“He won’t hurt you.”
“He won’t hurt you,” Reid says absently, staring intently at his current chess match but somehow managing half a beat to meet her eyes. He juts his chin toward the poodle perched a few feet away. His curls shake. “Mr. Oodles,” he supplies, and she has to crack a grin at that. “Harriet’s dog. He’s three pounds over the average healthy weight for his size but he won’t hurt you.”
JJ bites her lip. “Is Harriet any good at chess?”
Reid doesn’t answer her, slipping his knight a few spaces over and knocking Ben’s queen off the board. “What?”
“Harriet,” JJ says, trying not to be unnerved by the way the poodle is staring at her. “Does she play chess?”
“She’s very good.”
“My grandmother,” Ben supplies, He wrinkles his nose at the board. “Spencer, come on.”
“You made the same move today and yesterday,” Reid says easily. His queen closes in on Ben’s king. Ben scowls. “I beat you yesterday too.”
Ben drops back in his chair with a huff. “I’ll get you next time.”
Spencer smiles softly, already shifting his chess pieces back to their starting positions. “Of course,” he says. “No one’s infallible.”
Ben offers a handshake. Reid raises an eyebrow. Ben grins and lets his hand fall back to his side. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” Ben says, and with a wave he’s off, bounding back toward his grandmother and the poodle curled up at her feet.
“How old is he?” JJ asks.
Spencer doesn’t look up from the chess board. “He’ll be eleven next week.”
“He’s quite the chess player.”
Reid glances at her. “Yeah,” he says, and his eyes are shining. “He’s getting really good.”
Not for the first time she thinks how lucky his kids would be – wonders if he’ll ever have the chance to have them, wonders if she’ll ever get to be an aunt for them. “He reminds me of you.”
“Me too,” Spencer says distractedly. He straightens a knight. “He won’t hurt you.”
“No, the poodle.” He folds his hands on the table and tilts his head at her. She meets his gaze squarely. His eyes soften. “JJ, you’re completely safe.”
She clears her throat. “I know,” JJ says, and nods. Nods. Nods. “I know that.”
Spencer holds for another second and then waves at the board. “You wanna play?”
“I’m not very good. You know that.”
He smiles hopefully, not ready to be done with chess for the day, maybe, or maybe just happy to be in her company “Please?”
She rolls her eyes and holds up her hands. “Okay. One game.”
One game is two is three is four hours of Spencer coaching her through the moves. It’s past five by the time her key hits the lock. “Hey,” she says and Will pulls her into his arms. “Sorry I’m late. I got caught up.”
“It’s okay,” he says, brushing her hair behind her ear. “We just got home too.”
“How was the museum?”
“Good,” Will says.
“Did they have a favorite?”
He hesitates a beat. JJ pulls back.
“They just wanted to look at the paintings of dogs,” he says, shaking his head. Her heart sinks. Chest aches.
JJ shrugs out of the embrace and mumbles “I’m going to start dinner,” but he catches her hands and squeezes. Holds. “JJ,” he says quietly, “honey, I’m not trying to change your mind. I understand.”
Or course he does. Of course he would. She remembers curling up in her car, remembers gulping sobs and hot tears and the way her hands wouldn’t stop shaking until he reminded her to breathe. Breathe.
“I know,” she says, biting her lip. “I know.”
“Every kid goes through the ‘I want a puppy’ phase. They’ll forget about it in a couple weeks.”
“They shouldn’t have to,” she shoots back. “Just because I—”
“Look, we don’t even have time for a dog, right?” Will’s hands fall on her shoulders, rubbing gently, soothing. “It’s probably better if we don’t get one.”
“You love dogs.”
“But you don’t. And that’s okay.”
She doesn’t know how to answer that, doesn’t know how to tell him it’s not, so she smiles and nods and says Yeah, all right and takes his hand and follows him to the kitchen.
When she sleeps, it’s vicious snarls and gnashing teeth and she’s firing, firing, sprinting and screaming Spence! Spence! and she stumbles and falls and everything is on fire and she’s crawling, reaching. Spence—
It’s dark. Early. Just a dream. Her head is heavy in her hands. Will is silent at her side. She didn’t shoot up screaming. Didn’t wake Will. Didn’t wake Henry and Michael.
