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Looking for a Penny on an Empty Beach

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DISCLAIMER: Criminal Minds and its characters are the property of CBS. No infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: For trancer, who was the first person I saw who wanted to read something about this pairing. I woke up one morning with this story almost complete in my head and thought I had better get it out into cyberspace.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
SPOILERS: 'Penelope'.

 

Time stretched and twisted, mutating out of all normal proportion, and Emily Prentiss wondered if it had something to do with the universal fluorescence and lack of oxygen present in all hospital waiting areas. She glanced at the utilitarian molded-plastic chairs provided for their "comfort" and added them to the equation, too. Somehow the setting and the emotional breath-holding all contributed to the sensation of seconds passing like minutes and minutes like hours.

She, like Reid and Hotch, could not sit. She paced in tight circles, watching Reid try Morgan's cell phone for the fiftieth time, watching Hotch--immobilized by worry--glower at the wide doors that separated them from the operating rooms. Her anger and disappointment at Morgan's unusual unavailability was a handy distraction from her own fear and it provided a surreal sense of focus that made Penelope's ordeal somehow secondary to this whole mess and, therefore, less immediate.

After barking at Morgan's absence--her incredulous exasperation a pale disguise for her feelings of helplessness and grief--she felt a sort of calm wash over her and, in that moment, she saw Jennifer Jareau as if seeing her for the first time. JJ, who was quietly falling apart on one of the black plastic chairs, tears welling in her eyes and spilling down her cheeks unchecked and unabated.

Realizing that the four of them, thus far, had been behaving like islands of turmoil, unable to see beyond their own shores to the wreckage beyond, Emily put aside her own feelings and sat next to the young communications liaison, saddened by her lonely grief. In a gesture of solidarity, she grabbed JJ's hand with her own, grasping it and squeezing hard as if to say 'You are not alone.'

JJ glanced at her colleague, both grateful for the act of kindness and terrified that it would loosen her desperate hold on her already disintegrating control.

"It should have been me," she whispered hoarsely, her eyes staring blankly at the middle distance.

Hotch and Reid both turned at JJ's voice and Emily sensed somehow that this was not a conversation that needed to include either of them. She rose, JJ's hand still in her own, and tugged the blonde up from her uncomfortable chair. "Come on," she said quietly. "Let's go for a little walk." When JJ's eyes turned toward the wide doors filled with panic, Emily soothed her. "Just down the hall a bit. Not far. We'll stay in sight of the doors, I promise."

JJ finally nodded reluctantly and walked slowly with Emily Prentiss away from Reid and Hotch. She disentangled her hand from the brunette's and crossed her arms over her chest. Emily couldn't tell if she was cold, protecting herself, or trying hard to keep something inside. She had the feeling that if JJ were alone, she'd be wracked with sobs. She watched the blonde's eyes dart toward the doors every few seconds, saw the hope in them flare to life and then die as an orderly strode through them and continued past Hotch without saying a word. Suddenly, JJ's words took on another possible meaning in Emily's mind and looking at her friend's silent, trembling grief, she knew she'd stumbled onto something much deeper and much more delicate than she had expected. There was always the question, too, of whether or not JJ would feel able to confide in her. They hadn't been colleagues for very long and she, herself, had only just begun sharing little personal tidbits about the life--however brief it was--she lived outside the agency.

In the end, it was JJ's naked pain that urged Emily forward and she pulled the younger woman to a stop at the end of the hallway, leaning down to catch her eye. When JJ finally looked at her with those tear-filled, cerulean eyes, she asked, "How long have you felt...this way...for Garcia?"

JJ gasped, her face crumpling into a combination of fresh tears and a mask of terror that Emily also hadn't expected. She turned to flee but Emily held onto her arm.

"JJ, look at me." When she had the agent's attention, she said, "You don't have to talk about it with me if you don't want to. I thought it might help. I'm not judging you. I'm no danger to your privacy. Whatever you tell me, stays with me. Period."

