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Chasing Derecho

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The day I turned nine years old was important for a whole lot of reasons, not the least of which is that three Very Great Things were scheduled to happen:

One: Today, Dad has promised me a gift. That’s not unusual for a birthday, but Dad’s gifts are never usual and they’re also never fleeting. Fleeting is a word that Dad uses to describe things that you don’t get to keep, like milk, or a cut rose, or the feeling you get the first time you hear a song. “Life is fleeting, knowledge remains,” he used to tell me before I learned that there was more to life than books and that I didn’t always have to listen to him. But that’s an important thing to mention because all of Dad’s gifts are knowledge and he gives them out kindly. When I turned six, he taught me how to knit. When I turned seven, his gift was a clock of flowers we planted together that bloom every hour, in theory. Eight was lessons on French, but I got bored with that. I’m very good at knitting now though. Everyone says so and everyone must be right because that’s a whole lot of voices being wrong otherwise. Today, being nine and much more grown up, I think I’ll probably get something decidedly more adult. But that’s for later.

Two: Tonight, we’ll set the table for three. This is exciting because ours is a home set for two. If you took all the keys to our front door that exist and line them up in a row, you’d get one—that’s Dad’s, and it’s buffed clean from being carried around in his trouser pocket—and two, which is mine, and kind of filthy from rattling about in the bag I carry everywhere, along with my lunch and knitting and the things I find that I bring home to keep. That’s it. Only two people need to come here, which is nice, but not as nice as very sometimes having three. That’s not to say only two live here—there’s Listen, of course, who is whining right now because he wants to go outside and pee, and the goats, who count because they’re the best, and the geese, who count because they’re terrifying but in a fantastic way. There used to be walking stick bugs as well, in a neon-green terrarium on Dad’s desk in his office, but the less said about them, the better.

Three: I don’t know this third thing yet, but I will in a moment. Right now, I’m lying in bed watching the dawn peeking outside my window, and I’m warm and cozy and enjoying my last few minutes of being eight. In four minutes, Dad is going to knock on my door and walk into my room and say, “I’ve decided to let you go to school.”

This is tremendously exciting to me, more so than gifts or a table set for three. After all, life is fleeting and so is school, and I think I want to enjoy it before I turn ten. Eight, after all, is far too young for school, or so Dad told me at the time. Nine is just right.

And so, Listen and I, on the day I turn nine, are going to school.

 


 

There’s a backpack on the couch with ‘Derecho Campbell’ across it in Dad’s lovely handwriting, cramped without being scrunchy and with such carefulness that I can just see how he would have looked all hunched over and writing. It’s impossible to describe how I feel about seeing that backpack. Oh, I’ve owned backpacks before, lots of them. So many, in fact, because I’m a bit of what Dad calls a ‘hard nut’, which means that I get dirty a lot and break my things if they’re not as hard as I am. It’s not my fault. Backpacks should come with ratings on what they can hold so I know whether this is just a knitting-backpack, or a holding-animals-backpack, or a backpack that I can put all the very best kinds of rocks in without worrying about the bottom busting open. But this is a new kind of backpack and, when I open it, he’s filled it with new kinds of things. A pencil case with my name cut out in cardboard and slid into plastic tabs; a bright royal purple binder filled with notepads with nothing in them; and even a lunchbox, a real lunchbox, like what everyone else has got and I’ve never had before now, because you don’t need a lunchbox when your school is your house.

“Oh,” I say because I can’t really breathe around how excited I am. “Dad, oh!”

He’s hovering behind me, smiling and happy and dressed nicely like he’s going to work today and with his hands tucked into his pockets. Despite him not really being a hug-person, I throw myself at him anyway. Maybe a little too hard. Against my weight, he steps back a bit, wheezes, and folds himself around me with his big hands warm on my back. He’s so tall that I feel impossibly little in his arms, as though he could still probably bounce me on his knee the way he used to not that long ago, even as he sighs against my hair and murmurs, “Why’d you go and get so grown up?”

This is a curious thing for him to say because I don’t really ever feel ‘grown up’. Maybe a bit older than I was, definitely, but not grown up like him. After my baths, sometimes I stand in front of the mirror and wonder what I’ll look like grown up. Like him, I assume, except a girl, but it hasn’t happened yet. He’s lanky and narrow with wild brown hair that curls and tumbles around a narrow face, but I’m short and skinny, which isn’t like being narrow—it’s pokier and with more bones to bump—with long, dark hair that just hangs, always full of knots. And he’s got cheekbones. I guess when you’re an adult you get nice cheekbones, but I haven’t yet. They’re still hiding under my puppy fat. Even now that I’m nine, they’re still hiding.

I guess it’s not so strange that I don’t look like him though since he’s not the man who made me a person, just the one who raised me to be one. That’s not how he says it. He says ‘biological father’ versus ‘adoptive father’ but that’s so cold. He can be like sometimes, cold instead of human, and I think that’s because he’s not very good when he gets sad or worried or mad. Talking about the man who made me makes him angry, probably because that man didn’t want me and Dad really, really does and that’s why he adopted me. Dad also says I need to be ‘socialized’ like we used to do with Listen when he was more of a puppy than he is now, so he takes me to a book club and a knitting club and a youth group. It was at youth group that I met my friend Nate and his mom, and his mom was the lady who told me that Dad raised me instead of made me. I liked how that sounded, so now I say that instead. It’s got feeling behind it.

But instead of saying any of this, I say, “It’s not my fault. I’m like a plant. If you keep watering me, I’m gonna keep growing.”

He lets me go and sits back on his heels, looking serious. “Ah,” he says, eyebrows up and nodding wisely. “I see. Well, we’d better put an embargo on baths then, yes? A ‘bathbargo’ of sorts.”

“We’d better,” I agree, quickly kissing his cheek while he’s down at my level. “Or else I’ll be able to do that, all the time.”

“The horror,” he says, his voice painfully dry, standing and looking to the kitchen. I look too. There’s a neat line down our living room carpet where other houses would have a wall, showing where it becomes kitchen instead of den. Dad put it there after I complained once, a long time ago, that most people didn’t live in houses with so few rooms. Now, we pretend the room is two instead of one, and that I can’t reach out and smack Dad with a magazine from the couch as he passes to get to the fridge. On the other side of that line, Listen is sitting by his bowl looking very morose. Morose is a word meaning ‘painfully sad’ but Dad usually uses it to mean ‘feed the dog’. And, right on cue, Dad says, “Listen is looking very morose, Derry.”

See?

“I’ll feed him if you feed the goats,” I try, but he’s not as easily talked into things anymore, no matter how sweet I am about it. One eyebrow pops up like it’s going on an adventure up to his hairline, and I quickly add, “That’s what I’d say if I wasn’t a good pet owner, which I am, and so I’m gonna feed them all now.”

“And the geese,” he says, walking the five steps across the masking tape line and into the kitchen, grabbing a frying pan from the hook.

“And the geese,” I say, vanishing to do just that. Listen follows, grumbly because he wants his food, but I know there’s no point giving him breakfast until I’m sat down eating mine—the big lug will just follow me anyway, like a tan and black shadow.

I almost named him Shadow, back when I got him. I was only six then so, understandably, I wasn’t so great at naming things and he had black on him, like a Shadow. It could be worse. I named one of the goats Goat, which is arguably the correct name, and the other one Donkey, which is really not. I was six then too, honest. When I was almost eight, I got the geese and named them Bread, Butter, Custard, and Pickles, and those are objectively better names because I’d clearly matured. The geese cackle when they see me and flap around, greedily grabbing at their feed as I pour it into their pen. I watch them for only a second, because I always love watching them chatter busily to each other with their goosy tails wagging, but the goats are clamouring for attention and I still have to get ready for school.

“Alright, alright, hold your horns,” I tell them sternly as Goat tries to head-butt me through the fence. Their pen is a bit more together than the geese’s, but only because they keep breaking out. The geese are smarter. They know to stay where the food is at and, besides, they get let out a ton. Dad lets them out at night when we’re asleep, which is fine unless I forget about them and get startled when one honks at me through the bathroom window while I’m peeing. The goats are polite. Donkey just wants a scratch behind her ears, bleating happily when I give it to her.

I don’t really know why Dad decided on getting goats and geese in our tiny little house with its squashy little garden all crushed in together behind high, wobbly fencing, but I think I’m glad he did. And I guess he had a reason, even if he never tells me. He always has reasons for things, and Nate’s mom says that’s because he’s an overthinker and a worrier and spends too much time in his head or in a book. And, proving my point, when I get back inside he has his smartphone propped up against the maple syrup and there’s a news video very sternly telling everyone that a little girl has gone missing in Connecticut. There’s a picture of the girl too, in her bright yellow school uniform with her dark hair pulled back and smiling. Dad’s face is very, very pale. I don’t ask him about it. If I ask, he’ll tell me, but he doesn’t like talking about things like that.

He worries over breakfast. “I’m walking you to school,” he says, which I’d expected and I’m okay with. “Did you pack Listen’s vest?”

“Yes, Dad,” I say patiently, leaning down to double-check because he won’t be happy unless I do. Listen is sitting proper and important by my side. His vest is black and yellow like a bumblebee with big white lettering spelling out ‘service dog’ over the bags on the side. I stuck a sticker over the tab that says ‘Working Animal: Do Not Pet’ so now it says ‘Do Pet’, because Listen loves pets and he’s not that much of a hard worker, really. “There’s juice and the emergency phone and my ID is in there. Look, see.”

He looks, nodding. He takes things a lot more seriously than I do. It’s probably gonna be hard for him, me going to school, but it had to happen one day.

“Are you wearing your gloves?” he asks, walking past the bathroom as I’m rubbing the cream on my palm to stop it stiffening and making it hard to hold a pen. I hide it from him. I know it’s one of those things that makes him sad to see. “It’s cold outside and the wind will irritate the scarring.”

“Yeah, I got it,” I say, finding the gloves I wear, slipping one on over my hand before turning to him. I shove the other in my pocket. I don’t like wearing them, I just do because I have to. The burn is ugly, and I hate people looking at it.

“Come straight to the library after school,” he says as we walk out the front door and he sets the alarm and double checks the lock. “I’m working, so I can’t come get you.”

“With Nate,” I remind him, running with my backpack going bump bump bump on my butt to check that all the windows are shut, that the backdoor is locked, and the back gate leading to the river is as well, just like Dad taught me.

“With Nate, yes. And text me on your breaks—your teachers know you have your cell and permission to use it, but do not abuse that. You only have it out to contact me, understand?”

I nod and say, “Yes, Dad,” patiently. There’s nothing else to do when he’s on a worry-mission.

Normally it ends about here, but today Dad stops me by the gate and tugs me back in, under the shade of the big ol’ tree that takes up such a chunk of our wild garden, and he’s looking more serious than ever. “And what do you do if Listen alerts?” he asks, his fingers tight on the strap of my backpack and his face strained. I look at Listen, who wags his tail a little.

“Tell my teacher, stay near people, and contact you,” I recite. “And drink the juice?” I say this last bit a little uncertainly because I think that’s what I’m supposed to do, but Dad always seems to forget that bit.

“Once you’re inside,” he says, letting go. “Okay. Let’s go. You’re going to school!”

It’s just so exciting I can’t help but bounce a little, running ahead as Listen barks and Dad yells. But I don’t care—I’m going to school!

 


 

Cornish is such a little town that the school’s got only one hundred and one students, including me and Nate, and one hundred and two if you count Listen, which you should because he’s got his own cubby for his books and everything. Not that he’s got books, but I put a bag of dog treats and his leash in there and everyone thinks it’s really cool. There’s ten teachers and mine, Mrs Lloyd, is the best because she even put a sign up saying ‘Welcome Derecho & Listen!!!’ and changed it to Derry when Nate told her that’s what I get called. But I think Dad would make a funny face at Mrs Lloyd because she uses a lot of exclamation marks when she gets excited, and he says that’s a sign of an unbalanced mind, which I think is a quote but I haven’t found from where yet. I’ll get a surprise if I find it without googling, so I’m doing my best to keep my eye out. I ask Mrs Lloyd, but she doesn’t know, so today isn’t the day I solve that puzzle.

Everyone knows me already, from clubs and around town even though Dad is what people call a ‘recluse’, so the day isn’t super exciting, especially because my school is too little to have a proper library and instead we get our books from the public one that Dad works at. That’s a little disappointing, but not a deal-breaker. I think I’ll put it on my list for things I want at my high school when I’m grown up, because by then I’ll be old and boring and ready to ‘broaden my mind’, as Dad puts it, so I’ll need them. I sit next to Nate in class and at lunch, because he’s my best friend always, and show him the pattern I’m making. It’s a hat with a bear on it—well, it will hopefully one day be a hat with a bear on it—that I’m knitting for him because he loves bears and he’s got sticky out ears he doesn’t like people looking at, just like me with my hand. In math, I help him out because I’m better at it than he is, despite this being my first day of school ever, and when school is over, we leave together. I’m manic with excitement.

“I can show you my room!” I tell him excitedly. Nate’s quiet, like a mouse who got born as a boy accidentally, and he just nods and puts his hand on Listen. I hand him Listen’s leash—he loves walking him, and Listen’s easy to walk, even though he’s a German Shepherd and a total lump—and keep babbling. “And you can see the goats and the geese and our flower clock—”

“Flower clock?”

I’m impatient. “It’s a clock made of flowers, don’t interrupt. And Dad’s gonna give me my present tonight as well, but it might not be a present like what you’re used to, and my room is up some stairs that are narrow so it’s spooky, you’ll love it, and Dad might let us watch a movie after dinner—”

By the time we reach the library, I’m buzzing. Listen is buzzing too, as excited as I am even though he’s better at hiding it, his whole back end waggling along with his tail. “He’s got the wiggles,” Nate points out, laughing shyly with his hair all in his face, and I take the leash back so Dad doesn’t scold me for letting someone else walk him. “Do you think your Dad will let us go out on the river?”

I pause. “Maybe,” I say carefully. “But don’t mention it, just in case, okay? You know that’s a secret.”

Nate nods, eyes wide. We’ve got secrets, me and Nate. Me more than him.

I’ve got a lot of secrets that I can’t tell anyone but Listen, but Nate’s canoe isn’t one of them. Listen knows about that, but so does Nate. Dad doesn’t. Sort of. He knows Nate has a canoe that’s red and sleek and shiny, and he knows I’ve been out in it because he sits with Listen on the bank and watches us to make sure we’re safe. But he doesn’t know that sometimes when he’s working late and I’m supposed to be home with all the doors and windows locked and the alarm on, I sneak out and go out on the river. Dad can’t ever know. It’s perfectly safe, he just worries.

Promise.

“Happy Birthday, Derry,” Isabelle says when we walk in the library. She’s sitting behind the front desk, very straight and neat, dressed prettily in a sweater with rabbits on it—proper rabbits, not cutesy ones—and her hair in a nice ponytail. I touch my hair self-consciously; it’s a mess. Maybe I should start wearing it in a ponytail. “How old are you now?”

“Nine, you know that,” I tell her, slipping behind the counter and putting my bag in the nook they keep for me. “I was eight yesterday, so I have to be nine now. That’s how numbers work.”

“Not always,” Nate pipes up. “Numbers can go backwards.”

“Not age-numbers,” I counter.

“Either way, your daddy told me it was your birthday today, so I found you this.” Isabelle reaches under the counter and ‘this’ is a rectangular-wrapped present with a lovely, perfect bow. I’m envious. Dad taught me knots, but not anything as nice as this, and I’d hate to undo it. But she says, “Quickly, open it! I didn’t add air holes.”

Nate gasps but I say, “It’s a book—you always give me books.” But I add quickly, “I love books,” because I do, and I don’t want her to think I’m ungrateful. I like Isabelle. She’s pretty and always dressed nicely with a really nice nose that’s not at all like my massive one. Sometimes, when I was little, I used to wish Dad would marry her. I don’t wish that anymore, but I don’t really know why he doesn’t at least kiss her. She’s always sighing after him and going all moon-eyed and I know he sometimes stays late when the library is shut to eat dinner with her and talk about books. He says they’re work meetings, but he always takes wine and dresses nice with cologne, so I really doubt that.

It is a book. Silverhorse by a name I can’t read properly because it’s different than what I’m used to, and I’m gonna have to ask Dad for help. But I love it, and I kiss her cheek too and thank her and wish, just for a second, that she and Dad weren’t so shy. Mostly because her nails are a really nice coral pink and the last time I tried to paint my nails, I spilt it on Listen and then touched my face and made everything sunset orange. If they were kissing or married, she could teach me to do things Dad and Nate don’t know about, like ponytails and nice sweaters and nail polish.

And then, finally, it’s time for Dad’s present. We find his office, cramped and bulging with stacks and stacks of papers and books—Dad does a lot of research as well as working as a librarian, so he gets rare books and things shipped to him from all over and does video-conferencing with people from around the world—and he’s sitting in there watching his smartphone again instead of working. He turns the video off when we walk in, but I see the little missing girl’s face again on the screen before he does. I guess they haven’t found her yet.

“I suppose you’ll be expecting a gift of some kind,” Dad says, smiling and bringing one knee up to his chest so he can rest his chin on it. “Well, then. Here it is. The knowledge of the year.”

I lunge for the box he points to. It’s full of a jumble of things, all of them old and torn at the edges—but I expect that because we don’t have much money and, besides, they’re cooler because someone other than me has touched them. And there’s a box on top—Mastermind, a board game—and under that a ton of books and strange looking notepads filled with Dad’s strange handwriting. The notepads look impossible to work out right now, so I go for the books, and the top one is Learn Binary for Beginners. The one under that: Codes and Ciphers: A History of Cryptography. I work it out fast: he’s filled the notebooks with codes for me to break, written by him just for me!

“Codes!” I yell because this is way more exciting than French.

“Happy birthday, honey,” he says, but his voice is muffled because I’m hugging him as hard as I can and my hair is in his face. He’s probably going to get me back for this; he hates being hugged and now I’ve gotten him twice in one day. And, indeed, when I let go he has a wicked look on his face and says, “Hey, Nate, did we ever tell you about the phasmids I bought Derry when she was little?”

“Oh, no,” I breathe, because, Dad, no. “Not the walking sticks, Dad—”

“Well, as it turns out, Derry is utterly, absolutely, unforgivably petrified of them.”

My dad is the worst.

 


 

There’s one last thing that happened today.

It’s been kind of bothering me, that news report. How can a little girl just go missing? I guess it bothers me most because it doesn’t seem to bother anyone else. Nate didn’t care and no one at school even knew to talk about it. I know Dad doesn’t like it but, that night as he puts me to bed, I ask him anyway. “They’ll find her, won’t they?” He’s sitting on the side of my bed. Listen is laying against my back, his ears perked. Above us, the window in the slopey bit of my ceiling is shut tight and bolted, but not covered, just how I like it. I don’t like being closed in, not at all. It scares me more than walking sticks. I hope the little girl isn’t closed in, wherever she is.

He reaches his hand out and brushes his finger against the covers of my new books, stacked neatly on my bedside cupboard with my knitting needles and the notebook I write patterns in on top. Behind that stack is a framed picture of my mom, a little ragged down the middle. It’s the only one I have, and Dad looks at it sometimes like he’s thoughtful, despite him not knowing her. I poke his hand, to get his attention, and he catches mine and turns it over, looking down at the scar with his face so deadly serious that my stomach hurts and I want to pull away. Dad never lies. I wish he would, sometimes. I’m careful about what I ask him because I know every so often he answers me even though he wishes he didn’t have to.

His fingers are tracing the scar burned deep into my palm before he was my dad and back when he couldn’t keep me safe, and he says, “It’s unlikely. After twenty-four hours, the chances of an abducted child being recovered are slim. She’s been gone for days.”

“Oh,” I say.

I dream of her that night. She’s in a room, closed in tight. There’s a man with a hand made of fire. He hurts her, and I wake up crying.

Chapter Text

I’m not one of the six carrying Emily’s coffin which is nauseatingly apt, seeing as I’m the one who helped put her there in the first place. It would be cruel of me to force myself upon that role. Besides, this is more important. Far more important.

I’m not there carrying her coffin, because she never agreed with taking children to funerals.

“Storm, honey, shh,” I try, but Storm’s livid with me today and refuses to be consoled. Emily’s daughter all over, from her pinched-up face to her one clenched hand waving a furious fist in my direction; if it wasn’t for how small the face is underneath the mop of knotty hair, I could almost pretend that Emily is here and scolding me.

But she’s not.

“Ow, ow, ow,” Storm is sobbing, trying to throw herself down onto the bed and thrash about with all the pent-up rage of a three-year-old child, their minds beginning to open to the cognitive possibilities of the world but their bodies too immature to keep up. She can’t vocalize the tumult of emotions she’s experiencing right now, despite desperately wanting to. I’m almost glad. I couldn’t bear to have her asking me ‘why’, not when I barely know myself. “No. No. Stop, Spanner, ow.”

“Spencer, not Spanner,” I correct, trying to smile at her, but she just shakes her head slowly and tries to throw herself again. I’m forced to catch her, to ease her down, before she can smack the hand that’s splinted tightly against her bed-stand and really hurt herself.

She doesn’t like this.

“Leggo, leggo,” she whines, fighting my grip. The room smells. Whatever progress they’d been making with toilet training, it’s been lost in the chaos of the last week. She’s hot and clammy under my hands, even as I try to ease her into lying down. I let her fight and whine and hiss, looking around at the barebones room of the makeshift nursery Elizabeth has put together for her suddenly essentially-orphaned granddaughter. There’s nothing on the walls, no books in the empty shelves; nothing but a stuffed rabbit thrown against the wall and two people drowning in grief. I hate Emily for doing this.

It hits me again that she’s gone.

“We need to change your dressing,” I tell Storm blankly. I think I’m crying. Am I crying?

How can Emily be dead?

“We need to change you,” I note out loud. Storm’s fallen quiet. She’s watching me with swollen, reddened eyes, her unharmed hand no longer slapping against my thigh but instead wrapped around my fingers in a grip so tiny that she can only hold two in her entire fist. “And then you need to go to sleep.”

“But Mommy,” is all she says, and then I’m truly, truly crying. It’s my fault.

It’s absolutely all my fault.

But I can’t stop to grieve. There’s a list of things to do. I’m on leave. Hotch is calling it a break but I know what it truly is: bereavement leave. For the bereaved. Am I bereaved? I don’t feel like I should be. We were never what we could have been, never as truly as I’d have wished. There was a brief time, such a brief time when I was trapped between Hankel and some uncertain relief. But I never found that relief, because Emily was there. She saved me then and, in return, I let her die.

We can’t stay here.

I have a key still, a remnant of those days. Before Storm and Emily realising that I would be a terrible, terrible father and relieving me of the obligation. This child under my palm, I don’t know her or what will make her stop crying or make this terrible day easier for her. I don’t even know how to make it easier for me.

I wonder, is she underground yet? Who is crying? Are the flowers beautiful? Could they be beautiful, considering what lies underneath? What does the cemetery smell like? I dearly wish to know. I wonder keenly about the words people spoke to say goodbye. I don’t regret not going.

There’s a low hiccup and Storm begins to whine again, her little chest heaving and her grip on mine turning loose. There’s nothing here to console her. There’s nothing here, not at Elizabeth’s ostentatious townhouse where Storm has been since her mother died, and for the brief period before that when we didn’t know where Emily was or just how bad it was going to get.

I have a key still.

“Do you want to go home?” I ask her. She stares blankly at me. I take that as a yes.

I’m unpractised at strapping her car seat into place. For some reason, midway, there’s a rush of fury that speeds through me about this—because I should be practised at this! I had a damn right to be! Storm watches me warily from her seat, her eyes dull. The pain medications she’s on make her listless, but she’s too stubborn to sleep. Maybe the drive will help. When I brush a knuckle against her cheek, it’s dry and warm. In protest at the touch, she shakes her head, huddling down into the nest of blankets I tuck around her and tugs her stuffed rabbit close. It’s summer, but unseasonably cold today, and I guess this is how I’m always going to remember summer now, with burying Emily Prentiss. I shudder at the sight of that rabbit and sag, spent, against the car, almost turning and walking her right back inside the empty townhouse. She was only hours old when I saw her first, and I truly believed at the time that she was mine. I held her first, besides Emily, besides the doctors. Now, I doubt I’ll ever see her again, after today. With Emily’s death went my place in her daughter’s life.

But I can make it a better day than it could be.

We drive in silence. Storm talks to herself, her voice slower than usual and uncomfortable for me to hear. I miss the Storm of before Ian Doyle. I have to pull over twice. It’s hard to see the road. I wipe the windscreen both times, despite it being dry.

Emily’s condo is silent and, by the time we reach it, the sun is setting. Sergio is at Garcia’s. Storm cheers up as soon as I carry her in and briskly up the hall to the closed door with the painted Storm’s Room sign. I don’t look left, or right. There’s nothing there but things that will hurt me.

The bedroom is silent. The bed isn’t made. The drawers hang open where someone, probably Elizabeth, or maybe Emily herself, had torn through them in a hurry looking for everything the little girl in my arms would need. They fucked up. The only thing the little girl in my arms needs is her mother. I wonder, is she buried yet?

There’s a book on the bedside table. Storm lies in her bed while I tidy the room, watching me silently. She never used to be this quiet. Shock, I guess. The loss of a parent at her age could cause developmental delays.

“Bedtime?” she asks. Startled, I turn and look at her as she wiggles to the side of the bed and kicks her feet restlessly. “Now?”

“Now,” I parrot. IQ as high as mine is and I can’t even talk to a toddler without sounding dysfunctional. “Come here.” Everything in here is yellow in varying shades. For a woman comprised of so many shades of grey as Emily had been, I truly appreciate the lengths she went to keep Storm’s life solely in the light. But that’s ended now. The curtains are pulled back to let in the moon and, I know from helping Emily after we plucked them both out of that warehouse where Ian Doyle had tortured them, if I close those shades, Storm will scream. It’s easy to sympathise. She’s not the only person who distrusts the dark.

The splint on her hand has been knocked loose in our travels. It’s an opportune time to gather her onto my lap, bundling child and book up and perching on the rocking chair that Emily hated as I untie the splint. Physical therapy at this stage of healing is integral to her regaining full use of the affected limb.

“Hand open,” I whisper. Her reply is a shake of her head. She’s learned: healing hurts. I spread my own hand in front of her, say, “Hand open,” again and bite my lip as she giggles a little and mimics me with both hands, the right one slow and ungainly under the pressure dressing wound tightly around it. “And closed.” She can’t do it long. The giggles vanish and she begins to whimper. But her hand is limber; Emily was fastidious about keeping up her therapy. Adamant that Doyle wouldn’t leave his mark on her baby forever, not like those other girls. Not like the ones we didn’t save. At least, I think that’s over now. Doyle got what he wanted. Two bullets through Emily’s skull and her body set in a warehouse to burn. Emily dead.

No one else has to die with her. No more children.

I replace the splint, telling her how good she is, how clever and patient. A story now. I pick up the book, flip quickly past the page with my handwriting and Emily’s declaring that this book belongs to our Little Prentiss, and begin to read from where Emily has marked that they’d stopped. It’s fitting, I guess, finishing what Emily had begun now that she can’t: “Instead of dingy velveteen he had brown fur, soft and shiny, his ears twitched by themselves, and his whiskers were so long that they brushed the grass.” She’s dead and I falter before reading on. My cell is silent in my pocket. Switched off. I don’t want to be contactable as I keep reading resolutely. She’s dead and the final line hurts: “He was a Real Rabbit at last, at home with the other rabbits.”

I close the book and Storm is asleep on my lap, huddled against my chest. I can feel her heartbeat, ticking on. What will her future hold? I don’t know. I won’t be a part of it.

For hours, I stay like that and I let her sleep. They’re likely looking for me. I hardly care. When she wakes up, restless, I take her to the bathroom and then I return her to her bed. It’s night-time now. There’s a packet of cigarettes in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom that Emily kept for some reason. I take one and lean on the balcony as I smoke it. The burn helps, somehow. It lets me find the strength to turn my phone back on. The texts are kind. Elizabeth knows where I am, somehow, and I assume Hotch guessed and told her. She tells me to stay, to let Storm sleep. To bring her home tomorrow, a new day, and I can read between the lines: Elizabeth needs to recover from the fact that she’s no longer a mom before she can face being the sole custodian to her granddaughter. I understand. My reply is curt but courteous, and I invite no further correspondence.

I make a home on the couch. There are too many memories there. On this couch, I believe—I know, my memory is infallible for things as important as this—I was sitting the night that I realised I was in love with Emily Prentiss. Absolutely, irrevocably, gloriously in love with her. It was on this couch that she told me she was pregnant. I was also sitting on this couch, with my hands folded on my lap and staring at the wallpaper across from me, when Emily informed me that my services would not be needed anymore; that the paternity test absolved me of any need to be there and that she desired me to respect that. Did I fall out of love then, when I slunk from her life? I’m afraid the answer is probably no.

Unsurprisingly, I don’t fall asleep on the couch.

Stupidly, I move to the bedroom. I don’t even make it to the bed, despite how bone-achingly tired I am. That’s fortunate, I guess, because it likely smells of her and the olfactory senses are linked strongly with the recollection of memories. But that’s not what scares me from that room. She’s added something new since I’ve been here last—only two weeks before, but it feels like an eternity. A framed photo by her bed, the edges dinged and marked. Not framed recently, but displayed recently. Perhaps pulled from some recess where she’d tried and failed to put it out of mind.

It’s a photo of us. My arm is around her. We’re smiling. I’m very clearly in love with her.

Her feelings for me? I don’t know. I never did. Why would she replace the photo?

Why would she remove it in the first place?

I don’t know.

I flee from that damning photograph and curl up on Storm’s bedroom floor on a folded over blanket and I cry very, very quietly so that I don’t wake her up. She needs to sleep.

Tomorrow is a big day. Today ends here.

 


 

And life goes on, without her. Storm goes to her grandma’s, where she’ll live from now on. I hope Elizabeth knows to treasure the granddaughter more than she ever treasured her daughter, but I think she does. Loss is funny like that. It illuminates all the parts of your life that were better before, the ones that slip into shadow now that the person who had brightened them is gone. The past few months seem unreal. Imaginary, almost. As though Emily was a collective dream we’d all shared.

I know she’s not though. I’m not that crazy, and there’s a picture of her on the wall of the fallen at work. The same name and dates inscribed underneath as what I know are on the headstone I have yet to visit: Emily Prentiss, October 12th, 1970 - July 3rd, 2011. She was forty, never to be forty-one. She won’t be here to see me turn thirty, or Storm turn four. She barely made it to Storm’s third birthday and, now that I think about that day, I’m struck by the insane feeling that Emily somehow knew this was coming. It was such a final, beautiful day, a reconnection between us, and I thought she was finally letting me back in—beginning to forgive me. But it wasn’t a beginning. Not at all.

“Spence?” Garcia’s voice is soft. I don’t look at her, instead of continuing to examine Emily’s photo. She doesn’t look forty, not even close. Now, she never will. “That photo is beautiful.”

“That photo is worthless,” I say. I don’t mean to sound as savage as I do, but it comes out cruelly anyway. In the frame on the wall, surrounded by others who died just like her, Emily stares blankly back out at us with her ‘work’ face firmly in place. It says nothing about her. “That’s not the person I’m grieving. That’s just who she pretended to be for a paycheque.” When I turn, Garcia’s face is stunned, and Hotch is standing behind her. A month ago, I wouldn’t have said what I say now, but that was then, and Aaron Hotchner is complicit in her death too. “If it wasn’t for her pretending to be someone else, she’d be alive now.”

Unspoken, the guilt: if you’d been faster, realised Doyle was still close by, been smarter…

“Emily knew the risks when she joined JTF-12,” Hotch says, stepping forward and touching Garcia’s shoulder, because her head is bowed, and I know she’s crying again. I’m barely sorry. My hands are clenched and my shoulders shaking. “She had no reason to believe it would follow her this far—”

“She didn’t have a daughter then!” I snap, despite that not really being relevant. “She didn’t—”

Have me.

It hurts to swallow but I manage it, somehow. And Hotch, patient and steady as always, even in the face of the irrationality of the human brain in mourning, simply nods his head and indicates that I follow him to his office. I do. I’ve tested his limits already today, and I doubt he’s going to be gentle.

He both is and isn’t.

“You’re not ready to be back,” he says bluntly. I stand in front of his desk, my arms limp by my sides and my mind elsewhere, wondering if Storm is doing well at Elizabeth’s, if Elizabeth is handling the retirement she’d been forced into by the death of her daughter, wondering if I’m being forced onward as well. But he seems aware of this. “I’m not clearing you to go back in the field.”

“Because of Elle,” I say blankly.

His expression turns startled. “Elle?”

“She was traumatised. Unstable. You let her back in the field and that manifested as anger. You think I’m angry.”

“Are you?”

Yes.

“It’s not over, Hotch,” I say instead of that. Am I shaking? I think I might be. I look at my hands and remember what they’d looked like bloody when I’d run into that warehouse and found Morgan barely holding Emily’s life within her, his face as he’d screamed at me to go to Storm. Storm, who’d been so limp, so still, and the mess Doyle had made of her. “You do realise that? I can’t just go back to before, I can’t. He’s killed people—”

“Emily wouldn’t—”

“Emily is dead.” The words are like whiplash, sudden and shocking and with a slow kind of pain that follows as the body registers it’s been hurt. “But she’s not the only one. I have a pile of case-files on my desk still, Hotch, with Doyle’s MO all over them. How many children did he take? Seven? That’s seven families dead and he’s still out there! He’s—” I stop. It hits me. I can’t believe I hadn’t thought of it sooner. “What if he comes back? Emily could be wrong. He’s angry too—that’s why he did what he did. And he still thinks Declan is dead. What if he comes after Storm?”

Hotch is silent, staring at me. Not a shocked kind of stare, but a thoughtful one. Respecting me enough to consider my theory instead of dismissing it out of hand as the ravings of a grief-stricken friend. “I don’t believe he will,” he says finally, his face shifting into an approximation of sympathy. “That would serve no purpose to him. Storm was never a person to him, simply an object that Emily treasured and therefore a tool he could use against her. I doubt he’ll bring himself back under our noses simply to exact revenge on a tool. Have you seen her?”

I’m lost for a moment. I think he’s talking about Emily. Before I can stop myself, that slips out. “Em—?” It cuts off with a wince, but too late. The damage is done.

“Storm,” Hotch corrects, leaning onto the desk with his mouth turning worried. His chair squeaks ominously and my face warms. “I think you should go home. Contact Elizabeth. Go and visit Storm. Stop focusing your grief into the case—it’s not ours anymore. We’re too involved to be rational about it; we all lost someone that day.”

I don’t argue. There’s no point, not when he’s looking as concerned as he is. I simply leave.

But, once home, I don’t contact Elizabeth. I sit down and write the case-files out from memory into a book with a plain cardboard cover. Each and every one of them. All seven families that Doyle and his men had slaughtered, all because those families had one thing in common. A message to Emily. A daughter, a child, with dark hair and dark, dark eyes. Seven of them, all stolen, all killed. All dumped as though their only worth was the terror they’d bring the woman they were threatening, all with a four-leaf clover marked deep into their skin.

Doyle has yet to pay for their deaths, or the deaths of their families.

Doyle has yet to pay.

Until he does, I refuse to let it go.

 


 

I am no longer in charge of my own destiny, apparently. I shouldn’t be surprised. Emily never let me do anything she considered to be immeasurably stupid and, as it turns out, her mother and daughter are much the same. Mostly, her mother.

Elizabeth shows up on my doorstep in late August, without Storm, and refuses to leave when I arrive and try to politely reject her visit. I’m not entirely sure how it happens but instead of heeding my dismissal and leaving the premises, within ten minutes she’s sitting at my kitchen table eyeing the worn countertops warily while waiting for me to finish brewing us coffee. She’s angry. It’s not a kind look on her, drawing her mouth into a thin line and making her eyes cold and judgmental. I feel small under a gaze like that, almost defenceless despite the fact that I’m younger and stronger than she is, and still carrying.

“Put that away,” she says, nodding to the revolver on my hip. “I can’t stand the things. Emily was always far too keen on them. She was shooting by the time she was fifteen, as I’m sure you know. Found a shooting range entirely without my permission and bribed an instructor to teach her. I’m told she was very, very good.”

“Unsurprisingly,” I mutter but do as I’m told and unstrap my holster, ensuring it’s unloaded and placing both components into the gun safe in my living room bookshelf. I’m still within view of Elizabeth, and I hope that she doesn’t recognise the weapon in there next to mine. It’s not her work piece—I don’t know where that one is, likely still in an evidence lock-up somewhere—but her personal one. I don’t know why I took it. The notion of it being sold to a stranger when Emily had always been so meticulous about its care, despite never using it outside of the firing range, is anathema to me. If Elizabeth recognises the gun as Emily’s, she doesn’t acknowledge it.

The coffees are served and I sit across from her, wincing at the crunch of crumbs on my un-mopped linoleum floor, and wait for whatever damnation she’s come here to serve me with. By my side, the answering machine blinks accusingly. I know every one of those messages is from her—I assume Emily taught her the futility of trying to contact us via cell phone—and all delivering the same message: Storm misses you. Visit us at your earliest convenience, or sooner.

“I require your help,” Elizabeth says, which isn’t really what I’d expected. I wait. “I wish to put Emily’s condo on the market—”

“So soon?” I regret the murmured response before I’m even finished voicing it.

“It’s doing no one any good collecting dust. And the money will be far better-served building interest in Storm’s inheritance fund than tied up in the property that does nothing but reminds us of what we’ve lost.” Her voice, by the end, hurts.

My coffee is growing cold. I stare at it. “Emily’s belongings?”

“Charity or to be sold, that which Storm doesn’t need. All the proceeds put away for her. I’m not trying to erase my daughter, Dr Reid. That’s why I’m here. You knew Emily far better than I did in the final stages of her life. I wish for you to accompany me, to ensure that I respect Emily’s wishes. Her will was uninformative about what she desired done with her possessions, only stating that all of her financial assets be put aside for Storm’s future.”

That’s also unsurprising. Emily had very little care for things. I force myself to the task at hand—a task for Storm, not for Elizabeth, and that makes it possible.

“Emily has sizable investments,” I say. I know, I helped her simplify them one dreary afternoon spent picking through piles of bonds and accounts. Emily had hated the tedium of it, preferring that her wealth was invisible and accumulated outside of her control. I enjoyed the puzzle, despite being surprised about just how well off she was. Not even the upmarket condo in the mid-centre of DC had really indicated how astute Emily had been with her own inheritances from her parents. “Will they also be placed in trust for Storm?”

“Obviously. My granddaughter will want for nothing, Dr Reid, if that’s what you’re concerned about.” But, she pauses. “Are you aware that she left money for you?”

Yes.

“I declined it.”

“That’s not how that works.”

“I declined to sign the probate. I think you’ll find that was effective enough in stopping the money from reaching my accounts.”

Elizabeth’s eyes narrow. Forgetting it had cooled, I sip my coffee and try not to pull a face. “Are you always this obstinate?”

Perhaps laughing wasn’t quite the best response, but I’ve never been clever. “Probably. It’s why Emily liked me so much.”

I shouldn’t have laughed. Elizabeth does what her daughter was so good at, casually ripping out my heart and leaving me gasping. “Yes. She always did fall in love with the most frustrating men.” The silence between us is fraught and I’m worried that even averting my gaze is failing to hide how much the uncertainty of that statement hurts me. I don’t know how to respond without sounding childishly petty. She never loved me. Did she love me? Do you know something I don’t?

But she moves on without a pause: “Will you help me?”

I don’t really have a choice. I never did, not where the Prentisses were concerned. I’m still, after all, sharing my heart with at least one of them, and I suspect that Emily’s death has made certain that I’ll always love her, in the kind of way one loves what is lost.

I won’t go into detail about that terrible day. In a way, it was the goodbye I needed. Without having gone to the funeral, without seeing her body, I’d been left in some kind of limbo. Frozen, weightless and suspended waiting for the realisation to fall: that she wasn’t ever coming home. Or, waiting for a sign that it had all been some terrible lie.

I’m almost glad that I avoided Storm over this time, as cowardly as that sounds. Elizabeth tells that me that she is ceaseless in asking for her mother, in planning for all the things that they’ll do together when Emily returns home from ‘the aeroplane’. My heart is crushed thinking about it.

We keep very little. I’m scrupulous in going through Storm’s bedroom to ensure that every item the girl loves is packed away carefully to be sent to her new home. There’ll be no more loss, not even a singular favoured sock. The Velveteen Rabbit and her accompanying stuffed animal are already gone, long ago packed away as thin comfort to a grieving child.

The rooms that are necessary but impersonal Elizabeth does alone. I don’t believe my assistance is required for kitchenware or bathroom products. The bedroom we work through together, I think because we’re both aware that neither is strong enough to do so alone. The scent of her clothes undoes me. I open a drawer and begin to cry, shaking Elizabeth off and finding refuge in the office. Paperwork is impersonal, the more so, the better. I find Emily’s paper shredder and make sure anything that isn’t needed is destroyed. Emily would appreciate that, despite her having very little identity to steal anymore.

There’s a singular packing box with my name on it. I didn’t place it down; Elizabeth did. “She was part of your life too,” she says, but I ignore her. I believe there is nothing here that will do anything but hurt me if I claim it. I’m wrong. I pause in my relentless shredding of Emily’s personal life and look up to find a glossy bookshelf, lined with nothing but the most well-worn of books. Emily isn’t like me. She never gloried in collecting for collecting’s sake, revelling in the satisfaction of owning all of a favoured author or celebrated anthology. Most of the shelf I pack away for charity. Someone will find pleasure in these well-worn pages, some stranger who’ll never know the story of the hands that held them last. Most of the shelf.

Not the Vonnegut. I find that I can’t part with the Vonnegut. The box labelled Reid is reluctantly filled with the most loved of all those beloved books and the flaps are closed firmly. Nothing else. Not a single other thing will be coming to my already cluttered apartment.

One of her books is missing. Mother Night isn’t there. I wonder where it is. Some small part of me, the part that I think my mother encouraged to thrive, paranoidly wonders if this is a sign of some kind. The rest of me assumes that Emily loaned it out, and I decide to ask around at work. I refuse to bow to my mother’s madness. Emily is dead, and a missing book symbolizes nothing but my own wish that that was otherwise.

I return from the bathroom to Elizabeth looking down at the box. “I always hated his cynicism,” she says, of Vonnegut, I assume. “Emily spent an entire celebratory dinner once reading Cat’s Cradle under the table. I was furious when I caught her—such an absurd, fatalistic book. I suppose it suited her well.”

I’m infuriated a little by this, but I don’t allow it to show. “Vonnegut is a humanist,” I respond curtly. “He celebrates our absurdity. I don’t think you understood his books at all if you believe otherwise. There is nothing he loved more than humanity—Emily could have told you that.”

She doesn’t respond. We finish the closure of Emily’s life in silence and I leave with her recriminations ringing in my ears: “She misses her mom and she misses you, Dr Reid. You can only change one of those things.”

I respond that Storm hardly knows me, thanks to Emily.

I don’t think that helps.

But, when I arrive home and slowly unpack the books carefully onto the bare shelf holding my gun safe, I find one more thing has been added to them. The damnable photo smiles up at me, Emily’s gaze cutting in how teasingly alive it is once more. I hate myself for the happiness in my face. Despite this anger, I place the photo on my coffee table, exactly where my gaze will rest when I lay unsleeping on the well-worn couch where we’d first made love.

I lay there that night and do nothing but reread the books that I’ve memorised long ago, savouring the touch of the pages that once, like me, knew her hand.

 


 

My resolution to remain distant from Storm’s life, at least for now, lasts up until Hotch walks up to me at work, hands me a hardcover copy of Mother Night with the glue in the spine coming loose, and says, “This was Emily’s. It deserves a better home than my sparse bookcase.” It’s not quite the sign some small, disconnected part of me had been hoping for, but it is a sign of a sort, if only I can find out what kind. The book falls open quite easily to a number of dog-eared pages. I skim them until I find that sign, barely registering Hotch saying overhead, “I believe it was her favourite.”

It’s an exchange between a man, Howard Campbell, and a policeman. The policeman is unnamed but incredibly important at this moment. The man is frozen, unable to find a reason to move. I can understand his fear. Despite how terrible the precipice I’ve walked since Emily’s death is, it’s also comforting in that remaining here allows me the illusion that she’s not really gone. The policeman asks the man if he is okay.

The man says yes. The book doesn’t elaborate on this, but the simplicity of the reply is open to interpretation. I interpret it. The man is lying. He lies once more when he is asked if he is standing, frozen, waiting for someone. He says no. I disagree. At that moment, I feel strongly towards this man. I feel as though he and I are the same person. And I really, truly am waiting for someone.

The policeman says, and I read him saying it, with Hotch still speaking overhead, that perhaps the man should move on.

Perhaps he should.

I close the book on Howard Campbell. I smile at Hotch. I thank him.

And I move on.

When Elizabeth opens the door, she doesn’t look surprised. The paranoid part of me whispers that maybe she and Hotch are in on this together. It’s not really so hard to believe. After all, Hotch is nothing but concerned about the appropriate length of time to grieve after a loss and the adequate recovery of all of his team members in order to resume prior functioning.

Storm is standing on the stairs behind her, peering around her with a curious expression. Her hair is neatly brushed and tied back with a ribbon. She’s wearing a pink dress with another bow around the middle. She’s barefoot, and her rabbit hangs from her left hand. Despite how cute the dress is on her, I’m relieved that her feet are bare. Pink is a strange colour on this smaller version of the Emily I knew.

“I know you,” Storm announces as I step inside. “Are we reading? A book?”

I look at Elizabeth. Elizabeth smiles tiredly. There are shadows around her eyes and her breath smells very strongly of mint with something sour underneath. She looks ill. “You heard the little miss,” Elizabeth says. “Go and read to her. Or let her read to you. She’s terrible.”

“I’m good,” Storm corrects her. “Mommy says. When Mommy’s home, we’re gonna read.”

It doesn’t hurt as much as I thought it would, but it still hurts. Instead of reacting, I simply take her good hand and let her lead me to the room that holds far more life than it once did.

“I can read this,” she says, holding up a book with a cat in a church on the front. “It says there was a cat and this. This is a cat too.” This, as she points to it, is a mouse, but I don’t correct her. “They’re friends. Are we friends?”

It’s also a relief that she’s not quiet anymore. “Yes,” I say, settling onto the plush rug on the floor and indicating that she should sit beside me. “But I think I should tell a story, don’t you?”

“A cat story?”

“No. About your mom.”

Storm is very, very quiet, her eyes wide, and I begin like this:

There was a gala that two friends went to together, your mother and me. Their workplace held it. It was very, very pretty. Do you know what a gala is? No? Let me describe it.

There. It does sound pretty, doesn’t it?

It was also very, very boring. She danced, beautifully—yes, like that, be careful of your hand—and I grew sad at how lovely she was and went outside. The outside was lovely too. It was snowing. You have seen snow, last year. I know you have. There are photos. She found me, your mother did, and laughed at me walking alone in the snow. And I asked her what she was doing, spinning around and around with her dress getting all messed up and her hair all frosty, and do you know what she said?

She said, “I’m making a mess of myself, dancing alone.” And she did. That snowy night, she was dancing alone without a care, flakes in her hair and her dress all wet. Because it’s okay to be alone sometimes, Storm, and it’s okay to dance alone if you want.

That’s okay. We’re not born knowing how to dance. I can show you.

Now? Maybe. But the story isn’t done. I asked her to dance with me, despite there being no music, but we slipped and fell into the snow. And I think that’s a lovely memory to have of her, which is why I’m sharing it with you. And now we both have it. Which is wonderful.

Okay. Put your rabbit down and I’ll show you. I’m not a very good dancer.

But I suppose I shouldn’t let that stop me.

The story ends, as all good stories do, and I teach Storm, rather ineffectively, how to dance. Elizabeth invites me to dinner. She invites me to return the next week.

I agree.

And Storm, after the first time, doesn’t talk about Emily coming home again.

 


 

Those visits continue. The next few months became a slow climb uphill. I strike up an unlikely friendship with Elizabeth that, upon contemplation, probably isn’t all that unlikely at all. We were pushed together by a shared loss and held together by a shared love.

I finally learn all the things I’ve wondered for so long about Storm, the parts of this wonderful, irregular child that Emily had kept from me for whatever reason. How she prefers juice to milk, to the point of wishing for it upon her cereal in the morning. Her powerful adoration for all animals. The quiet fortitude with which she faces the physical therapy Elizabeth and I still inflict upon her, so long as there is a promise of a treat after.

I even learn about Emily, in a way, through the eyes of her mother. Not always flattering, but always tinged with love, and I continue to miss her.

But not quite so keenly.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Before all this happens, the weekend following my first evening with the two remaining Prentisses, I pick up the framed photo of Emily and me, intending to show it to Storm when I arrive there later that afternoon. For the first time, perhaps because my mind is clear this time and not fogged with grief, I note how oddly the photo sits in its case. I open the back, and I find Emily’s final letter, sealed in an envelope marked only with my name in her handwriting.

I begin to read. It only takes me a moment.

I wish it had taken longer.

Chapter Text

Spencer,

There are things I can’t tell you. I wish I could, I honestly really, really do. There are things I can tell you though. Things I should have told you a long time ago. Things I should be telling you now. I suppose that’s why I’m writing this. I hope you’ll be there for her after this is over, although I know you probably won’t want to. I know you’ll be trying to put me out of your mind. But I’m selfish, Spencer, I always have been, and telling you these things means that I don’t have to write them for her. It means I can trust you to tell her the things I won’t be there to tell her when she needs to hear them. It means that I don’t have to be careful about writing something that will frighten her, or be difficult to understand. You’ve always been good at making complicated things sound simple. I think that’s where we went wrong. You saw us as simple. I knew we were anything but.

But maybe that’s too big an ask, making this easy for her. Anything I write about myself will be difficult to understand, but especially the story I need to tell. It’s a very long, very frustrating story. That makes sense, doesn’t it? I’m a very frustrating person. You say that a lot, that I’m aggravatingly stubborn. Will she be stubborn too? It seems likely. She is now.

I wish I could be there to find out, but I can’t be. Please believe me when I say that I wish it was different. But it can’t be.

She’s asleep in the bed next to me right now. There’s the rabbit in her arms that you gave her the night she was born, the first time you held her. Her hair isn’t brushed, because she never lets me, and she’s refusing to sleep in her own bed anymore. There’s no arguing with her when she’s like this. You might be able to, though. You always could, when I let you. I’m sorry I didn’t let you as much as I know you wanted.

