, she would've left everything, her job and her home, and moved out West in order to be with Emily. But it hadn't been, it was for real, and she had real life responsibilities to get back to. Why did life always have to be so complicated and unfair?

Slowly, she climbed out of bed, trying not to wake Emily, whose chest was still rising and falling evenly. JJ scooped her clothes from the floor, where they'd been haphazardly dropped the night before, and dressed quietly, wondering whether she should leave a note or not. They both knew this day was coming, so what good would it do to make it any harder than it already was. Slipping on her jacket, she looked at Emily for a little while longer, before giving in and leaning down, kissing the brunette softly on the lips.

"I love you," she whispered, stroking Emily's cheek with the back of her hand. She felt like she was choking on her emotions, but she knew she had to leave now, before it would become too difficult.

JJ walked to the door with adamant steps, willing herself not to look back, because she knew she would crack if she did. The door closed with a small thud behind her, and she leaned against it, feeling like she'd just literally closed the door to her one chance at happiness. Life sure had a cruel sense of humour.

It was still fairly dark outside—the sun wouldn't rise for another hour—but the moon provided just enough light for JJ to walk slowly towards the main yard. Deep in thought, the faint voices hadn't registered with her at first, but when someone momentarily raised his voice, JJ's head snapped up, and she automatically leaped towards a large piñon tree that outlined the yard.

She recognized Jackson's voice immediately and pressed closer to the tree that effectively concealed her whereabouts. There were two voices she could distinguish, drawing closer and closer by the second. JJ was afraid to breathe.

"Has the route been secured?" It was Jackson.

"Did it myself yesterday." JJ would recognize the pretentious lilt of David's voice anywhere.

"It'd better be in order," Jackson grumbled. "The last thing I need is someone interrupting the delivery."

"It's all ready for tomorrow. Now we just need to dig up the goods."

"Better do it now when no one's around yet."

"I'll get the shovels."

The pair walked past the tree JJ was hiding behind, but luckily, neither of them paid much attention to their surroundings. She watched David fetch a couple of shovels from the shed, and as the pair began making their way further away from the ranch, JJ felt she had no other option but to follow them.

She was led a mile or so outside the ranch's perimeter where the river made a sharp turn and the ground was plotted with sagebrush. JJ had kept a clear distance between her and the two men, and when they finally stopped and began digging into the ground, she carefully walked to a large rock nearby and observed the operation from there.

Sunrise wasn't too far away, and the world had begun emerging from the darkness again. Her brow knitted in confusion as she watched a big, black duffel bag being dug up from the ground and David hoisting it on his back. Clearly satisfied with their work, the two men headed back towards the ranch, their tail following close behind.

Once they reached the shed again, Jackson took the bag from his partner and, without a word, stepped through the door, shutting it firmly behind him. David continued towards the main yard, only once glancing back at the shed Jackson had disappeared into. JJ made sure he was long gone before silently inching past the shed and practically sprinting to the main building and the safety of her room.

JJ was on a mission: she had to find out what was in the black bag – even if she already had a very good inkling of its contents. Pacing nervously in her room, she tried to come up with an alternative way to sneak a peek besides the one she'd already come up with, but the more she contemplated it, the surer she was that there was only one obvious way to do it.

"You have completely lost it, JJ," she muttered, scratching her forehead.

Nevertheless, she grabbed her BlackBerry and proceeded to input everything she knew, from the guns to the bag and, yes, even Emily. She hadn't seen the brunette all day, but, then, she hadn't stepped foot out of her room since she'd slid the lock in place after her impromptu tailing operation that morning. JJ swallowed as a new wave of emotion threatened to drown her, and she tried desperately to not feel so heartbroken over someone who was clearly breaking the law in one way or another. It didn't surprise her that she failed miserably in her attempt.

All the information now stored away, JJ glanced at the clock—nearly 10pm—and sent the document to the one person of the BAU who would know what to do with it if need be. Then, she waited. She knew that David had cattle duty on Tuesdays, which meant that, if he left a little after ten like he usually did, he wouldn't be back before midnight. Tuesday was also poker night at the bar, and Jackson never missed an opportunity to prove his superiority over the rest of the players. Minutes ticked by, in a painfully slow pace, but finally she heard a horse neigh outside, and as she peered down from her window, she could see David galloping past the stables and into the darkness.

"Well, this is it then," JJ said to no one in particular as she grabbed her flashlight and lock picking tools from the bed and headed for the door. Reaching the entrance to the dining area, she hesitated, finally building up enough courage to peek around the corner to make sure Jackson was, indeed, at the poker table. Sure enough, Jackson, with his thick moustache and impressive cowboy hat he never seemed to take off, was immersed in the game, his eyes glued to the cards he was holding, a smoking cigar perched in the corner of his mouth.

