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She goes into the desert mostly whole despite the wear and tear of the years that haven’t always been kind to her. Whatever naiveté she has left, whatever spark of innocence that remains is worn on the sleeve of the suit everyone forgot to tell her not to wear.

“This place changes people,” Hastings makes a point to tell her that very first day. It is more of a taunt than a warning and really, she should have known then.

JJ hates just how right he was.

 

 

 

1

At the hospital, after everything, Emily stays with her while Will signs paperwork. He’s at the nurse’s station, just out of earshot, but JJ’s eyes stay trained on him and his on her. Emily stands on guard near the entryway of the room, still in her vest. Her right-hand remains poised at her hip, just above her holster. Everything about her presence is familiar and it does much to put JJ at ease.

Exhaustion licks at every single of JJ’s never endings and it takes her a moment, maybe two, to process the fact that Emily is talking before she even starts to comprehend the words.

“You’ll be okay,” she says quietly. She holds JJ’s gaze. Presses her mouth into a thin line. She looks far older than JJ remembers - gray at her roots, lines on her forehead. The years, she knows, have not been kind to any of them. “Until you aren’t. You should be prepared for that.”

JJ opens her mouth, but nothing comes out. The stench of her own urine and sweat mixes with the heady scent of antiseptic and the bile rises fast, burning at the back of her throat. It takes everything in JJ not to gag.

 

 

 

2

There are mandatory evaluations and weekly therapy sessions. JJ goes because she is required, but it doesn’t mean anything. There is nothing to say. There is nothing she can do about the past.

What’s done is done.

This is exactly what she tells the woman who sits across from her and does nothing but nod and make noncommittal noises in the back of her throat as she scribbles in a notebook.

JJ has never been the type of person who wastes her energy on things that do not matter, on things that cannot be changed. So instead she simply goes where she is told and meets the requirements for reinstatement. Answers questions in code because everything is still classified. Talks about her dead sister and her dead drunk of a father and her overbearing mother because those are the types of things shrinks like to hear about and they are already in her file.

JJ has always known how to spin the truth to suit her needs.

 

 

 

3

Things she doesn’t talk about: the desert; Nadia; Hastings; Askari; the nightmares; Cruz; the panic attacks; the sleepless nights; how Will touches her now and it sometimes makes her stomach turn; her sudden and strong dislike of baths; the fact that she sometimes spends her nights sleeping on her son’s floor, just to make sure he is breathing, just to make sure he is alive; her dead child; how Will wants to try again but it doesn’t feel right to her anymore; the anger that hums under her skin like a live wire, an undercurrent holding her together, but does nothing to fill the emptiness she feels deep within her.

 

 

 

4

There are days when she loses herself to the routine. Days when she remains mostly untouched by it all.

In the mornings, she gets up and goes for a run. Pushes her legs to run faster, pushes her lungs to breathe harder, pushes her body to the limit and just an inch farther. She comes home. Showers. Helps Henry ready himself for school. Kisses Will goodbye. Goes to work. Hunts serial killers. Goes home. Makes dinner. Goes through Henry’s nighttime routine.

At night, she lays in bed next to Will and tries to focus on the even sound of his breathing. The closeness of him. How safe and familiar he is supposed to make her feel. When sleep fails to claim her, like it so often does, JJ counts the step between her and the gun locked in the safe just inside their closet. Counts how many feet span the distance to Henry’s room. Tries to remember where she left the car keys. Devises the most efficient exit strategy.

When she does sleep, her dreams are of the ocean – vast and endless, threatening to swallow her whole. Even in her dreams she can feel how tired her legs are from treading water, taste the salt on her lips. She wakes, always, just as her head slips underneath the water and when she does she is gasping, her lungs seizing as if they are starving for air. She lays there for seconds, minutes, hours afterward and does nothing but remain absolutely still, focusing on evening her breathing into something resembling calm.

Always, she reminds herself that she almost died, but she didn’t, and nothing else matters.

Some days it is easier for her to believe.

 

 

 

5

In Miami, somebody is gutting prostitutes and leaving them on the beach.