Please don’t punish her for what I’m going to do. Please don’t punish my daughter for the sins of her mother. Please love her, even though I know what I’m going to do will destroy any love between us.

She’s going to need you.

I’m beginning in the wrong place. It’s hard to straighten out in my mind, the proper place to start this letter, but I know this isn’t right. You don’t start a story at the end. You start it at the beginning.

We never had what we could have because of my stubbornness. My daughter was born because I never knew when to back down.

I’m dying for much the same reason.

 

November 6th, 2006. Do you remember? Of course, you do. I imagine what your brain is like sometimes. Neat. Orderly. A beautiful old machine. Everything beautiful and everything hurts. You hurt, and I see that, and I cause it. Imagine a printing press. Gorgeous and old, suspended out of time. Running perfectly until a cog breaks, a spindle snaps, and everything grinds to a painful stop. But when it’s working… when it’s working, it’s just so stunning to see. Everything you’ve ever known taken down and stored away, ready to remember. There’s a filing cabinet devoted to me with runners that are broken and scream when opened. It jams and fights. How appropriate. Opening it will always hurt. I’m sorry.

That was the day we met. A beginning. I didn’t realize how much of one at the time.

Have I told you about that day? About how I felt? I should have. About the fear. The pretending.  Masquerading as someone confident because of how surely I didn’t belong. How utterly, utterly terrified I was, by the unity of the team, by becoming an outsider once more, by Hotch’s stern words and the wall I saw between us. You weren’t stern though; you welcomed me immediately. With kindness. We didn’t shake hands and, at the time, I didn’t know why.

This is the wrong beginning

Fuck.

I don’t know how to write this letter.

 

She’s awake. It’s time to get up. One more day. Normality, mostly, except for the hole in my stomach barely held together with staples that burn. They say it will heal. Four to six weeks. No time at all. You know this. You were there. There’s something for my own filing cabinet, the one I keep for you. The utter relief on your face when they said I would live. They lied.

She’s crying. I can’t look at her, at what he did to her.

This is impossible.

 

There’s a memory I treasure. The precise date is forgotten but the recollection is vivid. It was before my daughter. It was after Hankel. You’d been hurt so terribly, so utterly ruined. Imagine what I saw when I looked at you in the hospital bed after we saved you, Spencer, imagine what I saw. That beautiful machine, stalled. Maybe forever. Shattered. Hankel had swept into your mind and taken an axe to every precise instrument, every delicate handle, ripping the carefully ordered filing system open and strewing you everywhere so that everyone could see your ruin.

You didn’t want to see us. Not any of us.

You were gone for three days and three nights, found in a graveyard, walking on the edge of your own, what? Demise? Destruction? Death? Did you want death? I think you did.

That’s why what happened next happened.

The sex isn’t the part I treasure. It’s barely remembered. Just, bits. Tangles and hints and flashes of recollection. Your arms and the rash of red running along the inner elbow where he hurt you, my fingers tracing that haunting line. Dot dot dot, like the children’s nursery game. A heart. Mine or yours? I don’t remember. But it raced. So fast it felt like falling. I remember you inside me. I remember the tears.

Mine or yours?

Both.

It wasn’t love. It was fucking. Raw and angry and impossible to treasure. But the after:

You slept without waking. I lay beside you. The window was open. The moon was half. The stars were out.

You were breathing.

You kept breathing.

This isn’t a memory I shared with you. I kissed you that night, while you slept. I kissed you and begged you one thing. To stay. To live. To never go missing again. To never be lost. To walk away from that grave. That destruction. Death. Whatever.

What a hypocrite I am.

It’s not a clean memory. The air stunk of sex. My legs were sticky. Your body was bruised. The base act of it was manipulation. But it’s still treasured, to me, still special.

 

When did it become more? It must have. Between that one night and the moment I realized that you’d recovered and we were still doing it. Still fucking. Over and over again, countless nights with the window open, watching the different shapes of the moon. Bruises fading. Scars remaining. I hated you for it, for drawing me in, for how much I began to crave it.

There’s a quote that fits how I felt. Vonnegut, huh. I’m a cliché. I disgust myself.

Know what I think of those nights?

‘Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.’

 

It’s night again. I’ve tried to return to this letter so many times today. Every time I failed. Twice, I’ve cried. I bet you don’t believe that. It’s understandable if you don’t. How many times have I refused to cry when I should have? How many times have I faced you down while everything that was hurting in the machine in your head was visible for me to see, and how many of those times have I been nothing but cold? I’m calmer now than I was. That’s going to be the hardest thing for you to believe in this letter, how much I can be hurt. Emily Prentiss: calculating bitch. That’s me. Compartmentalization is just another way for me to hide that I’m vulnerable.

Is it pathetic to admit that now?

Storm wants to know why I’m crying. “Mommy, no,” she says, her stubborn face all scrunched up. Black hair as wild as a ragdoll’s. Here she comes, still unsteady on her little feet. She’s brought me her rabbit, placed it on my lap. She wants a story. What shall I read her?

You know that answer. The Velveteen Rabbit. It’s her favourite. The copy we gave her, back when you thought we were a family. Before I broke your heart and told you that not only was she not yours, but that she never would be. That I would never allow it. Whatever my reasoning at the time, I regret that.

Do you know why I called her Storm? I’ll tell you when I’ve finished reading to her.

 

Another memory. I’m writing it down as I remember, despite it being irrelevant. This letter is going to be impossible for you to follow, the jumbled, chaotic mess of my disordered mind.

September 2007. I know the date because, only three weeks after this night, I’d piss on a test and have it come up positive. That’s relevant because I was so sure, so fucking convinced, that it was your fault. And you know what? I was excited about that. So fucking happy. Well, not at first. At first, there was fear. Worry Anger. But when I thought about it, really thought about it?

We’d been fucking with feelings since we ripped you back from Hankel, is it really that much of a surprise to know?

It was a fight. I don’t remember exactly what was said. I bet you do. I bet you remember everything. I told you about the dick responsible for the only good thing I’m leaving behind at the end of my selfish life. Did I tell you why I fucked him? I think I did. Rough words sound like me; rough words like how gorgeous his eyes were, so wide and dark, and how angry with you I was because your hands were gentle when I needed rough and you never seemed to age even as the years crept by. So content to stay as you were. So content to keep doing as we were. I told you, in explicit, gut-wrenching detail, about how much I liked fucking him. Showed you the bruises on my wrists. Watched you study them. Watched that machine in your brain take precise notes and store them away in the broken filing cabinet. We weren’t together, not devoted to each other, but I wouldn’t have told you if I hadn’t known it would hurt you. And it did. God, it did. You looked so sick. We still had sex. You initiated, pressing me against your shitty couch with your weight a crushing, hot pressure on my whole body. You were so fucking hard and I wanted you so much I thought I was going to tear myself in two trying to claw you down into me. You left bruises. I left heartbreak.

It was silent and rough and angry and nothing at all like you; maybe that was why I loved it so fucking much.

 

What you didn’t know was his name. Do you need it? Probably. It’s on Storm’s birth certificate.

I named her Storm because he hates that name. He hates it so much. He hates her. She’s was an unexpected storm bearing down on us all; the name is apt because he despises her chaos and I’m vividly alive in it. I adore her for how she makes nothing easy anymore. I adore the fight for her. Is that why we never worked? Is it because you weren’t stormy enough for me? Gentle where I needed pain.

I don’t know.

Here are the depths of my depravity. His name is Mikheil. His wife is beautiful. I doubt she knows about Storm. Mikheil is on posting from Georgia, as the incumbent ambassador to the US. He has stunning eyes. As gorgeous as they are cold. We matched well. We’re both hateful.

I doubt his country knows about Storm either.

My one fear about dying is that he’ll one day be asked to be a father to her.

My one regret about living is that I never asked that of you.

 

You’ll be here soon. The hole in my gut stops me from lifting my daughter or reaching above my head, or just living in general. It hurts. The painkillers make me dizzy. I’ve stopped taking them. I stopped taking them the day I realized he was still out there looking for me, for Storm. Clarity is of the utmost importance. But a thin trickle of sweat is working down my face. It will betray me. You’re bringing dinner, a movie, a helping hand with the child who should have been yours. You won’t take no for an answer and I’m not in any condition to try.

It will be a good night. It will be our last night.

And I’m selfish so, despite the pain, I’ll going to take you to my bed. To show you everything I should have told you, should be telling you now. But you’re a genius. Read between the lines. Read between the sweep of my hands on your body; read what I’m not saying.

Your eyes will be creased with worry. There’s a twist to your mouth I didn’t put there. Doyle did.

I know he’s coming back. I know he’s leaving messages for me, taunting me. I know you and the team are hiding that from me.

He’s taking children. Little girls. Dark haired girls with wide, dark eyes. Children like her. He knows it will work. Even if he wasn’t coming for her, eventually, it would work. I can’t let them die because I only want to stay. If I go to him, he’ll stop. They’ll live.

She’ll live.

 

One more memory. I have time for that. Do you remember buying her the rabbit? Do you remember the day you brought it over? I was painting the nursery, in a body that was painfully ungainly. I said to you, “I can’t wait until this is over. It must be a chore, having to deal with me looking like this.” I guess I thought I was ugly.

You hated that. God, how you hated it. The look on your face as you strode from the room, coming back with a book and that damned rabbit dangling from one hand. You sat me down on the rocking chair Mom gave me, the one I laughed at for being so old, the one you love. And you kneeled between my legs, your head propped against her. An intimate moment. A fleeting moment.

‘Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand.’

That’s what you read to me, from the well-worn book with the faded cover. I don’t believe I’m Real, nor ever have been, but at that moment I imagined it. Your hand was warm on my thigh. My fingers in your hair. Have I ever told you how curious I find your eyes? Captivating. Especially that day. I remember them vividly. My name is on the inside page of that book. Emily Prentiss in my childhood handwriting. You wrote underneath, once I gave you permission, Little Prentiss, who will always be real to us.

To us.

She wasn’t named then. She was just our Little. But she’s not now. Not yours, because I chased you away, and not mine because I’m going to give myself to Doyle in order to save her life. Whose Little will she be then?

I’m scared for her.

I’m begging you to keep her safe.

Chapter Text

The library closes on Sundays which is always fantastic because it means that I get Dad to myself all day. We spend it out on the river with Nate enjoying the very last heat we’re gonna get before autumn sets in. At least it’s pretty right now. The trees haven’t quite started putting on their orange and yellow autumn coats and the river is still and sparkling in the sun, with fish occasionally sucking bugs from the surface with loud bloops. I’m grumpy. It’s been a boring summer and Monday is far too far away. Back to school for my first proper year, since I started right in the final month of school last year. May wasn’t a great time to do that, but I didn’t exactly choose to get born then, did I?

But it’s the final week of August, the very end of summer, and for once I can’t wait for it to go.

“Do you think we can go to school early tomorrow?” I ask Nate, looking up from my book to where he’s leaning over the edge of his canoe and poking the water. It’s a beauty, this canoe. His mom and dad gave it to him for Christmas three years ago and it’s red with white lines and the name painted in curly letters on the side: The Dolphin. I think otter would be a better name, since the last time I checked, the Connecticut River doesn’t have dolphins.

“Why would you want to go early?” Nate replies, his round nose all scrunched up on his freckled face. He’s such a boy, Nate is, all freckles and red-hair and these terrible sticky-out ears that he hates. I tease him about them, but I’ve almost finished his beat-hat, almost. Even if it’s not really very bear-like yet, and kind of wonky. It’s a bear in spirit, Dad says, and that’s what counts.

“Because I’m bored,” I complain. It’s easy for him to say. He’s okay with doing nothing—he didn’t have to wait until he was nine to go to school. He got to go at five, like everyone else without dads that worry. I feel a little guilty for being mad at Dad over this, glancing over to where he’s plopped on the bank reading a book with one hand resting on Listen’s back. Listen’s eyes are locked on us, his brow all furrowed down, and he’ll probably jump up and come for a swim out here soon to make sure we’re not drowning, whining the whole time. We learned the hard way that Listen will absolutely not, under any circumstances, get in the canoe. He hates it, but he also hates us being on the river without him. One time, he dragged me in the river trying to pull us to shore because there was a bit of wind and it worried him, and Dad had to jump in and come help us rescue all the stuff that got tipped out with me. It was hilarious if you ask anyone about it but Dad, who wasn’t quite as pleased.

“Aren’t you working on your book?” Nate points to my lap, where I have the first of the notebooks of code Dad made for me on my birthday. Guiltily, I flick it back open. It’s the binary one, and I mostly understand it now, when I’m not being distracted and doing other things. “Come on. I want to know what it says and you’ve got six more to go after that.”

“This first bit is The Hobbit,” I tell him matter-of-factly. It’s the scene with Bilbo and the trolls, although I’m not so certain that I’d tell Dad that because I’ve only deciphered a few lines and I bet Dad’s changed stuff around to trick me. Bilbo is probably a mouse or something. “It’s obvious if you’re as good at this stuff as I am.”

“I’d think you’d have done more than half a page if you were good at it.” Nate is looking back at the river and I know he’s grinning, the stupid tease. “I think you’re as good at that as you are at fishing.”

That doesn’t even deserve an answer. I go back to my code book, setting the instructions next to me. We’ll see who’s laughing when I finish the whole thing before school tomorrow. Here’s a hint: it won’t be stupid Nate.

But there’s a whistle at the bank and we look around to see Dad standing, book under his arm.

“Uh oh,” says Nate. It’s time to go home, which means—

Sploosh! goes the water as Listen dives in with a great big bark, swimming towards us and circling around with his barks all muffled by the water—borf borf it sounds like—and then he grabs the rope on the front and begins tugging us back even before Nate can fumble the oars into place. It’s cute how determined he is to make sure we don’t drown in the sleepy old river, but we don’t laugh anymore because, sure enough, as soon as we bump up against the bank, the dumb dog is shaking himself dry all over us. Dad stands right back, smiling, and doesn’t get wet at all.

“I hate you,” I tell Listen, shaking water from my book. He doesn’t answer, just wags his tail so fast that his butt wiggles with it.

Dumb dog.

 


 

Sunday is the night we go to the Wash n Dry. Still damp from the river, I walk home beside Dad after waving to Nate—he gets to paddle home, and isn’t that way cooler than walking? —and try to talk him into letting me go to school early tomorrow. Unsurprisingly, he’s adamant that no teacher will thank me for my ‘initiative’ of getting there before six, and that he’s not getting up to take me at that time. Spoilsport.

“Don’t forget Listen’s things,” he calls after me as I dash through the house looking for the squeaky collapsible shopping cart thing we chuck all our laundry into. It’s shoved behind the door in the bathroom, totally in the way of everything, and I quickly pile Listen’s blankets and stuffed toy on top before wheeling it out to Dad. If we don’t wash Listen’s stuff, he adds it to the cart himself and whines more. Besides, once Dad folds it up all tight and puts it in the doggy backpack that hooks to Listen’s vest, it’s like he has a job to do and his tail never wags harder. Dogs just really like to feel involved with the family, or maybe my dog is just completely weird.

“Can I put the change in the machine today?” I ask as we lock up the house and double-check everything. The geese cackle at me as I sprint past to check the back. “And the detergent.”

“If you don’t overfill it again.”

“Of course I won’t.”

I probably will. I always do.

And then we’re on our way, trundling down the long road together with the cart going bumpity bump on the uneven sidewalk behind us and Listen strutting ahead with his tail wagging madly and his chest thrust out all proud because he’s helping. Dad asks about the codes and I deflect masterfully, which doesn’t trick him in the slightest.

“You won’t learn if you don’t do the work.” He eyes me as he says this, trying to hide his smile. Not very well though, I can still see it.

“I will do the work,” I assure him. “I totally will. Besides, I know it’s The Hobbit. With the trolls. I know this because I do the work, obviously.”

“Ah,” says Dad, in a voice like gotcha, and my gut sinks. The suspicion that he’d changed something comes back, twice as fierce this time. “Are you absolutely certain?”

“Yes!” But I’m not.

“Are you? Would you… bet on… a bag of candy?”

How cheap does Dad think I am? “Yup,” I say without pause.

“What about Listen?”

My dog pauses, hearing his name, and looks back to stare accusingly at us. We’re like the caboose on his one-dog train, and he resents how slow we are on our inefficient human legs.

“I wouldn’t bet a thing on Listen,” I say loyally. “Come on, Dad, I’d rather bet you than Listen, you know that.”

“The pecking order in this family never fails to exclude me,” he mutters, fake pouting. Honestly, he’s a child. Lucky he’s got me, and Listen, to look after him, or he’d be a mess.

It’s easy enough to distract him from his sulking when we get to the laundry. “You can use the change machine today,” I graciously say, letting him have the treat for once, while I dump our clothes into a washer with one eye on the wide window-front. An easy way to cheer Dad up: pick a laundry game that he always wins. And there—a man walking down the street looking about, earbuds in and mind clearly a million miles away. “Hey, Dad—look. I think… he’s a…” I study the man: he’s got boring clothes on and wears a dull watch with a leather strap, his smartphone playing his music for him and a book in his free hand, despite the bag hanging from his back. “He’s a student, obviously, and he’s lost.”

“Lost?” Dad queries, peering around me to study the man too while he sorts out the muddle of washing I tossed unceremoniously into the single washer. “Why lost? And what does he study?”

The man continues being boring on the sidewalk. “Dentistry,” I declare, the most boring thing I can think of. “And he’s clearly lost because there are no colleges in Cornish, duh. Why else would he be here?”

Dad is almost laughing, staring at the washing to try and stop me seeing. “Anything else?”

“He probably has a cat. All boring people have cats, and I think it would be called something super normal, like George. George the Cat, and he talks to it because no girl will date him without getting creeped out by him looking at their teeth. And that’s all. You go.”

Dad switches the washer on and ambles over, making a show of looking at the signs on the message-board while he studies the man out of the corner of his eye, right up until the man walks up and street and out of sight. I wait, patiently. Listen has his nose pressed against the furthest back washer, the one with all his stuff in it, waiting to spot his toy in the tangle of blankets so that he can bark at it.

Dad coughs to let me know he’s ready. I wait. “How about, he studies architecture,” Dad begins, real slow, and my heart sinks. That kind of voice means he’s about to totally destroy my guesses. “Look at him. Young professional, in his early to mid-twenties. Carrying a tablet, quite a wide one, and expensive looking—” Oh no, that’s the thing I thought was a book, and I huff: “—wide enough that I would hazard a guess that he uses it for design purposes, possibly graphical, most likely architectural seeing as he’s not a native here and we do have some stunning architectural designs within our town, although I doubt of the kind he personally prefers. Our town tends to favour Colonial and Georgian styles—his clothes indicate an interest in modernism, perhaps Mies van der Rohe and the Bauhaus movement—although his watch is analogue and old-fashioned, indication a lingering nostalgia for the past. He’s easily distracted, right-handed, vain. I think he’d listen to minimalistic experimental rock and ambient music—”

“Okay, okay, fine!” I scowl at him. “You’re a massive show-off. That’s guessing. You’re supposed to justify your guesses!”

He’s distracted by Listen’s toy bumping against the glass front: “Arouf!” booms Listen, jumping and tapping his paws against the washer just so we know he’s spotted it.

“Listen, down,” Dad scolds. “Would you like me to justify my choices? Because it begins with a description of the beginnings of the modernist movement…” He trails off warningly, but he’s smiling again and I know he’s teasing. He won’t actually subject me to a lecture on buildings.

“I still get points for him being super boring,” I mutter and change the game to one I’m better at. The alphabet game and I always win because I get twice as many guesses as Dad does since I obviously get Listen’s turns too. Today’s topic is Animals with Spots and we make it to D—Dalmatian is Listen’s guess, deer is mine, and Dad says danaid butterflies—before he gives me reluctant permission to go and buy dinner from the pizza shop up the road while he watches the tiny TV set suspended in the corner of the laundry. It’s not half obvious that he wants to come with me, but this is part of the deal: I get to go get dinner on laundry night. That’s the rules, and the rules are unbreakable without good reason. That’s why they’re rules and not gentle suggestions.

“Laundry night, Derry?” asks Mr Kennedy as the bell dings over my head. Listen trots in behind, tail waving. “Hello, Listen.”

“Yep,” I say, pointing to the corner by the door where Listen has gotta sit while I order and keeping pointing until he does so, reluctantly. “Usual, please. And put extra cheese on, for Dad.”

The man smiles, taking my money and sliding a dessert menu towards me. The perks of laundry day Sunday. “For Dad, of course,” he says, and winks. “You pick something for you and your dad for dessert while I get those in the oven.”

The store smells of nothing but pizza and baking as I sit back by Listen and study the menu carefully, tempted by the sundaes but also a little curious about the new option listed. “What’s a tiramisu?” I yell, but Mr Kennedy is out the back with the ovens and doesn’t reply. “What do you think it is?” I ask Listen, but he just yawns and doesn’t answer. Oh well. I’ll order it—it’ll be an adventure for us. And we like—

“Oh, that’s a shame,” Mr Kennedy says suddenly. I look up. He’s leaning on the counter, remote in hand and apron all floury, looking at his own TV set—bigger than the one up the road—and tapping to the button to bring the sound on.

Later, I’d wish he hadn’t done that.

“Oh,” I say. There are two children’s pictures hovering behind the blank-faced newscaster, as she tells the world that both those children are dead. I recognise one. It’s the girl who was missing in May, on my birthday. I didn’t… “I didn’t know she died,” I say, tucking my feet in and reaching down to pat Listen. Mr Kennedy doesn’t reply. He’s listening intently.

“The body of a child, believed to be that of Laura Williams, has been found near the entrance to World’s End State Park, Sullivan County, in Pennsylvania. A passer-by walking his dog spotted the body near the turn-off into the state park and raised the alarm. Laura was reported missing five days ago by her mother, Marley Williams of Baltimore, Maryland, and an AMBER alert issued for her suspected abduction. We have a correspondent on site, ready to report on the potential for FBI involvement now that the death of Laura appears to be linked to that of Sarah Newport, whose body was found in a similar circumstance in May earlier this year.”

The newscaster is gone now. There’s a roadway instead, with vans and people in different kinds uniforms and a lot of the yellow and black tape meaning Stay Away! There’s an ambulance too. I watch that ambulance and wonder what they think they’re gonna be helping with if the girl is already dead.

“Damn shame,” Mr Kennedy is still saying. “Some sick bastard has got it in his head to start killing little girls. Makes you think what the world is coming to. Christ, look at that. Look at her. Only seven. What a damn shame.”

‘Her’ is Laura, and there is a picture of her in a frilly white dress standing by her mother’s side and smiling. Dead now. And then it’s a video of her mom a few days before, begging for the person who took her daughter to please bring her home. I wonder if Dad would do that for me now if it was me going missing and found dead on a road. And that’s what I’m thinking, as I watch people with the letters FBI beginning to move into the scene, glancing angrily at the cameras watching them. There’s a lady with lovely blonde hair and a worried mouth. I focus on her instead of my worry. It doesn’t really work.

I don’t feel well.

Ding ding goes the bell, real fast-like as someone pushes it open, and Dad is suddenly there. Mr Kennedy goes to say something, but Dad looks horrible, all grey and sick, and he grabs my arm and yanks me up, rougher than he’s ever been before. “We’re going, come on,” he says, sharp and mean, and Listen scrambles up and whines, confused. “Derecho, move!”

“Dad, wha—” I try, because our pizzas, but he’s pulling me out and the door is swinging shut behind us and we’re moving, faster than I can comfortably keep up with, up the road and past the laundromat. “Our washing!” I dig my heels in, stubborn, and he’s forced to stop or pull me onto my butt.

“Derry,” he breathes. He’s staring at me and sweaty, even though it’s not that hot today. “We’re going home, now.”

“But why?” There’s a whine in my voice that I can’t really stop. I’m hungry. I’m confused. He’s never done this before! “We can’t leave our clothes or our food! It’s not what people do. And my school uniform is in there.”

“I don’t think you should go to school tomorrow,” he says, almost absently, and I stare. My gut drops low. There’s anger building, and something in my hand twinges as I dig my palms against my side to try and steady myself, the glove catching on the rough skin of my scar.

“I’m going,” I demand. It’s rude. I’ve never spoken to him like this before. Now probably isn’t a good time to start, seeing as how he looks like he’s had a real shock. I wonder if someone has died. I think of the girl. “Is this because someone killed those girls? Are you sc—”

And he turns and walks off, saying something sharp that it takes me a second to realise.

He’s sworn.

Dad never swears.

Uneasily, I follow him back to the laundromat, where he shoves our washing into the basket—still wet and dripping but I’m too anxious to even suggest putting them in the dryer—and packs our stuff up. When we leave there, still silent and with a terrible feeling between us, Mr Kennedy is walking up with our pizzas and a bag on top. Dad doesn’t stop, just slows a bit to let me take the food and thank him for bringing it for us, and Mr Kennedy responds loudly right until Dad looks away, and then he switches to whispering: “I put my cell number in there, Derry. You call me if something ain’t right, okay?” I’m confused, but he’s already walking away, leaving me with the two pizza boxes and the bag of desserts. When I open the bag, it’s two plain sundaes and a snippet of paper, just like he said. But why?

I could ask Dad, but I don’t. I don’t think I should.

Somehow, it feels like a secret.

 


 

It’s Monday and I’m at the library when I should be at school. I’m furious about it, sitting sulking in the romance section which is where I’m pretty sure my stupid, horrible dad won’t find me. Listen is sulking too. He didn’t get his usual goodnight pat last night from Dad, just a curt Listen, stay, and he hasn’t gotten over it. Plus, his blankets were still wet, so he had to lay on the cold floor—until I snuck him up into my bed, that is.

Isabelle keeps popping in to ‘check on me’ and I wish she’d stop. It’s not because I’m crying. I’m not. But the library is empty, with all the kids at school, and I’m jealous and miserable and I bet they’re having the most fun ever. If I never get to go back, will they give my locker away? Will they give away Listen’s? That’s a terrible thought. Those lockers are ours, we earned them by waiting nine whole years to go to school and only complaining a little.

“Derry, would you like a drink?” Dad asks behind me. “There’s soda in the staff fridge.”

He’s sucking up. I’m not supposed to have soda. Since it’s sucking up, I ignore it.

There’s a low sigh. “Honey, I know you’re mad…”

There’s a book jabbing into my shoulder. I shove it back in roughly and rearrange my spot, bracketed by a bookcase to my back and side and my backpack against my other side, with Listen laying in front of me. No one can get to the Ds, but there’s no good stuff there anyway. I know. I read all the blurbs. They all look as boring as dentists.

“Would you like to text Nate’s mom and ask if he can come to the library after school? I’ll even take you out for burgers on the way home.”

Hmm. Still sucking up. But, tempting. I hold my hand up, still silent, and accept the phone that’s given to me, typing out the text before handing it back.

“Try not to make the romance section too miserable, okay?”

And then he’s gone. I sulk some more. I hate my dad. I hate this stupid town. I hate being weird.

I wish my parents had never died. Then I’d have a normal family, who doesn’t think everything is out to get me and panic every time a kid in the news gets hurt or killed. This isn’t really the first time Dad has flipped out, not at all. Never quite this bad before, but there’s been plenty of times he’s changed the rules and made them stricter because of something he thought was dangerous or threatening. Like the time someone’s van broke down up the road and it was parked there for two days and Dad almost had a heart attack trying to keep both me and the van in eyesight at all times, checking the windows every two minutes and making me sleep on the living room floor, in full sight of his open bedroom door. Or when he pulled me from the youth group I was going to because a new person took over as the leader and Dad didn’t know who he was. Or the few times he’s woken me in the middle of the night and made me sneak out the back with him and into the car he keeps in the falling down garage, bundling me into the back and driving for hours until I’m asleep and he’s exhausted and whatever threat he thinks is happening at home has passed. When I wake up, we’re usually home and he’s carrying me inside under the morning sun.

At least, I guess that’s what he’s doing. I don’t really know for certain. I’ve never been game enough to ask.

There are two patrons talking in the next aisle over. Their voices are loud despite them trying to be soft, mostly because they’re talking fast and excitedly—about the murders. It’s all anyone is talking about and I’m sick of it. I wish they’d all stop talking and let the dead be dead and stop worrying me and making my dad act super weird.

“…same person, all of them. Did you see those girls? Could be sisters…”

“…they’re warning the teachers…”

“…I wonder if Billy will bring home a letter today…”

“…not in Cornish…sheriff says not to worry yet…”

I listen until they walk away, and then I lean down and lay my head on Listen’s back, whispering into his ear: “Do you think we should be worried?”

He doesn’t answer. He never does.

We stay there until Nate arrives. “What are you doing in the kissing section?” he asks warily, but I grab his hand and haul him past Isabelle to the banks of computers.

“We’re gonna watch YouTube,” I tell her as we bounce past, ignoring her absent, “Use the headphones!” that follows us. “We’re not watching YouTube,” I whisper to Nate, plonking him down at the computer right against the wall and dragging my own chair over. “Can you hide what we’re looking at?”

“Um, maybe. Sort of. Incognito mode doesn’t save our history,” he replies. “Why aren’t we looking at YouTube? And why weren’t you at school? What’s going on?”

“Do that.” I watch as he pulls up the browser, clicking on Google, almost jiggling out of my chair with nerves. It’s not that I don’t think I’m allowed to look this kind of thing up—I probably am, honestly, and everyone is talking about it so it’s not like it’s a secret… it’s just that, I don’t think Dad would like it. “Give me the keyboard.”

Body found Laura Pennsylvania I type in carefully, spelling Pennsylvania wrong but the computer working it out anyway. And up come the results.

Murders linked says the first one, so I click that and scroll silently, reading as I go. Nate reads along, slower than me, nodding when he’s done so I can move down the page. Listen’s head is on his knee. The library feels small, closed in. There’s a band around my chest, pulling tighter, and my hand burns under its glove.

“Derry…” Nate says suddenly, his eyes all wide and locked on my face. “Look at them.”

Them is the girls. There aren’t two anymore. There’s a whole bunch, from all different places, and all different ages. Even a couple of almost babies. The news pages say that the FBI thinks it’s ‘serial’, which means there are a lot of dead people all because of one person. There’s a video. We get an earbud each and listen to it: it’s an old man in a suit telling people not to panic and talking about the crimes, using a ton of long words I barely even know but can kinda work out.

It’s a man killing girls who all look the same and he’s not gonna stop until he’s caught.

“They look like you,” says Nate, but I don’t need to be told. I’ve already seen that. I guess Dad has too. I turn the video off as the man begins to talk about a dead FBI agent linked to the murders, staring at Nate. “Is this guy gonna come after you? Is that why you weren’t at school today? Because they really look like you, Derry.” And now I can see: Nate is utterly, completely terrified.

And there’s nothing I can say because I’m terrified too.

 


 

Dad yells at me that night. He’s never yelled at me before.

I ask him about the murders. I ask him if I’m in danger. If the man’s coming after me. At first, he doesn’t say a thing, doesn’t look at me, just keeps staring at the sink of soapy dishes, and I stupidly push because I never know when to stop: “Why aren’t you talking to me?!”

He yells. I don’t remember what, just the crash of the plate he’s holding slipping into the sink and smashing, and him telling me to go to bed despite it not being bedtime. I go, even though that’s not fair. I don’t know what just happened. Listen slinks up with me, his ears back and tail low, and we can hear Dad pacing, pacing, pacing. Then his door slamming. I’m not allowed in his bedroom when the door is shut, so I couldn’t go see if he’s okay even if I wanted to. I don’t want to.

The night ticks on and I don’t sleep. Every shadow looms. Every noise outside is a threat. The geese cackle quietly and, one time, one of the goats bleats, but other than that, there’s silence.

Eventually, I creep out of bed and down the narrow stairs, telling Listen to stay so his claws don’t give me away. There’s a pinch in my gut and the band around my chest is back, all of it squeezing tight and making it harder to think, to stop being scared. There’s no reading myself to sleep, my brain won’t focus. The codebook is downstairs, on the couch. And, honestly, right now? I just want my dad to be normal again.

He’s at the kitchen table and the room isn’t silent. There’s a machine by his side and his hands are busy, and I suppose that’s why he doesn’t see me. But I see him, and I see what he’s holding. It’s a gun. There are two of them and he’s taking them apart and carefully cleaning each piece with care, the weapon strange and ugly in his gentle hands. Dad, in my whole entire life, has never ever held a gun. He doesn’t like them, even getting sad when animals on TV get shot. So, why has he got two? And the machine by his side whispers, Dispatch controller Reynes PD6651 on-duty. Radio check all vehicles to commence. Car Mike Bravo 471, are you receiving?

Dad’s head snaps up and I press back behind the wall of my stairs. “Derry?” he calls gently, but I don’t answer. I don’t know why I don’t answer. I just stay there, unmoving, and then I creep back to bed.

Listen and I wait for the morning, terrified of what’s to come, and Dad doesn’t come get us for breakfast.

Chapter Text

Three months after the cessation of Emily Prentiss, death returns for her mother.

That’s a terribly clinical way to put it, I suppose, but that allows me a level of distance that is sorely needed right now; I’m sitting beside the woman I’ve reluctantly come to consider a friend as she tells me that she’s dying. There’s a weight on my knee—Storm, kicking her legs and happily chewing on the sleeve of her expensive coat—and a sinking feeling in the pit of my chest as I look around and consider that all this is ending.

It’s October. Fall. Three months since Emily died. More specifically, one-hundred and four days. Outside the wide-flung windows bordering this bright and airy room, leaves lie scattered across the neatly clipped lawns, a blanket of yellow and red carpeting the hidden green. Those leaves are what I’m staring at, thinking of Emily as a child playing amongst them, while Elizabeth calmly tells me that her body has betrayed her, the symptoms of the innumerable growths burrowing deep into her pancreas hidden by the vitality that has sustained her for so long. If I look at her, she seems alive. Resolute. Steady. But, instead of being any of these things, she wears an expression much like Emily had worn at the end and she’s planning for her death.

She speaks of money, as though that matters, and she speaks of palliative care, as though that’s a consideration before treatment has even begun. My voice is sharp as I point this out. In response, she simply looks at me. I note what she’s not saying.

The skin of the hand gripping the armchair tightly is yellowed, so minutely and pulled tight around the beds of her nails, where swelling of the joints makes her gestures clumsy. Around her mouth, there are deep lines that are sallow, greyed. Death takes a paintbrush and draws his mark clearly: here, he paints the whites of the eye with yellow; there, he uses shadows and light to cut sunken planes into her cheeks, emphasising the sharp line of the collarbone. I see weight loss. I see jaundice.

I don’t see hope.

What she does say is, “It’s late-stage, Spencer. I’ve already begun to make arrangements. I’m not young, and they’re not hopeful.”

“Metastasised?”

“Yes.”

Despite the approximate twenty-five percent chance Elizabeth has of surviving until Storm’s fifth birthday, in eleven months she will be buried next to the daughter she’d outlived. ‘Survived by a granddaughter’ her headstone will read. A single granddaughter. What a small, immeasurable impact we make upon this earth as we flee from the deaths we are born with. There will be nothing brave or dignified about her death. Pancreatic adenocarcinoma will destroy her swiftly and, in her final month, she will be unrecognisable.

But none of us in this familiar room are aware of that sombre outcome, not yet. Not I, not Elizabeth, and not the child growing restless on my knee. We still hope. And, in the following months as it becomes apparent that that hope is nauseatingly futile, I’ll consider many things, mostly because of the following conversation:

“She can’t stay with me,” says Elizabeth, as we both watch Storm clamber from my lap and wander off in search of whatever magic she can in her wondrous little world. “I won’t be well enough to care for her and, if I hire someone to do so, she’ll still be exposed to my decline. That’s not the life Emily would have wanted for her.”

“Emily didn’t want any of this,” I respond. There’s a pain in my chest, spreading hard tendrils of hurt throughout the entirety of my body, and a small thought building in my selfish, coward’s brain. I wonder: could I raise the girl who would have been my daughter but for inopportune timing on both mine and Emily’s parts. Could I take her? Is that the outcome Elizabeth is hinting towards?

I don’t know. I’ve never asked. Instead, I am a coward. Always a coward. I think of my mother and her genetics and I think of the possibility of my own future decline. Inconsiderately, I think of my career. Monetary funds stretched tighter over care for both my mother and a pre-schooler. And, perhaps most selfishly of all, I think of the letter that Emily had written for me and know that she’d never desired I take her place.

Over the coming months, we’ll all consider these same things, I know this now. Hotch, who never admits but only hints towards the possibility of a sister for Jack. JJ, who would but for Will and Henry, who would be inordinately affected by a choice this huge. Even Garcia. Even Rossi. But, none of us takes the step. Likely, it’s because of this reluctance on our parts to fill the void that Emily has left that what happens next, happens at all.

 


 

There’s a distraction from Elizabeth’s illness and it occurs merely two weeks after her diagnosis when the shockwaves from that haven’t quite sunk in just yet. Unlike the question of Storm’s custodial guardian, this one is intimately connected with the letter Emily left for me.

The letter.

To this day, I don’t think I forgive Emily for that letter. There’s not a single molecule within my body that’s capable of forgiveness of that magnitude. To have her flayed open and laid out so precisely to allow me to scrutinise all the parts of herself she’d kept hidden… it’s obscene. Throughout the reading of it, I had to force myself to remain seated and calm, instead of screaming, instead of tearing the damnable thing in two, instead of staggering to the bathroom and heaving every inch of pain it brought me into the ceramic basin of the toilet.

There are things I can’t tell you, she’d begun it with, and I wish she’d never told me. Never put pen to paper. Never admitted that she’d seen her death approaching and walked gladly towards it with open arms, walking away from me and from Storm and from her own gut-wrenching self-loathing. The letter drips with it. That’s the part that hurts the most, realising just how much Emily had hated herself for the pain she’d caused us. Her regrets and her unspoken feelings.

I wish they’d remained unspoken. All but one important part, the part that the letter could have singularly consisted of and, in doing so, would have allowed me to retain my sanity. Because I can feel it, creeping and gnawing at my thoughts and my mood whenever I’m not otherwise occupied: my grief for Emily has been inexorably flavoured by the letter she’s left me and the madness of the ‘what ifs’ it has ignited.

The distraction, from both Elizabeth and Emily’s letter, is Ian Doyle’s return. I know why he’s back. We all do. Even Emily, she’d known this could happen even if, outwardly, I believe she was in denial about it. After all, she’d written ‘I’m begging you to keep her safe’ to me despite reassuring me over and over that her death would mean the survival of the children Doyle threatens.

A child dies in Colorado. We fly there the very next morning and I accompany Rossi to examine the body. I’m not expecting to find myself emotionally compromised by the eleven-year-old girl’s corpse. It’s nothing I haven’t seen before and is distressing, but only distantly, but compromised I am. The child has dark, straight hair, skin that would have been pale even when alive, and the exact eyes that I expect Storm will one day look at me out of. I observe at those eyes as they look back at nothing, and then I search for a mark. If it was Doyle, he’d leave his mark. He always does.

But, the body is unmarked. Smothered, not shot, and sexually assaulted both before and after the act. After I report these findings, I am ill. Violently ill. And I wonder, would Doyle’s MO have changed with the death of Emily Prentiss? He had killed so efficiently and consistently before the day he’d kidnapped Storm to lure her mother away, perhaps now he finds he cannot stop. Would he leave the mark now, if the murder was simply to satisfy a craving instead of sending a grisly message?

As if there is a hand working to set events into motion, we don’t find that child’s killer. We travel home defeated and, instead of going to the apartment where Emily’s letter is waiting to be reread for the countless time or going to Elizabeth’s where Storm is waiting for an uncertain future, I go to Archives and find each and every photo of Doyle’s victims. What I do next is not allowed. I copy the file and the photos, word for word and frame by frame, and I take them home with me.

In the coming months, every child’s death brought to the eye of the FBI is compared to those files I’ve amassed. Those I believe could be related. Those I am sure are. Even those that certainly aren’t. My office holds macabre secrets, and I invest in a hinged corkboard in order to both display and hide my work. It wouldn’t do for Hotch or JJ to discover my growing obsession. And it is an obsession, absolutely. I am consumed by those words.

I’m begging you to keep her safe.

I cannot do that by bringing Storm into my chaotic home and, so, I do it in the only way I know how: I will find Ian Doyle. I will stop him.

If that involves his death, well. There isn’t a part of me that would regret that either.

The distraction of Doyle proves to be an undoing of sorts. While I feverishly work to compile as many notes as possible on the man I hunt, I ignore those things which I believe would divert me. My birthday passes unmarked, as does Halloween. I only wonder fleetingly if Elizabeth would allow me to take Storm trick or treating, realising that this would be a foolish waste of time that could be better spent keeping danger at bay.

I regret this.

One week into November, I come up for air purely because Elizabeth resorts to something that she never has before: she calls my cell. The landline is disconnected, understandably, because I’m weak-willed enough that a single call from her to summon me there would have me putting aside my important work. And it is important—I feel I am closing in, if not on Doyle himself, at least on enough evidence of the danger he still presents that I can go to Hotch for assistance with this.

I miss the phone call. She doesn’t leave a message. The very act of her being desperate enough to try my mobile encourages me to do something that, I realise, I should have done months ago. As soon as I arrive home from a case that still feels absurdly empty without Emily by our sides, I drive immediately to Elizabeth’s, stopping only to buy a children’s picture book as a gift for Storm when I arrive. This isn’t a conscious decision, more akin to a desire to see her smile, perhaps to pipe up in her strange, shrill voice for me to ‘read, Spanner’. Children fascinate me. This child in particular. Despite a restless desire to return home and finish my report for Hotch to elicit his cooperation and validate my suspicions, this visit is long overdue.

But, when the door opens, Elizabeth is alone. She’s lost weight. Her clothes hang loose and her skin is yellowed, shivering despite the multiple layers she’s wearing. I smell vomit and illness and, as I watch, she sways in place.

There’s nothing for me to do but to take her arm, as though she’s frail and weak, and guide her to a chair. I fetch water and worry about the strange hue to her skin and the way she trembles and doesn’t really appear to be looking at anything at all. I suspect, and my suspicion appears to be confirmed by the dates marked on the appointment sheet on her desk, that chemo is not being kind to her. And it’s twenty minutes before I ask, “Where’s Storm?”

Gone, Elizabeth tells me, and there are tears in her eyes as she says it. This is not Emily’s mother I’m looking upon now. This is a promise of what the disease will make of her, pulling all of her insecurities out for everyone to see and making a misery of her last few months. This is the first thing it takes from her: her granddaughter. Then her body. Her dignity. Her strength. Her home. Her life.

Storm, she says, has gone to live with her father.

In this, I’ve failed Emily. She never wanted this. I should have decided sooner.

She’s still in DC, but out of reach to me and my team now. I am doubtful that he’ll be welcoming of us. But, maybe, just maybe, he’ll be welcoming of his child. I couldn’t imagine that anyone wouldn’t be.

“How did he react?” I ask her after she has recovered from a bout of sickness caused by the water I’d given her. I get more. Despite her fury at having been ill in front of me, too dizzy to make it to the bathroom, she needs to stay hydrated.

“Him?” Elizabeth says bitterly. The bitterness in her tone, I imagine, sounds a lot like the bitterness in Emily’s letter. Just as raw. Just as deep. “Barely said a word. Just helped pack her bags and then left. I don’t know what Emily saw him in…” She laughs, coldly. “That’s a lie. I do know. If anything, he’s handsome. What an idiot she was.”

The day nurse arrives. I’m startled by this—I hadn’t realised Elizabeth was declining so fast. Of course, I didn’t know the day she would send her granddaughter away was so close either. While I step back to let the nurse help her wash the illness away, I detour to the bedroom where Storm had, and some part of me still believes does, lived.

It’s not empty. I’m disconcerted by this. The bed is neatly made and the shelves are lined with books, all of her books. I can see The Velveteen Rabbit among them. When I check the drawers, here are her clothes, folded in precise stacks and sorted fastidiously by colour. I don’t know exactly what she owns, but it seems to me that only a handful are missing; it’s as though the occupant of this room has stepped out only for a moment, a holiday perhaps, instead of permanently moving away. The only thing I truly note as missing is the rabbit I gave her the day she was born.

Troubled, I return to the drawing room. “Did you pack for her?” I ask, possibly too roughly. The nurse glares at me, but I couldn’t care less about the opinion of this stranger—not about this. “Storm’s bags—did you pack them?”

“Yes,” says Elizabeth, her voice hoarse. There’s a flicker of something familiar in her sunken eyes. “I packed everything and left it by her bed, so all they would have to do was take the suitcases. But that bitch—” The word is startling and I blink, shocked by such a harsh tone from someone so well-presented: “—insisted on redoing it. Said that they didn’t have enough room for so much junk and that Storm would just have to…” She breathes in, lips turning white with barely repressed anger that she aims purely at him: “…share with her siblings. When they were gone, I found everything still there… except for the rabbit. I am… glad… that they let her have her rabbit.” The tears are back.

I can’t stand it here. The stink of illness is overwhelming, that bedroom with its barely-vacated occupant is damning, and Elizabeth is bizarre to me when her erratic mood drives her to behave like this. Like the coward I am, the boy who put his own mother in a home so that he wouldn’t have to see her inevitable decline, I flee that place and I don’t return. Regrets are the flavour of this year, and every day is tainted with them. This is just one.

 


 

And life moves on.

Thanksgiving. Christmas. New Year’s. I spend them alone with my files, having shown Hotch and been gently rebuffed.

“It’s not Doyle,” he says to me, and I see the worry in his eyes. “Reid… this is very in-depth work…”

In-depth said in that kind of tone means obsessive, and I know there’ll be no validation for my behaviour here. I make light of it, return home, and wonder if I’m turning into my mother. The only thing that absolves me of this concern is that Morgan is just as fiercely determined to destroy Doyle, if only more obvious in his motivations behind it. When I show him the files, he takes his own copies. In him, I have an ally, although the letter remains a secret between Emily and me. Let them think grief drives me, not fear. Grief makes me an object of pity and concern; fear makes me dangerous.

I don’t visit Elizabeth until I’m forced. It’s March 2012—two-hundred and sixty days since Emily died—and I receive a call from her day nurse telling me that she needs me, urgently.

The drive there is somehow both fast and slow. Around me, the world is spinning onwards, heedless of the terror racing at the prospect of what awaits. Within my car, with my hands slipping on the sweaty steering wheel and my breath coming sharp and short, time trickles sluggishly on. I’m not moving fast enough. Everyone else is too fast. It’s a feeling like, no matter how quickly I struggle to go, that I’m not going to get there in time.

In short, I’m terrified of the death I’m almost convinced that I’m driving towards. I can’t do it again. Not again. Not so soon. But, when I get there, there’s no death. There’s just a reminder that Emily Prentiss is how she was for a reason, and the singular biggest influence on her as a child was her mother.

“Hello, Spencer,” says Elizabeth as I walk inside, the same cat-like smugness on her wasted features that her daughter had worn when alive and sure she had me cornered. “Say hello to Spencer, Storm.”

“Hello to Spenner Storm,” Storm says quietly, barely looking up from the colouring book she’s busy filling with waxy lines of purple.

I’m frozen. Locked in place at the sight of the girl I haven’t seen for almost half a year. She’s grown and dressed strangely to my eye, in a mint green dress with beading that’s far too delicate and intricate for a three-year-old who likes to pick at things until they’re loose. Hair that’s normally tumbling around her ears is pulled back tight and pinned in place and her expression is moody and unmoving, except, when I walk slowly into the room, I see her watching me out of the corner of her eye.

I say, “Hello, Storm,” and crouch beside her, my heart beating fast at this moment. It’s right now that I realise how much I’ve missed her. “What are you colouring?”

She doesn’t answer.

This is frightening to me. Almost as odd as Elizabeth’s tears all those months ago, or the emotional rawness of Emily’s letter. Something so uncharacteristic as to be alarming. When I look at Elizabeth, she tilts her chin and frowns, just a little.

“May I see?” I ask Storm, but she hunches her shoulders and ignores me, continuing to scribble. Thoughtfully, I consider my options. With Elizabeth watching wordlessly, I clamber to my feet and leave the room, returning with the colouring books and pencils from the bedroom upstairs that still lies untouched. When I open them, most of the pages are already filled with Storm’s previous artistic efforts, a riot of colours and lines. Despite the messiness of her childish attempts at art, the majority is within the lines and coloured appropriately. “Let’s colour together,” I offer because Elizabeth called me here for a reason and I’ve decided to play along.

Storm says nothing, just watches as I place my own colouring book next to hers and page through. My intention is to find a clean sheet and draw with her, but my hand slows as I compare the colouring of the Storm of then with the silent girl of now sitting next to me. The colours are still in place, but there’s no noticeable improvement in style or control. That’s not right. Developmentally, there should be few comparisons available with this much time having passed.

I choose red and go to draw, but her hand snaps out with a purple crayon clutched tight, offering it to me along with relief. Purple has always been her favourite colour, and I’m glad that hasn’t changed. “This one,” she corrects me, dropping it on the unicorn I’ve chosen to work on. “Horses are purple.”

“It’s a unicorn.”

She scrunches her nose, repeating, “Horse,” and then going back to her own scribbling.

And I see it.

“Wrong hand,” I tell her gently. She looks at me, confused, dark eyes narrowed with suspicion. Behind us, Elizabeth moves suddenly in a rustle of clothing and joints clicking, kneeling on Storm’s other side. “Why are you using your left-hand—that hand—to draw?”

When asked a question previously, Storm loved nothing more than to answer it, usually incorrectly, and then demand that she was correct until the other party either agreed or distracted her. Now?

She hunches more and hugs her right-hand close to her beaded chest, shaking her head furiously.

“Show me,” orders Elizabeth, tugging that small wrist out and into view, letting us both see the stiffened scarring of the injured hand, drawing the skin tight as it healed and curled those tiny fingers in against the palm. When Elizabeth gently forces her to spread her fingers, they do so despite Storm’s whine of anger and pain, but immediately curl back as soon as the force is removed. “Do you still do hand games, Storm?”

Silence.

“Like this.” I show her—hand open, hand closed—twice for good measure. “Do you remember this? Does your dad do hands with you still?”

Since there is a child sitting by my leg, I sound very, very calm. Smiling, almost. Inwardly, I’m seething. I want to find the man responsible for this child I love and stress to him exactly the importance of the physical therapy Emily had been so careful with. Her hand can still move, so there’s been some, but it clearly hurts her—so, not enough. All I can hear is Emily’s voice in my head telling me to keep her safe, and this man neglects the most basic aspects of her care.

