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A History of Meetings

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He’s not even sure it ever really happened. His mind is fragile now; details are harder to recall, especially ones so far in the past. And she isn’t here to ask anymore. No one from his memory of that day is. He wishes he’d asked when he had the chance. It feels important that they might have known, that they might have shared this before everything happened. Now, he’ll never be sure if it’s true or just a fantasy wish-fulfillment from his broken mind. More than anything, he wants to believe, but he isn’t so far gone yet that he’s confused wanting with knowing.

The memory is hazy and too bright. He attributes that to being so young, although he’s unsure how young he was at the time. It’s hot and uncomfortable and he’s fidgeting on the molded plastic chair so much that his Mom twitches every time he moves. He knows he should be better, be quieter, but there are people everywhere, and it’s loud and frightening, and all he wants is quiet and stillness and his Mom’s arms around him as she rocks and tells him something to make him sleep. He can’t catch her attention, her eyes constantly shifting from the flow of people moving around them to the attendant at the departure gate who’s telling an endless line of travelers that “standby” means you have to standby. His mother has this look about her that makes him shiver. It’s becoming more and more common: she’s suspicious of everyone, everything. And not in the way you might be cautious of a bug you don’t recognize or something – it’s like she wants to kill all the bugs, and everyone around her is a frightening bug.

“Mom,” he tugs at her sleeve, but her eyes keep moving, scanning the endless sea of bugs. “Mom…”

“Hush, baby,” she says distractedly, not looking at him beside her.

“Mom, I wanna go. Why do we have to stay here?”

“Be good now, baby. Just a little while more. The lady says the plane is coming soon.”

He doesn’t think that’s true. He doesn’t remember anything the attendant said other than “standby”. And he’s confused and bored and his Mom won’t pay attention to him. A dangerous whine escapes him as he shuffles wildly in the uncomfortable seat, and Diana twitches violently beside him.

“I wanna go…”

“Spencer, please!”

His whine cuts off in his throat as she snaps at him, his body frozen in his contorting as she whips her eyes to glare at him like he might be one of the dangerous bugs she has to squash. She’s never yelled at him – at least he can’t remember if she has – and now she’s looking at him as if she doesn’t know who he is. His chest gets tight and starts to hiccup. He’s really scared now and the one person he’s always depended on has suddenly turned into a stranger beside him in this frightening, over-bright place.

“Mom,” he sobs once, face getting hot and his eyes blurring behind his ungainly glasses perched dangerously on his tiny nose. Her mouth curves into a rictus of horror he doesn’t understand, and when he reaches for her, she leans away. “Mommy…”

“Hey, kiddo…”

The voice is from the row of chairs facing theirs. He looks and some girl is leaning forward into the path between their rows, elbows braced on her gangly knees, grinning like she knows him. He blinks at her, tears stalled in their tracks by the sudden shift in focus, but he curls further into his chair. He’s never trusted strangers. The girl scrunches up her face, her dark, slightly-unruly hair waving as she shrugs.

“Waiting sucks, doesn’t it? Makes me wanna cry too sometimes. It gets so boring…” She rolls her eyes dramatically and then smiles like it’s a secret she’s sharing. He just blinks and hiccups, unsure if he should be interested in this stranger or afraid of her. She’s bigger than him – older – and that usually means trouble in his meager experience. She waits for him to react, and then shrugs again when he doesn’t, like it’s no big deal.

“Wanna see something cool?” she asks. “Do you believe in magic?”

He perks up, sniffling his tears back and curling his legs in short pants under him as he leans forward while trying not to look too interested. He does like magic. His Mom tells him about magic all the time. He flicks his eyes towards her, but she’s back to surveying the bugs again. His chest gets tight once more – to be so all alone next to her – but the girl stands up and draws his eyes back to her. She steps into the space between their rows and smiles some more, and since his Mom doesn’t move to tell him how to react, he makes a choice out of not wanting to feel alone and frightened.

“ ‘Kay,” he whispers into the hand worrying his mouth, and leans up on his tucked knees and shuffles his glasses to get a better look. The girl’s smile gets even bigger, like they are friends now or something. It’s a crazy smile, but crazy-good, not crazy-scary.

“Do you like rabbits?”

He perks up even more, sitting as straight and tall as he can while nodding enthusiastically.

“Well,” the girl smirks and cocks her hip a little. “I can turn my hand into a rabbit.”

What? He feels like every hair on his body stands up. “No, you can’t.”

“Can so,” she promises, again, like it’s a present she’s about to proudly hand to him. Then she points to the worn grey carpet beneath them. “Look there. See the shadow?”

She shoves her hand out and wiggles her fingers. He looks at the floor obediently and sees her shadow waving at him. He waves back at the carpet and hears her giggle.

“Okay. Keep watching.”

And he does. Slowly - magically - the shadow melts into a tiny rabbit with stubby ears and a curled back. He makes a peeping sound of surprise and leans forward dangerously in his chair staring at the ground. Then the rabbit hesitantly pokes its head towards him and wiggles its shadowy nose before flicking its ears. He laughs, looks up and finds nothing but the gawky girl with her hands curled into strange knots above the carpet. There’s no rabbit. He looks back down again and the rabbit is there. He doesn’t understand.

“Where is it?” he asks.

“Told ya,” the girl winks. “It’s magic.”

He sighs heavily. The rabbit is wonderful, but people take the magic away with them when they leave. He can’t keep it.

“I can teach you how,” she says after a moment.

He looks up hopefully, and then immediately shifts his eyes to his mother for permission. “Mom?” he asks gently.

“Hush, baby,” she says, eyes still feverishly scanning the crowd around them.

He sags back into his chair and twitches when she does, feeling the fear creep back into him. He looks to the girl and finds her staring at his mother like she’s out of focus, and when she finally faces him again, she seems sad. But that doesn’t last. She shuffles closer and holds out her hands for him to see.

“Look at my fingers. See how I’ve stacked them? You think you can copy that?”

He nods and squints at the girl’s fingers, memorizing them like the words in his Mom’s books. He can see them when the books are gone, no problem. This girl’s fingers will be a different kind of book. His hands are small and chubby; he tries to make his fingers like the girl’s but he gets it wrong. He huffs and tries again, and again. Just as he’s about to whine he can’t do it, her fingers skim his and force them into the shapes he can’t manage on his own.

“There,” she huffs with pride. “Look down.” He does and there’s a small, chubby rabbit at his feet. He’s so excited, he almost reaches for it, making a loud burst of laughter that causes his Mom to twitch, and then he has to whisper “sorry”.

“You did it,” the girl proclaims and is smiling her crazy smile when he looks up. He smiles back shyly and says, “I did it” softly. Then her fingers tug at his. “If you move this one, his ears will move. Got it?” He wiggles his finger and sees the rabbit come alive on the carpet with a thrill. She tugs another finger. “This one works the nose…” He tries it and giggles at the snuffling shadow of his rabbit-hand.

“You keep practicing, and you can make him do whatever you want. See?”

He twists his inexperienced fingers and his rabbit moves and bulges awkwardly on the floor while he concentrates. It isn’t as fun or smooth as hers was, but he thinks it could be if he tries harder.

“Magic,” she sighs. “You can make the world however you want it to be, kid.” He looks up but she’s looking at his Mom again, and it’s a sad look just like before. He doesn’t want the magic girl to be sad. “Just remember that, okay?”

“Okay,” he says softly, and it draws her eyes back to him. He smiles, and she smiles back. He wonders if she’s coming back to Vegas with them. Everyone here is waiting for a plane to Vegas. If she is, maybe they could play together again sometime…

“There you are. I’ve been looking all over for you. Why do you do that?”

A tall woman walks up and stands next to the magic girl. She looks like her, but bigger and sadder and all folded up as if her arms and legs are glued tight to her body. She glances at him and then away, as if he’s not there.

“Our flight’s waiting. Come along.”

The taller, sadder magic girl turns away and walks into the crowd. The magic girl starts to look sad herself as her eyes follow the other into the sea of bugs. She sighs and her body curls around the sound like she’s running out of air. Then she looks back at him, and tries to smile.

“Keep practicing,” she whispers, because it’s a secret. One between him and her. He nods and feels scared again. He wants to ask if she’s taking a different plane to Vegas. He wants to know if they will meet again there.

“Emily!” The voice slices through the noise around them and the girl jumps. Then she ducks her head and slouches, like she has no magic at all, which isn’t true.

“So long, squirt,” she mumbles from behind her tangled hair and follows the taller one away, wiggling her fingers over her shoulder at him. He waves back but she doesn’t see as the crowd of bugs swallows her.

And that’s where his memory ends, with fear and hope and a touch of magic. That was the beginning of the end of his childhood, but also, he believes, the start of his faith that he could do anything. Now, all of these decades later, he doesn’t regret much, but he still wishes that he could know if that faith was because of her or not.

 

-----

 

She sees him for the first time and he’s so, so pretty. And then he opens his mouth to introduce himself and his voice breaks over his name and he blushes in a way that Italian boys never seem to do. By the end of the party, he’s told her she’s the most beautiful girl he’s ever met, and she falls all over that because this is Rome and you can’t go anywhere here without finding an earthbound goddess of some stripe. Yeah, she’s drunk and a little bit stoned, but she’s been around, seen a few things. She’s sure that John’s on the level. You can’t fake how flabbergasted he is around her from the start.

She decides right there and then, he’s the one, even though it takes them another year to get around to it. Maybe she had doubts. Maybe she was scared after all. Not of him, of course – John wouldn’t harm a fly – but of it. When it came right down to it, she wanted it gone more than she wanted John. He just seemed like a good choice: someone she could trust. And, ya know, he was pretty and popular and still told her she was the best-looking girl in the world. It’s just sex. Everyone is doing it.

So, when she finally lets him have what he wants – as he pumps between her thighs like a sweaty, frantic merry-go-round pony in the gardener’s shed – well, she sorta expected more. More than it to be over in less than a minute, more than the quick, perfunctory kisses before and the hurried dressing and hopping over the embassy fence after. More than the quick, excited tingles that never went anywhere, and the sticky, obvious mess trickling down her legs that told her he enjoyed it more than she did. And certainly more than the blank expression he gives her four weeks later when she comes to him terrified, her whole world on the verge of collapse. That day she realizes how wrong first impressions can be, because he is not the one, even if all she wanted that one to be was a friend who’d be there when she needed it. It wasn’t love – she’s fifteen, not a child – but she figured, well… that what they had wasn’t so transparent. They’d hung out together for a year, they’d gotten stoned together, they’d broken curfew, stayed out under the sweltering Italian stars all night and shared their secrets. But John just stands there, halfway between frightened and pissed off when she tells him she’s pregnant, waiting for her to tell him what happens next. She damn-well expected more than screaming “Say something!” and him responding with “I can’t handle this”, and walking away from her. So, she has to turn to a guy who has no dog in this fight, and she becomes the catalyst for his downfall. It won’t be the only life she destroys, and it won’t even be the first.

