DISCLAIMER: All herein belong to CBS and its affiliates, not me. Not profit was made, no disrespect intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This has nothing to do with anything else. That I have I written, I mean. It started out as some kind of response for a Christmas wish, but bears little resemblance to that now. Still, it is a Christmas story, of a sort. My CM universe (yes, I have my own) does not include the debacle of the end of season three or any of season four, so there is no Will. Not even a vague thought of him. This is mostly unbeta'd, except for the corrections of my much underused French, which Peanuts kindly fixed for me. Merci, Peanuts!
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Remembrance of Things Past
It was odd the things that she remembered; the moments caught like flies in a web, standing out with almost painful clarity, as if they occurred yesterday or last week and not thirty years ago. She couldn't have been more than nine or ten, all knobby knees and elbows, too tall for her age, so that she towered over the boys in her class; short French lads to begin with, no match for the monolithic height of an awkward American girl.
Not that she cared about boys, even then. And heaven knows, not that they cared about her in the least. Not that they even noticed her, other than to hurl Gallic insults at her across the salle de classe d'école. In a school where the children of diplomats were as common as the artists that thronged the West Bank, it mattered little to them that her mother was an ambassador, even the American ambassador. Besides, it was fashionable to hate Americans, and the young of France were nothing if not slaves to fashion.
The nanny met her after school, climbed with her into the cavernous backseat of her mother's car. The ride through the narrow, crowded streets was her time to learn the French that wasn't taught in her exclusive school, as the nanny and the driver chattered away, the words coming so quickly at times that she could almost see them, all curves and soft angles, spinning and pirouetting against the windows as the streets of Paris sailed by. The back of the driver's neck was tanned a dark brown, the skin coarse and slightly wrinkled, although every Friday afternoon, there was a thin line of white along the hairline, where the barber had revealed the paler skin beneath.
She had learned, from a rather in-depth discussion she barely followed about the utter uselessness of the French government when it came to anywhere outside of Paris, that he was from Normandy, she from Lorraine. When in the company of their employers, their voices held that generic quality that she, even at only ten years old, had already begun to recognize as some sort of standard servants tone, the same whether the speaker was French or Egyptian, Ukrainian or English.
However, alone with only a child for an audience, the artifice disappeared and those voices changed; both of their accents somehow richer, more robust than the refined tones of the Parisians her mother was surrounded by, and she would listen, fascinated, her chin resting on her palm, the baritone of the driver's voice blending with the slightly raspy alto of her nanny into a truer song of France than she heard each day in the stale air of her classroom.
It was just two days until Christmas vacation began and the space under the vast tree in the entrance hall, its branches stretched up to the ornately carved ceiling, was crowded to overflowing with brightly colored packages. As the voices in the car moved on from the price of meat to who the housekeeper was seeing on the sly, she closed her eyes and imagined Christmas morning, the kind of Christmas morning that she always imagined, a joyful December morning wrapped securely in the warmth of familial love.
The kind that never quite materialized, lost as it inevitably was in furious glances and words that never matched the tone in which they were spoken.
Her Christmases were treacherous waters that had to be navigated; seemingly innocuous, tepid pools that hide rip currents strong enough to drown the most intrepid of swimmers, much less a spindly legged child. Each December 25th, she ventured downstairs, hopeful of laughter and loving expressions, only to feel the icy waters slowly rising, numbing her limbs as she gazed at the painted on smiles on her parents' faces.
This year was supposed to be different. Her mother had promised. Presents and hot chocolate and a sumptuous feast. No harsh words, no recriminations, no undercurrents destined to drown them all. Just a normal family Christmas. Somehow, she had known even then that normal was something that her family could never quite manage. Like expecting a blind man to see or the dead to rise again. Like the extraordinary birth the day celebrated, those kind of miracles only happened once every millennia or so.
Still, at ten, hope is a valiant warrior, able to subdue, just for a little while, the erstwhile armies of experience and fear and so she was able to believe her mother when she told her that this Christmas would be perfect.