“Lunchtime,” Elizabeth says suddenly, standing with a wince and a shadowed flicker of her sparse lashes against the skin under her eyes. The message is clear; we leave the child on her own and close the door between us so she can’t hear us talking about her. Through the glass insert, I can watch Storm carefully and I do so, rather than watching Elizabeth slowly arranging the ingredients for a sandwich on a dinosaur-shaped plate. She speaks first: “Storm refers to her father as ‘Mr. Lomaia’ when encouraged to speak of him.”

I swallow. It grates. The knife clicks against the glass chopping board as she painfully cuts a slice of cheese until I step forward and take it from her. There’s a particular way Storm enjoys her sandwiches and I remember it despite only having seen it once, on a carefree afternoon so long ago when Emily had, just for a day, allowed me into her apartment on more than the pretence of being friends. Cheese goes under lettuce, lettuce must hold the tomato, and the meat needs to fold and not touch the sides. I arrange it carefully as I ask, “What do we know of him?”

Elizabeth has taken my place by the door, sitting in a hard-backed wooden chair with her gaze fixed on her granddaughter sitting out of my line-of-sight. “Very little. He is a devout Christian with a loving family—a wife, three children. No criminal records, not a single hint of neglect.”

“That doesn’t mean anything.” My voice is as sharp as the clink of the knife striking the glass once more. “She’s not like this. She’s never like this. Is he hurting her?”

Spencer.” Her voice is scolding but she still doesn’t look at me. “Do you really think I would allow her to return to that house if I thought she was in danger? Do you think so little of me?” I don’t answer, and she smiles thinly but without warmth. “She refers to her father formally, the wife not at all, and only mentions one of her siblings, Nika. Once a month, she’s dropped off by a chauffeured car and a harassed looking au pair in clothes like what she’s wearing now—”

“Overdressed for a playdate with her grandma,” I murmur.

Elizabeth folds her fingers. “Oh, that’s understandable. They’re intimidated by me, I’m not an easy woman to deal with when it comes to her care. Since I doubt Mikheil buys her clothing, undoubtedly the wife is attempting to seem generous.”

My answer is a dry laugh. “Attempting?”

“She wears that dress the same way Emily used to wear hers—under duress. I can’t count the number of times I managed to get Emily into something nice and for her to pluck the lace off or lose the bow within minutes of me taking my eyes off her. Those aren’t clothes that she wears often. Normally, her behaviour is positively manic as soon as her au pair leaves.”

I blink, unable to actually imagine Storm acting even close to manic. Angry, fretful, excited, perhaps. Manic? That’s more my style. But my understanding of children’s behaviour, regretfully, is limited to the extremes. I can list the symptoms of physical or sexual abuse, or sustained neglect, none of which I want to begin listing about Emily’s daughter.

“She talks a mile a minute until she’s blue in the face and then she talks more, all the time clinging. If I even hint for her to stop, she shuts down and removes herself from me.” Elizabeth pauses, breathing quickly as though exhausted from speaking. “I told her not to snap her crayons in half last month and she got up and put herself to bed.”

“They’re strict with her.” Emily had never been strict. If anything, Storm had been spoiled. Regrettably, that may have made this transition more difficult for her.

Elizabeth nods in agreement. “Emily was a very lonely child,” she says, and there’s the same regret I’ve been battling in her tone. “She used to bother the help so much… endless questions. Fortunately, none of them were ever unkind enough to tell her that her questioning was unwanted. However, when the help went home for weekends or holidays, she was in the unique position of being a very inquisitive, people-orientated child without a single person to speak to—no longer the centre of attention. Emily flourished despite this but Storm is not her mother. I don’t believe loneliness is good for her.”

The sandwich is done. I place it on the table by the seat with extra cushions, for its smaller occupant, and say nothing as I go to retrieve said smaller occupant. She looks up at me as I crouch and hold my arms out to her, unsure if this gesture will be welcomed but unable to hide the impulse. She swallows. I watch her little throat bob with the movement, her eyes wide and longing but her posture refrained. “Come eat your lunch?” I offer, despite her being perfectly able to walk to the kitchen which is a much kinder seating area to small legs than the large dining room.

“Can we read after?” she asks, some spark returning, and that’s it for me. Before I can respond, she’s leapt up into my arms and I’m standing with her arms wrapped trustingly around my neck and her chin on my shoulder. At that moment, there isn’t a single thing that I wouldn’t do for her. “The rabbit book, please and thanks.”

In the kitchen, I pull Elizabeth aside. “What do I have to do for visitation?”

She smiles, the first real smile of the day and I know what she’s hoped for with luring me here: exactly this. “They won’t deny you,” she says, the cat-smugness back. “I can ensure that.”

And she does.

 


 

I’m given access once every two weeks, if that timeframe doesn’t fall on the same weekend as Elizabeth’s visitation, and it happens with surprising enough speed that, before the end of March, I find myself driving through the Forest Hills area of DC in my old Austin and wondering if this is a mistake. The wealth that surrounds me is disconcerting, even more so when I pull up outside the address I’ve been given and have to check it twice to make sure I’m at the right house.

It’s not like Elizabeth’s townhouse is mundane, but I can’t help but feel that the architectural design that went into it is somehow kinder than the ostentatiously modern building I’m parked before. It’s a red brick, wood, and glass monolith made of sharp lines and harsh angles, only offset by the greenery that spills through into the property from Rock Creek Park next door. I feel very small and very out of place as I stride up the path to the sunken front door, resting my finger on the buzzer and thinking, once more, about whether I’m where I’m supposed to be. This doesn’t feel like a home where Storm, or Emily, would ever feel comfortable.

The door opens before I can depress the button, a neatly dressed young woman smiling warily at me. “Dr Reid?” she says, bobbing politely. I’m thrown by the gesture, merely nodding before she gestures: “You’re expected. Come through.”

I follow into a yawning space, the cavernous room lit solely by the windows that stretch the four-storey height of the house. It’s imposing. The man who fathered Storm is waiting to greet me by the entrance door, clearly allowing me to take in the decor before he steps forward. All I can think is how gleefully Emily would whisper about sliding across the polished tile floors in her socks, with more space in this singular room than my entire apartment. I should have gone into architecture. There are some questionable structural choices visible to my eye despite the price tag I’m sure is attached to a building like this one. It occurs to me only when the man steps forward that I’ve been doing not much else but staring and blinking.

Damnit, Emily. Couldn’t she have had a child with a librarian? Something I feel capable of facing.

“Ambassador Lomaia,” I manage, still blinking. There’s a tight band around my chest pulling inward as I speak. Where is Storm? Why am I here? The Ambassador just stares at me, an unreadable expression on his, unfortunately, handsome face. I can see the appeal. Large, dark eyes and a sharp jawline framing arrestingly strong features; I can see Storm in the Roman nose and hair that falls in much finer lines than Emily’s ever had. Through my own eyes, he looks cold. Through Emily’s? I resent the thought. A slave to my own biases. “Hi. Uh. Hello.”

Hi.

Hello.

I’m never going to be welcomed here again.

“Dr Reid, greetings,” says Mikheil, but I’m not foolish enough to believe we’ll ever be on first name terms, nor do I want to be. I look at him and see Storm’s curled palm. He’s holding his hand out to shake and, despite the raw revulsion that assails me, I accept the gesture. I will not ruin my chances here, not any more than my profound awkwardness already has. “These are my wife and sons.” The introduction is blunt, cold, and no names are offered for any of the people ranged behind him. One child—the oldest, I estimate ten—smiles slightly at me. It’s a disconcerting smile because it’s very alike the same crooked grin Storm gives me when she’s doing something she shouldn’t. I think this is the moment that I realise Storm is her father’s daughter too. “You’ll be looking to see the child? Two hours you’ve been allotted. This way.”

And he turns to lead me further into the home. Thrown, there’s very little I can do but follow. And follow. And follow.

At least, I think as we walk down yet another hall, I’m taller than him.

And, just like that, I’m reduced to my college-aged self, thirteen years old and resentful of being a boy surrounded by, to my eyes, men. I doubt the man in front of me wears odd socks or has a car that’s unreliable or—

A door clicks open, swinging away from the ambassador’s palm, and Storm looks up to me. I finish my thought in that second of stepping roughly past the man I don’t care to be polite to and into the room where she’s closeted away from the world: I doubt the man behind me ever knew Emily like I had, or deserves to.

“Spencer, hi,” Storm says and smiles with only a cursory wary look at her father. It’s a real smile, and she stands with her arms up for a hug. “Did you bring the book?”

“I did,” I say to her, hearing the door beginning to close. Now or never. “Ambassador, wait.” I have second thoughts, as I turn with Storm in my arms clinging monkey-like to me and find the man staring me down. But, if I don’t do it now, I won’t do it ever, and I have Elizabeth backing me. “The former Ambassador Prentiss and I have been wanting to speak with you about this.” ‘This’ is the hand curled into a fist against mine, and, as soon as I gesture to it, his expression clouds.

“She attends physical therapy twice a week, as per her doctor’s recommendations,” he says sharply. “We follow all instructions to the letter. I don’t know why it doesn’t heal as we were told it would.”

I’m possessed, I assume, by the ghost of Emily, because only Emily is this blatant in getting what she wants: “Because the exercises aren’t being done,” I say, rudely. I can’t be this rude, not to this family, in this house, with my tenuous foot through the door. But I am. “To retain flexibility in the hand, they need to be done nightly. She’s already beginning to favour her left-hand.”

I brace for a retort that doesn’t come; instead, the ambassador simply looks… tired. He nods and closes the door, and that’s that. It’s a frustrating, expected outcome.

Just like that, I’m alone with the muted shadow of the wonderful girl Emily raised. I look at her, as she looks at me. In this room, well-lit and far too much space for the amount of Storm filling it, there’s an empty bookshelf with a single colouring book, her rabbit propped up on the queen double bed in an ocean of throw pillows, and a single fire-red toy truck tipped over by the door to the ensuite. An ensuite, in a three-year old’s room. The walls and surfaces are decorated nicely, with polished wood statues and paintings of meadows. It’s a room where imagination falters.

Her gaze has followed mine to the unlikely truck. “It’s Nika’s,” she tells me solemnly as she climbs down and bounces slightly away, switching from one foot to the other restlessly. There are balcony doors. I walk over to them and check that they’re locked, shivering a little at the drop to the stone walk below. They are.

“Your brother?”

She looks confused, her sharp nose scrunching as she ponders that. “Nooooo?” is the slow reply. “He lives here. Mr Lomaia is his daddy.” A cautious look. “Not mine. He calls him mama.”

“Georgian has reversed parental terminology,” I say absently, still examining the room. What am I looking for? I think for anything that might be a single hint that a little girl lives here, that she’s wanted here. Anything to stave off the guilt building for letting this happen. “Father in Georgian is ‘mama’, Mother is pronounced as ‘deda’.”

Storm doesn’t seem all that interested in the intricacies of Kartvelian languages, nudging the truck with her bare foot. “Can we read now?” she asks longingly, tiptoeing forward and grabbing my hand. There’s something in the gesture that hurts, some desperation that feels obscene in someone so small—someone for whom being loved and wanted is simply an inarguable fact of life. Except, it’s not anymore.

I look at her and I think of a little boy with a mother too sick to remember his name. I think of being alone.

I think of Emily.

And then I sit down with her, in the centre of that big, empty room with nothing but the ghost of a childhood within, and I read to her from the book we gave her. Once done, she asks for more, and I read instead from the books I’ve memorised, the best use for my perfect recall that I can possibly imagine.

When I leave that house this day, I leave behind a lonely girl that’s the perfect mix of mine and Emily’s shared heartbreaks, and I leave behind the book we gifted her. It’s not enough. But it’s something.

In the coming two months before her birthday, my visits follow that same pattern. I arrive at the home, am greeted tersely, before being taken to the bedroom she hides away in. Despite the size of the house and the luxuries surrounding her, she rarely asks to leave the room. Once, I take her out into the gardens and chase her in endless circles until we’re both dizzy and gasping. It’s this day, sprawled on the grass and giggling, that the boy approaches me, the eldest.

“You’re gonna make her tired,” he says, sneaker scuffing the grass a little and olive skin darker at the bridge of his nose and cheeks. There’s a determined expression on his face. “She’s only little.”

It’s the tone that gets me; protective, and very firm. “You’re Nika, aren’t you?” I ask him. He nods, sneaker still pushing down firmly into the turf. “You gave Storm her truck.”

“I’m too old for it.” He puffs his chest out a bit, just to show off how grown he really is. “It’s a baby toy and Stormy’s a baby, so she should have it.”

“She’s very thankful,” I say, and that’s when Lomaia arrives home, coming out from the back-sliding door with his expression tense and the shadow of his wife hovering behind him.

“Nika, inside,” he barks. Nika, with startling speed, vanishes. “You were supposed to leave half an hour ago. Why were you speaking to him?” He’s not angry, I don’t think, but he is posturing. And, behind him, the wife lingers. Behind me, Storm presses against my back, shivering a little. She’s never been yelled at before, not truly.

“We were discussing toys,” I say calmly. This man and his bluster don’t frighten me, not anymore. Far beyond the nerves of the first worrying visit, I can see my purpose here now—when I ask Storm to show me her hands now, one month from my discussion with her father, they move easier. Both of them. “Or the lack thereof.”

The man frowns. It’s a dark look on his face, just as cloudy and dangerous as the same look on his toddler daughter. “She’s an infant. What toys could she possibly require?”

And it clicks.

This man is a politician, through and through, just as Emily had always complained Elizabeth was. But, unlike Elizabeth, he still has a spouse at home willing to step in and take the role of child-carer. From his neatly dressed children and their interests and development, he’s always been completely distant, coming home to a meal waiting and a family lined up to politely tell him the highlights of that day.

I almost ask him if he’s ever rolled on the grass with his children, even as I pick green from my trousers and dirt from my palms. But I don’t. He’s not the one with the power in this household, not domestically, and where the power lays, there’s also bitterness. After all, how would I have reacted if my wife were to bring home a child from another man, passing her into my care and expecting me to raise her among my own? But, even as I think of this, I know it’s an invalid validation.

I would never, ever neglect a child out of hatred for her mother. Never.

“Books,” I say coldly. “Teddies, crayons, paints. Things that she can make noise and mess with. She’s a child, not a doll, not a baby, not a potted plant. You have enough money for a working elevator in your home—buy her a child’s piano and let her make her own fun. Or, if you’d prefer, I’ll pack her rooms at Elizabeth’s and bring everything here that Emily bought for her.”

It’s the mention of Emily that stings him. I watch it happen.

“You think I neglect her,” he states plainly.

“I know you do.” I let my gaze linger past him, on the open back door. “And I know she does. I won’t stand for it.”

“Don’t yell,” Storm whispers behind me. “That’s bad.”

“She’s not her mother,” I finish, quieter now, one hand on her hair to soothe her. “Don’t punish her because of what you did, or because of the difficulty you’re facing now because of it.” It’s a fair assumption. Career or family-wise: it would be naïve to imagine that he’s escaped this controversy unscathed, despite his desperate attempts to keep Storm hidden from the world.

But then, a startling, strange thing happens. The man, Storm’s father—despite the impossibility of thinking of him as that—doesn’t argue. He doesn’t throw me out or demand I leave. Instead, he looks at the little girl behind me and he says, “Very well. I’m not accustomed to being told what to do in my own home.” I’m not sure if he’s talking about me, or his wife, as he looks at neither of us. “And I don’t invite you to make a habit of it. Please, your visit today is over. I’ll consider your thoughts. Storm?”

Her hands grip tight as she clings, peering around me with her little heart thudding fast. She doesn’t answer, but she’s listening intently.

And he says, “Would you like to come with me tomorrow to buy some…” A pause, and he falters.

“Books,” I murmur.

“Books. To read, I suppose. Perhaps a toy.”

The trembling stops and I feel her tense. On her face, when I look down at her, she’s smiling hopefully. ‘Books’ is a word she’s learned very, very well. “With Nika?” she demands, and I see Lomaia blink, startled.

Good. That’s one thing he needs to learn; there’s nothing about this girl, or her mother, that’s not surprising.

 


 

May arrives and with it a brusque message from ‘The Lomaia family’ inviting me, in no uncertain terms, to celebrate a birthday party with them. There’s no name of the child on the invitation card, only a date, time, and place—Rock Creek Park, by the entrance of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park—and the hand that wrote it is masculine and precise. Like the room Storm lives in, now filled with books and interests for a child, and the startling realisation that Lomaia himself is the one who has taken it upon himself to continue Storm’s physical therapy. Nika is only too happy to brag about how good he is at playing ‘the hand game with Stormy’. It’s all further evidence that my words have had an impact.

The dossier of Doyle’s victims, both confirmed and suspected, grows weekly in my office and I’m careful to never travel the same way twice to Storm, but, in her home life, my impact is substantial. It leaves a feeling of… if not a success, at least a lessening of the feeling of guilt. I might not be able to keep her safe by removing Doyle from this world but at least I am able to improve her little corner of it. Emily would be pleased, I like to think.

I go, of course. And, once again, I’m surprised. The party isn’t overdone or ostentatious, nor is it sparse. There are three folded tables with a variety of candies available, a bevy of streamers and balloons and startlingly cheap looking party novelties, another table with a small pile of wrapped gifts upon it, and several ball games set up for the small gaggle of assorted children. There are the three Lomaia boys, with Nika hovering by the bug-eyed Storm who can’t seem to stop staring at everything in shocked wonder, along with children who appear to be friends of the boys and two girls of Storm’s age. I don’t think they know her, although, at three, that also doesn’t seem to be stopping them from sharing their slices of cake. The adults stand in a loose cluster, speaking softly amongst themselves as the children play, with the Ambassador’s wife notably absent.

Lomaia sees me before Storm does, walking away from the group to greet me. “Does this meet your exacting standards?” he asks, looking me up and the gifts I carry. They’re wrapped. Not… well, but they’re wrapped.

“Did you do this to please me?”

This question seems to throw him. “No,” he says finally, turning and watching Storm try to reach for the bottle of soda. Nika assists her, informing her in a loud voice that, ‘Just one or you’ll have no teeth.’ “But that’s not a conversation I wish to have with you.”

I tread carefully around him after that. Evidently, his patience with my meddling is growing slim. I do regret, however, not bringing JJ or Morgan with me, for some kind of company, with Storm wrapped up in her—

“Spencer!” she yowls, launching herself at me. There’s cake and soda everywhere and I bear it bravely, despite the shiver that works up my spine at the stickiness of her small hands and mouth. “Are they mine?” She’s pointing to the gifts I’m carrying.

“Gift opening isn’t—” someone is saying, but I’ve already confirmed Storm’s belief and handed her the less fragile present to be violently unwrapped. From the tattered wrappings falls a stuffed dog, made of a patchwork of patterns and textures with his tongue lolling loose.

“A dog,” she gasps, hugging it tight and getting cake on its collar. “I love dogs.”

“A friend,” I murmur quietly, crouched by her in our own little world at this moment. We’re far enough away that they can’t hear us speaking so softly, despite Lomaia’s eyes locked on me. “Do you know what makes dogs wonderful?” She shakes her head, face flushed and eyes huge with wonder. “They’re wonderful for secrets, Storm. You can tell them anything you want, and they’ll always listen. Anytime you’re feeling lonely.”

“Oooooh,” she breathes, hugging the dog tighter, but her attention is already shifting to the other gift I’m holding. “That too?”

“We’ll unwrap this one together.” We have to—what’s within is far too precious for a child’s clumsy hands. And we do. As I fold the wrapping carefully and hold her present out for her to look at, my hands shake, just a little.

“That’s Mommy,” she says quietly. It is. It’s a photo of Emily, sourced from Elizabeth, her real smile shining through in the split-second moment captured.

Storm nods seriously and moves on with her day, but I see Lomaia’s expression darken at the gift. The tension doesn’t recede. I don’t regret my gift to Storm, but I do regret the cloud it casts over her celebrations. As though spurred by the face of the dead, Lomaia doesn’t hang on the sidelines anymore. He’s in with the children, his own sons over-excited by his inclusion in their games, laughing too loud and smiling too wide and trying too hard. I don’t judge him for this; I’ve done much the same before, when trying desperately to show that I’m somewhere I belong.

When Storm spills cake onto her dress, he moves to wipe it from the velvety material. At the touch of his hand, she twists and slips away, running to me. “Help, please,” she asks, smiling up at me. I do, and he watches with the napkin in his hand.

When she trips and falls on a path, her face twisting into a worried ‘am I hurt?’ as she waits to know whether to cry or not, he tries to console her. As he kneels by her side, she decides to cry, loudly but without a tear to be seen, until she sees me and can scramble up to limp over to me. She points to her knee, says, “Ow,” and threatens to cry again until I promise to put a kiss on a napkin and touch it to the affected area, in some kind of childish first-aid that’s a mimicry of what I’ve seen Emily do in the past—almost. I’m not quite so brave as to kiss the knee of a child, especially scraped.

It's a frantic mess of him wanting to give more and her refusing to allow it, and I’d feel sorry for him but some part of me, some small and gleeful corner, loves that she prefers me. Loves that some part of Emily still lives to smile at me and let me soothe her pains, even as small as a mildly scuffed knee.

But, he’s her father. That’s a bond I can’t, and shouldn’t, surmount. The next time she comes to me—holding out her empty cup—I redirect her quietly to her waiting father, and I step back. Moving to the outside, looking in, as I realise slowly that, really, this can’t go on forever. How long is he going to accept my intrusions into his home? How long until Elizabeth’s influence wanes?

How long until his posting is over, and he returns to his home country?

The children have quieted, seated at various tables and chairs for their lunch. There’s a lurching horror in my gut seeping into the rest of me at the realisation that, one day, Storm will be gone. There’ll be an ocean between me and that smile, the only remaining facet of Emily left on this earth if Elizabeth falls to this illness and, beyond that, a child that I genuinely and truly care for.

I’ll likely never see her again.

I wish, at that moment, that I’d given her the photo of Emily and I both.

I realise; I can’t stay here. So long as I remain, she’s going to keep looking at me for comfort, for reassurance. For the same feeling of familiarity she had when she was home with Emily. Maybe I’m using her, just a little, to keep my memory of Emily alive, but it’s likely that she’s unconsciously clinging to me for much the same reason. Now that I’ve seen her father is willing to make the effort, to step up, I need to… I need to move out of his way.

“Are you going to eat?” a woman asks me as I walk forward on unsteady legs to say goodbye. Not for good—I can’t do that. It would be cruel to Storm, who cares for me, and I don’t believe I’m strong enough. But, for today. Let her celebrate with her family, now that I’ve given her my gift.

“Thank you, no, I—” I begin, smiling awkwardly, but am distracted. Storm is sitting by her half-brother, her father helping her choose portions of the food available for her plate. I hadn’t looked at the food before now. Group food is a disconcerting concept.

I hadn’t looked at the food.

I move fast, but not fast enough. Storm is still holding the remains of what her father had given her as I grab her wrist and yank it away from her mouth, snapping too loud, “Spit it out, Storm, out!” People around me are staring, whispering, my elbow clipping Nika on the way past, but I can’t think to reassure them through the throb of blood in my ears.

“I ate it, uh oh,” she whispers, sensing my fear and confusing it for anger, shrinking away.

I panic. For a second, I panic. Her lunch is spilled at our feet, her father snapping at me.

The panic fades.

“Did you bring epinephrine?” I ask her father, a cold kind of calm stealing through my limbs. She’s warm under my hands. Less than forty seconds post-consumption. “An epi-pen, you have to have one. Where is it?”

“What?” he says. The sound is dull to my hyper-focused ears, locked on only one thing: the continued breathing of the child I’m holding.

I think I say, “She’s allergic to strawberries.” I think those words leave my mouth. I’m not sure. Maybe I tell Storm that she’s going to be okay. I know I tell the woman in blue to call an ambulance, refusing to look away from her until she does so. There’s a possibility I turn on him, on the idiot who calls himself her father and tell him exactly that—that he’s an idiot who doesn’t deserve her care or love—, but in reality, I did only one of those things. Without explanation or discussion, I react.

“Oh no,” says Storm. Her voice is slurred, squeezed out through a tightening throat and swelling lips. “My mouth is oh no.”

It takes one minute and thirty-two seconds for me to re-orientate myself and consider the following: there’s no help in this crowd of staring faces; help won’t be fast enough for a four-year-old in acute anaphylactic shock; she has only minutes until her respiratory functions are depressed beyond salvation. One minute and thirty-two seconds, far too long. Time’s running out. She can’t breathe; I’m watching her lips turn blue and her body go rigid, and I don’t have a plan yet.

Brain cells begin dying at one minute without oxygen. At three minutes, lasting brain damage becomes more likely. At ten minutes, even if life remains, a coma and lasting brain damage are almost inevitable.

I don’t think about the possibility of death. I just pick her up, and I run. If they follow, I don’t notice. I notice nothing except the failing body in my arms as I leap the gate of the nearby zoo without missing a stride, heading straight for the red cross symbol looming ahead. People shout and dive out of my way. I don’t care. She’s not breathing.

By the time I get where I’m going, she’s unconscious.

She can’t die.

She can’t.

 


 

“Is someone available to stay with her overnight?” asks the nurse. I’m hardly listening. Storm is curled in a miserable ball with her hand hooked through mine and her skin still reddened and loose from the swelling. The bed she’s in is far too big for her, and it takes every bit of self-control I have not to pick her up and scoop her into my lap.

“Dr Reid.” The words are sharp, and I turn to stare. Lomaia is watching me and, when he sees I’m finally listening, he repeats: “Will you stay?”

I don’t ask why he’s asking me. We both already know. After the first aid attendants at the zoo near Storm’s party had administered the epinephrine in a painful shot to her thigh, Storm had roused. Barely. Not enough to be cognizant of her surroundings, but enough to cry out for her mom. Enough to reach for me.

I rode with her in the ambulance, because her father couldn’t, or wouldn’t.

“Yes,” I say. There are things I need to do: call Hotch, call Elizabeth. Right now, I add, “She’ll need clothes. Something comforting—her rabbit.”

“I’ll get them and bring them back.” With that, her father leaves us alone.

“Some birthday, huh?” I say softly. She just sniffs, curling tighter with her eyelids drifting shut. I let her sleep. She’ll be okay. That’s what they tell us—that she’ll be okay. But, I worry.

When Lomaia comes back, he brings a bag with clothes, the rabbit, and the new dog. There are even books tucked in there, despite this only being an overnight stay. I thank him quietly, but there’s anger simmering below my even tone. Fury burns. This is another thing I can never forgive him for, this absolute idiocy regarding her health.

“I brought this too,” he says, lingering. I want him to leave. I want him as far away from me and my life as possible. I wish he’d never, ever come near it to begin with. He represents the destruction of everything. But I look at what he’s brought.

It’s the picture of Emily.

I hate him for touching it.

“I didn’t know.”

I don’t care. I refuse to care. I refuse to forgive.

“We were never told she was—”

“That’s a lie.” My tone is dangerous. I need to stop. This is a sickroom, a place of healing. There’s a child sleeping in the bed before me that can’t be disturbed. “Elizabeth would have told you. There are medical records stating this. You’ve had her for seven months—you’ve never once looked at her medical history? She has a med-alert bracelet, a silver one, Emily bought—”

I stop. The name hurts us both.

“I didn’t know,” he says again, this time angrier. “I should have known, but I didn’t. That was my mistake—I feel terrible, is that not enough for you? Must you dig the knife in? I don’t know what you’re talking about, a bracelet. I’ve never seen one. Perhaps my wife—”

“I don’t care.” Dangerous ground, but I leap onto it with both feet forward. I loathe this man. “Go away. You’re going to wake her up and I need to ring her grandmother and tell her what happened—go buy a dozen epi-pens in case you forget again.”

Too far. I’ve gone too far.

“I won’t be spoken to like that,” he hisses. I don’t back down. Not anymore. In this, I refuse to be a coward. Today, Storm could have died in my arms. Gone, just like her mother. “You have absolutely no right—”

“Yelling…” Storm mumbles, rousing. Without even pausing to consider the man behind us, I turn my back on him and move to her side. For the longest moment, she struggles to find the words she’s looking for, until, “Book?”

I don’t think she really wants to be read to. She’s tired and sick and sore, her leg bruised from the auto-injector and her throat and head hurting her both. Book right now means don’t leave from a child who no longer believes that people will stay by her side just because she deserves the company.

I loathe this man. The fury of it sets my skin to burning, my eyes prickling with rage. It’s a tremendous effort not to bunch my fingers into a fist in the hospital linen, to buckle my shoulders forward with anger.

“I’ll return in the morning,” is the only thing he says, and then he leaves. We’re alone.

“Book,” Storm mumbles again, but she’s already falling asleep, fingers searching for mine. I wait for her to doze off, and for the anger to fade, and then I call her grandmother and Hotch, and the day ticks on.

Her birthday doesn’t quite end there. It would be a poor excuse for a birthday if it had, if I’d let it.

Three hours later, we can be found doing this:

“Let’s play,” she says under the cavern of the blankets I’ve pulled over her. It’s a mediocre excuse for a fort, but we’ll likely be thoroughly scolded by the day nurse for doing anything else. “It’s a game!” The dog is tucked at her side, the rabbit on the other. The blanket is over my head, the rest of me remaining without, and I can occasionally hear a laugh from the nurses passing as they note the ‘Please don’t panic at the birthday castle within’ sign I’ve stuck to the door using band-aids and paper towel.

“I don’t think you’re well enough for a game,” I say, noting the time. “It’ll have to be a quick one, and a quiet one. A game for quiet, sleepy girls.”

“A game for girls who are four, not three,” she adds. “Let’s play family.”

I wince. As captivating as the pretend play stage of development is, that’s a painful wound to prod. “Okay,” I manage weakly. “But we don’t leave the bed. How do we play?”

I’m shot a look and it clearly judges me for my lack of knowledge on how to play ‘family’, but she takes pity on me despite this. “Easy,” I’m told, as she prods at the linen-roof sagging a bit above her head. “You be Daddy. Hi, Daddy!”

Ah.

“And you?” I ask, breathing deeply to even out the way that hurts.

“I’m me, duh. Storm.” She pauses, waiting for me to click. “Your Storm.”

But Storm, much like her mother, always goes for the kill when she senses weakness. I’m allotted no quarter.

“And here,” she says, as brightly as though there isn’t a thing wrong with her, reaching for the photo tucked beside the rabbit. “It’s Mommy too. We’re playing!” Emily smiles back at me from her daughter’s hands, and there’s a look in Storm’s that suggests that this isn’t a game at all; she’s testing the water right now, pushing back against the boundaries that had been installed with her father’s insistence upon calling him ‘Mr.’. “Are you playing?”

My earlier conviction is shattered. It’s been proven today; I can’t walk away from this child. And I can’t even pretend that I want to.

“Yes,” I say. “Hi, Storm. Hi, Mommy. How was your day?”

Her smile is worth every inch of regret those words bring, and simply help to define what I need to do now. Doyle’s still out there. And, so long as he is, she needs to stay safe. I can’t trust anyone else with that. I’m sure that this reason is exactly why Emily wrote the letter to me and only me; there is no one more easily manipulated than me, especially when it comes to the people I love.

I have to do anything, absolutely anything, to keep her safe.

Chapter Text

This is our last night. You’re lying beside me, unaware of this. Should I describe you? It sounds redundant but, understand me—I don’t think you see what I do when I look at you. Do you?

Right now, you’re asleep. I was cruel tonight. After dinner, after we put Storm down to sleep, I took you to my bed. When we fuck, I can see in your eyes that that’s not what you call it. I never ask, because until now I’ve never wanted to know, but I bet you refer to it as ‘making love’, despite knowing that’s a term I find painfully trite. But that’s also what we did tonight.

You were so, so gentle. Know when I’m gone that I treasured this about you, how kind you were to those who are raw and vulnerable. There’s a softness to your eyes that I can’t escape loving and something haunting about the way you hold me. You don’t avoid all the parts where I’m bruised and broken, but you never hurt them either. Even when you brought your mouth to the bandage on my stomach and kissed along the line of it, I felt nothing but the pressure of your love.

You do love me. I saw it so clearly tonight. With less than eight hours to live, I’m finally able to see that. God, it’s so fucking ironic, isn’t it? The fact that dying is what makes me realise all the things I have to live for.

I’m sorry for that.

There’s a scar on your knee and another on your chin. If I search further, I know I’ll find one more across your chest. You probably see ugliness when you look at them; I never have. They’re fascinating to me because they’re a part of you, a hint to all your harsher edges. That’s important right now because you’re going to have to be harsh from now on. It’s the only way what’s coming won’t gut you.

Compartmentalisation, Spencer. It’s more useful than you know.

It’s warm, so the window is open. That’s good. The sound of the city outside floating in will cover the sound of me leaving, as soon as our time runs out. And it is running out. With every second passing by, every lost minute, I’m one step closer to never seeing you again. Never seeing my daughter. It hurts so much that I can’t breathe when I think of it.

 

But I need to stop procrastinating the point of this letter with endless memories and broken hearts and all my stupid, wayward emotions. They’re not what you need from me right now, I know.

What you need from me are the answers to the questions you’re going to have. Why I’m doing this. What I hope to achieve. Why I’m writing you this letter at all, instead of just fading out of your life.

You already know the answer to the last, it’s how I began this letter. My reason for writing it is so you know how important it is that you look out for Storm when I can’t anymore. It’s manipulative, but the majority of this letter is me trying to rectify the wrongs of my past in order to guarantee her some kind of future. That’s why I keep asking you to remember—remember when she was born, remember what I was to you before this. All things that will drive you towards protecting her. I know I could just ask and you’d likely do it anyway, but you know me. When have I ever trusted easily?

 

I’m doing this because Ian Doyle believes that he owns me. In his head, Lauren Reynolds and Emily Prentiss are one and the same. They’re not. Trust me. I have never once in my life been in love with Ian Doyle, but Lauren Reynolds has. She and I are not the same person. That’s going to sound insane to you, almost unbelievable, but it’s true. Who I was in that period of my life isn’t who I am now, and it isn’t who I choose to be as I die. When I disappear tonight, I disappear as Emily Prentiss. I go to him as Emily Prentiss.

I die as Emily Prentiss.

Lauren Reynolds knew nothing of Storm, of having a daughter, and she knew nothing of you. Love, as she understood it, was cruel and unpredictable—wild when he was and vicious when he was too. She was tied up and beaten down and liked it all, because it was a kind of living, having to battle for every scrap of affection. As far as she knew, that’s what love was. It was a kind gesture one day and a backhand the next. It was doing business with a rifle at the back of her skull, knowing that loving her wouldn’t stop him ending her. Yes, it was also sex and passion and recklessness; it was also never real. But, when I die tonight, I’ll die knowing everything Lauren didn’t: I’ll die knowing that I am loved completely by a little girl who is my heart and soul in another person’s being, and I’ll die knowing that I have loved others completely too, both that little girl who will carry the part of me I leave behind, and also you.

Love, as you’ve taught me to believe, is kindness and pain and endless, savage hope. It hurt us just as much as it did Lauren because I pushed you away when you wanted nothing more than to treasure me, but it hurt in a way that was real.

 

Lauren’s love left bruises. Ours left heartbreak.

 

Doyle is hunting those children because he believes that he owns me. This is important enough that it needs restating. When I was Lauren, I saw that he loved Declan the same way—as an extension of himself, a product to be owned and shaped however he wished. His every action around us displayed this belief. When he asked Lauren to marry him, he asked her to be his wife, to be a mother to Declan—he never once asked her to be herself, because who she was was unimportant to him so long as she was loyal. Loyalty is everything to him. His possessions are everything to him. Both those things are status points and the removal of either incites rage in him because it makes him appear weak to those who he needs to believe see him as strong.

I not only took Lauren from him, I also took Declan. By doing so, I broke his trust. He will never stop hunting me because I ‘belong’ to him. He won’t be happy until I’m dead because, with my past actions, I betrayed him. That’s why I have no other option than the one I choose tonight.

The children he kills are nothing more than tools used to control me. He told me this the night he took Storm and I chased him. He felt absolutely nothing when he killed them, but he cried when he stabbed me because I am his. This is what I’m banking on. Some part of him grieves that he must kill me. And he must kill me, Spencer—don’t fool yourself thinking that he will have mercy. He’s not capable, not where I’m concerned. But Storm?

My only hope is that killing me will sate his possessive streak. Failing that, I hope to take him with me. I may fail in both, but I have no choice but to try.

 

By the time you find this letter, it will be done. You might even have buried me. Because of that, I feel confident in telling you the following. You can’t stop it from happening.

He contacted me four days ago. He said the killing will continue unless I go to him willingly, that all he wants is for us to be together. Some small part of me hopes that phrase was intentional, that he intends upon killing us together. I’ll die gladly if he dies beside me, but the pessimist in me doesn’t think it’s going to be that easy. I could go to the team with the information he’s given me, where and when to meet him, but you know I won’t do that. I can’t. I want to, I really do, but once again I find myself incapable of that level of trust. If they fail to find him one more time, just like they failed to find him until after he burned his mark into Storm’s hand and left me bleeding on the warehouse floor, my daughter will die. He’s told me as much. Promised that he’ll never stop hunting her so long as I’m alive. That she’ll live a short life of fear.

Do you understand why I’m doing this now? I doubt it. If it was you, you’d go to the team. You’d trust them.

 

I’m not you.

 

What happens next is that I go to him, and then I die. He’s been explicit in this. He knows he has me in a trap I can’t escape from and he’s delighting in holding his finger on the trigger. After this is over, Garcia will likely go through my cell-phone records and find the messages from him. If you get this before that, tell her not to look. They’re revolting. They’ll do nothing but upset her. She’ll also find everything he knows about my daughter.

He knows the pre-school I’ve applied to. He knows her paediatrician. He has photos of the parks she loves, he has photos of her bedroom in my mother’s home. He sent me a picture of his hand on the pillow she sleeps on there. He knows the name of her daycare friends, their addresses, the easiest ways to gain entry into their homes without their parents noticing. The only place he hasn’t been is here because here is guarded, but Storm can’t exist in a bubble. And if I run with her, witness protection and beginning new lives, he’ll always find me. He knows me too well for me to hide completely.

He told me what he’ll do to her if I stay. Garcia will find those too. I want you to read them then, because—for all my bravado—I can’t recite them here, but you need to know. Let them make you as angry as they’ve made me. Let them drive you, as they drive me.

And all of this is why I’m dying.

 

I’ve talked for too long. This is a rambling, shambles of a letter. It’s too long, it makes so little sense, and it’s completely inadequate to describe everything that has happened and is going to happen. I need to stop though, I can’t make it any better. Three hours until I leave and there’s so much left I need to do.

I need to write a letter to Storm. I hope you’ll one day give it to her, although I won’t presume.

This is the only goodbye I can give.

When you wake, know that I love you and that I die loving you. I might not have ever let you see it, but know that it’s utterly and completely true. If this were any other world, any other timeline, any other outcome, I would spend my life by your side. I hope that as I die, I get a glimpse of that. And I’m sorry I never made it clearer while alive, that I let my doubts and insecurities and terror of commitment overshadow what could have been wonderful, even if just for a little while.

I leave you with this letter and with the most important parts of me: my daughter, and my heart.

Keep them safe.

 

With love and my deepest regrets,

Emily.

Chapter Text

Isabelle is arguing with Dad. It’s loud despite them trying not to be, the afternoon quiet enough that the sound travels easily. I’m trying not to listen. Listen, on the other hand, is doing nothing of the sort, sitting with his head tilted and his ears sticking up, nose pointed right at the kitchen window.

“Meeeeh,” Donkey says, chewing at my hair. I let her. Goat is napping against my side, his horn on my knee. It’s a wet, horrible, cloudy day. One of those when nothing good happens, especially not for me, because it’s October already and I’m not allowed to go to school. They’ve almost definitely given my locker away now, probably to Callie Hawthorn with the stupid pigtails and the stinky backpack, making my locker smell like her. I’ll never forgive Dad for this, not ever. Not even when I’m twenty-two.

Custard squeezes under the fence and waddles over to me, making soft little onk onk sounds in her slender throat as she explores where Donkey was chewing on my hair and then scolds Listen for his tail thumping her. She’s quiet, Custard is. The quietest of all the noisy geese we have and my favourite, usually. Right now, I wish she was Nate, or my teacher, or even stupid Callie Hawthorn. At least then I wouldn’t be locked in my house waiting for something to happen, like some dumb princess in a terrible fairy-tale.

The arguing keeps going and going and going and going and going. I pet Custard and try to ignore it, despite it being unignorable.

“Just let me take her out,” Isabelle is saying, I know. I know, because she’s been saying it for months now. “I’ll keep an eye on her, Howard. Nothing will happen. She’s miserable!”

“No no no no no no no no” is a summary of Dad’s replies. “No no no not ever, because I’m a monster who hates happiness.”

But that’s not fair. Not really. There’s a pile of new books in my room—brand new, when normally he only buys second-hand—and we have puzzle night twice a week instead of once now, which is probably because Dad doesn’t like being stuck at home either.

“He could come,” I tell Listen glumly. “We could all go out, but he won’t. Just stays cooped up in his room with his radio and his guns and his worrying, worry worry worry, like an old nana.”

Listen, like usual, says nothing. But I keep talking. Ever since we were little, both Listen and me, I’ve been telling him secrets. It’s why I have him, besides to warn me if I’m going to faint, so I have someone to tell all the secrets Dad won’t let me tell. Like how Listen ate his favourite sweater once and we hid it in the woods so Dad didn’t find it, or how I stole candy from the store once when I was smaller because Dad wouldn’t buy it for me. Or bigger secrets, like the ones we hear Dad talking about on the phone late at night when he thinks we’re asleep. Those are new. I don’t understand them. They’re frightening. He talks about the dead kids and the man who took them, except not how the news talks about it. Not with words like “suspect” or “witness” or “alleged”.

He uses words like “I’m not doing that work anymore” or “I thought you said he’d leave us alone” and, even worse, the time I snuck out to the back shed in the middle of the night to hear him tell someone that, “They’re going to lead him straight to us.” Except he didn’t say ‘him’. He said Doyle.  And I know what Doyle is—it’s the name of a man. We Googled him, Nate and me, and I didn’t tell Nate why what we found scared me so much. I only told Listen.

No one else can know that my dad knows the man they think is killing those girls.

The back-door opens with a thump but doesn’t close, and I look up to find Isabelle leaning over the fence looking smug. “There you are, Derry,” she says, all smiles and happiness, and I wonder if she knows that my dad is keeping bad secrets. “We’re going out.”

I blink, looking from Isabelle to where Dad is hovering in the doorway looking sad. “Are we?” I ask cautiously.

“You are,” he says, nodding. “Isabelle thinks it would be, ah, good for you, to get some fresh air.”

“Or go to school,” Isabelle mutters, but not so loud that Dad hears. Just me, and Listen, and we don’t tell.

“Really?” I ask again. It doesn’t feel right. Months at home and he’s changed his mind? Why? I miss when he was easy to understand, without all these hidden bits and pieces.

“For an hour,” Dad confirms, frowning a little. “Just an hour. And only down to the stores—no further. Right, Isabelle?”

“Two hours.” She winks at me as she says this, leaning down to pull me out of the muck. I go, reluctantly, covered in dirt from the bottom down. “We’re going to have a nice meal together, your daughter and me. Maybe get our hair done. You need a haircut, Derry. It’s wild!”

Dad nods, looking beaten. “Go brush it,” he suggests, stepping aside to let me slither past, leaving a muddy trail of girlprints and pawprints as Listen trails after. “And wash up!”

I’m not that excited, not yet. There’s surely a catch. But, oddly, even after I change and wash and brush my hair, Isabelle is still there, still waiting; she’s sitting on our saggy couch with a chipped coffee mug having a conversation with Dad that he’s paying no attention to. I can hear it through the paper-thin walls as I search through the hamper for my rabbit-print sweater: “Perhaps we can take her trick or treating together, Howie. Won’t that be nice? She’s not the only one who needs to get out. They’re worried at the library… you’ve been so worked up lately.”

“Trick or treating? No, no, I don’t think…”

See? Nothing here to get excited about. I huff at the hamper, hearing the couch squeak a little as Isabelle gets up, the murmuring turning low. It’s naughty, but I ooze up to the door and press my ear to the wood, listening intently. It’s honestly the only way to learn anything around here, it really is.

“I’m worried too…” Isabelle is murmuring, all soft and quiet-like. “What’s wrong? Talk to me?”

I don’t hear anything else, so I slide out of the bathroom silently and watch them until they notice me. It takes longer than usual, and that’s because they’re hugging. Well, Isabelle is hugging Dad, her head only just tall enough to touch his chin. Dad’s just… standing there, looking morose. Morose in the sad way, not the wanting-to-be-fed way.

“Derry, don’t ogle,” he says, pushing Isabelle away a little too roughly, I think. That won’t get him any more hugs being rude like that. “Are you ready?”

“I can’t find my rabbit sweater.” This is how we talk now that everything is different and weird. Not fun anymore, not even kind. Just what Dad used to call ‘the bare essentials’, like talking to a cashier when you’re in a hurry.

But he doesn’t even seem to notice we’re like customer and cashier instead of dad and daughter. He just says, “Then wear another,” and walks away, closing his bedroom door behind him with a soft snick that’s somehow more startling than a slam. And he doesn’t say goodbye.

“It’s okay,” I tell Isabelle, who looks like he’d taken her and shaken her instead of just ignoring. “He’s always like this now. He’s in a mood. Can we still go out?” I’m trying not to whine but it seeps through, that stupid little baby whimper to my voice that shows up when I’m sad, even though I’m not sad right now, I’m angry. Angry and closed in, like the goats when I don’t spend any time with them. We don’t coop our geese up all the time, so why do we have to be locked up? I didn’t hurt anyone!

“Oh, Derry,” Isabelle says, and now she hugs me too. It only takes two steps to get her from the kitchen to where I’m standing in this tiny little home, and I don’t really know what to do except stand there with Listen looking confused from his spot on the rug. “Yes, of course. Of course, we’re going out. Come on, show me where you keep your sweaters and we’ll pick one quickly.”

I don’t skip on my way out the gate, Isabelle warning me and Listen to stick near, but it’s a pretty close thing. Outside our tiny little house, the world is bigger and brighter and not so wet and cloudy, and it’s already looking to be a better day than the last sixty have been.

And I don’t look back once, so I don’t see if Dad is watching me.

 


 

We have lunch and get our haircuts and even get our nails painted. I’ve got coral pink on mine and it’s so so pretty that I just can’t stop looking at it, wishing I could show this off to all the girls at school and be like, “Yeah, Isabelle took me to get it done and she’s prettier and more lovely than any of your moms, but she’s all mine.” I want to show off and be normal, and not be the home-schooled girl with the service dog and weird dad anymore.

But it’s never gonna happen.

“How about we go to the bookstore and you pick something out for yourself?” Isabelle asks after lunch, making me feel bad because I know she’s only offering because she saw me sniffling into my milkshake. But I really want to go, so I do, despite it being because she feels sorry for me. I feel sorry for myself too, honestly. I’m all made up of missing things right now and it’s full of hurting: missing school and missing Nate and missing how my dad used to be as well.

The bookstore is one of my favourite places in Cornish. It’s open with couches and tables at the front and the back is made of a narrow maze of aisles and nooks. I wait until Isabelle sees someone she knows and then me and Listen go and burrow right back into the thin lanes of books, where she’ll have to search to find us. I doubt she’ll look anyway. They’re having some kind of book signing with an author of a book of real murders. Normally, I’d be interested, but today I don’t want anything to do with murdering stuff. That’s what’s ruining my life, after all.

I find a book on cats, without any dead girls or horrible dads, and read for a while, forgetting that I’m all full of sad feelings until Listen stands up next to me and goes pointy and alert. I look up.

There’s a man blocking the opening to the aisle.

“Hello,” he says, leaning on the shelf and smiling down at me. It’s a nice smile, I guess, real what Dad would call ‘charming’, under all the facial hair and scruff. “The clientele in this store is furrier than what I’m used to.”

“Listen isn’t a clientele, he’s a dog,” I reply, and then recognise him. His is a real old face with black hair combed back and deep lines around his eyes. He must be someone’s grandpa. “You’re the author. Aren’t you supposed to be signing things?”

“I took a break because I noticed a lovely girl looking very sad down here.” He leans closer, which I could have told him not to do because Listen goes rrrrrrrrrrr and lets his teeth show.

“Careful,” I warn him. “Listen doesn’t like strangers.”

The man eyes Listen warily, edging back to the opening. I let out a breath. It feels less closed in now, even though he seems nice—Dad must be rubbing off on me. “That’s unusual for a service animal, isn’t it?” he asks. “Aren’t they temperament tested?”

“He’s not a very good service dog.” That’s a lie, Listen is the best. Maybe not the nicest, but the best for sure. “Why do you care if I’m sad? You don’t even know me.”

“How about you introduce yourself to me then.” He’s still smiling, nice and gentle, and I study him a little more, from his suit to his belt buckle to his polished shoes and smelly cologne. He dresses like a rich man, like the ones who hang out at the fancy restaurants we drove past in Claremont once when Dad took me to the cinema.

“I’m Derry,” I finally say, because I should be polite and there are people everywhere, I doubt he plans to be mean. “This is Listen.”

“Derry is a lovely name, is it short for something?” he asks, adding, “My name is David, so people call me Dave.”

“Derecho.” I smile as his eyebrows raise a little at my name because it isn’t really a name, I don’t think. “It’s a type of storm, a real-fast lightning one. I guess my mom liked storms a lot.”

And now it’s gotten strange again because the man is staring at me with an expression like Dad when he’s had a shock, all wide-eyed with his breathing stalled out. I pull back, grabbing Listen’s vest, and wait for the weirdness to pass. “I guess she did,” he says, his voice gone all strained and tight. “Well, Derecho, I’m David Rossi. It’s wonderful to finally meet you.”

“Finally?” That’s a strange thing for him to say—like he’s been waiting for this moment. But he can’t have been, because we’re only just meeting now?

But, instead of answering, he looks around and then moves into the aisle. Listen growls again, but I shush him as the man crouches and gestures me closer. “Derry, honey, I need you to listen to me, okay? It’s very important. I’m with the FBI.”

For once in my life, I’m speechless. I don’t know what to say and he seems to be waiting for me to say something, anything, and I blurt out: “Is it about my dad?” I regret that instantly, my hand biting down around Listen’s vest to stop the shakes because I think I might have just gotten us in trouble.

“What about your dad?” the man, David Rossi, asks, and he’s really intense right now. I’m scared, but not of him. I think maybe things are catching up to us, all those secret things that Dad has been trying to run from. I don’t answer, and Listen makes a soft noise caught between a growl and a sigh, confused by how off I’m acting. “Is your dad in trouble? You can tell me, hon, look.” He’s holding out his information set on a card in a wallet. I take it, rubbing my fingers on the FBI logo pushed into the front. “I’m here to help, that’s my job.”