There are three bodies in shallow graves, an escalation of epic proportions exemplified, and JJ stands in front of the neat row, the heels of her shoes sinking into the wet sand beneath her. Reid is listing off statistics about erosion and climate change, but the sound of the waves crashing against the shore behind them make it hard to hear what he’s saying.

Somewhere east, in the middle of the Atlantic, a storm is brewing.

The forecasters predict a weekend of heavy rain and high wind but now, with three bodies covered in bloody white sheets before her, all JJ can see is sand and bright blue, cloudless skies.

Something about it makes her throat go dry.

Beside her, Reid stands shoulder to shoulder with her. “You okay?” he asks quietly.

The smile that stretches across her mouth as she murmurs of course, is too wide to be genuine.

He notices but says nothing.

 

 

(This case turns into a mess.

JJ miscalculates, thinks she can talk the UnSub out of the inevitable and puts down her gun in a show of good faith. He ends up with an arm around her throat and a gun pressing into her temple. Morgan doesn’t have a clean shot, but JJ begs, demands he take it regardless. In the end, it doesn’t matter. The UnSub puts a bullet through his own chin and the blood is warm and sticky as it sprays across JJ’s face.

On the plane, after, Morgan sits across from her and says nothing until everyone around them has settled into their corners.

He slides a card across the table to her. “For when you’re ready,” he says. Then, almost like an afterthought: “Take it from somebody who knows: don’t wait until it is too late.”

She fingers the card for a moment. Avoids looking him in the eye. “I appreciate it, Morgan, but I’m okay.” At his look of disbelief, she adds, “Really.”

The smile she offers hurts her cheeks.

“Maybe. Maybe not.” He pauses to regard her for a moment and she is careful to remain still under his gaze. They don’t profile each other – except they do, they just don’t talk about it. It’s a wasted effort to try and hide things from her team, from her family, but it’s become something akin to a habit. “Consider it a contingency plan then.”

Her okay is soft and accompanied by a small, honest smile. He goes back to his music and she turns her gaze out the window. Releases the breath she was holding in. The card is still between her fingers, her thumb running back and forth along the edge. She glances at it and then at the watch on her wrist. The minute hand ticks past midnight and signals an entry into another day, another month.

Involuntarily, her thoughts wander to the child she lost to a war she didn’t realize she was fighting. It is an awful trick her mind plays on her, the way it allows her to paint a bright and colorful vision of a future she may never know. It is so clear, the vision of a child with all the best parts of she and Will running careless and free. She closes her eyes, imagines the sound of their laughter, the depth of their smile.

It is three years this month.

JJ shoves the card between her fingers deep into her jacket pocket to cover the way her hands start to shake.)

 

 

 

6

She is no stranger to anniversaries.

The day her sister slit her wrists and bled all over the pristine white tile of the bathroom floor.

The day her father finally lost his battle with the bottle.

The day she became an agent, a mother, a wife.

JJ keeps all of these dates organized in a neat little calendar that rolls around in the back of her mind. Each date is circled in bright red ink, some more boldly than the rest. They are always kept in her peripheral, never forgotten but sometimes just out of reach. She prepares for them accordingly every year – calls her mother, orders flowers to be placed on a grave, buys a gift for Will, plans a party for Henry.

But this new one, this anniversary that cannot occupy a single date but rather an entire expansive period of her life, cannot be planned for.

Still, she tries.

JJ labels it Askari and Hastings and after the baby she barely had the chance to feel grow inside her. She attempts to file it away. To forget. But it is there in the morning when she is slow to wake and her palm unconsciously flattens against her stomach. It is there every time she watches Henry and breathes in his innocence, tries to make it her own, and longs to be made a mother again. It is present every time Will looks at her for a beat too long, the worry present in the downward turn of his mouth. She is painfully aware of it every single time the team holds her at a distance, careful with her out of some perceived notion of fragility.

Some nights, when Henry wakes crying, it reminds her of the heat of the desert, Nadia’s cries for her daughter.

She flinches almost every time.

 

 

 

7

“It does get better,” she remembers telling Hotch once.

It was years before. A lifetime ago, almost.

