DISCLAIMER: Criminal Minds and its characters are the property of CBS. No infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: The third part of my Five Senses series, Hearing. Still not connected to the other two stories. When racethewind10 referred to Emily’s grandfather mentioned in Open Season (2x21) in her Elements of Emotion: Trust fic, I really liked the idea of it and wanted to incorporate him into a story. My invaluable thanks to the wonderful darandkerry for the beta, the marvellous suggestions and guiding my words back on track when they go astray.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

By atfm


I never loved nobody fully
Always one foot on the ground
And by protecting my heart truly
I got lost in the sounds
I hear in my mind
(Regina Spektor, Fidelity)

The apartment was almost dark and mostly quiet, the few sounds that could be heard nothing out of the ordinary. So normal in fact, the noises went completely unnoticed, the ear and mind so accustomed to them that they faded away without leaving a lasting impression, blending acquiescently into the cluster of everyday sounds that were nothing more than background noises. In the kitchen, the low hum of the refrigerator filled the air, accompanied only by the occasional drop of water falling into the stainless steel sink with a hollow pop. The living room lay silent, not even a clock ticking, as if listening for sounds coming from the other rooms, and the hallway waited patiently for the clatter of morning activity that was sure to come, but not until a number of hours had passed. Upstairs, a door was closed carefully, its lock clicking into place quietly, and the polished hardwood floorboards, slightly worn in the places where always the same paths were taken, creaked faintly beneath bare feet which crossed them. The curtains rustled faintly, barely audible, when they were brushed by an arm, while outside church bells chimed, their sound a comfort in its ever-returning steadiness.

Emily sat down on the bed and exhaled tentatively. For a moment, she remained perched on its edge, trying to let the pressure of the day fall away from her and force it to vanish from a lack of something to sustain it here in her home. A headache tugged at the muscles of her neck, and she tiredly closed her eyes and slowly rolled her head to chase it away. A light touch to her back had her glancing over her shoulder.

"Come lie down, that'll help."

Emily looked at JJ in silence, scrutinising her despite the intense urge to simply close her eyes and sleep off her exhaustion. JJ leaned back against the headboard of the bed and gazed back at Emily unwaveringly, her eyes a little sleepy already, but still clear and focused on Emily as she waited patiently for a response. Emily always thought that at this time of the day, safely hidden away from the outside world, she saw JJ at her most vulnerable. Hovering between the rush of a wakeful state and the blissful calm of sleep, JJ's guard was down, her features unimaginably soft and her aura alive with a vibrancy that seemed at odds with the peaceful look on her face.

"Read to me?"

Emily had hesitated for a moment before uttering the question, pondering whether she really wanted to ask it. Allowing someone to read to her was a precious gift she didn't give away carelessly, much like her love and trust. Too easy was it to destroy the cadence of language with the wrong pace, to slice at words with a voice too loud or too rough. When Emily read, she could hear the sentences being laid out in her mind, each with its own place and impact, together forming first just paragraphs and then entire stories. With a false intonation, one that differed from that which she listened to inside her head, meanings were altered and treasured stories were ripped from Emily's grasp. An unkind voice, a misplaced pause, or words tumbling together too quickly were all threats to the gentle flow of language. But what Emily feared most, what most often held her back from having someone read to her, was that so many people didn't feel the stories, didn't bother to experience all that the words had to offer. They were read and then discarded like a used tissue, merely a brief interlude to occupy one's mind for a short time. Emily was convinced that if a story didn't have a meaning for its reader, it could never be read out loud without depriving it of many of its layers, its subtle beauty, and its very soul.

When Emily had been a child, a little girl not yet able to decipher words on paper, her mother or father had never read to her. Somehow, there had never been the time for it, or they'd been away, or one of a multitude of other feeble excuses had applied, and at some point, her mother had decided that Emily was simply too old to have a fairytale read to her. Emily had wanted to disagree vehemently, to protest the loss of something she'd never possessed, but she'd torn her eyes, burning with tears, away from her mother's face and lowered her head, silently accepting the decision as was expected of her, and the armour around her small heart had tightened just a little more.

