DISCLAIMER: I do not own Criminal Minds or its characters. I wish I did, because it's an amazing show and Paget Brewster and A.J. Cook are hot, but...
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Okay, so it's possible some of the wonderful readers of this story noticed that I missed the last of Ralst's updates. My hard drive crashed and I lost everything on it, including my notes for this story and the story itself. I was able to recover the story that had been posted so far from the site, but had to start from scratch on the chapter, which was further delayed by the need to study for finals. I apologize if the delay upset anyone, and I hope this chapter makes up for it. Thank you to all of you who have read the story, and another thank you to those who have sent me feedback, which always helps tremendously. I hope you all enjoy the chapter!
SPOILERS: None too specific. General plot points and such from across seasons two and three.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Psychopathology: The scientific study of mental disorders
Date and Time: March 10, 2008 08:27
Location: BAU Bullpen, Quantico, Virginia
Spencer Reid glanced up at the sound of the door opening just as he was about to take a sip of his morning coffee, the mug pausing before it could reach his lips. He hadn't expected to see the two figures who had just entered, but a glance at his calender told him he had lost track of the date again. So, today was the day Emily Prentiss returned to the BAU. She looked good, he decided, watching her stride toward her desk with JJ at her side, showing only a bit of a limp. He remembered her mention in passing that her left leg was weaker than she'd like when he'd seen her last Tuesday, and now he saw what she meant. Something else was different about her, he decided, something other than the pronounced weight loss, the limp, and the tense, guarded wariness about her. When she turned in response to Morgan's greeting as he re-entered from the break room, he figured out what it was. She had bangs, cut straight across her forehead and covering the healing scar there. It was odd to see at first, but he knew he'd get accustomed to it and come to take the style for granted eventually. For now, though, it was strange, especially considering how normal her tailored black suit, off-center belt, and black-striped white shirt were.
He blinked, startled to see the woman he'd been contemplating right in front of him. The coffee mug threatened to spill over as he jumped, dumping hot coffee in his lap, but somehow JJ appeared behind him and slipped it out of his hand, grinning at him.
"Careful with that, Spence. That stuff is hot."
He laughed nervously, looking uncertainly between the two women before finally settling his gaze on Emily and giving her a shy smile.
"Hey Em. It's good to have you back."
Apparently that was the right thing to say, because she gave him that wide, goofy smile of hers and leaned aginst his desk. She looked like she was about to say something, but then Hotch and Rossi entered, looking grim.
"Everyone needs to meet in the conference room, now."
Hotch handed JJ a file, the contents of which made her expression darken. That was enough for all of them, and Reid and Morgan rose, heading toward the conference room as ordered. Spencer turned back when he noticed that Hotch and Emily weren't joining them, so he was the only one who heard their quiet conversation.
"Are you sure you're ready for this?" the Unit Chief asked, and the brunette sighed, starting to reach up to brush her hair back and stopping herself halfway, as if she had momentarily forgotten why her hair was styled the way it was and then suddenly remembered.
"Hotch, the shrinks cleared me. My own psychiatrist cleared me. Even Jen... Even JJ thinks I'm ready. And this is my job. If I can't do this, I can't do my job and I'll have to resign. Again. It was bad enough the first time."
"But last time you were doing the right thing, Prentiss. You refused to be a mole for Strauss."
That surprised him, not so much because it wasn't like Emily to sacrifice herself for others, but because no one had ever mentioned why she had resigned or the tension between her and Strauss when she'd arrived in Milwaukee.
"Are you telling me I should leave?" Emily was asking when his focus returned to the conversation, and her expression was decidedly cooler than it had been when he'd last looked. Hotch shook his head, looking tired and worried.
"No. You're an asset to this team, and it would be a real shame to lose you. I just want to be sure I'm not pushing you too hard too fast."
The dark woman nodded, sighing again.
"JJ will know if I'm pushing too hard. I hate to put that on her, but..."
Hotch was the one to nod this time, this time in understanding.
"You trust her, as you should. And I trust you. Just... Let me know if I can do anything."
Spencer retreated to the conference room as they started moving, so he was sitting down when they came in. He wasn't sure why he was hiding the fact he'd overheard them, but it seemed like the thing to do. The genius noticed the quick look that passed between Rossi and Hotch, but he had no way of reading it, and before he could think through it JJ started talking, pointing her remote toward the main screen.
"Los Angeles County has a serial killer on their hands. This is the first victim, Alexander Markhus, killed last year" she stated, loading up the first picture of a young man, probably in his mid to late twenties with distinctly Mediterranean features, visible despite the cruel puncture wounds to his eyes and the agony marring his face.
"He was castrated and his eyes were punctured, apparently pre-mortum. His killer left a note," and now the screen shifted to a somewhat wrinkled slip of paper, "stating that this was just the beginning. In the last years, several others were killed in the same fashion."
The liaison brought up a set of 4 pictures, all Mediterranean males of progressing ages, all with their eyes gouged out, all terrified, all castrated.
"The police didn't connect the murders until an elderly man was killed three days ago, and they asked for our help. We were just preparing a file when this morning we found out the UnSub struck again, this time killing a woman."
Two new pictures came up, and Reid had to restrain a gasp. The man and woman had been brutally tortured, to the point of being completely unrecognizable. JJ zoomed in the picture of the male, looking visibly sickened but determined. Spencer glanced over at Prentiss, who seemed her usual self, horrified but not abnormally so. His focus returned to the case file in front of him and the pictures on the screen, trying to comprehend the sheer amount of damage the UnSub had done.
"This is Raoul Johak, the victim from three days ago. When the police saw his body they recognized the pattern the UnSub was making and called us in."
Now JJ brought up a montage of photographs of the last victim, the woman, and Emily gasped, looking down at the picture in her hand and back up, as if to compare.
"Oh my God..."
"Prentiss, what is it?" Rossi asked, leaning forward.
"Look at the lower extremities," the brunette replied, her voice taut and choked, "look at what the UnSub did to this woman!"
They looked, shocked by the damage, and JJ nodded, meeting Emily's dark eyes.
"The coroner found explosive residue on her groin, legs, and inside her..."
The blonde trailed off, her eyes glazed over, then she shook her head, regaining her composure.
"His notes say he thinks the UnSub detonated some sort of pipe bomb inside her vagina?! While she was still alive?!" Morgan exclaimed, his face turning almost green at the thought. Reid felt at least as bad as the other man looked. That was something he didn't think he'd ever seen before.
"Yes," the liaison replied softly, glancing briefly at Emily. The young prodigy caught the look, noticing the sympathy and understanding in the profiler's dark eyes. It was like they were grounding each other, and now he understood something he had only begun to guess at when he'd seen them last week. There was a connection between them now, something deep and necessary to them both that hadn't been there before, or at least it hadn't been as strong.
"There aren't any statistics that I know of on this type of behavior," he stammered finally, forcing himself to focus on the case at hand rather than his colleagues, "Using explosives as a tool for murder has been documented, of course, but not like this."
"So what does this tell us about our UnSub?" Hotch asked, his voice bringing the team out of their shock and snapping their minds back to profiling.
"They're clearly devolving," Reid pointed out, "but at the same time their killings are getting more complicated. Usually when a person spirals like this, they become sloppier."
"It's like the UnSub is progressing toward something," Emily murmured from across the table, looking through the file again, "Every kill is getting them closer to their real fantasy. The men are progressing in age, so maybe the last man represented the person they really wanted to kill, and the woman... Another target of rage. Maybe they couldn't bring themselves to kill the image of their real target at first?"
Something clicked in Reid's head, and he hunted through his eidetic memory for the information, wondering what it was that sounded so familiar.
"If that's true than we're dealing with someone who is working out some old grudge," Morgan remarked, tossing the file on the table, "And if that's the case they won't stop killing until they get up the nerve or whatever it is to kill the person or people they really want to. The only question is how long that will take."
"And how many bodies will pile up in the meantime," JJ added softly. Reid started, realizing he had read those exact words. The only problem with having an eidetic memory and reading so much was that it was sometimes hard to remember where he had read something.
"So we have something to work with," Hotch declared, standing and gathering his file, looking at each of them, "We leave immediately."
They filed out, gathering ready-bags and anything else they needed. Before Spencer had even noticed they'd left they were at the airstrip, getting on the plane. During their flight Garcia contacted them, looking more than a little sick.
"Okay, I dug up a little more on your victims. They all had different backgrounds and work histories. There was a bartender, a fast food manager, a computer repair technician, and an ER resident. The older man was a musician, and the woman was a lawyer. The only commonality I can find between them is that they're all Greek. Full blood."
"Well that does narrow our victim list," JJ commented, her voice just a touch sarcastic, "Is there any other connection at all between them, Garcia?"
The tech analyst shook her head sadly.
"I have looked into every detail of their lives that exists on a computer. There's no indication that they knew each other at all. Different banks, gyms, hobbies... So far it looks like he just finds them randomly. I'll fax you what I've got. Maybe you super brains can find something I missed."
"Okay, thanks Garcia," Hotch replied, and Garcia's image disappeared from the screen. They talked about the information they had gotten from the tech goddess, but they couldn't put it together either and finally gave up to take a break and get some rest before landing in LA. Something continued to nag at Reid, though, but he just couldn't put his finger on it. He was distracted once again by JJ and Emily, who were sitting at the back. Emily's dark head was on the blonde's shoulder, her eyes closed as if she were asleep, but he could see her hand moving, lightly tracing the shape the liaison's fingers. JJ looked mesmerized by it, her blue eyes totally focused on the movements. He wondered about the faint blush he could see on her face even from here, but then he realized what it was. There was an intimacy implied in the touch, and a total lack of self-consciousness on Emily's part. It was possible she really was asleep and unaware of what she was doing, and the effect on the press liaison, but he doubted it. He may have been naive, but even he knew that it wasn't exactly a platonic gesture.
"Hey kid," Derek called, and he turned, embarrassed to be caught staring at the two, "You remember the last case we had in LA? The comic book artist?"
Morgan trailed off, then continued, his expression a touch sheepish, "You read any of those traffic reports lately? I really don't want to get stuck in traffic again and you knew how to get around last time."
Reid smiled, launching into a discussion of traffic patterns and other "relevant" information. Hotch, hearing Reid start into one of his lectures, smiled affectionately and turned to Dave, who was looking out the window at the patchwork below them.
"What are you thinking?" he asked softly, and the older man looked over at him, his expression bemused.
"Those two," and he jerked his head in the direction of the two female agents, "They're finally making progress. And you were right about Prentiss. She doesn't feel the need to hide a damn thing. It's Agent Jareau that seems to shy away from the truth."
Hotch nodded, looking out the window himself.
"JJ's been hurt a lot," he answered, keeping his voice low and choosing his words very carefully, "and she won't open herself to that kind of pain again easily."
Rossi accepted both what he said and what he didn't say, and Aaron was grateful. He didn't want to betray his team, but he also knew Dave well enough to know that the man could keep secrets just a little too well.
The italian waited for his supervisor to catch on to the deliberate subject change, which didn't take long, then went on.
"Reid was right. To my knowledge, nothing quite like this has been documented. It's brutal, cruel... Sick. You name it. But for all that, the UnSub seems to be in control of what he's doing. It doesn't make sense. A person this obviously insane doesn't have the control necessary to build that device. The report from the ME and the bomb squad said it would have to be tailor made."
Hotch stared out the window for a few minutes, contemplating that. Rossi was right. It didn't make sense... Except it did.
"Dave, what's the most severe case of manic-depression you've seen?"
"Manic depression?" the older man echoed, "Pretty bad. Symptoms of paranoia, psychosis..."
He trailed off, realizing what Hotch was getting at.
"You think our UnSub is bipolar?"
"I'm not sure yet," the Unit Chief answered slowly, "but if this person is a sociopath, a narcissist, and manic depressive with paranoid psychotic features..."
"We're talking about someone extremely unstable here, Hotch," Rossi objected, "How does that explain the bomb?"
"Because bipolars cycle, Dave," he explained, "And when they're manic, they can do anything they believe they can, because there are no limits. They're bulletproof, invincible... And in complete control of their world. A person in the extreme edge of a manic cycle with a knowledge of explosives could pull this off and think nothing of it, maybe not even realize that they did it for real. The boundary between reality and fantasy is so blurred..."
"I admit that it's possible, but Hotch... That's an extreme. Most bipolars would never go that far. Even if they were all the way out on that extreme, someone would notice, or they'd get themselves killed in some stunt. Drug overdose, suicide, those things are relatively common for a person in that deep a spiral. Extreme promiscuity, reckless behavior, all of it. But again, that's rare."
"I know, David," Hotch interrupted, on a roll now, "But you're looking at this the wrong way. If you mix manic-depressive illness with drugs, abuse, trauma, or other disorders, it could happen. And once that person went into a mixed state or hypomania, they'd have some control but still wouldn't know the difference between what's real and what isn't. And the reason the murders are both evolving and devolving is because the fantasy is being played out, giving the UnSub more control over the methods, but not the drive."
"That's a stretch," the older agent point out, and Hotch agreed. It was, but it put the pieces together.
"A sociopathic, bipolar narcissist?" Prentiss asked when he put the idea to his agents, her brow creasing a little under her bangs, "It would fit, I suppose, but I don't even know how rare it is for things to get this bad without someone noticing."
"Well," JJ started slowly, a little hesitant to speak up but clearly encouraged by Emily's smile and Hotch's nod, "What if the person were attractive and charming, as well as psychotic? If their reality is so skewed and so completely dependent on faith and belief, wouldn't it be possible for them to convince others that they were either completely right, or that they were fine?"
The profilers considered that, realizing that was the missing link.
"I know this is highly improbably," Aaron declared, "but it's something to work with. Morgan, get a hold of Garcia and see if she can find out about bipolar patients being brought to area hospitals. JJ, get a hold of the police in LA and ask, carefully, about any disturbances they've had that have been either dropped or explained away. Prentiss, Reid, research. I want to know the statistics, any previous records of this type of illness, and anything else you can find. When we land, I want you on their computers, and coordinate with Garcia. For now, get some rest. We're going to be busy when we land."
They separated as best they could in the small space, and he was satisfied that they were going to hit the ground with a running start. They had to. They were already six bodies behind, and he didn't want the count to climb if they could stop it. He and Rossi talked out the possibilities, but it all came back to the theory they already had. JJ got off the phone with the police about 15 minutes later and said they'd have a file ready when they landed, and Morgan reported that Garcia was doing her "Oracle of all things computerized" thing. That left them with little to do but think, sleep, or talk amongst themselves. He noticed that while Prentiss talked easily enough with Morgan and even more so with Reid, she always gravitated back to JJ, who rarely took her eyes off the brunette. While the two women had always had a more tactile relationship than just about anyone on the team, now they seemed to have taken it further, to the point where one look from Prentiss' dark eyes had the same effect as the brush of a hand against an arm to make a point or the way a light press on the small of her back reassured her. He knew the language they were speaking into the silence, and he knew where it could go. While it pained him to see such a reminder of what he'd sacrificed and lost, he was glad to see the two making progress after so long. It was long overdue, as far as he was concerned. Now if they could just keep it moving and not stall...
"It all comes down to what Agent Jareau will do for Agent Prentiss," Dave remarked with a small smile, as if he'd read Aaron's thoughts, "And how much pushing she'll allow before she bolts. This is definitely far more interesting than driving for hours alone."
Hotch laughed, settling back in his seat and just waited for the plane to land, glancing over at his agents from time to time, more than once catching Emily once again tracing the shape of JJ's hand with the dedication one might give the finest art. When they finally touched down and got off the plane, they were met by two men in suits who identified themselves as field agents for the LA office and produced identification, which Hotch checked thoroughly. He didn't want to take any chances, and he was, to say the least, not fond of Los Angeles.
"We understand, sir," one of the two men remarked at his slightly apologetic glance, running a hand through his unruly brown hair, "Everyone is on edge. We're just here to give you a ride and answer whatever questions we can en route, Our senior agent is eager to solve this and put the bastard behind bars."
The unit chief nodded, gesturing for JJ, Prentiss, and Reid to go with the young man while he, Rossi, and Morgan went with older agent, this man blonde, tall, and burly, but with the face of someone who was more used to books than anything else. He watched his agents walking away, noticing with some amusement that the LA agent immediately struck up a conversation with Reid, and while not intentionally ignoring the two women, he had apparently relegated them to the back of his mind. The drive to the field office was informative, but while Agent Govar was clear and concise with the information they had, there just wasn't a lot of it. It soon became clear why the lead agent had sent Govar and his young partner, Tillman, however. They had both been at the last two crime scenes, and were the ones who would be best able to relay their observations.
"Here we are," Govar murmured once they'd arrived, actually going around to open their doors for them. Tillman came over with the other profilers, looking dazed. Hotch knew that look. It's what happened when someone ended up on the wrong side of one of Reid's lectures. He shook his head once as he approached, nodding to his partner and to the other men.
"You probably aren't going to get much in the way of new information," he commented as they started toward the elevator to get out of the basement garage, "but I should warn you that you're going into quite the war zone in there. This case has everyone up in arms, and I'm afraid there isn't a lot getting done."
"Till," Govar muttered warningly, then gave the BAU team a wry look.
"I hate to admit it," he went on after a moment, "but my partner is right. Everyone is so busy either trying to keep things under wraps, find a way to deal with the press, or jumping the gun on any possible suspects that it's complete chaos. We volunteered to come get you people just to get out of there."
Aaron glanced at Rossi, who looked almost amused, and more than a little resigned.
"Politics, then. So we're going to be stepping on some toes here, one way or another," he observed, sounding just a little too cheerful, "Well, that's fine. We're here to catch this SOB, not walk on eggshells."
Hotch nodded, looking over at his team.
"Dave is right. We don't want to offend anyone unnecessarily, but our job here is catching the UnSub. Anything else, aside from personal safety, is secondary. Understood?"
They all agreed, though he noticed JJ giving Emily a hard look at the mention of personal safety. The blonde, for her part, was taking those words to heart, though not so much for her own safety as her friend's. She wasn't about to let the brunette go out alone, and if she were honest with herself, she wouldn't want her going into the field with Morgan. While she was grateful to Derek for his part in setting up Emily's apartment and all of that, she still couldn't bring herself to trust him with her companion's safety. It was true that if it came down to a fight he was probably her best bet, aside from Hotch, who she trusted almost implicitly. Rossi was still too much an unknown quantity, and that made her uneasy with him. When the elevator doors opened, she took a moment to just stare at the chaos of what should have been an organized office of government agents before putting her press mask firmly in place and stepping forward to do her job, finding the senior agent with the ease of long practice and striding directly towards him, not waiting for Tillman or Govar to follow or make the introductions. This was her part in the scheme of things, and she was going to play it to the finish.
"Special Agent Frank Derst? I'm Agent Jennifer Jareau, with the BAU."
The bald, stocky man, who looked to be in his mid-forties, gave her a confused look, then understanding dawned on his face and he smiled slowly, reaching out to shake her hand. So he understood what she was doing and appreciated it. That could make things easier for them all.
"Agent Jareau, yes, we spoke on the phone. I'm so glad your team was able to make it."
Hotch led the others over and she introduced them in turn, waiting for each to shake hands with the other agent.
"We'd like to get started right away, so could you show us where we could set up?" she asked politely once all the introductions were finished. He smiled again, leading them to a conference room equipped with the works.
"I had a few people busting my balls when I told them to clear out of here for you folks," he commented with a hint of laughter in his voice, and more than a little relief, "but once I showed them the stuff you all had sent us so far, they shut up quick enough. Now, anything you need, you ask me, Govar, or Tillman. I'll make sure one of us is available any time. Tillman has done most of liaising with the other law enforcement branches, and Govar is very familiar with the reporters we usually prefer to work with."
JJ took that in, grateful he was making such a point of being welcoming and generous, because from the look of the office, he might be one of the few people who they could really work with and count on for support. Just in the short time they'd been there she'd noticed a couple small arguments break out, and that was not encouraging. She waited as the others filed into the office, following Emily in and pointedly pulling out a chair for the brunette. She didn't know if the others would have noticed, but her friend's limp had gotten a little more pronounced and it was clear she was stiff and tired after the long flight. Emily's dark eyes caught hers, and she saw the weariness and pain in them that she was trying so hard to hide. Silently cursing the Samis brothers, Ambassador Prentiss, and even Emily's shrink, she sat down, sorting through the papers that had been left for them and passing them out. They all began to read, realizing that much of this was just the same information they already had with very little new data added. Govar, Tillman, and Derst came in a little while later, listening to their theory and asking educated questions that made the liaison grateful that they had a good line of communication to the people who were clearly doing the most work on the case.
"What I don't understand," Govar started once they'd explained what they had so far, "is why this guy isn't just going for whoever it is that they really want to kill. Is it that they need to build up the nerve or what?"
"We think it's more likely they have a very strong relationship with their targets," Reid corrected, and the blonde noticed that, as he had in the car, Tillman's attention became entirely focused on the young prodigy, "Most likely they have a love/hate bond with these people. It could be that they're abusive parents or grandparents, or other family, close family friends, former colleagues or mentors of some sort, that sort of thing."
"Because of that relationship," Prentiss went on, picking up the thread where Reid had left off, "the UnSub can't bring himself to kill the people he's really angry at. Maybe these people are the only tie to reality he has left. Maybe they're a support system or they enable the delusions to the point where it's safer for him to keep them alive for his own sense of well-being, but he still desperately wants to kill them. We can't know until we identify the UnSub and the real targets."
"And we say 'he,'" Hotch added, "but this could very well be a woman. While it's less common for this level of psychopathy to appear in a woman, it's still possible."
"But statistically more serial killers are male, right?" Tillman asked, and Reid nodded.
"There are relatively few female serial killers, that's true, but in our experience it's better not to rule anything out."
The young man absorbed that in silence, and the senior agent took the opportunity to speak up.