“So why are you signing books?” I ask bluntly. “Aren’t you supposed to be solving murders, like those girls?”

“I am,” he says. My heart sinks. Oh no. Just like that, I’m scared again right to my core, wishing I was eight again and none of this had ever happened. “But I’m also looking for someone, someone very special to me who I lost a long time ago. The book signings let me look for them, maybe so they’ll come to me.”

“Why don’t you just ring them, on your phone? Maybe they don’t want to be found.” I don’t know why I’m being so rude, except because I want to go home and we’re going to be late and everything is confusing these days. “Maybe they don’t want to see you.”

“That’s okay,” he says gently, sitting down properly against the shelf, I think because his knees are hurting him crouching. He’s pretty old. “I understand that, but I want to make sure they’re safe.”

“You sound like my dad.”

The man looks at me. Agent Rossi, I guess I should call him if he’s working for the FBI. Just like the ones on TV. “What’s your dad’s name?” he asks.

Dad’s always told me to either be honest or not talk at all. This doesn’t feel like a secret—it’s not like he can’t find out from anyone who I am, I stand out—so I answer. “Howard Campbell. He works at the library.”

“I see.” Agent Rossi nods, now looking at the books like he’s not as interested in this conversation as I think he is. “And you’re worried that I’m here for him because he’s in trouble? In danger, or done something wrong? You can tell me, Derry. I’m going to help you.”

“Have you been investigating my dad?” I demand. I’m not going to be honest with him anymore—I won’t say another thing—unless he’s honest with me too. “He’s been weird since my birthday.”

“When was that?”

“May.” I wiggle around, petting Listen to calm him down because he’s still pointy and angry about being boxed in with a stranger. “I’m nine now.”

“Ah, of course. Nine, huh. So grown up.” That’s not answering my question, so I scowl at him. “Can you keep a secret, Derry?”

“No.” His eyebrows raise at my short answer. “I tell Listen everything.”

“Well, can you keep a secret from everyone but Listen? Including your dad?”

I nod, because I can, but that’s not saying that I will.

“I have been looking for your dad, but only to talk to him, okay? But he keeps moving and making it hard for me to find him. I think this is the fourth time I’ve tracked him down—he’s a great hider, isn’t he?”

I’m silent. This isn’t anything I know what to do with.

“What I need from you, Derry, is to help me speak to him—just to talk to him.”

“You could come to our house?” I say uncertainly. Isn’t that what people do when they want to talk?

But he shakes his head. “No, I don’t want to do that,” he says. “If I do that, you’ll be there, sweetie. And this is a very grown-up conversation that you won’t like at all, I promise. Is there a time when you’re at school or camp or out with your friends that you know he’ll be home?”

I’m thinking that over. He says he’s the FBI, which means he won’t hurt my dad, but I don’t like the sound of a conversation I can’t be a part of. Is he going to arrest him? Shout at him? Take him away or scare him so bad that Dad runs again, taking me away from Nate and our tiny little house and my geese and goats?

“Do you promise not to hurt him?” I ask. I don’t think this man will break a promise. The I in FBI stands for integrity, and that means not breaking promises—Dad taught me that, years ago.

“I promise.”

“And you’re not going to take him away?” Try as I might, some of my fear still leaks through into my voice.

“Cross my heart.” He does so, a strange flutter of hands that I try to copy, earning a smile from him. “Like I said, I’m here to help, but you can’t tell him that. It needs to be a surprise.”

“Okay.” I take a breath and decide to trust him. “Tomorrow he goes to work, at the library. I’m supposed to go because he doesn’t like me not being with him, but if I get sick I get to stay home. I could probably get sick… if it’s to help.” And, because trust is something that means you can ask a person for help, I add: “We really need help, I think. Dad is scared a lot and I want everything to be normal again, without murders or him worrying or thinking that someone’s coming for me.”

Agent Rossi looks at me strangely then, a mix of sad and something else I don’t recognise. “Don’t worry,” he says, and doesn’t look at my eyes as he says it, “Now that we’ve found you, we’re going to make things better.”

I guess I have to trust him, right?

 


 

The next day, I don’t even need to fake a belly-ache. I’ve been up all night with worrying and I’m tired and sore and cranky all over when Dad wakes me up to go to work with him. Breakfast tastes like nothing to me and I barely eat three mouthfuls before pushing it away, laying my head down on the table instead of getting up to go pen the geese and give them their own breakfast. Listen has his vest on and packed already, but I don’t plan on going anywhere today.

A hand brushes my hair back, finding my forehead. “You’re very warm,” Dad says, crouching by my chair and peering up at me. I eye him from the gap between my arm and table, too tired to lift my head. “Are you okay?”

“My stomach hurts,” I lie, adding, “and so does my head,” which isn’t a lie at all.

“Hmm.” He narrows his eyes, watching me really intently, and I have to fight not to make a little cough to seal the deal, knowing that’s what’s caught me out a few times before when I’m been faking sick. “I’ll call work and we’ll both stay home, have a quiet day in. I guess the last few months are catching up with us both, huh?” It’s then that I notice how tired he looks, his own eyes all swollen and with lines just as deep as Agent Rossi’s, even though he’s a lot younger.

“No!” I exclaim, because he’s got to go to work—looking at how tired he is, I know this. This has to stop. “You have to go to work—we’ve got bills coming and you said we need to get the heater fixed before winter. If you stay home, we’ll freeze and die, all because I’ve got a headache!”

His face has gone startled and wide, eyebrows up. “Since when have the bills concerned you?” he asks, but there’s a tired kind of smile appearing at the corner of his mouth. “Alright, alright… do you promise you’ll stay in bed all day? Doors and windows locked—”

“Alarm on, cell phone with me at all times, and don’t answer the door or open any blinds,” I recite. “And Listen with me too. Dad, I know.”

“And you know the rules,” he continues, shushing me with a frown. “You’re sick, so what does that mean…?”

I smile. This is a little glimpse of the Dad I love— at that moment, I’m sure that everything from now on is going to be better.

“Absolutely no homework!” I say, and he nods. “I promise, I won’t use my brain at all.”

“That’s my girl.” He stands, brushing his clothes down and smiling again with that same tired smile. “Alright, go up to bed. Take your juice. I’ll feed the goats and geese before I leave—you sleep.”

I agree and go, feeling lighter than I have in a while. Agent Rossi will talk to Dad and he’ll come home and probably say that everything is better and we can be normal again, and he can start hugging Isabelle properly so she comes around more often. Then I won’t be Derecho-Home-Schooled anymore—I’ll be Derecho-At-School, with a mom and a dad and Listen too.

It’ll be fantastic, I’m sure.

 


 

I wake up from a nap to a noise downstairs. It’s been two hours since Dad left for work, so it should all be silent. Listen doesn’t seem to be worried though and the alarm is still on, so I get up and go to look. Because I promised, I take my cell phone—the geese would have gabbled if it was something terrible, but I did promise.

The noise is coming from Dad’s room. I’m not supposed to go in there, especially lately.

But it sounds like voices.

I stand outside his door, digging my bare toes into the threadbare carpet and looking at Listen like he’s going to tell me what the right thing to do here is. The voices continue, whispering endlessly, and they’re freaking me out. Are there people in there? Did Dad come home while I was napping?

“Hello?” I call, knocking gently on the door. The voices don’t stop. “Dad?”

Listen yawns, looking bored. It’s this what decides me; if there was something dangerous in there, Listen would tell me.

I open the door and step inside. It’s dark in there. Dad’s got the window heavily covered, his bed a ruffled pile of musty linen. I wrinkle my nose because it smells closed-in and sweaty and a little bit like socks, before turning on the light and looking for the voices.

I find them, but they don’t matter anymore. Not like what’s above them matters.

There’s a type of horror that’s real and every person and animal alive knows it. It’s a crawling kind of horror. I only know about it because Dad explained it to me one day—it’s the kind of horror a baby bird gets when it sees a snake creeping into the nest or the fear a zebra feels when it finds one of its herd-members half-eaten in the brush. Some movies and books try to tap into that horror, the horror of the thing coming, and that’s why so much of it happens in the dark with blood and gore and whispers of shadow. I’ve always loved the fake kind of that horror, the type I get watching scary movies or reading a frightening book. The type I can get away from by closing the cover. It’s never been real before.

This is real. It’s all so, so real, and my heart is thundering and blood rushing and mouth is hanging open; I know what I’ve seen because I’ve read descriptions like it before, but never in real life, never real.

When they talk about the missing girls on TV, they never show them actually dead.

And I’m scared, scared like the bird or the zebra because something dead means something dangerous, but I still walk forward on wobbly legs. I have to think with my brain and not my fear right now. There’s gotta be an explanation for this, something clear and simple. Something not frightening. Knowledge is power, Dad says, like knowing the lion is gone or the snake is fake.

Like knowing why the corkboard above Dad’s desk, the one that has doors that fold out and is usually closed and bolted, is open so wide that I can see every dead girl he’s got pinned up there. There are so, so many, displayed in horrible poses. Photographs and sketches and pictures of bodies and faces with no life in them, splayed out terribly next to vivid splashes of yellow. Evidence tags, I guess, feeling dizzy and not at all like I want to be looking at this. They’re dead. They’re real kids, real girls, and they’re all so, so dead. It’s not at all like TV.

That girl there has her throat cut and her eyes are open. That one over there looks like she’s crying. That one doesn’t look like a girl at all; she’s bloated and lopsided and her skin is weirdly coloured. I think bugs have been eating her face and her eyes are wrong.

I’m crying. I want to run. I can’t run. Why are they here?

The voices continue. It’s the stupid radio and I pick it up and throw it, smash it. Slam my foot on it and cry out because my feet are bare and it cuts my heel. I throw it again, this time at those terrifying, horrifying photos, and it brings the whole lot crashing down. A body in a river spins wildly down towards me, the photo hitting my shoulder as the rest slam to the ground. What a tremendous noise they make, and I’ve fallen, kneeling on the ground in a circle of the dead. They all stare at me. I can’t look away; even if I close my eyes, I can still see them staring.

I’ve thrown them on the ground, just like the person who killed them did. I’m sorry for that.

I’m so sorry.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I’m babbling, trying to pick them up without looking at them, everything blurry and hurting. “I didn’t mean to, I’m sorry.” I’m scared—what if these broken, glassy gazes can really see me and what I’ve done to them? What if their ghosts are here, staring and angry because they were murdered, and tonight I wake up to them circling me just like their photos are?

I’ve cut my hand too, on a push-pin, I think. I suck at it and try to lift the corkboard up, my foot slipping on a photo and leaving a red streak. I can’t hide this. Dad is going to know, and I’m terrified of that too. The corner of the corkboard drops and hits the desk, knocking a box down to break open and spill paperwork everywhere, files and letters all in yellowed, thin papers. These I try to pick up too, Listen whining from the door. At least they don’t have eyes to judge me.

But I slow. I read some of them. Reading is calming and, even in this horrible room, I can focus when I read. On the case-files I’m reading, which are so much less frightening than the photos, even though they’re talking about deaths and murder. I see a name: Doyle. I know that name.

I see another name: David Rossi. Now, I’m rushing through, pawing through the papers looking for more names I know. There are newspaper clippings in there too, old ones.

Serial murderer at large.

IRA terrorist suspected in shooting death of FBI agent.

FBI mourns their own.

Death toll rises: FBI does nothing.

Ambassador’s daughter murdered.

The fear is back but it’s deeper this time, darker. So cold and frightening that I know everything has changed, because everything has changed. It’s not the bodies that have done it now; it’s that last newspaper clipping. Because there’s a photo of the woman murdered. There’s a photo of a woman named Emily Prentiss.

I know that woman. She’s been sitting on my bedside cupboard for as long as I remember.

“Mom,” I say, looking at Listen and holding it up for him to see. “Listen… this is my mom.”

And this… the newspaper clipping underneath. I pick it up and all the things it’s bound with, everything that spilled out of this one particular file. More clippings, more letters. But I stare at that clipping for the longest time. It’s just a little square of text. Nothing but the tiniest details. It’s talking about Emily Prentiss’s daughter. They never name the kid, but I know who that is.

It’s talking about me?

And it says I’m missing. It says I’m gone. It says the police are looking for me.

I take those clippings and everything else with it, and I carry it all up to my room. I’m not scared anymore. I’m numb. I don’t feel anything but cold. There’s nothing around me that’s familiar or not frightening, nothing I feel like I can rely on. I’m completely alone.

I read and I read and I read until I find a letter from the dead woman who I think might be my mom. It’s not addressed to me at all. It’s addressed to a girl named Storm.

I read that too, over and over again, until there’s a knock at the front door.

Chapter Text

Storm,

I don’t know how old you are now. I don’t know if you’re having this letter read to you or if you’re reading it yourself; if you’re grown up or still my little girl. I don’t know if your favourite colour has changed from purple or if you still love the stuffed rabbit we gave you.

I wish I could know all these things, but I can’t.

I do know one thing: I love you absolutely. I’ve loved you from the moment you were born to this moment right now as you read this, and I’ll love you forever onward as well. I know I’m not there to tell you this and that you likely don’t remember me ever being there, but know that I love you more than anything else in the whole world. As I’m writing this letter, you’re a baby in the bed beside me and I’m telling you this over and over and over in the hopes that when you close your eyes, you’ll always remember the sound of my voice when I tell it to you.

Do you know what I adore about you right now? It’s the way you smile when you see me, how my existence is enough to light up your whole life. It’s the way you view the world, as though everything is wonderful and there’s nothing you don’t want to discover. It’s your boundless potential. You, my Storm, my wonderful, chaotic girl, you are infinite. You’re going to be anyone you want to be, do anything you want to do. I know this because in you I can see the same stubborn, beautiful determination to be different that drove me when I was your age. Ask your grandma about me—but, remember, every story she tells sounded like a good idea to me at the time.

I want you to know that you’re going to make mistakes in your life, so many mistakes. I know this because I made more mistakes than I knew what to do with. That’s a part of living. Your family and the people around you will never love you less for messing up or being unable to do something, and never be afraid to ask them for help if you’re in trouble. Sometimes, we just have to make mistakes and then face the consequences of those mistakes, however terrible they might be. But you’ll never be alone, I promise.

The only thing I dream of for your future is that you’re happy. Do whatever you want to do with your life, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise (especially not Grandma).

This is a goodbye, my baby, but not completely. I don’t know where I’m going, but I know I’m taking the memories I have of the life we shared with me and I’m leaving behind a piece of my heart, just for you. If you put your hand on your chest to feel your heartbeat, you can feel it there—that echo? That’s the piece of my heart I leave with you, and it will stay with you forever. That sounds silly, I know, but Spencer assures me that that’s how these things work. You should ask him about it if you get the chance.

I hope you still know Spencer. If you don’t, for whatever reason, I want you to know that he was an amazing, magical man and to look in The Velveteen Rabbit, on the page that we wrote to you together. Do you see what we’ve written there, to our Little?

You were our Little then, mine and Spencer’s, and you remain our Little even when we’re no longer with you.

If he is with you, I want you to do something for me. Tell him the story about the piece of my heart I gave you, and ask to listen to his. I bet you’ll find another echo there, another piece.

Make sure he knows it’s there because sometimes Spencer needs to be told that he’s loved too.

 

I’m sorry that this letter is a goodbye. I’m sorry that I won’t see you grow up. I’m sorry that I’m nothing to you but photographs in a dusty album. I’m sorry. When you’re old enough, someone will tell you why I’m gone. I’m not going to do that here, beyond telling you that I love you so deeply and so truly that it feels impossible that I’m really dying at all. If love could save me, the depths of my love for you would mean I live forever.

Ask Grandma to tell you about the time we took you to the beach, how you hated the sand between your toes. Ask her about how I tried to teach you how to build a sandcastle, but all you wanted to do was smash it down with your bucket. Ask her how worried you were about the crabs eating your lunch.

Ask Spencer to tell you about when we brought you home and you were so, so angry at the world you cried until you were blue in the face until he picked you up and carried you around and you looked so awed to be alive.

Memories are so important. I wish I had time to leave you more.

 

It’s time to go now. You’ll be awake soon.

Never be afraid to tell someone you love them, not ever. When you love someone, shout it to the world. It’s so important that you let them know because there isn’t always time later. I’ve learned that the hard way.

I love you, my Little, and I always will.

 

I’ll always be your mom.

Chapter Text

The months following Storm’s birthday party aren’t kind to any of us. My visits to the Lomaia household become sparse, both because I’m being given more and more reasons to believe that Doyle has returned and also because Lomaia himself is beginning to suffer the strain of his indiscretions. The tension in the household every time I step foot through the door is painful, and I doubt that it recedes when I’m gone. Storm whispers of fights that last all hours both Lomaia parents are home, gleefully copying words that she’s learned from them. The other children hide from me, except Nika, who grows increasingly miserable as time passes and the pressure of his family builds on his thin shoulders.

July is the month that I begin to see ghosts. Emily taunts me. I see her in the supermarket. I line up behind her when buying coffee. Doyle lurks on every street and out of the corner of my eye when I’m not paying attention. I sense danger everywhere; I’m haunted by both the restless dead and the dangerous living.

I do what I hadn’t wanted to do since finding Emily’s letter, and I go into the details of her death. In there, the text messages pertinent to her case are filed away. I did as she’d asked and warned Garcia not to look, but ignored her request for me to read them. The few details she gave had been enough for me.

Until now.

They’re every bit as horrifying as she’d hinted at them to be. Doyle is absolutely explicit in what he’d intended to do to both Emily, once he had her, and Storm, if Emily avoided capture. The ones about Emily are, somehow, much easier to read, despite being far more overtly sexual. I presume that’s because I’ve seen the autopsy report of Emily’s cause of death and, despite the body being destroyed by the fire he’d burned it in, there’s enough detail in there to know that he’d never done any of the terrible things he lists. By all accounts, Emily had died quickly and with whatever that monster’s idea of mercy was, her body consumed by the flames he’d set to cover his tracks and attempt to obscure her identity.

The messages about Storm are far harder to read, and hardly bear repeating.

It was clever of Emily, I think as I copy them down with painstaking care, to tell me to read them. They ignite something in me that’s dangerous and burns brightly, casting everything into a suspicious light. I dream of them and wake up rigid and sweating, the images they create burning into my retinas.

The corkboard grows faster. I stop discussing my research with Morgan because even he seems concerned by the sheer breadth of my scope. It’s understandable, his concern. Sometimes, even I feel overwhelmed by the nauseating amount of information I’ve gathered, but it’s integral to ensuring that nothing slips through my grasp. Hotch calls me into his office to discuss my ‘recovery’ from Emily’s death, using words like recursion and fixation. If I’m fixated, there’s a reason for it, and I decline his offer of a week’s leave.

I begin to see four-leaf clovers everywhere. I cancel a visit with Storm because I’m sure that someone follows me there.

I also begin to research Emily. Her past. Her contacts. I search through the belongings that Elizabeth has stored, an undertaking that takes me almost a month of dusty weekends closed into the storage shed they’re kept in. I find Storm’s med-alert bracelet, the item with which I’d argued the reason for coming here, but I keep searching. What I’m looking for, I have no idea. Anything, I guess.

The members of JTF-12 are of interest to me as well. Tsia Mosely, Jeremy Wolff, and Sean McCallister are dead, but Clyde Easter is alive and I turn my attention to him. Through their investigation, I’m sure I’ll find out more about Ian Doyle. Morgan is integral to these efforts, his own investigation following them.

I contact Easter once. He’s unwilling to help, very likely aware that, as the last remaining member of JTF-12, he has Doyle’s target painted on his back as well. The one thing he does do is confirm my suspicions: he agrees that Doyle’s obsession with Emily is unlikely to have ended with her death. I request Interpol’s help with my inquiries; he tells me to come back on an official basis. We part on disagreeable terms, and I’m left anxious and paused on the cusp of panic.

I can feel Doyle approaching, like an oncoming storm. His existence casts a shadow on my every thought. I lose weight worrying, lose sleep panicking, find my focus fractured and my reflexes dulled. In the year—and it’s very close to a year now, barely a week away—since Emily’s death, I’ve lived a lifetime of stress.

On July the 3rd, 2012, exactly one year after Emily’s death, Elizabeth receives a purple lilac in the mail along with a lock of her daughter’s hair. She calls me in a panic and I visit her, examining both with gloved hands before sealing them into an evidence bag ready to be taken back to the FBI. She is distraught, very nearly bedridden now with sores that weep all over her body. I do my best to console her, knowing the end is looming, but there’s very little I can say because my examination has revealed that Elizabeth was wrong about one thing: the hair she’s received is not her daughter’s. It’s far too fine with the twist of a curl in it.

It’s Storm’s.

We sit there together, Elizabeth and I, and we drown in every ‘what if’ that’s looming. We’ve both lost too much to the monster that haunts us, that taunts us. That, even now after he’s taken so much, still won’t let us move on and heal.

If I had Doyle in front of me, I think I would kill him with nothing but my bare hands and feel very little but satisfaction in the act.

Elizabeth’s breathing is rough. The bedroom smells of sickness, of death approaching layered with bleach and sanitiser. The syringe driver set by her bed whirrs gently, administering medication via an insert in her abdomen. It’s this that I’m staring at when she says it.

“I’ll be dead soon,” she says, and I close my eyes against that truth. “Spencer, look at me when I speak.”

I almost laugh at that. I can just imagine it said when she was younger but to a different, obstinate face: Emily, look at me when spoken to. When I open my eyes, I twitch as my gaze falls on the framed photo of Emily as a child sitting beside Elizabeth’s bed. I don’t look at Elizabeth. I’ve never handled death well.

“Look at me,” she says again, so I do. She’s holding her hand out for me. I take it, the skin dry and raspy against my palm, the pulse weak. “You’re aware of my condition, yes?” I nod. “You know that I’m in full control of my mental faculties, that this hasn’t affected my brain?” I nod again, wary now, as she looks at the purple lilac and that lock of hair and breathes deeply with a chest that rattles. “How far would you go for my family, Agent Reid?”

The moment tenses. Here it is, the cusp I’ve been waiting for. Do I lie to soothe whatever she’s about to ask me, to convince her of its impossibility? I can already sense what’s coming.

Or, do I tell the truth?

I tell the truth.

“As far as needed,” I murmur. “As far as necessary.”

Elizabeth nods slowly, her grip tightening around my hand. Despite that, it’s still the barest whisper of pressure. There’s no strength left to her.

She confirms that my fears aren’t mine alone.

“He’s going to come after Storm,” she says resolutely, her eyes on that damnable flower. “You know he is. Killing Emily hasn’t sated him—he wants more. He wants every part of her he can get, wants to know that he’s utterly and completely removed her from this earth. This is a warning, a message.”

I say, “A promise.”

Another slow nod. “He’ll take her and he’ll kill her, just like he did Emily,” she says, and then stops my fucking heart, “unless you take her first.”

I can’t breathe. I don’t know what to say.

What can I possibly say?

Elizabeth is still talking. I realise, she’s been planning this for a while. She has it down to the fine details. She has money set aside for us, liquidated so it can’t be tracked, and arrangements to do so with my own funds if I agree. She has a contact whose name she refuses to give me, who she says she found through her own investigation of Emily’s past and who has agreed to create our false identities, Storm and I, recreating her as my adoptive daughter and me as a single father. New names, new histories, new lives, even our social security numbers falsified. She assures me that her contact has ways of making it seem as though I fled the country with Storm, laying a false path if that’s what I wish. Something to mislead Doyle, and anyone else who might pursue us

Her planning is endless, down to the last detail. I’m awed, and terrified, by her.

“You want me to kidnap your granddaughter?” I ask, stunned by the illegality of what she’s suggesting.

“No,” she replies, “I want you to save my granddaughter. I don’t care how you do it—if need be, we can bribe Lomaia to give up her care so that you’re not wanted by law enforcement. That will make your life much easier, and I doubt it will take much to persuade him to give her up. If we play our cards correctly, this might not even be discovered until he returns to Georgia. Once he’s left the States, even if he allows it to become known that she’s gone, it will barely be more than tabloid news. I doubt anyone here will even be aware.”

“I can’t do this,” is my reply. My life, my family, my career—is this the lengths that Emily would have had me go? It’s impossible. Illogical. It’s insane.

“Then he’ll kill her,” Elizabeth says ruthlessly. “And the last of my family will be dead. My only hope is that I’m gone before that happens.” She looks right at me, stares me in the eyes, and finishes resolutely, “Please bury her beside me and her mother. I’ll have them leave a space.”

When I leave there that day, it’s to the same unseasonably cold weather as there was the day we’d buried Emily. There must be a storm coming.

I turn my body against the wind and brace for it, ready to ride out whatever comes.

 


 

In August, I visit my mom. She’s not doing well. I don’t believe she even recognises me. In her mind, I see the same failings as I’ve seen in Elizabeth’s body. We sit outside in the sun, and we discuss whatever she has the mental capacity to speak of at the time.

It’s selfish, perhaps, using my mother in this state to validate my circulating thoughts, but that doesn’t stop me.

“How far would you have gone to keep me safe?” I ask her, thinking of Riley Jenkins and all that had followed. “When I was a child if I was in danger?”

She laughs. I love her laugh. It’s the one thing that has never changed about her, always the same laugh as when I was small. In that laugh, I can see the Diana that she would have been, had her mind not been so riddled with defects at the foundational level. The Diana she had been, when my father loved her.

“I would have gone to the ends of the earth for you,” she tells me firmly, unsurprisingly. “You should know this. You’re a father.”

“I’m not a father, Mom,” I tell her, tired of this thread her mind has latched onto. Her conversation is lucid enough to follow but she’s trapped five years before, when I’d foolishly, in my excitement, told her that Emily was pregnant. “The baby wasn’t mine. She’s four now.”

“That doesn’t change a thing,” Mom replies firmly, shaking her head and her finger in unison, a teasing scolding. “My boy, I have letters in there from you about her. When that child is born, she’s yours. Emily will see that. What man could be better for a child than you?”

Any, I want to say, but I don’t believe that that’s true anymore.

“I cannot wait to meet my granddaughter,” she says proudly. I look at her and feel nothing but tired.

This is the last conversation I have with my mother, although I don’t know this yet.

When I return to DC, I travel to the Georgian Embassy and arrange an appointment with the Ambassador. He’s less than pleased to see me, more so when I politely request that we take this appointment in private.

I’m not subtle in my request. I ask him whether he would be willing to give custody of Storm to me, legally and completely. Out of his life without a fuss, leaving him to return to how it had used to be. Lomaia considers this for the longest time. We sit there in silence, both thinking separately about the same thing. I’m not surprised when he says no.

I’m not discouraged either.

I think I knew even then that it wasn’t the end of it.

 


 

It happens in September, the storm: Ian Doyle and his son, Declan.

I guess in the aftermath of it all, the frantic dash to save Declan Doyle—another child Emily died to protect, and I shouldn’t really still be surprised by her penchant for doing this—some part of me wondered if she’d return. If the threat to this child, one she’d gone such lengths to protect, would draw her home to us from some hidden corner, tucked away for her own protection. I expect when Morgan walks in bringing a bearded Hotch with him for them to tell me that the whole thing has been a ruse, a ruse that’s ending. I expect her to be standing there.

I don’t know why.

We save Declan, but Emily remains dead. And, worse, Doyle escapes. Slipping away from the trap both we and his enemies set for him, he vanishes into the night.

In DC.

“I want agents crawling all over Lomaia’s neighbourhood,” Hotch demands of us, gathering the assembled sixth floor together in a manhunt that spans the entirety of the FBI right now. They’re determined to find Ian Doyle, tonight.

I hope that they will. But, just in case, I make my own arrangements.

Before I leave, I take one last look at them. If Doyle is found tonight, well, this isn’t my last chance. However, if he isn’t, it might be. I look at JJ and think how much I love her, the sister I’d never had who’d given me my beautiful godson, and I regret having never told her that. I look at Morgan, who’ll never forgive me for this, and I look at Rossi, who is the singular greatest inspiration in my adult life.

I look at Hotch. I apologise silently for the grey hairs I’m about to cause him.

And I follow in Emily’s footsteps, leaving my ID and gun on my desk and slipping out the back while Hotch debriefs the room of the dangers of Ian Doyle. After all, I don’t need to be here for this. I, more than anyone, know how dangerous he can be.

Despite my optimism, I leave the FBI for the last time that day.

Elizabeth is the first person I contact, and I do so from a payphone several blocks from the FBI Academy.

The second is my father. I’m brusque with him, informing him that he’ll be contacted shortly by my bank giving him access to those funds that I desire to leave him, further topped up once Elizabeth has completed the sale of my home. This money is to be used for my mother’s continued care. He’s greatly distressed by this phone call, but I can’t and won’t trust him with further details. Elizabeth has promised to ensure that my mother is cared for, for as long as she can, but this is some bonus security. Dad can’t waste the money I’ve left him on his own desires: it will only ever be earmarked for use for Mom’s care. When she dies, the money will languish in a frozen account, waiting for my return, if ever. What a waste, and a grim reminder of how fraught our relationship will always be. I hang up and don’t say goodbye. After all, he’d never given me one before vanishing from my life.

The third is Lomaia.

He’s already waiting when I arrive. The agents sent to protect him either aren’t here yet, or he’s refused them, because no one stops me from entering the home and walking through those quiet, echoing halls to his office.

“Will he stop?” Lomaia asks, turning to me. I reaffirm my assumption: he’s refused the protection, likely in favour of his own. He knows Doyle is out there. Good. It will make my job easier.

“No,” I say bluntly. “If he decides to come for her, he’ll kill everyone in his path.”

Lomaia’s wife. His children. His staff. Lomaia himself.

I watch him consider this.

“And you will care for her?” he finally continues, shoulders slumping. “I’ve… not been a good father. I don’t think I will ever be a good father to her. And I’m aware that I’m not what her mo… what Emily would have wanted for her child.”

“I’ve always cared for her.” It’s the truest thing I’ve said all night. “Mikheil, think about it. I can hide. One man and a child—we can disappear. You? You can’t. An ambassador vanishing, and your family—it’s too many people.”

“People will question why she’s no longer with me.” He shuffles through his desk, before bringing forth a thick sheath of paperwork. “My lawyers are adamant that this is foolish, that this will destroy my career. You seem adamant that it will destroy my family. Who do I listen to?”

Despite his words, my heart stalls out a little when he lays the paperwork down. Custody papers.

“Evidently, we’re not going about this in the traditional manner,” Lomaia continues. “I doubt this arrangement is entirely legal, but it is enough to ensure that neither of us ends up on charges of kidnapping. It also leaves a paper trail for the bastard who killed her to see, to know that I don’t have Storm anymore. Is that enough to keep me safe? My family?”

“I don’t know,” I answer honestly. “Maybe. Accept the FBI’s help. They’ll still protect you, even if Storm is with me.”

And Lomaia nods.

“At least this will stop that beast of a grandmother from hounding me,” he says finally and signs his daughter over. It’s not legal. It’s not moral. It’s not even a little bit clever. It’s desperate and frantic and a flight borne from fear, but it’s absolutely what Emily would have asked of me.

It’s me keeping her daughter safe.

Storm’s asleep and I don’t want to wake her. We pack quickly and silently, the barest essentials. I take so little of what she owns. The stuffed rabbit, the dog, her brother’s gifted truck. Lomaia demands I take the truck, asserting that Nika is already going to be difficult enough about this. Enough clothes for a week, in a small bag. Emily’s photo. The Velveteen Rabbit. And then we creep from there in the night, like ghosts, carrying a child whose life has been far too hard for how slight she is in my arms. Warm and sleepy and still wrapped tightly in her blankets, she wakes only enough to smile at me and wrap her arms tighter around my neck before dozing off again.

Mine now. My joy, and my responsibility.

I’m determined to give her the life she hasn’t had yet.

There’s one last goodbye though before I need to leave this place to meet with Elizabeth’s contact, the only person aside from Elizabeth herself who knows who I’ll be when this is done. Soon enough, the only person who will know; Elizabeth will be gone very soon and we’re both aware of it.

Nika is standing at the bottom of the staircase, watching us.

“Go back to bed,” Lomaia whispers harshly, but his son disobeys.

“No, mama,” he says, stepping closer. “Where are you taking her? Where is she going? Why is this man holding her?”

I move past Lomaia, ignoring his hiss of anger and crouching by his son. I’m short but gentle. “There’s a man coming after her,” I say simply, “I’m taking her somewhere safe.”

Nika’s mouth turns down hard, his eyes dangerously glassy. “Will you bring her back?” he asks.

“No,” I’m forced to respond. “It won’t be safe. We have to hide. Will you say goodbye?”

He nods, kissing her sleepy, tousled head and whispering, “Goodbye, da. I love you,” before vanishing back up the stairs with a sniff.

Da.

Sister.

I’m not the only one leaving family tonight.

“Hurry up, go,” Lomaia snaps, but, he also, in the same breath, begs me to keep her safe. I tell him that he doesn’t need to beg.

Her mother has already ensured that I will.

 


 

Spencer Reid vanishes that night, along with Storm Prentiss. There is little fanfare. I believe the team and Elizabeth were both integral in helping avoid any media attention. We simply fade away into the night, together.

I take the name Howard Campbell. It’s pathetic really, a dangerous link to our pasts. Emily’s favourite character, from the singular book of hers that I keep in my new life: Mother Night. I have a line from it underlined twice, haunting my every choice since that day: ‘We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.’

I guess I’m just as much of a cliché as Emily believed herself to be.

I rename Storm as well. I must, Storm is too noticeable, but it kills me to change the name that was so important to Emily. That’s why, in the end, I choose the name that I do.

I name her for a sudden, unpredictable storm. The kind that can be life-changing.

I name her Derecho.

Chapter Text

It’s Nate at the door.

“Are you okay?” he asks as soon as I open it, only realising after that I probably shouldn’t have opened it at all, my brain moving slowly as it tries to think over everything I’ve seen.

“No,” I tell him. “Come look at this.”

I take him into Dad’s room and show him everything in there. He’s as shocked as I was, just as shocked. Silent with his skin turning a horrible shade of green under his freckles, washed out and worried.

“Are these real kids?” he whispers, biting his lip so hard that I can see it turning white under his crooked teeth. “The kids that we googled, the dead ones?”

“The ones that look like me,” I confirm, the clipping still wedged in my sweaty hand. When he backs away from everything there, I hand it to him. “Look. This… the lady they’re talking about is my mom, Nate. That’s my mom.”

He reads it really slowly, stumbling over the longer words. “Is this about you?” he finally asks, mouth scrunching up like he’s confused. “Did someone kidnap you?” And it clicks. He looks back at Dad’s room and goes, “Oh.”

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking over the past half hour of reading, my fear settling into a calm kind of planning. First, I have to hide what I’ve seen. I don’t want Dad to ask me about it because I’m not ready for that conversation yet. Not yet. I need to know what I’m going to say first so that I don’t ask the wrong kinds of questions.

“Help me clean it up,” I demand, marching back into that room like I’m not scared at all, even though I think I might puke. Nate doesn’t move from the doorway. “Come on, help me. We have to clean this up before Dad gets home.”

“I think we should leave,” he says instead, his eyes so wide that I can see white all around them, Listen peering around him. “Right now, Derry, I think we should go. Let’s go to my house—we can tell my mom and she can call your dad and maybe the police. Please?”

“What, why?” I’m furious he’s not helping me as I crouch and kind of squint my eyes a bit, to avoid looking at details of the pictures I’m picking up. Like this, I can pretend they’re just blurry images of something else. And that works, right up until I blink and see something I hadn’t seen before, something really familiar.

Nate is still talking as I pick up the photo and stare at it. He’s saying, “Come on, Derry, look at this. I’m scared, aren’t you? This is scary—it’s grown-up stuff and I don’t think it’s safe. What if your dad is the one who took those photos?”

“They’re crime scene photos,” I respond numbly, holding the photo in my left hand and splaying my right out next to it, for comparison. “He’s not a cop.”

“Yeah, exactly, so why does he have so many pictures of bodies? We need to go. What’s that?”

I hope up the photo of the toddler on the hospital bed, and I hold out my hand. “Look,” I whisper, seeing him notice first the baby’s dark hair and dark eyes, and second the burn on her palm that’s what the picture is of. The burn is gory and painful looking, a woman out of frame holding the baby still. It’s a four-leaf clover. Just like the one on my palm, except without all the stretching and smudging that the years have given mine.

“The date says 2011,” I say, pointing to the numbers along the bottom. There’s a burning in my eyes, my body trying to cry even though I won’t let it. “That’s me, Nate. Look at her hand—that’s me. Same burn, but hers is new and she’s… I was three then, same as that baby.”

“I don’t know what’s going on,” Nate whimpers, hugging his arms to himself. “I want to go home. Please come home with me, please, please, please…”

He’s terrified and I am too, confused and worried and, for the first time ever, scared that my dad is about to walk in through the front door. I cave. “Go grab my backpack from my room,” I instruct him because I want to finish looking for more photos of me and he’s too scared to stay in this room. I don’t blame him. The dead lie everywhere. He bolts. I keep looking. Opening drawers and checking boxes on the desk, looking for photos anywhere I can.

It’s the bottom drawer that I find it, hearing Nate thumping back down the stairs. It’s a book, a children’s book, and I’ve got a much newer copy upstairs on my own shelf. The Velveteen Rabbit and I already know what I’m going to find before I open it, remembering the letter I’d read.

To our Little Prentiss, who will always be real to us.

There’s a photo tucked in there too. I unfold it and look at it for the longest time, while Nate is getting more and more upset with me. I don’t show him the photo when I stand and walk towards him because it’s possibly the most confusing thing of the night. I just hold it and look at it, until he takes it from me himself.

“Who’s this lady with your dad?” he asks, but I’m pushing past to get my bag ready to go. I’m not scared of Dad coming home now that I’ve seen that—I’ve moved past scared.

Now, I’m nothing but angry. He lied. He’s done nothing but lie to me, for as long as I’ve ever known him.

“That’s my mom,” I snap and turn towards the front door. But, Listen growls. I pause, cautious. Nate comes up behind me, his breath loud and annoying when I’m trying to hear what Listen’s heard. “Shh,” I tell him when he goes to speak.

The geese begin to fight. I think for a moment that they’re fighting amongst themselves, like they do sometimes, screeching and honking and hissing and yabbering so loud that Listen barks along. But I’ve never heard them sound like this, the screeching that pitches so high I think one of them must be hurt before it abruptly stops. And, as soon as that screech stops, the others explode. I’ve never heard a noise like this before. And Listen is barking, barking, barking, and I realise: someone is out there. Someone is hurting them.

Someone is coming.

My cell is in my pocket, but it says, ‘out of service,’ and nothing happens when I hammer the speed-dial.

“Backdoor,” I whisper, strangely clear right now. Most clearly, I’m sure that nothing is really happening. That would be ridiculous. Some part of me still thinks this is all some kind of big, horrible joke. But Listen refuses to follow us as we move to the back door, Nate still holding the photo with his eyes so big I’m worried they might pop out. Listen just keeps barking and snarling and slamming his paws on the front door. My hands are shaking as I disable the alarm for the back door only, clicking it open and shoving Nate through before turning to clap my hands for Listen to follow, but the dumb dog won’t listen. Just looks at me and keeps on growling, and that’s when the window smashes.

Something lands with a soft thumpf on the couch, glass tinkling around it. I stare at it. Listen turns to look too, and that’s when it explodes.

Everything goes white. It’s like looking into the sun, except worse, a throbbing, slamming kind of pain that vanishes everything from my vision. I worry that I’ve gone blind, but that’s nothing compared to my ears. I’m distantly aware of falling backwards, of being on the ground, but the world around me has turned to nothing. I heard the bang, an absolutely deafening bang, and then nothing. And now nothing—everything is silent but for a steadily worsening ringing that drills into my skull and leaves me curled up small with my hands on my ears and the thought that someone must be pushing something slowly into my eardrum, it hurts that bad. Whumpf whumpf whumpf goes the world as though it’s pushing at my head through the ringing. I don’t know what to do, where to look, what’s happening at all. I don’t even know if I’m still at my house or if I’ve been knocked clear off the edge of the world.

But someone grabs my arm and hauls me up, dragging me along on my knees until it hurts so much that I have to try and stand and stagger after into the whiteness. Bang goes my knee into a fence post, more a feeling than a sound, my hand knocking hard on a corner, my hip hitting something else, and still the person drags me until I slam into a fence and realise we’re at the back of the garden. I blink and there’s a big black spot in the centre of my eyes, colours barely fading in, but I can see Nate on his knees crawling through the hole we use to get to the river, and I can see enough to follow even though I think I’m falling over still.

On the other side, I can see. Barely. Sort of. But it hurts, it hurts so bad, and when I lift my hands to my ears to see if they’re bleeding, I can feel wet on my face. I think I’m crying. Maybe screaming. I can’t hear over the ringing, even though the whumpf feeling of cotton-wool in my head is starting to fade out and let other muffled noises crowd in. Nate drags me up, pulling me backwards, and he is screaming. His mouth is wide open on his chalk-white face. I realise he’s trying to get me to the river, where his canoe is, where we’ll be gone in seconds if he can shove it out into the centre where the current flows. Gone away from whatever is chasing us.

So, I follow. I run and run and run and we make it, we make it, Nate dragging the canoe into the water as I stand on the bank and try to blink myself back into normality. I hear the grating sound of wood on gravel, I hear Nate sobbing for me to help him, and I watch as he gets it in the water and then turns to yell at me to join him.

And freezes.

I don’t want to turn around. I can’t. I can barely see, barely hear, my head trying to bust itself open from the inside out, and all I can focus on is Nate’s stupid face. His wide-open eyes and his sticky-out ears and his splash of freckles and his white, white skin that only goes whiter, until it goes red.

I blink and he’s in the river. He’s slipped. But it’s okay, he can swim.

I’m not scared; he can swim.

But he doesn’t.

I’ve gone deaf again. I barely register that there’s a bang behind me, the ringing back and the dizzy back with it, pushing me forward to take a step towards Nate, to see why he’s in the water like an idiot, but my knees drop out. I fall. The ground is wobbly below me, tipping me up and throwing me down like I’m on the river already, even though it’s grass I land on.

When the man picks me up, there’s not really much I can do about it. I think I scream, right until he covers my mouth with a hand that tastes like burning and makes me choke, but I wouldn’t know, not really. I still can’t hear.

I hope that Nate’s gone for help, because there’s nothing I can do but scream and try to fight while feeling like the world is fighting me back, every movement making my head spin and spin and spin until I throw up, choking on it when the man’s hand forces it back in my mouth. He still doesn’t let go, and I can’t breathe.

I can’t breathe.

I think he’s carrying me. My eyes are shut and my ears are ringing and my lungs are screaming, and this all continues until I’m slammed into something hard as the man trips into it.

I’m free, but there’s no running. I couldn’t if I wanted to.

There’s a distant whisper of an alarm ringing, a louder roar of barking. I open my eyes to Listen with the man’s arm in his mouth and he’s tearing at it, looking wilder than I’ve ever seen him. There’s blood, everywhere, and a gun.

“Don’t shoot my dog,” I choke, spitting vomit on the ground, my voice too loud to my aching head. “Don’t shoot my dog!” I scream, but he does.

More alarms. More sirens. Someone is yelling, and the man turns on me.

I’ve got my hearing back enough for this. I hear Listen whining, trying to get up and failing. And I hear the man saying, as he looks down at me with his ice-blue eyes, “Get in and shut up, or I’ll shoot it again. You want me to do that? You want me to kill your dog?”

I’m so scared, so utterly and completely terrified, I can’t do anything but respond. There’s nothing brave or clever about me at that moment.

“No,” I say honestly, and I get in the car, curling up real small on the floor where he tells me to and only crying a little when Listen shoves past and leaps up into the car with me, staring at the man with his teeth bared. I hug my dog, my hand twisted through the strap of his vest, and I hope that Nate’s gone for help, as the door slams shut between me and the outside world. But he lets me keep Listen; he doesn’t shoot Listen.

And I’m sure that Dad will find me.

Chapter Text

More gorgeous art by the wonderful Blythechild <3 

 

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reid and derry

Chapter Text

It’s Rossi that finds me and I shouldn’t be surprised because, as he tells me when I hear the polite knock at my door and turn to find him standing there, he is “good at my job, Spencer.”

Spencer. He calls me Spencer, not Howard, not Campbell. I’m disorientated by that for a moment. I cannot express how truly strange it is to hear that name again, six years removed from DC and Emily and the man called Spencer Reid. But here’s the past, come knocking at my door. Dressed in an expensive suit and fine cologne and looking so dangerously overawed to have found me.

“You can’t be here,” I say, standing. Or, at least, I try to stand. It doesn’t quite work how it should and I find my legs buckling under me, Rossi catching me before I can fall and pushing me back into my seat with a loud gasp of the chair complaining. Shock, I assume. I don’t really know at the time—I’m too shaken by the end of everything. If Rossi has found me, Doyle can’t be far behind.

Derry.

I have to go home.

But Rossi stops me again, ignoring the way I protest. “I just want to talk, Spence,” he says. There’s that name again. It doesn’t feel like mine. Spencer Reid is as dead as Emily Prentiss is.

“Howard,” I correct dizzily, seeing Rossi pause. There’s that gaze, the one I haven’t seen since the night I’d fled. A profiling gaze. “My name is Howard. I don’t know you, and you need to leave.”

Rossi’s eyes are gentle. When he speaks again, he begins with my name, and I know that’s deliberate. He’s trying to connect my mind with who I was before—a very careful psychological technique used on long-term kidnap victims, those who have been consumed by cults. Those whose identities have been compromised, but mine hasn’t been. He’s wrong. Until the day that Ian Doyle is dead, I am and will remain Howard Campbell, Derecho’s father and protector. My identity isn’t compromised; I know exactly who I am.

“Spencer, stop running from me, please,” he begs. I hate him for this. It’s not the first time he’s found us—every time putting everything we are in danger, and he just won’t stop. “Spencer, you need us. We can help you. Doyle is—”

“Killing those girls,” I whisper. Confirmation of my worst nightmares. I’d suspected, of course, I had. He doesn’t need to answer though—I already know. I’ve watched the abductions circle in closer and closer to Cornish, New Hampshire, like a noose tightening around my throat. I’ve watched the news. I’ve seen the papers. I have my own contacts, ones who tell me of what they’re not reporting: the four-leaf clover shapes burned deep into the dead children’s bodies. Oh yes, I know it all. It’s almost time to run, just as soon as I know which way isn’t racing right into the hunter’s snare.

Canada, I decide. Straight on through and into Alaska—I’ll never be found there. We’ll be safe.

“We don’t know it’s him.” Rossi closes the door before he says this and my breath squeezes tight, hands bunching by my side. There’s a revolver in my bag, my old service weapon. I think of it. Sweat warms the back of my neck. “There’s no evidence that he’s returned to the States. Hotch thinks it might be someone working closely with him—the MO is that of multiple killers following a set routine. But you know this, don’t you?”

Yes. The most recent child—the one still missing and only one state over—had had her family killed during the course of her abduction, a sloppy, rushed job. The one before that had been tied up. The one before that had been drugged. Multiple MOs, multiple murderers. Any of them could be Doyle. I suspect the first if any. It had been the cleanest.

“You do realise that you being here puts me in danger, don’t you?” I say.

It doesn’t work. My use of the singular ‘me’ isn’t overlooked either, Rossi’s eyebrows lifting a little before he sighs and slumps into himself, looking tired and old. The only one of all of the team who’s kept looking, kept almost finding me, after all these years. I wonder if he knows about Derry. There doesn’t seem a reason he—

“Ambassador Lomaia is dead,” he says.

I’ve never been more frightened by a simple sentence. Howard Campbell is a weak, easily frightened man. I envy Spencer Reid the bravery he’d had in beginning this life to protect a child, but that’s not who I am now—I jump at shadows and fear the night and rely on a gaggle of noisy farm-animals to provide the further comfort of mind that even an expensive alarm system barely offers.

I ask, “How?” and already know the answer.

“Murder.”

“His family?” I think of the boy at the bottom of the stairs—the one who’d loved his sister and given her a toy truck he’d still liked to play with. That truck is in Derry’s bedroom still, perched proudly on the top of her bookshelf.

“They’re gone too, Spencer. Hotch found out yesterday and contacted me… I wasn’t going to approach you until I heard, I was going to see if you’d finally come to me. There’s no evidence that Doyle is back but—”

“When did they die?” I’m savage and sharp and already reaching for my cell. I need to go home, gather Derry and Listen and as many things as we can pack in the one car. We’ll be gone by sundown and she’ll hate me for it, but at least she’ll be alive to hate. Unlike her family.

“Sunday.”

It’s Friday. That’s enough time for him to have killed them and come back here.

“You’re not going to come back to DC with me, are you?”

“I don’t know what made you think I would. You couldn’t save Emily—why would I trust you with—”

And I stop, because Rossi smiles sadly and in a way I recognise, faintly. It’s the way he used to smile at us, the team, in the soft, quiet moments. On the jet or outside of work, when he was reminded of how much he cares for us. “I met her,” he says. “Emily’s daughter…”

I swallow and say nothing.

He adds gently, “Your daughter.”

Silence. I can’t speak if I want to; the panic is in my throat and closing it tight.

“She’s beautiful, Spencer, so beautiful… so much like Emily with so much attitude. I knew she would be, that you’d have raised her wonderfully… Hotch said much the same to me, you know. When I told him I was coming to see you, he was so sure she’d be everything Emily had dreamed she would be…”

“Please… leave. I need to…” I falter. It hurts. The past few months of sleepless nights and stressful days are catching up with me, on the back of years of hiding everything. This minute, in Howard Campbell’s office, talking to a man from Spencer Reid’s life, I want so desperately to be the man I was that I can’t think to voice the request for Rossi to go. It’s the mention of Hotch that does it; suddenly, I’m not just chasing away David Rossi, I’m also chasing away Hotch and JJ and Henry and Morgan and Mom. I could ask. I could so simply ask him how they are, all the questions that flicker into my mind in the middle of the night, and he’ll answer…

But Rossi steps forward. “You don’t look well, Spencer.”

I want to say stop saying that name.

“You haven’t been well for a while, have you? There’s a gun in your bag. I can see the way you moved towards it when I entered the room. You regard me as a threat… you regard everyone as a threat, don’t you? Even now, your gaze gives you away. You can’t even look me in the eyes without glancing towards your weapon.”

I want to say you’re wrong.