JJ looked at her for such a long moment of indecision that Emily thought not only that she might have pushed too hard but also that she might have ruined a perfectly good friendship in the bargain. But then JJ's shoulders slumped and all the 'fight or flight' tension simply drained from her body. She crossed her arms over her chest again and averted her eyes, looking at the casters on a surgical steel cart parked along the wall.

"I don't know," she said, her voice soft and ragged. "A while. Before you joined the team. It feels like forever but I know it's not."

Emily put a comforting hand on JJ's forearm. "Does she know?"

JJ laughed darkly--a sharp, self-deprecating sound--and shook her head. "She's straight, Emily. Or haven't you noticed the state of constant flirting she shares with Derek? Discretion is not a better part of their valor."

The derision in JJ's voice made Emily wince. It was an old resentment, made sharp and deadly by time and familiarity. She chose her next words very carefully.

"Have you given any thought to the possibility that she and Derek's flirtation is a front designed specifically to disarm us and disguise her true self?" When JJ simply stared at her incredulously, Emily followed with, "I'll take that as a 'no.'"

"I thought you all had made a pact not to profile the team," said JJ suspiciously.

"That's easier said than done, unfortunately," replied Emily, a slight frown appearing between her brows. "We do our best not to use the information to our own advantage or to manipulate each other, but at times like these, it's hard to look at a friend who's suffering and not offer support in the best way we know how. Like we did with Derek in Chicago or with Reid after his abduction."

"And you're saying you think the constant banter is...false?"

Emily shook her head. "I'm saying it's one possibility. Perhaps her sexuality is the one area of her life that she feels must conform to agency expectations; I don't know." She smiled gently. "It might be worth finding out, though. Don't you think?"

"And risk the friendship I have with her?" JJ shook her head violently, fighting against that possibility tooth and nail. "No way."

"Okay," soothed the dark-haired profiler, backing quickly off that topic. "I understand. It's okay, JJ."

Another person, this time a nurse reading a chart, walked through the doors at the end of the hall but did not stop to speak to Hotch. Emily watched JJ's shoulders straighten as hope returned and she sighed when it left, seeing those shoulders deflate yet again.

JJ glanced at Emily nervously. "You must think me an idiot. You must think this is so high school--having unrequited feelings for a team member."

"I don't. JJ, your feelings are your own. I have never seen you act immaturely about them and I certainly don't believe you to be an idiot. I'm sorry that you're having such a difficult time. That's all."

"I know you think I'm a coward for not telling her how I feel but I just can't." Fresh tears crested over her pale lashes and darted down her cheeks. "I can't lose her, Emily. I look at those files--all that death and grief and pain--and it seems like I'm drowning in blood sometimes, pinned under the weight of expectations and haunted by dead eyes that call to me for justice and for closure. But then Penelope is there and she smiles that smile that's like sunshine or she answers her phone with a playful 'This is the Goddess speaking...' and--just like that--the world spins back on its axis and the bands around my chest are gone and I can breathe again. I'm sane again. And all the blood is washed away. In just one of her smiles, Emily. Just one. If that went away, I don't..." JJ turned plaintive eyes to her friend and said brokenly, "I can't lose her. I can't."

Emily pulled JJ into a hug, saying nothing. She was painfully aware that nothing she said would ever be able to console JJ and the reality was that Penelope was fighting for her life down that hallway, unaware that she held someone else's heart in every breath she took. Emily wasn't a religious person--growing up as a diplomat's daughter had neutralized many things in life that could be considered 'excesses'--but she found herself saying a very simple, some would say 'vulgar,' prayer.

Come on, God. Don't fuck this one up. They need you. Both of them.

Hours later--watching as a teary JJ leaned down to kiss Penelope's temple, so overwhelmed with relief that she couldn't speak--Emily sent a silent thank you to the Heavens. Just in case.


Penelope Garcia's fingers flew over her keyboard. He was in the bullpen. The man that had charmed her and then shot her was in the bullpen with Hotch and Rossi and that prick, Fuchs, and they had to find someone who wasn't in there to get him. If he started shooting...all those people...

The camera feed popped over to a split screen showing four camera views outside the bullpen. In one of the windows, a tiny, black & white JJ plowed through another file, seemingly trying to get caught up on her paperwork. She was in an office somewhere down the hall.

