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The Same Coin

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Not every kind of hiding looks the same. Some people seem stiff, removed, and anger. Some are overly positive, nice, and funny. Hiding can look like a freshly pressed skirt suit, a brightly colored t-shirt, subtle make-up, winged black eyeliner, a messy office, or a spartan apartment. There is always one common denominator, though. Eventually, someone will come along and find you.

Jennifer Jareau has hiding down to an art. Her perfectly straightened hair, feminine business attire, and firm, but sweet voice projects an image of an approachable, responsible young woman. No one, not even the team of profilers she works with, can see past her disguise. It’s flawless.

It’s also exhausting. Every time she gets angry, or upset, she has to swallow it down, plaster uncertainty or nervousness on her face instead. She moves behind Derek, looks toward Hotch, puts on a brave face to ‘earn’ respect. 

What she wants to do is tell the handsy police chiefs and dismissive administrators to go fuck themselves. She doesn’t want to smile and gently turn down their advances and cite the code of conduct. If JJ had her way, she’d tattoo “gay” on her forehead, give everyone around her the middle finger, and then run screaming off into the night.

But she doesn’t.

She talks a good game (in the privacy of her mind), but she knows that this is the disguise she’s chosen and she’s worked too hard to just throw it all away. She wants to help other women and that means performing for her team to keep her job. So, she keeps the details of her life vague, giving easy ones like “I played soccer in high school” and “I like football” freely, but keeping ones like “My sister killed herself because she thought her situation was inescapable and some days I can relate” to herself. No one seems to notice.

So, when Emily Prentiss joins the team, shakes her hand, and looks right into her eyes, JJ expects her to accept the disguise and move on. Instead, the well-moisturized skin of Emily’s hand is distracting, the way she carefully moves her razor straight hair out of her face is mesmerizing, the slight raise of an eyebrow is telling. Emily Prentiss may not know what lies behind the disguise, but she knows how to spot a mask through the eyes of her own.

Emily’s disguise was chosen for her. It was decided on before she was born and she’d had no choice in the matter. For most of her life, she never fought it. In fact, the pre-written identity made it so easy to settle into a new place every couple of years. Emily knows several languages and one of them is false impressions.

Even her years rebelling were colored by the inevitable slide back into her mold. There was nothing singular or special about a rich girl who tries on rebellion. Emily likes to think that her very singular traumas make her different from all the other girls around her, but if she had a spark of individuality under her mask, then they did, too. None of them ever learned the language of vulnerability.

She traded her disguise for another. It’s a refreshing couple of years, even as it’s stressful. The taste of another person’s personality was eye-opening for Emily and it introduced her to something dangerous. Lauren Reynolds made Emily want to learn who lived under her mask. She wanted to meet Emily Prentiss.

When she joins the BAU, Emily knows nothing new about herself. It doesn’t really matter. Her focus is on integrating into the team and she only has to dip into her usual bag of tricks to make it happen.

She dresses well, demonstrating her wealth without flaunting it. She’s personable, if a little bit reserved, polite, if a little bit blunt, and perceptive, if a little bit distant. She can feel the invisible wall around her that keeps her safe and keeps everyone else out, but she can also feel the way her team is opening up to her. A few rehearsed jokes, a few wide-eyed glances, and a few arguments to make it all seem authentic and she’s accepted.

The only thing that makes her a little nervous is Jennifer Jareau. The blonde woman has an incredibly familiar look in her eyes. She’s sweet, authoritative, and calm, always in control and always professional. Even when she’s angry, it comes in simmering hints that are quickly hidden away behind her feminine mask. Emily recognizes her and it terrifies her.

She’s not alone in the feeling. JJ knows that it’s only a matter of time before Emily calls her out on her disguise. Emily is put-together, confident, and shart as a whip. JJ feels incredibly seen.

They get along well enough on a day-to-day basis, talking about cases and team members and nothing personal. Neither of them offer details. Emily knows nothing about JJ before she came to the BAU and JJ only knows what was in Emily’s thin file. Still, they laugh easily and breathe easier.