“I can keep going, but you can’t, can you, Spencer? I’ve been watching you for two weeks now—you just twitched. You had no idea, did you? Three years ago, you marked me before I even got into town. I wouldn’t have gotten this close then, but now you’re tired. You’re hurting. You can’t do this alone anymore. Derry deserves better—”

I want to say help me.

I say, “You’ve spoken to her.” It’s a horrifying thought. She hasn’t mentioned a stranger speaking to her—I thought I’d taught her better than that. When had he gotten close enough?

She’s home alone now.

The thought is chilling and I think he sees that because his expression turns worried again.

“You really don’t look well,” he repeats, and I can do nothing but shake my head at him, feeling the world shake a little with it. I’m so tired. There are too many dangers. Too many things I can’t see, can’t know. Too much to watch and not enough eyes. “Yes, I spoke to her. She’s worried about you too.”

And I cave. My daughter is my weakest point; I cannot resist my pride in her.

“She would be,” I say, squeezing my fists into clammy balls. “She’s clever, so clever… every bit her mom. She was reading novels by five, and she knits, Dave. And she… she takes care of things she shouldn’t have to, the house and…” My breath comes in a ragged wheeze, the hurt with it. That’s been playing on me lately, driven by Isabelle’s incessant worrying. “This life isn’t good for her.”

“Bullshit. The kid I saw isn’t worried by shit except for hoping that her daddy is okay.” Rossi, for the first time, sounds properly like himself, genial and a little rough. “She faced me down and told me straight up that her dog would bite me if I tried anything and then clammed up unless I said that I’d help you out. No fear of me, no naiveite—just a smart kid looking to get what she wants.”

Who knows where that conversation would have gone. Maybe, in the small, untidy office I’ve claimed as a safe space against the eyes filling the outside world, I’d have given in and finally agreed to go home. It seems likely. I am, as Rossi knows as soon as he sees me, a deeply unwell man. A life of paranoia and fear breeds nothing but ill-health. Perhaps it would have been for the best—I would have likely only become more private, more reclusive, as time had gone on, with Derry fighting me every step of the way. A teenager soon, desperate to spread her wings, as she already is.

But we’ll never know, because the conversation ends abruptly, with my cell ringing. First, the automatic proximity alarm on the boundary of my home—not entirely worrisome, the goats often set the damnably expensive thing off, but my anxiety spikes anyway. What sets it to panic is the call that follows. The alarm company: the perimeter alarm is designed to immediately ping the house alarm system as soon as they registered it’s been tripped. That had happened; this is the response.

The system on the house is offline.

It’s offline.

Derry.

Before they’ve even finished telling me, I’m running. Shoving past Rossi and with only the slightest hesitation as I grab my bag and flee, I don’t stop for Isabelle crying out or Rossi’s yell; my only thought is to get to my daughter. It’s a seven-and-a-half-minute run from the library to my home.

I make it in four.

She’s already gone.

 


 

The geese are dead. I arrive, panting and barely aware that there are distant sirens coming closer, and this is the first thing my mind notices. Later, I’ll be aware that I registered things other than the limp, white bodies kicked roughly about, feathers caught in eddies of wind: other things like the broken front window, the open front door, and the few people that are home at this time of the day slowly gathering the courage to approach the front gate I slam through, letting it bounce shut behind me. The goats are gone. I notice this too as I step over Pickles. His skull is crushed. Someone has brought their boot down onto his head, killing him instantly. There’s blood on my shoe. Derry’s going to be heartbroken. I’m already planning how to tell her gently as I register the cruelty.

I’ll be aware later that I am already deeply in shock as I enter the home. The problem with being so ready for action for so long is that the body cannot possibly remain aware without adrenaline and cortisol building and causing a steady attrition of my mental and physical reserves. Simply put, the day that I walk into my home with my old gun in hand and find the place destroyed and my daughter gone, I am already broken beyond the point where I can react in time to save her life. My reactions are slow. My attention shattered. My body exhausted.

I find a spent flash-bang grenade and cannot even fathom what it could have been used for, the impossibility of such a violent tool used on my daughter assuring me that surely it hadn’t been. I find my bedroom destroyed. Photos of the dead lay everywhere, and blood. More blood, from the front door to the kitchen and out the back door. I follow it dizzily. It’s been seven minutes since I got the call. The sirens are closer. There are pawprints in the blood. Listen.

Out the back door. Derry’s backpack lays on the ground. I leave it there and keep going, through the side gate that hangs open onto the dirt drive leading down to the river. More blood.

So much blood.

Someone has been dragged through that blood. Something. Tire tracks.

A spent bullet casing.

Understand that nothing that follows is a conscious choice. I panic. I scream. I call for her because she must be here. I call for my daughter, and she doesn’t respond. There’s blood on my hands, my shoes. I follow the tracks to where the driveway follows the river and I run, only stopping when I see colour in the water. That’s where Rossi finds me. He’s breathing heavily, his chest heaving and his gun out. I’m sitting in the water with the body of a child in my lap and there’s blood absolutely everywhere. My gun lays on the bank, and he takes that first.

I only know this part because he told me it happened.

Apparently, to him and to the responding officers following behind him, I say quite clearly, “I wish I’d killed her myself. It would have been kinder.”

Is it really any wonder that they arrest me?

 


 

“The team is on their way.”

Surfacing from the foggy haze of shock to find myself cuffed to a steel table with Rossi telling me this is unpleasant, certainly, but not a surprise. I open my mouth in order to respond, seeing the officer next to him shift in his seat, but Rossi silences me with a quick hand gesture.

“Miranda rights,” he barks to the officer, someone I don’t recognise. That’s not surprising. I’ve always avoided law enforcement, even in a town as small as Cornish.

“We gave ‘em,” the sergeant responds.

“They’re not valid unless he was knowing. Dr Reid, are you aware of your rights?”

I just stare. It’s not helpful but my brain has stopped and is chugging over one impossible fact: Derecho is gone. Doyle has her.

“In seventy-four percent of stranger abductions, the child is murdered within three hours,” I say blankly. There’s a noticeable pause in the room. “How long has it been?”

“Barely an hour.” Rossi’s voice is calming, despite what I think is the distinct feeling of the world crashing down around me. “Reid, you need to tell us that you’re aware of your rights. You can uphold them. The team is coming.”

The team is coming said in that tone of voice is Rossi telling me to be quiet, to lawyer up, to push the investigation away from me until the team get here. That finding Derry is the greatest priority for every officer in the municipal and state department right now and that, if I invoke my right of silence, they won’t have time to spend waiting for a lawyer to interrogate me further. Rossi knows I’m a dead-end.

I know procedure just as well as he does.

“I understand,” I say, but don’t stop there. “My daughter—please, has an AMBER—”

“In the process of,” says a new voice, the door entering and the chief coming in. “Right now, Campbell—you need to tell me you didn’t have anything to do with this. If you want us out there finding who’s got your kid, you need to tell us now.”

“He’s—” Rossi starts. I know he’s protecting me but, at that moment, I’m desperate. I’ll do anything, anything, just to ensure they’re out there looking.

“I don’t have her,” I say, trying to stand in some crazed burst of energy, cuffs pulling me hard against the table as two of the men facing me jerk forward as though to restrain me further. “You’re going to find items that may seem incriminating in my home—a police scanner, crime scene photos—but, please, believe me, everything there is there to protect Derry. Ian Doyle, that’s who has her—Rossi, tell them!”

“Dr Reid is an ex-federal agent in hiding from a man at the top of our wanted lists,” Rossi says, choosing every word with care. “His daughter is in considerable danger from that man. It’s very likely that either Doyle or someone he’s acquainted with was responsible for the scene today—”

“You were found holding the body of a child with a gun within arm’s reach,” the sergeant says.

I shake my head; no? What? No, I… but, when I look down, there’s blood in the creases of my palms where water hasn’t washed it away. I try to speak, try to say something, but I’m lost in that choking panic, thinking, wondering, what child? Whose child?

Is she gone already? My daughter, the child I’d raised and loved and cared for, is that even possible?

It’s not. It can’t be.

“No,” I choke out, but my head is on the desk and there’s a hand between my shoulder-blades. There’s no one in the room but Rossi and me. “Is she dead?”

“No, god, Spencer, no,” Rossi says sharply. “She’s not dead. We’re going to find her. The team are half an hour away—we might have a bit of a problem with me having given the locals perhaps the slightest impression that you’re in official witness protection, but we can deal with that… whoa, there. Water.”

I don’t want water, I want my child, but Rossi doesn’t seem to get that in the glare I aim at him. Despite this fury, when I take the cup and lean to sip from it, my hands tremble dangerously. The water hurts to swallow and I spill a little onto the sheet below my hand, the one that’s partially filled in in a handwriting I recognise but can’t understand in this context.

“Isabelle?” I rasp, confused. What my hand is on is a Missing Persons report.

“She’s outside. Gave us as much information on Derry as she could for the alert, but we need you. They’re already closing main thoroughfares out of the state—we’ve got the best chance of getting her back, Reid. Don’t you go panicking on us.”

Emily’s never been far from my thoughts, but she’s even closer now.

“How can you be so sure?” I ask him, reaching for the pen and numbly filling out the square boxes asking for endless details of my child on their stark-white paper. “Doyle killed Emily… we couldn’t keep her safe, and it turns out, I couldn’t keep Derry safe either…”

The paper smudges under my hand. I blame the ink.

 


 

Rossi refuses to leave my side, a silent presence as the sergeant they assign to me circles uselessly around evidence that isn’t related to the immediate case at hand. I’m forced, over and over again, to justify what they see as the unjustifiable. To me, it makes perfect sense, and I barely pay attention to the ceaseless questions as I watch a barely visible television screen outside the windowed room I’m being held in. I can see the scrolling ticker from here, the large AMBER Alert symbol glued there. Occasionally, Derry’s photo flashes up, and every time it’s a horrible feeling that I’ve failed all over again.

The police scanner in my bedroom?

In case he came for us—to keep track of disappearances nearby. I believed he’d strike close to us before coming for Derry. Doyle desires fear. Terror. He wants me paralysed, to truly know that his hunting hadn’t ended with Emily’s death. Hadn’t I been right? Isn’t there another child still missing, one state over? I promise them that she’ll be found dead first and soon—a blatant “Look at me and look what I’m doing, have done, will now do the one I hate the most.” Her body will be a message. A final blow against Emily.

The crime scene photos?

My own investigation. Most of them are dated before my flight from DC. Those that aren’t, I found through my own contacts within the criminal justice system or in public records. No, I won’t give those people up. That’s irrelevant to both my daughter’s disappearance and the charges you’re attempting to lay against me.

The blood?

My daughter’s, I assume. I don’t know. By the time I’d arrived home, she was… gone.

No, I can’t give DNA to match with hers. I’ve already told you why.

I fall silent on this part. It hurts to hear Rossi explaining that Derry is the child of Emily Prentiss, now dead. That Derry has no one else in the world to speak for her. That no, technically, I have no custodial right to the child named ‘Storm Prentiss’, despite the misleadingly large bevy of information naming me the father of ‘Derecho Campbell’.

That’s an uneasy moment. I can tell that Rossi doesn’t want to state that. In every technicality, I’ve kidnapped Derry once. With the death of Lomaia, the only evidence that my taking her was sanctioned by her father is in that he didn’t come after me for it. But I push for it to be said—when this is done, if she comes home alive, it will be worth every incriminating thing I’ve done to keep her safe. Fortunately, Rossi’s presence has forestalled any investigation into mine and Derry’s true identities.

The questioning stops there because that’s when the team arrives. The door opens, and Aaron Hotchner walks in. “Your chief has given me permission to speak to him alone,” he says in the same deep voice I remember from so long ago. That voice silences something in me, some tight worried ball of anger wanting to lash out at everyone around me for being so ineffectual, even though logically I’m aware there’s a manhunt going on without my inclusion. That voice reminds me that I’m not alone.

Seconds later, that comfort vanishes. I’m not the same man I was six years ago when I’d said goodbye to this man and his team. I know at that moment that I’m not—because, as the sergeant scurries out and leaves us alone with Rossi, I look out the window and see the team staring in at me, and I feel nothing but empty. I don’t feel safe. I don’t feel assured.

I don’t feel trust.

I speak before he can: “Her name is Derecho now.”

“This doesn’t look good, Reid,” he says, ignoring me. “What happened to Nate Sinclair?”

I ignore that too. I can’t think about Nate yet; that’s a hurt I’ll feel later when there’s time to feel it. I grieved for him all that I could as I held his body in the water; now, I need to focus on Derecho. “She still has the scar on her hand,” I say, seeing him exchange a glance with Rossi. “But she’s not the girl you knew then. She’s so much more. She’s studying at a sixth-grade level, despite me never placing her into mainstream school. We planted a flower clock together when she was seven, although it didn’t work. She has her dog with her—Listen. She named him, she named all our animals. The geese and the goats… and she knits, Hotch, she knits so well. Except for bears, she’s not—” I stop there because it hurts, remembering the bear hat.

Silence. The door is open, JJ standing there. I can see Morgan beside her. I don’t recognise the others hanging back, mine and Emily’s replacements, I guess.

“You don’t need to humanise her to us,” Hotch says gently, too gently. Like I’m a victim instead of a witness or an agent. “We’re here for her, Reid. But we need to know the facts first.”

“The facts?” I say this with venom, seeing JJ’s eyes widen further despite already being wide enough that she looks pained, gaze flickering over every inch of me. “My daughter is missing—taken by a man your team should have caught six years ago when he killed Emily. That’s the only fact that matters, Agent Hotchner. Derry’s nine-years-old, smart as a whip, but not smart enough that she’ll survive what he’ll do to her. You all saw the messages. He told Emily what he’d do. If you focus on me instead of her, he’s going to do everything he threatened and more, and she’ll be dead. I do need to humanise her to you—the very fact that you’re in with me instead of out there looking for her tells me that.” I close my eyes, feeling everything crunching down on me. What else can I tell them that they don’t know? “I didn’t kill Nate. I didn’t let a flash-bang off in my living room. I didn’t shoot my—”

“Preliminary lab reports say that blood is only partly human,” Hotch cuts in. I wonder, for a heartbeat, why that’s relevant, and then I realise. “Storm has a dog?”

“Derecho,” I correct, mind racing. “And yes. Listen… why would he take her dog?” That doesn’t make sense. Listen isn’t a service dog. He’s never been a service dog. I’ve always been a liar in order to keep Derry safe—Listen is trained in protection, not service. Him being there only places a barrier between Doyle and Derry, unless… “He’s not going to kill her straight away. The only reason he’d have to take the dog is control… there’s no reason to control her if she’s dead.”

Hotch just keeps watching me, those dark eyes impossible to read. He’s not trying to console me or reach out to me. I don’t think he knows what to make of me.

“We’re going out there to find her,” Hotch says carefully. “But we need to know what you do. Is there anything you’re not telling us?”

I shake my head. “Listen isn’t a service animal—the medical information given in the AMBER Alert is inaccurate,” I tell them because I can trust them to see beyond the deception and know why I continued the lie. A child with a medical condition is a child whose fate will linger in people’s minds. More eyes out looking for her, aware of how much danger she’s in. By Hotch’s nod, he understands. “Derry believes that she’s sick though, and so will Doyle. If he wants her alive, that may also be why he took the dog. And it was sloppy… rushed…” I frown. “That doesn’t match his MO. He wouldn’t…”

They’re silent, watching me. “Reid, man, I’ve seen pictures of what you had hanging on your walls,” Morgan says, moving further into the room and looking down at me. “You’re the only one in this room right now with a complete profile on Doyle—give it to us.”

I might not trust them with my life or Derry’s, but I do trust them with a profile. That’s something.

“He would have taken her, not a lackey, not someone working with him. She’s too important to him to delegate.” I cannot stress this point enough, my cuffs clinking loudly as I move restlessly. I want out of here, but know that’s unlikely to happen for at least twenty-four hours—they’re my only hope right now. “And that doesn’t match the crime scene. That was a rushed job. He set off alarms, didn’t silence Listen before entering the premises, wasted time on geese. He didn’t throw Nate in the river—Nate was shot where he died. They had to have fled. Why would he take her in the open otherwise? The very fact that Nate was there is unprecedented—he’s never killed someone outside of the family he targets, not even before Emily.”

“So, why now?” Hotch asks, already standing. They need to go out there. A very small whisper of something scared in my brain doesn’t want them to go; I ignore it. “Why did he rush it? What spooked him?”

“Me?” asks Rossi, his expression tense. “He might have known I was in town.”

“I don’t know,” I answer. “But I do know something—he wasn’t planning to have two kids at once. That other girl that’s missing, Candace? She’s irrelevant to him now.”

And here’s what I hate myself for: this new, colder version of Spencer Reid, the man who is solely focused on bringing Derry home alive before attempting to regain his humanity… he’s thankful for this.

“You’ll have a body soon. That will give you a direction. I suggest you go find that first.”

If they look startled or disgusted by my callousness, they’re far too good at their job to show it.

They leave without saying much else and I know why; I’m a stranger to them. Good. I have no desire to be anything more. Alone in the room, my wrists chaffing, I close my eyes and wish I could find comfort in religion. At least then I wouldn’t feel like such a fool for silently begging Emily to look out for our child, in any way she can.

Despite my disbelief, I ask her anyway. I ask her to bring Derecho home.

Chapter Text

In October, I return from being six years dead. I wish I could say it’s for any other reason than the one it is. But it’s not.

I come back because, if I don’t, my daughter will be killed.

This isn’t what I died for.

 


 

“Emily.” Clyde’s voice is dull, tired. It sounds like I feel: fucked. We’re in Russia, the North Ossetia-Alania region, and Doyle has slipped away. I’m not even shocked anymore. We’re a taskforce of six being given the run-around by one sanctimonious Irish asshole, and I’m starting to lose track of myself.

“We should sleep,” I say instead of admitting we’ve lost Doyle again. It’s a blow. The last eight months have been good; we’ve stripped away his boltholes one by fucking one, leaving him nowhere to run. Like the rabbit coursed by hounds, ready for us to snap his neck. And, just like a rabbit, the bastard’s got one last trick up his sleeve. Right when I was beginning to close my eyes at night and dream of going home. “We’re not going to find him until Intel touches base again.”

When I turn, I find Clyde leaning against the hotel wall, eyeing me warily. There’s worry in his eyes. I know why: I’ve lost weight, too much of it. My skin is tight and lined around my mouth and eyes, permanent worry creased into my features. When I look in the mirror now, I see a tired, old woman.

“You going to actually sleep?” he asks. I shrug. It’s been good working with Clyde again the last year—especially since we’d caught Doyle’s trail, getting him running scared instead of just hoping we were following the right sociopath. Even so, there’s only so much concern I can handle. I preferred it when the CIA was pairing me with people who don’t give a shit if I live or die. It was easier for me not to care then.

Some part of me is pretty sure there’s never going to be an end to this. Just me and Doyle, trapped in this circular chase for the rest of our lives.

Well. At least if I’m chasing him, he can’t chase Storm.

That’s all I’ll say of her. I don’t taunt myself with thinking of her anymore, or of anyone I’ve left behind. That life burned with Jane Doe’s body in a DC warehouse. All I am now is the bullet the CIA is using to take down Ian Doyle and all his connections. We’re close. He’s alone now, aside from connections Stateside that I can’t touch without risking my face coming up on allied screens.

Clyde says, “You should sleep. Or, at least, try. Can’t take him down if you’re dead.”

That’s not entirely true. I’ve been dead six years and, yet, here I am.

Taking Doyle down.

 


 

This is the dream that’s chased me for the past six years.

I’m in a bed and I’m not alone. It’s early morning. Sometimes it’s winter and the light through the window is frozen and blue. Sometimes, it’s autumn, and he has the window propped open so we can smell the damp leaves in the air. It’s always cold and it never matters, because the covers are pulled around us and we’re warm together.

I lay on my side and Storm lays beside me, sleeping peacefully in the dawning light. Today, she’s four. Curly hair, despite the fact that both her father and I have straight, and a button nose she didn’t get from either of us either. My waking mind will wonder where my unconscious one gathered these features, but, in the dream, I don’t care. I don’t even realise that this isn’t how she’d really look—all I know is that I love this girl, no matter what age or face she wears, and that we’re always going to be warm and safe in this bed.

She never wakes. She never speaks. Her hand is unscarred and her expression calm.

This never stops hurting.

There’s a warmth behind me. I know deep in my mind that he’s here with us too, but I never gather the courage to turn and face his accusatory eyes. They’ve always been stunningly efficient at showing when he’s hurt, and I can’t bear that now. Not yet. Maybe not ever. Better to pretend that I’m alone with my child, the one I haven’t held since she was three years old.

I don’t speak either. There’s no point.

I just hold my daughter until I wake and leave that bed behind.

 


 

It’s snowing lightly on the morning that changes everything. We’re in the car, parked back in a hidden corner of the mountainous road we’ve been travelling on. Dangerously exposed, I think as I stretch as much as I can in the cramped backseat before looking around for Clyde.

He’s standing outside, looking down the cliffside near us. I think as soon as I see his face I know that something’s gone wrong. As I slip out of the car and over to him, freezing cold and wondering what our next move is, I’m already braced. “Made contact this morning,” he says softly, his gaze locked on the narrow road leading back to the highway. “Emily, don’t overreact. We don’t know details yet.”

It’s like he doesn’t know me at all. I’m already reacting as soon as he says that.

My first thought is Reid. Because it has to be—who else is dumb enough to get hurt while I’m not there to stop it happening?

“Is he dead?” I ask.

Clyde raises an eyebrow. “Yes, but I very much doubt you’ve guessed who, love.”

“Reid?”

He chuckles. “No. Well, not that I know of. I thought it was strange that Doyle led us here of all places… this is a tiny region, with none of his cells operating currently. Not anymore, not since 2004. But what does it have?”

I only have to think about that for a second, my heart sinking. “Verhniy Lars. The checkpoint into Georgia.”

“Aye. He’s hopped countries without us realising.”

That’s frustrating, but not as worrying as the look in Clyde’s eyes. “And why shouldn’t I overreact about this?”

Before he answers, he’s already pulling up a webpage on his phone. I can see what looks like a newspaper front page on the screen, but not in English or Russian. A rudimentary scan of it as he passes it over declares it to be Georgian, which I don’t speak or read. There are no pictures, but there is an English translation available. It’s broken and choppy, but clear enough to get the chilling gist.

Ambassador Lomaia murdered in home and family.

“Mikheil,” I say, the name passing my lips for the first time in years. It’s a strange, gut-dropping feeling to know the man Storm owes her existence to is gone, slaughtered. “Doyle?”

“I’d say. That’s his MO. The whole family is gone. Shot in their beds, point-blank range. Execution style. That kind of clean… that’s Ian Doyle all over. Political assassination is a possibility, but I can’t see the purpose of killing an ambassador without an assignment in the current political climate.”

And I’m chilled again, the snow drifting around me. “We spooked him,” I manage, seeing Clyde nod. He’s already realised everything I’m about to say, but I say it anyway to be sure that it’s clear: “He’s lashing out the only way he knows how.”

“Our friend says he’s already working to make contact with your mother and daughter. If this is him turning towards your family, we can stop him before he even begins—he won’t make it Stateside.”

I nod. There’s nothing to do but wait for news, ‘our friend’ working as our bridge between us and the men who worked to hide me away from my previous life. Nothing I can do but wait, like I’ve been doing nothing but waiting since the day the CIA had approached my hospital bed and offered me the chance to hunt Doyle down, once and for all. So deeply undercover that there would be no one but a select team who would know of my survival. Not even Doyle knows I’m alive: all he knows is that he’s chased by the operative known as Blackbird, who seems to know his every move before he makes it—except this one. We’ve stopped attacks, dissembled cells, shattered information networks he’s spent years building. We’ve taken his world apart piece by piece by piece and it’s taken six bloody years to do so until there’s not an inch of me that feels clean or familiar.

Valhalla must fall before Emily Prentiss is allowed to live again; those are the terms. And no one at home will ever know what I’ve done to make it so.

And, in the final hour, he’s slipped my grasp.

Furious, I wait for contact.

And, when it comes, it shatters everything.

The call comes in the night. Our handler is a woman, her voice a strange accent not even I can place. Maybe once it was from Boston, but since then she’s overlaid such an array of other accents onto it that it’s impossible to tell for sure. In this strange, alien voice, she tells us what she’s discovered about my family and the extent the CIA has lied to keep me here. I’m not even that mad, not really. I’m not stupid enough to think I trust them, any of them. Not even Clyde. And here’s why.

She tells us that my mother is dead. That Elizabeth Prentiss has been dead for five years. Pancreatic cancer. She’d probably already been dying when she’d buried me. Bitch. I’m furious at her for this.

And Storm.

“Where is she?” I ask. Clyde is silent. I can see him tensing. Expecting a reaction. He’ll get one if she says what I think she’s going to.

She does.

“Our records indicate that Mikheil Lomaia took custody of Storm shortly before Former Ambassador Prentiss’s death. That’s all we know—he returned to Georgia the following year.”

Just like that, I’m cold. I don’t let her finish.

I walk away.

“Where are you going?” Clyde calls, giving chase. I let him run. Those fucks at Langley would have known that Mom was dead—they hid this from me. They knew I’d only play nice so long as Storm was safe and, all this time, she hasn’t been.

His words haunt me: Shot in their beds, point-blank range.

“I’m going to Georgia,” I tell him. Tell, not ask. If he tries to stop me, I’ll shoot him, friendship be damned. “Are you coming? I’m not doing this diplomatically.”

The good thing about Clyde is that he’s loyal to very little.

He comes.

 


 

“Technically, we’re going rogue,” Clyde says cheerfully as we walk up the stoop to the luxury apartments sweeping overhead. “The CIA is going to be very displeased with this little detour, especially if it gets us thrown into a Georgian jail.” Around us, the nightlife of Tbilisi is loud and vibrant, the chill of the barely frozen air carrying sounds and scents easily. On this street, set away from the bustling centre, any eyes that follow us see two people who look like they should be here approaching the door that’s still sealed with a crime scene sticker. I don’t hesitate; I enter as Doyle would have, a flat bar in hand and popping the already compromised door with an ease that Clyde huffs at.

“You are a strange and frightening woman,” he says to me.

I ignore him because we’ve stepped into the silent home, the vaulted ceilings and high doorways only adding to the oppressive silence. And I feel sick. Maybe he sees that. Maybe he doesn’t. Either way, he touches my arm gently and leaves my side to make his way upstairs to the bedroom. We’re gloved. I stop to pull a hood over my hair, using this chance to regain my composure.

The house whispers to me. Here is the rug where she would have played, it says, as I walk into a sitting room that richly decorated with greens and golds and carved wood designs. Here, someone other than you raised her. I ignore the whispers and study the walls with the thin beam from my weapon’s detachable flashlight. No photos line the walls or the mantel, not in this room. Not in the next. I don’t bother with the kitchen—the help would have worked there, not the household children.

Up the stairs in this house that’s hiding its secrets from me, pushing away every thought of home. It’s harder here. I find Clyde in the master bedroom, avoiding the rug Doyle would have stood on in order to create the blood spatter patterns I’m looking upon. The bedding has been removed but the mattress is still stained with brown, the walls splattered with blood and bone and brain matter.

Here, the bed whispers, here he was laying. Remember him? Remember his hands on you? Remember how exciting it was, how beautiful he was? Remember those gorgeous, cold eyes? They’re colder now. Colder than they’ll ever be again.

They’re empty now because they’re dead, and all because you fucked him.

And here, is another whisper, the patch of blood on the side of the bed with the perfume bottle beside it. A paperback novel with a lace-lined bookmark. His wife. Dead now too, because I never considered her life when I fucked with it.

Monstrous and small, I turn and walk away from that room. To the others.

This room is untouched. A boy sleeps here, but almost a man. The books on the shelves are thick and heavy, textbooks on psychology and criminology in Georgian and English and German. I find a sports magazine. Clothes to fit a teenager. A hidden packet of smokes down the side of his untouched bed. No one died in this room and I leave it feeling grateful.

This room isn’t as kind. Two boys slept, and died, in it. Twin beds with twin crowns of red and brown. Dinosaur toys. I remember Reid once complaining of how dinosaurs had never really gone out of style, despite him having never owned a dinosaur toy himself. Books and drawings. One of these boys likes to paint. Liked to paint.

I killed them too.

One more room. I open the door feeling cold. I guess I already know what it’s going to be when I go inside.

Clyde finds me there. “Oh shit,” he whispers as he walks in the door.

“She wasn’t in bed.” My voice is monotonous. I’m profiling the room. It’s a way of distancing myself from the shock trying to shake me. Compartmentalisation, right? I’d used it so effectively all those years ago when Hankel had taken Reid. Why is now any different? “She must have heard the shots that killed her brothers and climbed out of bed. He killed her here. On the floor like an animal…” It hurts, but I keep studying the spatter until the truth is made painfully clear. “Look at the pattern… he made her kneel.”

“Emily,” says Clyde.

“Horse posters, pretty clothes…” I’m looking around the room, a savage kind of fury rising in my stomach and building out to every part of me. “She’s any child, she’s every little girl. Look at this room, she was loved.” And she was—there are pictures of her brothers and parents pinned to the mirror, a jewelled hairbrush, trinkets in a pretty box that plays a tune when I open it. “She was loved and he killed her!”

Emily.” His voice, this time, is impossible to ignore, and I round on him.

“Make this better!” I snarl, daring him to. Daring him to somehow make it better that I’ve convinced everyone in my life that I’m dead in order to save a girl who died anyway—that I brought a beautiful, unstoppable force into this world only to have Doyle stop her anyway. “Do it, Easter! Make this not hurt! You can’t, you have no idea, you don’t give a shit about—”

“There aren’t any school items in this room,” he says quietly. I stop, breath hitching for a heartbeat. “Your daughter would be nine. This child is not. A child of her status? She’d be schooled. Look at her books—they’re picture books, alphabet puzzles. No novels.”

And I look, I truly look, beyond my fear and my grief and my terror. I see clearly.

This isn’t Storm’s room. This is a preschooler’s room. Four, maybe five. My daughter is nine.

Storm wasn’t here.

She isn’t dead.

 


 

It’s a race. I find the first flight I can to DC, aware that my false identity may get me past the TSA, but there’s no way I won’t be avoiding a stormy meeting at Langley immediately after. I don’t care. What can they do to me that hasn’t been done?

If they’re so sure that they want me out of the loop, time for me to force their hand.

Sure enough, when I exit the security check, I find a man waiting for me. The name on his sign isn’t mine; he’s added a picture of a blackbird beside it. Without a word, silent and fuming, I follow him to a black-tinted sedan and refuse to pay any attention to the bizarre familiarity of DC around me.

“You left Easter in Georgia,” says the woman as soon as I’m ushered into the windowless room at Langley. “That’s callous. We knew you were coming by the way—you weren’t exactly subtle.”

“Where is my daughter?” I don’t let her gaze intimidate me. “I’ve been working for you on the assumption that you’d protect her. This is not protecting her. This is the opposite of that—you’ve lost her? How do you lose a child?”

“Sit down, Agent Prentiss.”

I haven’t been called that in six years. For a moment, I don’t respond. She repeats her request, gentler this time, and there’s something in her eyes that goads me to obey. Or maybe it’s the exhaustion building. I haven’t slept since finding out that Mom is dead and Storm is gone. I’m reacting without understanding—none of this feels real.

A small part of me is still planning to drive immediately to Mom’s townhouse upon leaving here, to demand my way in and find her there waiting.

“We’ve recovered photos from the Georgian crime investigators,” our handler says. I tiredly stare at her, wishing she’d tell me her name, not really caring enough to ask. “I’m showing them to you on the understanding that you still work for us, Prentiss, and bound by everything that means. Doyle is still out there.”

“In DC?” I ask.

She shakes her head. “He is in the US though. Arrived after killing Lomaia, and we know where he’s heading.”

“Where?”

The plasma on the wall comes on, showing sharp security footage. “Home surveillance and footage recovered from a camera we believe Lomaia’s wife was using to watch the children’s au pairs.” Beside the motionless footage, I watch a series of photos. Two boys shot in their beds. A broken door. Lomaia’s wife’s body in the bed, beside a child. A daughter. A dark-haired girl, barely six-years-old, dressed in a nightgown and with her hands twisted through her mother’s. Both dead.

“Lomaia?” I ask, frozen in my seat. I’d assumed he’d died in the bed beside his wife.

Another photo. It was Mikheil who died in the child’s room, died kneeling. He’s dressed. I can’t see his expression, obscured by blood and the way he’d fallen. I guess for that I’m thankful.

“We have this.”

With that, the security footage plays. The little girl’s room is captured. There’s sound. I shouldn’t have been thankful; I watch Doyle kill him, and it shatters any resolution within me. If ever I’d thought myself brave by fleeing from my daughter in order to save her life, that’s very little compared to watching Mikheil—a man who’d never wanted nor loved our daughter—stare down the barrel of a gun and refuse to give up that child.

Doyle miscalculated, I realise, watching Mikheil’s eyes in the shadowed view the camera gives me. I see grief and hate. I see anger. I see determination. I see everything in his expression that I’d seen in mine the morning I’d left behind nothing but a letter and died to save my daughter.

“You do understand that I’m going to kill you if you don’t tell me where she is, don’t you?” Doyle asks in his hateful voice. “Storm Prentiss—where is she?”

“You’re going to kill me anyway,” is the cold response. “Do it. Do it.”

Do it.

No, Doyle miscalculated. He shouldn’t have killed Mikheil’s family first. All he’d ensured was that Mikheil would die defending the only child he had left.

And he does.

“There were papers missing from Lomaia’s office,” the woman says as she pauses the image on Mikheil’s fallen body. “We believe Doyle discovered the location of your daughter from those. He’s been searching for her for months—we believe he was aware that she wasn’t located at the Lomaia’s, but was unable to look for her himself while you and your taskforce were so close on his tail. However, he does have contacts here who acted on his behalf. Killing Lomaia was an act of desperation borne from those contacts failing to flush out the person hiding her.”

Any haziness that’s fallen over me from the shock of that video clears abruptly.

“Someone is hiding her?” A wild part of me thinks Hotch. I don’t know why—he’s the kind of man to risk everything for a child, even one that isn’t his. But that’s not right. Hotch would never risk Jack like that. “How long have you people known about this?”

She doesn’t answer; of course, she fucking doesn’t. I miss the FBI. At least the bureaucracy isn’t so clandestine there. A file is pushed towards me. I open it.

Bile rises.

I saved no one. Doyle might not have been killing while I chased him—but he had people killing in his name. I see two different MOs before I’m halfway through the file, every child’s body staring back at me accusingly.

“You hid this from me…” I’m angry but not surprised, and neither does her answer surprise me.

“It was irrelevant to your mission. If you had been back here stopping his men, then he would have been free to do as he pleased in Eastern Europe. Inevitably, it would have had the same result.”

“Which is?”

Another file. I open this one with a hand that’s steady to find the last face I’d ever expected to see staring up at me from a CIA file doing just that.

Spencer.

“Five years ago, Spencer Reid quit his job at the BAU and vanished off the face of the earth,” she says with a calm that’s stunning, considering how earth-shattering the news she’s giving is. “Incidentally, that’s the last time anyone has any recorded contact with Storm Prentiss. Despite rigorous efforts by your former team members, until now no one was able to find him—or her.”

“Until now?”

A nod. A sigh. And she finally says it, the entire reason why I didn’t have my ass thrown back on that plane as soon as I’d stepped off. “Agent Prentiss, we need you to remain calm. Dr Reid was arrested fifteen hours ago, under the pseudonym ‘Howard Campbell’, on suspicion of aiding in the kidnapping of his daughter, Derecho Campbell.”

I turn the page as she speaks. There’s a photo. A Missing Persons report. A child.

I know her immediately. I’ve always known her. There are my eyes and Mikheil’s nose and Spencer’s smile, all mixed together on this child’s face to make something entirely new and alive and real.

There she is. There’s my Storm.

She’s so big now.

“Doyle has her?” I ask, unable to look away. In my dreams, she was never so old, nor so vivid. Never so human. “Does Doyle have my daughter?”

“Yes.”

And, just like that, I’m alive again.

Chapter Text

The reunion with my team has been fraught.

My reunion with her is explosive.

Rossi is with me when it happens, in the timeless, airless room where I’ve been held for the past seventeen hours. I don’t know when I’ve last slept, eaten, when my brain has been even remotely functional. I’m answering questions without thought and I know what they’re doing: trying to use my cognitive weakness right now to shock me into giving anything away. The very fact that they’re doing this should be alarming, if I had any processes left to think about it—they don’t think I’m involved with this but, if they’re still focusing on me, that means they have no other leads.

“That’s enough,” Rossi says suddenly, standing. It’s a sudden move and I startle away from it, shocked to realise that my head has drifted down towards the smudged tabletop. I hate myself for that—how can I even think about sleeping while Derry is gone? “Is there somewhere Spencer can sleep? There’s no point to torturing him like this.”

“I don’t want to sleep,” I croak but am interrupted by the door opening. It’s Hotch and he goes for the blinds, as though to shut them. “What are you doing?”

“Dave, out,” he orders. I stand. My cuffs clink, adrenaline shooting through me—because there’s panic in his eyes, shock, and there are raised voices in the precinct. “Reid, sit down—”

But I’ve seen her, even as Hotch slams the blinds closed; too late.

“Where do you—” I hear someone calling, a male voice. Maybe Morgan. I don’t know.

She walks into the room and meets my eyes.

I’m breathing fast and shallow. The world is wavering around me. This is false. An illusionary hope. A cruel trick of the light. A psychotic break, perhaps. I’m finally as broken as I’d always promised to become.

But Hotch is staring at her, his own expression thrown, and Rossi is hanging onto the table as though it’s all that’s supporting him. They’re as shocked as I am—or are they? Are they pretending too? Is this all some kind of macabre theatre put on for my benefit, as they stage a death and resurrection in order to, what, stun me into confessing?

I pull away. My hand slips on the table, leaving a smear of red. Later, I’ll realise that I’ve been pulling so hard on the cuffs that they’ve cut into my wrists, trying to back away from this ghost. This nightmare.

“Spencer,” she says.

I say nothing.

“Emily?” rasps Rossi. “What the…”

“You’re alive.” This is said by Hotch, in a calm, deadpan voice. A leader’s voice. Trying to take control of what has already spiralled wildly away from us. “CIA?”

She’s too busy trying to meet my gaze to answer. “Is she alive?” she’s asking, stepping closer. Pain bites at my wrists; Hotch reaches out and catches her arm. “Where’s Doyle? What do we know?”

“You knew,” I finally stammer out, looking at Hotch, not her. I can’t look at her. If I do, I’ll unravel. “You knew about this. You’re acting. Trying to gain my trust by pretending you didn’t.”

“We didn’t know,” Rossi says.

“No one knew,” lies the ghost. “Spencer, look at me. No one knew. I’m here to help find her, I promise. No one knows him better than me—we’re going to get her back.”

“You lied to me.” Snarled at all of them. I see the ghost baulk, I see the confusion on her face. “You all lied to me. She’s been alive this whole time? Every minute I’ve been hiding—all of it for nothing?”

“Emily, out.” Hotch again. Trying to be firm, but Prentiss—or this facsimile of her—has always been firm too. “Get out.”

“If Doyle knows I’m back, it will stall him,” she continues, ignoring Hotch. “He won’t harm her unless I’m there.”

“Or it will throw him into a rage and he’ll lash out,” I say. “Did you consider that? He’ll be so enraged that you lied to him again that he’ll make her a symbol of his anger—destroy her so thoroughly that it’s lucky you’re not dead because the only way we’ll be identifying her is through DNA! Or is that your plan? You’ve been chasing him, I assume—maybe you got sick of that, realised she’s the bait to your trap. Is that what you did? Used her as bait?”

A muscle in my arm pulls hard as I twist it lunging against my cuffs, trying to move around the table to get a closer look at her. There’s bile in my throat and red clouding my vision, anger and exhaustion and a thick, roiling sickness swallowing any semblance of sanity as I face down this spectre of the woman I buried and took the place of. “Or did he know?! Did Ian Doyle know that you were alive when I didn’t—when Derry didn’t? Well, shit, you must love him more than her, to allow him that when—”

“What the hell is wrong with you?” she asks, staring at me. They’re all staring at me and I yank the cuffs again, feeling them bite, feeling the rage slam home. In that second, I would have done anything to be out of those cuffs. The table groans.

“You!” I scream. “She’s dying because of you!”

Is that true? I don’t know. I’m exhausted and broken and paranoid and hurting. I’m disorientated. All I know is the anger and the hate and screaming at her with words I don’t even understand myself until Hotch succeeds in dragging her from the room and Rossi tries to calm me down. He fails. There’s a bruise on him where I fought his hands on me and, if I’m sorry for that, it’s a very small, distant part of me. He lied too. They all lied.

It’s the EMT they have standing by in case they find Derry who sedates me. Some part of me is aware of JJ asking them not to, of telling them to give me time to calm down, but it’s a distant part. Some part of me is aware that she’s in the room when they do it.

Some part of me is aware of her holding my hand.

 


 

When I wake up, there’s a saline drip in my arm and I’m on a bed. For a split second, I don’t notice these things. For that single, haunting second… I’m at home, the goats bleating softly outside, and Derry is about to yell at me that breakfast is ready…

That second passes. The nightmare returns. Later, I’ll note that, even in my perfect moment of waking to a world where everything is normal, Emily is still dead.

I’m not handcuffed, nor am I in a cell. There’s a mirror along one wall; another interrogation room then, one with a camp bed brought in. Not the same as I’d been held in before.

“Locals will be angry you went over them like that,” I husk out, my throat so dry that I feel the words claw their way up to my mouth. “Unrestraining a dangerous suspect.”

“You’re not dangerous,” says JJ, lowering her cell. “And I didn’t go over them. Hotch did.”

“Why?” It doesn’t make sense to me. I look at the clock, at the hours that have passed. Outside, the sun is rising on the darkest night of my life.

“He was going to do it soon anyway. You need medical attention, and you’re no help to us in an interrogation room.”

I look at the drip. Shock, causing dehydration. A headache caused by the sedatives. Despite those two things, I feel clearer. More aware.

“Is Emily really alive?”

“Yes.”

“Did you know?”

“No.”

I don’t know if I believe her. JJ’s always been the best liar out of all of us. She has to be, to do her job. Facing the media and grieved parents and communities—she wears a mask made of whatever she needs to be at any one time, and I don’t know if I’ve ever been good at seeing through those masks.

“They want to do a cognitive interview with you.” JJ’s blue eyes are searching and I meet them without flinching. She’s not the only one who wears a mask. “Now that you’re able.”

“New Hampshire can hold me twenty-four hours before I need to be taken before a judge,” I state numbly without answering her. “That time is almost up. When will I be released?”

JJ swallows. “They can hold you until a judge is available to see you,” she says carefully. “It’s a weekend—they have until Monday.”

Horror slams home. I’d thought I could get out of here, hit the streets. Most children die in the first twenty-four hours, but Doyle isn’t most abductors. He keeps them, giving me time to hunt him down. But I need to be out there. Now? Now I’m looking at a weekend of doing nothing, waiting for a team of agents I don’t trust to bring her home without me—Derry doesn’t have until Monday, especially not if Doyle realises that Emily is—

“I’ve told you everything I know,” I tell her, trying desperately to hide that horror. If they think I’m panicking again, that I’m losing it, I’ll be cuffed again. I need to get it together, to stop my brain fracturing into too many people, all of them terrified of losing the person most important in my life. “A cognitive isn’t going to do anything—my recall is fine!”

“You know better than any of us that details are overlooked in the heat of the moment.”

But I don’t want to hear it. “And while we’re walking over everything I’ve already told you, he could be doing anything to her! Let me out of here—let me work with you. I can profile, I have a profile. I can help!”

At that moment, she looks terribly sad. “You know we can’t do that,” she says softly. “You were found with a child’s body, Spence. There are enough things in your house raising eyebrows that the locals haven’t entirely ruled out that you’re involved, working with a partner…”

I’m floored. I stare. How can they think that? It’s absurd. Illogical. Emily is alive, a liar, and yet I’m the one working with Doyle to hurt my child? The one I essentially died to protect?

“…We know that’s not true, but until Garcia is finished proving that you haven’t had contact with Doyle, they’re not listening to us. The media is stirring this up, the townspeople are furious about Nate, and—Spencer?”

I’ve curled down, head on my knees and arms wrapped around it. Dizzy and hurting and stunned.

“They’ll hold me until she’s dead,” I whisper into my pants, the truth slamming home. “They’ll hold me until it’s too late to do anything to save her… they’re going to kill my daughter.” When I look up at her, I’m not ashamed to realise that my eyes are burning, my vision wavering. “And you’re going to let them.”

“A cognitive—”

I just shake my head. I’ve told them everything.

I don’t know what more they want from me.

 


 

It takes another hour of pacing before I break and tell them I’ll do anything. A small part of me knows that Hotch knew I’d snap, that they’re leaving me to fret because if I go to them, I’m more likely to fully cooperate—a larger part sourly thinks that maybe they’re hiding from me, cloistered away with Emily helping them instead.

In that hour, I hate her and I hate them and I think endlessly of Derry and Listen and, strangely, of our geese who didn’t deserve what happened to them.

I don’t think of Nate. That’s something that will hurt later when I’m able to recognise the possibility of a child’s death once more. Right now, thinking of him is too much like grieving her.

Perhaps they’re right. Perhaps a cognitive will jar some detail loose, some memory of walking into that house that I’ve slipped away. Some tiny detail that will lead to my daughter. Perhaps it will but, as of yet, we don’t know, because nothing they try works.

One by one, like a parade of profilers, they try to tease the details from my fretful mind. JJ first. I sit on the bed with my back to the wall and eyes locked forward and trace repetitively over everything I remember; word for word what I’ve given them before. I know it’s word for word. By the end of my spiel, I can see her unconsciously mouthing the words before I say them, her eyes tracing the notepad on her lap and pen still in her hand.

“Maybe we should try again,” she says after taking a slow breath. “Close your eyes and try to relax, Spence.”

I shrug. My eyes burn. Outside, it’s midday, and I’m glad for the soundproofing of the walls. Every time the door opens, I can hear a roar of activity from the halls outside.

“They sent you in here for this because they think I trust you because of Henry,” I say bitterly. Too tired to be polite anymore. “They’re wrong. I can’t relax around you, Jennifer… considering the circumstances, asking me is a little cruel, isn’t it?”

She just nods and leaves.

They send Dr Tara Lewis in next. I already know why. She’s sassy and sharp and delightfully clever. If it were any other time, I’d be happy to converse with her, even happier to work alongside her. Today, I’m disgusted by the manipulation: they think I’ll open up to a stranger.

I tell her exactly what I remember, adding on that I told them this would happen. My memory is exceptional and this is wasting time.

Bitterly, and I don’t voice this, I assume Emily is out there helping them, while I rot in here.

Lewis watches me silently. She’s not gentle like JJ, or kind. Her face is expressionless as she says, “You’re afraid of me.”

I stare. “No.”

But that’s a lie, and even I know it.

I fear every stranger and every familiar face. There are very few I don’t collate with being afraid.

And she nods, stands, and leaves.

Morgan next. They have him pleading, trying to form a rapport based on what we used to be to each other. “You have to trust us, man,” he says, his body language clear and full of expression, from his open hands to his wide eyes. “We’re here for you, every one of us. If you let us in, we can help you.”

“I’m trying.” And I am—I am! I keep telling them, this is useless!

We try again. Morgan has me walk through that terrible day again and again and at no point do I feel the fear as clearly, my senses acutely aware that he’s sitting by my side trying to talk me through a nightmare. I tell him exactly what I told JJ, feeling the burn of disappointment with him as he lowers his pen and grits his teeth with frustration.

I don’t know what they want from me.

He leaves. I’m not fed. I ask for a shower and change of clothes from the storm-faced sergeant. When the food arrives, it’s brought by Hotch.

“Eat,” he says quietly. “I have permission to take you to clean up.”

“There are showers here,” I point out numbly, poking at the food. I don’t think I’ll ever be hungry again. “How far are you taking me?”

As it turns out, the answer is: far enough.

I’m handcuffed again and accompanied by Rossi and Hotch, both of them wearing their guns and slipping me out of the back of the precinct. I don’t know what they’re hoping to achieve; I just follow silently. In the tinted safety of Hotch’s SUV, I watch as we pull from the parking lot of the precinct, past a crowd of media and onlookers.

We go to a motel, the place deserted and my face covered as they take me inside, my heart beating fast. I shouldn’t be here. This is them breaking protocol. But instead of anything crueller, we walk inside and I’m freed from my cuffs, Hotch nodding to the bathroom.

“Shower,” he says quietly. “I have clothes for you.”

I stand and make no move to do as he’s told me. “Why?” I ask suspiciously, folding my arms tight around my aching chest and wondering what’s stopping me from running from them. Neither of them would shoot me, I’m absolutely sure.

Neither of them would stop me.

But… it would be the end of both of their careers.

“You don’t trust us,” says Rossi. “Aside from how hard that’s making this case, that hurts, kid. Seeing the way you look at us like you’re a stray dog waiting to get shot… it’s fucked. It hurts, and I’m goddamned sick of it. Plus, no offence and I completely understand why, you stink. It’s a favour to every one of us, you included.”

“I’m not a stray dog.” Despite this statement, I’m pretty sure that I’m staring warily at them, exactly like said dog waiting for a scrap of food or kindness. The motel is nice, the idea of a shower is tantalising, and I’m so bone-achingly tired that I don’t know how I’ll even stand upright in there long enough to get clean. “You’re manipulating me.”

Hotch just shrugs, sitting down on the bed with a heavy thud and looking tired enough that I’m sure he’s not faking. “Believe what you wish,” he says shortly. “But the Reid I knew was smart enough to recognise the difference between manipulation and friendship.”

Are we friends?

No.

Despite this, I do as he says.

Rossi drives us back to the precinct. I’m clean, the clothes I’m wearing fit remarkably well considering they’re not mine, and it’s a reminder that I am still human under all this anger and fear and hate. I watch Cornish tick by, realising immediately that we’re not going directly back to the station.

“JJ has been tirelessly working to restrain the media from running your name,” Hotch says as I stare out that window, watching the river go past. “Garcia has been working on your laptop and phone records, accounting for every email, every phone call. All of them, Spencer. The ones with your CIA contact. The ones with those contacts you don’t want us to know about. Morgan is working over every bit of information found in your bedroom to align it with what we know. Tara’s working victimology. Rossi and I haven’t stopped trying to trace Doyle’s course when he fled your home. We are absolutely doing everything we can to help you.”