"Oh...my girl..." whispered the tech analyst, her eyes wide behind her glasses. Emily Prentiss heard the softly spoken words and turned a speculative eye on Garcia before Morgan's urgent cries of "Pick up! Pick up!" shattered the moment. After bringing JJ up to speed on what was going on, they sped frantically toward the B.A.U. in Morgan's SUV. It was all over by the time they got there; the renegade deputy was dead at the hands of Jennifer Jareau.

She sat as far away from the body as possible, leaning against the edge of someone's somewhat messy desk. She felt remarkably calm, considering. A sense of deep satisfaction enveloped her and that frightened her just a little. She'd done it. She'd done the thing the very thought of which had sent her fleeing to the familiarity of her work, hoping to drown out the revenge fantasies that clawed at her from inside her brain. She'd put a bullet between that bastard's eyes without blinking and even now Hotch glanced worriedly at her as he pulled the yellow tarp over the body.

The rest of the team appeared suddenly, rushing in to help just as they were discovering they were too late. JJ's eyes went straight to Penelope, smiling absently at her braids and her fuzzy magenta sweater, relieved to see that she was okay. Penelope stared at the tarp for a moment, letting the knowledge sink in that her would-be killer was dead and gone. Then she turned to JJ.

She approached the woman hesitantly, afraid of being rebuked for letting someone like this into her life. For forcing JJ to clean up the mess she had made by looking for yet another substitute for what she really wanted but couldn't have. She knew that the banter between Derek and herself had gone beyond cover material into the realm of the cartoonish, rendering it ineffective. Meeting Colby--or whatever his name was--had given her the opportunity to freshen things up a little, to add a little mystery into Penelope Garcia's life. A little heterosexual mystery, which was the whole point. She lived under the personal philosophy of Bread & Circuses--distracting the people around her from the truth of her life with outrageous individuality and consummate skill. That way, no one got too close. Especially people like JJ, with their hearts as big as the moon and their beautiful, sad smiles and their passionate ways that drew you to them, like a kitten to cream.

She held her hands in front of her, nervously mincing her fingertips together. "I'm so sorry," she said to the slender blonde, noting the weariness around her storm gray eyes and her ghost of a smile. "I never meant for you to have to do something like that."

JJ shook her head in denial and tried to hide the tears in her eyes. "You do what can to protect your family," she said softly.

And what could Penelope say to that, exactly? She hugged JJ hard, hoping that it wasn't too hard, hoping that JJ wouldn't feel the wild beat of her heart as it secretly responded to the idea that the beautiful agent would consider her 'family.' She realized, of course, that JJ hadn't meant it that way but that knowledge didn't keep her heart from wishing.

JJ felt laughter bubble up inside her, fueled by the joy of holding a living Penelope Garcia in her arms for just this one moment. She ruthlessly suppressed the laughter and pulled away from the hug, afraid that she was dangerously close to doing or saying something that would reveal her heart unexpectedly. She couldn't afford that so she was a little abrupt, hoping that Garcia wouldn't wonder why. JJ noticed Kevin Lynch out of the corner of her eye as soon as she pulled back. He was sitting at a desk nearby, waiting patiently for his turn to speak to the amazing Garcia. The old pain closed like a curtain over JJ's joy and she nodded toward him.

"I think someone's watching you..."

Penelope followed JJ's gaze and made a tiny, yelping sound. There was another man. Her life had suddenly become cluttered with men. How could this have happened to her? Friendly men who willingly played along with her flirty quirkiness, stalker men who ruthlessly hunted her down, and now hacker men who waited patiently to introduce themselves after the battle... It was incredible. All these men and they were as useful to her as an emery board was to a bumblebee.

"Do you think everything happens for a reason?" she asked JJ. She realized that her question sounded as if she was speaking about the young man and the fortuitousness of his arrival here but she really wasn't. She was speaking about the sudden realization that she was tired of these men cluttering up her life. If she couldn't have what she really wanted, well, that was one thing. She would have to learn to live with it somehow. But she no longer had to surround herself with falsehoods and lies. She could choose to live her truth and so she did.