“I’m getting up,” JJ whispers, pressing a kiss to Will’s temple. He rolls over slowly, blinking at her, at the dark window, and then back at her.
“I didn’t hear your phone,” he mumbles. “Work?”
“No. I...need to clear my head.”
“I need to clear my head,” she says again. In the darkness Will’s eyes shine. “I’ll be okay. Don’t worry about me.”
“It’s my job to worry about you.” Will props himself up on an elbow. He cradles her cheek in one hand; his thumb massages her jaw, soft, soft. “You need to talk, I’m here.”
She presses her hand to his. “Yeah,” she says. “Yeah, I know.”
The park is quiet this early, all crunching gravel and burning lungs and the first ray of sunlight on the far horizon. The wind rustles through the trees, a distant whisper.
For an instant, she’s at peace.
Only for an instant.
She hears the footfalls first, rushing toward her along the path, so loud in the static silence of the new dawn. One-two-three-four, repeat, but it’s not just one pair, it’s two, and she knows it’s only other runners, knows from Reid it’s unlikely they’d try to hurt her, but her heart still pounds faster in her chest. She wishes she had her kevlar, wishes she had her weapon or Garcia in her ear like a shield.
There’s a telltale clink, there between the scuffs and the steps. Her blood runs cold.
They’re right around the bend. Just keep to the side. Just keep to the right.
Just keep moving by.
She jumps back, doesn’t know how far, just knows there’s a man four feet in front of her, knows there’s a dog to his right, knows – that voice.
Breathe. Breathe. One. Two. Three. “Luke,” she croaks, and coughs. “Hi.”
He frowns at her, following her gaze, and whistles – once. Roxy shifts behind him. Suddenly, the pressure in her chest eases. “Hey,” Luke says, trying to crack that easy grin. “Didn’t expect to run into you this morning.”
Roxy’s pacing behind him. Roxy’d never hurt her. Luke’s dog. JJ bites her lip and forces herself to look away. “I’m usually not out here for a couple hours. What are you doing so far from home?”
“It’s a long run day.”
Luke tilts his head at her. “Hey, you okay?”
He knows. No. How could he? How could he not? Pull yourself together, Jaje
“I’m good,” she says, nodding a little too hard, a little too fast. She smiles and it’s like her face is going to split. “I’ll see you at work.”
She glances at Roxy before she can stop herself. “Yeah,” she says, tearing her eyes away. No one’s told him about her – and dogs. And Hankel. And Spence. “I’m sure.”
Luke’s quiet for a beat. “Okay,” he says, furrowing his brow. He steps to the side to let her by. Roxy follows him. “Okay.”
She half expects him to mention it to her, somewhere between rapping out reports and logging spreadsheets, but he passes her office without a word or a glance until the sun has long since set and the others have already gone home.
She almost thinks he won’t raise it.
She hopes too much. JJ forces a smile and waves at a chair. “Hey.”
Luke eases down across from her and folds his hands on the table. He’s silent for a beat. Thinking, maybe, because Luke damn well never has a problem with nerve. “JJ—”
The smile drops. “Don’t.”
Luke makes a contemplative face. Weighing his options. His hands twitch. Maybe he folded them so he wouldn’t fidget half as much as he usually does. “JJ,” he repeats quietly, “are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” JJ answers, measured, the same way she told Emily this morning and Spence over lunch and Derek when he called to check in.
Luke blows out a breath. “Then what’s going on with you?”
Luke leans back in the chair. For a second she thinks he might drop it, stroll back out her door with his easy grin and say well, have a good night, then. But he doesn’t stand up. He doesn’t move. He doesn’t speak.
JJ gives him a minute. Two. Then clears her throat.
“You’re scared of dogs.”
It hits her like a right hook to the jaw. JJ stares at him for a moment. “No. I was just—”
“I saw how you were with Roxy this morning,” he says gently.
“That’s – that was just—” JJ stops a moment. Pull yourself together, Jaje. Pull yourself together. She lifts her chin and smooths her expression. “You startled me.”
“It’s okay,” Luke says, instead of answering. “It’s really okay. A lot of people are scared of dogs. But it’s a problem for you, right?”
“We don’t run into a lot of dogs,” JJ says dryly.