The first time JJ learns anything about Emily, they’re in Arizona. It’s such an inconsequential detail, but it feels so personal that JJ blushes. Her mask slips for just a second and she breaks the rules by asking a question.

“What?” she gasps, meeting Emily’s eyes. “You’ve never had a twinkie ?”

Emily tucks a strand of hair behind her ear, smiling sheepishly. “Mother didn’t allow processed foods. I’m sure there’s a lot I haven’t had.”

“Wow,” JJ breathed, looking at the plastic-wrapped ‘pastry’ in her hand. “I lived off of these as a kid.”

“That can’t have been good for you,” Emily laughs. She looks into the half-empty vending machine where they ran into each other and looks over the various options that she isn’t going to be. “So much sugar.”

JJ just shrugs and tears the packet open with a loud crinkle. She came to the vending machine on a whim, but now she thinks she was sent there to show Emily something new. “I played sports, so it didn’t do too much. I never got cavities.”

She tears a small piece of the twinkie off and holds it out. Emily stares at it like it’s the strangest thing she’s ever seen in her life. After a moment of internal debate, she takes it.

“What does it taste like?” she asks, looking to JJ as she gently pinches the snack, trying to understand it.

Rolling her eyes and laughing, JJ just pushes on Emily’s hand, encouraging her to eat it. “Take a chance, Prentiss. You might like it!”

“Doubtful,” she mutters, but she eats the Twinkie. She winces, but then her eyes widen and she hums approvingly. “It’s good!” she says, mouth still full. “I like it.”

JJ’s heart skips a beat at the almost childlike wonder in Emily’s voice. She sounds like a different person, like someone who wants to try new things, like someone who has been hiding for so long that even a new experience as simple as eating a Twinkie is life-changing and memorable. JJ knows that this is the beginning of the end for her own disguise.

Emily suddenly realizes her mistake and blinks, the light in her eyes snuffed out and her usual friendly distance replacing it. She swallows the treat, trying not to think about how JJ shared something from her childhood, opening up enough to tell her about playing sports and never getting cavities. It’s too much information. She nods stiffly and flees.

Unfortunately, it only gets easier to exist together. Another case takes them to another rural county. They drive from the airport to the small town motel, talking casually and never falling into awkwardness. A song plays on the radio that JJ knows and Emily knows, but won’t admit to. The car fills with guitar and bass as JJ turns the volume up.

She’s singing loudly, head bobbing and hair bouncing. Her grin is infectious and Emily finds herself singing along, too. By the time the reach the motel, it’s pouring outside, but both women are screaming along to a song that has too many verses, playing air guitar and head banging. It’s silly and undignified and neither the Media Liaison or the Ambassador’s Daughter can bring themselves to care.

Eventually, the song ends and they have to make a run for the motel lobby. They scream with laughter as they race across the wide expanse of grass that separates the street from the door. By the time they make it inside, they’re drenched, practically flooding the linoleum floor. The rest of the team is already there, the umbrellas that live in every FBI car resting by the door. Emily and JJ just shrug cheerfully at their forgetfulness and pretend like this isn’t the happiest they’ve been in years.

After that, it’s like a dam has opened. Emily suddenly knows that JJ loves Cheetos, that she exercises every single day, that she trims her own hair in hotel bathrooms when she can’t sleep. The last fact horrifies Emily. She learns it on a case in Michigan.

Every member of the local, all-male police department refuses to listen to JJ. The entire time she speaks, they look at Hotch, as if he is a ventriloquist, choosing to speak through the little lady. By the end of the first day, JJ is simmering with rage, ready to explode.

Hotch sends them both to the hotel, knowing that someone will end up hurt if JJ has to put up with the pd much longer. In the room, Emily perches on the bed and watches JJ pace. She gets a lecture about respect and misperceptions and the many ways JJ knows how to pull teeth. She just listens, knowing that JJ needs a sympathetic ear.