Letting out a sigh of relief, JJ quickly slipped outside and strode across the yard and towards the shed. The heavy padlock was still in place, but within minutes JJ had managed to pick it, remembering the right technique from her previous attempt. Once inside, she didn't waste any time and hurried to the back of the room. The mysterious duffel bag sat on top of the left metal container, and with trembling fingers, JJ unzipped it.

Although she'd known what to expect, the sight still made her hold her breath. JJ ran her hand over the blocks of drugs—heroine, she presumed—tucked inside, calculating rapidly in her head that the contents of the bag must've been worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. So Sunrise Valley was a stopping point for a drug smuggling ring. You really know how to pick your vacation destinations, JJ, she though sarcastically and reached for her phone in her pocket. She needed to photograph the dugs for evidence.

JJ should've been aware of it, should've heard something. She was supposed to be an FBI agent after all. But she'd been completely oblivious to everything until the distinctive sound of a safety catch being pulled back filled the silence of the quiet room. JJ froze, knowing far too well what that particular sound indicated, and didn't have time to react properly as a switch was flipped, and a small light bulb, hanging from the ceiling, illuminated the back of the room.

"Turn around and keep your hands where I can see them," a low voice commanded, and JJ recognized it from that first meeting she'd stumbled upon soon after she'd arrived between Jackson and the man who know held her at gunpoint, Stenton.

JJ did as she was told and turned to face an average-looking man with a 9mm semi-automatic in his hand. The barrel was pointed directly at her chest.

"Who the hell are you?" Stenton demanded to know, his whole being devoid of any kind of emotion. The coldness in his voice made JJ's skin crawl.

"I'm just a guest here. I...I was looking for a broom," she said, naming the first thing that came to mind. Way to go, JJ, way to go.

"Bullshit." He took a step forward, the gun in his hand never wavering. "Now, I'm asking you one last time. Who are you?"

JJ swallowed. She couldn't believe she'd been so stupid, walking straight into a trap without a gun—or any sort of a weapon for that matter—and backup. I'm the worst agent in history. Helplessly, she stared down the barrel of the gun, realizing with utter clarity that there was no way out of this situation.

"Drop it, right now." A gun was pressed against the back of Stenton's head, and JJ's eyes widened as Emily stepped out of the shadows. She was holding a Glock 19, but rather than seeing the gun itself, JJ noticed the brunette's firm hold of it; Emily knew exactly what she was doing, which both calmed and somewhat alarmed JJ.

"What a..." Stenton was taken completely by surprise, but he remained motionless, clearly understanding that the situation had taken a serious turn against him.

"I said, drop your weapon, Stenton," Emily repeated, her voice even and uncompromising, giving absolutely nothing away.

"Emily?" The man finally recognized the person standing behind him and smiled sarcastically. "Well, ain't this a nice little twist."

"I'm not going to ask you again."

"Or you'll do what?" he challenged, raising the gun in his hand so that it pointed toward JJ's forehead.

"Stenton, I swear to God. You hurt one hair on her head, and I'll kill you."

"I always said to Jackson that you were bad news," he said, but slowly lowered his gun and threw it to the ground. "You two gonna split with the load or what?"

"Kneel down," Emily said, not paying any attention to Stenton's remarks.

"You know they'll hunt you down if you do." He knelt down, putting his hands behind his head. "You and your little girlfriend here." He leered at JJ.

"You really have no idea, do you?" Emily said, raising her hand and knocking him out with the butt of her gun. He fell to the floor with a grunt. Slipping the Glock into the waistband of her jeans, Emily kneeled down and tied Stenton's hands and feet with a rope she grabbed from one of the shelves. To finish it off, she gagged the man with a piece of cloth, dragged his limp body behind a row of shelves, and then stood up, looking satisfied.

JJ had been watching it all, rooted to the spot and unable to utter a word. She was too stunned, completely caught off guard, her mouth hanging slightly open. She had no idea what had just happened. Emily finally looked at her and, seeing her bewildered state, she simply grabbed the blonde's arm and dragged her across the room.

"Come on, Jennifer. We need to go." JJ felt as if she was in a haze and simply followed the other woman's lead.

The cool night air hit JJ in the face when they stepped outside, and she was finally able to shake the nearly catatonic state she'd fallen into. She shook her head as if to clear it and watched as Emily reached for her gun again. The brunette's right hand was still around JJ's upper arm as she led them further and further into the darkness, again only the moon giving them a vague idea of where they were going.

"Wait." JJ finally regained her ability to speak. "What just happened there?" She tried to stop, but Emily wouldn't let her.

"Jennifer, not now."

"No, what's going on?" JJ asked heatedly and wrenched her arm free, causing Emily to finally turn around.

"I'm serious, we don't have time for this!" She glanced restlessly towards the ranch.

"Who are you?" JJ asked, taking an involuntary step back.

"Jennifer..." Emily's eyes were pleading, but JJ wouldn't budge. She knew they were in a hurry and it was stupid, but something inside of her made her stand her ground.

"No." JJ shook her head. "Who are you?"