But this meeting that changed her life isn’t about John at all. It’s about the sudden and unexpected rush of protectiveness that assails her just as John abandons her. It’s the crying she does in her room at night as quietly as she can, and the bargaining with God to fix this even though she’s always suspected no one was listening. It’s the way her hands flash to her abdomen when kids run by her in the hall at school, it’s the conversations she has with herself as she curls over the toilet with morning sickness. It’s the way that all of these things coalesce one day when she realizes they aren’t separate; they are all her developing a relationship with her baby. And then she cries in her room at night for a different reason. She curls into herself, arms wrapped around her middle, and begs for a forgiveness that will never come. It doesn’t know how – this little thing she unwittingly brought to life – and it will never grow enough to understand how sorry she is about what she has no choice in doing. Even after it’s done, the crying and begging continues night after night. Sometimes, Matthew climbs in through her window and holds her, telling her things will get better in time. Sometimes she just holds herself. But there’s no resolution to this part of her, no period at the end of this story that lets her forget it happened.

The meeting that haunts her the most is the one she never had.

 

-----

 

The man leans back in his chair at the diner and gives Spencer a long, uncomfortably pointed look.

“Come to Virginia,” he says eventually. “Join the FBI.”

Spencer nearly coughs up his milkshake. “What?”

“I do this all the time,” Gideon waves a hand around dismissively, like he hasn’t just proposed the stupidest idea ever. “Travel across the country giving this same lecture over and over, trying to drum up interest for Behavioral Analysis. But ninety percent of the bites I get are from Captain America idiots and potential serial killers.”

Spencer swallows hard. “Uh, which one am I?”

Gideon smiles but it’s not exactly friendly. It’s more Machiavellian than that. “Neither. That’s why I want you to come back to Virginia with me.”

“I’m an academic,” Spencer snorts and tries to look uninterested, although he suspects he has a bit of that dreaded Captain America idiocy in him considering how fast his pulse is right now.

“So what?” Gideon counters. “So am I. So was David Rossi. We were the nerds that the Bureau had no idea what to do with. So, we made our own jobs.” He leans across the sticky laminate and fixes Spencer with the first genuine look he’s had since he invited him to lunch after his talk about aberrant psychology. “The BAU doesn’t need more brawn. It needs brains, Spencer. And you have a very impressive one.”

“Mr. Gideon,” Spencer sighs.

“I told you, call me Jason.”

“Okay, Jason.” Spencer fixes him with his own genuine look. Like, please don’t make me believe I’m something I’m not. “I had to get a dispensation out of phys ed class in high school because it was the only class I couldn’t handle. I have personality ticks, issues with authority and difficulty working in groups. I can become borderline catatonic dealing with Alpha Male types, animals hate me, and I have a germ phobia. I am someone who’s made for the cloistered existence of academia.”

Gideon just laughs.

“Okay, how about this. Everyone in your unit has an advanced degree in psychology, correct?”

“That’s true.”

“Well, I don’t. I have three doctorates and none of them have any relevance to criminal behavioral profiling.”

“Then, why did you come to my lecture?” Gideon arches an eyebrow in a way that almost screams ‘gotcha’.

“Well… just because I’m not accredited doesn’t mean I’m uninterested,” Spencer sputters.

“That’s what I’m talking about,” Gideon points at him, flashing a shark’s smile. “You can’t teach that. From the questions you asked me, you already have more knowledge than half of the trainees at Quantico. And given your accelerated aptitude, you could easily earn the required degree while in training. It’s the raw materials I care about, Spencer, not appropriateness.”

“You’d change your mind if you ever saw me try to climb a fence…”

Gideon laughs again and then stares as it floats away into the noise of the diner. “Just sit there and tell me you aren’t the least bit interested in what I’m offering you, Spencer, and I’ll drop it.”

Spencer feels the full force of Gideon’s stare and no matter how hard he tries, he can’t find the words to get him out of this conversation. Heat rises to his face and he ducks away, wondering if FBI training covers how to lie better. He hears Gideon’s laugh again. Dammit. Where had he picked up this urge to help people? This choice is nothing but suicide. Or naiveté. Or both.

“I’m gonna die,” he mutters.

“Nonsense,” Gideon dismisses gleefully. “You get a gun and they teach you how to shoot it. It’s easy. We’ll get you out of the physical tests, just like in your high school. Besides, the work isn’t that dangerous. We sit around whiteboards thinking most of the time. There’s very little excitement. You’ll see.”

“Then why do you seem so happy?”

“I’m finally gonna get someone on the team I can play chess with,” Gideon grins and slaps the table, calling the waitress over for the check. “Gotta get going. So much to do.” Spencer suspects that Gideon’s motivations are far more complicated than that, but he doesn’t yet have the skills to look deeper and be certain.

“Jason,” Spencer manages after they’ve settled the bill and are walking to their cars. His guts are souring on the grease of his burger and fries. Maybe this is a mistake. College is something he knows, and likes… “Are you sure I can do this? I mean, you’ve seen enough recruits… you wouldn’t lie to me about my chances, would you?”

Gideon claps a hand on Spencer’s slight shoulder and squeezes it reassuringly, even as Spencer twitches. “You were made for this, Doctor, I promise you. You’ll work hard and make a difference. Nothing bad will happen.”

He doesn’t know it now, but Gideon lied about almost everything in this meeting. But somehow, that doesn’t stop Spencer from being good at his job and making a difference.

 

-----

 

It’s their first face-to-face meeting and he’s late. She hates that. It’s a transparent powerplay designed to test her eagerness while also showing her how indifferent he is to her. Honestly, it’s collegiate, bush league, male posturing and if she didn’t have to be there she wouldn’t waste her time on it. But this is her job, and she does need to be there, and she really needs him to like her. So, she waits another thirty minutes with her tea cooling before her in direct contrast to her increasing irritability. When he finally deigns to show up, she could probably shoot lasers from her eyeballs.

“Well, you’re an unexpected treat,” he murmurs appreciatively as he slides into the seat across from her and smiles as if it will erase the hour he’s kept her waiting. She won’t recall until later that he is attractive: salt-and-pepper hair, piercing blue eyes, fit and capable with all of the bad boy allure that comes with living a liminal existence. It’s alarming how many of her boxes he ticks off.

“Sorry I’m late, luv. Got held up,” he grins, eyes washing over her, lingering uncomfortably on the parts he fancies.

“If that’s all the apology I’m getting, I’ll take it, Mr. Doyle,” she says crispy, trying not to bristle at the way his gaze is imagining her. “But for future reference, an agreed upon time is agreed upon. I’m running a business, the same as you, and a little professional courtesy would be appreciated.”

“Of course, of course. You’re right, Lauren, and it won’t happen again.” He says it in a way that absolutely guarantees it will happen repeatedly, and that he already knows she won’t do a damned thing about it. Like walk away and turn down his business, which is what she would do if that was why she was here in the first place.

“It’s ‘Ms. Reynolds’, Mr. Doyle. Please.” She stares at him until he nods his agreement, sighing as if her gumption is simply adorable. Then she waits, eventually arching an eyebrow at him.

“Oh, yes. You’re so lovely, I almost forgot…” he smiles and slips a piece of paper across the table towards her with a bank name and a routing number on it. “Your cut. It’s available now.”

“Thank you,” she says absently, flipping open her phone and texting the information before pulling an ashtray across the table and flicking her lighter to the edge of the scrap paper. They both watch it burn. Then she looks up again – he’s staring at her, eyes twinkling with the kind of mischief she’s leapt into bed with more often than not. If he wasn’t who she knew him to be, she might consider it…

“It was a pleasure doing business with you,” she concludes instead, feeling heat rise to her face but also noting his dilated pupils and the way his face flashes a microexpression of defeat when she gets up to leave.

“Not interested in another deal?” he says smoothly, leaning back in his chair when she turns to him.

“I’m a small fish in this pond and you know it.”

“Doesn’t mean you have to stay small, Ms. Reynolds. Yer efficient, detail-oriented, and risk-adverse. These are qualities I like in business partners because it makes them predictable. When yer predictable, you can be relied upon, and I should be the only reckless one in any relationship I’m in,” Doyle grins at her, all teeth and icy-blue interest. He doesn’t realize how easy he is to hook.

She cocks her hip in a way that shows off her curves and the way her blouse clings to her breasts. Doyle’s eyes flick over her again uncontrollably. He might as well be salivating. “What are you proposing exactly?”

“Have you ever been to the south of France, Ms. Reynolds?” he asks. “I’d love to take you there, to see you in the golden light of Provence… you’d be stunning, I’m sure.”

“I don’t sleep with clients, Mr. Doyle,” she says back softly, making him sit up at the unsaid challenge. “It’s bad form.”

“Oh, I agree. But sometimes these things are beyond our control. Sometimes we have to give into who we are.”

“I doubt that,” she says with cheek, as a part of her thrills at the extra layer of danger this drapes over the enterprise. She shouldn’t want that, but she does. There’s no fun in this without risk, and who says she can’t enjoy her work? “Is that all you’re proposing, Mr. Doyle? A rutting in the Côte d'Azur? Because I’ve had better offers…”

“I bet you have,” Doyle rises and takes her hand lightly in his, leaning in. “But no, there is money to be made there between African parties who don’t like to make deals in the cold, and Eastern European entrepreneurs who want to get a tan. Plenty of money to be made…”

She watches him carefully, looking for tells. It’s a public place; if she were blown, he wouldn’t deal with it here. “And you want to enlist the help of a small fish to join in this transaction?” she murmurs dubiously. His hand squeezes hers.

“Not just any fish. A reliable one. A proficient one. One with culture and confidence and ambition. And you are ambitious, aren’t you, luv?” He eyes her critically and lasciviously at the same time. “One who probably makes grown men cry when she wears a bikini…”

She gets it now: he needs a beard. “One who defies convention, who won’t call undue attention to the initiative, and perhaps has the skills to talk her way out of any… unpleasantries,” she finishes.

“Indeed,” he grins wolfishly and then gestures back to their table while still holding her hand. “Have you had lunch, Ms. Reynolds? Let me make amends for keeping you waiting, and we can talk a little business as we get to know one another. What do you say?”

“Alright.” She takes her seat again, flushed with the new control she suddenly has over him. Today’s deal was enough to arrest him, but he could still slip free. This new thing he is proposing however, that could be a whole other level. Not just one arms dealer, but networks of suppliers and buyers, transportation lines, logistics, connections to terrorist organizations in Europe and North Africa… This is the sort of thing that you could make a career on. And all because this guy is letting his dick buy a pretty woman some lunch.

She glances over the menu, feeling a small smile curl the side of her mouth – this will be fun, and exciting, and her ticket to bigger things. “I’m still not going to sleep with you, Mr. Doyle,” she says playfully. Let him think what he wants if it gets her what she needs. She looks up and finds him smiling back, just as confident as her.

“We’ll see, Ms. Reynolds. A man in my line of work enjoys a challenge.”