“And Emily?” I ask bitterly, as the road curves towards the river. I close my eyes before we cross over the water, through the covered, wooden bridges that Cornish is known for. Tha-thump-thump-thump our tires go, and I hold my breath until the ground below us is tarmac again…

For a flicker, she’s so close that my heart slams tight and pinches.

“Daddy, hold your breath while we go through!”

“I’m driving, Derry. The driver doesn’t hold their breath.”

“I’ll just hold mine twice as tight for you then, so you don’t have bad luck.”

It hurts to exhale and open my eyes, finding Hotch watching me in the rear-vision mirror.

“She’s brought us more about Doyle than we had before,” he says finally, looking away. I know it’s to give me time to contain myself, as the car pulls up slowly and turns down the dirt path running behind my home. The river runs to one side as we drive away from the bridge Derry loves. “More than you had either. Her coming home might be exactly what we need.”

I watch as we pull up beside my back fence, the quiet that I’ve always loved about Cornish suddenly suffocating as Rossi parks and Hotch turns to look more clearly at me. The water babbles alongside us. I can hear the dog three doors up barking. The car ticks softly as it cools and settles.

“Why now?” I ask the fence, my voice tight and hurting. “Why not when all those other girls needed saving?”

Hotch doesn’t answer, just steps out of the car and opens my door.

It hurts to step out beside him. Hurts to be led to my back gate, my eyes finding the dried patches of blood, the tire tracks that are dusted white from casts they’ve taken of them. Magnetic two-tone fingerprint powder is still visible on the clasp of the gate, Isabelle standing there staring at the smudgy prints.

I’m stunned. I stare at her, something deep in my chest kicking hard as she turns and sees me and her face crumples. “Howie,” she breathes, stepping forward once and then once again and, before I can think to push her away, one last time. Instead of telling her no or that I’m not who she thinks I am, I lift my arms and catch her as she crumples into me, pulling her tight and closing my eyes, smelling nothing but her hair and perfume and feeling, for another heartbeat, as though this is a dream.

If I open my eyes, I’ll be at the library. We’ll be working alone. She’ll sneak her hand to mine, with a smile that’s shyer and sweeter than Emily’s had—

I step away from her, shivering now. Shaken.

She lets me go.

Hotch and Rossi are still watching us but, even as I look at them and wait for the other shoe to drop, Rossi moves forward. “We need that cognitive,” he says quietly, fiddling in his pocket for something. “You said it yourself. This was a rush job—he rushed it. Which means he made mistakes, mistakes that are here, somewhere, Spencer. And they’re in your brain too.”

Frustrated, I turn away, shaking Izzy off when she tries to catch my hand. “I’ve given you all I—” I snap but, before I can storm back to the car, Rossi steps in front of me.

“Try,” he asks.

And I do. I try. They lead me through that gate, try to get me to walk them through the route I walked that day, with Isabelle there beside me—I assume an attempt to have someone there I do still trust, although I despise that they thought I would prefer this be paraded in front of her. It’s cruel. She loves Derry too; she doesn’t make it past the patch of blood by the back door before she begins to cry and Hotch has to take her out to the car. I don’t judge her. I don’t make it inside.

I don’t even make it past the patch of feathers where someone has removed Pickles’ body.

“Where are the geese?” I ask from a thousand miles away, feeling the same too-distant-from-my-body sensation from the day Derry was taken creep deep into my brain. “Derry’s geese, her geese, where are they? They can’t take them. We need to bury them, she’ll need to bury them when she gets home or she won’t have closure, she needs their bodies, they’re hers, they’re—”

“This was a mistake,” I hear Rossi say from that same impossible distance away, hands on my shoulders and leading me from that terrible place. I don’t see who the hand belongs to; I’m crying far too hard.

It feels so terribly cruel that she can’t say goodbye to her pets.

 


 

They let Isabelle stay with me for a short time after that, in the interrogation room I’m beginning to think my life may end in. We don’t speak, not much. I tell her that I’m a liar, that I’m not who she believes.

She tells me that she doesn’t care. That she knows I’d do anything to keep Derry safe.

I look at her and see someone I’m already walking away from. No matter how this ends, I’ll never be to her what I could have been if we’d ever made it through my shadowy past and need for secrecy. Could I have married her?

Yes. We’d have had a kind, long life together, this woman, my daughter, and I. The kind of life that no one tells stories or sings songs of… nothing like Emily. A boring, mundane, perfect life.

I miss that, even though we’d never had it. I miss the potential.

And, as I’m missing the potential because that’s easier than worrying about Derry, Rossi walks in. There’s something different about him now. It’s two hours past the disastrous visit to the crime-scene that is my home, and he looks at me like he’s figured something out. He’s carrying a box with a name partially hidden by his hands. By my side, Isabelle shivers. I take her hand. I wonder if Emily is watching.

I hate myself for wondering.

The box is placed down on the table as I stand and approach it, his hands dropping to his side as he pulls something from his belt. Howard Campbell says the box in his handwriting. I frown; what’s going on?

“My name is Supervisory Special Agent David Rossi,” he says, earning a strange look from both of us.

“I know?” I ask, trying to keep my voice from cracking. I’m confused and annoyed and—

“Do you?” he asks, cocking his head. “That’s odd. I don’t remember ever meeting you, Mr Campbell.”

Oh.

Oh.

The box is opened. Out come items from within, carefully chosen: belongings from my desk at work, a photo of Isabelle, Derry, Listen, and I at a fair, Derry’s schoolbooks, the notebooks I’d given Derry for her birthday, endless odds and ends of a life lived. Rossi, with Isabelle watching, quietly and without hesitation deconstructs the reality of the past twenty-six hours, piling around me the remains of Howard Campbell’s life. Howard, not Spencer, because Spencer right now is a mess of a man caught between what and who he knows.

Howards’ only focus is Derry.

I reach out and touch the notebook, turning it open to find Derry’s messy handwriting covering my careful code.

“How about now, Mr Campbell?” Rossi asks gently, Listen’s favourite toy in his hands. “Do you think we can try that cognitive interview now?”

I close my eyes as Spencer Reid and open them as Howard again, anxious, awkward, single-father Howard Campbell; a man who doesn’t fear the FBI or hate the woman they’re hiding. A man who doesn’t care about anything but finding his daughter.

And I say, “Yes.”

 


 

I’m lying on the bed on my back, eyes closed and breathing slow. Isabelle holds my hand. I can hear her breathing, Rossi’s breathing, the soft promise of movement outside this room, my own heartbeat… I focus on that point of contact. Skin on skin. Spencer Reid never held Isabelle’s hand; he’d have never been swayed by the normality of her doe-brown eyes or her nervous laugh. He’d never wanted normal because he’d been busy chasing things that were larger than life: his career, his friends, the woman he’d fallen in love with.

He’d been an idiot.

Rossi speaks, and Howard listens.

“We were speaking,” he says. I nod. Eyes closed. Light plays on the lids, red and pink and white… “In your office. Your phone rang.”

The security company. The alarms are down. My daughter… my daughter is home.

“You run. Why do you run?”

I’m frightened. No, not frightened… I’m terrified. In my hand, Isabelle’s grip tightens. One of us is sweating. Doyle… he could be here. A man. A monster. I need to get to Derecho before he does. Before he hurts her.

“How do you know who Ian Doyle is to fear that it’s him?”

I don’t. Not the part of me that’s Howard, anyway. But I know something is coming. I’ve been waiting for it.

“You’re paranoid. It’s not an insult—your every move, every thought, is governed by the thought of this oncoming threat, isn’t it? Including this moment.”

Yes.

“Okay. You’re running. You’re scared, paranoid. I noticed in the library… you shake your leg when you talk. You’re doing it now, tapping your hand. Nervous energy. And you’re sweating. Symptoms of anxiety. Hyper-vigilance is another, isn’t it?”

Yes.

“So, you’re hyper-vigilant, even when scared. Even when exhausted, which you are, aren’t you? You’re running and you’re tired and, because of that, you’re not fast enough… it doesn’t feel like you’re moving at all.”

I am. I’m so gut-wrenchingly exhausted that I sag, feeling the bed catch me, and when I open my eyes I’m standing on the road leading home. Every step feels like slow-motion. My cell is still in my hand and I’m utterly, completely panicked, my heart seizing in my chest.

Isabelle’s voice murmurs, “It’s okay. We’re here. I’m right here, feel,” and her hand squeezes again.

It helps.

“What do you see? Feel? Hear?”

It’s brisk. October. There are leaves under my feet when I look down at the road and the trees, when I look up, are yellow and orange and red. Derry’s favourite season.

I hear a bang. It’s incredibly loud and I look up as birds scatter from trees nearby, dogs beginning to bark. Somewhere, an alarm wails.

“What is it?”

I don’t know right now, but I will. It’s the flashbang.

More bangs follow, softer but no less shocking.

Gunshots.

“What else do you hear?”

What else matters? I open my mouth to tell him this but… I stop. What else do I hear? Birds, dogs, alarms… cars and the distant clatter of farm machinery. The river. I hear the river.

I heard the gunshots and I kept running… and I’m by the river. I’m crossing. Tha-thump thump thump thump and I exhale as the car passes and exits the covered bridge, an unconscious response.

“You heard a car? Did you see it?”

Yes… I remember glancing at it as I ran past. Of… of dodging it. Avoiding attention, every response on automatic. Everything I did that day was on automatic, from running to crouching in the shallows with Nate’s body, to this…

“Why would your automatic response to this car be to hide from it?”

Because…

It’s a police cruiser. I’ve spent so long hiding from their notice, knowing that it would only take one exceptional officer to bring everything tumbling down… I don’t even think twice about turning my face away from this one. But I do glance: a Dodge Charger Pursuit, newer model, within a few years. I don’t see the plates, they’re muddy and I look—

It hasn’t rained.

“It hasn’t rained,” I say, sitting bolt upright and feeling every jolt of horror from the past few days slam home as I meet Rossi’s eyes and see him already realising what I’m about to say. “Why would the cruiser be muddy, it hasn’t rained…”

“The track behind your home is wet,” he says. “Why would a police cruiser be driving away from the gunshots? That’s it, Reid—that’s the mistake! That’s what we need! He was seen.”

He was seen. It doesn’t feel like a victory. I ran right past the car carrying my daughter away, and I didn’t even realise. I could have stopped this—I had a gun, my cell-phone, the proximity—but I didn’t.

If she dies, it’s entirely my fault.

Chapter Text

I’m running. I wish I could tell you more, but I can’t. I wish I could tell you where I am, but I don’t know.

I wish I could tell you that I’m okay, but I’m not.

He’s going to catch me. No matter how fast I run, he’s faster. I can hear him catching up. His breathing. The sound of his boots on the rock as I come up against a small drop and stop dead. The smell of his sweat on my skin. It’s all over me. I’ll never forget his stink.

I think of the eyes of the dead and I’m scared that’s going to be me soon too.

Listen is here. He’s in front of me, his fur spiky around his vest and his teeth bared. I don’t think he hears well anymore because he’s looking at me and not at the man chasing us. I know I can’t get away.

But Listen can. He has to. I’ve worked too hard on what he’s carrying for him to stay with me.

I pick up a rock. I say, “Listen, go home!” And I throw it. He yelps, skittering away, and I push him. Down the drop and he lands awkwardly. I think I’ve killed him. He’s not moving. I scream because I’m scared he’s dead, that this was all for nothing, and then I scream because Ian Doyle is here, he’s got me, I’m caught.

“Listen!”

But he doesn’t get up and I’m being carried away.

I wish I could tell you that I meant for this to happen. I wish I could say that what comes next doesn’t hurt. I wish I could say that Dad comes and finds me and that all of this ends right now.

But it doesn’t.

I guess, in a way, I’m kind of glad that Listen might be dead. At least he doesn’t hear me screaming as I’m beaten, as Doyle makes me sorry for trying to get away. For being a bad girl, just like Mom was a bad girl.

Just a selfish slut, he calls me. A stupid, selfish whore. Just like my mom. He tells me I scream like she used to. He tells me I’m everything she was and I deserve to die like her too. That no one is coming for me and no one knows where I am and that he’s going to make sure my dad is the one to find me dead.

I wish I could say that I don’t believe him, but I do.

Chapter Text

Hotch lets me watch Spencer’s cognitive interview.

It’s a window into something I don’t really understand.

It’s not Spencer I’m watching in there, lying on the bed with his body tense and his hand curled through a stranger’s. There’s nothing of Spencer in the broken-down fear and the anxious misery. It’s his face, sure, but his behaviour is something I’ve never seen. He holds himself tight now, coiled like a spring ready to snap apart under its own building pressure. I made a mistake upon arriving—my brain so locked onto seeing him again, finding out what’s happened to Storm, that I’d forgotten that years have passed between us. Stupidly, I’d walked in there expecting shock and anger followed by him quickly adjusting to my return and telling me what I needed to know. But I was not expecting the seething hatred and fear I’d found, and having no idea how to respond to it.

“Emily,” says Hotch. He’s not looking at me, his expression bland and locked on Reid, so I take a breath before I turn to face him and nod. He’s waited until after he has Garcia and Morgan following up the lead on the police cruiser before speaking to me. “I’m not happy about this.”

Despite knowing he’s referring to the CIA getting me through the door into this investigation—over his head, and that’s pissing him off—I feign ignorance. “What’s there to be happy about?” I try and joke weakly, betrayed by the way my hands bunch at my side and the muscles in my face refuse to obey. Supposed to be so good at masking my emotions, at compartmentalising, but all I can see when I blink now is the look on Spencer’s face when I’d walked into that interrogation room and the one that’s been there since. The blank, stunned look that’s nothing like him and everything like every other victim I’ve ever seen at the end of their rope. Someone so hurt they’re ready to curl up and die.

 “Your being here is impeding this investigation.”

That rankles. Before I can answer, I have to breathe in, and out, slowly. “I can’t leave,” I tell him. It’s the most honest I’ve been since writing that letter. “I can’t—” Eyes closed: I see his face again, I see those murdered children, I see Storm’s death and Mikheil’s senseless sacrifice and everything awful. When I open my eyes again, Hotch is looking at me and there’s an expression in those eyes that is utterly and completely incomprehensible to me.

It’s pity.

And I already know he’s going to hurt me to save her, because he firmly believes that, if we’re going to reach the man in the interrogation room beside us, I can’t be here for it.

“What do you see when you look in that room?” he asks me.

I play along and look, my eyes skimming Spencer’s swollen eyes and his downturned mouth. The lines on his once-youthful skin. His clothes. His bearing. His hair. His behaviour. Everything I’ve been trained to notice. And I do my best to answer because I need to prove to him that I can—even if it means walking in there and getting on my knees like I never have for any person before and begging Spencer to let me in.

“I see an innocent man,” I say. Hotch just keeps looking at me, in that completely frustrating way of staring he has. “I see a man who put his entire life on hold for a child. Look at him, Hotch. His clothes are well-fitted and nice—clothes he used to own when we knew him—but they’re worn. Not dirty, worn. He’s been wearing them constantly for the last five years because they’re all he has and he won’t spend a penny of the money he was given for Storm on himself. I saw the photos of her room—she’s not spoiled, but she has stuff. Within their means, she’s never wanted.”

“He loves her.”

“How could he not?” It’s embarrassing how my voice cracks when I snap that at him, as it hits home that he does, he must. Why else would he have done this? “Isn’t that what you see?”

Hotch looks back through the window where Rossi is trying to calm Spencer down, get him back on track, the book of code now resting in Spencer’s lap with his fingers restlessly tapping at the scribbled-on cover. All he says is, “George Foyet.”

I stare, anger and disbelief warring. “You look at Reid and you see Foyet?”

“Do you remember how hard Foyet worked to hide? He severed every contact with his previous life. Family, friends, places he used to love, mannerisms that would give him away. In many ways, he died in order to live, with the sole purpose of surviving. That tunnel vision left him locked in a very rigid, secular life. Everything he did, he did with survival in mind. Nothing was done on a whim.” Hotch isn’t looking at me as he says this; he’s watching Spencer. Somehow, that makes it worse. “No hobbies that might leave trails… no frivolities that would cost money he’d struggle to replace. No contacts that may put him in danger, no matter how much he missed them.”

“You’re not talking about Foyet anymore… he was a sociopath. He didn’t care about people enough to miss them.” But he’s done it. I look in at Spencer and I remember: he has a mother. A father. A life. Does he still play chess in the park, here in New Hampshire? Does he still go to comic conventions? Does he still haunt second-hand stores for rare editions of the classical novels his mother so loves?

No. No to all of the above. The man in that room threw aside everything, a promising career, an incredible intellect, a loving social network, all in order to devote five years of his life to keeping my daughter safe.

I feel sick. I never wanted this.

“I can’t force you to leave,” Hotch continues gently. “But I can tell you that staying would be a mistake. He knows you’re here, and it’s making it difficult for us to establish a rapport with him. And, until our other leads come through, he’s all we have.”

“You mean, he’s paranoid and thinks we’re all conspiring against him?” I snap, regretting that ten seconds later when Hotch gives me a look that’s very plainly the most professional ‘whose fault is that’ that he can come up with. For a second, that look is a sharp call-back to before any of this had ever happened—and, in that moment of weakness, my mouth moves before my brain tells it to and asks, “Is this all my fault? Storm going missing? Reid being… like this?”

Hotch is tensed. In the room, Rossi is standing and Spencer’s shoulders are bowed, his hands still on the notebook. The woman is close to him, her hands on his, and I look away. The cognitive is over. Spencer is too shattered by the revelation he’d seen the car that had taken my daughter and too distraught to continue onwards to the moment they’d found him cradling a child’s murdered body. “Derecho,” Hotch corrects gently, but it stings anyway. It’s a firm ‘we’re looking for his child, not yours’ and if I was any worse at hiding myself, I’d have cringed away from it. “What answer are you looking for, Emily?”

“The truth.”

I shouldn’t have said that. He gives it to me.

“Yes.”

Floored, now I finally do step back. Dizzy, for a moment. Shaken, completely. “I never intended this…” This, being the wreck of the man in front of us. This being the cell he’s held in, the bloodied marks the cuffs have left around his wrists, the hopeless slump to his shoulder. This tiny, nothing town and his hidden, nothing life and my daughter, who is gone and a stranger to me, anyway.

“Didn’t you?” Hotch asks me with no less cruelty in his still-kind voice than if he’d shouted it. “But you knew he’d react like this, although maybe not to this extent. Certainly not Doyle finding them. But Emily… if you stand there and try to tell me that you didn’t know Spencer well enough to know that, if pushed, he’d flee with her, then I have to ask you: why did you write him that letter?”

He’s right. Fuck him, he’s right.

The base act had always been manipulation.

I walk out of there to avoid all of the recriminatory eyes, only to find more waiting. The door is barely shut behind me and I have to stop before I crash into JJ. There’s a look on her face I recognise: it’s the grim misery she always wears after speaking to the families of the victims we don’t save. When I follow her eyeline, I see this tiny town’s single sergeant leading a weeping couple to the door.

“Nate’s family,” JJ says without looking at me. That’s nothing new. None of them have really been able to look at me since I walked in here without giving them a chance to prepare for my arrival. “They don’t think Spence killed him, but they do think it’s his fault.”

There’s a hidden meaning to the bitterness laced in her words. “For not getting there fast enough?” I ask, my tongue clumsy in my mouth and my words coming out clumsy too.

“No,” answers JJ. “For bringing trouble here.”

The look she gives me is plain: he would have never had to if it wasn’t for you.

But it’s not really angry, just sad and confused and a little bit hurt. Nothing like the look Spencer had aimed my way. Maybe that’s why I ask her. It’s almost certainly why she answers.

“I can’t fix this, can I?”

She looks at me now, properly looks at me, without lacing unspoken words and hidden meanings in the expression. “I don’t know,” is the harsh, but true, response. “I’m not even sure you know who it is that you’re trying to save—the baby you left, or the child he raised?”

“What’s the difference?” This feels like wasting time—all of this, my ineptitude, Spencer’s panic, the team faltering… it all feels like losing time we don’t have.

But all JJ answers is, “Come with me.”

I don’t have anywhere else to go, so I do.

 


 

JJ takes me to their home. It’s been swept by the evidence team sent over from Claremont, but still sealed. No one has been back here except for us—Spencer never made it inside when they tried.

Before we’ve even entered the house, my chest is tight and I’m greedily taking in everything this cramped, wonderful yard can tell me. There are flower beds planted haphazardly with some plants dead and some overgrown and no thought to colour schemes. A tree that’s grown outside what the person who’d planted it had thought it would, its trunk and roots shoving at the tall fence. Sparse lawn litters the rest, a muddy path walked through it all. It’s a messy, overgrown, well-loved home—and it’s theirs. Theirs completely. As we walk past the flowerbed, I can see laminated labels on sticks pushed into the soil, Spencer’s handwriting denoting the origins of the plant it represents. There’s a sundial made of wood and corkboard and glue pushed into the middle of another riot of flowers, ‘A clock that works’ written on it in black marker. As we walk in silence around the perimeter of the house, JJ’s eyes on the exterior and mine on everything else, we find a wire-mesh pen hanging open and another fenced-off section filled with hay and with half-chewed ribbons tied to the fence in a long line of gently fluttering colour. Both are empty.

“They had pets,” I say blankly. This is a strange, unreal thought. I’ve never had a pet—not until Sergio—and I’m strangely giddy at this evidence that Storm’s had the childhood I never did. “Where are their pets?”

“Their geese are dead,” JJ says, her expression solemn. “The local ME took them in as well… said it was the strangest series of autopsies he’d ever done, but that they were killed by blunt force trauma to the throats and heads. He thinks they attacked Doyle when he came over the fence.”

“And Doyle killed them to stop them alerting Storm.” Slow anger begins to build again, breaking through the waiting feeling of tension. “Where are the bodies?”

It’s a stupid question, but a small part of me is thinking… when we save her, when we bring her home… she should be allowed to grieve her pets properly.

“Still at the morgue. They’re waiting for word on Reid before asking him what to do with the remains. I get the impression the ME did not appreciate the PD’s suggestion to throw them out.” Despite the grim surroundings, JJ smiles a little and nods to the ribbon-bedecked pen. “Goats in there, still AWOL. And a dog, German Shephard.”

If geese were shocking, goats and a dog are positively mystifying. Spencer’s never been an animal person—his nervousness around dogs, especially big ones, is the stuff of legend. And goats?

Moments later, it clicks.

“Anything loud,” I say, JJ nodding. They’ve already worked this out. “Goats and geese… they’re noisy, aggressive animals to trespassers. And a big dog for protection, same as the advice we used to give women living alone. Where’s the dog now?”

JJ gives me a weird look. “You really don’t know, do you?” she asks, my teeth gritting tight. I only have the information the CIA gave me—and it’s sparse. That Storm is gone. That Spencer was hiding with her. That a child was killed during the abduction and Spencer was found with the body. Hotch hasn’t given me access to their information yet—and is unlikely to unless I can pull myself out of this useless state of panic and help. “It’s been on the news, and in all of our press releases.”

“I’ve been in Georgia and then on two planes, successively. I haven’t even had a chance…” I trail off, hating myself a little. This isn’t how I would have done it, five years ago. This isn’t me. Emily Prentiss, the real Emily Prentiss, would have walked in there prepared, not blind. Not useless.

Thankfully, JJ takes pity on me. “Doyle took the dog too. He’s a service dog and Spence says he was wearing his vest that morning, so we released his photo as well.” She shuffles through the folder she’s holding and hasn’t let me look at yet, taking out a single photo and giving it to me, the folder snapped shut as I lean over. Still closed to me.

“Service dog?” I murmur. What for? Storm doesn’t have any conditions that would warrant a dog. But there he is—the photo JJ’s given me is Storm hugging a dog tightly, her smile huge and aimed at whoever is holding the cheap camera. Service Dog, Do Not Pet is visible on the sides of the vest, the Not crossed out so it reads Do Pet instead. It’s a small leap from the empty pens around me to the purpose of that vest: “She’s not sick, is she? This was just the only way he could ensure the dog was with her at all times.” And I falter because it slams home…

He’s spent years being scared for her. Protecting her. Taking every step, no matter the cost, to keep her alive.

JJ holds the keys up, her eyes soft on mine. “Ready to go inside?”

No. Not ever. But I follow her into their home.

This, I’ll realise later, is the real moment I meet her. It’s the split-second action that takes me from the irresolute Emily Prentiss, absent mother of Storm, to Agent Prentiss once more—fully aware that the child I’m searching for isn’t even my child in name. It’s the moment where I realise I’m here looking for the romanticised ideal of a toddler that doesn’t exist anymore, looking for the fragmented ghost of the girl in my dreams.

I realise now that I’m here chasing Storm when I should be saving Derecho.

Despite her disappearance, when I step into that home and look beyond the damage Doyle has wrought in it, Derecho is all around me. She’s there on the fridge that’s plastered with scribbled stories on take-away napkins and photos printed on cheap printing paper: photos of Spencer asleep on the couch with Derecho and her dog leaning over him to grin at the camera she’s holding. Photos of Derecho with party hats at varying ages, the girl growing along with the candles below her denoting the years of her life. In all those photos, at all those birthdays, she’s alone but for the dog in his own party hat beside her and the man holding the camera. Despite this, she’s always smiling.

And she’s Derecho, not Storm: I see that in the DVDs on the shelf that are a mix of tastes both familiar and new to me. I see that on the books piled in haphazard stacks around the room, things I don’t remember Spencer reading and things I know my baby Storm never could. I see it on the whiteboard over the sink with Derry’s turn to wash dishes scrawled across it in Spencer’s handwriting, a stack of unwashed cups and plates balanced below.

There’s a rabbit sweater thrown over the back of one of the battered couches and I touch it gently, feeling the rough wool as I trace the rabbity smile. Derecho’s here in this well-worn sweater. She’s there in the badly knitted stuffed animals lined up above the books, and there by the pencils and notebooks scattered on the coffee table. When I walk there and crouch, I find the notebook filled with lines of Spencer’s handwriting in some kind of numeric code of 1s and 0s, Derecho’s round, bubbly writing layered overtop in glittery inks of purple and orange. I imagine her with inky fingers, and I imagine Spencer teaching her to write. It hurts but in the sweetest possible way.

“I asked Spence about that,” JJ says overtop me as I flip slowly through the thin pages, memorising every loop and swirl. “It’s her birthday present… he’s teaching her to decipher code. There are another five notebooks like it, all different children’s novels. That one is The Hobbit, with the trolls replaced by giant walking stick bugs. Apparently, Derecho is terrified of them.”

It’s an incredible gift, and it’s also the only overwhelming sign of Spencer in this cramped room. I stand and back away, my heel scraping over masking tape pulled across the carpet separating the kitchen from the living room. I look around some more, and I barely see him. In his own life, he’d become a ghost—nothing more than a father to his child, and secretly a man anticipating exposure.

“Why did you bring me here?” I ask JJ, finally turning my attention to the broken glass on the carpet from the shattered window and the splintered wood of the front door. There are scorch marks on the couch and paw prints in the stained blood trail. “Are you trying to show me him, or her?”

JJ just shrugs and nods to the narrow staircase leading up, almost hidden behind a crooked, standalone pantry. “Derecho’s room is up there.”

Her intentions there are clear. I scowl at her and do as she says—maybe she’s not quite sure what I’m here looking for. That would make sense, because I don’t know either, but I know there’s something.

The stairs are even narrower than I’d first thought, my head threatening to bump the ceiling as I sidle carefully up them. They groan under my feet, the centre of each step worn down by feet and paws. I note the dog fur listing in the corners in piles of neglected dust and frown: Spencer’s always been fastidious about dust before now, but there’s clear neglect in every corner of this hidden home.

And I break from the tight confines of the dusty staircase into the light. Her room is bright, lit by a window set at an angle above the bed and throwing sunlight down onto the unmade covers. There are no curtains or blinds. I wonder if Derecho is scared of the dark in a way that Storm never was, but I don’t have time to mull this over because Derecho is demanding my full attention.

I’m captivated. I lose time in that room, too scared to touch anything, too curious to leave anything alone. I find storybooks and novels and hobby books. I discover that my daughter has three potted cactuses on her desk, each with a name scratched into its pot, and I find that she knits for fun. There’s a basket filled with wool and needles beside her bed, a half-finished hat in the shape of some strange blobby animal hanging over the top. And scarves, endless scarves, of every possible colour, along with horrendously ugly knitted pillows. They’re awful. I love them.

Listen has a bed shoved between her bed and her desk, food wrappers visibly tucked behind it from where she’s been sneaking him snacks. There’s a toy in there along with a fluffy blanket and another ugly cushion, this one with his name on it.

There are books. So many books. I find The Velveteen Rabbit and have to stop to breathe when I open it and find the title-page empty. It’s a new copy, not the one we gave her.

But I also find her rabbit, hidden in the tumble of bedding kicked around on her bed. He’s worn out now with one missing eye and a tiny scarf of his own covering where his head is coming loose from his body. I pick him up and stand there saying nothing, just looking at this rabbit and remembering a baby in my arms.

“She’s pretty good,” JJ says quietly from behind me. When I turn, rabbit still in hand, I find her studying the scarves. “I never had the patience to learn to knit.”

“Neither did I,” I say through the hurting. “She must have gotten it from Spencer.”

There’s a chessboard on her desk with a half-finished game on it, and a stool pushed against the wall despite the chair already there. Spencer sat here, teaching her chess. Doing her homework with her. A board over the desk outlines her education, her schoolbooks and textbooks the only things neatly filed in the tumultuous room. He home-schooled her, in this room. In this house. In this town. And I was here for none of it.

I’ve never been a part of this. I don’t know how to help them find her.

I don’t even know her.

This child is a stranger to me, my brain and my heart warring over the terrifying love I feel for the rabbit in my hands and the child that loves it in turn, the one singular thing in here that reminds me that my Storm is still a part of this picture. But that feels abstract, disconnected. I can’t really love this child I don’t know, even with the fragmented pieces of her life I’m beginning to stitch together—that’s she’s patient and creative and sly and adores her dog and her dad and the best friend whose picture is stuck to the wall above her bed. I can offer nothing about her that they can’t find themselves.

But, I realise, I’m not completely useless. There’s someone in this home that I do know, intimately. Maybe not my daughter—and maybe not her father, Howard Campbell.

But I know Spencer. I know his choking loneliness; I’ve lived his need to hide.

“I need to see his room,” I say out loud. JJ doesn’t even need to ask whose. She walks me down those narrow stairs and shows me the room left over, this one most obviously stripped by the evidence team and PD. I know enough about what was in here—the children Doyle had his cohorts kill, while I was busy being fooled by him. That’s not really what I’m looking for though. The team already has that evidence and I know they’ll have pored over it by now, gone over it again and again with Spencer himself…

No, what I’m looking for is the parts of Spencer that Howard’s let slip when he thinks no one is watching and, to find those, I need to find the fragments of him that are real.

“Tell me about Howard,” I ask as I pace that lonely room.

“He’s reclusive. Neighbours don’t know much about him, although they all know Derecho. His reputation as being over-protective is wide-spread, it’s the most common term used to describe him. He’s better known at the library, although they still state that he’s withdrawn, almost shy. Smart, but strange. The only person we’ve really gotten anything about him from is the librarian, Isabelle Hart.”

“The woman from interrogation?” When JJ nods, I nod too, something very deep in my chest twisting tight despite having no right to. To cover it, I move to his bed and focus very hard on the uneven corners of his sheets, distracting myself by judging his bedmaking skills and not thinking about whether they’d… “They’re… involved?”

“Ah. Yes. Or, they were. I doubt they are…”

Yet another thing I’ve ruined. I see her again, with her cute cardigan and neatly pinned back hair, the kind of sweet-faced smile I’ve never been capable of. Normal and safe and kind; nothing I am or have ever been, especially not to him. Moodily, I reach down to fix the corner, tugging harder as it fights my hand.

I wish, at that moment, that they could be happy together, all three of them.

The sheet slips, coming free and bringing with it something hidden. Mother Night by Vonnegut; I recognise my own copy with a thrill as I pull it free and hold it in shaking hands, something within pushing the pages apart. It falls open in my hands, notepaper falling free and eddying to the floor below, but I don’t stoop to pick them up, I’m too fascinated by what they reveal. The book, my book, has been covered so completely in his writing that it’s almost impossible to read the printed typeset anymore. Only one line, on the pages the book had fallen open so easily to, is clean. Untouched.

“My life is nothing but room for you,” I said. “It could never be filled by anyone but you.”

I hand the book wordlessly to JJ, who takes it and turns it sideways to better read Spencer’s wild scribbling. This is Spencer, absolutely. Howard isn’t the type of man to write manically in a dead woman’s novel. Book relinquished, I collect the papers—six in total—, smooth them out, and read.

Oh.

Dear Emily, I read, pausing as that sinks in. They’re letters. They’ll all letters, just a page each… each one written on one of Derecho’s birthdays. Every year since I’ve been gone, every year he’s been her dad… he’s never once not thought of me.

I’m stunned by this.

But not for long. There’s a loud bang from outside that has both me and JJ going for our guns, a shared look between us signalling the return of the comradery we used to possess. As one unit, and with the letters slipped into my pocket, we move from that room and towards the noise, guns out and footfalls silent.

It came from the backyard, a strange clattering following. I’m tenser than I should be, considering I doubt Doyle has returned to the scene of the crime. Surely it’s a neighbourhood child or busybody, sneaking in where they shouldn’t be. I’m ready for that.

I’m not ready for what we find.

“Huh,” says JJ, lowering her weapon and staring at the trespassers. They’re muddy and hungry-looking, both of them turning to stare at us with mad eyes, the darker one lowering its head dangerously. “Maybe we shouldn’t tell Spence we almost shot his goats.”

The goats just bleat angrily, dismissing us as unimportant and returning to trying to break open the small shed I assume holds their feed. The smaller one is bleeding.

“At least,” I say with a sideways smile at JJ as the tension of the moment fades, “they won’t be hard to catch if they’re hungry.”

After all, Derecho would never forgive me if I let them go.

 


 

Muddy and battered with a nice bruise coming up on my hip from where one of the goats took offence to my catching him, I stalk back into the PD and find myself facing Hotch, who looks as politely startled as he ever does when facing a pissed off looking woman with mud-covered clothing. But I’m resolute—I know what needs to be done now. I’ve been approaching this wrong, approaching it selfishly. Shattered at the realisation that Derecho is a stranger to me, I’ve forgotten who she isn’t a stranger to.

“I need to speak to Reid,” I tell him, and I don’t take no for an answer.

I’ll never really know why Hotch lets me in there. I assume he has his reasons. Maybe he saw something in my eyes. Maybe it was JJ behind me, communicating silently through meaning-laced glances. Maybe he was just feeling kind, or maybe it was my muddy shoes. Whatever the reason, ten minutes later and without even washing my face first, I walk into the room where Reid is curled up small on his camp-bed, eyes locked on me and face savagely empty.

“Dear Emily,” I say, closing the door and leaning against it, all of the room and the last five years between us. “She’s turning eight today. If only you could be here to see it, she’s come so far. Developmentally, she far exceeds expectations—but then, you always exceeded expectations too, so why am I surprised?”

He cuts me off. “Those letters are private.”

“They’re addressed to me.”

The look he gives me is clear: no, they’re not. They’re addressed to the woman he used to love, and that’s not me at all. That’s unlikely to be me ever again.

In respect of that, I step forward and place the letters on the table, watching as he sits up in a flurry of movement, standing to avoid me towering over him. He’s not cuffed anymore, and I’m not surprised. Instead of speaking, I look at the things Rossi has left here. Another of those codebooks. A framed photo.

A framed photo?

I pick it up and have to take a moment to breathe, my fingers tight against the wooden frame as I look at myself and wonder why I still hold a place in his life.

“You’re still Derry’s mother,” Spencer says quietly, some of the hatred fading and leaving him just tired. “I never took her from you… you didn’t really give me a choice.”

“Is that why you’re angry with me? Because I lied?”

Spencer looks at me, some spark of the old him lighting up his face. Some of the acuity. “When have you ever not lied to me?” he asks me, to which I have no answer. “Honestly, this is just a continuation of past behaviour. Why am I even surprised?”

It hurts, but it’s not untrue.

“Can you tell me about her?” I ask him, gesturing to the chair and waiting for his wide-eyed nod before sitting down. “About Derecho, about your daughter. Knowing her is—”

“Victimology,” he snarls, “I know. Is that really why you’re here? To ask me about the child you discarded?”

“I was saving her life.”

“You were saving yourself. We would have kept her safe! Nothing would have touched her! I would have kept her safe, Emily, if you’d have told me—even if I had to…” And he trails off, but not in time. I know what he was going to say.

“Even if you had to run with us?”

And he whispers, “Absolutely,” looking beaten in a way that I’ve caused, crushed in a way that’s innate. “I would have run to the ends of the earth for the two of you… I did.”

Finally, I manage a taut smile, knowing that this isn’t us reconnecting—if anything, this conversation is broadening the divide. “New Hampshire isn’t exactly the ends of the earth,” I try, but his stare is sour.

“Was it everything you dreamed?” he asks bitterly, not waiting for an answer before charging on. “Being on your own, like you’d always wanted to me. No man or child can stop you, can they, Emily? You threw us aside so you could play hero, so you could settle a personal score… discarded us on the side of the road like dogs too old to be fun anymore. And now you’re back… because she’s missing, or because Doyle has her? Who are you chasing, your daughter or your nightmare?”

“My daughter,” I reply. That’s not the answer he wanted, judging from the twist to his mouth.

“Well, then,” he snaps. “You’d better get out there and find her… if you wait too long, she’ll be dead and you’ll really be alone. Can’t gallop in and whisk her away then, can you? No way to maintain the hero complex you’re so determined to—”

I bark a laugh without meaning to, wincing inwardly as his eyes narrow in response. “Is that what you think this is? That I’m here to steal her away from you? Really, Spencer, what the fuck? She’s missing and you’re worried about custody?”

“She’s your daughter, not mine,” he says vacantly and, suddenly, I recognise what he’s doing. Why he’s so blank and angry, why he’s turning away from this. He’s distancing himself ready to lose her—either to death or to me. “What does it matter? So long as she’s safe, and you get what you want.”

“I want what you do.”

“Do you? Then, where were you? Where were you when she was sick and crying for her mom? Where were you when she asked why she didn’t have any family who wanted her? Where were you when I was so overwhelmed and alone that I didn’t know what to do anymore? Where were you when Doyle came and took her if you were supposed to be hunting him!”

The interview ends abruptly. He’s facing me down, furious and breathing fast, his eyes locked on the letters I brought with me and filled with hate, and, for a moment, all I can hear is Hotch telling me, “But you knew he’d react like this.” Because I did, didn’t I?

The base act of everything I do is manipulation. I am, at my core, my mother’s daughter.

“I’m—” I try to say, but the door opens and Hotch walks in.

“Interview is over,” he says in the same clipped voice he’s taken with us both. I watch Spencer close his eyes, the hurt creeping in, and I feel relieved. But, only for a moment, because in the next he asks Spencer to sit down. Asks me to remain seated. And I guess we both know what’s coming before he says it: “A body has been found.”

“The other girl?” Spencer asks. It must be. It has to be. It can’t be…

“We don’t know. There’s… damage.”

I swallow. The sound is loud. Spencer doesn’t look like he’s heard it through the panic. There’s only a table between us, but it’s a gap I don’t know how to span—a gap I wish I could span, because, at that moment, I need him. I need him. I need something.

“DNA may be our—”

Spencer’s eyes snap back to mine and I know what he’s going to say before he says it: “Take me to her. I can tell you if it’s Derry.”

And I say, “I’m coming,” because I’ll be damned if he ever feels the need to ask me “Where were you when I knew she was gone?”

The only answer to that I’ll accept is, “Right there beside you.”

Chapter Text

All my anger, all of my fear: I currently feel none of it. In the silent drive to our final location, I feel nothing. I am nothing. Just a man stuck between what’s come before and what’s to come, with nothing happening within me currently. Emily is beside me. At least, consumed by this nothing fear, I no longer hate her for her place there. I do, however, wish she was the one dead. Her body I’m strong enough to carry once more. Derry’s is a weight I know will crush me.

How do I bury my daughter?

Who am I if she’s gone?

We drive under one of the covered bridges and, obediently, I hold my breath. Don’t breathe, Daddy, I hear her tell me, and wish I could reply to her to never, ever stop, not even for a game.

Emily speaks. Her voice is hoarse. “We found your goats,” she says and, for a second, I’m thrown. I have to think to place her, the woman Spencer Reid loved, firmly into the home of Howard Campbell, thinking even further to picture her wrestling the fractious Goat into the pen with the kinder Donkey. “They’re safe and we fed them.”

“Thank you,” I try to say, but my voice is somewhere back inside that bridge. Instead, I just nod, lean against the door, and try to look at her without looking at her. At the scars that are both visible and new. One of them runs down her cheek, almost hidden by the lines of her face and disappearing into her hairline. It’s long and thin and healed neatly: a knife blade caused it. Another is on her elbow, pock-marked and scattered. Shrapnel, I guess after studying it for a moment. She’d thrown her arm up against an explosion.

Then, she hasn’t been safe. Wherever she’s been, it’s somewhere deadly.

Whoever helped her go there, they were good enough to hide her from us… CIA, I think, and close my eyes to the frustration of knowing that, if that’s true, then we’ll never ever have the answers we need.

I find it helps to focus on her. It stops my brain from drifting to other things, like when this drive will end and what will be there waiting and whether my funds will stretch to cover the cost of a  funeral. Burial or cremation? Maybe I’ll have to borrow money. Will I be able to, if I am incarcerated? If the worst happens? Hope isn’t something I believe much in anymore.

But the ride ends. The car stops.

And I step out of the car and walk alone, despite the team being beside me, into the facility that holds my daughter’s body.

You see, I already believe she’s gone.

And I continue believing this, as I walk into the Claremont morgue with the team ranged behind me and Emily beside me. A man meets us. He speaks. I barely know what he says; is it even that important? How important could it possibly be?

“We’re right beside you,” someone says, JJ I think. I shake my head. I raised her alone. I should do this… alone.

“I’m not leaving,” says Emily.

This, I allow. Maybe because I want her to suffer like I am. Maybe because I need someone, for all that I wish I was unaided.

Maybe because Derry is her daughter too, and she’s the only one who should do this with me.

Whatever the reason, we walk together into the viewing room and stare down at the covered body. The technician carefully removes the cover. The care he takes, avoiding revealing her face or hands, tells me more than anything the damage that’s been done.

I close my eyes. I can’t look. Even shut, my retinas burn with the image of pale skin and a skinny, undeveloped body, bruised and battered and very, very dead. The mottled way the blood has settled tells me, even in that short glance, that she’s been dead for days. The bruises tell me she was beaten first. My breath comes fast, my nose burning with the sting of antiseptic, the blood rushing to my head and leaving me reeling.

A hand takes mine and I cling. I cling. I can’t let go; will probably never be able to.

The state of her face and hands, and the fact that she was found naked but without signs of sexual assault, tells me that whoever killed her wanted her identity hidden.

Wait.

“Doyle wouldn’t hide her death,” I say, and open my eyes. Emily is looking at me, nodding despite the greenish tint to her pale skin, her lips dry and cracked. There are deep lines around her eyes and mouth. “He wouldn’t obscure it if it was her.”

The medical examiner speaks again, his words finally hammering home: “Did your daughter ever have her appendix removed? There’s a scar on her abdomen.”

No.

No, never.

I let out the breath I think I’ve been holding since the bridge; Derecho is alive. I buckle, my hands now both free and gripping at the window before me to hold me up. She’s alive she’s alive she’s alive she’s alive.

Someone is rubbing my back, holding me upright, and I think I’m smiling or crying or helplessly relieved. Unlike Emily’s resurrection, this one I celebrate—along with a realisation: I’m bringing Derecho home, to my home, and I will never ever give her up.

No matter how hard I have to fight for her.

But, when I look to Emily to tell her this, she’s gone. The hand on my back is Hotch’s and his eyes are soft. “There’s still time,” he tells me firmly. “We’re going to find her.”

And I say, “I know.”

 


 

The next day brings relief, of a kind. I wonder if it’s a turning point.

The details are unimportant. With the discovery of Candace’s body, there is no one still willing to put me up for the abduction of my daughter and Nate’s murder. Results come back on ballistics as well as the flashbang grenade Doyle had used to subdue Derry; there is nothing to link me to either. Hotch procures a lawyer who faultlessly disassembles whatever remains of their case against me. I’m cleared of all charges relating to Doyle and Derry and poor Nate Sinclair.

Before I leave the courtroom, I’m warned: while they’re understanding of the tremendous stress I’m under currently, once my daughter is found—I appreciate the optimism in that statement—I’ll be before a judge once more answering charges relating to the initial abduction of the child, Storm Prentiss, from her father six years ago, as well as a laundry list of charges relating to my conduct while in hiding. There’s no part of me that cares. Whatever happens as a result of that, I’m happy to pay it. It kept her alive for six years and I cannot regret that. My lawyer, and Hotch, are both sure it won’t matter—that there isn’t a judge who won’t see reason when faced with the destruction Doyle leaves in his wake.

Not guilty. I walk free, for now, and find myself adrift. I’m not a part of this case. I can’t face renting a car and driving back to Cornish and the house that’s still tainted by what has happened there. I can’t face the town in mourning. I don’t think I have the strength left to return to the PD where the team are still working and demand to know what’s happening with Derecho’s case.

With his infinite wisdom, Rossi finds me standing outside the courthouse, alone and stunned and unsure of my direction. “Come on,” he says and I, of course, follow.

There’s nothing to do but wait. I celebrate my freedom in the hotel room that Rossi pays for, dropping me off there and walking me in solely to show me he’s put food in the fridge that he expects to be eaten. “Not going to do Derry any good if she gets home to find you starved,” he tells me firmly, before offering to stay if I need him. It’s…

Kind. It’s so kind and I don’t know how to handle kindness anymore, not when there’s this cautious optimism slowly building in my chest. I think of JJ staying by my side and Hotch’s determination to bring my daughter home and the pain in Morgan’s eyes when I’d backed away from him, and I look around this room that Rossi’s given me so I don’t have to return to a nightmare just yet. My goats are returned and fed, JJ and Emily’s handiwork, and all that’s left to do is… wait.

I decline Rossi’s offer because I desperately need to sleep in order to tackle this tomorrow, on the third day of her disappearance. I know unless I force the issue, I’ll lie awake watching the shadows on the roof and imagining them into the shapes her blood will make when Doyle kills her, and I can’t face that. Not tonight.

Instead, I shower, choke down a meal I don’t taste, and then I go for the mini-bar.

When the knock comes, it’s eight p.m. and I’m drunk. The room is tipping deliciously around me and I’m almost at the point it doesn’t matter anymore, almost at the point where my stomach and head will conspire to drop me, still fully dressed, onto the bed to sleep dreamlessly until morning. I don’t want to sleep, but I know I need it, so I open another bottle as I stumble to the door.

I expect Rossi. Him, at least, I can explain this to. Just to sleep, I’ll tell him drunkenly. Just for tonight.

He’ll understand, he has to.

Except it’s not Rossi standing there, but the dead woman come to haunt me from my past. Swaying and sickly, I cling to the door that tries to swing away from me and stare at her. The door tips, the ground with it, and I let go right as I try to tell her to get out, to leave, to stop.

She catches me. It doesn’t help me trust her; I flinch at the touch of her hands on my skin.

“You’re fucked up,” she says, sounding shocked.

“Just to sleep,” I tell her, even though I don’t owe her anything, not even an explanation. She doesn’t deserve it. Except, when we thought Derry was dead, it was her hand in mine… “Go away.”

“Uhuh,” she says, pushing past me and striding in.

Scowling, I slam the door harder than necessary. “Come right in,” I whisper. Her hearing hasn’t gotten any worse—or I didn’t quite whisper as much as I thought—because she looks at me and rolls her eyes. My gut pinches. My head thumps. I want to sleep, not fight, but if she pushes me I won’t buckle. Not anymore. I’m done being her… her pet. Like Listen, sitting at home waiting for—

I swallow hard.

“What?” she asks me, turning completely to face me. “What’s wrong?”

“Why are you here?” I rasp. My voice is thick with more than the alcohol, my face burning with the heat of her. “Why can’t you leave me alone? Stop haunting me.”

Emily looks down at her shoes. I look too, waiting for my eyes to focus on the stains the mud has left on them from earlier. “I will,” she says quietly. “When we find her, I’ll leave. I’m not going to take her from you, Spencer. I’ve seen your life together. It’s…”

I close my eyes, thinking of that. Our life. Mine and my daughter. It’s small and secluded and so desperately lonely. I’m hungry a lot, for the thrill of my past life, for intellectual stimulation, for the touch of another that isn’t hurried and shy in my office during the audit. It’s bright, because Derry is a light who vividly brings me to life aside her, and it’s rewarding because she’s becoming more every day and it’s me who gets to see that. But I doubt Emily has seen any of that, doubt she’s even looked, and I hate her for that.

“Pathetic,” I spit out, assuming that’s how she planned to end that sentence.

“More than anything I could have dreamed of,” she responds.

Stunned, I lean on the counter and watch her pull back into herself, looking away so I don’t openly note the flush to her cheeks. It’s pretty; she’s still gorgeous. That beauty has trapped me before. Never again. I’m not that stupid, and the reminder of it annoys me. But loneliness and desperation are nature’s greatest aphrodisiacs, and, to my eternal shame and disgust, I’m aroused as well as annoyed. Selfish. Selfish and cruel and trite and human; I’m all these things, but most of all loathsome. My daughter is missing, and my animal brain is thinking of sex. I hate myself.

“Why are you here?” I ask again, my fingers now slick with sweat on the countertop that’s the only thing holding me up. I need to sleep… I need her gone.

I’m terrified of her leaving. She’s here. She’s in my room. There’s such an alien disconnection to my arrest and detainment at the Cornish and Claremont PDs that there it had been almost unreal that she was alive. The morgue had been a dream, hand in hand with a ghost as I’d walked towards what I’d believed to be my daughter’s body. But this? This is real. She’s here. If I step towards her, I’ll smell the sweat of her unwashed clothes, feel the warmth of her skin, touch her fingers to mine. But if she walks out that door, my drunken brain screams, she’ll be gone. I’ll smell and feel nothing. Just a ghost again, a memory. What’s a memory? A memory is nothing, it’s fleeting. I’m not man enough for all the memories I’m trusted with. They’re too precious for my clumsy hands.