She saw Emily swallow nervously, the look on her face the one of vulnerability she'd seen during their riding trip to the mountains. And, exactly like back then, Emily now closed her eyes, and when she looked back at JJ again, the invisible wall had erected itself between them.

"Supervisory Special Agent Emily Prentiss from the FBI. Nice to meet you." Emily extended her hand for emphasis, but JJ was too dumbfounded to even realize the sarcastic gesture.

"What?" She whispered, blinking. This was all too much.

"Jennifer, I can explain everything, but first we need to get out of here. Fast." Emily reached for her hand, and JJ let herself be led forward again, away from Sunrise Valley.

The small cave was surprisingly warm, although the temperature outside had already dropped close to 50F. Emily was perched on a small rock at the entrance, her right hand wrapped tightly around her Glock. She had a look of concentration on her face as she peered outside into the darkness. They'd managed to find their way to the cave Emily had said was her meeting point with her FBI contacts, and now there was no other option than to wait. It felt like it'd been hours already.

"So you're working undercover at the ranch?" JJ asked from where she was sitting on the other side of the cave, arms wrapped securely around her midsection.

"Yeah. It's a joint operation between the FBI, the DEA, and New Mexico State Police," Emily admitted.

"Are they all involved, Jackson and the lot?"

"Pretty much." Emily nodded, her gaze still aimed at the darkness. "Sunrise Valley is a meeting point for various drug smugglers. Shipments from South America are stored on its grounds, and the whole tourist business makes running the operation pretty easy. My assignment was to try and infiltrate Jackson's gang to gather as much information as possible about the shipments, as well as their distribution."


"Yeah. Took me over a year, but Jackson finally let me in last September when he needed someone to ride to Chimayo for a delivery. I've been keeping tabs on the operation ever since."

"So you probably know I'm FBI as well then, huh?" JJ couldn't keep the hurt out of her voice.

"I'm required to check the background of anyone who passes through the gate," Emily replied quietly, and JJ just shook her head.

"Great." She snorted. "I bet you had a long laugh at that."

"God, how can you even think that?" Emily finally looked at her, irritation clear in her eyes. "I was so excited at the prospect of meeting someone who's from the same world as I am after being in this place for so long, someone with a similar frame of mind. And I did meet that person."

JJ watched as Emily squeezed her eyes shut and rubbed the bridge of her nose, exhaustion clear in her posture.

"I think it goes without saying that I didn't expect it to go this far." Emily sighed. "You were so funny and adorable and wonderful, right from the beginning. And while I knew I should've kept my distance, I just couldn't stay away from you. You were just...perfect," she admitted, smiling sadly. "I wanted to tell you, but I couldn't break my cover, for anyone, you know that, right?"

JJ looked away, knowing that Emily was right, knowing that when undercover, the cover needed to be protected at all costs. It didn't stop the blonde from feeling somewhat betrayed, though.

"Funny thing, actually," Emily continued and snorted humorlessly. "I almost applied for the BAU a few years ago."

"What? You did?" Small world.

"Yeah. One of your team members left, right?" The brunette glanced at JJ for confirmation, and the younger woman nodded. "I seriously considered applying, but, for some reason, the position was never opened. And then I was offered this instead."

"I still can't believe you just left everything and came here."

"Well, so did you, right?" Touché.

Before JJ had a chance to reply, however, the distinctive sound of voices, just outside the cave's entrance, filtered into the small space, and Emily immediately perked up.

"Get behind me!" She gestured for the younger woman to crawl over to her.

"I can take care of myself, too, you know?" JJ noted quietly. Still, she was moved by how protective of her Emily was.

"Which one of us is holding the gun again?" The tone in Emily's voice didn't leave any room for negotiation, and JJ actually had the grace to blush. She quickly moved behind the other agent.

"What time is it?" Emily whispered, prompting JJ to turn on the small flashlight and point it at her wrist watch.

"Almost four."

"Could be them," Emily mumbled to herself.


"Shhh!" The voices were closer now, and they could see flashlights bouncing off the rocks.

"Prentiss!" Someone hollered, and JJ could feel Emily's demeanour relax.

"Matt! Over here!" the older woman called out and stood up so that they could see her. Soon, a brown-haired, middle-aged man, dressed in Kevlar and a blue uniform, appeared from their left and grinned wickedly at Emily.

"Prentiss! Damn, it's been too long." He gave the brunette a quick hug before his eyes turned to JJ. "And you must be Agent Jareau. We can do the pleasantries later. Let's get you out of here first."

A group of seven agents helped them climb down the steep slope, and JJ simply followed blindly, having absolutely no idea what was going on.

"I radioed my boss earlier, before I started keeping an eye on the shed," Emily explained when she saw JJ's confused look. "I figured we might need rescuing by the end of the night."

"Did I just ruin your whole operation?" JJ asked, mortified at the prospect of sabotaging over two year's worth of undercover work all because she couldn't keep her curiosity in check.

"Nah." Emily smiled reassuringly. "You just sped it along a little."