"Well, between the flight and all of this reading and discussion you people are probably exhausted, so I'll have these two drive you two over to your hotel. We'll supply vehicles with GPS devices when you're ready to get back to work."
Hotch stood, gesturing for the others to do so as well, and JJ was having a silent party in her head. She had seen the toll all this was taking on Emily, and while the brunette was holding up well it was clear to her that seeing tortured corpses was wearing on her. It was hard on JJ herself, if she were honest. She couldn't help thinking from time to time just how easy it would have been for her beautiful companion to have become one of those bodies a bare month ago, and the thought terrified her.
She looked up, realizing she'd gotten completely lost in thought and hadn't left with the others. She gave the waiting brunette a tired smile, feeling Emily's hand lightly press against the small of her back, guiding her to the elevator where the others waited.
"You okay?" the profiler asked softly, her voice carrying only to JJ's ears. She smiled again, but the blonde could tell it wasn't doing it for Emily. Of course it wouldn't. The older woman knew her entirely too well to not be able to see through her.
"Really, Em. I'm okay," she tried, but the stubborn profiler was clearly having none of it, but she didn't say anything, so apparently she would wait until they got to the relative privacy of the hotel. The thought of being alone in a hotel room sent a bolt of fear through her, but when she reached the elevator and the doors closed Hotch glanced over at them, then announced that he had asked Garcia to set up the reservations, and relief coursed through her. Garcia would know better than to separate her from Emily. Govar gave her an odd look, but he just shrugged, not asking any awkward questions. The drive to the hotel was quiet, Tillman and Reid in the front seat discussing psychopathy in males and females while the two women sat in the back together, Emily surprising JJ a little by clasping her hand, giving her a look that said she just needed an anchor right now and they could talk later. At the hotel Hotch handed out the keys, giving them all strict orders to rest, though his gaze stayed on Emily the longest. A short elevator ride and walk down the hall later, they were at their room, which was next to the room Hotch was in, across from Reid's, and a few doors from Rossi's and Morgan's.
"Finally..." Emily murmured as they entered, setting both their bags, which she had insisted on carrying, down in the small closet and walking to the nearest chair, sitting down without any of her usual grace, rubbing her left thigh.
"Hurts?" the liaison asked softly, well aware of the answer. At her friend's nod, she added, "You could take some muscle relaxers. You know they help."
She didn't hold out much hope for an affirmative, however, and as she had expected, Emily refused.
"I don't like how foggy they make me," the tired brunette explained, "I'd rather deal with the pain than be at less than 100 percent on this case."
JJ sighed, kneeling down in front of her friend and looking up into her dark eyes.
"Em, if the pain is getting to you this much, wouldn't it make sense to take something for it?"
"I can't, Jennifer," Emily replied firmly, but her voice betrayed the cost she was paying for her stubbornness, "If I can't work through the pain, if I have to keep taking pain killers, how can I expect to perform the way I need to?"
The blonde knew the older agent was right, but she hated to concede that point. And they weren't just talking about physical pain. The muscle relaxers affected Emily's mind too, and while they did make it harder for her to focus on the terrible memories, they often depressed her and once they wore off the likelihood of flashbacks seemed to be higher.
"I hate this," JJ muttered angrily, then a flash of inspiration struck her, and she smiled slowly.
"Come on, get changed. I'm going to give you one of my magical massages."
The profiler actually laughed at that and rose, going over to her bag and rummaging through it. JJ expected her to go into the bathroom to change, which she started to do, but then she did something that took Jennifer thoroughly off guard. She shrugged out of her shirt, tossing it in the general direction of her bag. She continued toward the bathroom, turning at the last moment to give JJ a wink and a seductive grin that left the blonde with decidedly wobbly knees, though some of that was in response to the full image her friend presented. The liaison stumbled into the chair her friend had just vacated, thinking on what had just happened. Emily kept doing things that left her off balance, and she never knew when she would get the shy, goofy, professional, wounded, or downright sensual sides of her friend. Over the last two weeks she had seen more of the sexy, seductive Emily than she had in the entire time they'd known each other, and she had wondered more than once if confessing that she was in love with JJ had set the brunette free somehow. Jennifer wished she knew what it was, because her own responses were overwhelming her, like now, but she didn't know what to do about them.
"Stop brooding, get changed, and come to bed," Emily's voice commanded, and she started just as Reid had that morning, looking up into tired but tender, loving brown-black eyes. The words and expression sent a rush of heat through her body, but JJ firmly reminded herself that her companion was referring to the promised massage and sleep. She stood up, almost falling back into the chair as the inevitable, yet still unexpected blood rush hit her. Emily stabilized her with surprising ease considering how much pain she still had to be in, shaking her head with an amused glint in her dark gaze.
"Am I going to have to change you myself?" the brunette asked softly, and JJ stared blankly, her mind caught up as a ghost image of Emily's hands undressing her flashed across her eyes. She blinked, actually surprised it wasn't happening the image had been so vivid. She staggered to her bag and into the bathroom, aware the entire time that her companion's gaze was following her every move. She took her time getting ready for bed, needing to get a grip on herself. She didn't like being so out of control, but Emily just kept sending her mind and body into these mad spirals, and she couldn't seem to make it stop. It was just getting worse the more she tried to ignore or control it.
"Damn..." she mumbled, shaking her head in front of the mirror. Two weeks ago, before she had known Emily was in love with her, things were easier. She didn't question everything she felt or thought. She didn't wonder if maybe...
"Don't even go there," she growled at herself, washing her face roughly as if that would scrub the thoughts out of her, "She needs her friend right now, not some hormone-stricken teenager."
With that thought steadying her she returned to the main room, inwardly relieved that Emily was already laying face down on the bed, her gaze turned the other way. They had moments like this, too, when the brunette seemed to understand exactly what she needed and gave it without question. It was just the way she was, and Jennifer loved that about her, but sometimes she almost wished the older agent wouldn't be so accepting. She didn't know what the alternative would be, but it made her feel guilty for not being able to give whatever it was that Emily needed when the woman herself gave her so much, including her heart, apparently.
"You're brooding again," Emily's soft voice called, breaking her out of her thoughts again. JJ smiled gently, understanding once again just how well her friend knew her, and how much she cared for her. Pushing aside the confusion and the guilt, she decided that she was the one making things messy and complicated, and she was sick of it. Emily deserved better than that.
"You're right," she agreed, climbing onto the large bed and positioning herself so she could reach most of Emily's long body, "but then you usually are. For tonight, though, I don't want you to worry about me. You do that enough as it is. Just lay there and look beautiful. I'll do the rest."
She flushed when she realized what she'd said, but it was true, and she wouldn't let herself dispute that. Emily was downright gorgeous, and she knew better than anyone how deep that went. Thankfully the profiler didn't look up at her, but she could see her smiling shyly, as she always did when JJ complimented her. Deciding to start where the massage would do the most good, Jennifer started with the long, muscular legs stretched out in front of her, focusing on the left side first. At first the older woman tensed, an indication of just how much pain she was actually in, but before long JJ's skilled hands had loosened the muscles and the brunette was relaxing, making her job easier.
"So what was wrong at the field office?" Emily asked suddenly as the liaison worked her way down her leg, glancing over her shoulder at the other woman, "You were upset about something. What was wrong?"
JJ considered dismissing the issue, but then changed her mind, knowing that her friend asked because she honestly wanted to know, and she wouldn't appreciate JJ being dishonest or vague. So she settled on the truth, knowing it was better than the alternatives but still resenting that reality.
"I was thinking how easily you could have been one of those pictures," she explained softly, feeling the muscles under her hands tense, then ease somewhat as she went on, "and how grateful I am that you aren't. I just want you to be safe, Em. Losing you would be unthinkable."
Emily made a soft sound that could have been agreement or something else, then she sighed, turning over and holding out her arm. JJ hesitated for just a second before just letting go of the guilt, retreating into the solid warmth of her friend's embrace.
"It's scary," the brunette started after a moment of silence, "knowing how close I came, I mean. I look at those pictures and I remember what it felt like to be tortured and tormented, learning to doubt that the pain would ever stop, and wondering, like Garcia has said before, why we would be made to feel so much pain. It just doesn't seem right or fair. And I remember thinking over those six days that maybe a world without pain had never existed, that maybe that was all a hallucination and all that I had ever known was agony."
Tears jumped to the blonde's blue eyes as Emily spoke in a voice both deeply wounded and threaded with some unbreakable strength of will, realizing once again just how strong and incredible the woman who had fallen in love with her really was.
"I looked at those men and the woman, especially the woman, and thought about how for six days the only thing I believed in, aside from the pain, was you, and I started wondering if they had something like that to hold on to. And when it came down to it, the more I read about them the more I wondered how they felt as they suffered and died, who they left behind... And what they regretted. I didn't have regrets, exactly. Nothing was real enough for that. All I knew was that I wanted to see you again, to know you were safe before I died. Those people... They're all reduced to words and images on paper. All they were is that now, that and the people they left behind. And I just keep wondering... Was it enough? If I had died, or if I died tomorrow or next week or next year... Would I leave enough behind to make the pain and misery worth it? Does it ever balance out?"
Jennifer was quiet for a long time, crying silently as she listened to the strong heart beating under her ear, then finally gathered the strength to look into those dark eyes, seeing the scars in them that should never have been there, knowing her own gaze had some of the same barely-healed wounds now.
"There's a Dylan Thomas quote I read in school that always stayed with me," she murmured softly, not sure why she was saying what she was but feeling it needed to be said, "'Do not go gentle into that good night... Rage, rage against the dying of the light.' You taught me more about not giving up, about fighting for life, than I ever thought there was to learn. And the idea that I gave you some of the strength you needed to hold on... It's incredible. And all I want is to know how so I can make sure to do that again and again, so I don't have to ever lose you. "
"Just be yourself," Emily replied in a voice laden with tears, holding her more tightly, "And just... Be honest with me. This is the most we've talked about how I... About me loving you since I told you."
The liaison realized that was true, regretting it immediately. Emily had seemed so confident, but she knew her better than that. Much of her confidence was an "act as if" defense, one that usually served her well but in this case had masked her emotions entirely too well.
"I'm so sorry, Emily. I didn't realize we hadn't talked about it. We talk about everything... Just not that. And it's not because it bothers me that you're in love with me. It's probably the most amazing thing I've ever heard. I guess... I guess somehow I sort of took it for granted that you knew that."
Emily shook her head, pressing a gentle kiss to her forehead.
"You just told me everything I needed to hear, Jennifer. Now we can sleep, get up tomorrow, and face the day. And don't worry. I'll be all right. It's a process... And this just happens to be one of the harder steps. We'll get through it."
JJ heard how automatic the "we" had been and smiled, snuggling comfortably against the taller agent.
"Yes, we will."
Emily chuckled, and the blonde sighed, letting out the stress the day had brought with it and willing herself to sleep. She closed her eyes, thinking that she'd make a plan for the following day and then rest, but the next thing she knew there was light coming through the drapes and the clock on the side of the bed read 7:47 am.
Emily jerked in her arms, and she looked down, smiling despite her own startlement at the sight of the nearly black eyes looking around in sleepy surprise. Her friend just looked so adorable and innocent like that.
"It's time to get up," JJ explained, "We must have fallen asleep."
Emily nodded, but her gaze was distant, the way it got when she had an epiphany on a case. Jennifer stayed quiet, letting her think. She was a little surprised when her friend growled faintly, shaking her head.
"There's something about this case, Jennifer," she stated, her voice harsh with sleep and frustration, "I just can't place it. Reid thought so too, I could see it. There's something so familiar, and I just can't think what it is. It's like trying to remember a dream that you know is important, that you should hang on to, but you just can't..."
The blonde nodded, leaving it at that knowing full well that the brunette would eventually think of whatever it was and tell her about it. They took turns showering and dressing, though Jennifer could swear Emily's eyes roamed just a little more than usual when she stepped out of the bathroom in her jeans and v-neck shirt, still toweling her hair dry. It was distracting, and she was grateful her companion decided to drive since she kept getting flashes of the look Emily had given her last night, and the view. It didn't help the somehow the brunette's hand seemed to brush hers, or her arm, or some other part of her rather more often than she was used to. She didn't think she could have kept them on the road with how out of sorts she was feeling every time that graceful hand touched her.
The blonde looked up, snapped out of a daze she hadn't realized she'd gone off into. She looked up into those familiar dark pools, falling into them without thought or control.
She blinked and shook her head, wondering what the hell was going on with her lately. That kept happening, and it was driving her to distraction and more and she just couldn't think why something so simple and familiar would cause her mind and body so much chaos.
"Wha... What is it?"
Emily gave her a bemused look, gesturing to something outside the SUV. The liaison followed the gesture, startled when she realized they were right outside the field office.
"Oh..." she mumbled, ducking her head to keep from looking at her friend, "You could have told me."
She noticed the profiler grinning at her out of the corner of her eye and had to force herself not to meet that gaze, afraid she'd get lost in it again. Instead she got out of the SUV, striding into the office and trying to ignore her awareness of the taller woman who was somehow right behind her, so close she could feel the heat of her body.
"Emily, JJ!" Reid called, giving them a long look before turning back to the board he was working on. Morgan's gaze stayed on them longer, and JJ felt herself wanting to squirm. With a sigh she turned to look at what the young doctor was working on, finding a geographical profile that was just starting to be colored in. Sudden warmth behind her made her look up, finding nearly black eyes looking at the map with an unusual intensity, their owner very nearly right against her back.
"Em?" Reid asked, seeing the focus in Emily's face as well. The brunette was silent for a long moment, long enough that it caught the attention of Hotch and Rossi, who came over looking curious and interested.
"You got something, Prentiss?" Hotch asked after another few moments, and Emily nodded slowly, her expression changing as her gaze fell on one of the pictures, the older male victim.
"I know this... I knew this was familiar!"
She turned to the rest of the team in a startlingly rapid motion, her face intense with some knowledge she couldn't hold in. Her proximity to JJ made the blonde acutely aware of the tension in her friend's body, a tension that had as much to do with excitement this time as it did memory or fear. Emily did so love being able to help the team like this.
"It's a book! That's why it seemed so familiar! I've read about this in a book! It was published just a few months ago, after the murders started. I remember the dedication was strange. Something about it being a story that should never be true, but it would happen because the writer couldn't stop it. I remember thinking that was odd when I read it, but now it makes sense!"
"I remember that one now!" Reid exclaimed, his fingers snapping as he spoke, his young face almost glowing with sudden enthusiasm, "Fracture! That was the name of the book!"
"So does this book talk about our guy? And the writer? Any sense that he could be a serial killer?" Rossi asked, looking between the two profilers. Emily gave him an odd look before looking over at Reid, speaking hesitantly once their eyes met and the young doctor nodded.
"Sir... The writer is a woman, Keira Datton, and while the writing was vivid, it was also brutally honest about everyone involved, including the female protagonist. And the antagonist, the killer... That was also a woman. It described a lesbian relationship between the killer and the protagonist, which ended badly and the woman spent the rest of the book trying to escape her former lover under the protection of a mysterious Agency. She ended up falling in love with the commander of her team, but the end of the book doesn't say if they got together or not. It ends with the protagonist deciding that she needed to stop running away and find her lover. That's what I mean by brutally honest. The protagonist has her demons, but never does the author show her any more mercy than she does the killer. If anything, she's kinder to the killer, gentler, than she is to her hero."
Rossi gave the agents a long, measured stare, clearly deciding whether or not to ask why they had both read what was apparently a lesbian romance novel, then shook his head, apparently letting it go. Hotch stepped forward, taking command effortlessly.
"Reid, go with Morgan and Tillman and get that book. Read it, see how it relates. Dave, I want us out at the scenes to see if we can get any more information from them. We'll bring Govar. Prentiss, JJ, call Garcia. Find out if she can track down this Keira Datton. If she can, get out there. Take a car or the jet if you need it. Just find her, bring her in. Either she knows our UnSub or she is our UnSub. Either way we need to get her here."
JJ was already on the phone and gave Emily a quick nod as Garcia typed, holding one ear closed to block out the sound of another argument brewing outside their little haven. The whole environment here was uncomfortable, and only the presence of her team and the three local agents Govar, Tillman, and Derst kept it from becoming unbearable. Well, that and the constant nearness of Emily Prentiss, distracting as it could be.
"Got it!" Garcia exclaimed, drawing her attention back to the phone call and away from the elegant hands that were moving in sharp, graceful motions to emphasize some point to Reid.
"You found her? Please tell me she's not dead, Garcia."
The tech analyst chuckled lowly in that distinctively smug way she had when she had done something especially difficult that she knew would help their case.
"Keira Datton, age 23, born in Hawaii, raised in California, moved out to the east coast four years ago after leaving home and living more or less off the grid for about nine months. A psychology major at WVU, she got her bachelors and then stopped, apparently to write. Her book wasn't an instant best seller and it didn't immediately get the attention of critics, but it got great word of mouth and something of a following. Now it's highly read and being considered as a model text for classes in psychopathology and profiling for its in-depth analysis of the inner workings of a serial killer's mind... and a victim's."
JJ smiled affectionately at the wealth of information Garcia had compiled so rapidly, and at the way she'd apparently gotten distracted from the real question.
"And her current address, Garcia? You get that?"
"Ye of little faith," the analyst replied chidingly, "I already sent it to your PDA."
The blonde shook her head, realizing she shouldn't have underestimated her friend. She checked the address, realizing they'd have to fly out and drive from the airstrip, since the location was in the mountains of Montana. She wondered why the writer would move out there and when she'd done so, but she knew she'd out.
"Great, thanks. Fax us over everything you've got on her. We'll pick it up on the jet. Emily and I are going to go talk to her."
"Well you two have fun out in the country," the computer genius shot back, inexplicably making her blush, "Not too long a flight, huh? Maybe that's for the best."
"I'm hanging up now, Garcia," JJ shot back, hearing her friend laughing as she hung up. Before she could dismiss the whole thing a hand brushed her back. She felt herself smile and turned to look up at her taller friend, surprised as she always was at the open affection and tenderness in that dark gaze. She still hadn't gotten used to the way Emily had been looking at her lately, even though it was happening more often lately as the older agent seemed to become more comfortable with what she felt.
"Come on, we need to get out there."
Jennifer nodded, following her friend out. Hotch watched them go, his brown eyes dark with concern. He didn't like what was happening, not because he didn't approve of them, and not because he wouldn't protect them if they really did get together, but because JJ refused to see what was right in front of her face. She was too busy being scared for Emily, too busy needing to protect and care for her to pay attention to herself. As long as all her energy was devoted to healing Emily, she wouldn't take care of herself, and that was taking a tremendous toll on both women. What he was counting on was the brunette figuring that out without his needing to intervene, and if the way Prentiss had been watching her friend in the two days they'd been working this case was any indication, he hoped he wouldn't have to worry too much longer. Little did he know that at that moment, and an hour later, Emily was wondering how to broach that same subject with Jennifer, debating whether to be direct or somewhat subtle, and if she had the time to wait until this case was over or not.
"Em?" the blonde asked, coming up behind her and holding out a bottle of water, which she took with a soft smile, watching Jennifer as she sat down on the seat across from her.
"You okay?" she asked softly, waiting for her friend's inevitable response and already deciding how she would respond to it.
"I'm fine," the liaison answered, right on cue, "What about you? Are you okay?"
Emily hesitated just a second, sighing inwardly. She was tired from being reminded of her own torture every time she looked at the pictures, tired of the fear she couldn't fight off or ignore, but she was becoming more afraid of losing Jennifer to herself, and she couldn't allow that to happen. Now was as good a time to start as any. It was just the two of them, and they had about another hour at least before they got to Montana, where Datton lived now.
"That's not what I asked, Jennifer," the brunette murmured, waiting for the startled look she knew would come next and sighing inwardly when it came. When had JJ become so predictable?
"What do you mean? I'm fine, Em."
She shook her head slowly. She had committed to this now, and she would see it through.
"No you aren't," she replied wearily, letting down most of the walls she usually kept firmly up, revealing just how much the case and the job was taking from her before adding, "and neither are you. We've been living together, Jennifer. Do you really think I don't know how much time you spend watching me, waiting for any hint of fear, any sign of nightmares or flashbacks, anything that I would need you to stop or protect me from? You've been doing it ever since..."
Here she hesitated despite herself, vividly remembering the moment she'd first seen the beautiful press liaison's face when she'd been rescued, and mixed relief and terror she'd felt in that moment. As she relived it, it reminded her once again why she had to do this, and she closed her eyes, letting the emotions flow through her.
She could hear the concern and the fear and sighed. She couldn't lose this woman. Not again. She had come too close before, and she'd be damned if she gave Jennifer up now. When she felt her companion get up and move to her side, she reopened her eyes and reached out, taking one of those calloused, healing hands into her own, twining their fingers together, hating the fearful expression on her friend's face but knowing she couldn't have avoided causing it one way or another.
"You don't understand, Jennifer," she started softly, "I'm grateful. I'm beyond grateful, actually. But you can't keep just looking out for me and ignoring yourself."
When JJ would have interrupted she shook her head, going on before she could be interrupted.
"You take care of me, sweetie. You watch me constantly, you cook for me when I can't do it myself, you help me clean up the condo, you even help me wash my hair when the pain is too much. You take care of me 24/7. And I'm incredibly grateful... But when do you take care of yourself? You go to therapy, sure. An hour every couple days to talk about you."
"Emily... I just..."
The brunette leaned closer, using her free hand to stroke blonde strands out of her companion's face, her face gentle but intent.
"You know I'm right, Jennifer. And I know you do it because you care, because you hate to see me hurting. That's fine, but I need you to be healthy too."
"I take care of myself!" the liaison objected weakly, but Emily shook her head again, seeing in those blue eyes the same concern and fear of failure that had brought up this conversation to begin with.
"Physically, maybe. You eat, shower, even sleep sometimes. When it comes to how hard this is on you, though... If you ever start thinking about yourself, you just go back to taking care of me. I love you. You already know that. But at the rate you're going, the day isn't too far off that this all gets to be too much and you'll implode."