Around that time, she'd begun spending summers with her grandfather in France. She'd just been learning to read, still stumbling over words and often sitting on the steps of the porch of his house with a book on her knees, her lips moving soundlessly as she slowly made her way through the text, frustrated that it took her so long. One afternoon, the old man had sat down next to her on the wooden steps, warm from the summer sun, and gently pulled the book from Emily's hands, and with a voice creaking like the porch they cowered on and just as warm as it was, he'd read to Emily. She'd leaned against his shoulder, feeling the rough fabric of his shirt scratching her cheek, and listened intently as the story unfolded before her inner eye in such overwhelming clarity that she'd clasped her thin fingers around her grandfather's hand tightly, for fear that she'd be swept away with emotion.

That day, a world of words had been opened up to Emily, each beautiful and unique to her, each stirring a flutter in her heart, each resounding in her mind just as she'd heard it spoken by her grandfather. He acquainted Emily with all genres, laying out the infinite possibilities of literature before her and breathing life into every single line he read. But listening to him was more than hearing stories for Emily; it was a secret bond they shared, a small retreat neither her mother nor her expectations had access to, one that Emily was in constant fear of losing.

Her grandfather never demanded anything, never admonished her. He was a wise man, and he knew how to simply give Emily what she craved so much but never would have admitted to needing. For that, she loved him dearly, and when he died a few years later, what little genuine childhood Emily had had died with him. No one had ever read to her since then, no one had offered, and she hadn't asked, fiercely protecting the memory of those special moments with her grandfather, not willing to risk allowing anyone a chance to spoil it. Even though Emily's heart longed to feel that kind of closeness again, to let herself be lifted from the solid ground she now stood on and be carried back to those summers by words coming from another's lips, she'd never dared to try to find something similar again. But tonight, worn out from too many long days, mind and body at a dead end, tonight, she needed this.

JJ, sensing the significance of Emily's request, so strong in its implications, and yet, so frail that she thought it would disintegrate into dust if she chanced to move, asked quietly, "What would you like me to read?"

Bending forward, Emily reached for a book lying on the nightstand next to her side of the bed and picked it up, holding it gently in her grasp. Her eyes lingered on the title, every loop and angle of the small black letters a familiar companion as her fingers brushed across the cover reverently, tracing the hint of a kink near the lower edge of it. She passed the book to JJ, no more hesitancy perceptible.

JJ took it carefully into both hands, all the while observing the play of emotions across Emily's tired features. "Are you sure?"

The book was John Dos Passos' Manhattan Transfer, a first edition Emily had received as a gift from her grandfather and one of the last books he'd read to her. It was one of her most treasured possessions, and she'd long lost count of how many times she'd immersed herself in the words. To Emily, the novel showed snapshots of the entire scope of tragic human experience; characters looking for love and dreams, finding loneliness and death instead, becoming victims of the inexorable urban standardisation of their time. Value systems were undermined and broke apart, leaving behind empty shells that once held ideals now drowning in the chaos of everyday life. A collage of chance encounters and shreds of dialogue, the text aptly conveyed the cold anonymity of a big city, that frightening sensation of being a nobody in a strange place that Emily herself had known so well in her childhood days when the family had moved from country to country.

But what fascinated Emily most, what never failed to draw her into the novel, was how the author portrayed the city as the main character. It wasn't merely the canvas on which the lives of men and women were painted; it was an enormous picture in itself, kind and cruel, beautiful and ugly, inciting hopes and ultimately stabbing them, watching them bleed to death. Events were reduced to mere moments and fragments, granting glimpses of the many faces of Manhattan, single pieces of a puzzle that had little impact on their own. Characters were crushed and swallowed, some swimming through life in urban canyons, others crossing the city limits and escaping, some struggling against their fate, others simply giving up. Just like the city shaped individuals' lives, Dos Passos had moulded a wonderful and terrifying study of it on the pages of the book. In a multitude of often disconnected scenes, with quick jump cuts and recurring images, with impressions captured forever in sentences and idiosyncratic descriptions, he'd uncovered the personality of Manhattan in the early 20th century, a personality that, as Emily had observed even at a young age, was a true mirror image of mankind and everything it was capable of. The unusual techniques of conveying sights and smells, sounds and situations, had left Emily dizzy and breathless as she'd listened to the words flowing from her grandfather's mouth with such forcefulness that everything ran together in her head, creating blurry and sickeningly rich images. Even years later, her favourite passages still excited her, no matter how many times her eyes had passed over the same words in an impatient attempt to get lost in the language.

The novel and its meaning were intrinsically tied to the voice of Emily's grandfather; the memory of hearing him read it created a warm sense of safety and trust for her, but also laid bare the raw pain of how much she missed him, a loss so deep that it constantly resided in her soul. JJ had quietly watched the myriad of emotions that had crossed Emily's face and had instinctively realised the importance of the moment and the possible impact it could have on their relationship. Glancing from Emily to the book's cover and back at Emily again, she silently repeated her question with her eyes.