Too wired and sad to trust her voice, JJ simply raised her eyebrows as if to say 'Who knows?' and she gave Garcia a gentle push in Kevin's direction. She watched them together, hesitant over their first meeting and about the circumstances that had led to it. She tried to convince herself that she was happy for Penelope, that Kevin was a good match for her, and that somehow all this would be enough. She would extract her joy from that. She tried hard to ignore how bad she was at lying to herself. She got up to leave the bullpen, intending to throw herself back into those suffocating piles of work that still waited for her, when she felt a hand on her elbow and velvety voice say, "JJ?"

Turning, JJ saw Kevin Lynch walking away and Penelope Garcia looking at her with twinkling charcoal gray eyes.

"Listen, baby girl," she began, looping one arm through JJ's and leading her towards the door of the bullpen. "I think that you could probably use a drink after a night like tonight. I could use one, too, but The Goddess has been laid low and cannot imbibe. Which means I'll just have to live vicariously through you, okay? So get your coat or your bag or whatever little plebeian things you need and hightail your bouncy buns out to Morgan's SUV. He's driving the party bus tonight."

"What?" JJ goggled. It was as if a light switch had been flipped. Terrified Garcia was gone and Gorgeous, Funny, Happy Garcia was back. Or mostly back. She was still walking slowly and JJ could tell she was in pain.

"Don't make me say all that again! You'll tire me out. Just hop in the bus, Gus. More will be revealed. The Goddess has spoken." She punctuated that last with a little pat on JJ's derrière and broke away to gather Emily and Reid up, ordering them into "the bus" with just as much sparkle and verve.

Numb, JJ could only blindly obey.


Rossi, of course, didn't show. Not that anyone expected him to, really. But he was the only one.

Hotch only stayed long enough to have one beer with the team and to kiss Garcia on the top of her head, whispering how glad he was that her ordeal was over and that she was okay before he left. It was the only point in the night when Garcia thought she might break down.

After Hotch left, Morgan broke out the first season MST3K DVDs while Reid cooked up some of his famous Parmesan Popcorn and Pinenut Party Mix for them to all nosh on while they watched. Emily and JJ staked out either side of Garcia on the couch while the boys sat in front of them on the floor. Their lively discussion ebbed and flowed, laughter and groans of mock derision being the two most often heard outbursts. They were having a blast. Everyone was alive and happy and together. The team was unbroken.

Midway through the third episode, Emily glanced across Garcia to notice JJ, who'd had several scotches, resting her head on Penelope's shoulder. Her eyes were closed and Emily couldn't tell if she was sleeping. Regardless, she felt that the noise of the movie and the boys' boisterous debate over the merits of Crow versus Tom Servo would serve to camouflage her whispered conversation.

She leaned close to Garcia's ear and said, "Yawn."

Garcia, who was staring ahead as if she were watching the movie, smiling widely in pleasure, was, in fact, focused entirely on the weight of JJ's presence on her shoulder. Unwilling to disturb her unexpected and yet utterly welcome guest, she spoke from the side of her mouth.

"What?"

"Yawn," repeated Emily, urgently. "I'll quietly get the boys out of here and we'll leave you alone with her."

Stunned, Garcia turned to face Emily, her eyes as big as plates behind her square glasses. "What?" she asked again. This time her voice was a mere squeak.

"Well, that's what you want, isn't it? And trust me...she wants it, too." Emily's eyes were clear and lucid. Her words were not slurred. She had not had that much to drink. There was no way, therefore, that she could be drunk. That left only one explanation: that she believed what she was saying to be true. That deduction, however, did not help Garcia one itty bit.

"What?"

"Dammit, Garcia, yawn! Right now!"

Startled by Emily's vehement order, Garcia snapped face forward and conjured a jaw-cracking yawn that started out feigned and ended up real.

Satisfied with the improv performance, Emily went to work on the rest of her plan immediately. She put a hand on Morgan's shoulder to get his attention and leaned in close to whisper something that Penelope did not hear. Morgan, in turn, got Reid up off the floor and the two of them started clearing away the party debris and the empty bottles. Emily rose and walked around the coffee table to JJ's side of the couch, rousing her gently and leaning in to converse with her briefly. JJ nodded in agreement and glanced Penelope's way before getting up to help with the tidying.