JJ remembers standing next to her friend, a man who had just buried his wife and was still struggling just to exist in the aftermath, and telling him things would get better. Telling him that losing someone is never easy, but one day he would remember Haley and it would no longer hurt.

Sometimes she thinks it is the kindest lie she has ever told.

 

 

 

8

Her father had always been a drunk but became a mean one after Rosaline died. He picked fights and pushed limits. He was never violent, never raised a hand to her or her mother, but JJ has always known that words can cut just as deep, cause scars that are just as long-lasting. His perceived failures as a father and later as a husband were drowned with a bottle until the anger in his heart and the alcohol in his veins ruined his liver and eventually his mind. In the beginning, before the drinking took everything, he chose whiskey because it was what his father before him used to teach him how to drink like a man: Two fingers, neat, and a pause as the liquid hits the back of the throat to appreciate the full body and flavor, to savor the way it warms everything on the way down.

He did the same with JJ when she was probably too young to know better, and despite the fact that she ended up retching it all back up for most of the night afterward, the routine stuck. Her father always served as a cautionary tale, a reminder to set limits and respect them thereafter. But as she grew older, as her edges hardened and whatever blind idealism she managed to hold onto disappeared altogether, she obtained an acute understanding of one of the many reasons drunks become drunks: they are constantly chasing oblivion, that state where nothing matters and everything is weightless because after it’s gone, after the edges go from blurry to stark and rigid, the sobriety, the clarity accompanying sobriety, is blinding.

Once upon a time, JJ considered herself a daddy’s girl despite everything, and she follows his lead now.

The glass tumbler feels solid in her hand, providing an anchor or sorts.

She takes a single, slow sip.

Pauses.

Closes her eyes.

The alcohol coils in her mouth and the warmth that spreads throughout her insides is glorious. She likes the way it fills up some of the emptiness inside her. Revels in the feeling of being made whole before it fades all too soon. She reaches for her glass again, finishing its contents in a solid swig. Reaches for the bottle once more.

Will had liked this about her in the beginning – that she could drink him under the table. That she could list off the differences between bourbon, whiskey, and scotch. That she didn’t order those frilly little girly drinks in the bars where everyone knew his name. It made him proud, once. Now it just makes him worried. JJ doesn’t do this often enough to be considered a habit, but it is always after difficult cases and long weeks, weeks when she’s being held together by a threadbare string because of too many nights spent restless, waking in a cold sweat or with a loud scream.

They both know the warning signs, the risk factors. He never tells her stop or gives her an ultimatum. That isn’t how they operate. But he does warn her about the dangerous line she’s walking.

Sometimes JJ listens, sometimes she doesn’t.

Tonight, she had laid in bed for hours after he had fallen asleep. Waited for sleep to claim her. It never did. Every time she closed her eyes she saw Askari, heard Cruz’s screams, felt Hastings hands all over her. She felt the bile rise in the back of her throat and swallowed it down until she simply couldn’t anymore, until she slipped out of bed and towards the stairs, lingering at Henry’s door just to count his breaths.

The bottle of whiskey was half-empty when she grabbed it out of the cabinet and it is completely gone now. She contemplates grabbing something else. Moves to stand. Stumbles a little. Ultimately decides not to. She feels warm and flushed all over, sweat pooling in the base of her spine. She grabs a glass of water and seeks out the cool air of night, falling into a seat on the porch just off the kitchen.

The fresh air feels good against her skin, the white noise of night helping to drown out the mess inside her head for a few minutes. When it fades, she reaches for her phone. Dials a number from memory. Settles back into the chair and draws her knees to her chest, rests her cheek atop them.

Emily picks up on the first ring, her Jen? both worried and surprised, her voice thick with sleep.

It’s inexplicable, but the sound of her friend’s voice makes JJ’s resolve crumble, and the tears pool and burn at the corner of her eyes. She rubs at them angrily, her fuck shaky at best as it falls out of her mouth.

“What can I do?” Emily asks quietly after a beat of silence and a deep exhale.

JJ lets out a breath she didn’t realize she was holding in, thankful that her first words weren’t are you okay? Because she’s not. She hasn’t been in a long time. But Emily knows that. Even with an ocean and so much distance between them, Emily always just knows.