Jennifer very nearly gave in to the anger that was building up, but she froze inwardly when she realized how ridiculous she was being, and how selfish. She had no right to snap at Emily when she hadn't even given the idea any thought or really considered its validity. There was a very good chance that the brunette was right and she just didn't want to think about it, and that would make her a coward. One thing she could not tolerate being in her own eyes, and even less so in Emily's, was a coward.
"Let me think about it, okay?" she temporized, regaining control over her atypically short temper. Emily nodded, but the look in her eyes as she turned to the window could only be described as defeated, and the hand that had been holding Jennifer's tightened its grip once before moving away. The liaison frowned, wondering why her friend was so upset by this. It couldn't really be that much of an issue, could it? Apparently it was, as they spent the rest of the flight in silence, though Emily didn't move away when the blonde gave in to her impulse to recapture her hand. JJ held it tightly, trying to find some way to convey through the contact that she was all right and the brunette had nothing to worry about. Somehow she doubted Emily was reassured. They filed the empty space by reading what Garcia had sent them on Datton, discovering that the writer had moved to Montana after getting her degree two years ago. She must have written, or at least finished, the book up in the mountains, then. Maybe that's why she'd moved. She needed the quiet to write. She doubted it was that simple, though.
"Ladies," the captain announced over the intercom after about another hour or so, "We're about to start our descent. I know you're familiar with the drill, but please stay seated and buckled in. Thank you."
The landing was fairly smooth, as always, and when they got off the plane there was a car waiting with an agent leaning against it. The red-haired, athletic woman straightened as they approached, almost saluting, much to JJ's amusement. It was a completely different attitude than the locals would have, and it was kind of refreshing.
"Agents, welcome to Montana," the other agent started, seeing that the two BAU members were eager to go, "I've programmed a GPS system for the address your analyst provided, and because we sometimes lose the signal out here, I have written directions as well. Safe driving. If you want any backup, my partner and I can accompany you."
All this was said in a rush, and a glance at Emily revealed that the brunette was as amused as she was.
"Thank you, agent, but that won't be necessary," the profiler replied, taking the sheet with the directions out of the agent's outstretched hand and giving her one of her most pleasant smiles, "It's better not to show up with more people than necessary, but we'll keep your offer in mind."
The redhead nodded, backing away from the car, her eyes fixed on the brunette in a way that Jennifer was decidedly displeased with. She was just a little too interested, she decided, and if the woman ran her eyes over Emily the way she had just done again, she might just have to take drastic action. Who did the woman think she was, anyway? She hadn't even introduced herself properly and already she was looking at Emily like she was ready to tear her clothes off!
"Jennifer," a familiar voice called, breaking her out of her seething thoughts, "Let's go."
She turned to look into dark eyes, surprised and confused by the tenderness and amusement in them. She might have said something, but she remembered the presence of the other agent and simply nodded, going around to the passenger's side, since Emily was obviously planning on driving. Once they were on the road, the profiler glanced over at her, smiling warmly.
"You know, if you're going to be my bodyguard, we're going to need to change your wardrobe a little."
Jennifer, who had been reading over the printed directions, jerked her head up and around to stare at her companion. The brunette's focus was once again on the road, but in profile the smile Emily was trying to contain was very visible.
"What are you talking about?" the liaison asked, looking down at her comfortable black jeans, blue v-neck, and sensible black shoes, "When did I become your bodyguard? And what's wrong with my outfit?"
Emily chuckled over, letting go of the wheel with one hand and moving that limb to JJ's thigh, where it stayed. She shivered at the contact, extremely aware of the little movements she could feel through the thick fabric of her pants. JJ sighed, forcing herself to relax, noticing as she did that the longer that hand stayed there, the calmer she felt. It was almost like Emily was anchoring her, though why she needed an anchor she didn't know.
"There's nothing wrong with your outfit. You look beautiful, Jennifer," the brunette was saying, and she refocused on her friend's voice, smiling in response to the compliment but waiting for the rest, wondering if she was about to be teased or even insulted. Not that it was Emily's style to insult her. When the profiler went on, though, it did nothing to ease her confusion.
"But the fact is, if you're going to go around looking at anyone who flirts with me, or even just gives me that look, like you're getting ready to tear them into microscopic pieces, then you're going to have to butch yourself up so your victims know what to expect. The way you look now, they're not even going to have a chance to defend themselves once you start punching. Or shooting, whichever you prefer."
JJ blinked a couple times, wondering if she had somehow landed in some alternate universe, but everything stayed just the same. When Emily's eyes met hers briefly the brunette laughed, lightly squeezing her thigh. She almost didn't hear what her friend said next, too distracted by the warmth of that hand and the shivers that were traveling up and down her leg.
"You were looking at that agent like you were going to kill her, Jennifer," Emily explained with another laugh, giving her another quick smile, "And if she had touched me, I thought you just might start a fight. I've never seen you look at anyone that way, not even UnSubs."
Jennifer was about to object, then she remembered the rage that had been building up while she'd watched the pretty redhead give her friend the eye. She sputtered, trying to find some way to justify her behavior, but there wasn't anything she could say, so she resorted to laughing along with Emily, releasing the tension from her muscles as she did. They drove in silence for a while, comfortable with each other once again, the friction that had been caused in the plane almost fading to nothing. Finally the blonde sighed, lightly grasping Emily's hand and squeezing gently, getting the profiler's attention.
"I didn't like the way she was looking at you," she explained softly, putting into words something she was just coming to understand herself, "She didn't introduce herself, didn't bother with anything other than business and looking at you like a piece of meat. I've seen men look at women that way, and that's bad enough. But they're men. They're supposed to be like that. A woman should know better, and you... You deserve better than that."
She could feel dark eyes on her, but JJ kept her gaze facing forward, unable to look at her friend as she spoke.
"All she knew was that you're a BAU profiler and this gorgeous woman with a beautiful smile. She didn't even ask your name. If you had said 'Hey, let's get a motel room!' she probably would have said yes without a second, or first thought. But that's not right, Emily," the liaison went on, shaking her head and trying to make some sense of her own thoughts as she added, "I know I have no right to say this or tell you who to sleep with, but you deserve someone who understands you, someone who loves you, not a one night stand with some man, or woman, who doesn't even have the courtesy to ask your name."
JJ heard a soft sigh, then the hand on her thigh moved away. She missed the contact immediately, and her leg felt cold where Emily's hand had been. She gave in and looked over at her companion, jumping slightly when that hand reached over again, the backs of those long fingers lightly caressing her face before it once again retreated to the steering wheel.
"I don't think you have anything to worry about," the older woman replied, her voice soft and warm, "I'm not interested in one night stands. I have what matters right here."
The blonde couldn't decide whether to be embarrassed or charmed, so her brain settled on both, leaving her blushing and smiling like an idiot. Emily let it be, which she was grateful for. She didn't think she could handle any teasing on the subject when she wasn't even sure how she felt about all the connotations in her friend's comment. Somehow JJ lost herself in thought, because the next thing she knew the SUV was stopped and Emily was standing at her door, holding it open with a bemused look on her face. She gave her an embarrassed smile, scolding herself mentally for getting lost in her head again, and slid out of the big vehicle into bitingly cold mountain air, looking around curiously despite the chill that cut right through her clothes. They had pulled up to a log cabin of sorts, though that was a modest word for the structure. The building blended into its surroundings, becoming part of the woods that were backing it rather than being separate. It was clear whoever had designed it had intended for it to be that way, but it somehow managed to look almost as if the cabin had been grown rather than built.
"You know," she started as they walked up the clearly marked path to the front stoop, knowing that Emily was taking in every detail just as she was, "I can't help but think that the kind of person who would want to live in a place like this isn't going to fly into Los Angeles to kill people."
The profiler nodded, looking around again once they reached the porch before knocking on the door, her free hand hovering not far from her gun. It couldn't have been more than a few seconds before the door swung open, revealing a tall woman wearing loose black jeans, hiking boots, and long-sleeved red shirt, her smoky brown hair tied back in a short pony tail that was more functional than anything else. Her eyes, when they met JJ's blue ones, were what really grabbed the person who saw them. They were dark gray, the color similar to pewter or lead, but their color wasn't the most distinctive thing about them. It was the pain in them, and the sense that their owner had seen far more than she ever wanted to and had not come out of it unscathed.
"Keira Datton?" Emily asked, her mind racing in an attempt to decide if she was looking at a serial killer and maybe even walking into a trap. The woman nodded silently, looking between them before setting her gaze on the taller agent. She had expected some surprise, some sense that they were unexpected, but there was nothing like that. All she could see was the pain and an expression of resigned exhaustion.
"We're with the-"
"FBI, I'm sure," Keira interrupted, her tone somehow managing to keep from being rude, "The Behavioral Analysis unit, perhaps?"
The older woman glanced at JJ, who gave her a quick look in return that told her Keira's attitude and demeanor had taken her off guard as well. And there was something about her voice that had grabbed at Emily's attention. It was low, for a woman, and there were hints of an accent that might have been British, but she doubted it. She couldn't quite place it. It was just something about the way she rolled the A's and slightly slurred S's.
"We're from the BAU," Emily confirmed, trying to find some way to read the woman in front of her, "I'm Agent Emily Prentiss, and this is Agent Jennifer Jareau, or JJ. We'd like to speak with you, if you wouldn't mind. Could we come in?"
The writer stepped back, opening the door more widely for them. When Emily hesitated for just a second, Keira seemed to almost smile before turning away, walking into the house and clearly expecting them to follow. They did, though slowly, and Jennifer closed the door behind them with a certain amount of reluctance. Despite the caution and concern they were walking into a trap laid by a serial killer, was something of a relief to get warm after the short exposure to the mountain air, which had made the elbow and shoulder of her left arm throb, reminding her of the injuries her body was still recovering from. Shoving those thoughts aside, she tracked Keira to a kitchen offset from the main living area, noting as she did that the place was set up to be open and airy. There was a short hall, which she guessed led to whatever bedrooms and bathrooms the house had, but it looked like the living room was the focal point of the home. There was a desk that looked like a computer should be there but wasn't off to one side, facing the rest of the living room and the television. Overall the place gave an impression of an orderly mind that could tolerate some chaos, but not too much. It was comfortable, she decided, and she had to admit that everything she saw in this house supported JJ's earlier commented. If her home was any indication, she was not their UnSub.
"Would you two like some tea?" the writer called, breaking her out of her thoughts, "I'd just put some water on to boil before you arrived."
She searched the comment for any hint that the woman considered their presence an intrusion or worse, but there was none. If anything, it almost seemed as if Keira had been expecting them.
"That would be fine, thank you," she replied, resorting to courtesy to hide her growing discomfort. It was strange, she decided, to be more uncomfortable with being treated politely than she was when the BAU's arrival was met with anger or worse. She was once again broken out of her reverie by Keira, who returned from the kitchen carrying a tray. There was silence for a few moments while the two federal agents seated themselves on a black leather couch that matched the dark tones of the rest of the furniture and made a pleasant contrast to the paler walls and the tea was served, then Keira sat down in a chair, her cup in one hand, something Emily couldn't quite see in the other.
"Keira," the young woman interrupted, once again managing to keep from being rude, "If you came all the way out here, it wasn't to make nice with me, but I'd still prefer you use my first name. And unless I'm very much mistaken, you're here about this."
She tossed something on the coffee table between them, and Emily picked it up, realizing it was a manuscript. Specifically, it was the manuscript for Fracture, and she looked up into the dark gray eyes that were watching her with a look of one expecting to hear something they already knew.
"We were hoping to talk to you about that, yes," JJ confirmed, speaking up for the first time, "Your book has some striking similarities to a series of murders we're investigating, some of which took place before this was published, and others as recently as four days ago."
Keira nodded, taking a slow sip of her tea and staring down into her cup, looking like she was drawing strength from somewhere inside herself, strength she seemed to need to go on.
"You want to know if the woman in it exists," she stated, making it clear it wasn't a question, "and how I knew the details of murders that hadn't happened yet. And you're also hoping to find out if I knew because I'm your serial killer."
Neither agent spoke then. There was no need, and all three women knew it. The writer was quiet for a while, then leaned forward, reclaiming the manuscript, her hand pressing down on its soft cover as if she could reach through it into the world it described.
"You've probably profiled me already," the young woman went on finally, "and you probably have a hunch that I'm not your killer. Well, whether you believe me or not, I haven't killed anyone, though maybe this once that isn't something to be proud of."
She sighed, shaking her head slowly.
"The heroine of this book, if you want to call her that, exists. So do most of the people it describes, in some form or another. All my characters are made up of various people I've known, but a few are solely themselves. My mentor, the woman who saved me more times than I can count, stayed herself, as did her partner of some forty years. And the protagonist's guardian... She existed once."
For just a moment Keira's face was a mask of remembered agony, then she sighed again, meeting the watching gaze of the two federal agents, her eyes giving them a window into a soul that had been, and still was, tormented by fear, guilt, and regret. They both knew that look, having seen it in each other's faces, and their own, more than once in the last month or so.
"The antagonist I described in Fracture was my girlfriend, my lover, for a the better part of a year. That was over four years ago now. I left her the day she decided she was going to buy illegal drugs, which she happened to be allergic to, rather than going to therapy."
The writer must have realized she was leaving a lot out, because she leaned back and took another sip of tea, visibly collecting her thoughts.
"Her name was... Is," she corrected, sounding as if the present tense hurt to use, "Jenna Odari. She was diagnosed bipolar, with psychotic and paranoid features just to make things more interesting. Later on it was decided that she had schizoaffective disorder, which filled in a lot of holes. When I met her she was on medication, Lithium among others, but it didn't take long for her to go off them, which caused her to spiral into a depression before rising into mania. Most of the time I knew her she was manic and unstable. She was dangerously addicted to opiates, and in the course of what passed for a normal week in our life together we'd visit emergency rooms for one reason or another at least three or four times. As time went on, she became more convinced in her own superiority, more convinced that she had power over people. Eventually she came to believe she was the creator of the universe."
Keira fell silent, which Emily was grateful for. She needed a moment to absorb what she'd just been told, and all the subtext along with it. It was becoming exceedingly clear that this was torturous for the young writer to talk about, which was why she was rushing to get it all out at once. Fortunately, Jennifer had been taking notes, leaving her the job of listening to the story and hearing what wasn't said.
"It wasn't all her fault," Keira went on reflectively after a few minutes, "I enabled her delusions, even encouraged them early on, not realizing what I was doing. Jenna had warned me before she went off her meds that it would happen. She tried to get me to leave, but I wouldn't. I loved her, and I thought maybe if I loved her enough, she would start to heal. Instead she got worse, because when she lost touch with reality, I gave up on the real world too. I surrendered to her world, became a part of it, using my abilities as a storyteller to build on the fantasy, making a place for me in her world."
The writer shook her head, bowing her head to look at her hands.
"When I fought the fantasy, Jenna found ways to convince me to fall back into line. Sometimes it was sex, others it was threats and fear. And until the drugs, it worked. I watched her get drunk, inject herself with opiates she had dissolved and heated, for hours, and I stayed. But when she decided she was going to do heroin... I bolted. One of her old friends got me out, and I went back just long enough to have her institutionalized by her parents, who we were living with at the time. I moved across the country and lost touch with her, but I remembered everything, all the fantasies, all the pain... And the good times. I had promised her once that I would write a book, a story about her. So I did. I wrote Fracture."
Keira picked up the manuscript again, flipping through it absently.
"I knew one day she would become the killer she is in the book," she went on brokenly, clearly fighting back tears, "I knew one day someone would come find me, looking for a killer, looking for her. So I waited here, aware that she would eventually remember me and know that I had betrayed her, and she would kill me too. Either that or I would be found by the people who wanted to catch her. I guess it was the latter this time."
Emily noticed something odd about the statement, but it took her a moment to realize what it was, and when she figured it out she wasn't reassured. Unless she was very much mistaken, Keira might actually have preferred the former to, as she had put it, "betraying" Jenna Odari.
"Can you help us find her?" the profiler asked gently, worried that Keira either couldn't or wouldn't. As the silence stretched on, she glanced at Jennifer, seeing the same fear in those blue eyes that would be in her own had she looked in a mirror.
"I have to," Keira whispered at last, meeting Emily's dark eyes with an expression so wounded that for a moment the older woman worried she was going to have a mental break. That look was the same one she herself had worn after being rescued, and she wondered just how much suffering Jenna had caused this woman. As if hearing her thoughts, Keira's gaze suddenly turned piercing and she straightened, pulling her shirt off in a smooth motion. Though the plain white sports bra covered part of her chest, vivid scars were visible on much of her upper torso, forming some sort of symbol she couldn't identify.
"Jenna marked me," the writer stated firmly, her voice startlingly calm, "The scars have barely faded since she first did it. This is just the most visible mark she left behind."
Keira sank back into her chair, pulling her shirt back on in movements that lacked any of the energy she had just displayed, as if the demonstration had taken all she had, but when she met Emily's eyes the agent was looking into gray fire.
"I wrote her story," she murmured, looking between the two agents, "and now I have to finish it. I'll help you find her."
"How do you plan to do that?" Jennifer asked, her voice gentle but firm, "If you haven't spoken to her in years..."
For the first time since they'd arrived Keira smiled, though the expression more closely resembled grief than pleasure.
"You live in close quarters with someone, you share a room that becomes the center of your reality, you learn their habits, the way they think, their quirks, the things they like and the things they fear. I'm probably the only one alive aside from her parents who knows her that well, and if your team doesn't catch her soon, it'll just be me. I know where she's going to go, because I know who she most wants to kill. You wouldn't have come looking for me unless it was desperate."
Emily nodded and rose, Jennifer a split second behind her as if anticipating the move, which she probably had.
"Whenever you're ready, then, we'd like you to accompany us to Los Angeles. Our team is there waiting."
Keira nodded, getting to her feet and disappearing down the hall, reappearing moments later wearing a snap-collar black leather jacket and glasses, a single-strap backpack over her shoulder.
"That's all you're bringing?" Emily asked carefully, her tone conveying the real question of 'you're ready that fast?' The writer shrugged, lifting an arm in a gesture that took in the house.
"This is my home. I can't exactly pack it and take it to LA, so this will have to do. And I realize it may appear strange that I'm ready to leave when I didn't even know you were coming today, but as I told you, I've been waiting for this for a while. I'm not the type to go into this sort of thing unprepared."
The two agents had no choice but to accept that, and the three women went out to the SUV. By some unspoken consent Keira sat in the back on the passenger's side, leaning her head against the back of the seat and closing her eyes. It was like she couldn't watch as they left her home behind, Emily caught herself thinking, wondering why the departure seemed so final. Shrugging off the dark cloud that had fallen over her thoughts as best she could, she focused on driving and getting as much information out of Keira as she could, though she was careful not to push too hard. The more the young woman talked, the more she found herself reminded of Kari, the girl who had been the only survivor when her family had been killed, and the girl she'd nearly adopted. The writer was older and more mature than the teenage Kari had been, but when Keira talked about the events following her break up with Jenna, there was the same tone of loss, confusion, and fear that Kari had when she'd talked about the murder of her family.
"Keira," she started hesitantly in a break in the younger woman's narrative, "you talk about Jenna as if she were dead. You always use the past tense. Why is that?"
When the writer didn't immediately answer she glanced back, startled by the agony in the dark gray eyes as they looked into hers.
"My Jenna, the woman I fell in love with years ago, she's dead. She was killed by the disease, by the drugs, by herself... And... And by me, I suppose. I won't ever get her back. I can't think of her as my Jenna, Agent Prentiss... If I do I think I might lose my mind."
Emily frowned, looking at the writer in the rearview mirror, catching Jennifer doing the same. That wasn't the answer either of them had been expecting, and it was a little disturbing to hear something like that from a woman who had proven to be largely pragmatic and realistic. Keira sighed, shrugging and turning to look out the window.
"Someone taught me that a mind as broken as Jenna's can have different 'selves.' I'm not talking so much about personalities as projected images. The Jenna I fell in love with was warm, kind, and understanding. She loved without conditions or need. As she went off the meds that kept her self-image stable, those parts of her were consumed by others, the parts of her that needed control and power. She began to project the sickness as herself, until that became all she was. It's like a quote I read a book once."
"'You are who you pretend to be,'" Emily quoted quietly, remembering saying those same words to Morgan once, "'So be careful who you pretend to be.'"
The writer nodded, her gaze still focused on the scenery as they drove by it.
"Yeah, something like that. When she saw the sick part of herself in the mirror and it got to be all she could see, that's what she became. The woman I knew, the woman I loved, she doesn't exist unless Jenna were to find that side of herself again, but I gave up on that a long time ago. In order for her to be that woman again, she'd have to see herself that way, and she won't. That requires medication, anti-psychotics, anti-depressants, and she won't take them. So instead she's become a psychotic serial killer who lures her victims and her helpers with her intelligence and sheer sexuality, both of which she has in abundance."
Quiet reigned in the SUV after that, the profiler and the liaison both mentally sorting all the new information to present to the team later. Without thinking Emily reached over to rest her hand on Jennifer's thigh, only aware she'd done it when the blonde shivered faintly at her touch, though when she looked there was no sign she objected. Emily caught a glimpse of Keira's face in the mirror as she turned back to the road, realizing the brunette had caught the move. The expression on her face was odd, a mix of pain, jealousy, and gentle amusement, and it stayed stuck in her head the rest of the way back to the airstrip, where their jet was refueled and ready to go thanks to an earlier call from JJ to the captain. When the writer saw the jet she smiled, but the expression faded almost instantly, replaced by quiet sadness.
"Is something wrong?" Emily asked quietly as they boarded, but Keira shook her head, summoning a weak smile for the agent.
"Not really. Just memories. My father was a pilot, and the last time I was in a plane he was with me. That was when I moved to Montana almost two years ago. He died not long after of cancer."