Emily plopped back down on the couch--this time in JJ's recently abandoned place--and grinned like the Cheshire Cat. "You owe me, Garcia," she said sotto voce. She reeked of smugness.

"Whatever I have that you want, it's yours," said Penelope sincerely, her hand over her heart.

Emily laughed briefly then leaned forward. "Let her tell you," she advised. "She's dying to tell you but she's so afraid of losing your friendship. I'm sure you can figure out a way to get it out of her."

"Okay. Sure." Garcia still felt like a deer caught in the headlights. Was this really happening?

"And Garcia? Get her to smile again. We're counting on you."

Penelope nodded absently. "Yes. Right. Smiles. Lots of smiles."

"Atta girl!" Emily noticed that her three pawns were done with their chores and she stood up. "Get some rest, Garcia," she said in her normal voice. This part of the performance was meant for the boys. "I don't think either of you should be alone tonight, so I've convinced JJ to stay here with you. Tomorrow, we can arrange a rotation if we need to. You'll have to let us know how you're feeling then, okay?"

Emily leaned over and gave Garcia a warm, one-armed hug. "Feel better, Garcia." She grinned at her and winked.

"I will. Thanks for hanging out with me tonight."

"Hey, silly girl, that is how we roll!" said Derek, reaching down to hug Garcia tightly. "We are the Post-Surgical Party Playas! Am I right, Reid?"

Reid pumped his right fist weakly into the air. "I'm jiggy with it," he said, looking more befuddled than anything. Everyone groaned.

"Weak, Reid! You are so weak!" Morgan shook his head and laughed.

"I think the word you're looking for is 'white,'" he retorted. The gawky genius leaned down to kiss Garcia on the cheek, saying, "I'm happy you're okay, Garcia. The team wouldn't have been the same without you."

Garcia felt tears welling in her eyes. "Thanks, Reid. I'm glad I'm okay, too."

Emily took control at that moment and shooed the boys out the front door, waving to JJ as she left. "Call us if you need anything," she said breezily and then she was gone.

JJ locked the door behind them while Garcia turned down the volume on the still running DVD. The silence was deafening.

The younger agent stood against the door for a long time, her eyes in shadow so that Garcia couldn't see them. Finally, she took a step forward.

"I hope you don't mind me staying here tonight, Garcia. Emily thought it would be best if you weren't alone and I guess they were worried about me, too. But we didn't really ask you. We should have. I mean, this is your apartment and you may not want a guest to stay overnight. Though, I guess Derek did earlier, so maybe it's okay. But I don't--"

"Jennifer!"

Her name--her real name, said aloud by Penelope Garcia--cut off JJ's voice instantly.

"It's fine that you stay here tonight, JJ," said Garcia, smiling shyly. "I can't think of anyone I'd rather have here, looking out for me. Now, come sit down before you hurt yourself."

JJ blinked for a moment, then laughed, sounding relieved. "Okay. Yeah. Sitting down is probably a good idea." She took her original place on the couch but turned fully toward Penelope, pulling one leg up under the other and propping her head on her hand. She reached out to touch a strand of Penelope's pink hair, not aware that she had done so. "How are you feeling, Garcia?" Her blue eyes clouded over with worry as her brows contracted into a gentle frown. "Are you in pain? Can I get you anything?"

"I'll live," replied the tech analyst, holding up her hand to forestall the protest she knew would be coming. "But I promise to take something soon, okay? How are you, JJ? You look so tired..." She wanted to cup the perfect curve of JJ's cheek in her hand but she remembered Emily's words and kept her hand in her lap.

JJ looked away for a moment, smiling to cover her sudden tears. When she looked back, her eyes sparkled in the dim light. "I'm fine," she said, her voice cracking. "I'll be fine. You're fine, so I'll be fine." She clung to that word as the walls holding back the tide of the day began to fall. "Fine," she repeated, her voice now aching with unshed tears. "Everything's fine." She gulped once and covered her mouth with one hand, trying to hold in the sobs. They broke through the barrier almost immediately.

