Her father dies in the middle of an Indian summer, two weeks before her seventh birthday.
Emily is a daddy’s girl, first by default and later by choice. She looks to her father during her mother’s absences and later despite her presence. Emily feels the most comfort when he is the one kissing her skinned knees and brushing away her tears. It is unexpected, the loss, and years later the pain she still carries as a result of his death, from the suddenness of his departure from her life, still manages to cut through her in the most visceral way.
There isn’t much that Emily remembers about the span of time that directly preceded and proceeded this chapter of her life and what she does remember comes and goes in spurts.
Mostly she remembers things in colors. The emerald of the dress she begged her mother to wear because it was her father’s favorite color. How her mother had simply said no and wasn’t even moved by the sounds of Emily’s sobs or the way she collapsed to her knees, begging to honor her father the only way she knew how. The stark black of the dress her mother laid out for her instead, how it was too tight, stifling and itchy, and how her mother had to keep grabbing Emily’s hands all day to keep her from scratching herself near the collar where the wool irritated her skin. The marble of the church floors, how her tiny heels went click click click as she followed her father’s casket to his final resting place.
At the gravesite, the leaves had turned with the season, a sea of bright oranges and yellows that crunch under the weight of her small feet. Bright red spilled from the tip of her thumb as she ran it over the prickly stem of the white rose before she placed it on her father’s casket.
What stands out above the rest, what Emily remembers with astute clarity, is how her not quite seven-year-old brain could not yet comprehend the finality of death, so when they begin to lower the casket in the ground, she falls apart completely. Sobs and whimpers uncontrollably as she wrenches herself out of her mother’s grasp and throws herself onto the coffin. Her voice cracks as she begged them not to take her father from her.
Onlookers cry with her, but her mother does not. She sets her mouth set into a firm, thin line. She never wavers and she does not hold her daughter, does not tell her it will all be okay. Instead, she lays a hand on Emily’s shoulder and whispers sternly not here, not now.
This is when Emily learned how to be strong. When those soft edges first start to harden.
Sometimes she thinks it may be the nicest thing her mother ever did for her.
Emily is plucked right out of the ivory halls of Yale at the beginning of her senior year.
The recruiters talk to her about democracy and speak mostly in platitudes and clichés. She is fluent in five different languages and passable in several others; she is majoring in politics. She excels in everything she does. On paper she is ideal, the perfect candidate. The men tell her how they need people like her as if that was the sort of thing that would make a difference to her.
Still, Emily does not hesitate in her acceptance, but she does make them wait, pretends to mull it over so her hasty decision isn’t looked upon too closely, doesn’t give too much of herself away.
By the time she is twenty-three she has lived in four different cities across Eastern Europe and been at least ten different people.
The first time she meets Clyde is in the middle of a war-torn desert.
It is years before JTF-15 and Doyle.
He is MI-6. Interpol is just her backstop. The joint mission was meant to be simple. Fact finding. Minor counter surveillance. They were to secure assets in the aftermath of the war. Emily was still young, but not at all naïve. She knew, even then, they were preparing for yet another war. It was the early nineties and the world had not yet been changed by 9/11, but the climate was changing – steadily and irrevocably. Emily makes a mistake – small, relatively insignificant in the general scheme of things – but gets caught up in the shifting landscape.
She is taken in a tiny village just outside of Kuwait and held for 17 days.
At least that is what she is told after. It felt longer. It felt like months and years of her being torn apart in the pursuit of information, of her feeling as though she was dying, dying, dead, only to wake up half-alive. Emily tried to keep a tally of days in the dark, but time and her mind were constantly playing tricks on her. The men tell her over and over that nobody is coming for her and Emily knows this to be true. Knows she was dead the second the bag slipped over her head and she was bathed in broken darkness. Knows the rest is for show, a delay in the inevitable.
Still, Emily never breaks.
She never asks Clyde how he finds her, how he gets permission to exhaust endless resources and burn aliases to run a full-scale investigation and later a tactical extraction that never would have been approved by their bosses. She never asks, and he never supplies details, and when he finds her – bruised and broken, covered in her own urine and blood – she does not cry, but her jaw aches when she mumbles about time, asshole and moves to reach for the gun in his hands.