She could feel the emptiness as soon as she entered the embassy. There was none of the usual bustle that was the norm whenever her Mother was around. No voices having one-sided conversations on the phone, no clacking of typewriter keys, no aides scurrying by like the White Rabbit on some clandestine mission. Just the click of her patent leather shoes on the black and white Italian marble floor, and the sudden drumming of her heartbeat in her ears.
"Votre mère est allée à Washington. Votre père espère de revenir de Londres avant Noël."
Your mother has gone to Washington. Called back unexpectedly. No idea when she will be back. Your father is in London and hopes to be back for Christmas, but there have been a few emergencies with work. The words of her mother's secretary echoed with an odd clang inside her head. The pass that lead to her grandfather's house in the Alps was impassable by this time in the year, so there was no chance of her traveling to spend Christmas with him. No chance of her spending Christmas with anyone other than the servants.
So much for promises.
The nanny and some of the other staff watched in polite interest as she opened her gifts. The expensive toys, the even more expensive clothes, piled up on the floor beside her, barely acknowledged except by the housekeeper, who folded them carefully, placing the boxes on a growing pyramid on the marble tiles. Not the best Christmas of her life, but sadly, not the worst.
Not the last time her mother broke a promise, and not the last time that Emily spent Christmas alone.
Like this Christmas Eve. The days had grown so short, barely ten hours of daylight, sometimes not seeming to be even that, the heavy gray clouds blocking out what little light there was. Some days it seemed that the weight of the clouds pressed down on the city, flattening the rounded globe of the Capital, shrinking the slender spire of the Washington Monument.
The world seemed to have slowed, as if the spinning of the globe itself were winding down, like an ancient carousel grinding unhurriedly to a halt, the prancing horses left stranded in mid-air. There were no new cases to analyze, no frantic calls for help from beleaguered law enforcement officials in Butte or Buffalo. Not a season of peace as much as a lull before a storm, a moment of rest before the whole damn thing took off twirling again, spiraling out of control.
She had made her own peace long ago with the hollowness of forgotten birthdays, the palpable chill of Thanksgiving dinners, the strained melancholy of Christmases. Still, making peace didn't mean that the hurt disappeared; even today she could feel each new disappointment as one more drop in a deep and endless ocean of discontent.
For the past seven or eight years, Christmas had consisted of her mother's fabulously dysfunctional, disturbingly Dickensian take on the holiday, complete with wassail and Christmas pudding and vaguely demonic looking carolers attired in velvet coats, top hats and side whiskers, a decidedly disquieting sight on a ten year old. Last year, Ambassador Prentiss had gone so far as to hire a decorator who specialized in "old world charm" for the holidays and the family's home in Vermont had ended up looking like the Black Forest, complete with towering indoor trees, gloomy green and red fabric and shadowy wood.
Walking through the front door from the chill of the clear Vermont night, Emily had a sudden inkling of how Hansel and Gretel must have felt, lost in the dark woods. She even considered leaving a trail of toast points and pate' to find her way out, but knew the joke would be lost on her mother. Most things about her daughter were.
Because she was expected to make the yearly pilgrimage to the family Christmas, Emily didn't usually bother buying a tree. Little point in decorating when she wouldn't be home to enjoy it. Except that, this year, she would. Her mother had sent her a brief email informing her that she and Emily's father had decided that opening the house in Vermont and spending a fortune on a tree and a sumptuous meal and party were really becoming a bit much, and since they had no grandchildren upon whom to lavish their love and wealth, they had booked themselves on a cruise of the South Pacific. They were certain that she would understand.
Votre mère est allée a la Tahiti. Great.
So, she bought a tree. A live tree, a six foot Blue Spruce, because she couldn't bear the thought of killing a living thing to celebrate a birth; the incongruity of such an act had always troubled her. The tree sat in the far corner of her living room, still undecorated, a beauty to the unadorned boughs, thick and lush and blue-green, that spoke to her. The scent of it filled the room, and she could close her eyes and imagine herself in the utter silent stillness of an ancient forest, her breath a cloud of white against a sky so dark and clear that the stars seemed within her reach.