"So it's all over? Jackson and everyone have been arrested?" JJ saw a shadow pass across Emily's face.

"It's complicated," she replied, and then there were voices and people and flashing lights, and JJ didn't have time to ask Emily to elaborate. The area in front of them was swarming with agents and cars with flashing red-and-blue lights, drowning their surroundings in surreal light.

"JJ!" JJ's head whipped around, and she needed to blink a few times before realizing she wasn't hallucinating.

"Morgan?" she asked incredulously. She looked past him and saw Hotch and Rossi walking towards her as well. "What are you doing here?"

"We got a call saying that one of our agents had gotten herself involved in an undercover operation." Hotch quirked his eyebrow. "And then I had a visit from Garcia," he continued knowingly.

"Oh," JJ said, embarrassed.

She turned to look at Emily, who was still standing beside her, but when their eyes met, JJ was struck speechless, not knowing how to say everything she needed to say. She didn't even know where they stood. Emily smiled tenderly and took JJ's hand, seemingly unnoticed by everyone else.

"Jennifer, I-." She wasn't able to finish before she was interrupted by a tall black man in a well-tailored suit. He was obviously her boss.

"Prentiss, how are you?" the man asked, laying a hand on Emily's shoulder, and determinedly but not forcefully, steered her away from JJ and the other three BAU agents. "We need to brief you ASAP."

"I'm fine," JJ heard Emily reply absentmindedly, before turning her head back to the younger woman. Her eyes told JJ everything she needed to know, and JJ took an involuntary step forward, craning her neck in order to see where they were taking Emily.

She saw Emily's final, helpless glance aimed at her, before she disappeared into one of the black SUVs on site, and as the car sped away, JJ felt like it was taking her whole life with it.


Chapter X

It was the strangest feeling to walk along the corridors of Quantico again. A ranch in New Mexico was so drastically different that it would probably take JJ a while to get used to concrete walls and technology again. Her heels made a distinctive clicking noise on the polished floor as she walked, the resulting sound odd and alien after three months of crunching desert sand under her boots.

The past week had been gruelling. After she'd gone through everything—barring some minor, personal details—with both DEA and the CJIS, she'd needed to do it all over again with Hotch, who was, understandably, concerned that one of his agents had found herself in the middle of a large scale drug trafficking investigation.

All in all, JJ was physically and emotionally drained, and it certainly hadn't helped that she hadn't heard anything from Emily all week. That was really the worst; she had no idea where the other woman was, or when she might see her again – if she would ever see her again. JJ refused to think the worst, but the doubt had already been planted in her mind and in her heart as well.

Garcia was kicked back in her chair, eating a Butterfinger, when JJ stepped into the unofficial information center of the BAU, the technical analyst's free hand dancing elegantly across the keyboard in front of her. She held a look of sympathy on her face when she saw her friend enter, but she remained silent; Garcia knew there was nothing she could possibly say to make things better, so she simply let JJ know that if she needed to talk, she would be there for her.

"I think I'm ready," JJ said, arms crossed above her chest, attention aimed at the various monitors before her.

"Are you sure?" Garcia asked gently, hoping JJ wouldn't take offence.

"I need to see it."

"Okay." The Butterfinger long forgotten, Garcia turned her attention to the screen, her fingers hesitating for a second before she started typing commands. "Emily...?"

"Prentiss," JJ said, her voice dull. Strange, but the name 'Thomas' hadn't made sense or suited Emily at all in JJ's opinion, while 'Prentiss' fitted like a glove.

An FBI agent profile popped up on the screen, and JJ took a steadying breath before daring to look at it. There was a photograph of Emily on the left, her hair free and just brushing her shoulders, and a faint smile on her lips. JJ swallowed as she looked into familiar eyes, feeling as if any moment now the sadness inside her would consume her whole.

"Wow, she's striking," Garcia admitted quietly, quite easily able to tell what JJ saw in the dark-haired woman.

Leaning forward, JJ began reading the contents of the profile, hungrily absorbing every possible detail of the person she missed more than anything. Rank: Supervisory Special Agent... Years of service: 13... Language skills: English, Spanish, French, Arabic, basic Russian... Closest relative: Elizabeth Prentiss (mother), Ambassador...

"Her mother is Ambassador Prentiss?" Garcia asked incredulously, having reached that part of the bio as well.

"I guess her parents really did own that farm," JJ muttered to herself, feeling like the last possibility of finding something in Emily to be angry or offended about—to ease the profound yearning for the brunette within her—had just flown out of the window. She let out a frustrated sigh.

"What?" Garcia glanced up at her. "Did she lie?" she asked carefully, lowering her tone to soften the blow just in case the answer was 'yes'.

"No." JJ shook her head, angrily wiping a lone tear from her cheek. "No, she didn't lie. That's the problem."