You’re not carrying me out of here, she tells him when he hesitates and there is a moment where he pauses, then laughs, just a little. His grip on the glock between his fingers loosens carefully before releasing it to her altogether. He knew before she did.
Emily does not hesitate, does not blink when she puts a bullet between the eyes of every single one of the men with her blood on their hands.
London is her third chance at a new start, and Emily tries not squander it.
She does her job and she does it well. This is to be expected. Emily Prentiss was bred for excellence, for great things. Her mother never wasted an opportunity to tell her so. The words first said in lieu of encouragement, when Emily was still young and horribly naive and the love between her and her mother was still simple and unconditional. And then later they were offered as a parting shot, the disappointment visible between the lines. Like so many other things in her life, Emily’s definition of greatness, of excellence, differs vastly from her mother’s.
In London, Emily grows her hair longer and cuts her bangs. Wears expensive clothes and rents a flat with a view of London that sometimes seems to stretch on for eternity. The job is more politics and less fieldwork than she anticipated, but she navigates the political minefields with ease.
Emily may have been a daddy’s girl once upon a time, but she is also her mother’s daughter.
In London, she leads her team both fearlessly and carefully. Her name sticks out amongst the rest first as someone to watch and later on one to be revered. She is friendly with her team, but never friends. Emily is sure to draw that bold, definitive line early on and never allows it to blur. She remembers the BAU often. Keeps in frequent contact with those she left behind because she has come to learn some connections are irrevocable, alter the very core of who a person is, and even with an ocean between her and the people she counts as family first and coworkers second, there is nothing she would not do or give for them.
She thinks of them often, with both affection and longing, but she also uses them as a reminder of what not to do, of the necessity of the line drawn between personal and professional.
At Interpol, she is only known as Prentiss. Never Emily.
She likes it better this way. Mostly. It’s easier to lead with clarity and efficiency when personal feelings aren’t muddying her peripheral.
Mark starts early on during this time as a convenience. A one night stand that grows into something familiar, and then eventually into a routine. He is patient with her, far more patient than she deserves. Asks all the easy questions first and waits until she is ready for the more difficult ones, the ones she only ever gives the redacted answers to. Emily discusses her current job with him, the difficulties and triumphs, but never the secrets of her past. Mark is blissfully unaware of the names attached to the scars that are etched into her skin, of the failures that still haunt her. There are times when he asks, when he draws his fingertips over the jagged ridges and faint lines, mouth near her ear as he asks her to tell him the truth behind the reminders she carries with her.
She never does. Chooses instead to deflect with a quirk of her lips as she slants her mouth against his, and is grateful that he is either easily distracted or knows her well enough not to press.
There are small concessions made for him at first: a spot for his toothbrush, his brand of toothpaste next to hers, and later a drawer and a tiny slot of space for him in her closet. These concessions continue to build until enough time has passed and he is occupying a very large part of her life. Moving in together is his idea and seems like the right thing to do at the time. Emily surprises herself by saying yes with only minimal hesitation. Surprises herself even more by appreciating the intimacy sharing your life with someone offers rather than shying away from it completely.
The ring isn’t anticipated, but Emily can pinpoint the clues with hindsight. There is a grand, romantic dinner with candles and champagne and heartfelt declarations. It is beautiful and everything a woman should want, but the sight of the ring causes something alarming to rise and settle in the back of her throat. She thinks okay, even opens her mouth to say the word, but nothing comes out.
She never says no. Not essentially. The Bureau calls her home and she goes all too easily.
It is the most cowardly thing she has ever done.
There is a discussion, after Hotch leaves, for Mark to come meet her. And he does. There is a trial weekend that is sandwiched in-between cases. It is every bit as awkward as it shouldn’t be, trying to fit him into her life in DC, a life that in just a few short weeks felt more like her, more like home than the last four years she spent in London.
At the airport that Monday morning her phone vibrates constantly in her pocket, and she is so rushed to get back to the office that when he kisses her she almost doesn’t read the goodbye in the way he lingers.
She never says no, but she figures he probably knew it all along.