On the coffee table was a box full of ornaments, delicate porcelain balls with hand-painted Christmas scenes, antique blown glass Santas and pine cones and little cottages, the colors fading, cracks like minor fissures across the paint. There were ornaments from France, from Russia, from every country that her mother had ever been posted. She had given them to Emily as keepsakes for her own family, the one that Emily had failed to produce for her.
Leaning back against the cool leather of the couch, Emily gazed at them, each one an indictment, each fragile, insubstantial globe immensely heavy, loaded down with guilt and disappointment. She worried that if she actually put them on the tree that the sheer weight of them would send it toppling over.
So she left the tree bare.
Outside the wide doors of the balcony, the granite and white marble city sparkled in the cold winter air, the yellow streetlights casting a golden wash over the entire scene. "All is calm, all is bright." Except that she knew that it wasn't, that right now someone was being robbed, raped, murdered even. One just couldn't see it from here, the knowledge of which she found oddly comforting tonight. She could live with blissful ignorance, if just for this one evening.
Funny really. All the years she had lain awake tossing and turning, trying to think of some even halfway adequate excuse not to go home for Christmas, not to have to face another faux Joyeux Noël; all the days she had sat in her car in traffic rehearsing the speech to her mother about too much work and cases and travel time. She was finally free, finally released from an obligation that hovered like an angel of doom over her shoulder from Labor Day until she stepped over that threshold Christmas Eve. Free. She should be dancing with joy, overwhelmed with happiness.
So why did she feel like that abandoned child thirty years ago in Paris?
Her friends had all gone somewhere for Christmas, gone to be with family, with friends. A couple of them had invited her to tag along: Morgan to Chicago, JJ to Pennsylvania. She didn't accept, couldn't really. She had no experience with real families, normal families; well, at least ones more normal than her own. She would have no idea how to behave. Like a native tribesman plucked from the wilds of the Amazon and plopped down in some suburban living room, she would be out of her depth, unable to function, to do more than stare wide-eyed in amazement and awe.
Not that she hadn't wanted to go, especially when JJ had smiled that shy, gentle smile of hers, blue eyes as soft and clear as the bluebonnets that line the highways down in Texas. Not that Emily didn't have a longing as wide and high as the sky itself to spend more time with the winsome blonde: any time, any where. Just not wide enough or high enough to overcome the colossal fear that there was nothing more to JJ's smiles and light touches than friendship.
So Emily said thanks, but no; family commitments, you understand. JJ had understood, and Emily tried to convince herself that the faint glint of disappointment and regret in those blue eyes wasn't really there; if it was, then the entire citadel Emily had constructed to protect herself crumbled and she was very certain she couldn't take that. So, she smiled and wished JJ a merry Christmas and a safe trip.
Next to the ignored and neglected box of ornaments on the coffee table, sat her presents from her parents. She could guess what each package contained: a discreetly expensive pair of earrings, a sweater, raw silk or cashmere, and a new set of driving gloves. She knew because her gifts were always the same. She wondered sometimes if her mother simply had a standing order with Tiffany and Bergdorf's to be delivered promptly on December twenty-third. God knows, the Ambassador didn't do her own shopping, not even for her only child's Christmas presents.
On the edge of the island that separated the kitchen and the living room, Emily had set down a few brightly colored packages as she came in the door from work; gifts from Morgan and Reid, from Garcia and Hotch. Even one from Rossi. And of course, a small, perfectly shaped cube, richly wrapped in gold and crimson and green; a cube with a card that read, "To Emily, From JJ". Emily knew that she should wait until morning to open her gifts. Something about delayed gratification making the experience all the more enjoyable, but years of experience with Christmas mornings had convinced her of the fallacy of that theory, at least in the Prentiss family. Waiting had never made a damn bit of difference.