When she’s finally out of rage and words, JJ blushes sheepishly and looks at Emily for the first time since they walked into the room. “Sorry,” she mumbles. “I won’t do that again.”

“It’s fine,” Emily assures her with a shrug. “I’ll listen whenever you need to talk.”

JJ nods and starts to get ready for bed. A few hours later, Emily is woken up from a good dream. JJ’s bed is empty, but there’s light streaming out from under the bathroom door. Emily tosses the covers back and gets up.

She walks into the bathroom to see JJ wearing a threadbare t-shirt and a tight pair of sky blue shorts. Her long legs look sturdy and Emily can see how strong her back is. It’s distracting at first, but then she sees what JJ is doing. She’s leaning over the sink, using a pair of scissors from her emergency sewing kit to cut the bottom inch off her honey-colored hair.

Emily books them both a trip to her favorite spa in DC. She thinks it’s incredibly obvious that JJ needs to relax and that she doesn’t treat herself enough. Emily finds herself wanting to do this for JJ and give herself an excuse to spend private time with the blonde.

They walk into the spa and JJ immediately feels her heart sink. The huge lobby has marble floors, gold trim, and a mahogany reception desk. It probably costs more than her rent for a manicure and there is no way she can afford that. Her stomach twists as she prepares to embarrass herself. She has to tell Emily that she is too poor for their spa day.

Emily is walking to the front desk before JJ can even open her mouth. She smiles disarmingly at the receptionist, leaning a hip against the edge of the desk and twisting a strand of coal black hair. Jealous mingles with JJ’s embarrassment. She wants to be on the receiving end of Emily’s endlessly deep brown eyes.

“Hello,” the receptionist says, smiling up at the older woman. “What can I do for you?”

“My name is Emily Prentiss,” she replies smoothly. Glancing over her shoulder, she gestures for JJ to join her. “We have appointments.”

The woman shoots JJ an annoyed glare as she types Emily’s name into the computer. JJ stops beside her co-worker. Resting her hand on Emily’s arm, she frowns.

“Emily, I can’t-”

“Not a word,” Emily interrupts. She looks angry suddenly, but JJ can tell that it isn’t aimed at her. Emily’s frustration is turned inward as she thinks about the burst of protectiveness she feels at JJ’s attempt to reveal more about herself. “This is on me. My idea, my treat.”

She stares into JJ’s eyes, searching for something she thinks she wouldn’t recognize even if saw it. JJ wants to decline the gift. It’s humiliating and it means that she’ll owe Emily something just as nice. What can she buy that even comes close?

The answer, JJ learns a couple months later, is apparently “cheap beer.” Garcia invites herself (and Emily) over to JJ’s house for dinner one night and JJ stops at the grocery store to pick up something easy to make. She doesn’t have time to cook, so she grabs a couple of frozen pizzas and a 24-pack of PBR. It’s nothing special, but she’s always liked it and it’s the perfect cheap drink for a girls’ night. 

At least, that’s what she thought. Emily arrives at her front door with three bottles of $100 dollar wine and take-out from her favorite French restaurant. JJ wonders what kind of girls’ nights she was used to.

The truth is that this is Emily’s first and she has no idea what happens at a gathering like this. All she knows is that women love wine and they love bread. So, she brings fancy wine, gourmet breadsticks, and her favorite salad, just in case she doesn’t like what the other two brought. When she sees the PBR, frozen pizzas, and family size bags of potato chips, she feels like an idiot.

Neither blonde mocks her, though. They just cheer and uncork the wine. It’s easier to spend time with them like this than Emily expected. They watched Rom-Coms that she’s never seen, eat their weight in carbs, and get pleasantly drunk.

JJ keeps her eyes on Emily the entire time, trying to catch any glimpse of the woman behind the mask. She’s so clearly out of her element, but she’s cheerful and excited and impressed by everything they do and say. JJ can’t tell if it’s genuine, or if Emily is using her talents as a mimic. Either way, JJ’s heart races every time that blinding smile is turned her way.