"I'm so sorry," the profiler replied, and she meant it. It was becoming increasingly clear that in her relatively short life the woman had suffered a great deal of loss and pain, more than anyone should have to bear. The younger brunette fixed her with a long look, her gray eyes flitting to a spot just above her eyes before looking back into the dark depths.
"I think maybe I should say the same to you. It looks like you've had some... trouble... recently."
Emily froze, hearing the way Keira stumbled over the word 'trouble,' realizing what she really meant by it. She shifted her bangs self-consciously, pulling them back over the scar on her forehead. The writer looked past her, then away, her face turning just a little red. Emily looked behind her and noticed that Jennifer was standing there, a look that was some mix of concern, anger, and understanding on her face.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that."
"It's all right," the profiler burst out, stepping closer to the younger woman on impulse. She had the sense that if she didn't take hold of this opening, she'd miss out on something, some chance to connect with the girl. Spurred on by the hope and fear in the gray eyes, she reached out, gently gripping the other brunette's arm.
"It's all right," she repeated in a softer voice, "Really. It's just that it's something that happened fairly recently and I'm not entirely used to the idea yet."
The rumbling of the plane's engines starting up interrupted any response Keira might have made, but once they were seated, JJ and Emily siting together facing the writer, the younger woman remarked, "Those kinds of scars, and the things that cause them... They do take time to get used to, as much as anyone can get used to... those things."
Emily was very, very grateful the woman hadn't said the word 'torture,' which she clearly had been about to. Even this extremely cautious conversation was pushing at the weak spots in her internal armor, and she absolutely could not afford to lose control right then.
"It does," Jennifer agreed quietly from her side, and the profiler felt a calloused hand take hold of her own, steadying her and giving her the strength to reinforce the barriers in her mind that kept the memories at bay. Keira looked between them, then sighed, reaching over to pick up the bag she'd set down at her side, unzipping a side pocket and pulling out a small device the size of a keychain, which Emily quickly realized was one of those miniature digital photo album keychains. Keira pressed something, making a picture appear and looking at it for a long moment before holding it out to the two federal agents. The picture was of a grinning, relaxed Keira being embraced from behind by a smiling woman with slightly curly black hair and dark, laughing eyes. There was something about the woman that reminded Emily of a cat, though, a sense that she was quite capable of hunting and killing what threatened the woman in her arms.
"That's Shamira Resman," the writer explained softly, and the older woman noticed that the way she accented the name sounded Hebrew. The name Shamira meant "guard" or "protector," and she had no doubt this was the woman Keira had mentioned earlier as her guardian.
"Who was she?" the profiler asked gently, and Keira sighed, looking down at her empty hands. When she answered Emily got the impression that this Shamira woman was the source of some pleasant, and some very painful, memories.
"After my father died, I got a some very threatening messages and there was even an attempt on my life when I went to LA for his funeral. When I talked to my mentor about it, she used her connections to get me some security, over my objections. Shamira was that security. She and I... We got very close in the eighteen months or so that I knew her. She told me she had fallen in love with me... But that same day, the 23rd of last November, she died protecting me, true to her word. I don't know what you think Jenna's body count is, but Shamira was her first kill, though not her first victim. Even I don't know who the first was."
The dark agent sorted through that, her eyes widening as she absorbed the implication.
"How many people has Jenna Odari killed?" Jennifer asked, sounding a little breathless. Emily, worried by her tone, looked over, seeing a look in those blue eyes that surprised her. There was fear in that gaze, and what looked oddly like longing, which was completely out of place considering the question she'd just asked. Emily realized the longing had to do with the emotion in Keira's voice when she described her bodyguard, but knowing that didn't really help the confusion.
"I don't know how many your people are looking at," Keira replied steadily, her voice taking on that strangely calm quality it had at very peculiar times, "but that I know of, 7, though all but two of them were indirect. Planned and encouraged by her, but she didn't get her hands dirty until later."
"Later?" Emily asked, slightly distracted by her concern for her friend but otherwise completely focused on what the younger woman had to say. Gray eyes met hers, the expression in them an odd mix of anger and sadness.
"The first three were doctors she felt had done wrong to her. She got whoever she was fucking or buying drugs from at the time to do it for her in return for promises. The other two were those previously mentioned men, who she persuaded to kill themselves. Shamira, though," and here the writer hesitated for the first time in this recital, pain flaring behind her dark eyes as she choked out, "Shamira she killed herself. Stabbed her with a knife that I had left behind when I ran away four years ago. We were just in LA to meet with my editor to finalize the book "
At their odd looks she muttered, "I've been collecting knives and swords for years. It's something of a hobby of mine."
"That means in the last year or two Jenna Odari has killed at least 13 people," Jennifer whispered, glancing at Emily with horrified eyes before looking back at the watching writer. Keira was quiet for a moment, then sighed, gently taking the picture keychain out of Emily's hand and looking down at the picture it still displayed.
"That would make sense. Jenna has a sort of obsession with the number 3, though it was 4 for a while. She's either going to kill her parents next, making it fifteen, or she's going to kill someone else, either before or after. Either way, her parents are going to end up dead."
While not the most shocking thing Keira had said since they met her, it did take both agents somewhat by surprise. What was most disturbing was how calm the young woman was about the statement she had just made, as if she had merely commented on the weather. She must have seen the look they both gave her, because she chuckled wryly and held up a hand in a gesture of resignation.
"Since the first person she killed, I've known who her real targets were," Keira explained patiently, her comfort level with the subject not reassuring the two agents at all, "and even before that, really. I've known for years that if she ever crossed that line, they would become her victims. She loves them desperately, and she depended on them to support her financially, and keep a roof over her head, since she was always incapable of holding a job. The reality is that she needed them, and that's why they're still alive. But if, as you say, she's killed 13 people, she's already preparing to murder them too."
"How can you be so-" Jennifer started in an indignant tone, but a sharp look from Keira cut her off, the gray eyes suddenly burning with rage.
"'So' what, Agent Jareau?" the brunette growled, her voice cold and seething with barely contained emotion, "Don't think for a moment that I'm not sickened by all of this. I know far better than you do what goes on in that woman's head. I lived in her world, and nearly died there. Whatever she'd done, whatever it is that brought your team to LA, it's nothing compared to what she'll do to those two people. Whatever the worst you've seen is, she'll cross that line and show you a glimpse of what awaits in the deepest circles of hell. She is insane, Agent, and there is nothing she won't do. You, Agent Prentiss, your team, me, we're nothing to her, nothing but minor obstacles or useful pawns. In her mind there is no one above her, no one equal to her, and so she has the right to do whatever she wants to them."
The liaison turned to Emily, who had a hand on her gun, the other shifting to gently grasp her friend's arm. She was fully prepared to pull the blonde behind her if Keira made a single threatening move, but once again the writer seemed to become exhausted just talking about her former lover, and she wilted back against her seat, her eyes glazing over somewhat.
"You can relax, Agent Prentiss," she muttered quietly, her gaze flitting to the gun before focusing on Emily's face, "I may not be entirely stable when it comes to Jenna, but I'm not about to attack you or Agent Jareau. I said I would help find her, and I will. I'm sorry I lost my temper."
The profiler stayed quiet until JJ relaxed under her hand and the blue eyes gentled in understanding Emily herself was already feeling.
"I wasn't going to show you these," she started once the writer and the press liaison had come to an unspoken agreement that a truce had been called, "but maybe you should see them. You might be the only person who can tell us why, and how much further it could go."
She took the case file JJ somehow had handy, giving her companion a warm, grateful smile as she did. Keira hesitated just slightly before taking the file from the other brunette, but then her body straightened and her expression became determined. She paged through the reports first, her eyebrow rising as she read, then she sorted through the pictures as the agents looked on, gauging her reaction. Yet again it wasn't what they expected. Instead of the shock and terrified horror every member of the BAU had felt, the young writer just closed her eyes for a moment and sighed, looking back up at them with a haunted, yet resigned, expression.
"I had hoped she had just been ranting when she talked about some of these things," the writer commented in a voice threaded with pain and despair, "but apparently she meant every word. And I didn't stop her then... They let her go."
"Let her go?" Emily asked, grasping again at the oddities in the younger woman's statement "Who let her go? Go from where?"
The brunette blinked, then shook her head, her expression almost sheepish as she looked up from the pictures.
"Sorry. I get lost in thought sometimes," she explained with an embarrassed chuckle, then sobered, her face losing any trace of humor, "I told you that when I left I had her hospitalized. I also recommended to her parents that for their safety, hers, and everyone else's, she be put into a permanent facility for treatment. They did put her into a residential facility once the lockdown on her in the first hospital had been lifted, which only happened because she was being moved. I had hoped the issue was settled, but then I found out how lax the place was. I lost touch with her and her parents, so I didn't know she had gotten out until she..."
Keira trailed off and looked away, but Emily noticed that her hand had a white-knuckled grip on Shamira's picture. A quick look at JJ told her the blonde had seen the gesture too, and neither of them had the heart to say the words when the young writer probably heard them echoing in her mind, over and over. Once the younger woman had relaxed somewhat, Emily asked gently, "Are you going to be all right?"
Dark gray eyes fixed on hers, so full of turmoil, regret, guilt, and pain that she couldn't stop herself from shifting to the seats and pulling Keira to her in a warm embrace. The writer stiffened under her touch, then abruptly melted against the profiler, crying helplessly into her shoulder in what might very well be the first time in a very long time, if Emily judged her correctly. She had been wondering while Keira told her story just how long it had been since she'd had anyone to really talk to, a sympathetic ear and a shoulder to cry on. Isolated as she had been up in her mountains, she doubted the opportunity came often. She doubted even more that the writer would take it easily.
"It's all right," she whispered soothingly, once again reminded of Kari and holding the young teenager, "Let it go, Keira. It's okay."
When Emily looked up Jennifer was watching her with an expression so tender and warm that she blushed faintly, her mind calling up the image of being on the other side of this tableau while JJ had held Kari after her nightmare in the hospital. As soon as the liaison saw that Emily was watching, she smiled and reached over to lightly squeeze the dark agent's knee in a gesture at once understanding, encouraging, and reassuring. Emily couldn't count the number of times Jennifer had held her like this, and it pained her to realize that the woman in her arms hadn't had that at some of the worst times in her life. She knew, without any doubt, that she had made it through the torture and the aftermath because Jennifer had been there. So how did this young woman survive?
"I'm sorry," she heard the writer whisper after some indefinable period, but the young woman didn't pull back. From how slack her body had become, and how raw and raspy her voice was, the drain on her reserves, both physical and emotional, had been enormous. Emily smiled, feeling in Keira's body the same lassitude that had often come over her after such releases of pent up fear and guilt.
"Don't be, Keira," the profiler answered gently, hugging her a little more tightly, "It's all right. Just rest now. You're safe here. We've got you. Just rest."
Keira seemed to struggle against her obvious exhaustion for a few minutes, but in the end her weariness won out and she slept. Both agents noticed the softness about the writer as she relaxed against Emily, and the brunette found herself reminded of a young child. The thought startled her, and she looked up at Jennifer, who was watching them both with sad, sympathetic blue eyes.
"She's so young, Jennifer," Emily whispered, not wanting to disturb the woman in her arms but willing to bet she was largely dead to the world, "She's just a kid. She never got to be a normal college kid, going out drinking and partying, getting in trouble. Instead she had to spend every day knowing there was a killer out there and unable to do anything about it. She couldn't betray Jenna, and that alone tells us how much influence the woman has on the people around her."
JJ nodded slowly, but Emily could guess that she was wondering why Keira hadn't come forward with information on Jenna Odari when she'd first started killing. Emily wasn't entirely sure, but she thought maybe the writer had. How else would she have gotten a bodyguard? Someone had known about Jenna, and they were the ones who hadn't notified the proper authorities. No wonder Keira had been so guarded initially. She'd already been failed by law enforcement before this, so why wouldn't it happen again? She could see her friend coming to at least some of the same conclusions by the sudden flare of anger in her blue eyes and the way one of those calloused but elegant hands reached out to brush brown hair of Keira's face.
"Maybe she'll get a chance at a life once this is over," the blonde whispered, but when she met Emily's eyes, it was like looking into a reflection of her own emotions.
"You don't really believe that, do you?" Emily asked, her voice filled with the aching misery she had started becoming aware of the closer they got to LA, "You don't think she'll have that chance any more than I do."
Jennifer looked away, and when she looked back her eyes were glimmering suspiciously, confirming Emily's fears.
"We can protect her," the blonde whispered weakly, "The team will look after her. She'll be all right. She'll make it."
The profiler shook her dark head, looking down at the woman-child she was holding before looking back up at the woman she'd fallen in love with, knowing from JJ's expression that all her fear, sadness, and misery showed clearly on her face.
"Then why do I have this feeling that the minute we walk her into that field office we're signing her death warrant?"
Jennifer had no response for that, and Emily hated to see the helplessness in the blue eyes. The blonde must have seen something in her own brown eyes, because the next thing Emily knew the liaison was kneeling in front of her, one of her hands slowly clasping Emily's in unspoken support and sympathy. There was nothing either of them could say to change that horrible feeling of foreboding, so they didn't try. They just sat there together, supporting each other as best they could and watching over the broken writer while they had the chance.
Date and Time: March 11, 2008, 13:34 (Pacific Time)
Location: Skylight Books, Los Angeles, California
"Reid, come on, you haven't finished with that book yet?" Derek asked his companion, absently flipping through a copy of the book Reid was reading with much more interest. Tillman had already left, called out to one of the crime scenes to help Hotch, Rossi, and Govar with something. He wished he could have joined the LA agent, but someone had to stay with Reid.
"I've read it twice, actually," Spencer replied distractedly, "It's interesting. I'm not sure I've read a novel quite like this before. It reads like a profile in places, and at times it's hard to tell who the heroine is supposed to be. It's not the killer, but it's not really the main character either. If anything, it's telling the story of the people around those two. The woman who wrote this clearly had intimate knowledge of psychology and of the shadows in her own mind."
"So is she the killer or what?" Morgan asked, impatient with the young genius and eager to get moving, aware that every minute they spent here was one minute the UnSub had on them. Reid gave him a sideways look, and if he wasn't very much mistaken the expression on the younger man's face resembled the one he'd worn after Emily had been taken, a look that shut him up faster than anything his colleague could have said. He looked away, his eye falling on a brunette that was browsing the shelves nearby. She was pretty, he noticed, in an unconventional sort of way. She was about average height for a woman, and her face was angular in places, soft in others, and her nose should have been just a little too long for beauty but it wasn't. When she glanced in his direction he was struck by the warmth and knowledge her brown eyes conveyed.
"You looking at Fracture, huh?" she asked, nodding slightly toward the book he held.
"Uh, yeah..." he replied, surprised to find himself stammering a little, unsure how he'd gotten thrown so completely off his game, "My boss heard about it, told us to check it out."
That all-knowing gaze brushed over the apparently oblivious Reid before coming back to him, a hint of a smile playing on the woman's lips. She reached up, brushing a bit of fine brown hair out of her eyes, the red highlights catching the light as she shifted. He caught a glimpse of a messy bun and darker shades, then her voice and the movement of her large eyes caught his attention.
"I knew Keira once," the brunette remarked, and for just a second there was something unnerving about the woman, something that made him want to move back, but it was gone so fast he was sure he had imagined it.
"Did you?" he asked curiously, "Some of my colleagues are going out to meet her now. What's she like?"
Again there was something indefinable about the stranger, something that made him twitch, but again it was gone so fast he couldn't put a finger on what it could be. She smiled, but the expression carried a world of hurt behind it, and he found himself angry at whoever had caused that pain.
"She seemed sweet at first, charming even," she explained, sounding almost nostalgic until her tone altered, becoming harsher and at the same time more wounded, "but I found out how psycho she really was later. Almost too late, actually. If you're looking for her because you're looking for the person who's been killing all those people in the news, you won't have to look far. Once you find her, you'll find your killer. She wrote down exactly what she was going to do. She was manipulative, always telling stories and getting a thrill out of watching people jump through her hoops."
There was something odd about the stranger, Morgan knew, but he found he couldn't quite think what it could possibly be. She was charismatic, and sheer force of personality rolled off her in waves. And yet... She seemed so fragile. When she talked about Datton she had paled a little, looked nervous, almost as if she expected the writer to appear from thin air and hurt her. Somehow that idea really bothered him.
"I'm sorry Miss," Derek apologized suddenly, holding out his hand, "But I never caught your name."
The woman smiled almost shyly, gripping his hand firmly, but not too firmly. "Jo. And what about you?"
"Derek Morgan," he answered, smiling warmly as he regained his bearings, shaking off whatever had been slowing down his thinking before, "And you're right. I'm investigating the recent murders here in LA with my colleagues in the FBI. Any information you could offer would be very welcome."
Jo smiled again, stepping slightly closer, managing to linger just at the outer edge of his personal space.
"Well, Agent," here she paused, tilting her head to one side, "I assume that's right? Agent?"
He liked her all the better for that slight show of vulnerability, and his smile widened.
"Yeah, that's right."
Her lips curved into one of the most attractive and subtly flirtatious smiles he'd ever seen, and she edged closer again, still not quite invading his space, but getting close.
"Okay, Agent Morgan. I might be able to find some of Keira's old stuff. She was my roommate for a while, but she left in a hurry after I kicked her out. I never fell for her psychobabble, or all that stuff she used to tell me about her not taking her meds because she was allergic to them, or any of that, but I tried to help her. It just got to be too much after a while. She was bipolar, and she had it bad. Her whole family did. But anyway... How should I contact you to let you know if I hear or find anything?"
He grinned, proud that he'd gotten the woman to open up about the writer, and hurriedly fished out one of his cards, his cell number written on the back. He didn't want to lose his chance.
"You think of anything, or you feel you might be in danger, you call that number," he explained as he handed the card over. Jo nodded, tucking it away carefully before stepping back and starting to turn away, pausing long enough to give him another of those incredible smiles before strolling away. He couldn't help but notice that the brunette's blue jeans were just tight enough to be flattering but not enough to be obvious, and her multihued dark blue tank top hugged her body without being over the top. That was a woman who was very aware of herself, aware and honest. He liked that.
The dark agent was startled at the sound of his name, and he turned, finding Reid watching him with an uncharacteristically unreadable expression on his face.
"What, kid? You done yet?"
"Yeah, I'm done," Reid replied, his voice as indecipherable as his expression, "I paid for the book already, so we can go."
He nodded, heading out of the bookstore at a fast pace, but unable to keep himself from looking around, hoping to catch sight of Jo again. Sadly she seemed to have left, and he sighed, getting into the black SUV and buckling into the driver's seat, waiting for Reid to get settled before backing out of the parking spot and heading out onto the road.
"So who was that woman you were talking with?" the younger agent asked after they'd been driving for about ten minutes, and Morgan glanced over at him before focusing on the road and the unpredictable Los Angeles traffic.
"Her name was Jo," he replied, somehow annoyed at Reid for calling the attractive brunette 'that woman,' like some common street girl, "And she may have just broken our case. She knew Keira Datton, and everything she told me about her fits the profile of our UnSub. We should call Prentiss and JJ and make sure they're okay. They might be walking into a trap. Jo implied that the woman was very deceptive."
The noncommittal response was also extremely atypical of Reid, so much so that Morgan dared to take his eyes of the road again for just a second to make sure the man sitting next to him was in fact Dr. Spencer Reid, and not someone else entirely.
"What's your problem, Reid?" Derek demanded, wincing inwardly when he realized how harsh the question had sounded, but he didn't like how Reid was acting toward him. The prodigy had been talking just fine with the team earlier, so why was he acting so weird now?
"I don't have a problem. Let's just get back to the field office."
Morgan was prepared to argue the point but the other agent stuck his nose back in Fracture, effectively cutting him off.
"Come on, Reid, don't you have that thing memorized by now?" he asked in an aggrieved tone, but Spencer didn't even look up.
"I have an eidetic memory, Derek. Of course I've memorized it. I'm looking for the nuances, the author's quirks, the things she doesn't say, that sort of thing. It's a complicated process when there's a lot going on at once."
"Why even bother?" he grumbled irritably, "We already know she's the killer. How else could she have known all the details of murders that hadn't been publicized, or even committed yet?! Our concern now should be for Emily and JJ."
Just as he said that, Reid's phone went off. Morgan feared the worst, vividly remembering Jo's carefully contained fear as she'd talked about Keira. His team had been through enough already, they didn't need some psycho writer looking to make a name for herself killing two of them.
"Hello? Oh, hey JJ. What's up?"
Derek let out a sigh of relief, taking some reassurance in the fact that Reid's body language was calm and not alarmed in any way, which it would be if what JJ was saying, or how she was saying it, were at all indicative of trouble.
"No, we just left the book store. We had to drive around for a couple hours looking for a place that had it in stock, since it's not exactly a best-seller or even something the big chains would want to carry a lot of. Then we had to find parking, and we stayed at the place for a while. I had read that Skylight was a great place to people-watch and-"
The liaison must have managed to avert the coming lecture somehow. Derek smiled to himself, sure he could hear Reid's jaw snap shut from where he sat. Still, it bugged him that his companion seemed so much more animated talking to the blonde press liaison than he had been while talking to him. They usually got along well enough, so what was the problem now?
"Oh, so you guys are already on your way back? That was fast."
The other agent was quiet for a moment, and Morgan started to worry again as his expression changed, becoming more concerned.
"Are you sure?"
Whatever JJ had said couldn't have been too reassuring, because the younger man's expression didn't clear.
"If you say so. Tell Emily to be careful driving back, all right? I'll fill you in once you get here."
Reid hung up a moment later, staring fixedly out the window for long enough for Derek to get distinctly irritated.
"So? What's up? Are they okay?"
"They're driving back from LAX with Keira Datton now," the genius replied absently, still not turning to face the other agent.
"Already? What happened?"
Now Reid did look at him, but his expression was still unreadable.