 

-----

 

The first day they work together is uneventful. Another case, another resolution. He doesn’t consider it the day they actually met. That happens a few months later, at a filthy Motel 6 on the outskirts of Baltimore, with a couple fighting loudly in the next room, which eventually turns into a couple fucking loudly in the next room. He wakes up there, high and terrified, in someone else’s clothes and with the door to his room open for anyone to walk in. His keys and wallet are gone, and he doesn’t have his badge on him, which might have been the only smart move he made. There are condoms on the nightstand, a puddle of vomit on the floor next to the bed, and clear signs that he wasn’t alone in this room. But other than that, he has no answers. There’s just the sickly spin of his head that tells him he probably shot too much, the crazy drowsiness that lets him know he’ll die if he falls asleep again, and the relentless thumping from the room next door reminding him that he’s not above doing something stupid to get high. Miraculously, his phone is still on him – perhaps too outdated to be worth stealing – and he struggles to scroll through the numbers in his contacts list until he finds one that he doesn’t have a problem disappointing.

“Prentiss,” she answers like she didn’t look at the number before picking up. Or maybe she doesn’t know his number; he can’t remember if he’s ever called her.

“Emily…” His voice is raspy and fucked. There’s no way to hide it. A moment of nothing happens that seems to go on forever. The wall behind him thuds dully, bumping the headboard of the bed he’s sprawled across. Bump-bump-bump…

“Reid?”

“Yeah.”

“You okay? You sound weird.”

“I’m… I’m not okay, Emily,” he gulps, vision swimming in front of him until his eyes close to stave off the nausea. Then he has to pry them open when he feels himself begin to drift. Maybe he did because he comes back to Emily repeating his name loudly into his ear.

“Reid…”

“I’m here…”

“Where is ‘here’? I’ll come to you.”

“Don’t know.” He looks around. There’s nothing in the room with any branding on it. He rolls on the bed to face the window. A sign glows beyond it that he has to focus all of his energy on to read. “There’s a sign… Loyalist Road. It’s an off ramp, I think. I’m in a motel.”

“Are you alone?”

“The door’s open.”

“Are you injured? Did someone jump you, Reid?”

Her voice is getting tighter and there’s muffled noises as if she’s moving around, but she’s still in control. Maybe that’s what relaxes him enough to say what he does. “I’m high, Emily,” he whispers into the phone. Bump-bump-bump goes the wall behind him. He wonders what she’ll see when she gets there.

There’s silence for a long time, or he drifts into unconsciousness. Either way, there’s quiet for a time and then Emily screaming into his ear.

“What?” he huffs in shock. “I’m here. Don’t shout…”

“I’ve been calling your name for ten minutes. Thought you were dead,” she scolds. He hears a car horn rise and fade in the background.

“Slow down,” he slurs.

“What?!?”

“Slow down. You’ll get into an accident.”

She laughs at him but it’s awful, not funny at all. “Do you know where you are?”

“Well-”

“Fucking Baltimore, Reid. That’s where Loyalist Road is. It’s gonna take me an hour and a half to get there even if I break every speed law known to man.”

“Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. Just… keep talking. If you die on my watch, the team will never forgive me, and I’ve worked too hard to get into that fucking unit to have a goddamned junkie mess it up for me.”

“Y-yeah. I guess,” he stutters, feeling bile rising up his throat. He rolls to his side in case it happens. He won’t die on his own vomit – he’s not that pathetic. Though he can admit he deserves the ‘goddamned junkie’ line.

“Why’d you call me anyway?” she demands after a moment, more horns blaring distantly. “Why not Gideon or Morgan?”

“Can’t face them,” he sighs, eyes pricking dangerously. This is how he loses everything he’s struggled to gain: friends, meaningful work, respect. All because some overwhelmed kid couldn’t stand up to his father and transferred his demons into Reid’s head through a needle. He hears Emily sigh over the phone.

“And I don’t matter. I get it.”

“I don’t know you,” he clarifies, then hesitates. “And… you’ve already guessed.”

“Yeah,” she mumbles. “What set you off? Was it our last case or something?”

He sighs and feels exhausted. The urge to close his eyes is almost too much. “So tired…”

“Reid, stay with me,” she warns. “C’mon now, tell me why you drove to another state to score drugs. There’s gotta be a reason. Just be straight with me.”

He laughs, suddenly and bitterly. “Why do you expect a reason? Or even that I’ll share that with you?”

“Because I’m driving like a lunatic to save your damned life, Reid, that’s why. Answer the fucking question, kid.”

His fog clears momentarily and anger replaces it. He likes Prentiss but she makes the same assumptions as everyone else: that he’s simultaneously capable and incapable, brilliant and naïve, a child doing a man’s work…

“I’m not a kid anymore,” he snaps.

“Because drug use connotes an ineffable maturity,” she snarks right back.

“Screw you,” he mumbles and curls away from her voice. He must drift off again because the thumping against the wall has stopped when he comes back to himself and his phone is screaming “SPENCER!” from where it lays on the mattress. He reaches for it and winces; things are starting to clear, to sharpen and itch. “Here, I’m here,” he croaks.

“Fuck!” she bellows back. “I really hate you right now…”

“I don’t know…”

“You don’t know… what?”

“I don’t know why I did it,” he says quietly, like he’s describing it rather than experiencing it. “I don’t even know how I got here. I’m wearing someone else’s clothes…”

There’s a long silence where he can only hear random sounds from the other rooms, and then a strange, rhythmic noise over the phone. Prentiss is breathing across the microphone – it’s shallow and too fast. When he recognizes it, he’s shocked down to his bones.

“Can you… can you get up? Move around?” she asks. “I think you should… keep moving.”

“I can’t… really feel my legs.”

“Jesus…” It sounds vicious, and he just can’t help himself.

“Why are you doing this, Prentiss?”

“Why am… You called me, remember?”

“No, I mean… you’re worried. Why do you care? We aren’t even friends…”

“Christ, well… next time, I’ll let voicemail answer your plea not to O.D. How does that sound, you ungrateful ass?”

“It was just a question,” he murmurs, not hurt by her answer. Not feeling much of anything at all.

She sighs into the phone. “Listen… idiotic self-destructive tendencies aside, you seemed interesting to me when we met. But it’ll be really hard to determine if I was right about that or not if you flame out within my first few months. Is that a good enough reason for you?”

It’s more than he thinks he deserves, and it’s certainly more than others have offered him. Gideon, who acts like there’s nothing wrong, and the rest who, despite being excellent profilers, can’t see the screw-up in their midst. And this woman he doesn’t know, whom he has nothing in common with, both tells him exactly what she thinks and does what she can to help. He has no idea what to do with that, so he ends up gulping, “O-oh…” into the phone.

“And… you chose me, okay? For whatever reason, your stoned mind decided to dial my number. That’s a responsibility, alright? So just sit tight, and try not to die while I’m stuck behind a tractor trailer on the freeway.”

“ ‘Kay…” he mumbles, but clearly doesn’t take this promise to heart because the next thing he remembers is her shaking him furiously where he’s collapsed at the foot of the bed. He rolls away and immediately begins dry heaving when he realizes the state the motel’s carpet is in and that he’s been lying face down on it. And then a hand lands in another puddle of vomit… great.

“My god, Reid, what a shit show…” She’s wrestling him upright but everything is spinning and he gags loudly, making her twitch backwards in case he decides to throw up on her. He vaguely feels shame about this, but then his body comes to life and tells him he needs another fix right away or it’ll get so much worse.

“Need another hit…”

“Fuck you.”

“Got the shakes and the nausea. Can’t see. Need it.”

“You’ve probably come close to O.D.-ing tonight, Reid. C’mon! Don’t tell me you made me drive all this way because you need someone to go out and score for you!”

“I can’t think like this, Prentiss! And I need to think about what to do next…”

“Bullshit. You won’t be doing any thinking if you shoot up. That’s the damned point, isn’t it?”

He freezes, squinting at her though he can only make out the dark waves of her hair. Her shadow shifts in front of him pushing him back against the bed frame.

“Do you want to quit?”

“Yes,” he breathes. There’s no hesitation. He wants that more than almost anything, but he’s scared of the pain, of failing. And he’s scared of feeling the full force of life again with all of its vagaries. Say what you want about opioid addiction, but it makes it very hard for you to worry about things like the pressure to achieve, professional integrity, or having friends.

“Then get up. I’m taking you to an ER.”

“No!” He struggles against her, trying to peel her fingers away from his shoulders and only half managing it.

“Reid…” she growls, pulling his hands from hers without much effort.

“No hospitals!”

“You said you wanted to get clean.”

“I do, but hospital admission means paperwork. Paperwork is an official record. I’ll lose my job.”

“Well…” she shrugs, like she’s saying ‘that’s the price you pay’.

“Prentiss, please… Emily.” He tries to open his eyes, to see hers, to make a connection however brief. “I need this job. It’s… it’s who I am now. Who I want to become. I’ve screwed up – I know I’ve done that – but please… if I lose this, I don’t know what will happen… who I’ll be anymore.” Something tickles his face and he rubs at it, his hand coming away wet, and then he’s fascinated by that. He looks at her blearily. “Am I crying?”

“Y-yes,” she says oddly, still holding his shoulders.

“I can’t feel that,” he says with absolute honesty. Then he looks at her again. “Mom’s in a home. She’s ill… she’ll never get better. I’m the reason she’s there. It’s expensive… so expensive… I need this job, Emily…”

“Okay, okay,” she waves a hand in surrender. “I get it: no hospitals. But you won’t get clean on your own.” She sighs. “I think we should go to Gideon. He’ll help you-”

“He already knows.”

That stops the conversation dead and all they can hear are people yelling in the courtyard outside and muffled music a few rooms over.

“You told him?” she asks after a painful minute in the dark together.

“No, but he knows anyway.”

“And he didn’t do anything?” her voice rises a little.

“He’s letting me work it out on my own. Said I could handle it.”

She makes another loud sigh. “Jason fucking Gideon,” she enunciates with quiet venom.

“It’s not his fault,” he rasps quickly, feeling the need to defend his mentor while also debasing himself. “He gave me an opportunity… he treats me like an adult… I’m the one who let everyone down…”

“He’s a selfish asshole who’s cloaking himself comfortably in plausible deniability, Reid,” she snaps, trying to wrestle him to his feet again. “If you make it, he looks like a genius, and if you don’t, he won’t get any blowback from it. And no one gets clean alone, Reid. No one. Gideon doesn’t look after anyone but Gideon. It doesn’t take any profiling skill to see that.”

“He’s… he’s my friend…”

“Oh yeah? Friends don’t stand by and watch friends sink into addiction because it’s ‘an opportunity’ to build character. I mean, be honest – you thought about calling him tonight, right? Do you think he’d actually come?”

She’s managed to get him on his feet but his legs still don’t work and she can’t support his weight. They end up both flopping down onto the edge of the bed, him shaking and her buttressing him while swearing under her breath. Spencer imagines the silence over the phone as he calls and confesses his failure to Gideon. He imagines the pointed sigh, and the disinterested monotone as Gideon arranges for something to happen, for Spencer to be coddled by distant professionals. He turns his face into Prentiss’s shoulder and hides.

“He’s my friend…” he mumbles again damply. Her hand finds its way into his sweaty hair along his neck and skims through the mess.

“Okay, okay…” she murmurs above him.

The back wall of the room begins bumping again. Bump-bump-bump… And muffled moaning rises and falls as the rhythm continues. Against Prentiss’s shoulder, his face heats. If he survives this, how will he ever look her in the eye again?