Eventually, Penelope falls asleep on the couch and JJ whispers for Emily to follow her. They stop by the kitchen and grab two beers each before continuing upstairs. Emily is sure that JJ will show her to a guest room, but instead they enter a bedroom that is obviously lived in. Her eyes slide to JJ, wondering if this is the night that they’ll finally cross a line.

To her disappointment, JJ only opens a window and begins to climb out. Emily follows with a grunt, unsteady on her feet after an entire bottle of wine and several cans of beer. They stand on a small ledge just outside the window, tucking their beer cans into the pockets of their sweaters.

Smiling at Emily, JJ holds her hand out. “I guess I should have asked if you’re afraid of heights.”

“I’m not,” Emily answers, giving JJ her hand and letting her link their fingers together. It gets easier every day to answer JJ’s questions. Occasionally, Emily even offers information unprompted. “Lead the way.”

JJ’s eyes fill with longing, smile drooping, and body leaning closer. Under the light of the bright moon, Emily looks ethereal and magical and entirely unreal. A kiss would prove that she really exists, but JJ still doesn’t know what Emily thinks of her and her disguise still fits too well to make the first move.

Emily can almost feel the pull between them. It feels like both a noose around her throat and the lifeline that keeps her from falling over the edge. She squeezes JJ’s hand gently, reminding the other woman that they were both drunk, sleepy, and perched precariously high off the ground.

Nodding, JJ looks away and begins a careful climb up to the second-floor roof. She bought this house because she wanted a permanent address that felt like a home. It’s the best decision she’s made in a long time.

They reach the top and sit on the angled roof. It’s definitely not the safest idea for two drunk women with trust issues to drink even more on a slope, but the stars are out and they’re still holding hands and neither of them really want to be anything but themselves. So, they crack open their cheap beer.

“This is nice,” Emily says quietly, keeping her eyes fixed on the sky. “Tonight has been really fun.”

“Yeah,” JJ agrees, resting her cold can on her knee. “We definitely deserved it after our last case.”

Against her better judgement, Emily looks at JJ. She imagines the stars in the sky are reflected in pale blue eyes and JJ is giving her a glimpse of the constellations inside of her. Emily wonders what JJ sees in her. Does she see a trail of goodbyes and apologies and cast off dreams? They’re both women who are filled to the brim with multitudes, but lock them away behind fearful anger.

Emily is angry all the time. Some days, she’s angry at herself for not unlocking the cage that she blames her mother for, but continues to polish. Some days, she’s angry at the world for being too dangerous for vulnerable hearts. Some days, it’s the men on her team who doubt JJ, or the men of the world who would have her as meat, or the men of her past who still stand behind her with disapproving eyes. Right now, she is angry at JJ for being so easy to love.

For JJ, the blame lies squarely on the avoidance she inherited as a child. She could want and want and want until she withers away to nothing, but no amount of wanting can turn into living without the ingredient she never seems to have. JJ can never seem to find the courage to shrug off the mountain of expectations that weighs her down. Are the consequences of living worse than the possibility of dying?

“When I was younger,” Emily tells the silent night air, looking down at the can that her trembling hand clasps tightly, “I used to sit on the balcony and watch the city at night.”

“What city?” JJ asks the smooth roof tiles.

Emily shrugs, the movement jostling their still-clasped hands. “Any. I moved around a lot. We had an apartment in all of them. They were all on high floors with great views, so I would sit on the railing of the balcony and look at the stars. The stars are the same everywhere and if your favorite constellation isn’t in the night sky, you only have to wait a few months.”

“I used to go to the track at my high school at night,” JJ offers. She scoots closer, so their arms are pressed together, and lays her head on Emily’s shoulder. “I never looked up, though. It was always slippery, so I kept my eyes fixed on my feet, just running laps until I was too exhausted to think.”

Taking a breath and a chance, Emily tilts her head back to stare up at Orion, her favorite cluster of stars. “I don’t have any friends.”