“No. Not in the field, anyway. But on the street? In the park?” He waits a beat. She doesn’t answer him. His voice dips, soft and careful, the way he talks to trauma victims or terrified children. “Look, if I’m way off-base here, I’ll drop it. I just…”
Something in his voice sounds the vaguest bit like guilt. He didn’t come in here unprepared or unsure. Not in the least. JJ narrows her eyes at him.
“I was talking to Reid,” Luke says quietly. “Who was talking to Henry. Who might have mentioned he and Michael want a dog.”
Spence. Of course Spence. Damn it, Spence. JJ pinches the bridge of her nose. “What else do you know?”
“What else –” Luke blinks at her. “No. Spencer – he didn’t tell me why dogs are a problem and I didn’t ask. I figured if you wanted me to know you’d tell me yourself.”
There’s compassion in his even tone, that gentle tide of welcome that makes him so easy to like. JJ sighs and glances at the clock and wonders how a man who talks so little about himself can see so clearly through someone else. “It’s late.”
“Okay,” he says, and plants his hands on the arms of the chair like he’s getting ready to stand. The clock’s numbers are an aching red. Henry and Michael are already in bed by now. Will’s half-asleep on the couch with a pile of papers sliding off his chest. He doesn’t really rest until she gets home safe in the evening and doesn’t drift back off when she gets up before him in the morning.
Lately she’s been home late and up early.
“Luke,” JJ says, and he stops halfway out of the chair. “No, it’s okay. Unless you need to—”
Luke eases back down. “I don’t have anywhere to be.”
“Home to sleep?”
JJ bites her lip. “Have you read the case reports about Tobias Hankel?”
“Not really,” Luke says. He leans forward on the table, hands folded easily. “I do know that’s the guy who kidnapped Reid a while back.”
It stops her for a beat. She wonders where he heard it, wonders when and why Spencer shared that hell. “Yeah,” she says. “We, uh, we were pursuing an unsub – Hankel – and we split up. He went into the field. I went into the barn.”
She has to pause, has to blink back the film swelling at the edges of her vision. “Do you just want to read it, actually?” JJ asks, already fumbling for the file she shoved in her desk when Emily came around the corner earlier. “I have it—”
Luke’s hand lands on her wrist. “You don’t have to tell me anything,” he reminds softly, and she draws back, rubbing at the point of contact like she’s been burned.
But you want to. It hangs in the air between them and she breathes and hears Derek’s you’re safe here, you’re safe here.
“I know,” she says again. “I just – I haven’t talked to anyone about it for a while.”
Or ever. Not to her therapist. Not to Will. Certainly not to Spencer, so shaky and withdrawn in the whirlwind of weeks after his abduction. She’s said I’m sorry so many times in so many ways and she still feels it burn in her chest or pulse on the tip of her tongue when Reid rubs absently at his arm. I’m sorry. Sorry he spent so many hours curled into a corner, rocking and clawing at his hair, screaming against the grating need, all brittle bones and raw red skin and sunken eyes. Sorry she can’t sit beside him in a city park without her hair standing on end, without waiting for an old woman’s poodle to lunge for her throat. Sorry she can’t step foot in a damned art gallery next to Will and the boys and smile at a Chihuahua that can’t so much as growl.
Sorry she’s late. Sorry she couldn’t go. Sorry she wasn’t there in the first place.
“Hankel starved dogs,” she croaks. Her eyes burn. “They killed the woman we were too late to save. They almost killed me too.”
She waits for Luke to say But that was a while ago, right?, waits to remind herself that he means well and that he does everything with the same burning intensity humming in his eyes and his smile.
Waits to remind herself he isn’t calling her weak.
“So that’s why you’re afraid of dogs,” Luke says at last.
“Do you want to not be?”
She blinks and she’s home with Will and the boys are laughing and rolling around with a puppy while the snow falls slow on the world below and her hands are warm and her chest doesn’t ache. She blinks and she lifts her pawn to begin play and the deep crease in Spencer’s brow is gone and he’s just smiling, smiling, and she knows they’re both safe.
“Right now?” JJ says hoarsely. “More than anything.”
Luke’s mouth breaks into a gentle grin, solid in its small reassurance. “I think,” he says, “I can help you with that.”