So she made a cup of hot cocoa, the shavings of dark, creamy chocolate melting into the stark whiteness of the milk, the steam rising from the pottery mug, put some Nat King Cole on her iPod and settled down again on the couch to open her gifts. One pair of earrings, diamond and sapphire. One sweater, red, cashmere and silk. One pair of driving gloves, black calfskin. Practical, uninspired and completely expected.
From Reid came a CD, a lovely collection of rare Coltrane recordings that she knew she would enjoy. Hotch had opted for a gift certificate for the local coffee joint she stopped by every morning; the man was nothing if not observant.
From Rossi, there was an exquisite scarf, the color and pattern of which surprised her; deep shades of purple and green and cream in a swirl that reminded her of the pictures she had seen of one of the nebulas captured by the Hubble telescope. Maybe he wasn't such a curmudgeon after all.
Garcia's gift brought a wide grin to Emily's face: a vintage Wonder Woman lunchbox. She had taped a cut out of Emily's face over Linda Carter's. Subtlety, thy name is Garcia, Emily chuckled, her laughter loud in the empty room.
Morgan's present brought a faint glimmer of moisture to Emily's eyes: a signed copy of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, one of her favorite of Vonnegut's novels. How very sad and strangely wonderful that someone who had known her a year or so could chose a gift so perfect and meaningful, a gift her mother would have never chosen. Never thought to choose.
She had saved JJ's gift for last. The box was so perfectly wrapped, the lines of gold and green and red flowing in an endless line around and around the cube, that Emily almost hated to open it. She carefully pried up one edge of the tape that secured it, loosening the paper to slide it off the edge of the box, trying hard not to tear it. Finally freed, she found a red box with a small gold clasp holding down the lid.
Inside, there was an ornament. A round ball of deep blue and yellow and gold, to be hung with a rounded length of gold silken rope. Holding it to the light, Emily could see the glorious detail of Van Gogh's visions: Starry Night over the Rhone. The melding shades of blue and black, the glimmer of golden stars on deep blue water, the lights of the town glowing softly beneath a gilded heaven, the texture of the sky and the river and the world reduced to this small globe she held in her hand.
Against the red silk of the interior, a thin white card rested, almost impatiently.
"Emily, I know that the painting isn't Vermont, but I picture you someplace like this, where the stars are so close and so bright you can't help but try and catch one in your hand. You probably have hundreds of ornaments on your family's tree, much more beautiful and valuable than this one, but it spoke to me, so I hope that you will allow it a place in your Christmas, just as you have granted me a place in your life, one I cherish. I decided not to go to Pennsylvania for the holidays. Too much drama, truth be told. I'm going to make myself a huge Christmas breakfast and just relax. I hope that your holiday is joyful and filled with all the things you love. Merry Christmas, Emily.
Emily rose and crossed to the corner where the tree held place of honor. She gently hung the fragile blue globe on one of the center branches, slipping the silken rope over the sharp spines of needles. The flicker of the candles on the coffee table reflected back the pinpoints of light in the blue heavens and the ball appeared to Emily to be a strange, unknown world, hanging in space against a backdrop of deep greenish-blue. Indeed, the branches seemed to embrace the ornament, folding it in, holding it tenderly as it spun slowly in the evergreen scented air.
Emily smiled, feeling the weight of endless Christmases of guilt and recriminations, of disappointment and anger slip away. Her parents had indeed given her an unexpected gift this year: the chance to leave that little girl in Paris behind her. Tomorrow, she would get up early, and instead of trudging downstairs to a room laden with presents and barely concealed animosity, she would drive over to JJ's house and see if the blonde agent would welcome some company for breakfast. And maybe for lunch.
If Emily played her cards right, she might even talk Jennifer Jareau into having Christmas dinner with her. Who knows, thought Emily, blowing out the candles and, with one last glance at her perfect tree, slowly climbing the stairs to bed, perhaps the delayed gratification of Christmas morning had its merits after all.
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