She skimmed down the page and finally stumbled upon the part she'd been too scared to look at until then. Emily's work record showed that she'd been involved in various joint operations between agencies and had worked in many FBI field offices around the country during her career. But JJ didn't really care about that. Her eyes were fixed on the last two lines of the list.

Current assignment: undercover/classified (2006 - ?). Joint: DEA, NMSP.

Until: undetermined.

"Oh, God," JJ mumbled and sank into the nearest chair, burying her face in her hands.

"I'm so sorry, Jay-J," Garcia said, watching helplessly as her best friend tried to hold herself together. She put a hand on the blonde's back for comfort, worrying that she'd never seen JJ quite that broken before.

"I thought that her being FBI would actually make things easier, but..." JJ shook her head. "Shit, this is even worse!"

"Hey, you don't know what's going to happen." Garcia tried to be positive. "And Emily will probably contact you as soon as she can."

But she hadn't. A month had gone by, then another, and JJ began to think that life would never stop sucking.

JJ knew it wasn't normal to feel so empty and almost catatonic, but nothing seemed to matter much anymore. She just wasn't interested in anything, which left her strolling the corridors of Quantico and the hallways of her apartment in a nearly mechanical manner. She did her job just as well as before, but everyone on the team noticed that she wasn't entirely there; the dullness of her voice, as well as the lack of spark in her eyes that always used to be there, didn't go unnoticed by anyone. But although JJ acknowledged the change as well, bringing herself to do something about it was more easily said than done.

Garcia had attempted to talk to her about it on various occasions, and as much as JJ wanted to give her friend what she wanted, she simply was unable to open up. Just the other day, the computer tech had asked her if she'd even cried since finding out about Emily's continuing assignment. No, I haven't cried she'd relayed to Garcia, but it hadn't been because she didn't want to, but rather, because she couldn't. It was so much easier to deny the emotions, to be unable to actually feel, than let free the sorrow that loomed just under the surface.

It was close to midnight when JJ closed the last case file of a serial in Phoenix, Arizona, who had chosen to target police officers. She'd present the case to the team in the morning, which meant that by that time the following day, she'd probably be stuck in a hotel room somewhere in the middle of Phoenix. With a sigh, she made her way to her ready-bag which had been haphazardly thrown in a corner of her office after their previous case that had taken them to Atlanta.

Just the thought of the Atlanta case made her shudder involuntarily. Being undercover alone in a nightclub hadn't actually been her ideal way to solve the case, but she'd long ago learned not to question Hotch's decisions. Once again, she wondered why Elle had never been replaced; her position had simply been left open. A position that Emily would probably have applied for, JJ reminded herself and sighed. She wondered how different her life would be, had she met the brunette through different circumstances.

JJ rummaged through the bag, checking to see if she had everything she needed, or if there was something she should take with her from home in the morning, when she felt something solid in the side pocket of the bag. Frowning, she unzipped it and found the Kay Scarpetta book she'd been reading during her vacation; she'd obviously forgotten it was there when the bag had turned into her BAU ready bag again, and somehow she hadn't noticed it before now.

Biting the inside of her cheek, JJ turned the book in her hands as if she didn't quite know what to do with it. She'd finished the novel just before her second endeavor to find out the truth about Noel Jackson by stupidly sneaking her way into the shed, after which everything had unravelled at such a speed that just thinking about it still made her head spin. Carefully leafing through the book, she frowned when she spotted something stuck between the pages. JJ inhaled audibly when she realized what it was.

"It's a White Marsh Marigold. They're typical for the mountains in the area."

Emily's words echoed in her head, and she couldn't breathe. JJ had completely forgotten she'd placed the flower in her book; she'd insisted on taking it with her when she'd left Emily's that morning, despite the brunette's insistence that there were plenty of better looking ones in the mountains and that the one in her hands was wilted and quite pathetic at best.

But it was the thought behind that particular individual marigold that counted more than its appearance, and it was that same thought that now made JJ gasp for air, unable to concentrate on anything but the small, pressed flower before her. The lock that had kept her emotions hidden away from the world suddenly gave way, and she felt everything at once. With trembling hands, she closed the book and hugged it to her chest, refusing to let go of it as she leaned against the door of her office and slowly slid down the smooth surface.

The tears finally came as she sat on the floor of her office, clutching the book with the flower in it, her only anchor to keep her from losing it completely.

It was that time of the year when Garcia realized, once again, how festive a person she actually was. Striding along the corridor in an elf's hat and a shirt that said, 'Jingle my Bells', she made a mental note to take some decorations with her when she'd head over to JJ's later. It had taken much begging and pleading to get JJ to finally agree to celebrate Christmas with her, instead of moping the day away, alone in her apartment.

It would get better with time, Garcia was sure of it, but until then, she would be there for JJ every step of the way. It wasn't often someone fell for another as deeply as JJ seemed to have had fallen for Emily, so it was only understandable that it'd take some time. Not that it had helped much that Will had called for the first time in months, causing the young agent to throw her phone against the wall, accompanied by a colourful array of swearwords. The poor man probably wouldn't be bothering her again, although, after that, basically everyone else and their mother had called JJ – everyone except Emily.