"Nothing happened. Since they took our jet and didn't have to make any stops the flight time was cut down by approximately 67%. It's much faster to fly direct than to be forced to make connecting flights."
Morgan knew that was true, but he got the sense that there was something going on in the kid's head that had nothing to do with airline statistics, or flying in general.
"So did they arrest Datton already? Get her to confess even? That would make things easier."
Reid was quiet for a long time, and when he finally did answer it could only be taken as a reprimand.
"Derek, you haven't even met the woman yet. None of us have, except Emily and JJ. We can't just jump to a conclusion because some woman you met in a bookstore told you what you wanted to hear."
"What did you say to me?" he demanded angrily, pulling out of traffic so he could give his full attention to his colleague, "What the hell is your problem, Reid?"
"You!" the younger man shot back, taking the dark profiler off guard with his intensity but giving him no chance to recover or interrupt as he added, "You made up your mind when Emily and I mentioned the book that Keira Datton was a serial killer. You just... Forgot... that she lives on nearly the opposite side of the country, and the fact she was there when Emily and JJ got there says she would have had a hard time being in Los Angeles for the last murder and see the results, which this kind of killer would need to do, or that nothing in the information we found on her suggests she's ever been diagnosed bipolar. You made an assumption, and before you go getting in trouble with Hotch for it, maybe you should take a step back and think!"
Morgan had never heard Reid quite that angry with him, or that sure of himself. And he had made that assumption, he realized, but it was the only explanation that made any sense, and he said so. Reid just shook his head, refusing to talk about it any more. Derek knew it was dangerous to make assumptions in their line of work, since life and serial killers had a way of throwing curve balls when you least expected them, but what else was he supposed to think? The woman wrote about murders that hadn't happened yet. She knew details about the ones that had happened that had never been publicized. It all fit, and he was even more convinced after talking to Jo.
"But Jo knew her!" he argued, "She said-"
The big man was forced to stop abruptly as the car ahead of theirs hit the breaks, interrupting him before he could finish. From the look on Reid's face, though, maybe that was for the best. The prodigy was silently staring at him, then he reached into his ever-present brown folio case and pulled out his iPod, putting his headphones in place and returning his attention to the book he still held. The message was clear. Morgan growled inwardly, then sighed, trying to let the anger go. Datton would be at the office soon, and they could interview her and they would see that he was right. That settled, for him at least, he focused on keeping them both alive, already framing how he would accept Reid's apology in his mind. Reid, for his part, was doing his best to contain his anger at his colleague, not wanting to lose his temper with him again. Most of the time he respected Morgan as an agent and a profiler, well aware that the other man caught things he missed, especially when it came to the social aspects of cases. Ever since Emily's kidnapping, though, there had been a nagging feeling in the back of his mind that Morgan might make another mistake like that, and this time whoever suffered for it might not survive. It wasn't a pleasant feeling, and he hated doubting a member of the BAU. They were family, and they depended on one another in more ways than one. He knew he was being harsh, especially considering he had never blamed JJ for his own kidnapping, but the circumstances had been different. It had been his own choice to split up, over JJ's objections. Morgan, though, had been right there when Emily had been grabbed, and he hadn't noticed. He'd been to busy flirting, just as he had today. What if Jo had just been there as a distraction? What if someone had grabbed him? He wasn't like Emily. He couldn't have held on like she had. That's where most of his anger came from, he realized. It stemmed from the fear that came from the realization that Morgan hadn't changed, even though his mistake had nearly gotten Emily killed. He hadn't given a second thought, or maybe even a first, to the idea that Jo was targeting him as someone who could be distracted by beautiful women.
"We're here, kid," his colleague almost shouted after a while, which was necessary because of how high he'd set his music. Reid nodded and collected his things, striding over to the elevator and not caring whether Derek kept up with him or not. Of course, the more athletic injury had no problem matching his pace, but Spencer decided to ignore the questioning look he was getting. He needed to talk to Hotch. The Unit Chief would know if his concern was justified or not, and if it were, he'd take action. The young profiler knew he could count on that. He would trust Hotch with his life. Much to his relief he could see the distinctive forms of Hotch and Rossi in with the three LA agents and breathed a little easier. Once they entered the office he could see that the men had really been making use of their walk-through of the crime scenes and whatever they'd been doing after that. The table and walls were littered with photos and notes and perversely Spencer felt some of his anxiety melt away. This he knew how to handle, unlike the world outside this office. Hotch looked up immediately as his agents came in, noticing that both profilers looked angry and edgy. Morgan stopped to look over what they'd put together so far, but Reid came right up to him, his face both relaxing and becoming more tense.
"Hotch, could I talk to you for a minute?" the younger man asked, and Aaron frowned, catching his youngest agent's quick glance toward Derek. He nodded, leading Reid to Derst's office, which the senior agent had gestured toward as soon as he had seen what was going on.
"What's wrong, Reid?" he asked immediately, knowing Spencer wouldn't have called him away unless there was a serious issue. When the young agent was finished laying out his concerns and at least some of what had occurred in the book shop, Hotch sighed, seeing in Reid's face a hint of fear that he had somehow done wrong. It was an expression that better suited a little boy than the brilliant federal agent, but he could understand it.
"You were right to bring this to me, Reid," he assured the prodigy, seeing the relief in his face immediately, "I'll have to talk to him. Go back in now. We just got a call from Emily and JJ, and they should be here any time now."
What he didn't say, and didn't need to say, was that he needed some time to decide what action to take, but there was no question that something needed to be done. He couldn't risk having an agent who could be distracted from what had to be the highest priority, that of his own safety and the safety of the team. Morgan had been reckless on occasion, but this was different. He absolutely would not tolerate a repeat of what had happened to Emily. As he was returning to the conference room, still unsure of what he would do once he got there, he heard a stir near the elevator and turned, catching sight of two forms, one dark, one light, working their way toward him. JJ was a little ahead of her companion, so she reached him first, her blue eyes meeting his only briefly before returning to Emily and the young brunette the other agent was slowly guiding toward him.
"JJ, that her?" he asked softly, and the liaison nodded, running a hand through her blonde hair.
"Yeah, that's her," she replied, her tone conveying a great deal of information. Catching the glance the dark man sent toward the young woman with Emily before looking back down at her, she shook her head.
"She's pretty shaken up, Hotch. The closer we got the quieter she got. Em has been able to keep her calm, pretty much, but I think we're going to have to tread lightly. She as soon as we came up she looked like she was about to have a panic attack. It may just be that she's been alone in the backwoods for so long she's not used to so many people, or maybe she doesn't like law enforcement, although she seemed fine with Emily and I."
"Anything else I should know?" he whispered quickly, and the blonde looked up at him, knowing what he was really asking. Her eyes told him her answer before she spoke, but they both knew that it needed to be said.
"Just that it'd be a bad idea to assume anything."
He nodded, accepting that at face value, though in the back of his mind the comment made him worry about Morgan all over again. He made an effort to soften his expression as Emily approached with the young author, holding out a hand, which the tall woman took just a little hesitantly. She had a good grip, he noticed, but her hand was shaking slightly and her dark gray eyes were anxious, the fear in them evident despite the glasses she wore.
"I'm Supervisory Special Agent Aaron Hotchner," he stated quietly, taking in the way the young woman seemed to relax a little at the polite introduction, almost as if she hadn't been sure what to expect. It wasn't as if they were going to throw her in a cell right off, but somehow he got the impression she hadn't been sure of that.
"Keira Datton," she replied, pulling her hand back after a moment, her gray eyes, which were just about on level with his own brown, searched for something as she added, "But you already knew that."
He nodded, gesturing for her to precede him into the conference room, giving Emily a quick look. The dark profiler moved to Keira's other side, a gentle hand on her shoulder. The writer glanced at the other brunette before squaring her shoulders and striding into the conference room, stepping out of the way of the door but not going any further in than she had to. Hotch noticed that her back was to one wall, and he made a mental note to thank Reid or Rossi for thinking to pull the blinds over the glass walls. They didn't need an audience for this, since it was clear Keira was plenty nervous as it was. He looked on as Emily stood at the writer's side, noting with some interest that her body was between the young woman and Morgan. The liaison, of course, stayed close to Emily, as he would have expected. The blonde hadn't been far from her dark companion at any point during this trip, and he didn't expect that to change now. She still had her job, of course, but he had no doubt JJ would perform.
"Keira," the liaison started, right on cue, gesturing to the local agents before going on to the other members of the BAU, "these are Agents Rann Govar, Kyle Tillman, and Frank Derst, from this office, and over there are Agents David Rossi, Derek Morgan, and Dr. Spencer Reid."
The writer took them all in, but it was very clearly she didn't feel safe here. Hotch wondered what it was she was so afraid of, since it seemed highly unlikely anything would happen while they were in an FBI field office. As he watched Keira watch his team, he noticed an odd expression cross her face as she looked at Morgan and Tillman, something between a strained smile and a bolt of intense fear, and she very subtly edged further away from the younger men. She seemed to have no such reaction to the older agents or Reid, and he found that curious. He would have thought she'd be more comfortable with the people closer to her own age.
"I'd say it's a pleasure to meet you all," she remarked into the silence, "but, and no offense to anyone, it's not really considering the circumstances, so could we just get started?"
Aaron appreciated the directness of the sentiment, as did Rossi if his expression were any indication. When Dave glanced over at him he nodded, letting the older man take the lead here so he could stand back and watch the reaction.
"That would be fine," the Italian declared, taking a step forward, "we have a lot of questions for you, Miss Datton. Not the least of which is the most obvious. Did you kill those people?"
To all their surprise, except perhaps Emily and JJ, Keira laughed, though the sound lacked any hint of mirth.
"Right to the point. Good."
"Come on, Datton," Morgan growled, coming forward from the corner he'd been standing in and striding toward the writer, stopping a few steps from Emily, who had taken a small step forward to block his path when a flash of fear had crossed the younger brunette's face, "Don't play games with us. We know you killed them. Just tell us why."
Aaron was about to interrupt, but Keira shook her head, her dark eyes meeting his for just a moment before she turned back to Morgan, her expression carefully neutral.
"If you knew, we wouldn't be standing here. Agents Prentiss and Jareau would have arrested me, and that would be that. The fact of the matter is this: you assume I killed those people because of my book, which I admit is even somewhat reasonable. But I didn't. I came here because the person who is killing them is someone I know entirely too well."
"Yeah, right," Derek muttered, "shift the blame on someone else and watch us jump through hoops. I bet you came out here just for the thrill of watching us do what you say as you get away with murder."
"'Jump through hoops'?" Datton repeated quietly, her eyes flashing suddenly, "Now I have heard that before, but only once was that comment directed at me."
"Enough games," Morgan interrupted, trying to move closer but again Emily was blocking him, "You're not going to get away with it this time. You may have fooled some people before, but you're our killer. We can all tell you're not really here to help us. Just disrupt the investigation!"
Hotch wasn't sure what happened next. All he knew was that one moment Keira had been facing off against his agent and the next that agent was on the floor, his own gun to his head, the tall writer kneeling on his chest, her expression almost feral. She was either unaware or indifferent to the many guns now being aimed on her, though Hotch felt a certain reluctance, and it was clear the other agents did as well, especially Emily and JJ.
"While I have your attention," Keira growled, glaring down at Derek with blazing gray eyes, "Let me make something very clear. The woman you're looking for would never walk in here. I guarantee she has hands and eyes here. I can practically feel her taint everywhere in this office. If she did walk in here, it would be to kill you. You wouldn't have time to stand there and tell her how she wasn't going to get away with it. You'd see her, and then you'd be dead."
Morgan wheezed, trying to respond but unable to because the writer was cutting off his air. Keira stayed there a moment longer, then twisted the gun in her hand so the barrel faced her and handed it over to Emily, who was nearest, butt first. The older brunette took it with visible relief, but Keira didn't get up immediately, instead leaning down again for just a moment.
"I don't want to be here, Agent Morgan. I was content to stay in the mountains with my dogs and be left alone with my writing and my memories, but apparently that wasn't in the cards. So you can either get your head out of your ass and learn something or you can arrest me. I really don't care."
She stood then, stepping back to give the big man room to get up. He did, breathing heavily as his deprived lungs sucked in necessary oxygen.
"And if we arrest you," he grumbled breathlessly, "you won't 'help' us, right?"
The writer glared at him again, then just sighed and shook her head.
"Unlike some, or maybe most people, Agent Morgan, I keep my word. I said I would help, and I will, even if it means rotting in jail. As I said, I don't care."
"Why, Ms. Datton?" Rossi asked, holding up a hand to keep Morgan from saying anything else, "You're clearly uncomfortable with the idea, and you could just as easily be arrested for attacking a federal agent."
The brunette shrugged, meeting the Italian's gaze calmly, showing none of the distaste she'd shown with Morgan and to a lesser degree Tillman.
"There are things I'd much rather do than walk into a government office," she agreed quietly, earning a hint of a smile from Dave, then she sobered, her body stiffening somewhat as she added, "but most of them are out of my reach anyway. So here I am."
"I sincerely doubt you're here on a lark," Derst commented from across the table, eyeing the young woman curiously. He clearly hadn't been prepared for the reality of the woman. Hotch hadn't been either, and he'd had some small warning from JJ. The gray eyes traveled to him, and the writer nodded, her left hand tightening around something the Unit Chief realized she'd been holding since she arrived.
"Than why?" Rossi asked again, and this time Keira sighed, her eyes becoming distant.
"I promised someone I cared for a great deal that if a time came when what I knew was needed, I would do everything I could for the people who asked. As I already said, I keep my word."
"Who did you make this promise to?" Reid asked curiously, his copy of Fracture in his hand, "was it someone you wrote about?"
The writer's expression softened as she looked at the young man and caught sight of the book he held, her left hand clenching convulsively before relaxing again.
"Yes. Shara Marcus."
Reid's reaction, both startled and pleased, surprised Hotch a little, and he turned to him, his eyes asking questions he didn't need to give voice to.
"In the book Shara was the bodyguard hired to protect the main character, Raine, by her mentor, Shain, after Raine's lover tried to kill her for not stopping a murder attempt on her life. In the story, Raine was torn because the man who tried to kill her lover was her step-father, who she had a very complex relationship with. Shain and her partner, who worked for a group known only as the Agency, got Shara and some others to protect Raine, since she was in danger on two fronts. Both her stepfather and her former lover wanted her dead, though for different reasons. In the book, Shara is more than she seems, and because of that she's able to save Raine's life, earning her trust. Though the book is left at something of a cliffhanger, it's made clear that Raine would do almost anything for Shara, including go up against her former lover."
Keira smiled wryly when the FBI agents turned to look at her, blushing a little.
"I guess that about sums it up. In the real world her name was Shamira, a friend of my mentor's partner. She had been a member of a covert Israeli force responsible for the protection of the country from terrorist attacks until she moved to the states, where she went to school and got several degrees in criminal justice and psychology."
From the looks on their faces, even JJ and Emily hadn't known some of that information, Hotch noted. He had also heard the way Keira's voice shifted when she talked about her former bodyguard. It was the most gentle, and most broken, he'd heard her so far.
"Where is she now?" he asked quietly, the pieces coming together in his mind. She looked over at him, her eyes giving away the pain his question caused.
"She's dead. Murdered in front of me, protecting me."
He nodded, the puzzle becoming complete for him. Apparently things weren't so clear to everyone, though.
"You're helping us because you promised a dead woman something?" Morgan asked sarcastically, clearly not believing the young woman, "That's quite a story."
Keira's dark eyes flashed, and for a second Hotch wondered if she were going to attack the skeptical profiler again. She didn't, but he could see the self-restraint it cost her.
"And just when does a promise stop being binding, Agent?" she growled, the knuckles of her left hand whitening around whatever she held. Aaron watched Derek closely, more than a little worried about his uncharacteristic behavior. Emily, who was still standing between the athletic man and the writer, looked in his direction, her brown-black eyes shaded with fear, and that was too much. No member of his team should ever be afraid of another.
"Just because the...woman... was gullible enough to-"
Derek was once again on the floor, though this time Keira didn't even bother with the gun. She had just punched him and down he went, rubbing his jaw. Emily and JJ both had a grip on her, and it was clear she was well prepared to hit him again.
"You can say whatever you want about me, my family, and I'll take it," the author hissed fiercely, her expression so disgusted and hateful that it cut right through whatever was going on in Derek's mind and took him aback.
"You can insult me, arrest me, beat the shit out of me," she continued harshly, "and I won't say a damn thing. But I will not tolerate two things. One of those is any insults to my dogs."
She leaned in, as much as she could with the two agents holding on to her, making very sure she had Derek's attention.
"The other is any word against Shamira. Say whatever you want about me, but when it comes to Shamira, not a word. Not. One. Word."
Morgan nodded, and the two female agents slowly released Keira as she relaxed. The writer held out a hand to Derek, who took it somewhat reluctantly and allowed himself to be pulled to his feet. Hotch had seen enough, more than enough, really, and he was going to put an end to this now, before it had a chance to escalate. He hadn't realized, even with Reid's warning, just how bad the problem was.
"Agent Morgan, a word."
Derek followed Hotch out, leaving the other agents with Keira. Emily breathed a sigh of relief, more shaken to find herself afraid of one of her teammates than the actual reasons for that fear. Jennifer pressed a hand against her back, pushing her toward the nearest chair. She sank into it gratefully, sighing inwardly when the blonde didn't retreat, instead resting a hand on her shoulder. When she looked up, she had to smile at the faintly possessive air about the liaison, as well as her apparent unawareness of how she must have looked to the others.
"Are you all right, Agent Prentiss?" the writer asked worriedly, moving a step closer but not far enough away from the wall that anyone could get behind her. Not that anyone was going to try.
"I will be," the dark agent replied, grateful that her voice remained steady. Keira nodded, letting the matter drop, clearly aware that was what the older woman wanted her to do.
"Ms. Datton," Govar asked after a few minutes of rather uncomfortable silence, "I understand why you wouldn't want the woman who saved your life insulted, but..."
The writer chuckled, a real, honest sound unlike her previous laughter, as he trailed off, his tone conveying that he was trying to find a polite way to ask what he wanted to know. Her grip on the object in her hand loosened, revealing, as Emily had expected, her digital key ring. She pressed something, changing the picture to one of a woman, who she recognized as the very memorable Shamira, on her knees with two dogs, one a big black bear of a dog that had very distinctive husky features, the other a pretty silver gray puppy with blue eyes and dark crescent shaped markings around its eyes and ears.
"Z, or Ze'ev, is the big black fellow. Shal is the little one. She's older now, but anyway... These two are my dogs. Z was Shamira's dog, but they both kind of adopted me. When..." Keira's gaze lost its focus for a second, then she shook her head and added, "When she died, Z passed to me. Shal was her gift to me. She found her at the only animal shelter anywhere near my home in the mountains. Apparently she was about to be put down, since she'd been abandoned and no one would adopt her. She rescued her and brought her home for me. Shal was raised with Z, and ever since Shamira was... killed... they've kept me going. I had to help Z accept that she was never coming back, and Shal too. Those dogs are the only family I've got left, and they're my one connection to Shamira outside my memories. So... No one insults my dogs. They saved my life almost as surely as Shamira did."
When Govar asked to see the pictures more closely, Keira hesitated, as if unsure if she could bear to let go of the small keychain, then smiled apologetically, clutching the little device to her chest.
"I've got some better pictures on my laptop, of them and... and I might even have one of the woman you're looking for. Interested?"
The stocky agent nodded, as did the others, and the writer looked pleased as she pulled out a laptop encased in black leather, a circle open in the top that revealed the white Apple logo. She set it down on the table and sat down for the first time, though she had made a point of moving so she could easily see everyone in the room. When she opened it up, the first thing they saw was a beautiful photograph of the aurora. When she saw all the agents looking at it, she gave them a sheepish look before returning her attention to the computer, going through several folders in rapid succession before selecting several files and opening them.
"Here's the dogs the way they looked as of last week," she remarked, turning the laptop so they could all see. Ze'ev, which Emily's brain supplied as meaning 'wolf,' hadn't changed much, but Shal...
"Wow," JJ mumbled from Emily's side, "Shal got big."
Keira laughed, clicking on another picture, this one a close-up of the silver husky, who had started to look a great deal like a wolf, though she retained her brilliant blue eyes.
"She grew fast. She probably won't big as Z the giant, but she's still growing, so I could be wrong."
"She's a real beauty," Emily murmured, and she could see the compliment touched the young woman, who was so obviously smitten with the animals, "Such distinctive markings... She friendly?"
The younger brunette nodded happily.
"Shamira and I raised her right, and Z helped too. She'd make a fantastic guard dog, since she's very loyal and protective, but she'd also be a good seeing eye dog. She's alert but not hyper-vigilant, and she's smart enough to know when someone is just being friendly or behaving strangely."
"That's unusual for a dog," Tillman observed, clearly trying to make a positive impression on the young woman, "You must have done a really good job with her."
Keira eyed him, then smiled slowly and nodded, apparently having come to some silent truce with the young agent.
"Shal is unusual. Sometimes she acts so much like Shamira that I wonder..."
The brunette trailed off, blushing faintly. Emily watched her in silence, finding the writer a much safer subject than the chaos in her mind.
"Anyway," Keira started again, shifting uncomfortably, "I think I might have a picture of the woman I've told Agents Prentiss and Jareau about, the woman who more likely than not is your killer."
She pulled up a new picture, this one of a Mediterranean woman, her red-streaked brown hair framing her face, her large brown eyes warm and gentle on whoever was behind the camera.
"This is the only picture I've ever had of her," Keira explained, her voice taking on some of the same broken tone she'd had in the plane, "I took it just before things got bad. It was the last time she ever looked at me that way, although I didn't know it at the time."