“S-sorry about… the venue…” he chokes. She stiffens against him and he cringes. Bump-bump-bump…

“It’s fine. We’ve all been there,” she says quietly, and that strikes him as an odd thing to say. Has she ever been high in an establishment known as a prostitution hangout? He can’t imagine that. Prentiss, with her glamour and perfect power suits and cool demeanor…

“Listen, Reid… uh… you said these aren’t your clothes…”

“Yeah.”

“Okay. And it’s obvious what sort of place this is…” Bump-bump-ohgodyes-bump…

“Yeah.”

“So, I gotta ask… You said you need your job, for your Mom’s care. And addiction isn’t cheap.”

He knows where’s she’s headed and he just wants to fold up into the tiniest version of himself and blink out of existence.

“Are you broke, Reid? I mean… there are condoms next to the bed. Would you-”

“I don’t remember how I got here,” he whines.

“I get that, but… would you… do anything?”

He pulls away from her with effort, head spinning and swirling, but he struggles to meet her eyes and focus. This is important. “I’m not broke. I get… obsessed when I’m craving, but desperation isn’t the same thing as mindlessness.” He takes a breath in and holds it, tries to calm his heaving guts. “When I’m high however… I could imagine myself doing any numbers of things in that disconnected state. It’s just… pure pleasure, straight to the vein. You give up, let go… inhibitions don’t exist anymore…” His chest stutters and he chokes, blinking rapidly. “I wouldn’t barter for a fix, Prentiss… but I… I don’t know if I slept with someone here or not. I just don’t know…

She grabs his face and stares at him in the gloom. Next door, two voices are throbbing along with the rhythm now.

“Reid, I’m not judging this scene. I’m just concerned with your wellbeing right now. I’m trying to figure out how much trouble you’re in – that’s all.”

“I don’t know…” he whispers.

“Okay. We’ll table that discussion for now,” she strokes the side of his face absently. It’s a weird sensation because he doesn’t know her and hasn’t given her permission to do it. But it feels… comforting. “Our immediate problem is how to get you clean, and if you won’t go to a hospital or check into a treatment center…” She waits and he eventually shakes his head, no. “Then the only option I can see is that we do it ourselves.”

He has a painful moment of complete awareness, followed by a fiery ache in his body that tells him to never do that again. “U-us? Y-you and me?”

“Do you see anyone else here who can help?”

“Prentiss, I… I don’t think-”

“Do you want to kick or not, Reid?” she barks, making him jump. Her eyes are hard and focused squarely on him. “If you’re wasting my time, I’ll leave you here to finish what you started.”

He looks at her and tries to bring his profiling skills back online. He doesn’t think she means this, but it’s impossible to be sure. And, a small voice in his head asks him, do I really want to call her bluff?

“But if you want to get clean, I’ll help you get there,” she concludes. Next door, someone climaxes. The dissonance is aggravating.

He swallows hard, trying to avoid thinking about the sweat and vomit and germs sticking to him in this moment, and how all of this is going to get so much worse before it has any hope of getting better. He looks into the pissed-off glare of this almost-stranger and realizes no one else is coming for him. He either takes a leap with her, or carries on alone to whatever outcome awaits him.

“P-please… yes,” he nearly gags, heat blooming across him at the weakness he can’t disguise. “Please help me.”

And her demeanor instantly changes from pissed obligation to determination and protection, and an odd kind of reassurance that is wholly out of place. Decision made, she’s now entirely confident they’ll succeed. She nods, and loops his arm around her neck, testing his weight before finally launching them upwards onto their feet.

“C’mon then. Let’s get out of this hellhole.”

“Where are we going?”

“A better place. Somewhere… cleaner.”

They both lurch through the door and into the carpark. They don’t check for belongings or shut the door. He leaves his phone behind. It’s as if the place disappears into mist as soon as they step away and towards Prentiss’s car.

“Do… do you know what you’re in for?” he rasps as she presses him against the passenger side of the vehicle and then shoves him into the seat once she has the door open. She laughs again, and again, it’s worn and not funny.

“I’m an embassy brat. Half of my friends had drug problems before they graduated high school. I have a good idea what to expect.”

“I’m… I’m sorry, Prentiss.” He feels tears well again as she buckles his seatbelt.

“Fuck you,” she responds casually. “Don’t throw up in my car.”

Maybe she thought she knew what to expect, but he’s certain that he shocked her anyway. It becomes a hazy blur of half-consciousness, intense sickness, shame, pain so bright that it locks him into something close to rigor, and a total loss of control over his mind, body, and spirit. He recalls begging, ranting and threats, tearful bargaining… what he doesn’t remember is that not all of the pleas, threats and tears were his. There are flashes of memory: him racing to the bathroom and not making it, soiled sheets being removed from around his naked body, hands with nails bitten down to the cuticles washing him like an infant, those same hands forcing water into his mouth, the broken nails cutting into his jaw from the effort, endless crying and whispered words close to him c’mon don’t give up nearly there I’m right here and I’m not going anywhere it’ll be over soon nothing lasts forever there’s nothing to forgive everyone stumbles no one’s perfect you have no idea what people are capable of everyone’s hiding something c’mon kid believe you can do this I believe in you…

When he returns to his life, he recognizes the D.C. skyline from the window of an unfamiliar room. He struggles from the linens, discovers he’s dressed only in underwear, and then wraps a sheet around himself as the sunlight draws him like a magnet. He feels like a shadow of himself, a wisp of a man protected by only a bedsheet and ignorance of his immediate past, and he stumbles to the window, which is actually a door leading to a small balcony overlooking the capitol. She’s there, hunched down on the edge of a plastic table, a mug clutched in her hands absently. When he shuffles out, she turns and she has aged so much. Unmade, hair tied in a messy knot, and dressed in workout clothes, she nonetheless gives him an exhausted smile that highlights the dark circles under her eyes.

“Welcome back,” she murmurs, watching him slowly and carefully collapse into a chaise lounge beside her still wrapped in his sheet. A long moment passes between them. He can’t look at her, but she can’t look away from him – he can feel it. A blush rises to his face as he counts the trees lining the boulevard below them. “How are you feeling?” she asks eventually.

“Fragile,” he whispers hoarsely. “But also, me again.” It isn’t a wholly good or bad realization, but she takes it as a positive sign.

“Good,” she slurps her coffee and turns to watch the traffic instead of him.

“How long have we been here?”

“A hundred and two hours and counting.”

He blinks. He’s lost four days. “Where is here?”

“The Marriott. Don’t worry, housekeeping hasn’t seen anything.”

That’s the least of his concerns. He’s overwhelmed by everything that has to happen now: excuses made for work, staying on the wagon, figuring out how to deal with the sharp, intense brightness of life again without a filter, dealing with his friends, dealing with her

“It was… it was bad, wasn’t it?” he murmurs, not sure if he wants to know. She snorts once and slurps her coffee instead. Part of him aches with gratefulness for that.

“You begged, like I never thought a person could beg. You offered me sexual favors.”

His eyebrows shoot upwards as he watches her watch the city sprawling before them.

“Some modified version of the Dirty Sanchez. I passed on that, by the way,” she shrugs. “And you also profiled me. Brutally and with alarming accuracy.”

Oh god. He rolls his eyes shut and starts quietly trembling. He’s always known that he has a thin but deep vein of cruelty in him.

“I’m sorry, Emily,” he whispers.

“Fuck you. Don’t be sorry,” she says without any heat. He looks at her and sees her staring into her coffee, too drained to do anything more. He wonders how he’ll ever make amends for this, how he’ll ever pull even with her effort over the past four days. “Make it up to me by staying clean. For the rest of my life, at least. If you try to die again, I’ll kill you myself. Because you’re shit at it, Spencer.”

He watches her contemplate her coffee, not giving anything away under her exhaustion. He’s present enough again to see that this absence is evidence of a great understanding in her. Of this process, of desperation, of making terrible mistakes and trying to scrabble out to the other side of them. It isn’t about him at all, but now, he’s a part of that great understanding as well. This was personal for her, but not with regards to him.

“Emily,” he finds myself speaking gently, as if she’s the fragile one. “Why did you do this? Really.”

She sighs deeply but doesn’t look at him and doesn’t respond for a long time.

“The BAU was my dream. It’s elite – the best of the best. I bought into all of that. But, I’ve done things to get here. Things that take me far down the road away from ‘the best’. And no one knows, no one sees it. I’m projecting that ‘best of the best’ crap like a champion. Just like Gideon who ignores everyone but himself. And Hotch who’s wound so tight that he’ll explode one day. And JJ who’s scared to be more than she is. And Morgan who’s fronting so hard and on so many issues I don’t know where to look first.” She finally looks at him, wrung out and genuine. “And you, who has been forced to deal with a problem you don’t deserve while being abandoned by those who shoulda had your back. I realized that if you don’t deserve to be there, then none of us do.”

And suddenly, with a warm rush, his body remembers compassion. He reaches for her hand and pulls it into his away from her mug. His fingers are pale and cold, hers are worn and warm. Her eyes flick to him in surprise, bringing a spark to their dark shadows.

“Okay,” he promises quietly, and this time he intends to keep his word. He squeezes her fingers. She looks back out over the city. The morning stretches and hums around them. He keeps hold of her hand.

“Thank you,” he says eventually. It isn’t enough but he has to start somewhere.

“Fuck off,” she mutters quietly. He smiles.

“You swear a lot.”

“You fuck up a lot.” She squeezes his hand back. He feels something flicker dimly in the center of him. Connection, maybe? He doesn’t understand how he’s failed so badly and come out on the other side of it both alive and having acquired a friend in the process. Then he realizes there’s something else he doesn’t understand.

“What’s a ‘Dirty Sanchez’?” he asks as his face creases in confusion, and Prentiss laughs so hard she spills her coffee.

 

-----

 

The compound crackles and wheezes behind him as he pulls her into his chest. She collapses in his embrace with a huff and a groan of pain, smelling of smoke and blood.

“Sorry,” he mutters as he slides down to rest his head against her shoulder, squeezing her tight to offset the panic still thrumming through him.

“Stop it,” she gasps, and he tries to let her go, stumbling another apology for hurting her. But she whimpers and pulls him back in, hard enough to make them stagger together. “No,” she sobs into his ruined sweater. “Don’t let go.”

“Okay.” And they rock together as agents swarm the scene and bomb disposal argues about how to put the fire out.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t stop him, Em,” he whispers against her ear, not trying to hide his tears at all.

“I didn’t want you to,” she mumbles into him.

“I know, I know… you didn’t need my help,” he says by rote, hating the way she insists, time and again, that she doesn’t need him. “But I should’ve done something. It was my turn to protect you.”

She pulls back and the flames paint the blood and bruising on her face in garish reds and purples. Her expression is incredulous. “Stop saying you’re sorry. I didn’t want you to stop him. He had to beat me – that’s the way this had to play out.”

He winces and turns away from her, but arms still curved around her back. Why is she allowed to sacrifice but he isn’t? Why doesn’t she expect him to protect her for a change? Does she really see him as that weak?

“Spencer, look at me.” He doesn’t want to, but he looks at every inch of the damage Benjamin Cyrus inflicted on his friend, while he stood by and did nothing. But her eyes are pleading with him, glassy and threatening with a loss of control he knows she finds abhorrent. And suddenly she has his full attention.