Garcia rounded a corner, still wondering about the somewhat mysterious brunette agent, and stopped abruptly when her thoughts seemed to have materialized in front of her.

"Oh my." She couldn't stop staring. Emily Prentiss looked fantastic, even Garcia had to admit that; her ID photo hadn't done her justice. The brunette was standing in the hallway, peering at the BAU bullpen through the glass doors. She was dressed in charcoal grey pants and a matching jacket with a white shirt underneath it. Elegance, thought Garcia, Emily practically oozed it. The computer tech stepped forward and cleared her throat before she was caught ogling a female agent in the middle of Quantico.

"Excuse me, can I help you?" she asked and warm, brown eyes turned to her. Emily blinked, clearly caught off guard by the fascinating appearance of the woman before her.

"Yes, actually I'm looking for Agent Jareau." Garcia found Emily's obvious nervousness endearing.

"She's already headed home and, as remarkable as it is, won't be back until after Christmas, I'm afraid."

"Right, of course." Emily looked down, defeated, but then quickly raised her head. "It's just that I, erm, I really, really need to find her."

"I know." Garcia grinned, unable to keep up the façade any longer. She'd always been a sucker for mushy romantic stories such as this particular one had the potential of being.

"Pardon?" Emily frowned in confusion.

"I'm Penelope Garcia, the computer whiz extraordinaire of the BAU, and JJ's best friend." She extended her hand toward the other woman who, after a bit of hesitation, reached out and shook it.

"Right." Emily still didn't seem to know what was going on.

"And I know about you," Garcia stated meaningfully.

"Oh." Garcia watched as realization hit the agent. "Oh." The blush that crept up Emily's neck made Garcia chuckle, but then her voice sobered.

"You didn't call her." She stated matter-of-factly with just a hint of accusation.

"I know." The look of sadness on Emily's face was so profound that Garcia found it impossible to stay mad at her. Not that she let the other woman see it, though. "God knows I wanted to," the brunette added as an afterthought.

"She's been a wreck these past months."

"So have I," Emily said to no one in particular.

"It took me three cartons of Ben & Jerry's Cookie Dough to convince her to actually get out of bed on Thanksgiving."

"Damn." Emily ran a hand through her hair. "So, are you saying I should just leave it?" She looked miserable.

"God no!" Garcia exclaimed, briefly startling Emily.

"Good. Because I don't think I could," the agent said honestly, and from that moment on, Emily had gained Garcia's respect.

"Excellent." She patted Emily on the arm. "That's all I wanted to know. Now, I think it's time for you to pay a certain blonde press liaison a visit."

Emily smiled knowingly, and Garcia almost wished she wasn't into men.


Chapter XI

JJ had never been so unenthusiastic about Christmas before. It was usually one of the rare occasions she spent with her family back in Pennsylvania, but this year she'd made up a lame excuse about needing to work through the holidays in order to get out of it. The disappointment in her father's voice had been heartbreaking, but she figured it was better than going home and ruining her family's Christmas by sulking in the corner.

Flipping through her countless CDs, she looked for the one Christmas album she owned which Garcia had asked the blonde to track down before her arrival. It was the last thing she wanted to do, to listen to Christmas carols and songs of how everything was so merry and goddamn wonderful when everything certainly wasn't. Snatching the aforementioned album from the pile as she finally came across it, JJ flipped it over and groaned when she saw the track list. 'Jingle Bell Rock'? Oh, hell no.

The doorbell rang before JJ had time to conveniently get rid of the album, and she walked to the door with the CD in her hands. Garcia was early, which was quite unusual for her.

"Garcia, we're so not listening to th-." The words died on her lips as her eyes landed on a nervous-looking brunette standing on the other side of the door. The CD case fell from her hands, but she didn't even notice. All she could do was to stare at the woman who had haunted her every thought for months.

"Hi," Emily said, her voice uncertain. She bent down and slowly retrieved the fallen CD from where it had landed.

"What...how did you...?" JJ couldn't think straight. The world was spinning around her, and it was an impossible task to grasp that Emily had just materialized out of nowhere, even when the apparition was still very much visible.

"I was, erm, relieved from my assignment yesterday," Emily explained, nervously cradling the damaged jewel case of the Christmas CD in her hands. JJ could only blink.

"I think I need to sit down," JJ suddenly mumbled and scrambled back inside, hearing Emily follow after a moment of indecision.

"Do you need a glass of water or something?" Emily asked, worried, as JJ slumped into one of the chairs in her living room, her breathing slightly ragged.

"No, I'm good." JJ's voice was muffled by the hands on her face. Emily remained standing, weighing her options, and finally, she decided to bite the bullet as she walked confidently to the sitting woman, shedding her overcoat on the back of the couch on the way.

"Jennifer." She kneeled down before the blonde and gently laid a hand on her shoulder. JJ slowly looked up and saw Emily smiling at her.