Reid made an odd sound, something between choking and a cough, and moved rapidly closer, slowing down only when he realized that the writer was looking at him in abject terror. It might have been comical considering Keira was so much taller than Reid and was capable of bringing down a big guy like Morgan in one punch, but it wasn't, since the tall woman's fear was so incredibly real. Emily held up a hand to the prodigy, looking over at the younger brunette and lightly squeezing her arm.
"Keira, it's all right. No one is going to hurt you here."
The writer nodded her understanding but her expression didn't relax, though she did gesture for Reid to come closer, since that was obviously what he'd been intending to do.
"Why do you have Jo's picture?" Morgan's voice demanded before the prodigy could explain anything, and the big man approached with his hands balled into fists, "Don't tell me you're trying to pin this on her!"
The closer he got the more agitated the already visibly upset Keira got, but the brunette seemed to be holding it together. Derek must have crossed some invisible barrier as he got closer because the writer suddenly bolted, not toward the door, but to the nearest corner. JJ was at her side in seconds, followed by Emily, both women familiar enough with the early stages and severity of panic attacks to know that Keira was well on her way to what could become full blown catatonia if she was allowed, or forced, too deep into her own mind.
"Agent Morgan, get back to the hotel," Hotch ordered, his cold voice like a slap to the younger man, who already looked shocked. The dark-haired profiler didn't blame him, since Keira had floored him twice and never responded like this, but she really didn't have any sympathy for him. Emily appreciated the sentiment, but she gave her supervisor a warning look, which he nodded in response to. It was very clear that Keira's attack had been triggered by anger, specifically male anger.
"It's all right, Keira," JJ was whispering, "It's all right. We won't let anyone hurt you."
The dark gray eyes seemed to look right through them, and something in Emily snapped, almost making her turn on her colleague. She knew that look. She'd certainly worn it often enough recently, and it tore her apart her to see it on Keira's face and know exactly what it meant.
"Don't let her get me, not again," the writer mumbled, over and over again, "not again, please not again. I'll shut up... No... Shamira... I promised... Not again.... No, no... I promised, I promised..."
That became her mantra, and it was clear from the way she was starting to rock back and forth and become more and more distraught that it wouldn't be long before the emotional maelstrom completely overwhelmed the writer, which would cause her to lash out in some way, most likely injuring herself.
"You promised," Emily agreed quietly, hoping her theory, which she'd just come up with, would pan out as she very cautiously reaching out to take hold of one of Keira's arms, Jennifer taking the other a second later, "You promised Shamira, and you're doing the right thing. You've gotten this far, Keira, because you made that promise. Are you really willing to give that up now?"
The single word conveyed a world of agony and despair, and of loss.
"Do it for her," Emily urged gently, "Like you've done so much already. Finish it, before it's too late. You can do it, Keira. You can."
The gray eyes met her darker ones slowly, and she saw the younger woman give a slight nod.
"Okay. Let's get this over with."
Keira nodded again, allowing herself to be helped to a chair by the two female agents, even managing a very weak smile when Tillman handed her a cup of water he'd had the good sense to go get.
The writer help up a hand before Rossi could finish the question, taking a shaky sip before speaking in a ragged voice.
"About a month after that picture was taken," and they all knew what picture they meant, "she began 'teaching' me all about the dark side of medicine and law enforcement. When she decided I needed a little extra training, she got some of her favorite 'friends' to help. I can't... can't forget that. And now... Well, let's just say that any time I see a guy that I know is her type, it brings it all back."
"Her 'type'?" Rossi asked curiously, and she nodded, gesturing to the green-eyed Tillman and the handsome Derek.
"She likes guys in their twenties, attractive, intelligent, and while physically she's probably hit the whole spectrum, there are a couple of telling things. Her favorites were the ones who would notice her and want to take care of her. Now that's not to say she's not strong, because she's probably the strongest person I've ever met."
Keira sighed, probably realizing she wasn't making a whole lot of sense.
"Jenna has a will like you wouldn't believe," she explained slowly, saying her former lover's name aloud for the first time since they'd arrived, "and when she's medicated she's wonderful to be around. She makes things easier, makes things make sense. When she's not, she finds people who have a natural desire to protect and care for women like her, beautiful, smart, outwardly fragile women, and she uses them. Most of the time it's men. Only a few times has she done the same thing with women."
"You're telling us that Jo is a psycho who manipulates and uses people?" Morgan asked, aware enough of the thin line he was walking to tread lightly, "It's strange that she said the same sort of thing about you."
The writer shrugged, running a faintly trembling hand through her hair.
"She would," she answered tiredly, "As best I can tell, she's partially unaware of her illness, and while she knows what she's done, she believes she's above that sort of thing, so she needs a scapegoat. I make a good one, since I let her get away with a great deal. Early on I even played a part in her fantasy world, enabling her, because I thought... No... I didn't think. I just reacted to the situation, and I didn't stop and think. So I'm a perfect substitute. Anything bad is my fault, and maybe it is, since I didn't stop it."
Morgan continued to look at her with a great deal of skepticism, and she met his gaze mostly calmly.
"So, you're her new eyes," she murmured suddenly, almost too quietly to be heard, "it makes sense now."
Keira's lean body trembled, but she didn't look away from the dark profiler.
"You met her. You called her Jo. You talked to her, which is why you're completely convinced of my guilt even though prior to today you've never laid eyes on me, never talked to me, never even read my book. I had been wondering if all profilers make such snap judgements, but none of the others had, so..."
She trailed off as Derek started to radiate indignant rage, her gray eyes glazing over. At the touch of Emily's hand, she shook her head, looking back at the other brunette. The profiler tried to give her a reassuring look, finding it hard to stare into eyes that so clearly reflected her own emotions. Her awareness of Jennifer at her back was all that kept her stable, and the blonde probably knew that, which may have been why she started subtly rubbing Emily's shoulders, her body masking the move from the other agents.
"Jo isn't a psychotic serial killer," Morgan argued, though without as much heat as Emily had half-expected, "She knew you, Datton. She said she had proof."
"Her name isn't Jo," Jennifer interrupted, her tone conveying her disgust with her fellow agent, "It's Jenna Odari. Unlike you, Derek, we took the time to do some research, and we got our information from Garcia, so it's not like anyone could have altered it. Jenna's been hospitalized on numerous occasions for suicide attempts, cutting, pill overdoses, and problems with her bipolar disorder, as well as some physical issues including a ruptured disc in her spine. We have the records. There's no disputing them. She has schizoaffective disorder, and it's on record. There's no disputing that."
"And what about our friend here?" He demanded, apparently not willing to let go just yet, despite the glare he was receiving from Hotch. Keira shook her head, impressing Emily by finding the strength to look up at him despite how much he terrified her. Jennifer, seeing that the writer wasn't going to answer, or couldn't, spoke up again.
"She's been in mental facilities twice. Once was in high school for what her counselor called suicidal ideation, depression, and severe stress aggravated by traumatic memories. The second time, the records say she was diagnosed with major depression and acute anxiety with a note about a possible dissociative disorder. Nothing in her records mentioned bipolar disorder, psychosis, or destructive tendencies toward anyone but herself."
Morgan looked between his various colleagues, realization dawning as he realized what he'd done.
"That's enough," Hotch growled, "I'll deal with you later. For now we need to give these agents a profile of who they're looking for, and get copies of her picture to at least some of them."
"No doubt some of them already know her," Keira interjected, startling the agents into looking back at her, "I got quite an earful coming in here. Some of those agents recognized me, which they shouldn't have. Jenna has probably gotten away with killing this long because any time things get tight for her someone tips her off, intentionally or not."
They absorbed the implications of that, then Hotch turned to Derst, who was looking at the writer in shock.
The senior agent nodded slowly, looking up to meet Hotch's hawk-like gaze.
"There are a few in particular I've noticed behaving not unlike your agent has been. So what do we do?"
The FBI agents debated the problem, Keira fading to the back of their awareness, which struck Emily as impressive when she remembered to check on the younger brunette, considering she'd been sitting in the middle of them the whole time. What they had ended up deciding to do was simple enough. Derst would send out a group of agents to keep an eye on several persons of interest. It would just so happen that the group would include all the people he considered the most dangerous to the integrity of the case. The rest would get a more general profile, just in case they came up with someone besides Jenna Odari who fit the bill, though Emily personally thought that unlikely.
"Okay everyone, listen up!" Derst called across the office as they strode out, fanning out against the wall so they could see everyone in the room, "The BAU is going to present a profile of our suspect, so pay attention!"
The other agents stopped whatever they were doing and pulled out notepads and pens, or PDA's, taking positions around the room and waiting. If the dark-haired profiler hadn't known better, she would have sworn they had practiced for this.
"Okay," Hotch started, "The person we're looking for is most likely a woman between the ages of 24 and 32, Caucasian or Mediterranean, and is probably very attractive, well versed in manipulating others to do what she wants using her body as a lure."
"She'll be intelligent, beautiful, and charismatic," Rossi went on, picking up where the younger man had left off, "And most likely if you met her on the street, you'd never think of her as a dangerous individual, but she is."
Now Reid stepped forward, looking calm and confident as he only was when he was totally in his element.
"She has what is called schizoaffective disorder, which is sometimes mistaken for manic depression, or bipolar disorder, and can also be taken as schizophrenia, and can mimic many of its symptoms. Schizoaffective disorder can usually be treated, or at least controlled, with medication, and has a better overall outlook than schizophrenia, though not as good as the prognosis for bipolar disorder. However, this UnSub has likely been off medication for some time, worsening her delusions and paranoia. What makes this particular case so dangerous is that it is taking the psychosis of extreme manic depression and combining it with the symptoms of schizophrenia, another disorder that makes those who suffer from it prone to hallucinations, paranoia, delusions, and very little ability to distinguish reality and fantasy. In this case, we believe that the UnSub has this disorder as well as an addiction to drugs, most likely opiates, which would worsen the illness and make it harder to treat and make the UnSub more unstable."
Now it was Emily's turn, and she took a deep breath before speaking up, making sure her voice would hold despite the still-present fear that had been triggered first by Morgan, than by the look in Keira's eyes.
"Our biggest problem with this UnSub is going to be the persona she would have needed to create in order to be successful at these crimes. Outwardly she's highly intelligent and creative, and is very empathetic. She makes connections with people, which is highly unusual with her disorder. We believe that she does this by altering her own perception of reality to make it safe for her to venture into the world. She won't have any close relationships, however, and if she does they'll be either short term, or with someone who has learned to accept her version of reality, which would then cause her to want to keep them close for reassurance and security."
"Do not underestimate what this woman is capable of," Hotch concluded, "As Agent Prentiss pointed out, she is highly intelligent and has already brutally murdered a number of people. Do not think for a moment that she will be easily caught, or will allow herself to be taken into custody without a fight. She is the creator of her universe, and fully believes that she has power over everyone in it, the FBI included. It is also possible that she would sooner commit suicide than be taken, so the utmost caution is called for. That's all. Are there any questions?"
"What should we look for if we do run into her on the street? What tells might there be?" one agent asked, and Reid turned his attention to the man.
"If you do talk to her, your first 'tell' will be in her affect... In the way she displays her emotions. It will be inconsistent, like she she'll seem happy than be abruptly angry. Another sign will be if she talks about the murders and tells you she knows who the killer will be. It may sound strange as a topic of conversation but if she knows you're a member of law enforcement she'll probably bring it up."
"Your biggest clues will be her speech and her expressions," Emily interjected, "if her speech becomes extremely rapid and changes from subject to subject, she likely has at least one of the mood disorders we're looking at. And she'll be obsessive about the murders. It might not be immediately noticeable, but it'll be there if you're paying attention."
There was silence over the room then, so Hotch took over again.
"Okay, everyone be careful. Hopefully we can stop this before it gets any further."
The BAU agents retreated to the conference room while Tillman, Govar, and Derst stayed behind to talk with the other LA agents and answer any questions that hadn't been put to the profilers. Keira was waiting for them and held out a slip of paper to Hotch as they walked in.
"Those are the names of Jenna's parents. I thought maybe the Garcia person who dug up all the records could track them down. They're both old and unwell, especially Jenna's father, and it wouldn't take much to kill them, not that it would stop her from making it brutal."
Hotch handed the slip to JJ, who immediately got on her phone, though her eyes seemed to be glued to Emily. The brunette was grateful, since one look in those blue eyes steadied her nerves and made it possible to look Keira in the face, but she knew it had to be taking a toll on her friend.
"Guys, I'm putting Garcia on speaker," Jennifer announced, leaning over and hitting a button on the device resting on the table.
"Okay boys and girls, there are two residences in the Los Angeles area registered to the names JJ gave me. One is a house, the other is an apartment a couple blocks from downtown. I sent the addresses to your PDA's."
"The apartment is probably Jenna's," Keira remarked quietly, "She can't keep a job, so it would make sense that her parents are still supporting her."
"Who's that?!" Garcia demanded, and Emily chuckled as the writer gave the speaker a bemused look.
"Keira Datton. I was brought down from Montana by your agents."
"Oh, so you're the writer!" Garcia exclaimed, "I read your book after a friend recommended it! I loved it, it was so real and so-"
"Garcia," Hotch interrupted warningly, though his voice and his face gave away his amusement. The analyst fell silent, but Keira chuckled.
"I'll make sure you get an autographed copy then as a thank you," she stated, her gray eyes warming. They all heard a little squeal, then Hotch took charge again, bidding Garcia goodbye and hanging up the phone.
"I'm going to ask Agent Derst to send some agents over to the house. Prentiss, JJ, Dave, go to the apartment and check it out. Reid will stay with Ms. Datton and-"
"Sir," the writer interrupted, her tone respectful but determined, "I should go to the apartment."
"That's out of the question," the supervisor answered immediately, "It would be too much of a risk, and you're clearly not stable around this woman."
Emily expected Keira to be offended, but she wasn't. She just looked stubborn.
"I know, sir. I'm well aware that I could be a liability, but here's the thing... I know Jenna better than any of you. I know her tricks and traps, and I know how far she can be pushed before she breaks. The rest of you don't have that experience, and when it comes down to it, one wrong move or word will get your agents killed."
The Unit Chief looked ready to refuse again, but the writer's expression softened, becoming more pleading.
"Sir, if nothing else my presence will distract her from your agents. I'll become her target, not them, so if anything does go wrong they'll have time to react, or just get out. Either way, I have to see this through to the end."
Emily watched the myriad of expressions cross her supervisor's face at lightning speed, finally settling on pained acceptance. Keira must have seen it too, because she rose immediately, straightening her jacket and packing up her laptop. The dark-haired profiler met her boss's gaze, seeing the warnings in them and nodded, accepting what he was asking of her. Similar looks were exchanged with JJ and Rossi, and they headed out to the garage. Hotch watched them go, extremely aware of the risk he was taking. Unfortunately, Keira had been right, but it was hard to accept the reality that she was putting herself out as both bait and shield for a woman who had already killed or helped to kill over a dozen people. When Morgan approached him, he knew what was coming, and this time he wasn't about to be argued with.
"No, Derek," he stated flatly, "I'm already considering putting you on suspension for your behavior earlier. How can I trust you in the field if I can't even trust you in this office?"
"No, Agent Morgan," he interrupted coldly, glaring at the younger man, "A person is innocent until proven guilty, and you totally disregarded that. You also made an assumption based on something a complete stranger told you in a bookstore! You know full well that we cannot afford to make assumptions like you did! You very nearly sent that woman into a catatonic panic!"
Morgan hung his head, as aware as Hotch that he fully deserved the reprimand, but the other agent didn't look like he was going to back down.
"Hotch, this woman has used explosives before. There's a chance there's some sort of trap at her apartment if this woman is as paranoid as she could be. I'm the only one here with bomb squad experience."
"It comes back to your judgment," Aaron pointed out stoically, "And the fact that not only did you terrify and bully an already frightened victim, you also became a threat in the eyes of a member of your team."
He moved closer, his voice lowering dangerously.
"Emily Prentiss has shown remarkable strength, as has JJ, but they have their limits. They have to be able to depend completely on this team to have their backs, and today they couldn't. I doubt they'll forget that any time soon, and I certainly won't. And now you're asking me to put their lives in your hands?"
"Hotch, I screwed up. Everyone knows it. I screwed up again. But this time there's something I can do to make sure the situation doesn't get that bad again. You've gotta let me prove that I can be trusted. This team is my family, and I can't lose them."
"If you do-"
"If I do," Derek interrupted, his eyes searching and desperate, "then it'll be my own fault, and I'll be the first to turn in my badge and gun. If I can't make this right, I don't deserve to be on this team. Please, Hotch."
Aaron considered the younger man for a long time, then walked to the door, turning back with his hand on the latch.
"This is your last chance, Morgan. By all rights I should send you back to Quantico, but I won't. Yet. And if Dave gives an order, you follow it. Is that clear?"
Morgan nodded and bolted out the door Aaron held open for him, not giving his supervisor a chance to change his mind. He ran full tilt down the stairs, hoping his debate with Hotch hadn't been long enough for him to miss the others. He had meant what he said about making things right. He couldn't believe he had made so stupid a mistake again, and he wasn't about to give up without a fight. He knew he had badly damaged his already fragile standing with the team, but he couldn't just sit by and let it happen. When he caught sight of the three agents and Keira getting into an SUV he put on an extra burst of speed.
Rossi was the first to turn, giving him an intent stare that the others followed to him.
"Hotch gave you permission to join us?" the Italian asked coolly, and he nodded. Rossi stared at him for a long moment, then gestured to the passenger's side.
"Get in. You'll be navigating."
Morgan let out a breath of relief and got in, getting himself buckled and set with the GPS and printed directions Garcia had faxed over before the others had even climbed into their seats. When he looked back he felt some shame at the sight of Keira tucking herself into the seat furthest from him with Emily at her side. JJ took the middle row, but neither of his colleagues would look at him. Granted they both had something of an excuse, the liaison keeping all her attention was on the dark-haired agent, and Prentiss was reading Fracture, which she had borrowed from Reid, switching between the book and quiet conversation about some points with the writer. He focused on keeping Rossi on the right streets, not at all willing to compound his shame by getting them lost. He heard the two other agents and Keira talking, but didn't really pay attention until he heard a question he really wanted to know the answer to.
"If she scares you so much, why are you so willing to do this?" Emily asked, and Derek knew the question came as much from the brunette's own experience with fear as professional curiosity. Keira was quiet for a while, and when he glanced back she was looking down at the photo keychain.
"I have to," she finally explained quietly, "When Shamira died, I knew my last chance at a home and family died with her. I know it might sound dramatic, but... That's how I felt. The only way I can even hope for Shamira's forgiveness is to finish this, like I promised I would. I can't have any peace until this is over and Jenna is taken care of. I don't know if I will after, but..."
"Keira, I'm sure Shamira wouldn't-" JJ started, her blue eyes moving from Keira to Emily before going back to the young writer, but the younger brunette wouldn't let her finish, giving her a sad smile.
"No, she probably wouldn't blame me. I blame me. You have to understand, she told me she loved me, and I never said it back."
She broke off, turning to look out the window. Morgan couldn't help but notice the haunted look on the liaison's face and the understanding one on Emily's. Something was going on there, and he was starting to think maybe things weren't going as well as he'd hoped they were between the two beautiful women.
"Did you love her? Or were you still in love with Jenna?" Emily asked, her voice incredibly gentle. The dark-haired profiler had to know how painful the question would be, but they were all thinking it. It needed to be asked, and she was obviously the one Keira was most comfortable with. Dark gray eyes peered at all of them before focusing on the brown-black ones next to her,
"I never stopped loving Jen," she answered painfully, her voice giving away the guilt and confusion that had caused, "I still haven't. I don't know if it's possible to stop loving someone. I think that feeling is always there, it just gets pushed into the background unless something brings it back up."
Again Keira gave the woman at her side a long look before sighing, her eyes pulled back to the photograph.
"It didn't make sense at first," the writer murmured, speaking as if she weren't entirely aware of what she was saying, "I didn't know that love without pain was possible, or love without some desperate need for the other person. I was desperately in love with Jenna, even after everything. I needed her to love me. So when Shamira came along, I had no idea how I felt. All I knew was that it scared me because it felt good. It didn't hurt, and I had never been in a romantic relationship that wasn't painful. Even my friendships were..."
She trailed off, looking up into dark eyes before turning her piercing gaze on JJ, who was all but fixated on Emily until she realized the writer was watching her.
"I loved Shamira. I fell in love with her, but because it was the good kind of love, healthy love that allowed two people to be themselves both alone and together, I didn't know what it was. I had never experienced anything like that with a woman. The closest I had ever come was my relationship with my father, who loved me for who I was and always made sure I knew it, or my mentor, who totally accepted me and gave me a home when I didn't have one. She and her partner were the only women who made me feel totally safe, but that was different too, because she was more like a mother to me. Shamira... She and I could have been lovers, partners, in every sense, without needing to be anything other than ourselves. I just didn't know it until she was dying in my arms, and I still didn't tell her. I couldn't. And then she was gone, never knowing that she was, if you'll forgive the corny term, my soulmate. How can I forgive myself for just letting that go?"
She paused, her shadowed, pained eyes completely focused on JJ as she asked, "How does anyone forgive herself for giving that up just because of fear?"
Total silence fell over the SUV then. Derek could see that whatever point Keira had been making had hit hard with JJ and Emily both, and it had also touched Rossi, though it didn't seem to have the same significance it did to the two women.
"This is it," he observed as they drove up to an apartment complex that looked like a number of others on the street, but it was their destination. Rossi parked the SUV out front, miraculously finding a parking spot that wasn't blocks away. The older agent motioned for them all to gather around the back of the vehicle, waving their backup over as well.
"We need to go in gently here," he warned, his gaze especially focused on the members of the LAPD he wasn't familiar with, "We don't know what to expect, or if she's even here. No one take any unnecessary risks. Is that clear?"
A chorus of 'yes sir's' answered him, and he nodded, ordering the officers to find the exits and block them while the profilers went up to Jo... Jenna's... apartment. Morgan shook off the momentary name confusion and went in first, looking for even the slightest hint that there was a bomb. Once on the right floor Rossi had them stop again, looking directly at Keira.