“Cyrus had to hate me because it would subconsciously drive him to trust you more. He was never gonna trust me, Spence,” she gulps and shakes her head, letting a tear spill loose in the process. “The only chance we had of getting out of there alive was you. You getting close enough to get inside his head. I couldn’t do it. Don’t you see? I needed you to save us, to save me, and I took the beating to make sure you could. I was depending on you. Otherwise, I didn’t know how I was gonna get out…”

He’s absolutely floored, staring at her bruised face and searching eyes, too big and too earnest to be anything other than real. He feels himself gaping and can’t find anything intelligent to say in order to play it off. His hand drifts up to her cheeks and softly smudges the runaway tear, then he has to fix the mess he makes with the edge of his cardigan.

“Ooops…”

She laughs just a little and leans into the wool-swathed thumb that’s trying to fix her face. The area behind his ribs swells and he clutches her close again because he doesn’t trust himself to keep cool about it. He almost lost her. Christ, he almost lost her tonight…

“Lay off the guilt, okay?” she mumbles into his chest after a while. He nods that he will, even though that’s unlikely. “I saved your life once,” she continues. “And you know what the Chinese say about that…”

“That proverb is apocryphal,” he grumbles. “And it’s been twisted so many times it has less validity than a fortune cookie.” He pulls back and lets his fingers brush her tangled hair from her face as he stares. “I’m supposed to take care of you. That’s what friends do. And I can, you know,” he chokes.

“I know,” she says softly. “You did, and believe me, I’m more than grateful. I’ll never be able to repay you.”

Good. Maybe he’s finally on equally footing with her now.

“We don’t have to repay each other.” He cups her cheek. “We just have to stick around. Okay?”

She nods too much and blinks too rapidly, her mouth pulling down at the corners as she tries to regain her control. He pulls her back into him and squeezes until they both hurt. Her fingers bite into his singed sweater like she’ll never let go. His chest stutters, and then the panic just drains out of him like water into parched earth.

“I’m always gonna need you, Em,” he says and she continues nodding silently against him. He smiles and rubs her back as they absently turn and watch Cyrus’s kingdom crumble because of what they accomplished together.

 

----

 

He’s a surprisingly gallant dancer as he holds her and smoothly maneuvers them across the dance floor at JJ’s wedding. It’s as close to romantic as she thinks she’s ever seen him, dressed impressively, attentive and diffident in just the correct amounts. She’s never seen him smile so much, or as freely, and more than a few are directed at her. She feels herself flush and blames the wine. She gets warm where his hands hover over her dress and she lays it on the perfect evening for an outdoor wedding. She gets melancholy and wonders if these things are suddenly occurring to her simply because she’s worried about her next step. There’s no doubt that she’s been comfortable here far longer than anywhere else in her life, and now she’s imagining something new and questioning if what she gains will be worth what she gives up in order to have it.

Despite his smiles and apparent joy at seeing two people he loves finally coming together, he comes right out and says what he has to, holding her close as they sway through a traitorously slow song.

“You’re leaving, aren’t you?”

She pulls back to see his eyes, shocked that he’s read it on her when she’s barely made up her mind about it herself. He’s still smiling, but his eyes are curved and shadowed as he tries to hide how the idea hurts him.

“Just tell me why,” he whispers when she doesn’t answer, and that locks her up even more.

He pulls her back in and they focus on the dance for a handful of seconds before she can find her voice again.

“Something happened to me when the Doyle thing ended. Not a hurt or an injury… something invisible. It’s been there ever since, like a splinter in my brain. I can’t shake it off, Spence… I feel like a hamster on a wheel running for my life…”

She sighs and he squeezes her tight, his breath brushing the hair by her ear.

“We only just got you back,” he murmurs softly, and she has to roll her eyes closed to fight off a wave of too much that he always seems to draw out of her.

“I know. I’m sorry, Spence. I tried. I really did.”

The song changes but they keep dancing to the same rhythm. He circles them away to an abandoned corner where no one will notice that they aren’t paying attention to what’s happening around them.

“I have to try this,” she mumbles. “Try something else to see if that helps. I don’t want to end up hating this place, or these people. Or you.”

He nods and looks at his feet. “I understand.”

“Do you?”

He looks up at her then, gutted but dry-eyed, and she’s impressed by the strength no one really notices in him. Because she’s suddenly a damned mess about this.

“Sure,” he shrugs. “I know you. I know you’d do everything you could for us. If you’ve come to this conclusion, I know it’s because you’ve tried every other option you could think of first. Everyone knows you love us.”

He flashes her a small smile and it breaks her heart. She grabs his arms and squeezes them through his dinner jacket.

“It’s just London. We can talk and email. We can visit each other…”

He nods quietly but doesn’t say “yes”. What he says instead is, “Just don’t forget about me.”

Then she grabs him up viciously. “Spencer, never… never! How could you think that?”

He doesn’t answer, just nuzzling down into her shoulder and holding her close. “I’ll always need you, Em. It won’t change.”

They hug each other for the length of a song in silence before she tears herself away claiming she has to fix her make-up. When she returns, he’s gone.

He doesn’t come to her going-away party a week later. He doesn’t see her off at the airport. She understands: he’s already said goodbye.

 

-----

 

She’s not there to pick him up when he’s released from prison. Like a coward, she sends JJ because it’s almost impossible for Reid to hate his surrogate sister. It is very easy for him to hate Emily though. She’s let him down more often than not. The Doyle fiasco, the Interpol section chief job, failing to keep him from prison, and then dismissing his desperate pleas while he suffered there. She’s been a shitty friend and that kills her because when it comes to him, she’s always had the best intentions. That’s not something she can say about many people she’s known. But it still ends up badly, like things just break in her hands even when she means to be gentle with them. When Reid returns from prison, he’s no longer gentle. Maybe she didn’t do it to him, but she didn’t do anything to stop it either. And then she falls even further. She fails to bring Hotch home after Peter Lewis dies, and she lets the team get broken up again by another meddling AD. Maybe she’s not built for this after all, not made to lead. Maybe she can’t handle the people she loves and her career. Maybe her mother was right: you pick one over the other.

Now she’s on disciplinary leave and the team is scattered across departments, and she has zero leverage to fix it. No matter how smart she is, no matter what she’s already survived, she’s ruined this. It’s just done, she’s done. She’s reached out to Interpol and there’s a fresh offer on the table for her and nothing left in the States that cares if she fights for it or not. Time to fold up the tent and move on to the next circus.

The knock at the door is rhythmic and familiar, and her gut drops with dread as she lets him in with a muffled hello. It doesn’t take him long to spot the packing boxes, despite the way she tries to deflect him, and suddenly the slightly ticked off what-are-we-going-to-do tone is replaced by unambiguous anger. She’s honestly impressed that he hasn’t lashed out at her before this.

“You’re leaving?” he growls, his face creased with disappointment that she’s high-tailing it on him again. “That’s your solution?”

“What do you want me to do, Spence?” she cringes as he glares at her weakness. “I’m out. Not wanted. And not all of the criticism against me is invalid.”

“So, you just give up.” He waves his arms dramatically and lets them slap against his sides, hair wild, eyebrows low and threatening. “Great. That’s very innovative. And it’s worked so well for you in the past, hasn’t it?”

She flinches from that and he notices. She looks away before he can see more, but a part of her hopes that he’ll let it all go now and say everything he’s kept bottled up forever. Tell her how much she’s let him down, break them finally and completely so she can grieve and put it behind her. But he doesn’t launch into the tirade she’s hoping for. He’s silent for a long time while she tries to keep her hands busy wrapping knick-knacks in packing paper.

“What about us?” he says eventually, and it’s so soft and unexpected that she drops the candlestick she’s wrapping. She doesn’t deserve something that soft, and it takes her back to a time when he was much younger and so, so gentle. She turns and his brows have curved into a plea, his back slouched under his jacket as he looks loose and undone in his skin. Her heart does a painful stop-and-stuttered restart, and she stumbles a step towards him, like he’s magnetized her. She’s about to ask him why he doesn’t hate her, how can he still care about them, when he continues on.

“What about Dave and Penelope and JJ?” he says with the same softness, but it feels like a slap across her hopeful, deluded face. “What about Tara and Luke? What are we supposed to do now?”

He’s using their first names, making it personal. He’s manipulating his tone and their history to get past her defenses. She turns away again as her gut twists, smiling despite herself because he’s become so good at this over the years. She momentarily forgot he’s not gentle anymore.

“Work with what you’re given,” she says harshly, hating every word. “Make the best of things now that I’m out of the way.”

“Out of the way?” he says incredulously, and she laughs.

“C’mon, Reid, I was a lousy unit chief. You know it better than most.”

He’s quiet again for a minute. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

She turns to face the full brunt of him. “I left you in prison for months. I didn’t believe your theory when you came to me with it, and it nearly cost you and Diana everything. And I’ve left you before, gone rogue, lit outta here like there were fireworks up my ass and I’ve never thought twice about doing it either.” She steps towards him and channels all the cool remoteness she’s ever put on to survive anything. “Hotch almost died for this team, more than once. But I can’t even save it from bureaucracy. I fucked up my dream job, and I’ve screwed all of you over in the process. You should be relieved to see me go.”

“Well, I’m not.” He steps forward and glares at her. “You once suggested to me that we all bought into the idea of the unit a little too easily. No one’s flawless, least of all the beleaguered soul who has to steer the ship…”

“That’s just you being stubborn. Or in denial,” she dismisses.

“Denial about what?”

“That I’ve let you down at every opportunity, Spence! I’ve lied, run away, been selfish, and let you go. To prison and… other places.” She’s given up the pretense that she’s talking about the team anymore. This is all about him. “We got you back, but a part of you died in there. I did that, and I wish that you’d finally tell me to go fuck myself for the shit I’ve put you through.”

“You didn’t put me in prison, Emily,” he warns, eyebrows lowering.

“But I didn’t do nearly enough to get you out,” she spits back, eyes stinging thinking of him negotiating for his life, day after day after day… “I should’ve blown a hole in the side of that place and driven you out in an armored truck.”

He sighs and turns away, dismissing her with a wave. “Don’t be a child. We all have limits.”

“Really?” she laughs crazily. “Because I pretended to be an arms dealer for two years. I faked the execution of a five-year-old boy. I faked my own death and then broke about a dozen international laws chasing down a fugitive. I threw a flashbang into a car to gain information and I didn’t care what happened to people in the process. I have killed without sanction, mislead law enforcement, obfuscated evidence, and abused my power for personal gain. I have all the skills required to orchestrate a jail break, but I didn’t come anywhere close to doing that for you, even though I should have. I should have. Just face it: I’m never there when you need me.”

She’s shaking with the force of her words but he’s just blinking at her like she an insect he’s never encountered before. She can’t take his detachment any longer. She shakes her head and yells loud enough that it rings off the half-packed up walls.

“Be angry with me, Spencer, for chrissakes!”

“I am,” he says quietly. “But not for that.”

She looks up at him, her face heating with shame, or frustration, or something else entirely. He continues being quiet, almost shocked by her antics.