“The letters,” she replies, pulling them from her pocket. The letters I wrote her on each of Derry’s birthdays, out of a desperation to have her with me. The sight of those letters burns; they’re more memories, more knives. More weight on my weakened shoulders. “I need to know, Spencer—why did you write them for me? I ruined your life, St—Derecho’s life. Why would you—”

I’ve lurched forward, away from the foundation of the counter to rip the letters from her hands, letting them crunch tight in my palms. I hate her for touching them. Hate her. “They’re not for you!” I yell, despite her being exactly who they were for. Like a child who begs for something only to realise that that thing comes with something unwanted, I’m throwing a tantrum. Distraught without reason, because isn’t this what I wanted? “They’re for the woman I love, the one who never left without having the courage to say goodbye!”

“Is that what this is about? That I left like your dad did? Like Gideon did?”

We’re too close. She can smell my breath; I can feel her trembling.

“You came here to ask about letters to you,” I mumble, closing my eyes and feeling all my energy diminish. I’m done. I can’t. This is me, fading out. Drunk and weak and without a clue. “Selfish. Not to ask about Derry… you’re supposed to be her mother.”

“You’re drunk.”

“Me? I’m selfish too. All this time I should be worried about her too, and I am, but I’m also thinking about you. I want you gone—out of my head.” Emily shakes her own head, trying to walk past me to leave, but I grab her arm in a burst of raw panic, slurring out, “Don’t leave.”

Confused, she turns to me. “I don’t know what the hell you’re feeling from one moment to another!” she snaps. “You hated me when I arrived, held my hand at the morgue, let me in the room—now you won’t let me leave? What do you want from me, Spencer? Is it for me to leave? To stay?”

It hits me as I look into her dark, dark eyes. I know what I want. I know what I’ve wanted this whole time, from the moment I woke up to her being gone to this moment now, searching for our daughter. “To care,” I tell her, blinking away the burn behind my eyes. “I want you to care.”

“I do care.”

“Not enough…” Because if she cares enough, she’s proven it before—she’ll tear apart the earth to save her. If she cares enough, she won’t leave again. If she cares enough, this weight won’t only be on my shoulders—this thought that if Derry dies, I’m the only one left to confirm that she’d ever existed. If Derry dies, I’m the sole teller of her story. The only one to remember.

I can’t be that. Emily needs to bear that weight too.

“Dear Emily,” I say, stepping even closer and letting my weight rest on her. Bizarrely, she lets me. God, she’s so warm. Alive. Real. Her heart beats in tune with my words. “Today Derecho is five. She still asks about you. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, but I have to tell her you’re not real—and it kills me every time. She wished for you to come home. I told her wishes don’t work on imaginary things. Imagine if she knew that I wished for that too.”

Emily’s breath is ragged now, her eyes huge and hurt. “I didn’t read the early ones,” she tells me, trying to stop me. “Spence, don’t… not right now. I can’t right now. I can’t…”

“Dear Emily,” I begin again. “Today, Derry is six. We’re going to get her a dog, although I haven’t told her yet. I’m not sure you’d have approved. I still do that you know—I wonder what you’d do if you were here, if you’d be smarter or better at this than I am. We were both sick recently and I didn’t know what to do, I was so alone. You weren’t here, and I was alone. This year, she didn’t wish for you. I’m not sure she remembers. But I do.”

“Spence…”

“Dear Emily… today, Derry is seven.”

She doesn’t say my name this time, just reaches her hand up and brushes my cheek. Her touch is wet.

“You need to remember everything I tell you right now,” I warn her, and then I tell her about the walking stick bugs and how Derry had screamed and screamed and screamed at them. The nightmares that had followed. I tell her about Derry meeting Nate and how she’d come home and told me, at the age of seven, that she was going to marry him one day. I tell her about how we’d gone to the rescue three times to pick a dog, walking past Listen every time. I tell her how Derry had stopped and looked at him every time until, on the last visit, she’d sat in front of his cage and refused to move an inch unless we brought him home with us. I tell her everything.

When I’m done, my voice is hoarse and Emily is crying too.

“Stop,” she’s telling me, her fists bunched against my chest and her breath hitching. I think back to the last story—the first year we’d been running together, when Derry had still been mostly Storm and she’d desperately wanted to return to her grandma and her brother and her friends. “Please, stop, I can’t… stop.”

“If she dies, I can’t be the only one who remembers her,” I manage, and then I let myself fold into the arms of the woman I still hate for hurting us, even as we hold each other up against the crushing memories of the girl we’re terrified of losing.

 


 

Later, Emily will tell me that this moment was the moment the two children in her mind had irrevocably become one. She’d raced back here unprepared to save her daughter, Storm, only to find a stranger in her place. Somehow, that had made it easier. The only way she’d walked into that morgue was by thinking of her as a stranger.

This night, in my drunken frenzy of memory-driven need, I break that safety net. I bring Storm and Derecho together in her mind, reminding her that there was a time that a girl named Derecho cried because of the memory of her. Reminding her that Derry still loves purple and her stuffed rabbit, that she still loves to be read to. That she’s still the child Emily died, and then lived, for.

After that, how can I let her leave?

Later, she’ll tell me that I didn’t let her stay. She offered, and I was too drunk and tired to stop her. I don’t believe that, not entirely. I know I wanted her there, even through my fury. Even angry, I fear losing her again. Besides, if I’d been that drunk, I wouldn’t remember her promising to do what she should have five years ago, to stay by my side.

When I wake in the morning, I’m undressed and in bed, and not alone. There’s a cautious moment of oh when I look to my side and find Emily, fully dressed and above the covers, curled away from me as she sleeps. Vulnerable and small and lonely beside me. The moment passes. I reach to brush her hair from her face, the awe remaining for a moment before the anger returns and her phone rings.

Her eyes snap open, not saying a word as she reaches for it and answers it with a clipped, “Prentiss.” I can’t move. I can’t think. I curl deeper into the covers and close my eyes against reality and my throbbing head, expecting the worst and hoping for better.

It’s better.

Emily hangs up the phone and rolls out of bed, calling back to me as she goes, “Get dressed. They’ve found your dog.”

Chapter Text

I drive because Spencer’s anxious enough to wrap us around a tree as we head down, first to the precinct to find out what’s happening and then, after that, to the vet in Claremont where Listen’s been taken as soon as they’d realised whose dog he was.

Hotch fills us in at the precinct. A driver on the NH-10 had found Listen wandering along the side of the highway just outside Hanover in the early hours of this morning, heading in a dead straight line towards Cornish. He’d been rushed to a local vet, found to be shot once in the chest with bleeding from his ears and nose and paws so worn out from running that he could barely walk to get into the car. They would have worked out who he was faster, but the man who’d picked him up had removed his service dog vest to put pressure on the bullet wound, and the vet hadn’t checked the vest until after he was stabilised.

Right there in his vest, Derry’s ID. A photo picture of her along with her medical information. The same picture that’s all over the news.

“Doyle has to be in the area,” Spencer insists as we drive to the Claremont veterinarian surgery. “Listen was coming home—he’s too injured to walk for long, so he must have been dumped close.”

“He could have been dumped the day Doyle took them,” I point out, wary of being the naysayer here, but Spencer shakes his head.

“He was coming home,” he stresses again. “If it had been days ago, he’d be here by now—or someone would have picked him up already. He’s a clearly injured animal in a service vest. People will stop for him, wondering where his charge is. It’s hardwired into us.”

“We can’t exactly get him to show us what way he took though,” Hotch points out from the front seat. “We might have the dog, but I’m not sure how helpful it’s going to be.”

“He will be,” Spencer says firmly. “You don’t know Listen.”

He rushes in as soon as we reach the vet’s, Hotch catching my arm and pulling me aside. “You’re looking rough,” he asks quietly, eyes scanning my face. It’s an uncomfortable gaze, caring and discerning all at once. “And you arrived together. Something I should know?”

“He was drinking last night, heavily. I went to his hotel, found the state he was in, and I couldn’t leave him like that alone. His mental state is all over the place, Hotch, that’s all. He needed my help.”

Hotch hmms under his breath. “He let you in,” he points out, letting go and stepping back, leaving a comfortable gap between us. Outside of his taut regard, I feel like I can breathe again. “And the name he chose to hide with, both of their names… Howard Campbell.”

I wince. “Character in my favourite book.”

“And Derecho… that’s a type of storm, Emily. Garcia looked it up. Everything he’s done is a message to you—he let you in last night, even though he was drunk, even though he was hurting. You’re the only one he’s going to let reach him and, if this lead falls through, you’re going to have to. He’ll need someone.”

“He hates me.”

“He doesn’t know what he’s feeling right now, other than scared of losing his child, your child. Stop fighting him—stop pushing against each other. You’re both more alike than you think.”

That’s a hell of a statement and I want to push back at that, snarl and snap and resent his assumptions about our characters, but I don’t. He’s not wrong. After last night, I know he’s not wrong, and I know I’m the one most likely to bring Spencer home. Not just Derecho, but Spencer too—no matter how this ends, there’s the very real danger of losing him if we’re not careful, losing him to the man he’s pretended to be for so long. I can’t let that happen.

So, I just say, “Okay,” and walk inside, following the footsteps of the man who walked before me. For once, letting him lead.

The only way I’m going to bring him back is if he lets me.

Inside, we’re ushered to a room where Spencer is already crouched beside an open enclosure, the vet standing overhead and guiding him on where Listen can be touched or where he needs to be careful, Spencer visibly struggling to restrain himself from hugging the dog hard. And Listen is whining, his tan and black muzzle shoved hard into Spencer’s chest as he nuzzles and nuzzles, his tail wagging frantically even though his entire body is laid out rigidly still in the cage, lined with bandages and drips.

“He’s a fantastic dog, real great,” the vet is saying as we enter. “Didn’t even flinch when we started cleaning the asphalt out of his pads, and he was awake for that—whoa!”

I’d walked up behind Spencer, Listen jolting with shock and standing with his teeth bared and the vet hurrying to get him laid down, Spencer helping him. He’d gone from silly and happy to snarling in a second, his hackles on end and eyes staring at me. I back up fast, hoping he didn’t hurt himself with the sudden move.

“He didn’t hear you come in,” Spencer says, looking up at me with his expression worried. “He didn’t even know you were behind me.”

The vet’s lips pull thin. “Ah,” he says softly. “I did wonder when we saw his vest. Listen wasn’t deaf before he was taken, was he?”

Silence.

“Oh no, buddy,” Spencer murmurs, fingers carding through his dog’s fur. Listen whines, over loud, licking his fingers and eyeing me fretfully. “The flashbang… he would have been right under it if he was protecting Derry…”

“We won’t know if the damage is permanent but, if it’s been three days and he’s still showing no signs of regaining his hearing, permanent loss is very likely.”

“Sorry, Reid,” Hotch says, moving to pull on his gloves and pick up the vest that’s sitting on a stainless-steel table. “Has anything been removed from this? Anything been touched?”

“No, not that we have. I don’t know about the local who brought him in, but as soon as we realised he was that kidnapped girl’s dog, we left everything alone aside from her ID.”

Spencer sits upon his heels, trying to stand, but Listen beginning to whine frantically as soon as he moves away. “Show me,” he says. “I know what’s supposed to be in there—I pack it every day. A juice box, two protein bars, a packet of candy. Emergency cell phone. Her ID. My contact details. An epi-pen and, if she takes it off when it’s bothering her even though I’ve told her not to, her med-alert bracelet.” As he’s listing the items, Hotch is affirming whether or not they’re in there—the paperwork, epi-pen, and bracelet all are, the cell phone and food is not. So, she’s eaten at least.

“What’s this?” Hotch has pulled out some loose papers, unfolding them to find what looks like some hidden math homework and, tucked inside that, a scrap of roughly knitted material. I can see more yarn in the vest that he hasn’t pulled free yet, brown and thick.

“She keeps stuff in there when she’s out exploring sometimes,” Spencer answers, glancing at the homework and seemingly disregarding it. “Knitting needles, some yarn scraps. Anything she’s working on at the time. She hates being bored. If the needles aren’t in there, she may have taken them to defend herself…”

“That’s not entirely a good thing,” I comment, wincing as I remember the table leg I’d used against Doyle then turned against me. “She’ll get one good shot with them and he’ll be on her…”

“Without Listen there to protect her…” Spencer strokes Listen some more, looking down with his teeth biting hard at his pale lip. “When will Listen be able to move without immediate danger?”

The vet frowns. “Well, surgery to remove the bullet went well, but he should really be on… I really wouldn’t move him for days, but you’re not going to have that option, are you? He’s all that’s going to lead you to that girl?”

Spencer nods, fingers tightening in the dog’s fur. “Sorry, buddy,” he says again, voice grieved.

“Give him a couple of hours for the dehydration to subside and we can give him enough painkillers to get him through. But, as a warning, he might hurt himself further. I know his type—Listen is going to want to do his job, and his job is finding and protecting his little girl. He won’t stop to pace himself until he’s done that.”

“We know the type,” says Hotch. “What are you thinking, Reid?”

Spencer looks at Hotch as he answers, his gaze only slightly skidding past me. “We take him to the house. Time is running out for Derry—anything he can find there, anything at all, could save her.”

And Hotch replies, “Alright.”

 


 

We take Listen back to the house and, when we walk through that door, I’m fully aware that it’s the first time Spencer’s been home since it happened. He pauses at the door, letting Listen bound ahead into the room, and does nothing but tremble for a good thirty seconds.

And I’m brave at that moment. It’s harder than chasing Doyle, harder than coming home, harder than running out on the CIA, but I reach out and take his hand. He tugs it away, jarred out of his shock and turning to face me with his face turning cold, but I keep it there. “Let me in,” I tell him softly. “I’m here, Spence. I’m beside you. Let me do that.”

Listen barks, running in a circle around the blood on the floor, and Spencer moves to go and look. The moment passes.

But, when we walk beside each other again, his fingers brush mine. I don’t think it’s an accident.

If he needs someone to lean on, I’m here.

Try as he might, Listen doesn’t find anything of use for us, and he does try. I leave Spencer and Listen doing another circle in the yard, Hotch watching over them, and wander back upstairs to Derecho’s bedroom, wondering where she is and what she’s doing right now. Did she see the other girl die? Does she know we’re looking for her?

Did Listen leave by choice, or was he forced away from her?

Despite these questions racing through my head, over and over and over my eyes are drawn to the knitwear and crafts scattered messily around the room. Eventually, I go and sit on the bed, pulling a scarf from her headboard down and studying it carefully. I can’t even tell how she made it, I’m so unfamiliar with the craft, and my thoughts are distracted for a moment by the tattered scrap of fabric we’d found in Listen’s vest. Had she made that in captivity, desperate to fight off the boredom Spencer says she hates so much? Three days is a long time in the lion’s mouth.

“She’s wonderful, isn’t she?” asks Spencer, his feet silent on the creaky staircase as he walks into the room and watches me. “I taught her, but she surpassed me quickly. I never made it past the theoretical… lots of scarves. I make lots of scarves, and that’s about it.”

“I never would have pictured you as someone who could knit,” I tease him gently, edging aside so he can sit beside me and look around, his eyes sad enough to break my heart. But he’s staring past me, at the blobby brown hat, reaching for it and leaning across me to do so. “What’s that?”

“A hat she was making for Nate,” Spencer tells me, holding it in his hands and frowning at it as he turns it one way and another. “It’s supposed to be a bear—he loves them—but she was having trouble with… the… ears…”

His voice is trailing, slower and slower, eyes locked so hard on that hat that I swear I can see a muscle start to tick in his cheek. “What is it?” I ask, looking at the hat as well. It’s a familiar colour, the same as the yarn we’d found in Listen’s vest.

“The ears,” he says. “She carries the ears with her, they’re her current project—they would have been in the vest. Where are the ears?” And, with that, he’s up and clattering down the stairs, yelling to Hotch that he needs to see the vest again.

 


 

The entire team is around us as Spencer sits cross-legged on the floor, motionless and locked deep in thought, staring at the assembled items in front of him. No one makes a sound, not even Listen. We’re all waiting.

There’s the hat, in his hands, turning over and over and over again as his hands play over the careful knitting. One of the ears is by his right knee, wonky and out of shape but still neatly made. The scrap is by his left, a flat square of yarn covered in bumps and lines and missed rows, seemingly knitted without any rhyme or reason.

As we watch, he puts the hat aside and picks up the square, running his fingers over every bump and row.

“How do you know she made it there?” Morgan asks, his eyes flickering from Hotch to Reid as he fights the anxious feeling of not moving that we’re all fighting against.

“She had both ears the other day, I’m sure,” Spencer answers softly, turning the scrap over and turning it this way and that. “And this is the yarn… why would she take it apart?”

“Panic knitting?” offers JJ, frowning a little as she thinks that over. “Is she the type to panic knit?”

“Not without a purpose,” Spencer answers.

I can’t help but agree with that. “Everything in her room, even the hobby items, has a purpose,” I point out. “It’s not often that she just does nothing, is it?”

“No… she’s driven. She likes keeping busy.” Spencer turns the yarn over again.

“Keeping busy is one thing,” Morgan points out. “Knitting some kind of message to us is entirely—”

But he’s cut off because Spencer’s head has jerked up, his eyes widening. “A code,” he breathes. “It’s code! She knows code—binary! Knitting is already binary, knit, one, purl, zero!”

“She’s nine, is she capable…?” Morgan says, but I’m already moving for paper and a pen.

“She’s Spencer’s kid, of course, she’s fucking capable—can you work it out?” I snap, thrusting both towards Reid. “Now, Spencer—we need it now!”

“Ah, yes, possibly. Maybe? I can kind of… the easiest way would be to unravel it and write down which way the stitch unravels for each one, but if I do that… there’s no getting it back if I make a mistake.” And he stops, his fingers tight around the scrap, his eyes huge and worried. “I could destroy it while trying to decode it.”

“Take a photo, both sides,” I order JJ without letting any worry sound in my voice, not even a little. “Then get to work, Reid. You won’t make a mistake. You never do—not when it matters.” He looks at me then, something tentative passing between us, and I finish softly, “I trust you with her.”

“Okay,” he says, nodding firmly. “Okay. I can do this. Okay.”

And he does.

 


 

“‘NHDES’,” Spencer says suddenly, shocking us all into action. “That’s the top row. Below that, ‘mine’.”

“Does that mean anything to you?” Hotch asks, but Spencer shakes his head. “Morgan, get that to Garcia.”

“Already on it.”

“Mine,” I murmur. “Are there mines around here? Abandoned, or deep enough that he could hide her? Doyle likes luxury, but he had to know that this place would be crawling with cops within minutes of him grabbing her if he was working so fast and sloppily—and he wouldn’t have had time to set up a bolthole anywhere cleaner. That would also explain how Listen got out.”

“Plenty of ways for him to run, small tunnels, forks,” Spencer says, standing with a wince as his knees pop and his legs buckle under him, catching himself on the bookshelf as he pulls out a map of New Hampshire and drops back to his knees in order to spread it out across his workspace. “The closer, the more likely…”

“Most mines aren’t going to be marked on a tourist map like that,” Rossi points out, moving past me to study the map too. “They’d be on private lands, or tucked away and never recorded.”

“If they’re not recorded, how would Doyle find them?”

“If they are recorded, he’s unlikely to use them—people are likely to go there, exploring or just poking around.”

The argument is forestalled by Morgan’s phone ringing, Garcia’s voice issuing out: “Mines of New Hampshire there are aplenty,” she warns them straight off the bat, “even just around your area, but here’s what there’s only one of—NHDES stands for ‘New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services’, and a search for both ‘mines’ and our buddies at the NHDES gives us a contaminated site warning at a paddock mine in Lyman, New Hampshire—lead warnings all over the place.”

My heart stops as my brain catches up, seeing the same process pan out on Spencer’s face.

“And there, you go, my lovelies, you all have the coordinates winging your way. Fair warning—they’re extensive. There are multiple entrances and exits, and some are flooded.”

Hotch looks at Spencer. “Will Listen obey me if I ask him to lead us in?” he asks.

Spencer shakes his head and I know instantly what’s coming. I’m not worried. If he’s going, I’m going, right by his side. “You’ll need me,” he says, unsurprisingly. What is surprising, is this: Hotch agrees.

Within the hour we’re on our way to her.

Within the hour, we’re bringing her home.

Together.

Chapter Text

This entire time, these past nightmarish four days… she’s been barely an hour away from us. Doyle never left the state. He never ran from New Hampshire. He barely even ran from Cornish. All our roadblocks and state patrols, none of it had a chance. By the time they were in place, he was already hidden, Derry with him.

We’ve found him now, but we could have found him sooner.

I can never forgive myself for this.

On the drive there—it’s so painfully short—Hotch stresses my purpose over and over and over again, Emily quiet beside me in the back seat and Listen clipped in on my other side, his head in my lap and ears alert. I’m not to engage Doyle. I’m not to leave Emily’s side. She’s the active agent, not me. She has the clearance to be here; I’m a civilian. My only purpose is to use Listen to guide us to Derry. Once there, I stay by Derry’s side. I do not engage. I do not engage.

After the fifth iteration, I’m barely listening. He doesn’t trust me and I don’t blame him, but nor do I have any intention of disobeying. Doyle took my daughter. He destroyed our home and the life we’d created. Before that, he’d destroyed Emily’s, and my, lives together, even if they were just beginning. All those children dead, all those lives over…

Despite all of this, I have zero desire to be the avenging angel today. I just want my daughter. I nod along to Hotch’s instructions and trace my fingers along the pressure bandage around Listen’s chest, feeling him twitch as it hurts and murmuring a quiet, sorry, for causing him more pain.

“Just a little bit further,” I tell him, his eyes flicking up and watching me trustingly. “A little further and we’re bringing her home.”

His tail wags slowly, even though I know he can’t hear me. Maybe it’s the touch of my hand he’s pleased to feel. Maybe it’s just being by my side. Some small part of me believes that he knows we’re going to save Derecho and bring her home.

More trees flash by as we drive along the road that’s both too short and not long enough, my body tightening with every road marker we pass by. Lyman approaches. I watch the SWAT van ahead begin to turn in, my brain ticking over and everything going numb and quiet as we slow and the indicator flicks on. Lights flash overhead, without sirens. We move silently through the town towards the outskirts where the abandoned network of mines reaches. This is it.

We’re going to bring her home. By my side, Listen whines, his ruff standing on end and ears alert, tail no longer wagging. He knows. He knows this place. He bares his teeth and trembles, pushing close to me with his nose buried in Derry’s favourite rabbit sweater laying in my lap. On my other side, Emily presses close for a moment too, her hand touching mine where it’s wrapped tight around my thigh. I look at her and nod, because I know, in this, we’re finally communicating efficiently again. She knows exactly what’s to come.

I won’t leave Derecho’s side, not because I don’t desire Doyle to burn for what he’s done, but because if there’s one thing I can trust Emily to do, it’s destroying him. I plan on obeying Hotch.

Emily does not.

And, instead of warning him or reaching out to the team, I lean close to her and hide my words in what, on the outside, looks like frightened affection. “Burn him,” I whisper into her hair, feeling her nod. “Burn him for taking her.”

“Gladly,” she answers, touching my hand.

In this, we agree.

In this, and only in this, we’re a team again.

 


 

Forests that swallow us as we follow the dirt track on foot, nothing but silence, the trickle of water, and the tramp of heavy boots. Emily is beside me and Listen pulls desperately at his leash, his jaws open as he fights to urge to bark. I thank my paranoia for teaching him hand signals along with spoken commands as I crouch and give him the sign for silent, his ears flicking back unhappily but no noise coming from his open jaws.

“Never figured you to be any kind of dog trainer,” Emily says to me when I stand, her weapon out and eyes tracking everything around us. The SWAT team that is standing by for a signal from Listen; the BAU who are watching me carefully; the local and state police who are ranged about showing us more hidden paths.

“You’d be surprised what someone can be when terrified for their family,” I say shortly.

Emily just nods and murmurs, “I know.”

I suppose she does, doesn’t she?

Listen tugs again, his eyes locked forward. A whine creeps out that I don’t scold him for—he can’t hear it to know he’s making noise and he’s already on the verge of panic, out here where he remembers being hurt and with one of his senses suddenly gone. I look to Hotch, who nods, and then I move, with Listen surging forward.

We follow him down the trail, his nose to the ground. The rabbit sweater hangs from the hand not holding his leash, fear and adrenaline combining to make it hard for me not to increase the pace and sprint wildly along with him. I have to focus, to note my surroundings, because it’s the only way to retain my sanity: the trees around me, the men and women behind me, my team alongside me, Emily beside me. Not alone, not anymore, and I trust these people. I trust them. I don’t have to look behind me to know that they’re there; I only need to keep looking forward as I lead them to my daughter.

Listen shakes his head, sitting fast and bowing before bouncing up again, his eyes locked on a cement drainage pipe running along the path. It’s filled with leaves and branches and trash, the drop just high enough that it would hurt. Half a chain-link fence lays tumbled in it too, and I peer down into the drop and see brownish stains on the grey surface. Hotch slides down, crouching by it and looking up at me, his eyes grim. I wonder whose blood it is.

“Don’t think about it,” Emily says to me. “No freezing yet. Not until she’s safe.”

Focus. Focus, focus, focus. Listen pulls, harder now, and I’m forced to follow or lose the leash. He keeps looking back at me, his eyes wide with the whites showing and all his hackles on end. He’s terrified and angry, his tail tucked, but utterly determined to see this through. If I’ve ever regretted how hard it was to welcome him into my life, to take that step, I’ll never regret him again. Despite him being unable to hear me, I whisper that to him then and see Emily bite at her lip.

It’s not a path around us anymore, but true forest. Leaves and sticks to make noise; leafless trees to fail to hide our passage; rocks to roll underfoot. I stumble because my balance is being pulled off-centre by Listen’s panic, but Emily catches my arm. And I can’t breathe, because something in me knows: she’s here. Alive. I know she’s alive.

I’ve never been swayed by the promises of religion. I regard all supernatural mythologies with a wishful cynicism. Before now, I’ve never truly believed in just knowing. Until now. Until I follow Listen to the gaping maw of a water-logged mine, the ceiling half sagged in and the opening crumbled, and know that Derry is alive within it. If she was dead, if she’d died here, it wouldn’t feel so hopeful.

I’m the first to slide down the small scree towards that shaft, despite Hotch murmuring wait, so there’s no one to catch my arm this time when the rocks slip out from under me and send my knees to knock against the ground. The leash slips and, for the first time in a long time, Listen doesn’t stop when I call his name. Possibly because he can’t hear it; more likely because he just wants her, and, really, I don’t blame him for that.

He sprints into the mine with a flurry of panicked paws, and I give chase. I won’t lose him.

Not this close.

Besides, I know I’m not alone; I hear her boots pounding the ground behind me. She doesn’t call my name. She just follows.

And we chase my dog into the depths of the earth, hoping to find life within it. Still focused. Still ready.

Still a team.

 


 

We find her. Listen first. He begins to bark, the sound echoing hollowly towards us and bouncing from wall to granite wall and off of the shafts that are filled with water and rubble, almost impossible to triangulate. That’s when I know. Listen wouldn’t bark when he’s been told not to. He wouldn’t.

Unless…

I falter and Emily snarls at me to move, pushes me forward when all I would do is stop. I think of her death. I think of how I’d faltered then.

I move. One foot in front of the other, feeling my chest burn and curl into itself like flame eats into a sheet of paper. Destruction moving inward. When it finds my centre: the end. The end of everything, because Listen’s barks are screaming and I can hear shouting.

We run. Emily’s radio is shouting too. Footfalls echo. Sounds dissociates us from what we’re going to find.

Barking and barking and a yell. A crack. Gunshot. Deafening.

Yelps.

We hurtle out into a room set into the stone and find Doyle reeling backwards, Listen on his arm. Still roaring, despite his mouth being full, despite the blood showering the dirty stone floor.

Our eyes lock, Doyle’s wide and mine. Whatever focus I have, it’s gone. Listen falls, backing up and snarling wildly, like an animal eight times his size. Guarding. Unmoving.

I know where she is. I look beyond Listen, and I see her, and my focus returns.

When Doyle runs, I don’t give chase. Emily does. Maybe she looks back at us, or maybe she doesn’t, I don’t know. All I know is that final walk, the final eight steps between me and my daughter lying motionless against the wall. Just as unmoving as Listen. So much more silent. She’s facedown, curled over, hands against her stomach. Dark, dark hair fanned out behind her from the ferocity of her fall. No, not a fall. On the wall above her, I see blood. Thrown. She was thrown.

And she’s not moving.

I find my microphone and bring it to my lips as I crouch beside her, the words coming easily. Medic requested. Urgent. Some others. Part of me is focused enough to do that, the rest of me is already moving forward: finding her pulse. Rolling her so gently towards me. Seeing what’s been done.

“Derry,” I call, seeing a flicker of life. “It’s Daddy. I’m here. I’m here. You were so clever, love, so, so clever… we got your code, I can’t believe how clever you are.”

She doesn’t answer, but her fingers curl closed around mine and she hangs on grimly. Neither of us will ever let go, not to this, not to each other, not to life or to Listen huddled against us too, his gaze locked on Derry and his worry obvious. When they find us, it takes Hotch and Morgan to pull me away. I’m cramped and frozen, wet with water and terror, and my fingers refuse to relinquish their hold.

“She’s been beaten,” I tell them, hanging on tighter when Hotch tries to pull me aside to get to her. “She’s barely conscious, but I can’t… I can’t, there’s nothing…”

“Any damage is likely internal,” Morgan says behind us. “Where’s the medic?”

“Coming,” is Hotch’s answer, his hand closing around both of ours as he looks me dead in the eyes. “Spencer, listen to me. You need to let her go so I can help her. You need to trust me with her. Can you do that?”

Can I?

Derry’s eyes are open, as they have been for some amount of time, her expression hazy and unfocused in the swollen mask of her battered face. Her fingers curl tighter, her breathing coming faster. She’s waking up, and in incredible pain. Every moment we linger here, the damage is accumulating.

Hotch’s radio crackles, Rossi’s voice: Doyle is down. Doyle is dead. Emily got him.

I knew she would. I trusted her to.

Some things are worth trusting others.

“I’m right here,” I tell my daughter, slipping my hand free and moving back just enough that Hotch can carefully roll her over to more clearly see where the blood is coming from, to see if there’s anything I’ve missed. “I’m staying right here. I’m never leaving you, Derry, never. You’re safe. Listen is here too—you’re safe.”

“Good work,” Hotch tells me and her both. “You’re both doing great.”

I trust him too. With this, with my daughter, he’s earned it.

We’re bringing her home together.

 


 

The focus shatters as they carry her from that place, motionless and quiet on the stretcher with a mask over her face and the paramedic taking over my faltering role of reassuring her. I don’t think she’s conscious to care and I guess that’s why it happens then.

I take five steps from the mine, out from the earth and into the afternoon light, and it hits me. She’s alive. It’s over. Emily is alive too. Doyle isn’t.

It’s all over.

And everything just

stops

I don’t know this at the time, but what they see is this: I’m walking along fine, pale and shaken and muddy, my eyes locked on Derry and Listen by my side, and then I’m not walking anymore, but on the ground, making a sound of no intelligible reason as my entire self tries to break itself down at once. I don’t remember any of this, but I’m crying. I’m not just crying, but gasping, my breath ripping from me as my body shuts down, every function of my primal brain suddenly sparking to life as it mistakenly recognises a threat that’s already been neutralised. It’s a panic I’ve been choking back for four days now; a panic that had begun building so long ago on the day we buried Emily. Finally here to collect, and it destroys me. It’s a feeling a lot like dying.

When I come to, it’s to someone holding me. We’re curled in the dirt together, my face pressed into her shoulder and my entire being as small as I can possibly make it as she holds me together. Her turn to whisper the senseless nothings, to remind me that she’s here and I’m safe and Derry’s safe and we’re going home, just as soon as they can get me breathing properly, just as soon as I let the medics look at me. I look up to a blurry world, my contacts hazed by tears, and everyone watching us. Hotch holding Listen. Rossi with his head bowed. Morgan with his own face crumpled as though my pain is hurting him too. Tara lingering back. JJ by the ambulance holding Derry.

JJ by the ambulance. Bizarrely, I’d thought it was her holding me, but the hands on my shirt are scarred with bitten-down nails, the skin scented with gunpowder.

“Did you kill him?” I ask her, despite knowing the answer. “He… hurt her.”

“Slowly,” she promises me. I trust her. I believe her. I know he suffered and I’m glad for it. “Now, get your ass out of the dirt and into that ambulance, Reid. They need to go now, she needs someone with her, and that’s not my place—it’s yours.”

I nod and stand and stagger only a little as I walk towards it. Broken and hurt and still here, still moving. Still her dad.

And I don’t look back, so I don’t see if Emily is watching when they close the ambulance doors.

 


 

Derry wakes once.

“Listen?” she mumbles around the mask.

“Waiting for you to get better,” I promise.

She smiles at me, a smile that brings me blazing to life beside her. It’s everything I’ve ever fought for; it’s the culmination of every terrible or wonderful thing I’ve done. It’s my absolution.

“Stay, Daddy,” she manages, and I do.

No matter what, I do.

It’s over.

Chapter Text

There’s absolutely zero chance that Spencer’s going to let me into that room where my daughter lies motionless, sleeping off the brutal treatment she’d received at the hands of Doyle. It’s hard to piece together what happened in those waterlogged mines, hard to ascertain just what caused Doyle to snap and cause this much damage to a child I know he wasn’t intending to kill quite yet…

No other child was hurt this much while she was living, not one of them. Even Candace was brutalised after her death, not before.

I think about this as I sit in the plastic-backed chair waiting for a nurse to throw me out, watching the muted TV screen on the wall above. It’s playing a news report about tonight, the announcement that the man who has terrorised so many for so long is dead and gone. No one will resent the way I put him down. No one.

I did more than my job when I put my gun to his head and kept firing until the clip was empty.

When Morgan finds me, I expect his cautionary regard. When I’d finished killing Ian Doyle, burning everything with the deafening crack of my gunshots repeating over and over again, I’d looked up to find Morgan standing there watching me, his own weapon away. Unlike Hotch with Foyet, he hadn’t stopped me, despite the fact that Doyle was dead and had been for some time.

“You’re not with her?” he asks, sitting next to me and fiddling with the cover of a women’s magazine. “I thought after all this time, you’d be knocking down walls to get in there.”

“It’s not my place.” And it’s not, is it? Not who I am now. The woman who’s spent so much of her life on the run, away from her family and commitment. The woman who can put her heart on a page but not into the hands of the man she’d fallen in love with. The mother who abandoned her child and had the gall to be angry when she came back and realised someone had stepped in and done a better job than she ever could have…

“Bullshit. Do you know how ecstatic I would have been if my dad suddenly walked back in and said it had all been a mistake? That he wasn’t dead and we could go back to being a family? Bullshit it’s not your place, you’re her mom.”

“Spencer’s her dad… if he doesn’t want me there—”

Morgan just snorts. “Newsflash, Prentiss, a kid can have more than one parent.”

I’m quiet for a while then, looking down at the burns on my fingertips from the barrel of my gun. The cuts and scars. All my rough parts, now exposed for the world to see. I’m tired. More than just physically tired—I’m tired down to my bones, a soul-deep exhaustion. I want to find a home tucked on the edge of nowhere and just live without worry or fear or tension, some small, crooked building with an overgrown yard and a too-small living-room-slash-kitchen and a loft above with my daughter playing chess…

“The other option is that you’re considering fucking off again.” Morgan’s voice is cold as he lays this out for me to consider. Am I thinking of that? Leaving? Is that what they want? “Are you really going to do that to them?”

“You don’t know what they want. None of us do. Until things settle down, until Derecho is better… we’re not going to know that.”

Morgan stands, clearly sick of me and my self-pitying misery. Expecting rejection and running away from that already. “Then stick around,” he says. “Look, I gotta head back to the precinct. Paperwork to wrap up. The others are there too—but we’re not leaving when this case is done. Hotch got us two days leave to wind down, what with everything that’s happened… we’re going to stay and see him through this. See what he’s going to do next, now that he can go back to being Spencer again if he wants. I think you should do the same.”

I nod. It’s worth a shot, I think, although I’m not convinced it’s going to help. My own feelings aside, Spencer’s going to need us. He’s on the cusp of everything changing and, this time, he doesn’t have to weather it alone.

It’s the memory of that night in the hotel that decides it, really, the memory of him drunk and crying and leaning on me for support, desperately telling me stories of Derry because he couldn’t bear being the only one in her life anymore. If I run, I’m allowing that desperation… I’m condoning it. Whether or not he wants me here sober, I need to give him the option.

“I’ll stay,” I murmur, seeing Morgan smile just a little. “Hey, Derek? Where’s Listen?” If there’s a miracle and I see her before Spencer chases me away, I want to be able to tell her her dog is okay.

“Hotch has him. Took him back to the vet as soon as the ambulance pulled away. Was a hell of a thing— the dog did not like being left behind, but the paramedics wouldn’t take him covered in gunk and all beaten up. Took both of us to get him in the car.”

“Is he okay?”

“He will be when they are. You’d be surprised what being reunited with the people you love can do for you.” And, with that, he turns and leaves.

“They’re not going to let me in,” I tell him as he walks away, but he doesn’t stop. I sleep and wait to be proven right.

But, I’m wrong. When I wake up to a nurse frowning down at me, about to ask me to leave and with every part of my body screaming with pain at the position I’ve been sitting in for so long, I don’t have to fight for my right to stay. There’s a text on my phone from my handler at the CIA warning me that they’re bringing me officially back to life now that my target is neutralised; I’m alive, and alive means I can fight to stay by her.

I don’t have to.

“She’s with me,” says Spencer’s voice unexpectedly. I look past the disapproving nurse to find him standing in the hallway with a cup of awful coffee, looking exhausted and relieved and more human than he has in days.

“Family only in the PICU, sir.”

“She is.” Spencer nods with this statement, smiling tightly. “She’s Derry’s mom.”

And I stand and follow him without a word, back into my daughter’s life.

 


 

That’s that first night. It’s unusual, the both of us being there, but we don’t have anywhere else to go and everyone knows who Derry is from the news bulletins reporting on her abduction and return. We’re both allowed to stay in the private room she’s been given, each on a separate fold-out cot, and the night passes in silence with nothing but the hum of her monitors and her quiet breathing.

She wakes once and whimpers words I can’t catch, muffled as they are behind the mask, but I’m frozen with indecision: what do I do? Do I respond to that terrified need, as she jerks up in the bed and touches at the mark, dark eyes flickering around the unfamiliar room as she registers that she’s somewhere strange? Do I smile or call her name or tell her that she’s okay?

She doesn’t know who I am. It’s too dark for her to see me, and I can’t move to alert her to my presence anyway. I’ll just frighten her.

I do nothing.

It doesn’t matter anyway. Spencer is up, going from asleep to awake in bare seconds and by her side, leaning down with his hand across her forehead and lips shaping quiet words that I can’t hear. Whatever he’s saying, it’s exactly what she needs, and she quietens and is asleep before I can think to stand beside him.

I don’t move and, when he returns to his own bed, I doubt he even knows I’m awake.

We don’t speak on that first night. We just sleep, metres apart and with the whole world between us.

There’s the first morning. This one is the hardest. Derecho doesn’t really react to my being there, just watches me quietly over the rim of her cereal bowl as Spencer explains to her what’s happened. He’s sitting cross-legged on the end of her bed, talking quietly but in the same way I remember, with that careful enunciation I’ve missed so much.

He tells her that I never gave her up for adoption. That I never abandoned her. He tells her that Ian Doyle was coming after us both, to hurt us both, and that I left to protect her.

He tells her that he took her because he loved us both and he was scared for us too.

Basically, he absolves me of the guilt that I’ve been carrying. I hate him for that, as much as I want to cry with a broken kind of relief at it too. He’s taking everything I’ve feared, everything I know he resents me for, and he’s trying to make sure my child doesn’t carry that resentment too. But it’s not working. I can tell. Derecho is silent, her eyes watching Spencer and me both, and there’s no forgiveness in their cool regard. She’s nine and adores her father; I’m very aware that my inclusion into her life will rest solely on Spencer’s actions towards me, not his words.

And then Spencer throws a curveball. I don’t know if I agree with what he does.

He gives her the letters, the ones I wrote for him. She takes them with the scarred hand, the only part of her that isn’t bruised and sore, and stares for the longest time before speaking. They’ve taken the mask off. There are no broken bones, no internal bleeding. Just cuts and bruising, dehydration and exhaustion culminated by the shock of her beating. Her lip is split badly enough to need stitches, two black eyes hurting me to look at. But she’s awake and aware and very, very quiet. That’s alarming. From those I’ve spoken to who know her, from the profile we have of her… she’s not a girl comfortable with silence.

“I don’t want to read these yet,” she says thickly around her lip, passing them back to Spencer. “Where’s Listen?”

It’s a relief, and a disappointment. Neither of them looks at me.

I leave the room and wonder if he’s making the right decision. Mumble some excuse about coffee that no one listens to. A ghost on the fringes of their life because I know why she’s refusing the letters—to read them makes me real. Not just a photograph by her bed, but a real, living, breathing person.

“She’s tired,” says Spencer, having followed me. “We should have waited until the doctors have cleared her. She could be concussed still.”

“As long as I’m right here in front of her, we couldn’t have waited,” I tell him without looking. Where’s the damn coffee in this place? Patients and nurses bustle around us, no one looking at us, no one paying attention. Invisible still. “Is that a good idea, the letters? They’re personal, Spence. There are things in there she might not understand.”

He’s beside me, nodding ahead to the break room where the coffee is. “The sex?” he asks, not a modicum of emotion in his voice. “She understands sex, Emily. She’s nine, not five.”

“She’s nine. What kind of kid wants to read about their parents having sex at nine?”

“Then she’ll skip it. I’ve never censored her reading, and I’m hardly going to start when it’s something so important to her understanding of what’s happening now.”

I don’t know why he’s so determined to rush through these revelations. We could have just told her I’m alive and back, left all the gruesome details for later. By the look on his face, frustration and disappointment, he knows I’m thinking this. “I talked about the drugs in there, Spence. You want her knowing that?”

“She knows it already.”

I’m stunned by that, knowing that I’ve faltered in the act of pouring the coffee into the thin paper cup, just staring at him instead. All I can ask is, “Why?”

“Because she asked. They had a presentation on drug dependency at the youth group she attends, and she came home asking if I knew anyone with an addiction. I don’t believe in withholding information because of her status as ‘child’. I’m her father. I know what information she can and cannot handle, and to hide that from her would imply that it was shameful instead of something to learn from.” Now, he looks at me, his expression disdainful, leaving me feeling small despite not being entirely sure that I agree. “She’ll read the letters, she’ll skip the parts she’s uncomfortable with, and she understands that she can come to me about the rest. Derry has never been easy to lead to information… you have to let her find it.”

But his eyes skirt away just a little as he says that, like he’s guilty. Like he’s focusing on this, my return and the multitude of questions those letters are going to spur, more than Derecho can possibly comprehend in a day, in order to avoid focusing on something else.

Before I can ask, there’s a noise in the corridor, a laugh and a child giggling, “Dog!” I hear Hotch’s voice as well, a quiet, “Down, Listen,” and see Spencer’s face light up as he abandons his coffee and rockets back to Derry’s room. Both coffees in hand, I follow, putting aside my worries and my insecurities just long enough to appreciate how happy a scene it is: my daughter and her dad hugging the dog that saved her life, Listen’s entire body wagging along with his tail as he licks her hands and risks a scolding from the nurse.

“Gotta give Reid points,” Rossi says from behind me, leaning in the doorway and watching too. “Couldn’t have gotten the dog in here if he hadn’t done such a good job falsifying his service dog papers.”

“Don’t encourage that,” Hotch says shortly but, when the nurses ask, he’s the one who gives them the paperwork.

And, for now, it’s enough that she’s alive. Everything else is a problem for later.

 


 

What comes next is harder than even that. I’d expected coming back to life to be difficult, but it’s not. There hasn’t been time to put my affairs into order yet, to find what’s left of my mother’s estates and to track down anything she left behind. I’m still not even entirely sure that she’s really gone. Since I haven’t had the chance to face that yet, and I’ve already faced the surprisingly unquestioning Derecho, it’s all very anticlimactic. I’m left floating around the hospital wondering when the boot is going to fall.

When it comes, it’s in the form of a funeral.

They’re going to release Derry tomorrow. This is a relief, even though Spencer still hasn’t gone back to the house and I don’t know what he wants to do with that. He won’t tell me, even though I’ve offered to help. Letting me in is clearly not on his list of priorities, although he’s doing a fine job keeping me around feeling useless.

Nate Sinclair’s funeral is tomorrow as well, and I’ve found that Spencer is a hypocrite. He’ll tell Derry about his own problems with drugs and the fact that I was unfaithful, the immoral events that led to her conception, but he hasn’t told her that her best friend is dead. I’d assumed he had. She cries for hours upon learning that her geese were murdered, only stopping when Spencer promises that he’s going to claim their bodies back and have a proper funeral for them, with flowers from their own garden and the goats in attendance. Since then, all Derry has talked about is that funeral, planning it out in exquisite detail and explaining each step to the patiently listening Spencer. I’m invited, as an afterthought and only because I come in as they’re discussing guests, but she also adds that I have to sit at the back since I didn’t know them in life.

“And Nate has to be there,” she announces, glancing over at the rows and rows of flowers from the children at her school that are beginning to overflow from the cupboard lining the wall, scowling a little at them. “He likes Custard the best, so he should be the one to talk for her. Can you find a poem, Dad?”

Spencer is silent, a little grey and very frozen, his eyes locked on me. That’s about the point that I realise he’s a coward too, because he says, “Absolutely,” and doesn’t meet her eyes.

“But he doesn’t get any nibbles,” Derry adds savagely, writing this down onto the notepaper she’s been given, “since he hasn’t come visited, or even sent flowers.”

Spencer says nothing.

I wait until he leaves the room to speak to a doctor, excusing myself from the girl who ignores me and slipping out after him. When he’s done and walking back towards me, looking resigned and tense, I offer to take her.

“She has to say goodbye,” I tell him, very aware that he’s likely unwilling to go to the funeral of the boy the town had thought he’d murdered. At the very least, if their scorn doesn’t frighten him, I’m sure the knowledge that his actions had indirectly led to his death does. “Let me take her. If she doesn’t go, she’ll never grieve properly—she’s too young to realise he’s gone forever unless you give her this chance to understand. It’s a process, Spence.”

“I’m going to tell her,” he says, looking away. “Just… not yet. She’s still injured…”

“They’re releasing her tomorrow.”

He’s quiet for a moment, before murmuring, “We don’t have to… my parents never told me about my friend who died. He’d just be a memory if we left it…”

That’s a thin hope and he knows it. Worse, it’s cruel, which he’s never been.

“It’s all over the news, and the papers. Even if you never take her back to Cornish, you don’t think she’ll ask why her best friend never speaks to her again?” And, when he swallows and looks torn, I strike: “How do you think she’ll feel knowing you hid this from her? It’s going to be hard enough when she reads those letters and realises just how much about me you kept a secret. If you do this, and she finds out, she’ll never trust you again.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Because…” They’re the hardest words I’ve spoken since returning, and I don’t know if they hurt or heal. “Because I look at you and I can tell you’re never going to forgive me for hiding so much from you, and she’s your daughter. Neither of you trusts easily, not once it’s been broken.”

He stares at me, hazel eyes lost and expression so miserable I wish I could hug him. “I forgive you for dying,” he whispers, stopping my stupid heart. “I’m angry, and will be for a long time, but I think I forgive you… only because you came back.”

“I’m not talking about dying.” This I can’t say while looking into his eyes, so I look down at my shoes instead. “I’m talking about never telling you that I love you before I left.”

“Oh.”

That oh confirms my fear. There’s nothing left to salvage between us except a shade of friendship, maybe, and a shared commitment to a single child.

“Will you let me take her?” I ask.

I’m not really surprised when he says no. I just nod and leave without saying goodbye, sure that there’s never going to be a time when he feels the time is right.

And it’s only going to cause us pain.

 


 

Events culminate to keep me from returning to the hospital that day although, to be truthful, I let it happen. I don’t really want to go back there, not when a large part of me is screaming, “Tell her!” because the idea of Derry finding out that Nate is gone after the fact is heartbreaking. Missing his funeral and missing his goodbye and being entirely unsure if he’s really gone or if it’s all some cruel joke—

Mom, I realise. I can’t handle the thought of Derry finding out her friend is gone much like I’ve found out about Mom. Too long after the fact to do anything but feel stunned. Everyone in her life has already moved on, done their grieving. I’m alone in this loss, the only one freshly stunned.

The idea of Derry ever feeling how I do right now is repugnant, but I don’t know how to explain that to Spencer. How to tell him I think he’s wrong, that’s he’s taking the easy way out because of his own fear of facing Nate’s death. That he’s being uncharacteristically cowardly.

But it doesn’t matter. The CIA calls to inform me that my accounts are back in action, topped up with six years back pay for services rendered. After that, it’s a whirlwind of lawyers and phone calls and endless bureaucracy as I try to untangle my death while keeping in place everything I’d put into place around it. The money I’ve left for Spencer and Derecho, that remains with them. I’m not chasing my beneficiaries for money I willingly gave them. After that, it’s a mess of needing ID in order to withdraw money from my account in order to rent a hotel room and feed myself now that Derry is being released and I can’t beg a free lunch from them anymore. In the end, I’m forced to admit to Hotch what’s happening and have him assist. That’s mortifying, and he’s irate with the CIA for leaving me, now that I’m inactive, in the lurch.

“FBI would have at least made sure you were provided for,” I swear I hear him mutter under his breath. Honestly, I think of telling him that so would the CIA—if I hadn’t informed them that I was quitting as soon as my daughter is safe. She’s safe; that’s my notice. I’m technically unemployed and not their problem.

But I don’t tell him that.

Instead, I thank him for loaning me money until my ID arrives, going back to my hotel room and falling immediately asleep, exhausted by the mess of it all. Dying was easy; coming back to life is proving to be much harder.

I’m wearing clothes that are wrinkled from my travel bag when I arrive the next day at Nate Sinclair’s funeral, not surprised to see that neither Spencer nor Derecho are in attendance. Hotch is there and stands by my side as we linger at the back of the room, the child-sized coffin a painful reminder of the reality of loss and just how closely I’d come to this being our child.

There’s not much else I feel ready to note about the funeral. The smell of the flowers will always haunt me. The corkboard of photos set up by the door hits me like a freight train because, in most of them, Derry is by Nate’s side. The eulogy is crippling because she’s mentioned. The parents who should have hated my daughter for her part in their son’s death take a moment at his funeral to ask the congregation to be thankful that Derry is alive, that Nate would be so happy to know that she’s okay.