Emily nodded firmly, not saying a word, capable of neither verbal reassurance nor explanation. The request, she realised, with all the significance and deep-rooted emotions clinging to it, making it something so important that her mind stood before it trembling, had the potential to tear apart something between her and JJ, to close a door of promise they hadn't yet walked through. It wasn't the kind of peril that loomed menacingly above them, circling like a vulture, the kind that threatened to violently snap each of them in half and leave them behind desperate and broken. Underlying, brooding beneath the surface, it was patiently waiting to extend its clammy fingers, not to crush and destroy, but to bruise and inflict quiet suffering, slowly and subtly. If this was the wrong decision, something would die inside both of them. There'd be no loud crash, no collision with obvious damage, only disappointment aching in their chests, a long kept hope tacitly smothered, something extinguished that could never be brought back to life. It'd be too little to fall apart and too much to keep going, stuck in limbo with no possibility to move forward or backward. What would remain would be the question whether it could have been avoided had Emily never asked, not touching something that was perfectly intact, even if the 'what if' would always linger in the back of her mind, enquiring how something that was never put at risk and survived could be called intangible for certain.

But despite the knowledge of exposing their relationship to this risk, a risk that would never be understood by an outsider, Emily had rarely been so sure of anything in her life. A deep, warm confidence in JJ had crept through the cracks in the dented metal enveloping her heart, caressing it softly with the promise it carried. And Emily had chosen to trust this feeling, chosen to relinquish control to someone else just this once, because somehow, she knew that JJ would grasp the chance given to her and soar.

Drawing her feet up into the bed and slipping under the covers, Emily stretched out on the mattress and rested her weary head on the pillow, willing the spinning thoughts to slow down. She rolled onto her side to face JJ, close enough to feel her presence even as her eyes drifted closed when she heard the rustling of pages being turned and the whispering of fingers across faded, brittle paper. "Read the prose poems, at the beginning of each chapter," Emily murmured.

JJ ran her fingertips along Emily's temple lightly, the touch reassuring and loving, and began to read.

"Three gulls wheel above the broken boxes, orangerinds, spoiled cabbage heads that heave between the splintered plank walls, the green waves spume under the round bow as the ferry, skidding on the tide, crashes, gulps the broken water, slides, settles slowly into the slip. Handwinches whirl with jingle of chains. Gates fold upwards, feet step out across the crack, men and women press through the manuresmelling wooden tunnel of the ferryhouse, crushed and jostling like apples fed down a chute into a press."

JJ sounded calm and sure, reading to Emily fearlessly and without the hint of a doubt that she could live up to Emily's expectations, her sole focus providing Emily with what she so desperately needed in this very moment, and that alone meant more to Emily than she was able to put into words. Without haste, each word left JJ's lips to gracefully find its rightful place in the lines read, fitting together smoothly with just the right pace and intonation. Her voice steady and tender, she claimed the text as her own, gently guiding it on its way to Emily's mind, exploring the delicate structure of the language cautiously, each syllable spoken deliberately and with respect. In perfect flow with the cadence of the paragraph, her words let the birds screech inside Emily's head, the water splash and cry out as the ferry cut through it and crunched along the dock, the feet of the throng of people rumble through the ferryhouse on their way to some place or other. Enchanted, Emily listened and surrendered to the resonant sound of JJ's voice as it lured her into the past.

She was eight years old and stood alone on the quay of a port in a country halfway around the world. The concrete beneath the soles of her sandals and the iron rail she'd propped her bony elbows up on were hot and stung her skin, but Emily was too lost in observing the scene before her eyes to notice. Cutters and tugboats drifted in from open water, announcing their arrivals with a hoot as they edged into narrow spaces of the port. Fishermen hollered and laughed as they unloaded their early morning catch, and the distinctive stench of fish bowels lying in the sun for too long filled Emily's nostrils. She secretly envied the men's simple lives, thinking they must be the happiest people on earth, going about their business with no one telling them what to do and not having to worry what others thought about them. The wind whipping through Emily's dark hair and making the flags above her head flap against their poles loudly sent ripples of water lapping against the quay, a few stray drops occasionally making it over its edge and landing on Emily's toes. The water seemed to beckon her to climb into one of the boats and let herself be carried far away, to one of the magic places she so often imagined. But then, someone got hold of her hand, and she was tugged away from the quay, always headed for some place more ordered and confined, never asking what she'd been looking at. The ports she saw were always different, but the scene and how it ended were always the same.