Penelope instantly gathered JJ into her arms and held her shuddering body with a fierceness she knew would burn inside her now for all of time. She rocked the blonde gently and stroked her hair and whispered soft words to her, hoping that the release would allow JJ to find her balance again. But the sobs didn't subside and JJ gulped in air and tried to speak, her words garbled by her grief.

"I killed...wanted him dead...Oh god...I couldn't see...couldn't...you....oh you!...shot...dying...and I...never, ever..."

"Jennifer, sweetie," soothed Penelope, cupping JJ's face in her hands. "I'm okay. Everything's okay! Jennifer!" She wiped the tears away as fast as they came and tried desperately to get JJ to see her, really see her. "It's okay, baby girl... It's okay..." Nothing was working! She had to get her to stop, to see! She cried out, "Jennifer!"

JJ jerked in Penelope's arms and stopped crying. It was as if she had been slapped. She stared at Penelope, wide eyed, snuffling, and shocked. Their eyes locked in stupefaction for two long heartbeats and then they crashed together, mouths colliding, devouring one another hungrily, desperately, as if by the act alone they confirmed their existence and their wholeness. Penelope wound her fingers in JJ's long, wheat-gold hair and pulled her closer, deepening their kiss. JJ's hands, at first resting on Penelope's shoulders, suddenly began pushing against them.

"Wait!" she said between devastating kisses, the kind that sent wild electrical storms across her body. "Wait! Penelope! We have to stop!"

"Why?" groaned the pink-streaked blonde. Her eyes were still closed and her face was radiant with desire. It was as if she had been dipped in sunlight.

"Because...you're not....up...to it!" reasoned JJ, finally managing to pull away from Penelope's intoxicating mouth. "You were shot!"

The words stopped Penelope cold, like a bucket of ice water thrown in her face. "Dammit!" she cursed viciously. "I really, really hate that man right now." She opened her eyes and relaxed her fingers, letting JJ's hair sift through them like strands of silk. She used her thumbs to wipe away the last of JJ's tears and rested her forehead against the younger woman's. They both were breathing hard.

"You okay?" asked JJ softly after they'd had a moment or two to catch their breaths.

"Yeah." Penelope smiled shyly again and threw JJ a sidelong glance. "Are you?"

"You mean other than being a complete train wreck? Yeah. I'm good." She gave Penelope a self-deprecating smile and rolled her eyes at herself.

"Hey! A completely beautiful train wreck! Just remember that, missy!"

Penelope watched, charmed, as a blush skittered across JJ's cheeks.

"Yeah?" JJ wondered why she couldn't be more eloquent at the moment.

"Yes. So watch it. Or I'll sic this gorgeous FBI agent I know on you. She's pretty good with a gun."

The FBI agent in question laughed and the sound was as joyous and unrestrained as cathedral bells. "Well," she began, slyly sidling closer to the tech analyst, a brilliant smile tugging at her lips, "there are some other things I'm 'pretty good' at, too." She dropped a tiny kiss just under Penelope's ear.

Now it was Garcia's turn to blush. "Oh yeah?" she asked. She tried to infuse the question with bravado but the kiss was perfectly timed and her words came out breathless.

"Yes. Unfortunately, you'll have to wait six to eight weeks to find out." JJ briefly chewed the fingernail of her left index finger and waited for Penelope's response.

"Six to eight weeks?? What are you, a Ronco Food Dehydrator from QVC??" Garcia flung herself back against the couch in the throes of mock despair.

"Not quite," retorted JJ, chuckling. "But I'm much more worth the wait."

Penelope sobered instantly and sat up. "I'm absolutely, positively, 100% sure of that," she said quietly, her eyes dark with sincerity.

"You are?" JJ was captivated by the look she saw in the older woman's violet-gray eyes. "Why?"

"Because I waited all this time for you already, Jennifer Jareau," said Penelope, reaching out to trace the line of JJ's cheek with one adoring finger. She tilted the younger woman's chin upward and leaned in for a long, languid, luxurious kiss. "And kissing you," she added when they parted, "was worth the wait alone."

fin