“I’m angry that you’re giving up now, when we need you, because of things you’ve done in the past and cannot change.”

“Why aren’t you angry that I couldn’t get you out?” she asks too softly. He blinks in confusion.

“I never expected you to.”

And that hurts more than if he’d railed at her. He never expected anything from her because she burned that bridge long ago. Everything that she ever hoped he’d think of her… She stumbles back a step and his eyes sharpen, his expression changes to something like careful attention, like she’s a spooked deer or something.

“Did you really think I’d expect you to throw away your life to save mine?” he asks quietly.

She barks out a single, mirthless laugh. “Yes.”

His eyebrows nearly rocket off his face. “Why?”

“Because I would. In a heartbeat. And I don’t know why I didn’t this time, because this time you really needed me to. You’re mine to care for. The life you save…” She slouches as all the air leaves her body. “Maybe it’s because I knew you wouldn’t want it, no matter how I felt about it.”

She feels him step closer and looks up. He’s still creased and dumbfounded, but he stares at her as if he can see the truths she wants to keep hidden. He takes another step and stops firmly, out of reach but close enough to capture every nuance.

“Never mind what I want,” he says. “What do you want, Emily?”

She sighs and shakes a little as it goes. Because that is the question. The one she’s been piling actions and deflective language around for years like a camouflaging carapace. She fixes her best smirk in place and tears it all down.

“I want you to patiently, faithfully worship me. That’s all,” she says dryly and then turns away. She doubles down on her losing hand with, “Not so much to ask, is it?” She laughs again, like it’s nothing. She’s joking. It’s all a big joke.

“Emily,” he says it like she’s a stubborn child, and when she doesn’t turn to face him, he grabs her hip and swivels her back around to his frown and judgment. “Emily,” he tries again when he has her gaze, his voice doing something weird where it breaks and becomes unsure of itself. “Is that really what you want from me? Worship? Is that all you think I’m capable of?”

She sighs awkwardly, sounding wet and chaotic. Oh, what the hell, right? “I want to matter to you. I want to be worthy of the things you give to me. I want to have your faith. I want you to think more of me than I am, and then to attain that new level just so I can prove you right. I want you to expect me to break you out of motherfucking prison because I lov-” She chokes on the rest while he watches, the lines on his face smoothing into a mask of disbelief.

“In short, no, I don’t want you to blindly fall at my feet,” she finishes after a long moment of nothing. “But what I want isn’t gonna happen. Over the years, my actions have made sure of that.”

He steps forward without hesitation, his disbelief cracking into unexpected sadness as he dips in, cups her jaw, and takes her mouth. She’s so shocked that she doesn’t react right away. Then her hands find his arms, skimming the muscles as he curls her closer. He gasps away from her lips and then takes them again, and again. It’s soft, tantalizingly deep, lighting her up until she thinks her hair might spark. He keeps coming up for air and diving back down – shifting, moving, pulling – his palms along her jaw, half reverence, half trap so she can’t back away. Eventually, he pulls back just far enough to brush her nose with his, his chest moving dramatically as he strains to catch a full breath. His eyes are closed, pinched tight at the edges like he’s on the cusp of losing this and is frantically trying to hold on. Her knees nearly give out on her, and his hands tighten as he feels her shift in his arms, eyes flashing open with worry. He watches her as he breathes, dark gaze flicking all over her, desperate to read, to see. One of his hands skims down her body and wraps around her back, pulling her close and buttressing her. She sighs and lets go, and then he slowly, achingly leans back in to take her mouth once more, both of their eyes open and riveted to this tiny, monumental act. Her eyes slip shut when their lips meet and a soft moan escapes her. He swallows it into him and then loses himself in gentle, fragile pulls. Then there is nothing but the way they move together and the satisfaction floating between them, breaking the silence with a stuttered breath, a tiny ‘oh’...

It’s so far from that Motel 6 in Baltimore – almost another life entirely. And yet, it all leads back there, no matter how you look at it.

“I do expect more from you. I… want more from you,” he breathes over her mouth before he pulls back and waits for her to focus. “You are… that which is irreplaceable to me.”

And her knees threaten to give up on her again. Really? How long has this been going on?

“But what I feel will never be uncritical, Emily. I’ll always call you out when you’re getting it wrong. If you want me on my knees before you, I’ll do it, but don’t mistake it for worship. I’d never be comfortable in that role and I think you’d be disappointed if I tried.”

He’s probably right, and her emotional history is so screwed up that she can’t be sure of what she wants from him beyond this molecular pull towards him. His eyes are still riveted to her, still pinched with this new anger he carries with him even if he’s blown out by something equally incendiary at the same time.

“I expect you to stay here and fight, Emily,” he says in a quietly devastating way. “Not for me, or the team, or in Hotch’s memory… don’t do it for any of those reasons. Do it because you are so much more than this battle. You’ve faced fiercer enemies, worse odds, and you’ve come out on top. You’ve done more than that: you’ve thrived. Don’t let this… bitch be the one who beats you.”

She is shocked by his profanity and the look of hatred that crosses his face when he mentions Barnes.

“If you were willing to organize a jailbreak for me, won’t you at least do as much for the career that you’ve earned? Don’t stand here and tell me you deserve less. If you run away to… wherever,” he waves a dismissive hand to the boxes around her apartment. “Over a narcissistic powergrab, you’re not the person I thought you were.”

It’s harsh and he knows exactly what he’s evoking when he says it. He hasn’t been a junior agent for a long time; this is a skilled manipulation by someone at the height of his professional confidence. She is both impressed by his power and assurance while also being upset that he’s using it on her.

“Wow. Don’t pull your punches, Spence…” she mumbles, face heating.

“Why would you want me to?” he asks too sharply, and then his hands move to her arms and rub light circles into them. When he speaks again, his tone has changed to something kind enough that she finds the courage to look at him once more. “You can handle it – you’re made of tougher stuff than I can tear down.”

“I’m not so sure,” she murmurs back, and worry flits across him for an instant.

“Emily, I’m trying to get you to see-”

“I know what you’re trying to do, Spence,” she interrupts. “And it worked – I’m staying, okay?”

He doesn’t need to know why she decides to stay. She’s not doing it because of his little speech, or for the team, or even because Barnes can’t be allowed to succeed with so little effort. She’s doing it because if she doesn’t, he’ll walk away and never give her the time of day again. Ever. And after that kiss… well, that’s no longer an option she can live with.

His face lights up like he’s won anyway. He doesn’t look at it too closely. His eyebrows nearly launch off his head and a tremendous smile cracks his features – the kind she hasn’t seen since before he went to prison. He hunches down to be at eye level with her.

“Really?” he says.

“Really,” she smiles back.

Then he whoops like a kid, grabbing her by the waist and lifting her against him, spinning them both dangerously and awkwardly as he laughs. He plants her back on her feet just as suddenly and grins through the kiss he gives her without a second thought. She huffs as they pull apart, heart hammering her ribs and infected by his trademark excitement that’s been AWOL the last few months. She wonders if she’ll get used to him doing that – this new physicality he’s granted her access to – or if it’ll always seem like she’s just won something.

“ ‘Kay, great. That’s great!” He fumbles around in his coat pockets looking for his phone, grin plastered to him like it’ll be a permanent state of being from now on. She could handle that. “Okay… I’m gonna call the gang, alright? Tell them the news and get them over here. We’ve got a battle plan to draw up…”

He finds his phone and then stops. He thinks for a second, and then turns to her again and pulls her in for a hug, his arms swooping around her and nuzzling down into the hair spilling over her shoulder.

“Thanks, Em,” he mumbles into her, squeezing tightly just like he’s always done when they embrace and he says her name. Her voice catches in her throat and she ends up just squeezing him back in response. “We’d never be the same without you. Never be right again…”

He’s back to saying ‘we’ again and she hopes that’s just an oversight of the moment, that he didn’t do all of this for everyone else instead of himself. Because she knows that after today, she’ll never be right without him.

 

-----

 

She doesn’t expect it to last. They’ve known each other too long, and for much of that there was care but never this. Now they are older and angrier. And perhaps it’s just curiosity – a jaded ‘what if’ scenario that they were too scared to try before. If she considers that for too long, her chest gets tight and her breath runs shallow, and she refuses to acknowledge what her body is signaling to her because it’ll never last.

She meets him move for move, intensity to match his muted fury, desire to match his haunted adoration. It’s a dynamic that she both craves and hates; she craves it because she’s never felt more vivid or present with anyone, and she hates it because this isn’t really him – not the man she’s known and grown to love over the years. She finally found the courage to show herself to someone, and he’s finally mastered the skill of shielding himself. It’s an ironic intersection for them. She doesn’t know how to find him under all of this – prison, the terrible erosion of his family, the losses and the absences and the litany of small betrayals of which she owns the lion’s share – and this frantic, electric fucking is what she’s left with. It doesn’t come close to the way she wishes he’d hold her, look at her with the bright interest of his youth and babble about anything that crosses his mind. She’s desperate for his earnestness, the fragile invitation for her to admit how much she feels, but as he flips her on her back and strokes into her in all the right ways, biting into her heated skin with something mindless darkening his voice, the expanding throb between her thighs mixes uncomfortably with her gut-drop of realization that this isn’t what she wants, and produces an incendiary climax that leaves her shaking and ashamed under him. He’s too far gone to notice, completely out of his head as he struggles to follow her, hips slamming home sharply, slipping in the mess they’ve already made of each other. She helps him – curling her legs over his stuttering hips, arms collecting him against her and fingers buried in his hopeless tangles as he sways. He arches into her with a painful gasp – once, twice – then buries himself with a loud “Ah, Em…” next to her ear that makes her eyes sting and her throat close up. She tries to pull it back to be locked away as he rushes into her; she knows she has a handful of seconds to do it before he comes back to himself and notices. She’s done it before, and as she works on that, it just slips out.

“Spence…” It comes out aching and wet, soaked with the sorrow of everything she can’t have with him. And he notices.

He pulls away immediately, flushed and wrecked, and his gaze terrified like every time they’ve had a close call and then clung to each other as if their lives depended on the connection. His hands curve around her face as she tries to hide, his breath still coming in awkward gasps, but his wide-eyed concern overriding everything else.

“Em, what’s wrong… what happened? Did I hurt you-”

“No,” she says quickly, stuffing the panic away in an instant. “It’s nothing. I just came hard is all.”

It’s true, partially, and she’s confident in her mask, but he stares at her and she’s certain he’s not buying it. “That wasn’t nothing,” he murmurs darkly, a tone that always turns her on even when it shouldn’t. Like now, for example. “Talk, Emily.”

This is the new him. Blunt, confrontational, almost bristling at the suggestion of deflection. Too raw, too genuine, just too much.

“It’s nothing, Spencer. Just sex. You temporarily fucked me up, that’s all. It’s what’s supposed to happen.” She hates everything about herself as the words come out. His stare hardens in the dim light.

“What happened to your balls, Em?” he asks after a moment of pointed silence. Her eyes flick to his in shock. “You’ve never been afraid to tell me what you really think. But now… all I get from you is caution and worry. Like you think I’m so fractured that I’ll collapse at any moment on you.”