I leave then, to hide the fact that I’m a stranger, crying at a child’s funeral. Hotch comes with me. We don’t speak.

When I get back to the hospital, I’m told that they’re down in the garden, waiting for a doctor to be free to discharge her. Tired and worn from the past two days, I go down there expecting a fight for vanishing and almost welcoming it, furious that he hid this from her. She should have been there. It’s important that she knows that no one blames her for her friend’s death—that she was an important part of his life, that she deserves this memory that’s confusing and frightening now, but needed. Later, instead of looking back and wondering why he’s left her, she should know that he loved her… that death is a part of life, something to be faced instead of run from.

Oh.

I have to stop and think that over, a flush of blistering heat leaving me dizzy.

No wonder Spencer didn’t tell her. How can he stand and tell her to face death, when all I’ve ever done is run from it? He’s not a coward, he’s not protecting her from it… they’ve both faced it before, over and over again. Every time she’d asked for me, and every time he’d had to tell her I was gone.

God, I’m sorry. I’m so so sorry.

I can’t ever take back how hard that would have been.

But, if I’d thought to pull him aside once I found him and tell him just what I realised, there isn’t the chance. I find them sitting in a little wooded alcove by a fountain, Derry curled up small in her wheelchair and Spencer on a park bench beside her, his arm around her shoulders.

She’s crying, her notebook on her lap.

Neither of them says anything to me as I walk towards them, Spencer watching me with his own cheeks tear-streaked. I realise; he’s told her.

“We couldn’t get to the funeral today,” Spencer says when I’m close enough, Derry beginning to cry harder under his arm, her breathing coming in wet, choking hiccups. “So we’re having our own, just the two of us.”

Between sobs, Derry holds the notebook up. “I wrote him a letter,” she manages, scrubbing her hand hard over the page where it’s gone blotchy. “Daddy’s going to send it to him for me.”

Confused, I look at Spencer, who looks away.

But Derry’s not done: “Just like we used to send letters to you,” she finishes, nodding once and swallowing hard, clearly trying to stop crying now that I’m here to see it. It’s the first time she’s really acknowledged that I’m here. “Will you stay?”

I tell her, of course.

There’s one pause before they continue, one heartbreaking moment.

Derry stops, looks at her dad, and asks, “Are you sure he’s dead?”

It hurts when Spencer says, “Yes,” and looks right at me, his eyes glassy and aching. When Derry looks at me too, a little hesitant, he adds in the saddest murmur, “I’m sorry, love. Not like Mom. He can’t come back.”

Fuck, I’m sorry. I cover my mouth and want to run away from this. But I can’t. I can’t run. I’ve already realised—I forced Spencer to face my death; it’s the least I can do to face Nate’s with him. Instead of running, I walk forward and sit beside him, stunned and thankful when he hesitates only a second before slipping his free hand into mine.

“Do you want to read it out loud?” Spencer asks her gently.

Derecho pauses, staring hard at the letter with her body still shaking. “Maybe,” she says uncertainly, biting her lip. For the longest moment, we sit there waiting, until she whispers, “Daddy, I can’t.”

I feel Spencer flinch, his grip tightening in mine before sliding out. “That’s okay,” he says, crouching by her side and taking the paper, careful to fold it fast. “It’s a private letter—just for you and him. It’s okay if you can’t read it right now, because he’s still going to get it, and he’ll know how much you miss him.”

Derry nods tearfully and we watch in silence as Spencer walks away from us to the centre of the small courtyard, glancing around for watching staff before lighting the corner of the paper up and setting it on the cobblestone to burn. I watch the paper curl, the flames creeping fast over the blackening surface, hearing a soft hiccup next to me.

“Em-Emily?” Derry whispers in the most hesitant voice I can imagine, continuing when I look at her and smile weakly. Spencer is watching the burning letter, just far enough away that he can’t hear us, and my brain is consumed by the thought that they burned letters like this for me. “It hurts… it hurts so much that Nate is gone. Not just my feelings but everything. I don’t think anyone should ever hurt like this.”

“It’s not nice,” I say carefully. I don’t really know how to respond to this. I’m used to parenting a toddler, not a nine-year-old wracked with grief.

“I was thinking… if it hurts me this much that Nate’s gone, when I loved him so much, it must have hurt a lot more when Daddy lost you, right? You have to love someone a lot to give up everything for their kid…”

I don’t know how to answer, or even how to breathe through that.

“I don’t want him to ever hurt like I am right now,” Derry finishes stubbornly, snot and tears making a mess of her swollen face. “Promise you won’t go again? Promise he doesn’t have to write you any more letters?”

“I promise,” I respond, because how the hell can I say no?

 


 

Spencer and Derry take a room at the same hotel I’m in—unsurprisingly, since there are only three decent ones of any size in this city and the team are here too—when she’s released from the hospital. More surprisingly, I find that this makes it completely impossible to stay away from them.

I say it’s because I want to find out if there’s anything he needs from me, but really I just want to see them whole and together once more.

Spencer doesn’t want to let me in, I can tell that immediately. He lingers by the door, his mouth turned down in a frown, and Derry watches silently from her bed on the couch, The Lion King playing muted on the TV. Listen is laid out next to her, his eyes on me and ears wary.

“Is she having dinner with us?” Derry asks. I look past him, to the stack of pizzas on the counter, and smile tersely.

“No, just dropping in. It’s fine—”

But Spencer’s already turned to pick up another paper plate, his body language jagged and annoyed and his shoulders tense. “Eat with us,” he says, and I can’t tell if the tension in his movement is anger or anxiety, or both. I watch as he takes two slices and hands the plate they’re on to the ruffled head poking over the back of the couch, before throwing two more on another plate and looking around fruitlessly for a table to eat on. In the end, he leans against the counter, pushing one more plate towards me. I take it, perching awkwardly on the counter beside him with our backs to Derry and my thigh brushing his hip. We eat in silence, and I’m acutely aware of where we’re touching, and where we’re not.

“What happens now?” I ask when the TV is unmuted and the sound of Elton John covers our soft conversation. There’s cheese on my wrist and I awkwardly turn it to try and lick it off, Spencer watching me with one eyebrow raised.

“I’m assuming you don’t mean right now, in which the answer is that we eat pizza and argue with Derry about the validity of lion royalty. In a future sense, I don’t know.” Spencer’s still watching me lose my fight with proper decorum, and I wonder if I should tell him that there’s cheese on his lip. “There’s my court case, which Hotch doesn’t seem concerned about. Selling the house in Cornish, which will be difficult due to… well, everything we did to obscure my ownership of it in the first place. Finding somewhere to live.”

“In DC?”

“I don’t know.” He hands me a napkin, his fingers brushing mine and his cheeks flushing, just a little, at the tentative touch. “It’s weird, Em. You’re here, the team is here… if it wasn’t for Derry, it’s like it was all some hallucination we shared. And I’m Spencer Reid again… I don’t know how to be him anymore.”

“It’s not so hard,” I tell him softly, catching his fingers with mine and leaning against his shoulder. Dangerous. Too much touching. Derry is right behind us. “You worked it out the first time, how to be yourself.”

“Did I though? I never worked out you, not in time for it to matter.”

In silence, we stay there, until the movie ends and it’s discovered that Derry is asleep and Listen has acquired her pizza. Spencer covers her up, lingering for the longest time over her as though he’s afraid to walk away, before walking back over to where I’m disposing of the paper plates.

“I’m not going to take her from you,” I tell him because I can’t bear the fear in his eyes when he looks from me to her. “She’s your daughter. Maybe, naively, I’d thought I would when I came back, but that was before I knew she was with you. That was when I still thought I’d be the cool, I don’t know, Mom back from the dead, welcomed with open arms. How fun could living with Grandma be? I never had any fun with it. Besides… her family is dead now, Mikheil and his children and wife. You’re all she has.”

He sucks in a sharp breath, turning suddenly and crushing me between the counter and his body with his hands biting down around my wrists. “No,” he breathes, too fast and too hard, his mouth too close to mine and our bodies too warm. “We’re all she has, Em, we. You’re still her mom. Don’t die again, not even a little.” And, for a second, his head dips until his forehead is against mine, eyes closed, and breath warm against my lips. “Don’t run again.”

“I don’t plan on it,” I murmur, dipping forward just a little. The briefest touch.

But we pull away. Too wary of being vulnerable, too raw.

“I was thinking of moving back to Vegas,” Spencer says, looking at me with something unknowable in his eyes. Does he want me to ask him to stay, or to tell him to go? “What would you think of that?”

I don’t know what he wants from me.

Honestly, I shrug and say, “It would be good for you both. She’d have her grandma, and you’ve always felt at home there. And it’s far away from what Doyle did to you both…”

Far away from me.

In response, all he does is smile sadly. I tell myself that I’m happy for him. I tell myself that it’s right. I tell him much the same.

We agree; after the court case, a move would be good. For everyone.

And we don’t kiss again.

 


 

It's just never that fucking simple is it? It could have been. It could have been fine. Not for me, because I’m aware how little I matter when it comes to their happiness, but for them. They could have left, gone to Vegas, found a little house somewhere just like the one they were leaving. Derry could meet her grandma. Spencer would be home in the desert he loves. They’d be happy.

That doesn’t happen.

Instead, this does.

One month later, we go to court. Spencer is worried but, then, he’s always been a worrier. I’m confident that it’s a formality, that there’ll be leniency. After all, I’ve looked over his case—while parts of it are beyond even me, he’d always done his best to stay on the right side of the law. Even his taxes are up to date, paid through a complicated series of loopholes to keep both his personas separate. The places where he did do wrong, surely, they’ll be kind? Surely, they’ll see that there are extenuating circumstances? Yeah, the adoption wasn’t legal and Mikheil is dead now, unable to confirm that he’d allowed it, but it was to save her life. And I’m there vouching for him, even expressing my desire that he retains full custody. I stand before the judge and, under oath, inform everyone in that courtroom, Spencer and my team, that I’m taking steps to have the adoption formalised. Storm—she’s still Derry in my head, but legally her name is Storm once more—will be his entirely and truly.

I didn’t warn him of this. I probably should have. As I state it, I look at him and see the shocked delight on his face, the awe, the wonder. The tears that I think only I can see, because they’re hidden and contained, just like I’ve seen him cry before.

It’s not that that gets him. It’s a tiny clause. Technical fraud. The judge is sympathetic, but only so far that he isn’t charged with kidnapping or the bevy of larger charges on his sheet. Instead, it’s the small one, the one they can’t sweep away under the brush of ‘he did it to save her life’. And he gets six months in a minimum-security facility.

As the sentence is confirmed, I can see his shock. The shock of everyone around him. We didn’t bring Derry here today—figured she didn’t need to see her dad in court.

That was a mistake.

He’s led out in cuffs and I stand alone, staring blankly at Hotch’s grim face, as custody of Storm is returned to me for the duration of Spencer’s incarceration.

So there it is. I have my daughter back, in the very worst possible way. I never wanted this.

When I leave the courtroom that day, it’s with the feeling that I’m walking into a storm that’s going to do its best to destroy me.

I’m very, very right.

Chapter Text

Dear Daddy,

No, I’m not angry.

Love, Derecho.

 

Spencer,

Your daughter has a temper, did you know that? I don’t even know what to do with her, I honestly don’t. I accidentally called her Storm the other day and feared for my life a little with the look she shot me… can you imagine? Here’s me, hardened special agent, spent most of my life chasing down serial killers, and I flinched back from a nine-year-old’s stare.

I don’t know how to make this easier for her. I’m trying. I found an apartment with windows that look out over as much of the city as I can afford—I know how much she loves the lights at night. There’s a spare room for a library if she’ll ever tell me what books she likes to read…

She has nightmares and won’t let me comfort her.

I don’t know what to do.

Emily.

 

Daddy,

When are you coming home? Emily says it’s still MONTHS away but that can’t be right, can it? Why are you in so much trouble when all you did was HELP me??? Why isn’t she in trouble too, didn’t she do worse? I think it’s way way worse to tell people you’re dead when you’re not. I’d never tell anyone I love that I’m dead.

I hate it here. The city is loud and I miss my goats… I know you said that they were going to the farm where we wintered them, back in Cornish, and I know they like it there but… I still miss them. I had a dream the other day that you came home and brought Donkey with you, and I was tremendously mad that you’d forgotten Goat. How silly is that? I wonder if they miss me enough to dream of me…

Please stop telling me to be nice to Emily. I AM being nice to her. I’m nothing but nice to her. If I was being mean I wouldn’t speak to her at all. It’s not my fault she doesn’t know the difference between nice and mean.

When you come home, can we go back to Cornish? I’m lonely here. Are you lonely? I think you probably are.

Love always, Derecho.

 

Dear Spencer,

I did what you suggested, taking Derry to visit her goats. She was silent the whole way there, wouldn’t say a word, but when we got there… it was a good idea. She was so happy she cried, and they did remember her. Isn’t that something? I didn’t think they would. The old couple that run that farm are lovely too, although very surprised when I introduced myself as her mom. That’s something I guess I have to get used to—the surprise when I tell people what we are to each other. Oh well. Every action has consequences, right?

Listen had another appointment the other day. They don’t think he’s ever going to regain his hearing and Derry was hysterical after, locking herself in her room and refusing to come out. When I picked the lock and went in there, she threw a book at me while still sobbing. They never warn you about that either—having to punish your kid when all you want to do is hold them tight and never let go. Did I fuck up? Should I have let it go and just supported her? Listen is all she has and she’s scared for him…

I’ve lost something, haven’t I? I used to be able to be kind.

But it doesn’t matter. Moving on. I can be the bad guy. She starts school on Monday, without Listen. He can’t go—he’s not a service dog, not really, and it’s too overwhelming for him with his hearing now. Me and him are just going to have to potter around here together and wait for her to come home.

She’s going to hate me for this.

Emily.

 

DADDY

I WENT TO SCHOOL TODAY, A REAL REAL REAL SCHOOL WITH REAL STUDENTS—MORE STUDENTS THAN I’VE EVER SEEN BEFORE EVER!!! Did you know that there are enough kids to have THIRTY in my class and there are SO MANY MORE CLASSES. I bet there are at least ONE THOUSAND kids at my school. Isn’t that amazing? And my teacher is fantastic!!! LET ME TELL YOU EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENED.

[Letter continues for seven pages]

Anyway Listen wasn’t allowed to go with me which I don’t think was fair at ALL but EMILY won’t budge. She doesn’t understand how important he is. You can tell her though, can’t you???

The worst thing about school is Listen not being there. The second worst thing is that she enrolled me as STORM PRENTISS and that’s not my name. I told everyone that I answer to Derecho—I’ll give them a week and then I won’t correct them anymore, I just won’t answer. It’s not right to call me by my wrong name because she wants to make a point.

But everything else about school is AMAZING and I’ll miss it so much when we go back to Cornish.

Love love love love LOVE, Derecho REID.

 

Daddy,

I’m sorry. Please don’t be mad at me. Your last letter sounded mad. I’m going to do better, I promise.

I still don’t want to be called Storm though. You gave me my name…

I miss you. Please come home.

Love, Derecho.

 

Spencer,

What did you say to her? She’s been like a changeling since your last letter, getting underfoot trying to be helpful in every possible way. It’s sweet, it is, but I’m adjusting to it, and she still doesn’t like me. Is it stupid that that upsets me still? Of course, she doesn’t like me, she’s nine and hurting…

Anyway, I don’t think you want to hear about my insecurities. We’re here for Derry, right? She’s doing better at therapy, finally starting to open up despite me being there. I never speak—doc says he wants to tackle our relationship one day but, really, I don’t see the point, when she’ll be going home with you when you’re released. At the moment, the most important thing is dealing with what Doyle did to her. The things he told her, Spencer… if I could kill him again, I would. Again and again and again. But god, when she started talking about how she made you the coded knitting, how scared she was of being caught and how she couldn’t plan it out so she kept making mistakes and having to pick back and correct herself, I’ve never been so damn proud. I wish I could tell her that, how proud I am. Did you know that she did it when Doyle was disposing of the other child’s body? Derry saw that happen. She saw it, and she still pulled herself together enough to realise that, not only did she need to get a message to us, but she needed to do it by sending away the only companion she had left: Listen.

I bought him the biggest steak that night. I’m getting soft in my old age.

You’ll be happy to know she’s taken to school like a duck to water. How you and I combined to make such a little people person, I’ll never understand. Our kid is an extrovert, what have you done? She keeps trooping home with new faces and I can’t keep all their names straight. Her teachers love her to pieces and she talks so much when she’s with her friends, like a flock of parrots chattering… I guess this is what she used to be like with you, isn’t it? Chatting and happy all the time. When we’re alone, the house is silent. I’m drowning in it sometimes.

You asked how I am? I’m fine. I’m doing fine.

Regards, Emily.

 

Dad!

Last night, I went to a dinner with Emily. I thought it was going to be dull dull dull dull but… it wasn’t. It was actually super weird, and I don’t really know how to describe why it was weird, but I’m going to try.

Okay, so I know you’re who you were before now. People keep telling me, the same as they do with my name being Storm, not Derecho. It takes a bit to sink in, but I KNOW that. But that’s not the same as it really hitting me that you’re not my cool old librarian dad anymore, but a badass special agent with the FBI. But last night we went to dinner at Mr Hotch’s house and everyone was there, all your old team, and they kept telling the most FANTASTIC stories about you. Like, you had a gun and wore a vest (sometimes) and you saved so many people and that’s just so cool, I think. You’ve saved LIVES and so did Emily… and suddenly it all kind of makes more sense. Why Emily ran away—because that’s what you guys did, isn’t it? You always saved lives and I guess she figured that’s what she was doing for me. That’s what Jack says anyway. Oh, Jack’s my new friend too. He’s Mr Hotch’s son and he’s AMAZING. So is Henry because they get me in a way all my other friends really really don’t—all this weird stuff that’s happened in my life? Getting kidnapped and hiding out with you and having so many names… they get that. Jack’s mom was murdered by a bad man too, just like we thought mine had been, except his mom isn’t ever coming back and mine has.

So I guess I’m lucky, aren’t I? Sometimes I hate her for coming back and sometimes I think (but never ever say, don’t worry) that I wish she was dead again so you could come home… but now I think the only thing worse than her coming back is if she never had.

Anyway, later that night all the adults had been drinking a bit and we were supposed to be quiet and play in the living room, but we were also kind of listening. And I was listening to Emily and I always thought she doesn’t want me, that she’s just got me because you’re away right now, but that’s not true, is it? She was saying to Hotch that she’s going to miss me when you come home, that she’s not sure she wants to live in a big old empty house by herself anymore. And she asked what it was like when Jack was living with his mom, I guess before she died.

Maybe we don’t have to move back to Cornish. It might be nice to stay in DC. I mean, I have so many friends here now and the goats don’t miss me too much… besides, Jack LOVES Listen and I said we can take him for walks together if Emily and Mr Hotch let us hang out.

And I guess if we stay in DC, Emily can come visit us sometimes. Not too often though. But even when she’s annoying and bosses me around, I don’t think I want her to be lonely. Can we think about it?

Love always and forever, your Derecho.

 

Dear Spencer,

Your last letter was… I don’t know, Spence. I think you’ve been on your own for too long. What’s gotten into you and made you so sappy?

I’m only answering this because I’ve had some wine and Derry was delightful tonight… we watched awful movies together, the kinds of things you’d have cried to see. All girly and romantic and trash, it’s just

I don’t know

Did you mean that? Staying in DC? I would love it if you could.

Do you know what I’ve learned from this all? Not to hide when I love something, because the people around me deserve to know. And I’m drunk right now, with the TV still playing some terrible thing, and Derry is asleep beside me. She’s here, Spencer. She’s so grown up and so here and god I love her so much

In the morning, I should tell her that. I probably won’t. I’ll be sober by then. But I’m going to seal this letter tonight, in with hers, so I can’t take it back when I’m clear-headed. You’ll know.

I don’t think I stopped loving you either, you know. Dying didn’t take that from me. Living might, but we’ll see

Last night I dreamed of you. It hurt to wake up. Come home to me, and to our daughter. Soon.

Love, Em

 

Spencer,

If you ever say a word to me about that letter, I’ll deny it.

Emily.

 

My Dearest Daddy!

You’ll never GUESS what happened. I’ve never seen Mom Emily like it before. A strange man showed up here asking about me and she was FIERCE it was so cool. When I grow up proper, you know it wouldn’t be so bad to be like her. All spiky and wild and don’t sass me. I don’t think ANYTHING could get past her, could it?

Anyway, it turned out that he wasn’t a bad man after all. He’s my brother. His name is Nika Lomaia and he’s my biological dad’s son. Mom told me that they were all dead and I guess she thought Nika was dead too because she was so shocked when he said who he was that she had to sit down. Afterwards, she said she knew all along because he’s ‘just as cussing pretty as his cussing dad’, which Nika laughed at and I’m not supposed to be repeating.

It was weird. Nika is strange. He’s very old, almost twenty, and very, very handsome. Mom showed me pictures of my bio dad after, and he’s very handsome too. I wonder why I’m such a weird mush of a person when my family is all so PRETTY. Nika also talks funny, with an accent. And he’s kind of awkward, I don’t think he knows how to talk to girls.

We talked after. Emily left us alone to talk and Nika was quiet at first, just sitting there petting Listen and looking around at the kitchen, then he started telling me about his family. They died. Doyle got them too and when he told me that, I started crying. I don’t know why. I was just suddenly so scared and sad that Doyle hurt him too. He didn’t hug me, but I think he wanted to, and I said I was sorry that me being his sister turned out to be such an awful thing for him.

But he said I can’t ever apologise for that because if I’m sorry for being his sister, then he can’t be proud of being my brother. And we got to talking properly then and I realised—I’m all he has. Doyle didn’t spare him because he was being nice, Nika just wasn’t there that night. He was at boarding school in England, and he talked about how terrible it was to be called out of class and told. Everyone at his school knew and he said they all stared and whispered so much. And he says he had another little sister who he misses so much and he wants to know if I’d like him to be my brother properly because he suddenly has all this love to give and no one left to give it to except for a bunch of headstones and a big old empty house.

Isn’t that the saddest thing? I can’t stop thinking about it. How do I stop this feeling in my chest when I think about that, Dad, just this tight feeling of hurt real deep down that makes me want to cry even when I’m doing something completely different…

I said yes. I don’t want him to be alone. I had a dream last night that I said no and then my entire family, you and Mom and Listen and Jack and Henry and even Mr Hotch, they all died and I was alone and no one would let me love them either. It was an awful dream and I woke up crying.

Anyway, the point is, I think I didn’t know what to say at first because I thought he wanted to replace his real little sister, the one who died, with me. But that’s not what he’s doing, is it? He’s not replacing at all. He’s still going to love her, but he’s going to love me differently. We’ve started writing letters to each other, even though he’s gone back to England to go to university. That’s not something he ever did with his other sister, so that’s something for us alone. And I never watched bad romantic movies with you before, that’s an Emily thing. So maybe having her be my family too doesn’t mean not having you, right? It just means I have two people who want to be my family, just like he has two people he wants to love equally.

When you come home, I think you should meet him. Can we have him for holidays? I don’t know if he celebrates Christmas or Thanksgiving because he’s from a totally different country, but maybe he could come spend them with us anyway. No one should be alone on Christmas.

Love totally, Derecho.

 

Dear Spencer,

I guess Derry has already told you about Nika. I never even thought twice about his survival, even though it should have been obvious. Some investigator, huh? I went into his room. I registered that no one had died in there. I was just so distracted… but, anyway, he’s alive. And so grown up, shit. That’s going to be Derry one day, do you realise that? Taller than me and off to university/college in another country or state or world. We’re never going to be able to stop her flying…

I hope you don’t mind, but I told him he can be a part of her life. I think he needs that. He seems… lost. Alone. Unloved. I know how that feels; that was me for the years I was gone. So desperate for family and so scared of finding nothing but rejection. And I think a sibling would be good for Derry, even one grown up and doing his own thing. No offence, Spence, you did a great job with her, but she is very much an only child. I think most of our problem is her resentment about having me come between you and her, and good god, you should hear the bickering her and her friends get to over whose turn it is to play with a particular favoured toy.

Something strange happened the other day. I thought you’d like to know about it. Now that I’ve come to writing it down, it feels like such a small, funny thing to talk about, but here we go. We went to see Mom’s grave. When we got home, Derry began asking about her, small memories she still had and wasn’t sure if they were real or not. She remembered making a particular kind of cake with her, one I remember baking with her too, maybe once or twice in my life. It was such a rare treat, but one I’d always treasured, and I was overjoyed to realise Derry had shared that with her too. So, obviously, we tried to bake the cake ourselves. It was an absolute disaster. I hope you can bake because both Derry and I absolutely can NOT.

More importantly, as we worked together to get the frosting off the ceiling (don’t ask), Derry asked if I wouldn’t mind calling her Storm sometimes, just to try it out. That was followed by an endless stream-of-consciousness mitigation, as she warned me that she just wanted to test it and it didn’t mean anything, it’s just because ‘Howard Campbell’ doesn’t exist anymore so ‘Derecho Campbell’ feels weird and disconnected from everyone, etc. etc. etc. But, once she was done, she asked if it would be okay if she tried out calling me Mom… just sometimes.

Wow.

Just. Wow.

I assume you had something to do with this. Just, thank you. Thank you so much.

I never thought I’d hear it from her again.

We’re coming to see you next week. Be prepared—she’s knitted you a new hat. It’s atrocious. I love it.

Love, Emily.

 


 

I’m nervous enough that I can’t eat that morning. Until today, I haven’t wanted them visiting me here—it’s minimum security and I’m not dressed like a prisoner. The people around me are white-collar criminals or on remand, I’m not frightened of someone being cruel or them knowing I have a child backfiring on me. There’s really no reason that I should have delayed this visit for as long as I have, almost three months into my sentence. No reason, except that I am terribly, terribly ashamed of my place here. I don’t want Derry to look at me and see a criminal.

But it’s a visit long overdue. There’s a desperation in both Emily and Derry’s letters, no matter how much they try to hide it. They’re both hurting, and I can’t bear that. I need to see them—together—so I can try to help, in any way that I can.

And here they are, right on time.

God, can I even describe how I feel at this moment?

They’re walking towards me. Derry has grown in just three months—she’s up to Emily’s shoulder now, lanky and thin with her hair clipped up in a style I’ve never seen it in before. Flowers adorn the clip she’s pinned it up with, the whole effect quite ruined by the very wonky knitted hat she’s perched atop that. It’s Nate’s bear-hat, still unfinished, and I breathe through the pain of seeing it here. The rabbit sweater is in play, the sleeves ever so slightly too short now, although her jeans are new and embroidered nicely down the sides with more rabbits.

Emily is… Emily. I look at her with fresh eyes, three months removed from my anger and hate, and I see a tired, worried woman whose eyes never stray far from her daughter at her side. I think of her last few letters, the tentative wording, the not-so-tentative wording, and my heart skips strangely. ‘Our daughter’. I’ve whispered those words to myself so many times, lying awake at night. I wonder how they’ll sound in Emily’s voice, the thought almost surreal, like I’ve been waiting to hear them since the day Derry was born.

“Hi, Daddy,” Derry says, hovering uncertainly.

“Can we hug?” Emily asks the guard, who smiles and nods. Before I can think to react to the ‘we’, Derry is in my arms and holding me so tight I can barely breathe, my chair clattering back with the speed at which I’d launched out of it to catch her. She’s crying a little, leaving a damp patch on my shirt, but that’s okay because I feel like crying too.

And, when she finally lets go and steps away, her bear hat askew, Emily is there. We look at each other for a moment, saying nothing, with Derry watching us curiously.

“Are you really okay?” I ask her.

She just laughs, shakes her head, and steps willingly into my arms. I pull her tight and wonder how she could have ever walked away from this because I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to. Her frame is slight against my body, as it has always been, but she’s warm and strong and there’s a steadily beating heart holding us together. I lean my mouth and nose against her hair and breathe her in and wish I could smooth away every inch of pain that brings her so brokenly here before me, every insecurity that stands between her and Derry. Every year we’ve lost.

“Your heart is going so fast,” Emily murmurs, letting go and moving away and taking with her all the warmth in this loud room. “Anxious to see us, huh?”

Yes. Yes, and also no.

I don’t know when the anger made way for love, but I think it was about the point Emily’s letters had gone from desperate to a startled kind of loving, as she found herself pulled into Derry’s orbit. About the point where she’d expressed nothing but a desire to make her happy.

Maybe it was about the point where I’d realised she was alive and able to feel, everything, and that so was I.

“So, kiddo,” I ask Derry, deftly avoiding the question. “Enjoying DC?”

Derry is silent for the longest time, taking a seat beside Emily and chewing at her nails nervously. Finally, she talks. We don’t have long, and I guess that’s what drives her, because she’s not how she used to be. There’s no endless chattering to get to the point, no circling around a singular interesting but unrelated point. No ridiculous analogies. Just straight and to the point, with her dark eyes a kind of intent I’ve never seen them before. It’s a glimpse at who she’s becoming, the woman she’s going to be—every bit as fierce and wonderful as her mother, if sometimes a bit more distractible.

“The nightmares aren’t so bad anymore,” she says, shoulders tucked inwards and eyes averted. I see Emily’s head snap around to stare at her, her own expression surprised. “They were… awful, they were so bad, Dad, but… they’re not so bad now. Emily… helps.”

Emily swallows.

My heart thumps harder.

“They’re not as bad when she knows someone is there with her,” Emily says finally, smiling at me with so much sadness in her eyes I wish I could turn back the clock and remove Doyle from this earth before he’d ever touched her. “Even if that someone is me.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself, old lady,” teases Derry. I blink, but Emily just rolls her eyes and mutters something under her breath that sounds a bit like ‘wait until we get home’. “Aw, I mean… it’s sort of reassuring to have someone around who has at least seventeen guns on her person at all times.”

This time, Emily does wince. Uh oh. I know that expression. That’s guilt.

Derry is frozen, mouth half-open, and I know that expression too. She’s about to babble her way into telling me something they’ve agreed should be secret. And, she does.

“Not that I’ve seen her guns. I haven’t, not at all. Nine-year-olds shouldn’t touch guns, even if they’re about to be ten soon and should probably learn to shoot, yeah, because bad things can happen and you should know how to defend yourself and it’s not so scary, being small, if you know that you can—”

Emily just looks at me wearily. “I take her to the firing range once a week,” she says, clearly expecting dismay from me. “Don’t look at me like that. It helps. The nightmares stopped afterwards…”

That’s… a discussion for later.

“If you think it helps, it helps,” I say diplomatically. There’s an awkward moment where Emily is looking at me and I’m looking back, and all I can think is ‘our daughter’. Is this us parenting? A hint of what we could do?  Disagreements and clashing morals and compromise?

Instead, Derry shuffles closer and says, “Hey, Dad. That guy over there. I bet he has a dozen cats at home, want to know why?”

And, instead of lurching deeper into something we don’t understand, Emily and I just smile, laugh, and help our daughter profile strangers. But we never stop looking at each other.

I don’t know what it means, but I’m not too scared to hope.

Chapter Text

Derry’s tenth birthday is an experience for all of us, not least for me. In the lead-up to it, I’m cautious—it’s been a very long time since I was involved with a children’s party, and I feel like ten may be slightly more demanding than two. But Derry surprises me. For all that she’s grown up a treasured only child, for all that she’s a little bit spoiled and very, very excited to have friends around now, she doesn’t once mention the word ‘party’ when I tell her she can decide on how we celebrate.

I find her fretting over a notebook with two columns drawn up neatly, tapping her pen on both sides with her expression fraught. Sitting at the table with her, I examine the notebook and say nothing until she invites me into her strange world, knowing a lot better by now than to try and force my way in. Listen is asleep under her chair, her bare toes poking at his ruff as she thinks.

“I can’t decide,” she declares finally, shoving the notebook towards me. “They’re both such good options.”

I read the column titles: Pros for Jack is one; Pros for Henry, another.

“What are Henry and Jack competing for?” I ask.

“Who I should invite over for dinner on my birthday. I don’t want either of them to feel left out.” Morosely, Derry slumps back in her chair and scowls at her pen. “Having too many friends is exhausting. I mean, it was easy to narrow down to them because they’re my best friends, but how am I supposed to narrow more?”

I stare at her. “Derry,” I say, seeing her sink lower. “Why not both?”

Stunned, she stares at me.

“But…” Trailing off, she looks at the notebook and then at me again, her eyes going dangerously wide. It clicks: they were in hiding. Derry only ever had Nate, I know that, but surely she knew…

“Have you ever had a birthday party?” I ask her.

She shakes her head. “Not that I remember,” she whispers.

“Do you want one?”

And, even slower, she nods, looking so painfully hopeful that my heart squeezes and my brain throws up an unpleasant memory of being her age and guaranteed a birthday party but knowing that it would be filled with adults and the tension of having to ‘act my age’, which, in Mom’s world, meant acting like an adult instead of a child.

I stand, going for the phone. Fuck that. They’re not hiding anymore—she’s getting a party. And the first person I call is Rossi.

No one throws a party like he does.

 


 

And he outdoes himself. We have it at his house since his extensive gardens are far more child-friendly than the apartment Derry and I share, and I film every minute because there’s no way Spencer isn’t going to want to live this with us. Since the minute Rossi had picked up the phone to my determined, “Derry’s never had a party,” to this moment right now, he’s been working to throw the best damn party he knows how. There’s a table loaded with food, fairy lights on every tree, a frightening amount of water balloons and super soakers—I hover by the safe zone, marked clearly with orange cones, to avoid getting wet—and everyone has a party hat on, even Listen. It’s loud and wild and Hotch has silly string in his hair, and I can’t think of a moment of being dead that wasn’t worth coming home to this.

“Good luck,” says Hotch after, sidling up to me with a grin and a backpack, handing it off to me. “The amount of sugar those three have consumed tonight, you’re going to need it.”

JJ’s on his other side, yet another backpack in her arms that she props against my leg, winking. “Call me if they get too much,” she says, turning and running with a speed that belays that generous offer.

“Good luck,” says Hotch, following her with only a little more grace. There’s still silly string in his hair.

And, just like that, both Derry and I are set up for our first ever sleepover.

How hard can it be?

 


 

It’s shockingly easy. I don’t know how, but I assume it has something to do with the holy trinity that is the combined parenting of JJ, Hotch, and Spencer creating three bizarrely well-behaved kids. They offer to do the dishes—something that Derry sure hasn’t mastered—and I leave the living room for a minute and come back to find Jack cheerfully setting up their beds.

“I’ll keep them quiet, Emily,” he promises me, his eyes just as solemn as his dad’s even though he’s got an easier smile. “We won’t bother you at all, I promise. Will we, Listen?”

Listen just yawns and continues chewing on his favourite toy.

“I’m sending Derry home with you,” I mutter, before thanking him out loud. Whatever Hotch puts in his kid, I want some.

And he’s right. They settle in with a bunch of movies and homemade caramel popcorn, chattering together over-excitedly for hours until, at some point past midnight, I walk in there and find all three asleep in a tangled pile of blankets and pillows and candy. They’re all so worn out from the day that not a single one of them twitches as I remove the candy from Listen height and untangle blankets around them, leaving them sleeping more comfortable with the blankets on top of them instead of wrapped dangerously around them.

And then her birthday is over and I’m sitting alone in the kitchen with my phone in front of me, a letter to Spencer half-written in my brain, and my fourth glass of wine going down easy. It feels like a dangerous night to be writing to him, with the memory of the way he’d looked at me, the way he’d held me, high in my mind, clouded with my slow, hazy delight at how wonderful the day has gone… watching Derry blow out her candles on the cake Garcia had made her, crying at the gifts table because she’d never seen so many at once, running herself half silly trying to make sure everyone was having a good time…

Jesus, fuck, I think, closing my eyes and imagining Spencer again. You have no idea how amazing our child is.

But doesn’t every parent think that of their kid? And maybe he does. Maybe he’s known all along. Maybe this is just me catching up.

A footfall drags me back to myself, opening my eyes and finding a sleepy Derry with wild hair standing in the doorway with the new pyjamas JJ had bought her a little too long at the ankles. “Hi, Mom,” she says.

I try not to smile at the ‘Mom’ and fail miserably. I can’t help it. It’s never not going to be precious.

“Did you have a good birthday?” I ask her, sliding the chair out next to me and watching as she scampers over and slips in, cold feet touching my bare ankles as she goes. Bah. Just like her father—his feet were always painfully cold too.

“The best,” she says dreamily, leaning her chin on her hands on the tabletop and smiling at nothing. I give into temptation; blame the wine. My fingers trace down, gently brushing that wild hair down and stroking along, my heart skipping with every single allowed touch, like she’s some kind of rare, skittish animal instead of my too-grown-up daughter getting bigger every day. “I’m glad birthdays only come once a year though, I’m exhausted. Do you think I thanked Uncle Dave enough for the party?”

“I think if you’d thanked him more, we’d still be there,” I tease gently.

Derry grins, but the grin vanishes quickly. “I wish Dad could have been there…”

I tell the truth. “Me too.”

And Derry’s watching me closely. “He’ll be home soon,” she tries, and I know now why she woke up and came looking for me. In the night time, even when surrounded by friends, sometimes I worry too. “Only a month.”

I nod, my throat dry and my hand stilling on her hair, the wine hurting my head.

“You know,” Derry says softly, “I really loved my present from you. The necklace. I know you said I might not because it’s a bit girly and you didn’t like it when your mom gave you pretty things instead of fun things, but I got a lot of fun things from everyone today, more than I know what to do with. And Dad’s promised me something special when he comes home too. That’s something real and forever, that I can keep and remember today every time I put it on.”

Throat tight, I manage, “I’m glad you feel that way,” and regain my hand, using it instead to lift my glass of wine and tip it around in a slow circle, unsure of what to do now.

“Mom…”

There it is again. That word.

“When Dad comes home, are you going to be lonely? If he takes me away… I-I didn’t really want to like having you back. I really didn’t, but you are back and… and I think Dad’s scared of being lonely too, lonely like he was in Cornish.”

“Don’t be silly,” I tell her firmly. It’s not her place to be worried about me—I’m old enough and ugly enough to lie in the bed I’ve made for myself, alone. “He wasn’t lonely in Cornish. He had you, and Listen.”

“Yeah, but it’s a different kind of lonely, isn’t it? It’s a lonely based on not having the one person you want. Like… like me and Nate. I’ve got Jack and Henry here and they’re my current best friends in the world, but all day I’ve felt lonely because Nate’s not here. And if I can feel lonely surrounded by people I love, who love me, then Dad’s probably going to feel lonely in Vegas with just me and him again, right?”

I look at her and wonder when she got so damn smart. It wasn’t when I had her, that was for sure.

“I hurt your dad a lot—” I try, but she’s not having that.

“So? So did I, a lot. We’ve had such awful fights. I mean, I never pretended to die but… I read that letter, the one you wrote him. And I don’t know, I don’t really understand, but it sounds like you didn’t have a choice and he didn’t have a choice either. I don’t think he’s going to still be mad over something that you didn’t have a choice about, because that’s not fair and Dad is always fair, most of the time anyway.”

I hear Jack make a noise, a soft kind of sleepy yelp, and stand automatically, Derry doing the same. We both recognise the sounds of nightmares—god knows, we’ve shared enough of them. But, before we go to him, I catch her arm. “What do you want, Derry?” I ask her. “Your father and I, we’ve talked a lot about what we want, but what do you want? Still to go back to Cornish? Or off to Vegas?”

“I want…” Derry closes her eyes, breathes deep, and I see honesty in her shadowed eyes when she opens them again. “I just want everyone to be happy and not scared and… together. I’ve never had that. It wouldn’t be so bad to be your daughter if it means I’m yours and his, if I don’t have to trade one for the other. And… and I want to know that the person you wrote about, the one who was so hurt and sweet and who you loved so much… I don’t want that story to end with me. Why can’t there be another letter, where you tell him you love him and this time you stay, like in a book or movie when everyone falls in love at the end?”

“Life isn’t that simple…”

But, shit, she’s my daughter, isn’t she? Demanding the impossible and probably getting it.

“Make it that simple,” she tells me, marching off to make sure Jack is okay.

And, when she puts it like that, I really can’t refuse.

 


 

He comes home in June, almost seven years exactly since the day I died and left them. It’s a hot, windy day and, when we pick him up at the gates of the facility, he’s grinning wildly with his hair whipped up into crazy spikes by the wind. Freedom is exhilarating, even if it comes with knotty hair and dusty clothes, and I watch Derry and him whoop and dance together in the parking lot wishing I was brave enough to join in. The sun beats down on us and, by the time we climb into the car and begin the drive back to DC, we’re all overheated and thirsty, Spencer sneaking shy glances at me from the passenger seat as Derry chatters on and on in the back, Listen whining along.

“Hey, Em,” Spencer asks as we reach the city outskirts, shooting me a plaintive look I can’t deny especially on the day he’s brought home to us. “You don’t suppose we can have… ice cream?” It’s such a small, hopeful request, I start to laugh.

Anything. Anything he wants, at that moment, I’m so happy to give it.

We buy a tub of Neapolitan at the supermarket, a box of cheap cones, and go home to eat far too much ice cream in far too short a time. We’d thought of throwing a surprise welcome home party—thought better of it and are glad we did so now that we see how tired he looks under all of his happy, even with melting ice cream running down his fingers and his hair still disgracefully wild. Instead, the day we’re reunited, we spend it with ice cream, the movies that Derry has discovered recently, and each other.

If I was to write a letter to anyone in the world right now, at any time, it would be to the me of seven years ago.

Don’t give this up. Don’t run.

Fight for it.

But, eventually, even this day ends, and Spencer begins to cast glum looks towards his bag propped against the wall. “I suppose I should go,” he says, earning a horrified, almost-teary look from Derecho. “Not far, love. Just to a hotel. I’ll come back tomorrow.”

“Don’t be stupid,” I tell him, knowing by every beat of my selfish, needy heart just what exactly is going to happen if I tell him to stay. “I’m not sending you to a hotel when your family is here.”

I meant ‘your daughter’ and possibly even ‘your dog’, but that’s not what came out. It’s not what he heard. And it’s not what heats up my cheeks when he looks at me with enough hunger in his eyes that I know it goes beyond sex. I don’t know how long it’s been for him—god knows, I can’t remember the last time I had sex with someone, real sex, not just fucking—but I don’t think that’s all that’s on his mind right now. I’d said ‘your family’, and he’s now looking at me like he wants me, heart and soul.

I don’t know if I’m ready for that, but I’m done being scared of my own vulnerability.

“Stay with us,” I tell him, nudging the ice cream tub towards him. “Otherwise you’ll come home to us both too fat to move, what with all this ice cream you requested.”

“Stay, Daddy,” Derry adds, pouting along with Listen, two sets of huge, begging eyes.

He does.

 


 

I make him a bed on the couch, but he’s not going to use it. We’re going to pretend he is though, as we wash the dishes together and try to hide how our touch lingers, as we gather the linen together and put on a show for Derry’s eyes, Spencer’s gaze, in turn, promising something that definitely isn’t for her to know. When I slip into the bathroom to wash sauce from my hands, he puts Derry to work taking out the trash and sidles in after me.

There’s nothing I’ve ever hungered for more than that minute and thirty seconds I spend pinned against the sink with his hands around my waist and his mouth on mine, his kisses so much more than I remember, so much hungrier. So much more need. He kisses me like I’ve kissed absolutely no one else in my life, like he needs me so much that he’s about to recreate the act of Derry’s conception right here on the sink, and I respond with just as much hunger in turn.

When we break apart, panting and breathless, my fingers are tight enough in his shirt that his collar is pulling tight around his throat. “Stay,” I choke out, voice fucked, wanting to drag him to the bedroom right there and reaffirm that he’s here and alive and our hearts are beating as one. “Don’t go.”

“Don’t say it like that,” he responds, shaking his head fiercely. “Don’t say it like you need it to live.”

The truth burns harder than my lies ever did. “I do,” I tell him, kissing him again and scrabbling to pull him harder against me, to feel him from top to toe, to know that we’re together in every single part of me. “I’m done with being alone. Stay with me, both of you. Live here. Your own room, whatever you need, I’ll give it. Let me give it—I can give it.”

The door bangs, Derry hollering for Spencer as she slams into the house with as much grace as usual. We launch apart, hair wilder than before, faces red.

“Come to me tonight,” I whisper as he slips out, closing the door behind him and leaving me to wash my face.

He does.

It’s past midnight. He stayed up to read to Derry, their voices floating up the hall and through my open door, and I lay there listening. I hear the quiet goodnights. I hear his promises to her, to talk to me. I hear her ask him if they can stay.

I hear him say yes.

And then I hear the quiet padding of his footsteps to my door, watch the shadow of him glide in, push the door shut gently behind him. I hear the lock click closed and, just like that, I’m on fire. Clothes drop and the sheets whisper our names as he slides in, hidden by the dark, the shadows, until he’s beside me and his hand is on my belly, right above the scar Doyle left when he tried, and failed, to kill me. He’s naked, I’m not.

It’s hours yet before that matters.

Instead, for the longest time, we lay in the dark and we talk about sunrise. What’s to come. What we’ll do. What freedom means to us—not being lonely, but being vulnerable. Trusting each other. How hard that is for both of us; how needful it is that we try. We talk about Derry and how much better she is than she was, and how much both of us as a unit can offer her. More than one. More than none. If we want her to shine, she needs us both.

We talk about love and whether it ever really ended.

It seems obvious that the answer is no.

“If I asked you to, would you let me in?” he asks, rolling towards me and staring so intently at me that, even in the dark, I know he needs this answer. “No more hiding.”

“No more hiding,” I tell him, and I do. There’s dawn light leaking in around my black-out curtains as I let myself be vulnerable in a way I’ve rarely been with him before. Moving above me and in me with the beautiful machine in his head focused on only this moment, our beating hearts and our worried brains and the single, infinite second where none of it matters because we’re falling together. His mouth on mine and his body coiled tight; I’m languid and sated beneath him, sore and hot in all the best ways and only wanting him to join me at this moment. The base act of it is desire, but that desire is laced with love. He sweeps down into me in three seditious rocks of his narrow hips, pushing down tight and husking out a moan that’s slow and delicious, satisfied enough that I feel it throb down into me. I watch it shudder right through him and into me, his eyes flicking shut and his mouth slipping open, his breath tantalizingly frozen right on the edge of the mouth that I taste myself on. Do you know, this is the first night he comes with my name on his lips? I don’t think that’s because he’s never wanted to before.

I think it’s because it’s the first time he’s been willing to believe I’ll still be below him when he opens his eyes.

As we shower together, washing the physical evidence of this night away but not the memories, I have to ask him. We’re two larger than life people, and dangerously flawed.

“Do you think there’s room for all of us?” I ask him, huddled tight with the water beating down between us. In two hours, our daughter will be awake. We’ll cook her breakfast and tell her what we’ve decided.

“There’s always been room for all of us,” he tells me firmly.

Whether it’s true or not, I choose to believe it. I don’t think it’s going to be easy, what we’re doing here, but I do think we need to try.

Chapter Text

The day I turn thirteen is important for a whole lot of reasons, not the least of which is that the Greatest Thing of All is scheduled to happen.

One: Today, I’m being given a gift. It’s possibly the best gift I’ve ever gotten, and I’m including everything ever in that, except for Listen. It’s a gift from Dad, but also from Mom, and, honestly, doesn’t that just sound so wonderful? Dad and Mom. Not one, or the other, but both, together. That’s just magic, even though I’m a bit too old to think too much about magic now—unless it’s in secret, with Dad, because I’m pretty sure he still believes, just a little, so that makes it okay that I believe just a little too. But more about that gift later.

Two: Tonight, we’re having a party with everyone I love there. Dad says turning thirteen is important and reminds me that, when he turned thirteen, he was off to college. Mom tells him off when he says that though, and then tells me that I can grow up just as fast or as slow as I want to, which I think she’d regret saying if me and Listen just decided to live here forever and never let them have their own space. I’m not silly. I know that the room set aside for Dad is actually just a room for books and that Dad spends more nights in Mom’s bed than his own, even if he just looks innocent and tells me that he’s checking the walls for bats when I ask what he’s doing in there. It’s like he thinks I’m seven, not thirteen. I’ve read those letters. I know how gross they’re being. But, more importantly, everyone is coming tonight—Nika is back from England and Jack and Henry and their families are coming over and even Uncle Dave, which is brilliant because he’s what Mom calls ‘stupid rich’ and doesn’t think that giving an eleven-year-old three hundred bucks is too much. Now I’m thirteen, I wonder if he’s gotten smarter about it, although I hope he hasn’t. I’ve got books to buy.

This is a house set for three: me and Mom and Dad, and Listen, of course, although he counts as one of me. It’s a house set for three and that’s just how I like it because any more would be crowded and any less would be lonely, and I think we’ve all had enough of being lonely.

Three: I think I’m really happy now. Being nine was scary. Ten was lonesome because Mom and Dad were still weird around each other and the nightmares still lingered. Ten was the year of missing you. Eleven was okay but still hurting and twelve was better yet, but I know thirteen is perfect. There’s a way that my parents smile at each other that feels real and proper and, when I have nightmares now, I know there are two people to protect me. There’ll always be two people to protect me.

And, if they have nightmares—which I know they do, adult ones that I can’t help with—they have each other.

If that’s not a reason to be happy, I don’t really know what is. I still remember Dad having nightmares alone. Anyway, the Greatest Thing of All is about to happen. I know that Dad’s about to walk in here with Mom beside him—because we discussed this, you know, it’s not really a surprise because it’s not a thing you can spring on someone—and they’re going to have a paper with them. That paper is my name, or it will be.

Today, I’m deciding on my name. Once and for all. Right now, I’m Storm Prentiss, the girl who was Derecho Campbell and still is, deep down. But I don’t want to live life with two names, not when I’ve found the place I want to be with the people I want to be with. So, I know what name I’m going to pick. They don’t know yet—so I guess it kind of is a surprise, really. Dad adopted me proper a long time ago and Mom is always my mom, especially now that I’m starting to look a lot like her, but it’s taken until thirteen to settle on who I am. Do you want to know a secret? Okay, I’ll tell you.

This is the name I’ve picked: Derecho Prentiss-Reid.

Because I’m both of their daughter and I always will be, so I need both of their last names, and also because I’m always going to be Derecho—I’m always going to be the girl who played on the river with you. I don’t ever want to lose that, Nate. It’s important to me.

Anyway, it’s almost time so I have to finish this letter. I’ll send it to you later, once the festivities are over. I miss you a lot and I wish you were here to be thirteen with me.

It really feels like it’s going to be the best of years.

 

Love always, your best friend, Derecho Prentiss-Reid