Years later and she still has the same dream:
An empty warehouse in a nameless city. In the dream Emily can hear the distant sounds of the sirens and thinks to herself they’re here, they’re coming, I knew they would, but Ian is standing above her, his eyes glinting as he laughs at her. The steel is cold as he presses the gun to her forehead. The sirens are still looming closer, but still so far, and she knows she is out of time.
“You and me,” she says, her mouth curling in defiance. She tastes copper as she speaks and swallows around it. “This is how it was always going to end, wasn’t it?”
The barrel of the gun presses deeper into the bones of her skull, and it hurts, it hurts like hell, but she bites the inside of her cheek to keep it at bay.
“Beg,” he demands. “I want to hear you beg.”
Emily laughs. Cold and maniacal. Spits blood somewhere near his shoes. “You never knew me at all, did you?” On unsteady feet, she shifts until she is standing, until she is eye level with him and no longer on her knees.
Emily is unafraid and holds his gaze when he pulls the trigger.
In Paris, during those first few weeks when she was still reeling in the aftermath of it all, Emily would wake with a start, sweat pooling at the base of her spine, and feel disconnected, so utterly alone. Her fingers would unconsciously reach to her stomach, tracing the edges of the angry scar where she has been carved out and made hollow, and she would feel broken. Irreparable.
In Paris, in the very beginning, there would be the briefest of moments just after waking where she laid in the dark and wished for the dream to be a reality. When she wished for an end because there was none in sight.
Now, when she wakes after, it is still with a start. Her eyes still blink away sleep as she counts her breaths in an attempt to even them and her fingers still unconsciously reach for that scar. It is less angry, dulled by time. It blends with the countless others that mark her body like a map, and serve as different sort of reminder. Her own twisted keepsake of all that she can and has endured.
She sees John from time to time – dinner or drinks, coffee when time is particularly short. Usually, he calls when he is back in the states, on vacation from whatever career path he is walking at the time. She stops trying to keep up with the ins and outs of what he does to bide his time early on. John never stays in one place very long and the severity of his commitment issues rival hers. They are both alike and vastly different in this area. John doesn’t want to settle down – to a career, to a lifestyle, to a woman. It holds no interest to him and never has. Emily wants to some days, but is afraid of all it entails, of the vulnerabilities it would reveal.
Their meetings became more frequent after Matthew died. Less frequent after John attended her funeral, cried as he placed a pretty rose on her casket and later on her grave, and then didn’t know how to wrap his head around the fact that she wasn’t dead a mere seven months later.
They see each other often her first year in London. He has been in Europe a few years already, knows the ins and outs and teaches her the best take out places, the best bars, the best everything. There is a moment, albeit brief, where they almost rekindle something that was started decades before, but it goes nowhere fast. Emily doesn’t like to make the same mistakes twice.
“Do you ever think about it?” He asks her sometimes, usually when his voice is thick with too much tequila. She remembers it always did make him maudlin.
“No.” Her answer is immediate, her mouth pressed into a thin line. “As a rule.”
It isn’t the truth, but he lost the right of access to certain truths when he crawled between her legs and then disappeared not long after. John had made promises of forever and I love you, and even at fifteen Emily knew not to believe in such fallacies, knew he was saying such things because it felt like the right thing to say to someone who was letting you fuck them for the first time. Emily had wanted to see what all the fuss was about and thought it was better to do it with someone she trusted. So, they drank too much of her mother’s expensive liquor to give them some courage and fumbled around in the dark with no idea what they were doing. It was over too fast, with a grunt from him and the feeling of uncomfortable fullness between her legs. It wasn’t the empty promises he whispered that broke her heart. It was the abandonment that ensued the moment she realized she was pregnant. Emily had known sex would change things between them, but she didn’t expect that.
The truth she doesn’t share with anyone, and he had no right to, is that she does think about it. Not often and not enough to even be considered routine, but enough to be considered somewhat significant.
It isn’t that Emily regrets her decision. She doesn’t. It was hers and hers alone and it had felt right at the time. But after particularly long weeks and cases that wear her down, cases that involve children specifically, she allows herself a moment to wonder what if. Allows herself to lay in her empty bed in her empty house in her nearly empty life and rests her palm flat against her belly. Remember the very brief span of time where she felt joy and wonder at the idea of a child growing inside her.