The last sentence comes out unevenly, shame flickering across him for a moment before the hardness comes back. Something flares in her suffocated chest, and she hates that she might like him more as an insecure neurotic than as a mature man who knows his mind.

“If that’s what you think, what you see when you look at me now, and you can’t tell me because we’re intimate…” He takes a breath, shuffles away from her in the bed to give him distance enough to say what he has to. “If sleeping together is all we have now, and we’ve lost that ability to be frank with each other no matter what, well… then I can make do without this. Orgasms aren’t worth what I’ve lost if you keep hiding from me.”

“Hiding?” she blinks, her whole body growing cold in an instant.

“What were you thinking when I came, Em?” he fixes her with a magnetic stare. “This is important. Really important.”

“I…” She considers lying. It’s her primary instinct – always has been. But he’ll probably see through it anyway, so she sighs and it slides out of her like poison she’s trying to purge from her body. “I was thinking how much I miss you.”

“Miss me?”

“The guy I used to know. Before you became hardened. Before prison.”

“You mean, before I grew up,” he says sharply, and she twitches at it.

“No,” she counters softly, her eyes drifting away from his. “I mean the guy who was always the smartest person in the room but never the most jaded. I mean the guy who saw beauty in everything, even seeing value in the ugliness of what we do. The guy who loved magic. The guy who could change my day with a terrible pun or an awkward hug. I miss how real and free he was. I miss that guy so much it hurts, Spencer. I thought… when we got together, that I’d finally have that to call my own. God, I was so excited about that… you have no idea. Like a kid.” She takes a breath, closes her eyes for the rest. “But I don’t know where he went. Maybe you left him in prison. All I know is that we can be as close as we’ve ever been, we can fuck, but I can’t give myself away. I want the friend I slowly fell in love with over the years.”

She opens her eyes and waits for the end to come – the awkward words that need to happen and then the shuffling into discarded clothes as he makes a quick exit forever.

But he doesn’t do that. She watches as a flush rises up his chest and turns his face scarlet. His eyes flick everywhere like an echo of the awkwardness she’s grown to love and thinks she’s lost, and then his chest makes a terrible jerking motion as a noise cuts loose before he can clamp down on it with a strangled whimper. He takes a couple of gulping breaths, but his eyes keep flicking everywhere but her, looking dangerously glassy.

“I miss him too,” he whispers to the walls, like she’s not there. “I-I don’t know…”

It gets choked off and she’s floored at how he’s coming apart next to her. They’ve been together for months and this is the first time that she feels as if she’s really with him.

“I… I thought this was what you wanted. I’ve been trying…” His voice is distant, like a confession, and then he goes silent, inward. He’s quiet, still, and then he roars back into the moment violently, shifting to look at her, gutted, cheeks shiny in the gloom. “Please don’t give up, Em. If you meant what you said, then don’t give up on me. I-I thought… you only wanted me now because of how I’ve changed… because I’m not a foolish dork anymore.”

“Spence, no…” She squirms next to him and clasps his jaw too tightly, fingers brushing damp trails down his face.

“I don’t like being angry.” He leans into her grip and closes his eyes, just floating in it. “I don’t want to be this man. But I don’t know how to get back. I need help, Em. I need help…”

She’s heard this before, and her response is both the same and completely different. She rises up, catches his lips with a soft moan, and pulls until he gives in. His kiss is sweet, tender, he relents and opens up to her with a hushed “Oh” that sounds like every shocked discovery she’s ever heard him make in the past. It twists something in her a little tighter, and she whispers his name when they break apart and come together again. This kiss contains more of him than the fucking ever has, and she trembles as this sliver of her heart peeks out from under the mess they’ve made of everything.

“Don’t walk away, Emily.” He’s ashamed at the way he’s begging, she can feel it in every inch of him huddled towards her, but he’s doing it anyway, as he once did. “I feel better when I’m around you. More like me, even if it doesn’t come across. And if I give you my anger, well, you’re the only one who gets that too. I just deflect everyone else. Make of that what you will. And you’re the only one who sees that for the coping mechanism it is.”

“I’m not walking away,” she hushes quickly before taking his mouth again. How could she walk away after this?

He curls long fingers through her hair and holds her close, eyes shut, breathing words across her lips that break her. “I need you, in case you’ve forgotten. You’re my friend and I’ve always needed you.”

She can’t breathe, just feeling his own stuttered gasps on her face instead. Because she needs him too, this unlikely guy, smarter than her, ten years too young, and so wrapped up in his own head that he occasionally forgets he has a body. She needs him like atmosphere, surrounding her and making sure she doesn’t drift away into the cold silence of the universe she’s constructed. The strands of their frayed lives tangle together and almost make sense – it’s always felt like that to her, even when he was just a screwed-up kid in an FBI vest: they made sense of each other.

Now they pull apart and he watches her with a new concentration, as if everything is suddenly new in this moment. She feels herself blush under the scrutiny and, after a minute, a delighted grin breaks over him making him seem younger, less tired. She mocks his teeth and crazy lines on his face like she always does, but he grabs her up and holds her close as they both shuffle down against the pillows, staring at one another. His hands skim all over her and he keeps staring. It should be offputting, but she finds herself lulled, hypnotized by his hands and the force of possibility between them. In time, he pulls the sheet up over their heads, cocooning them in a new universe that’s just for them. She chuckles, but shifts closer, pulled in by his expansive stare. And his fingers keep moving – her hips, her back, her face, her hair – until he eventually finds his voice again.

“Wanna see something neat?” he asks quietly, like a boy would.

“Always.”

He smiles and tells her to hold the sheet tight over their heads as he slips his hands out. There’s a light on in the corner of the room offering a dim glow against the white cotton like an ancient movie screen. Then suddenly the shadow of a tiny rabbit appears against the sheet. It flicks it’s ears and then makes a washing motion over its nose. A surprised laugh escapes her, and then again when the shadow-rabbit shakes as if it sneezed, and then stretches its nose closer to her in curiosity. She glances at his face and the smile is still there, charmed by the magic his hands have conjured up.

“Where did you learn to do that?” she murmurs warmly, remembering the shadow animals she used to make alone in various cavernous bedrooms around the world.

He shrugs, watching his hands make the rabbit hop closer to her. “Don’t remember. I guess someone showed me and it stuck.” His eyes flick to hers for an instant, all crinkly at the corners before turning back to his shadow creature hopping towards her. “Careful. I think he likes you, and you know what that means: rabbits everywhere.”

She drops the sheet and grabs him, rolling him onto his back as she kisses him with too much force. His hands break apart from the imaginary rabbit and flash to her sides as she slides on top, holding her as if it’s their only job. He moans quietly in their tangle of limbs and sheets, an interrogative note to it indicating his surprise. But she doesn’t explain herself, or the hope he’s given her just by admitting who he is. This isn’t their first encounter but they’ll look back on this night as the first time they truly meet in love, and risk. Curled together like ribbons staring at each other until dawn, Emily’s path slowly clarifies until it is a straight line pointing directly at Spencer Reid.

 

-----

 

She meets him in white, at the end of a long aisle in front of their friends. He nearly loses his mind, forgets his name, forgets hers, just sees her smiling at him and wants his life to end in that moment because nothing could ever be more perfect than this. Then she says “yes”, and when he’s asked the same question he just nods frantically because he can’t make his mouth work. Everyone laughs and then Emily pokes him through his immaculately-tailored suit until he erupts in a loud “YES!”, and then it’s done. It’s the happiest he’s ever been.

 

-----

 

He leads her into the room. She’s leaning heavily on his arm, wincing from exhaustion and pain, but he can’t make her use the wheelchair and he doesn’t feel like having her snap at him again by insisting. They aren’t speaking to each other – the consequences are hanging too heavy and sharp over them, and speaking might jar them loose to crash down and slice them open. He’s desperate to hear her voice though. Just one kind word. He keeps flicking his eyes to look at her but she’s just grim and grey and determined all over. She frightens him.

The door whisks closed behind them in the quiet room. The nurse looks up and smiles, shuffling over, all kind wrinkles and soft curves in her teddy bear-dappled scrubs. She leads them to the softly lit incubator wordlessly, and he’s unsure if it’s because they should be quiet or because it’s so late at night.

“It’s okay to pick her up. Just be careful of the monitor lines. Someone showed you how, yes?”

Spencer nods dumbly, eyes riveted to the tiny person lost in an impossible swaddle. Emily is mute at his side.

The nurse waits a moment. “Hold her. Kiss her. Tell her stories. It all helps.”

His eyes shift to the nurse and she smiles at him, nodding with such assurance that he’d believe whatever she told him in that moment. Then he looks at Emily. She’s frozen in helplessness he’s rarely seen on her, eyes vacant and glassy, mouth half open like she’s forgotten how it works. Then, as he watches, she blinks a single tear that winks into the darkness below them and is gone. Suddenly, he understands: she thinks she’s failed. She worked so hard, did everything she could to make sure it would be alright, but now she’s standing before their sickly child – born too soon and with a broken heart – and her effort has been nullified by the vagaries of fate. She’s exhausted, with no fight left, and he absolutely will not let that stand. He straightens his spine, lets go of Emily, and dives right in.

The moment he lifts his daughter from the incubator, she becomes a person, not a sick, fragile organism they are anxiously observing. She’s unbelievably small – it’s hard to imagine how she works given how tiny she is. She’s all blanket and monitoring wires and a pale, purple toque. His hand is so long in comparison that he thinks he could hold her in his palm alone, but something in him kicks into gear and he cuddles her into the crook of his elbow, rolling her slightly against his chest so she can hear his heartbeat. It’s almost like he’s saying, ‘See? This is how it’s done. Just follow the beat with me…’

“Hello,” he says softly. “It’s Daddy.”

She can’t see him. Her eyes won’t open for a while yet, but he thinks she might know he’s there anyway. He skims the tip of his index finger down the side of her face, the wisp of hair peeking out from her toque, the curve beside her eyes, the small rise of her cheek. She squirms a little and he is unrealistically elated.

“I like your hat. It becomes you, though you’d be just as beautiful without it, I’m sure.”

He investigates one of her hands, the fingers almost too small to seem jointed. It flops out of her blanket and he presses her fingers open with one of his. Then, her tiny fingers curl back around him, her whole hand barely wrapping his fingernail but holding on fiercely. A wave rises in him as his breath gusts out unevenly and he dips his lips in to brush her forehead. He breathes her in and she smells… magic. It’s inexpressible, but it makes his heart pound and his eyes sting as words clog in his throat until he almost chokes.

“We’re so happy you’re here,” he gasps and breathes her in again deeply. He’s addicted to her already. “We want you to stay.”

Emily makes a wrenching sob beside him and then falls quiet. When he turns to look at her, she’s clamped a hand over her mouth to prevent anything else from escaping, her knuckles white from the effort. Her cheeks are wet with silent tears and the nurse is looking very distressed by the whole scene. But Spencer knows better. She’s so close now – she just needs a nudge… He turns so that Emily is part of the cradle he’s made, his body curved and beckoning her to come inside with them. Her eyes flick between him and their daughter, him and her, and the hand lying loose at her side begins to shake.