Emily was drawn back to the present by the sound of JJ leafing through pages in her search for the beginning of the next chapter. Mesmerised by her memory, JJ's voice had faded into the background momentarily, and Emily had missed the last parts being read. She focused her mind and listened intently once more as words came to life the same way they had years ago through her grandfather.

"Dusk gently smooths crispangled streets. Dark presses tight the steaming asphalt city, crushes the fretwork of windows and lettered signs and chimneys and watertanks and ventilators and fire-escapes and moldings and patterns and corrugations and eyes and hands and neckties into blue chunks, into black enormous blocks. Under the rolling heavier heavier pressure windows blurt light. Night crushes bright milk out of arclights, squeezes the sullen blocks until they drip red, yellow green into streets resounding with feet. All the asphalt oozes light. Light spurts from lettering on roofs, mills dizzily among wheels, stains rolling tons of sky."

Nearly holding her breath, Emily followed each element added to the picture with her mind, riding on the wave of words that rolled off JJ's tongue. The initial skeletal image inside her head was fleshed out, at first nothing more than a monotonously darkened city, then with chimneys and watertanks and ventilators and fire escapes appearing, and finally, liquid light clashing with darkness steadily moving in and colours battling the grey snuck up behind them.

After months of quiet observation, Emily had found that while JJ was often able to school her face into an expression almost void of emotion, obscured by a layer of self-imposed but fake dispassion, she couldn't do the same with her voice. Emily never missed the lightest of quivers in her tone when JJ briefed the team on certain cases, or how it cracked a little every time she had to deliver bad news. When she was angry, her voice became a bit rougher than usual, with a sharp edge to it, and Emily prayed that she'd never be on the receiving end of it. But on most days, it was soft and kind, and the smile that it so often carried or the quirky touch it had when JJ cracked a joke went straight to Emily's heart. So comfortingly familiar was it to her that Emily felt it to be a part of herself and knew that, no matter what happened, it would always be capable of healing her. Tinged with the colour of her soul, JJ's timbre was always sincere, and that was the reason why, in this moment, hearing her convey the character of the city so effortlessly, Emily was certain that JJ truly felt a connection to what she was reading, admiring the masterful writing as she spoke.

It was perfect, she thought, unable to hide the smile softening her features. With the book and the request to read to her, Emily had given JJ a part of herself, and she hadn't been disappointed. Not that she'd expected it. JJ had taken this piece of Emily with gentle hands and now kept it safe with her, careful not to damage or lose it. All her life, Emily had been worried that the fragile memory of her grandfather could be soiled, but also that, if she ever trusted someone other than him with words that had a special meaning for her, she'd somehow betray him. But JJ hadn't tried to conquer the novel, hadn't imposed her own interpretation on it, instead she'd bowed to its unique personality and allowed Emily to grow even fonder of it as she was able to remember her grandfather in the most vivid of ways. At the same time, JJ silently accepted that this memory was something that belonged solely to Emily and him, and in the way she read the words, she let Emily know that she didn't expect to take the old man's place in her heart.

JJ stopped reading and quietly placed the book on the nightstand, believing that Emily had finally fallen asleep, her breathing even and her facial expression peaceful. She took a moment to gaze down on Emily and resisted the urge to brush her fingers across the beautifully sculpted face so as not to rouse her.

Still awake, Emily didn't move, highly aware of JJ's eyes on her, but not wanting to upset the equilibrium of this precious moment. She revelled in the tranquility that filled her body and mind even without hearing or seeing JJ, simply taking comfort in her felt presence. Emily found that she wasn't afraid of the silence, that it neither pressed in on her like on nights spent alone nor mocked the awkward fidgeting for hollow phrases to chase it away. A safe cocoon, the sound of JJ's voice was wonderful to Emily, but not essential. Sometimes, the importance of words faded into the background like everyday noises, and just lying together in silence became an experience of deep mutual affection. That this, too, felt so perfect was JJ's gift in return for the trust she'd been shown in being granted the chance of finding a safe place in Emily's heart that she'd never have to leave.

Her thoughts coming to a halt, silently embracing the here and now, Emily finally slipped into sleep. All was right with her world.

The End

Return to Criminal Minds Fiction

Return to Main Page