“I don’t know how to do this, Em,” JJ says. “I am so fucked up over this.” She reaches out for the glass on the table next to her. Runs her fingers over the edge just to have something to do with her hands. It sweats all over her fingers. “How do you do it? How do you forget? How do you move on without having so much anger inside you that you feel sick with it?”

Emily draws in a breath, and there is a faint sound of rustling, a light being clicked on. JJ didn’t bother to calculate the time difference, and she should feel guilty, but there isn’t enough energy for it. Upstairs her faithful, good husband and her beautiful, innocent son sleep and that should make her happy, should make her thankful. But all she can feel is a mixture of anger and this visceral sort of emptiness that leaves her breathless.

“Fuck, Jen. I don’t know. I just…” Emily stops. Pauses. There is a history there, JJ knows. A file three inches thick filled with nothing but redactions. JJ hates that they have this thing in common now, these scars that have been carved into them in the name of the job. “You just keep moving. You just keep waking up in the morning. That’s all I’ve ever known how to do.”

There is nothing else, really. No words Emily could find to make her feel better and nothing JJ could say that Emily doesn’t already know.

Emily stays on the line until JJ is ready to say goodbye.

They are both quiet for a long time.

 

 

 

8

Will finds her later, curled around herself on the guest bathroom floor.

The cool tile provides relief for her too-warm skin. He lingers in the doorway, shoulder against the doorjamb. He sighs and it ripples through her, the weight of it pressing into her skin. She feels sick, on the verge of throwing up, and the room tilts as she tries to focus on him.

JJ presses her eyes closed. Evens her breathing to keep the queasiness at bay.

When she opens them again he is still there, looking at her with such profound affection and worry and patience. He says her name softly and suddenly she feels as though her lungs have been sucked dry, empty like the rest of her, and the tears start falling from her eyes silently and without remorse. She doesn’t bother with the effort of brushing them away.

“I’m struggling,” she tells him, finally, her voice cracking along the edge of the sob she's barely holding in.

Will says nothing, only makes a soft, strangled noise in the back of his throat.

He moves past the threshold and further into the tiny bathroom. Kneels somewhere near her feet. Moves some things out of the way until there is space for both of them, until he can slide in-between her and the bathtub on his side. He reaches for her, his touch light near the bend in her elbow. It breaks her that much further – the way her body instinctively recoils at his touch before giving into it, before remembering it as familiar and safe.

The anger burns deep inside her and mingles with the sob that tears out of her throat. Still, Will says nothing. He waits until her body relaxes to the feel of his touch before he wraps himself around her fully, pulling her as close as possible.

There are no empty promises that everything will be okay. There are no words spoken at all. JJ cries, and he does a little too.

It fixes nothing. She knows that. But there is some tiny, almost minuscule relief of the burden she carries as she pretends she is okay when she is anything but.

 

 

 

9

In the morning, she wakes with a headache and to Will sitting on the edge of the bed. He has a glass of water in one hand and aspirin in the other. She takes them both greedily and there is a moment, after, where they just sort of breathe and exist in the same space as one another. JJ doesn’t know what to say, and Will doesn’t need to say anything, but she grabs his hand. Tangles her fingers with his. Squeezes and holds on.

Leaning forward, Will brushes a kiss to her forehead, his I love you silently whispered into the skin there. He readies Henry for school. Makes breakfast. Allows her the extra time she needs to compensate for the ache in her muscles and the pounding in her head.

She’s slow to start and causes them all to run behind schedule, but her boys wait patiently for her.

Once she is downstairs, Will places a slice of toast and coffee into her hands as they make their way towards the door. When she slides on her coat and digs around for her keys, JJ’s fingers fumble against the half-crumbled card she has placed there a few days before. She digs it out, rubs her thumb along the edge, and pauses. Contemplates.

Will is already out the door and Henry is tugging on her free hand, trying to hurry her along. He hates to be late.

With a hand to his hair, ruffling it in a way he only allows her to do, JJ calms him and simultaneously places the card carefully in the bowl that usually holds their keys.

She thinks, just once, maybe, as she heads out the door.

 

 

 

10

She keeps moving.