He smiles. “See how beautiful she is, Em?” he whispers. “You won’t believe how great she smells…”

Emily blinks, shocked and pale, waiting for someone to tell her what happens next. She teeters as she watches them, and he sees the yearning in every millimeter of her. He leans a fraction closer.

“Go ahead. Try.”

And she stumbles forward a half step before gently curling her hand around his arm and leaning in to see her daughter.

“This is Mommy,” he whispers as she dips in and softly sniffs. Then her hand tightens on his forearm and he smiles. “She’s had a rough couple of days.”

Emily’s hands cup her daughter’s tiny face and she breathes her in again, deeply. Then her lips are brushing her forehead, her cheeks, kissing the tips of all ten fingers like an enraptured believer.

“Oh…” is all she can muster, but it comes out so wet and tender that Spencer’s heart booms loud enough to make his teeth rattle and he kisses her tangled hair desperately.

“See?” he gulps hoarsely, and she nods under his lips. They stand there together, silent and knotted around their child. He doesn’t notice when the nurse leaves, or when he begins to sway and Emily falls into rhythm with him. Eventually, he clears his throat and draws her red-rimmed eyes back up to him.

“She needs a name.”

He has opinions about this, but it has to come from Emily. She needs this so much more than he does. He’s already made his stand in this fight, now Emily has to make hers. She curls back towards their daughter, fingers trailing all over her, drawing her in air, in breath, in love…

“Something beautiful… something… unexpected,” she murmurs as she thinks. They had a list but he’s pretty sure that names like Charlie, Bailey, and Iona won’t make the grade now. “Anabel,” she whispers, and he can hear the smile in it. “Annie for everyday. Anabel Reid. Special and simple and perfect.”

He nods his approval, knowing Emily will fight like hell for this tiny person she’s made, and now named.

So, that’s how they meet Anabel, and she decides to stay.

 

-----

 

The doctor says the words that finally make it real: stage four. Emily doesn’t react at all, perhaps too exhausted from the endless testing and sleepless nights to deny that she didn’t see this coming. But he can’t breathe.

It’s over. It’s all over now, and they haven’t had nearly enough time together.

To this day, he can’t remember the doctor’s expression or the color of his office walls. But the memory of him crushing Emily’s hand in his grip while trying to coax air into his lungs is seared into his consciousness. He’ll never forget this moment no matter how much he wishes he could.

When that becomes too much to absorb, even so many years later, he tries to remember another moment instead of this one. They are close to the end, and their days are mostly bad ones filled with pain management and the seemingly endless preparations for death. She’s at home because she refuses to die in hospice, and even now, you can’t tell Emily Prentiss anything she doesn’t want to hear. It’s a decision he’s glad of now – it is beyond difficult but it gives them a little more precious time. She’s lying in bed, spring rain tap-tap-tapping the windows and easing her somehow with it’s cool relief. She’s calm today despite the pain. Her skin is chilly and almost paper-thin, the beautiful, curved strength of her now a distant memory. He can pick her up with ease and that scares him every time, remembering how she used to overpower him as a matter of course. But today she smiles – and that hasn’t changed a bit – and pats the sheets next to her, so he climbs in and curls around her, warm to the point of burning where she is cool.

“Mmmmm, that’s nice,” she whispers, wrapping her thin, IV-marked arms over his. He kisses her head and says nothing. He’s not ready. He’ll never be ready.

“Listen, there’s something I’ve gotta tell you before I go,” she says after endless minutes of rain and holding. He shifts to look down at her as she looks up at him, eyes hollowed from the energy of her body eating away at itself. Her eyes look nervous. “I purposely got pregnant with Annie.”

He blinks, expecting something else, but wholly shocked anyway.

“I know I told you I was on the pill and that it was a freak event, but it wasn’t. I knew what I was doing and I didn’t tell you about it.”

He blinks some more and thinks back to that moment between them. “W-why? Why wouldn’t you tell me?”

She sighs and it wracks her body horribly. He pulls her closer and she tucks her head against his chest.

“Because I was forty-five, Spencer. The odds of having a baby were stacked against me and… I really wanted it. But if I’d told you that, the pressure would’ve been too much for both of us. Making it happen would’ve become a job, and if we failed – which I was almost certain we would – you’d take it personally and pull away. I wasn’t brave enough to put us through that, so I did what I always do when shit gets hard: I bent the rules.”

“But Em…” he chokes, not sure how he feels about what she’s said. He’s not angry, but…

“Spence,” she coughs into his chest and then struggles to catch his eyes again. “You are my redemption, in so many ways. All the stupid, dangerous, questionable shit I’ve pulled… you are the reason why it’s all been worth it.”

Her hand reaches for him, so thin and pale he’s afraid he’ll break it as she cups his jaw. Her fingers brush the stubble there and the faintest blush rises to her face while he watches, amazed.

“I gave up on a child once. You know why. And you know I’ve punished myself for that in all sorts of ways.”

He nods in her hand slowly. He’s known that since before he knew the actual story behind it all.

“Then you loped into my life and made me love you.”

He snorts and rolls his eyes a little, and she smiles to see it.

“You made so many of my sins unimportant, Spence,” she continues, smile faltering and eyes getting glassy. “It wasn’t fair to ask, to even think it… but I wanted you to redeem that forgotten child for me as well.”

He sighs deeply, because when she put it that way, no, it wasn’t fair at all.

“Annie isn’t a replacement for what I gave up at fifteen,” she asserts quietly. “She’s a celebration. Of you. Of me. That we straightened our crap out and created… happiness, finally.”

Her voice is so low, cracked from strain and disuse, and it corkscrews right into him. His heart, his guts, his brain. He blinks too much, feels heat rising in his face, breath trapped in his chest making everything too tight, and he has to glance away. When she speaks again, her cracked words hitch with everything he’s fighting to keep inside his chest.

“I didn’t want a replacement. I wanted your child, Spence, because that’s what my whole life felt like it had been building towards. And I would’ve done anything to achieve that.”

He can’t. He just can’t. He curls down, cupping her jaw and kissing her with too much force. She’s fragile now, he should be more careful, but he can’t. She’s leaving him and she’s been his redemption too. He wants to beg, scream, wants her cancer to be a bullet he can step in front of. He’d die for her – he wants to die for her, but she’s beating him to it, like always.

“Don’t go,” he whispers against her lips and tastes salt there. “I don’t want to be alone again. I can’t…”

Her hand sinks into his hair and twists with surprising force.

“You’re not alone,” she growls softly and catches his lips again. “You have Annie. She is both of us, Spence. The best of us.”

“I love you,” he whispers, and it’s more air than words. Then he sobs into her like a child, hitching and curling around her like he can stop this from happening if he becomes her skin. She shushes him, hands skimming over him like bird’s wings, waiting for him to tire himself out and stumble back into a hiccupping calm.

“Wherever I end up next,” she murmurs eventually. “I’ll wait for you. I’m not saying goodbye.”

He lifts his head, ready to argue even through the pounding in his skull. But she gives him a no-bullshit glare and keeps him silent with it.

“I know you don’t believe in that, but it doesn’t matter. I do. Not heaven or hell… not anything so basic as that, but… something else.” She nuzzles into his chest as tightly as she can and lets her eyes slip close. A strange peace smooths the lines from her then, and he’s suddenly envious of this delicate belief of hers. “I’m just stepping into the next room, Spence. And I’ll wait for you there. Promise.”

She doesn’t go that day. Or the next. It happens two weeks later, in the night while he sleeps next to her. Like she promised, she slips out the back door without saying goodbye. Annie wakes him in the morning, hair tussled, eyes red and still in her pjs.

“Mom’s gone,” she whispers as a single tear drops down her cheek, and he rolls to see the life is gone from the woman next to him even before he reaches for her pulse.

When they bury her, it’s raining again, and he’s grateful for its soft, cool sympathy. He and Annie stand curled together, with Derek and JJ and Will and Penelope, with their children. Hotch and Rossi are gone by then too but Rossi’s daughter and Hotch’s son stand in their stead. It means a lot; Emily would’ve appreciated it. There’s no ceremony, no party to commemorate her life, and when he’s asked why, he tells them that he’s not saying goodbye. She’s just in the next room. JJ and Penelope look indescribably sad when he says it, but Annie just smiles at him, and he sees Emily in that smile just like she said he would. He’s not alone, and as he struggles to keep going, he finds surprising resilience in the silly fiction Emily gave him before she left. Over time, he clings to it, shuffles close to its comfort like a fire on a cold night.

His life is long. Much longer than he expects. He lasts long enough to bounce a series of grandchildren on his aching knees. He ends up burying Derek and JJ, and, with sudden heartbreak, Jack Hotchner. He becomes canonized in the history of the Bureau, right along with Dave Rossi and Jason Gideon. It’s surprising and offputting, especially when the FBI dedicates their new teaching center to him at Quantico. He shuffles across the stage at the naming ceremony, stooped and blushing in a way unbecoming for his age and guaranteed to make Emily hoot with laughter. And he visits Emily’s grave every Tuesday afternoon at two-thirty without fail until he can’t walk under his own power anymore.

A night comes when everything around him seems to have a golden hue. He’s in bed, in the same room that Emily disappeared from, his youngest grandson wiggling into his side as he tells him a story. He can’t see anymore, but he knows Annie is there, smiling her smile, trying to coax her son to bed but lulled by his story as much as the sleepy child at his side.

“You’re a wonder, Dad,” she says quietly when he finishes, lifting her boy into her arms and brushing a kiss to his forehead as she goes.

“Years of practice,” he winks at her and imagines her grin when he hears her chuckle.

“See you in the a.m., okay?” she says warmly. She says it every night, like she’s extracting a promise from him to stick around.

“Yes, love. See you for coffee.” He’s lying, but he doesn’t want to upset her. Better to slip away like Emily did.

He hears the light flick off and Annie’s footsteps disappearing down the creaky hallway. The house settles around him, the bones of it aching and stretching with the comfort of the memories it protects. Him stumbling through the front door with Emily in his arms the day they took possession, nearly dropping her on the hardwood as he trips on the doorjamb. The night they slept in the bathtub when a hurricane blew through and they discovered that the roof leaked right over the master bedroom. The library where he slept after he fought with Emily over Annie’s need for surgery to correct her heart defect, and the couch where Emily crawled next to him, crying and whispering about how scared she was. The post in the kitchen where they marked Annie’s height as she grew. The stairs to the cellar where Annie fell and broke her arm. The front staircase where he and Emily took pictures of Annie before her first date, and her graduation, smiling and absolutely perfect. The room where he lies now, when Emily asked him to let her die at home, with him.

He sighs because he remembers it all perfectly, even more so that he can’t distract himself with anything new. All he sees now is what’s passed. And he’s tired. He knows it’s time.

He doesn’t sleep, just waits, wondering how it will happen. Hoping. Then the air changes around him, the light behind his eyes fading from gold to violet to indigo to black. He feels cold, takes a deep breath in, and has a tremor of pure fear at his absolute vulnerability. He thinks about calling out to Annie down the hall, and then… he laughs.

“Oh, it’s you,” he whispers, smile breaking across his face and splitting it into a thousand, aged lines. “Should’ve known…”

His last breath leaves him, but his smile remains as he steps into the next room.