"Hi," she whispered shyly, still not believing Emily was truly there. A hand slowly moved up to cup her face, a thumb tenderly stroking over the soft skin of her cheek.

"Hi," Emily replied quietly, revelling in the feel of JJ's soft skin against her hand once again.

"I think I'm dreaming."

"Do you want me to pinch you?"

"You disappeared." It wasn't said accusingly, just with sadness.

"I know. And I'm so very sorry."

"Where were you?"

"Still stuck undercover in New Mexico, wrapping up the case. I was the only one who knew the details of the smuggling scheme. Jackson & Co. were arrested before they could rat me out, so I was still useful for the parties involved." Emily was babbling and looked away guiltily. "Not that it justifies me not calling, but I couldn't make contact without being compromised."

"I thought I'd never see you again."

"I was just waiting for a way out. I'm so sorry it took this long."

"You don't have to go back?" JJ couldn't help the feeling of hope that sprang from within her.

"No." Emily shook her head and took the blonde's hands into her own. "I'll actually be, umm, working from Quantico from now on."

"What?" JJ's eyebrows rose high on her forehead.

"Yeah, I...I applied for a transfer. There's an open teaching position and-,"

"You'd do that just for me?"

"I thought that much was obvious by now."

"Oh, my God." She covered her face with her hands again, the news both exhilarating and terrifying.

"JJ?" Emily frowned at the reaction she hadn't been expecting.

The tangled web of thoughts inside JJ's head made rational thinking extremely difficult. She glanced back up at Emily, her eyes watery and indecisive. There she was, crouched down next to her, the woman who had turned her life upside down and was now offering her a way out, a chance for happiness, and JJ was suddenly afraid. She recognized the all too familiar feeling of cowardness seeping into her and looked pleadingly at Emily.

"I'm so tired of running," she admitted quietly, needing Emily to understand where she was coming from. All her life, it'd seemed that her role had been to be unhappy and lonely, a part she'd happily played, but giving that up shouldn't have been this difficult.

"So don't." Emily's reply was just as quiet, and she didn't back down an inch.

"It's not that easy."

"Yes, it is. You just stop." Fingers under JJ's chin urged her to look up into beautiful brown eyes. "You have me." The familiar phrase caused a sob to pass the blonde's lips.

"Hey, you okay?" Emily asked gently, her eyes never leaving JJ's.

"Yeah." A nod. "Yeah, I'm better than okay." JJ whispered, quickly wrapping her arms around Emily's neck. The familiar scent of the other woman filled her nose, and she felt good for the first time in what seemed like forever. "I'm perfect." She squeezed her eyes shut, a few tears still running down her cheeks.

"Yes. Yes, you are," JJ heard Emily murmur close to her ear and felt her heart swell with happiness.

"I actually got you a Christmas present," Emily confessed nervously, holding a fairly sizeable box she'd fetched earlier from the car. "Just in case," she then added, her cheeks reddening.

"Can I open it?" JJ took the offered box and shook it tentatively.

"Go ahead."

Smiling widely, JJ untied the bright red ribbon on top and carefully eased the lid off. She covered her mouth with her right hand when she saw what was inside, and with trembling fingers, she lifted a stylish, mocha-coloured cowboy hat from the box.

"I wanted to buy you one this past summer, but I never got the chance. Anyone who rides horses as well as you needs to have their own hat," Emily explained, scratching the back of her neck.

"You really think of everything," JJ said and eased closer to the brunette, kissing her deeply. She took every opportunity to kiss Emily after being unable to do so for so long. "Thank you."

"Let's see." Emily took the hat and put it on the younger woman's head. "Perfect."

"You think so?" JJ asked, her voice taking on a sultry edge.

"Oh, I know so." Emily wiggled her eyebrows mischievously, before leaning down and capturing the blonde's lips again.

The doorbell rang interrupting the kiss, and JJ giggled as the other agent pecked her first on the nose and then on both corners of her mouth. Finally, she managed to slip away, albeit grudgingly, from Emily's affectionate grasp and hurried to the door, a wide grin plastered on her face.

"Jay-J, I was just che-." Garcia fell silent and blinked. Her eyes slid up to the cowboy hat JJ was still sporting, making the 'cowgirl' blush beet red when she remembered her new accessory.

"Um, hi Garcia." She quickly took the hat off, not able to meet her best friend's eyes.

"Well, ho, ho, ho and yee-ha!" Garcia's eyes sparkled with merriment. She saw Emily stepping behind JJ and winked at her. "Hi Emily."

"Penelope," Emily acknowledged the other woman, smirking knowingly.

"Have you two met?" JJ inquired, confusion etched on her face.

"We bumped into each other earlier," Garcia replied elusively, still studying the older agent with amusement. "Anyway, I just wanted to drop by and say that, unfortunately, I can't make it this Christmas after all."

"Oh really?" JJ's eyebrow arched, easily able to spot the bullshit.