JJ lifts her head to stare at her best friend’s profile. “You have me.”

It shouldn’t mean anything to her because she always leaves, but Emily can feel the heaviness in her chest where her emptiness lives. It’s cold as ice in the center of her, freezing her in place as it tries to kill her. Her carefully crafted disguise includes a lockbox that keeps it trapped, but JJ has torn a hole in her ribs and unlocked Emily’s most dangerous compartment. Emily has to trust that JJ won’t run from what she finds inside.

“I don’t think I can do this,” Emily says and the quiver in her voice tells her she’s crying. “I don’t have anything to give you. I’m nothing at all.”

“You don’t need to give me anything,” JJ sighs. She puts her can on a spot of flat roof beside her and cups Emily’s cheek. Her fingers are cold on hot skin, but Emily turns shimmering, terrified eyes on her and JJ does her best keep herself visible. “I have too much already, but… I could use someone who will help me carry it. I want to give you myself and everything that comes with it.”

“I’m scared,” Emily admits, dropping her drink into the darkness below. “What if I have to leave? What if you need something more than someone who will listen and follow and wait?”

JJ rests her forehead on Emily’s, heart pounding painfully as she forces herself to accept this reality. She knows that they are going to be together by first light just as strongly as she knows that you don’t have to entirely discard your mask to let one person see you naked. Vulnerability isn’t any easier because you want to be vulnerable, but it’s so rare to want and to get that it’s worth it to try.

“And what if you need more than someone who leads and talks and asks?” JJ replies gently. “I don’t have the answers, but I’m willing to ask the questions if you are.”

Emily sucks in a shaking breath. Her whole body feels like it is on fire, like she is standing on the bonfire of JJ’s love and it’s burning her alive. It hurts, but she knows that it’s a purifying heat. JJ has cast her into the flames and she’s being reborn as someone who can learn to be happy with the stars in the sky, instead of longing for the ones hidden away.

It’s going to hurt. She and JJ both know that their love is going to be painful for a while. They’ve been hiding for so long and just because they’ve found a reason to reveal themselves doesn’t mean they know how to be seen. As she looks into JJ’s eyes, Emily knows that the pain will be worth it.

“I want to keep you to myself for a while,” Emily breathes, tilting her head. “They don’t need to know us like that. I want to learn about me and you and us before they can convince us we’re something else.”

“This isn’t about them,” JJ agrees, eyes dropping to Emily’s mouth. “I just want you. I want whatever pieces you have right now, and I’ll want you after we finish the whole puzzle, too.”

Their kiss tastes like understanding. In the cool winter air, under the twinkling stars, on hard roof tiles, they feel like people without disguises. The way their lips stick together and their breath mingles feels like an agreement. Their kisses say ‘live with me with the crooks of my fingers, the corners of my mind, and empty places of my soul’.

It’s Emily who leads JJ back into the house, pulling her through the window, and into her bed. Their sweaters, still holding the second beers they never drank, fall to the wood floor, followed by pants and shirts and bras and underwear. The cotton sheets of JJ’s bed, soon to be Emily’s, too, feels like heaven on bare skin.

Every touch is absolution, pardoning their sins and leaving them clean. Emily’s lips on JJ’s muscle feels like vindication, like the sin of strength has been forgiven and turned into a trait she can wear proudly. JJ’s mouth inside Emily’s thighs is clemency, mercy, amnesty for her crimes, for perjuring herself with every smile and laugh. The promise of today and tomorrow and forever is given freely in each muffled sob, offering a reprieve from the work of hiding.

They are entirely laid bare, exhausted by divulgence and revelation. Emily’s carefully constructed walls are demolished by the wrecking ball of JJ’s desperation for connection. The thirst to be recognized that lives in JJ’s soul is quenched by the reverence in Emily’s voice.

The two women are so used to the dark that the bright light of new beginnings hurts, but it also reminds them that they’re alive. Everything is new and familiar at once and it’s jarring and confusing and beautiful. They are two sides of the same coin and they know that they’re rich.