Then, like clockwork, she also remembers another truth she realized all too quickly, even at fifteen: Emily couldn’t be a mother. She didn’t know how to love another person that wholly, that unconditionally. Not then when she was still so selfish and young. Not now when she is older and wiser, but has chosen a career that carves out a safe place for her away from the rest of the world, shielding her from the vulnerabilities such attachments would bring to the surface.
Which is okay, she thinks most days. Some people just aren’t built to have it all.
OPR censures her every which way they can after, well, everything.
They do it quietly, to save the Bureau public embarrassment, but they do suspend her for a brief period of time and bring her before a hearing, make her listen to hours of endless berating and condescending lectures. They use words like rogue and reckless and irresponsible so often that Emily starts keeping a tally in the back of her head just for her own amusement. They don’t fire her, but they do put her on notice. They let her know this sort of behavior will not and cannot be tolerated, and Emily nods and manages an apologetic tone and regretful expressions even though she isn’t sorry and she doesn’t regret it and she never would.
She’s still suspended until the following Monday after they give her a slap on the wrist in the form of a written warning that would get lost in the pages of her personnel file, so she heads home, and resists the urge to call JJ to check on things. Somebody is gutting school teachers in New Mexico and disposing of them in shallow graves in the desert; it’s all over the news, the media already referring to the unsub as something disgustingly punny. Emily knows the team is there even if she hasn’t officially been told, and she is typing a quick how’s it going? message to JJ even though she technically isn’t supposed to when she looks up and sees Reid sitting on the front stoop of her rental.
It has been two weeks since she has seen him, at least, and his hair is still too long and his face too thin. But his mouth curves into a small, almost shy smile when they make eye contact and the sight of it sets her at ease. He has brought her coffee, and he presses the cup into her hands when she is close enough. Emily notes that it is barely lukewarm; he’s been here for a while. She mumbles thanks as she slides into place next to him where he is perched on the steps.
Emily knows why he is here, can read it in the tight line of his shoulders, the way he palms his coffee back and forth. Reid always takes on too much responsibility, carries the burden of other’s decisions like they were his own. It should irritate her, the way his guilt could be perceived as him questioning her agency, but instead it is one of the many things that endear him to her. Reid, out of all of them, allows himself to feel so much, even if he can’t explain what or why he is feeling a certain way.
“I’m not fired,” she tells him quietly, fingers fumbling with the plastic lid of the cup.
Reid nods once and squints like he is considering something. “You put a lot on the line,” is all he says and he doesn’t look at her, just at his hands.
By now she figures he is aware of all the sordid details of just how far the team went for him. The Amber alert, the favors called in and the bridges burned, the check Emily cut last week to Fiona to pay for her expensive retainer. Garcia’s ultimatum. All of the team sacrificed something – some more than others – and operated in a morally gray area without question. Emily had taken the brunt of it all, though, accepted full responsibility so the brass would have someone to scapegoat if necessary. Just as Hotch would have.
And just like Hotch she didn’t regret it. Even if they had taken her shield, she still would not regret it.
There is a part of her, tiny and relatively insignificant, that wishes for the simple, uncomplicated comfort of London. She ignores it completely. These are the things they do for one another.
“You’re family, Spencer,” she says softly and leans in to bump her shoulder with his. It is meant to lighten the moment, a try at being the people they were before all of this. But Reid doesn’t relax, doesn’t even acknowledge it. She clears her throat awkwardly before continuing. “There is nothing I – we – wouldn’t do for you.”
He has never dealt well with meaningful declarations, and this is no different. His hands continue to palm the coffee cup, and she takes a moment to regard him carefully. Takes in the lines near the corners of his mouth and eyes, the fading scars, the flecks of gray near his temples. He looks battle-worn and tired. The warmth she always used to seek out in him, the innocence she found both beautiful and paradoxical when they first met nearly a decade before is barely noticeable now. It makes something ache deep within her chest.
“I am scared of the person I became in there.” He won’t look at her as he talks, and swallows thickly like he is holding back tears. She can’t tell for certain though. He is hiding his face from her. “I am scared of who that makes me now.”