"Are you ready?" he asked, and she nodded. Morgan looked between them, trying to figure out what he was talking about, then she started moving down the hall while the others stayed behind.
"Wait... You're letting her go in first?!" he hissed, and Rossi nodded.
"She volunteered, and I agreed," the stocky agent replied uncompromisingly, "We want to try to take Odari off guard if she's home, and it was decided that the best way to do that would be to get Keira in there first."
"We don't know for sure that she's not-"
He was glared into silence, but Rossi shrugged after a moment.
"Maybe this is callous of me to say, but on the off chance that she is our killer, there's a very good chance we'll be finding out one way or another in a minute or two. Either way, she's going in first, and that's safer for all of us."
The other two looked upset by that, but apparently this plan had already been debated and agreed on. Morgan didn't know what to make of it, but he was out of time as Keira raised one leather-clad arm and knocked on the apartment door and Rossi ordered them all to move out of direct eye line of the door so as not to spook Odari. There was a moment of tense silence, then they heard the door open and a soft hiss.
Morgan peeked down the hall, surprised to see Keira leaning almost casually against the door frame, her arms crossed over her chest and her expression relaxed, almost as if she were visiting an old friend. A head topped by red-streaked brown head poked out and looked around, then turned to focus completely on the new arrival, its owner's body just visible against the edge of the door.
"Jenna. Long time no see."
"What are you doing here, Keira?" Jo's voice asked, and Morgan was shaken to hear the thread of malice running through it. The writer seemed unfazed by the tone, even smiled at it.
"I was in town and a little bird told me you were living her. I gotta tell ya, Jen, this isn't exactly how I pictured you living. This place is a dump. What happened to that beautiful, airy place near the water you wanted so badly, the place you could walk out to the beach from and surf every day? Mommy and daddy not willing to fork over the cash?"
There was quiet for a minute, then a soft laugh that sounded exactly like the Jo he had met, charming and subtly flirtatious.
"You've grown up, K. You never used to be able to talk to me that way."
Keira chuckled faintly, and if Morgan hadn't seen the terror in her eyes coming up here he would have been completely convinced that the story Keira had told them was complete bullshit. As it was, he wasn't sure what to think.
"It's been an interesting couple years, Jen," the brunette replied easily, reaching out a hand to play with Jenna's hair, "A lot of things have changed."
Jo, or Jenna, gave the younger woman a flirtatious smile, clearly pleased in some way by the dark writer's attitude.
"Why don't you come in, and we can catch up."
Keira nodded, straightening and moving calmly into the apartment. Jenna looked up and down the hall again before closing the door behind them.
"What now?" Derek asked uncertainly, and Rossi gestured to his earpiece, the others already slipping theirs into place. So, they had outfitted Keira. It was strange that he hadn't seen anything on her, but then again that was the point.
"So who is this little bird you mentioned?" Jenna was asking, a hint of malice coming back into her voice. The writer laughed softly at the question, and he could hear the rustle of leather moving.
"Come on, Jenna. You taught me better than to lay all my cards on the table when I don't know what the other player is holding."
"So we're playing a game?"
Again Keira laughed, this time with an added seductive edge.
"Haven't we always, Jenna? You and me, we've been playing cat and mouse for years. Little bit of poker to spice things up, all of that. But now here we are, and we're playing a different game this time."
"And what game might be?" Jenna asked, her voice tense.
"Easy," Emily warned in a soft whisper from JJ's side, though he wasn't sure if Keira could hear or if she'd just needed to get it out.
"Your favorite game," Keira answered, and now there was no mistaking the sexuality in her voice. Morgan was taken off guard by the shift in her attitude. She sounded not unlike Jo had in the bookstore, now that he thought about it.
"I like the sound of that," Jenna answered smoothly, apparently reassured that she was the one in control, for all that Keira was holding on to some power in their interaction. He was starting to appreciate the knife's edge the young woman was walking, having heard how easily Jenna could become defensive and paranoid.
"I just want to know one thing first," Keira whispered, and Derek realized that Jenna must have been right up against her to have heard, "Why is it taking you so long to kill your parents?"
They heard a soft sound they couldn't quite identify at first, then it became clear that Jenna was laughing.
"You have changed," their target responded appreciatively, though there was a note of steel in there, which morphed into dark madness as she went on, "And it's simple. I wanted to make sure those pieces of shit suffered for everything they ever did to me. They'll know every second of pain they inflicted on me before they died. That's the only way to make it right."
"So those others, those were just what, practice?"
Jenna laughed again.
"Well, I had to make sure they wouldn't die too fast. Did you hear about the last one, with the pipe bomb? My 'friends' at the FBI office told me they were trying to keep things under wraps. How pathetic is that, huh?"
"Yeah, my little bird told me about that too," Keira answered steadily, "I heard that you had everyone freaking out about that one."
Jenna laughed, but this time the sound was distinctly malevolent.
"My 'friends' told me they called in this special unit all the way from the east coast. I met one of them this morning, buying your book, ironically enough. He was just so easy. He reminded me of the bomb squad agent who taught me how to make those things. He wouldn't have denied me anything."
There was a pause, then the killer added in a dangerous tone, "About that book, K..."
Morgan expected Keira to be shaken by that, but when she answered she sounded more amused than anything.
"I made you a promise, Jen. I always keep my promises. You should know that. I said I would tell your story, and I did. I even made sure the things the FBI would be too afraid to release were in there, just so everyone would know. Besides, it's not like it's your name in there. Just your work."
That must have placated Jenna, since the next thing they heard was a soft gasp, the kind of sound one made when they were being kissed or touched unexpectedly.
"I do have one other thing to tell you," they heard the tall brunette murmur, her voice a little breathy. Apparently that was a signal for the team, because Rossi started leading them toward the apartment, his hand hovering just over the knob, apparently waiting for something else.
"And what might that be?" Jenna queried in response. Keira took a deep breath, then said calmly."That little bird I told you about? It's been outside the whole time wanting to meet you."
There was a sound that could only be described as a feral growl, loud enough that they heard it from outside, and there was no more waiting. To Derek's surprise Emily moved first, hitting the locked door with a brutal kick, her gun already in her hand as the wood splintered and gave way. JJ was right behind her, as she always was these days, and the three men didn't take more than a second to follow, guns drawn as they took in the scene. Keira stood between Jenna and them, the blood on her face evidence enough that she had been hit, and hard. The writer waved almost frantically behind them with one hand, the other busy holding a hand wielding a long knife away from her body. It was clear the taller woman was physically stronger than the crazed murderer, but it was equally clear she didn't want to hurt her. Jenna had no such restraint, and the knife was getting closer.
"Don't worry about me!" the writer ordered, needing to use her free hand now. Morgan turned, gaping at what he saw.
"Rossi... We need to get outta here. We need to get out of here now."
The older agent turned too, taking in the wall full of explosives of various types with wide-eyed shock that rapidly transformed into determined fear.
"We need to separate those two and get out of here," the stocky man growled, turning back to the fighting women.
"Rossi, we have no way of knowing how stable those things are," Morgan argued, "It's possible even a small jolt could set them off. We have to evacuate this building."
"LAPD is on it," JJ interrupted hurriedly, her phone still in her hand, her eyes moving rapidly between the fighting women and Emily, who was trying to get a clear shot on Jenna, "And the bomb squad is on its way. The best we can do now is keep her away from those damn things until the building is clear. It's not like we can just leave!"
Derek knew she was right and silently kicked himself for giving the impression that he wanted to cut and run. His focus shifted to the struggling women, trying to find an opening to separate them. Keira had the advantages of height and muscle but she obviously wasn't using everything she had.
"Damn it, Keira!" Emily cried suddenly as the knife dipped closer, almost reaching Keira's breastbone now, "Just move!"
"She's a murderer!" Jenna hissed violently, her distraction enough for the straining Keira to move the knife back a few inches, "I played my part to protect myself, and now she's using you to kill me to get revenge for telling the truth about her! You're letting yourselves be fooled! She'll kill you too! Don't get in my way!"
Grateful for the few seconds Emily had provided, Derek slipped to one side, hoping the crazed woman would be distracted just long enough. Seeing an opening he lunged, intending to grab Jenna and pull her down, but before he was entirely sure how it happened Keira was in his path, catching him around the waist and shoving him back, causing him to skid across the floor and smack his head into the wall. He shook his head to clear it, just in time to see Jenna yank on the writer's shoulder, causing the already off-balance brunette to turn towards her. In a rapid motion she plunged the knife she held into the taller woman's abdomen, cruelly pushing it in deeper and further up. Keira released a pained cry, but as Jenna shoved the obviously dying writer away from her and she crumbled to her knees, only the silent tears gave away the pain she was in. Her expression was bizarrely serene, giving the whole scene an incredibly surreal feel to it.
"What do you people looked so shocked for?" Jenna demanded as she turned to them, sounding honestly surprised, "It's just taking out a little trash. She betrayed me, and she had to suffer the consequences."
They stared at her, horrified by her complete disregard of human life, even after Keira's numerous warnings on the subject.
"They're shocked because they know," a ragged voice replied, and Jenna whirled, staring at her former lover, who had somehow gotten to her feet, one hand apparently holding the contents of her abdomen in if the amount of blood soaking the floor was any indication.
"Know what?" the murderess demanded, and Keira actually smiled, staggering closer, her face bone white and yet somehow still amused.
"You're only human, Jenna," the brunette gasped weakly, "The one reality you could never face. You're just human, nothing special."
Before Jenna could respond Keira stumbled into her, and oddly enough Jenna seemed to catch her on instinct, just for a moment looking down at the woman with some compassion. It was quickly consumed, but that second was enough for Morgan to start to realize just why Keira had loved the woman so much. All he wanted to do was get the writer and his team out of the building, away from the bombs, and in Keira's case to a hospital, but he didn't dare try to move in again for fear that the writer would either interfere again or that he would do something to set off the bombs.
"K..." Jenna murmured, her expression vacillating rapidly between loving tenderness and cold disgust, her mind apparently unable to decide how to respond to the dying woman.
"I'm sorry," the writer whispered, her gaze lingering on her former lover for a long moment before they shifted, pained, glassy gray eyes meeting terrified, desperate brown-black.
"I'm so sorry," she repeated, and this time the words were clearly meant for Emily, not Jenna. Before anyone knew what she was doing, or could stop her, Keira had yanked the knife out of her body and thrust desperately. Either her aim or luck was very good, because either way Jenna Odari's body convulsed once in reaction before falling, almost in slow motion, to the floor, and if the blood coming from her lips weren't evidence enough, her dead, empty eyes told the whole story. The woman was dead. Emily was the first to react once again, bolting to the falling Keira's side and slowing her fall. Derek scrambled over, helping her lay the writer flat and putting both of his big hands over the stab wound, trying to keep the blood from pouring out but also worried that Jenna had hit the spleen or the bowel, which could very well be fatal. Emily had Keira's face in both hands, forcing the younger brunette to look at her.
"Oh God, please don't die," Emily was whispering, her hands shaking as she helped JJ put a rolled up blanket she had grabbed under her head in hopes they could keep her airway clear. Blood was already starting to trickle from her lips, joining the now dried blood from her earlier bloody nose.
"All I could think," Keira gasped shakily as the bomb squad burst in and immediately started securing the various explosives on the far wall, her voice distant and weak, "was that I couldn't let her do it again."
At first Derek, who was still frantically working on keeping the young woman's body together, wasn't sure what she was talking about, but then he saw the expression on JJ's face and realized he must have missed something while he'd been stunned on the floor. Thankfully his momentary distraction didn't reach his hands, which were barely managing to hold back what felt like a flood. Even with his whole weight being pressed down on the younger woman's abdomen, blood was still pushing its way out.
"Where the hell are those medics?" he demanded of the bomb squad leader, who just shook his head uncertainly. He just kept feeling more helpless and he couldn't stand it. He flashed back to seeing Garcia in that hospital bed, weak, drugged, and terrified, then to the memory of Emily in that bomb shelter being tortured for days on end. Before the images could take over he forced himself to focus on the woman in front of him, afraid he would lose it if he didn't. If he thought of the writer the way he thought of his team, his family, than he might break down, which he couldn't do.
"She's losing too much blood," he murmured, feeling the lean body under his hands starting to wilt and weaken. Keira was dying, and if the paramedics didn't hurry their asses up it would be too late.
"No, no! Hold on, Keira!" Emily commanded, the sound of tears in her voice making him look up. The writer's face was slack, her eyes almost completely closed. She seemed to have passed out, and they couldn't have that. In her condition sleep was extremely dangerous, since she might very well never wake up.
"Oh, no, no, no, we have to get her back," he warned, startled by the fear and pain he felt at the idea of watching Keira die. The brunette had made more of an impression on him than he realized, and now her life was very literally in his hands. Emily was already moving, pulling the blanket into her lap and laying the writer's head on it again, brushing her hair out of the blood on her face.
"Stay with us, Keira," she called urgently, lightly shaking the younger brunette, "Come on, you need to fight!"
Emily kept talking, just hoping something would reach the younger woman. Keira's breathing had slowed to almost nothing when she suddenly took a shaky breath and her eyes opened slowly. Derek couldn't help but notice that it looked like the most difficult thing she could possibly do, and considering how much blood she'd lost, that was entirely possible.
"Shamira... Shami... ra " the writer whispered, her gaze wandering past all of them to some point in mid-space. On instinct Morgan looked behind him, almost expecting to see the Israeli bodyguard there. He looked back at Keira, who was still staring into the emptiness, her expression both fearful and hopeful, almost hungry.
"I'm so s-sorry," the writer was stuttering, her voice becoming weaker and weaker. Suddenly a beatific smile appeared on her face, giving the wounded, dying woman an almost ethereal air about her. Her left hand came up, reaching toward the same nothingness she was staring into.
"Finally..." she whispered, her voice as impossibly beautiful and happy as her expression. She turned, looking up at Emily with a sweet smile, her trembling fingers reaching up to wipe away a stray tear on the profiler's face.
"It's okay now, Agent Prentiss," she murmured gently, "She's taking me home. I'm going home... It's been so long."
Somehow the dying writer managed to reach into her pocket and pull out that ever-present keychain. Apparently that small movement was all she could manage, because the next thing Derek knew her body was limp under his hands, her eyes starting to slide closed again. The flow of blood was becoming more sluggish, telling him that her heart was slowing down.
"Keira, don't move, don't talk," Emily whispered, as aware of the warning signs as her colleagues and visibly fighting back more tears as the woman slipped further away from them, "Just stay with us."
The gray eyes managed to open again, but they didn't focus on anything in particular.
"I've missed you so much... Shamira..."
With a sigh Keira seemed to collapse in on herself without moving at all, her eyes closing to slits and her hands falling limp at her sides.
"Keira, no! NO!" Emily cried, looking up at JJ reflexively. The blonde went down on her knees, pressing her fingers to the writer's throat and listening for a heartbeat, glancing at Morgan, who shook his head slightly. They couldn't do compressions without pushing out more blood, and from the way the writer's abdomen had hardened it was probably already too late. She was bleeding internally and probably being drowned from the inside. JJ turned back to Emily, and something in her eyes must have told Emily the writer was gone.
JJ glanced at Morgan, who nodded, and she gently moved Keira's head out of Emily's lap, laying her carefully on the blanket again. Once that was done the liaison pulled Emily off to one side and just hugged the taller woman tightly, stroking her dark hair when Emily buried her face in her neck. The paramedics arrived a minute later, and Derek moved away as they took over, watching them take Keira's pulse and frantically start pulling out equipment. He turned away, unable to watch any longer and worried about both the bombs and his teammates. The bomb squad had removed most of the bombs already and rendered others safe, but he still didn't want to stay here any longer than necessary.
"Time to go," Rossi called, moving away from the bomb squad leader and the paramedic who had been talking to him, "We can't do anything more here."
Morgan choked back a response, remembering Hotch's warning about following the older man's orders. He met Emily's upset brown eyes, then JJ's blue, getting a nod from both. The paramedic handed him a wet towel, and only then did he remember just how much blood was coating his hands. He watched JJ help Emily to her feet, impressed and concerned as the brunette's professional mask slammed into place and she straightened and accepted a towel of her own, though she didn't shrug off JJ's hand. She looked down at Keira's corpse, then frowned and knelt, picking up the keychain the writer had been holding. At first he was confused, then he realized that there was something else in her hand too, a small white flash drive if he wasn't mistaken.
"What the hell?" he mumbled, wondering when the writer could possibly have had time to load anything onto the thing without them knowing. Emily shrugged, tucking the two objects into her pocket.
"Let's get out of here," she muttered, her voice giving away just a fraction of the physical and mental exhaustion she'd betrayed earlier, "Like Rossi said, we can't do anything more here."
Derek and JJ both nodded, starting to follow Rossi out. Emily hesitated just a second, turning back and watching the paramedics zip both dead women into a body bag. Jennifer's hand brushed her back, making her attention shift to the blonde. She let herself be led out, forcing herself to keep her raging emotions under control just a while longer. Jennifer's gaze was nearly her undoing, seeing right through her tattered defenses, but that same understanding gave her the strength to step out into the bright Los Angeles day and join their waiting colleagues at the SUV. The other agents had apparently called ahead already, for which the brunette was grateful.
"Hotch said to get our things from the hotel while he finalizes things at the field office and they'll meet us at the airstrip," Rossi explained. To Emily's surprise, Jennifer frowned and stepped away, and for just a moment she had the inexplicable fear that the blonde was going to leave, but she didn't, of course. She moved back within arm's reach immediately, lightly brushing the taller agent's back with her fingertips. The touch made Emily shiver despite everything, and the faint twinkle in the blue eyes told her it had been intentional. Despite herself the profiler smiled faintly, appreciating the attempt.
"Hotch, can you make sure someone gets Keira Datton's bag? I'd like to make sure her things get into good hands. It's the least we can do. Garcia can track down any next of kin or will she may have had."
The supervisor must have agreed, since the blonde bade him goodbye and hung up, giving Emily a weak smile. The older woman sighed, giving her companion's arm a gentle squeeze before she climbed into the back of the SUV, leaning her head against the back of the seat and closing her eyes. A warm body followed her in and a very familiar hand gently took hers, almost breaking her resolve not to cry again, at least until she wasn't with the team and in front of a bunch of cops and paramedics. Her only alternative was retreating into a numb haze, so that was exactly what she did, unable to cope with her whirlwind emotions just yet. Packing was done without any thought, and the drive to the airport was quiet, all four agents stressed from the chaos and ending of the case. Emily was grateful, unsure she could handle chatter. Hotch and Reid were waiting at the jet with Tillman, Govar, and Derst, who had apparently come to say goodbye. Their departure was friendly enough, but Emily was glad when they were all on the plane and in the air heading towards home. When JJ suddenly suggested that they find out what was on the flash drive she'd recovered the brunette almost balked, but the expression in the gentle blue eyes urged her to comply, so she did. She knew it would probably be hard, but maybe it would be for the better. They plugged the little device into Keira's laptop and circled around it as JJ brought up the video file, none of them surprised to see the gray-eyed writer's image come up.
"If you're watching this, I got myself killed," she started, sounding a touch self-deprecating, "and I'm sorry. I didn't want it to come to that if it could be avoided, but I think it might have been inevitable."
The young woman sighed, looking into the camera with an expression of gentle understanding on her face.
"I'm grateful to all of you for what you did. Yes, even you, Agent Morgan."
They all glanced at the dark man, who seemed to be blushing and suddenly uncomfortable. Keira's face sobered, drawing their attention back to the screen.
"You have to understand something, Agents, and this is important. What Agent Morgan did today was not anything new. Jenna has always had a talent for bringing out the worst in people, and I hope you all realize that it is no reflection on your colleague that it happened to him. Just looking around the office I can see her hand everywhere. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. It backfired, though. You see, had it not happened to a member of your team, you might not have ever understood what Jenna can do to people, good, decent people who only want to do good things."
She sighed, shaking her head.
"I regret any friction this may have caused. Perhaps this is indelicate, but I had noticed that there was some tension amongst your team, and if I could see it, so could Jenna. She used it, and I'm sorry. But enough of that. I've said all I need to say on that, and I think the rest can be handled amongst yourselves. I only have a few minutes, and I find that there's a lot to say. So I'll stick with the basics."
The writer straightened visibly, as if bracing herself.
"A couple of small things first. In my bag is the original manuscript for Fracture. I've signed it, and I'd like for it to be given to Agent Garcia if it isn't any trouble. Also in there is another manuscript, Fracture's sequel, I'd like it if Agent Prentiss would take it. I think she might get the most out of it. It's already been edited and will be published in the near future, and I'd like for Agents Reid and Garcia to have the two advance copies I was sent. They're in my home, signed since I had planned to give them away. I feel that the people who gave me my life back should have the only original and the very first editions. I know it may sound odd to say that considering I'm dead, but I'm sure it'll make sense."
Keira sighed, running a hand through her hair.
"On my computer is the vast majority of the writing I've done in the past ten years. I leave it up to you to decide what to do with it, since I have no family left alive and my mentor has passed away. While my writing has always been my life's work, Fracture and its sequel were the stories that I most desperately needed to tell, and I've done so."
The brunette shook her head, leaning back a bit in her chair, revealing that she'd made the recording in the conference room, probably while they had been giving the profile.
"The next thing is probably the most important, at least to me. My house is at your disposal, to use or not as you please. My father would have enjoyed meeting you people, and there's no doubt in my mind he would love for his home to be used as a retreat, or even sold as long as the money went to a good cause. What I'm concerned with is my dogs. Ze'ev and Shal are beautiful, intelligent animals, and they deserve good homes. They've already lost Shamira, and now me as well. If there's any chance your team could find them a place, I'd be forever grateful. They're staying with a hunter who lives about a mile north of my cabin."
Keira sighed again, giving the camera a faint smile.