"Really. Morgan invited me to Chicago with him, and I obviously can't turn my chocolate honey-bunny down."


"So, you two enjoy your Christmas without the radiant presence of the glorious yours truly." The computer tech took a few steps backwards. "And JJ? Call me," she added pointedly.

"Merry Christmas, Penelope," Emily said, the connotation of the greeting much more profound than a simple expression of holiday cheer.

Garcia walked back to her car, sighing happily, the other two women watching her departure from the door. JJ felt Emily's lean figure press lightly against her back, the brunette's hands finding their way to her hips. She swallowed as Garcia's car sped away, but she just couldn't bring herself to move and close the door. One hand slowly slid upwards, fingers lightly caressing the smooth skin under the hem of her shirt. JJ's breath caught.

"Emily?" she murmured.


"You do realize that my neighbours have a full view of my door, don't you?"

"Uh-huh." Soft lips descended on her shoulder and started a journey up her neck.

"God..." JJ squeezed her eyes shut, every cell in her body humming with pleasure. With much effort, she managed to lift her foot just enough to kick the door closed and turned around in Emily's arms at the same time.

"Nope, just me," Emily quipped, her hands inching higher and higher under JJ's shirt.

"Oh, shut up." JJ chuckled, before capturing Emily's lips and efficiently silencing her.



The snow underneath JJ's feet made a delicious crunching sound every time she took a step. There was a good ten inches of snow on the ground, the first snowfall of the season, and it never failed to elevate JJ's mood. The snow made the darkness of the early evening seem much lighter as she walked through the park, deep in thought.

Nothing prepared her for the round mass of coldness that suddenly hit her in the back of the head, jerking her slightly forward. Slowly, she turned around, a few drops of melted snow sliding down her neck and underneath her coat.

"Emily, you didn't." She glared at the dark-haired agent, who was standing a few feet away, another snowball quickly taking form in her hands. The only reply was a wicked grin on the brunette's face, and the second snowball hit JJ squarely in the chest.

"I'm going to kill you," JJ muttered and scooped up snow for her own snowball arsenal.

Much shrieking and dodging of snowballs ensued before JJ was finally close enough to Emily to have her revenge, but her snow missiles missed their goal with painful inaccuracy. Having run out of ammo, Emily scooped JJ up, bringing about another set of shrieks and laughter, before they fell to the ground, exhausted. They lay on their backs for a while, both simply trying to catch their breath.

"I love you." JJ gasped when she heard the quiet words, her heart skipping a beat. The two women turned to look at each other, both recognizing the significance of the moment.

"I love you too." JJ whispered reverently, amazed at how easy it had been to finally say those three little words out loud.

Silently, they turned their eyes back to the night sky that was illuminated with stars. JJ flashed back to the magical moment they'd shared in New Mexico, when she'd first realized the staggering beauty of the burning plasma balls millions and billions of light years away. JJ guessed Emily had made the same association, because she heard her take a deep breath, speaking words they both knew to be true.

"It won't be easy." It was a simple statement, not meant to imply anything.

"I know," JJ said quietly, nodding for emphasis.

Their job would make things difficult, that much was certain. They were both women, which still carried a fairly unpleasant stigma. And if that wasn't enough, Emily had just spent two years of her life pretending to be someone she wasn't, which meant that it'd take a while for her to completely assimilate herself with her old life.

"But we can do it."

"Yes, we can do it." JJ finally spotted Orion's Belt among of the millions of lights. "Teach me another constellation."

"Can you see that very bright star right there?" Emily asked after a brief silence, pointing up and to the left. JJ scooted closer in order to see what the other woman was pointing at. She laid her head on Emily's shoulder and squinted up to the sky.

"Yeah. Yeah, I can see it."

"Right. That's Sirrah, the brightest star of the Andromeda constellation. If you look to the left of it, you can see a line of stars that form it," Emily explained.

"What's the story?"

"Well, we're venturing into the Greek mythology again." Emily cleared her throat. "Andromeda was a princess who was chained to a rock and exposed to a terrible sea monster, Cetus, as punishment for her mother's boast of her daughter's beauty being superior to that of the Nereids, sea nymphs."

"What happened?"

"Perseus saw her when he was on his way back from his expedition against Gorgon. He fell in love with her and promised Cepheus, Andromeda's father, that he'd free her if she could become his wife. The father agreed, and Perseus killed the monster and got the girl." Emily fell silent.

"So, a bit like a hero-in-shining-armour kind of a thing."

"Yeah, you could say that," Emily agreed.

"Well, you're my hero in a cowboy hat." JJ chuckled and felt Emily softly kiss her temple.

They fell silent again, both looking up at the millions and millions of stars littering the night sky. JJ felt Emily's hand grasp hers, their fingers entwining in a perfect fit, a symbolic manifestation of their souls that were now forever bound together, just like the ancient constellations above them.

"Give me a place to stand and I will move the earth."

- Archimedes

The End

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