“Spencer,” she breathes, and reaches for him without thought, fingers gliding along his jaw to make him look at her. He doesn’t resist, and even though she expects him to, he does not shy away from her touch. “Who we are is not dependent on one situation or one choice or one moment in time. It is a relative thing. There is nothing we wouldn’t have done to bring you home and there is nothing you wouldn’t have done to survive, to come home to us.” He starts to look away, but she is insistent and does not allow it. “It doesn’t make you weak and it doesn’t make you a bad person. It makes you human.”
There is a long moment of silence that stretches her nerves thin, and she becomes hyperaware of her hand on his face, the moment he allows himself to lean into her touch, the barely noticeable hitch in her breath when he does, when he closes his eyes and allows himself to just breathe without the heavy burden of everything else. She keeps her hand there for only a second longer before allowing it to drop to her lap. Her gaze follows and Emily watches as her fingers immediately find a loose thread on the hem of her jacket and worries it.
“I don’t know if I want to come back.”
The words are said in a rush, the consonants and vowels just kind of flowing together, almost indecipherable. Emily imagines it is the first time he has allowed himself to say the words aloud. She is caught between feeling privileged he is choosing to share them with her and devastated that her fear of losing him may still be reality.
All she can manage is a nod and continues to stare at her fingers as they pull on the unraveling piece of thread on her jacket.
Eventually, she breathes, “That’s okay,” and is surprised by how much she actually means it.
Reid reaches for her then, his hand resting over hers where it is fidgeting with the loose thread. Waits. When she doesn’t make a move, merely stares at his hand on hers, frozen, he twists his wrist until their palms are flush against one another, his fingers moving until they tangle with hers. He squeezes, just once, his version of thank you, she thinks. For what exactly, she isn’t quite sure. She glances at him then and finds him watching her, carefully, eyes scanning her face for something she isn’t sure she has to give him.
Idly, Emily thinks about kissing him then.
It isn’t the first time.
She is the last one to see Hotch before he goes into the system.
WITSEC is getting impatient, but Hotch had demanded this meeting despite the risks. She went through two states, four different routes, and switched cars three different times to get here. They stand awkwardly in the middle of a near-empty safe-house and all Emily can think about is how he is already less of the man she remembers and more of a stranger. The years have not been kind and he does not wear the reminders well. Briefly, Emily thinks about who he will be after they say goodbye, what name they will give he and Jack, what story he will spin to the strangers who don’t know better than to ask.
“It has to be you,” he tells her quietly and she nods, having already figured it out.
They move around each other in circles. Hotch packs what is left of his things, what remains of his life that he has chosen to take with him into a cardboard box, and Emily moves every few moments to get out of his way. She settles in the doorway, shoulder against the doorjamb.
He continues to put items into a box. “We will get him, Aaron,” she says, and it is enough to give him pause, to look up and towards her.
When he speaks it is as if he has no doubt. There is something in the way he looks at her then, however, that despite the conviction that his team will bring Peter Lewis to justice, this is likely the last time she will see him. He has given enough, she thinks. Emily cannot fault him for the decision even if it unsettles her. She does not tell him that she is worried – not about her ability to lead, but her ability to lead this team, this collection of people who serve as her greatest blindspots – but he must see it because he crosses the distance between them until he is standing before her and lays a hand on her forearm.
“You will be fine. I don’t have any doubts about this, Emily.”
An agent calls out to them signaling that their time is almost up. Hotch's hand drops to his side again and he gathers up his pathetic box, pausing to give the house a onceover. There are a series of emotions that flicker across his features then and it is one of the only times in the years that she has known him that he allows such things to be seen.
When he speaks again his voice is soft but thick with emotion. “The job. This job will take things from you, Emily. Just make sure it is worth it.”
Emily cannot think of anything to say to that so she simply says nothing. Merely nods, mouth pressing into a thin line. There is a brief hug before he is rushed off, and she thinks of all the things she should say, all of the things she wants to say, but they aren’t those people. He knows it all already anyway.
After, she stands on the porch of the now empty house and watches as the taillights of the car disappear into the night. Thinks of him, of Gideon, of Rossi. Their lives tied to the bureau before and after their time served, permanently changed by the things they’ve stood witness to, the blood and gore that seeps into every crevice of their lives despite their best efforts.
Emily has always known the ending of her story would be something similar.