"And lastly, I updated my will. In the event of my death, the royalties from my novels, whatever they might be, are to go mostly to the Behavioral Analysis Unit. I do admit that I donated a substantial sum to the some animal shelters and reserves, but I hope your team will understand that animals have made my life willing. I'm hoping that what I've done will help your team in some small way, even if it is as simple as providing a fund for pens and other office supplies. By the time you watch this, the changes should have already taken effect. Gotta love the information age."
The writer glanced over her shoulder, probably in response to some sound, then looked back at the camera, smiling wryly.
"Looks like I'm out of time, but I hope you all realize I was proud to know you all and help in whatever way I could. My death was my choice, I'm sure. I've always known it would be, really. So please, no blame games, no guilt, no regrets. It was time. I left behind what matters, and it was enough. It was worth everything, and I am content with that. I wish you all well, and thank you again. Good bye, and I wish you well in all you do. Your team is truly made up of the best this world has to offer. You've restored my faith in humanity, and in heroes."
The screen went blank, leaving the profilers to look at each other in silence for a long moment. Emily was pleased to notice that Jennifer's eyes were distinctly moist, and even the male agents had been visibly moved. Hotch and Rossi were the least obviously affected, but that had more to do with their age and experience than their actual emotional response. By unspoken agreement Morgan pulled out his phone and called Garcia.
"Baby girl, I need you to look into something for me," he started, and they could all hear the analyst tapping on her keyboard to bring up her various search programs.
"Go," she answered, and the dark man smiled affectionately, an expression echoed by JJ.
"I want you to look up Keira Datton's financials. We just found out something interesting and we had a few questions left over."
Garcia murmured something in agreement, obviously aware of at least part of what had gone down.
"Well, her bank account shows an increasingly large influx of money from her publisher marked as book royalties, but relatively few withdrawals in the last couple years, meaning there was a pretty substantial sum of cash in there. From the looks of it, she never really checked it, so she might not have even known how much she had. We're talking about millions here, some of it inheritance money, but mostly book payments and a few other writing related things, like seminars and some poetry. There are some- Wow."
They could hear keys being hit with some force, then, "Let's make that double wow. There are two really big changes here, and they were made just today. The first routes about two million dollars split evenly into three parts to three separate animal welfare groups. The ASPCA, a husky rescue and adoption program, and a large wildlife preserve."
"What about the second change?" Rossi asked when the tapping of the keyboard went on too long without Garcia's voice overriding it.
"Well... Unless I'm reading this wrong... The remainder of her rather large estate has been donated to the FBI, specifically the BAU, including her home and any royalties on her new book. Wait... New book? What new book? I haven't heard-"
"She willed the manuscript of the new book to Emily," Jennifer interrupted, giving her dark friend a gentle smile, "and just so you don't feel left out, Garcia, she willed the manuscript of Fracture to you, and even signed it. I think she was really touched you were so interested in her book."
There was a long pause, then, "You mean... Her own personal manuscript? The original of the book?"
"Yeah," Morgan replied with a smile, "and she apparently has two signed copies of the new book, and one of those is just waiting for you up in Montana."
They left Garcia with that, Morgan hanging up the phone and looking between his colleagues.
"That video wasn't what I expected," he admitted quietly, then added a touch sheepishly, "Not that I had any idea what to expect. But... Millions of dollars to a bunch of people she barely knows?"
"It's funny," Rossi remarked, "but I think she knew us well enough. Look at what she said, Agent Morgan, especially about you."
"It's like she saw through all of us," Emily added, "and in the end gave us whatever she could that she knew would help. That message was as much damage control for us as anything else."
Hotch nodded, looking over at Morgan.
"You're still not off the hook," the supervisor warned, then softened his tone a little as he added, "but I have to agree with Keira. You were not entirely in control of your actions. I'm not happy that our killer was manipulating my team, but she had obviously become very skilled at it. On the other hand, if I ever see you behaving that way again, I will fire you."
The athletic agent nodded, looking down at his big hands. Emily followed the look, tensing as her memory provided a picture of those same hands covered in blood. She shook her head, almost afraid to look down at her own for fear of what she'd see then. When Jennifer's hand slid into hers she actually jumped slightly and looked down on instinct, almost surprised that there was no blood there, just skin meeting skin.
"And Derek," she started slowly, finding the words as she went along, words that had been inspired by the look and feel of her beloved friend's hand in hers, "I hate how you acted today, but if Keira can forgive your behavior, I can too."
That startled the dark man, and he looked down at her uncertainly.
"Emily, I don't deserve-"
"No, you don't," she interrupted honestly, "but I don't want to be upset with a member of this team any longer than I have reason to be. So just consider the whole thing done with."
That closed the matter for discussion and Emily got up, feeling the need to get away from the circle of people she considered her family. The best she could do was sit down in a corner seat with her back to them, unsurprised when quiet conversation picked up a moment later. She was also unsurprised when Jennifer sat down next to her. There was a part of her mind that desperately wanted to just be alone so she could retreat into herself, but it was overruled by the much larger part that just wanted to be held. It was a new experience for her to have her mind be comfortable with the idea of someone knowing her, really knowing her, right down to her weaknesses and vulnerabilities, but she was rapidly getting to that point with Jennifer. Since she wasn't about to just bury herself in Jennifer's arms in front of the next best thing she settled for promising herself that she'd give in later and turned to her friend, fixing her with an intent gaze.
"Are you okay?"
The liaison looked prepared to plaster on one of those fake smiles of hers, the ones that came so naturally, but something, maybe their conversation the previous night- was it only the previous night? It seemed like an eternity ago- stopped her, and instead her blue eyes met Emily's brown-black without the feared reserve they usually had when JJ was about to brush off her own emotions yet again.
"No," the blonde answered frankly, giving her a weak, but honest, smile, "but I think I will be. I think she knew leaving that message would start the healing process. It's still a process though, like everything else."
The brunette nodded, wanting to say a lot of things she couldn't yet. Instead, she found something she could say without much fear of breaking down. She knew she was doing what she had warned JJ about, but she also knew she would correct the problem once it was safe to do so.
"I'm sorry, Jennifer. I knew this had to be hard on you."
Jennifer looked at her for a long moment, probably as aware as she was that she was holding back, but like Emily herself, she knew and understood the reasons for it and allowed it.
"It was," the press liaison agreed quietly, "She was a good kid who got caught up in some really bad things, and she deserved better."
Emily nodded, looking down at their hands, which had somehow twined together without either of them knowing.
"You know, the strangest thing about that message was the words she used," Jennifer went on, "because we were talking about that last night. She said what she had left behind made everything worth it, and you had been wondering if it ever balances out. Apparently Keira thought so."
She looked up, meeting her friend's blue eyes. She had noticed that too, and had wondered how the writer had known exactly what to say.
"I think she saw something familiar in both of us," she decided aloud, wondering if JJ would pick up on all the things she wasn't able to say yet, "I mean, it was obvious she felt we had some common ground, but her message made such a point of making it clear that she thought her death was worth her life. She had a horribly painful life, Jennifer, but for all that she died happy. Even if it was a hallucination brought on by blood loss, the last thing she saw was the woman she loved coming to bring her home."
She paused, needing to look up into those crystal blue eyes as she added, "I know that if I were dying the last thing I'd want to see is your smiling face."
Jennifer blushed, her eyes glittering suspiciously as the blonde squeezed her hand tightly, the clasp conveying all the emotion the liaison couldn't put into words. Emily smiled, relieved to see a positive response, then she went on with her point, pleased enormously as her friend scooted impossibly closer and rested her head on Emily's shoulder, giving in to her obvious exhaustion and need for comfort. It made the brunette happy to be able to provide that comfort, since it was so often the other way around these days.
"She got a happier ending than she expected, but you know, she went into that apartment knowing she probably wouldn't come out alive. She didn't know that the last thing she would see would be Shamira, and she still believed it was all worth it. Somehow the books she left behind were enough for her."
"Don't forget the dogs," JJ corrected, her voice taking on a gently teasing quality that made Emily smile.
"That's right," she admitted, feeling some of the tension in both their bodies start to melt away as they quietly laughed together, "Can't forget the dogs."
She hesitated a moment, unsure if Jennifer would go along with the idea that had just popped into her head.
"Jennifer?" she asked slowly, feeling the blonde raise her head slightly at the uncertainty in her voice.
"What is it, Em?" the liaison asked, audibly worried about whatever was making her act the way she was. Emily sighed inwardly, peering into the very near, blue eyes.
"After we've wrapped up this case and kind of... Decompressed... Would you be willing to go back to Montana with me and see what we can arrange for Shal and Ze'ev?"
Jennifer stiffened, her eyes widening. Emily sighed, this time out loud, and shook her head.
"I'm sorry," she murmured immediately, turning to look out at the passing sky, "I shouldn't have asked. I know how you feel about dogs. I'll ask Morgan, or maybe even Rossi. I heard he hunts with dogs, so-"
"I mean," the brunette went on, barely even registering the sound of her name, "Morgan just seems like the type who would be good with animals, and if Rossi does have hunting dogs he'll probably have some sense of how to handle Ze'ev and Shal..."
"I'll go with you, Emily."
"And I like dogs and so if you don't- wait. What?" she asked, broken out of her uncharacteristic rambling by JJ's voice and the soft hand that brought her face around to meet warm blue eyes, which were currently watching her with more than a little tender amusement.
"Of course I'll go up there with you, Emily," Jennifer explained, only a hint of fear reaching her face as she added, "I might have issues with dogs, but the way Keira described hers I think it'll be okay. You'll protect me, right?"
That last was an attempt at levity, but Emily could see that behind the humor was a need for reassurance, which she could easily give. She doubted the writer's dogs would be an issue, but she would protect Jennifer with her life.
"Always," she whispered gently, letting all her sincerity show on her face. The look took the blonde off guard for a second, then she smiled slowly and sighed, resting her head on Emily's shoulder again.
Emily just smiled wearily and held onto her friend as the world slipped away beneath them. It could all damn well wait.
Date and Time: September 30, 2007, 20:21
Location: Club Near FBI Academy, Quantico, Virginia
Morgan navigated the crowd with ease, holding the precious drinks up above the various threats to their safety until he managed to reach the table his colleagues were at, squeezing in next to Garcia and passing out the bottles of beer. Even Reid had agreed to a drink, which said a lot about the strain their latest case had put on everyone. The young profiler didn't drink often.
"Here's to family," he intoned, raising his bottle in the universal sign for a toast. The others murmured agreement and tapped the bottle with their own before taking a long sip. A little too long in Reid's case, leaving the younger man sputtering a little while the rest of the team tried not to laugh too hard. Emily helpfully handed him a napkin to mop up the beer that had escaped his mouth, and Derek was grateful to see the beginnings of one of her goofy smiles starting to form. JJ was sitting next the brunette, her arm draped across the back of the booth and coincidentally around Emily's shoulders, but neither woman seemed to have noticed. Garcia had, because she caught him looking and winked, giving him a flirty smile, to which he grinned. His family was starting to heal from the wounds left by the case in Arizona, and, if only for a little while, the memories of the terror inflicted on the women's college faded into the background. That was exactly why he had suggested this little outing, and why he was going to pay for all their drinks, giving them one last thing to worry about.
"Agents, here's the wings you ordered," their friendly server announced, setting down the huge platter of wings and a smaller plate with various dips. He grinned, handing out the plates and dug in, knowing that would be a signal for his friends to do the same. As they all focused on the food, he considered them, realizing that family meant something different to every one of them, but when it came down to it, he was the only one who had a family that absolutely supported him, and that he could go to with anything. Reid only had his schizophrenic mother, Garcia's parents were dead, Emily's relationship with her family was distant at the very best and largely antagonistic the majority of the time, and JJ's family didn't understand her. They were all islands, depending on the team for the support he had so unconditionally at home. What most amazed him at the end of the day was that not one of them would ever begrudge him that, even though they would have a right to if anyone did. Every one of them had been hurt, abandoned, and misunderstood, and while it was true that he had experienced all those things, it had never been because of his family.
"Hey Derek, what's on your mind?" JJ asked, giving him a curious look that was mirrored by the others. He realized he must have been lost in thought long enough for it to be conspicuous and grinned to cover it. Tonight wasn't about him. It was about them.
"I was just thinking that I am one lucky man," he replied, giving the women at the table a wink, "Here I am with three gorgeous women, and only one other guy. Those are good odds."
JJ rolled her eyes and Emily laughed, taking another pull of her beer. Garcia was laughing too, but he knew all three of them appreciated the compliment, if not exactly the delivery.
"Come on, let's get out on the floor," he declared once the platter of wings had been cleared, pulling the willing tech goddess up with him and fixing Reid with an implacable stare as he added, "And that means you too, kid."
Reid might have been able to say no to him, but Garcia wasn't having it, and as always the analyst got her way as the genius was practically yanked out of the booth. They didn't couple off, instead dancing as a group, taking up their own little section of the floor. More than once he caught their youngest colleague trying to slip away, but he never got far. Taking matters into his own hands, he enlisted Garcia to help him teach Reid a few moves, silently cracking up at the picture they must have made to the watching blonde and brunette, who were making no effort to contain their amusement. Finally they all went back to their table, danced and laughed out. He gestured to their server, who brought over another round of drinks, which the others tried to refuse or offer to pay for it, but he was having none of it.
"Here's to getting out on the town!" he declared, and the others laughed as they toasted along with him, the mood much more relaxed now than it had been when they'd first arrived. In fact, the lovely Agent Jareau may have overdone it a bit, since she seemed to be nodding off a bit on Emily's shoulder. The older agent, who he realized hadn't even finished her first bottle, was smiling down at the blonde, her expression probably a little more open than she realized. He wished he had a camera, then he noticed Garcia sneak something into her purse and grinned. He'd get the pictures later. Reid was starting to look a little ragged around the edges as well after another half hour, so he decided they'd better call it a night. Fortunately most of the team had either carpooled or taken a cab here, so driving arrangements wouldn't be too hard, and with the exceptions of the lightweight that was Reid and the probably wrung out JJ no one was more than a little buzzed. He got up to settle the tab, but as he turned back he noticed that a trio of guys were at the table, and from the look on the now wide-awake JJ and Reid's faces, and the cold one on Emily's, they weren't exactly being polite. He couldn't see Garcia's face from here, but she had retreated a bit from the edge of the table and she seemed tense. He slipped back as fast as he good, not wanting things to get ugly.
"Come on, girls. We just want to dance," one of them was saying as he got into earshot, but his voice and the grins on his friend's faces told a very different story. Emily saw him coming over the guys' shoulders and nodded slightly, affirming that this could become trouble, her dark eyes ice cold as she slid past JJ and stood up, forcing the three guys back a step. They grinned at her, apparently thinking she was accepting, and the big talker reached out to grab her arm. That worried him, because they would have to be incredibly drunk, or incredibly stupid, to take Emily's expression as welcoming. Probably both.
"My friends and I were just leaving," she stated warningly, brushing a meaty hand off her arm and staring down the much bulkier drunks, "And I think you three should probably be doing the same."
"Emily..." he heard JJ whisper worriedly as he slid up behind the three men, tapping the biggest one on the shoulder. When he turned Morgan took advantage of the gap it created and pressed past them, taking his place at Emily's side, looking over his teammates before focusing his attention on Garcia, who looked the most nervous. Penelope was scared, he knew, and while she had a fiery spirit, the reality was that she didn't like confrontation, especially when it threatened her family.
"You okay, Baby Girl?" he asked quietly, and she nodded, still looking tense but obviously relieved that he'd returned. He turned back to the drunks, glaring darkly at them. He knew that in theory if it came to a fight two against three weren't the best odds, but the three idiots were drunk and if he had to have someone on his side in a brawl, Emily Prentiss was someone he'd bet on every time. He had seen her fight. Hell, he'd fought her, and she could kick his ass, so he wasn't worried about the odds. He just did not want what had been a very successful outing to end with a bar brawl.
"Hey, man, we were here first," the big guy grumbled, moving to shove him out of the way. Derek just caught his arm, squeezing it hard enough to cause pain, hoping that would get through the alcoholic fog.
"These are my friends," he corrected coldly, "and they have better things to deal with than you. So just walk away. Now."
The big man tried to free his arm, obviously intending to anything but walk away, but Morgan wasn't having it. Another one moved in, but Emily blocked his path, looking tiny next to the brawny, shadowed figures.
"I suggest you do what he says," she warned dangerously, her free hand flashing out to stop JJ when the blonde started to get up, clearly intending to intervene, "We don't want any trouble. We came to have a good time, and we would prefer to leave peacefully."
Before things could get worse, two brawny bouncers came over, looking between the three troublemakers and the agents.
"Everything all right here?" one asked, a rugged, brown-haired former linebacker that knew them from their other visits here and always made a point of making sure no one bothered them.
"I think so, Jim," Emily replied quietly, still focused completely on the three drunks, "We were just getting ready to call it a night."
"Looks like you three are too," the other bouncer growled, this one a grizzled retired Marine who also co-owned the bar. He hated anyone causing problems in his bar, and he dealt harshly with anyone who started fights, which was why there were usually none. No one wanted to get on his bad side. The drunks backed off a few steps, looking between the bouncers and the FBI agents, muttering something about just wanting to dance. Neither Emily nor Derek particularly cared what they had to say and gestured for the others to hurry up and join them. Morgan wrapped a protective arm around Garcia, leading the way out but glancing back to make sure his colleagues were close by, so he was the first one to see the biggest one trip Emily, making her stumble and knock her head against the corner of a booth.
"Prentiss, duck!" he yelled, seeing the man's big fist pull back to strike the brunette, but before either agent could react the guy howled in pain and went down on one knee, revealing JJ behind him, blue eyes blazing. One of his friends started to move toward JJ, but a hand tapped him on the back and he turned, only to find a fist coming right at his face. He went down too, a bruise forming around his jaw, and Morgan thought he just might fall over himself, because the owner of that fist was none other than Spencer Reid, who was currently wincing and holding his hand. He stared, unable to reconcile the facts in front of his face, then Emily started laughing, her hand on her forehead where the corner had cut her.
"Nice shot, Reid," she observed, ushering the two younger agents toward Morgan and Garcia. Once they were outside Jamie, the former Marine, met them there, apologizing profusely, especially to Emily, who had gotten injured.
"It's okay," Emily assured him, "it's just a scratch. Think we could get some ice for Reid's hand before the swelling gets too bad, though?"
Jamie nodded, rushing back inside to comply. The brunette smiled affectionately at JJ, who insisted on checking the cut on her head while Garcia clucked over Reid's bruised hand, turning it this way and that to get a better view while the hero of the moment complained all the while. Derek laughed, giving the hand a look himself.
"That really was a nice shot, kid," he commented, clapping the scrawny man on the back, "You did good."
Reid blushed, his embarrassment distracting him from the pain as Jamie returned with the ice, as well as an alcohol wipe and a band-aid for Emily. Trusting Reid to Garcia's 'tender' mercy, he approached the brunette, who was currently being forced to sit on a stool that the bouncers usually used while JJ tended to the small cut.
"You okay, Prentiss?" he asked, earning a mildly annoyed look that transformed into amusement a moment later.
"I'm fine," she replied, gesturing to the woman tending her, "She's making it seem like a bigger deal than it is. I think it's so people forget that she brought down the biggest one of the bunch."
Morgan turned his full attention on JJ, who was blushing darkly now.
"Shut up, Prentiss," she mumbled, making the dark profilers laugh.
"That really was something," he remarked, then asked curiously, "but how did you do it? That guy was huge!"
JJ's blush deepened, making her fair hair and blue eyes stand out even more.
"I kicked out his knees," she explained in an embarrassed mutter, "I just didn't want him taking pot shots at Emily, or anyone else for that matter. It's no big deal."
He would have objected, but Emily beat him to it, giving the blonde press liaison a long, intense stare.
"JJ, he could have really hurt me, and you stopped him, despite the risk to yourself. It is a big deal, and I'm very grateful."
The blonde's blush became impossibly worse and upon seeing the looks being turned her way by all her teammates she buried her face in Emily's shirt, which was the nearest thing she had to hide behind. The brunette chuckled, looking back up at Morgan even as she wrapped a friendly arm around JJ, gently rubbing the embarrassed woman's back.
"If you want to get Garcia home, I'll give our two heroes a ride."
He agreed with the plan, since he had wanted to spend a little more time with Penelope anyway. He didn't want her thinking he was neglecting her, after all. That could be very dangerous for him. Emily collected Reid and walked to her car, her arm still wrapped around JJ. Derek grinned at the picture they made together, unsurprised to find Garcia once again slipping her little pen camera back into her purse.
"You're going to be sending me those pictures, aren't you?" he asked teasingly, though they both knew he meant the question seriously. The need to keep these sorts of moments alive, if only in photos and snapshots, was something they shared.
"Well, I don't know," she shot back coyly, "What do I get out of it?"
He laughed, hugging her tightly to him as he headed for his car, whispering in her ear just what kinds of favors he would grant in return for those pictures. It was a game they played, and apparently this time it was his turn. As Garcia's laughter and little sounds of excited encouragement filled first the parking lot, then his car, he found some of the tension he'd been carrying around start to unravel. His team, his family, was safe for tonight, and he was in good company. For a little while, he could pretend all was well, and that was exactly what he did, laughing right along with Penelope.
Author's Note: Well, hopefully this sort of made up for my long absence. I've been asked to update more frequently, and I'm making strides in that direction. I already have a plan for the next chapter, and barring any more disasters I hope to be done with it soon. Please email me any comments, criticisms, suggestions that you may have. They help tremendously. Since I'm writing this without a beta there are mistakes, though I do the best I can to catch them before sending the chapters to Ralst to put up on her wonderful site. Thanks goes to all of those who have emailed me to date, and another goes out in advance to those who do so in the future. Everyone has been incredible, and the support of the readers is what made it possible to continue this story after I nearly lost it along with my hard drive. You all have my gratitude and profound appreciation.
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