Actions

Work Header

The Way We Will Be

Chapter Text

Chapter One: One More Kissing (Mis)Adventure

 

Anyone who saw the two halves of their respective dorm rooms would never have believed that the people within those rooms had grown up side by side.

One was piled with books and papers and half-built projects abandoned hastily as something else had caught the maker’s eye. The bed was made neat as a pin with a stack of yellowed novels sitting on the bedside table without a bookmark in sight. A clock ticked happily atop a shelf, more books stacked around that in turn and with a stuffed hare sitting proudly right up where she could look down at what her boy had become. Not a single belonging had strayed to his roommate’s side of the room, a controlled kind of chaos reigning supreme.

The other room, in stark comparison, had nothing controlled about its chaos. Posters hung from every possible wall, peeling at the corners and stuck with stickers on the vivid faces emblazoned across them. Teased hair and thickly made up faces stared back at whoever stepped into the room, cocky smiles daring them to try and judge the inhabitant. The personality of that inhabitant wasn’t at all contained by the invisible line denoting where her space ended and her roommate’s began, with piles of forgotten clothes sprawled around the floor and books tossed to the other desk in order to make room for a dangerously leaning tower of CD jewel cases piled beside their player. Over the bed, suspended from a hook in the ceiling that she’d almost certainly get written up for when it was spotted, a toy raven hung with his wings out gleefully, dancing in the breeze from the open window.

There was only one thing both rooms had in common. A single photo displayed prominently twice over: two small children, perhaps seven years old if they were a day, arms around each other on their first day of school together, uniforms impeccable and smiles frozen forevermore. In both rooms, this photo was framed and set aside the bed; after all, they might have grown up, but they still had each other. That hadn’t changed, and they doubted it ever really would.

Even if one of them kind of wished otherwise.

 

Emily loved living in the dorms. She loved having her own space and the ability to screen her mother’s phone calls. Sure, it turned out that her rampant spending wasn’t exactly great when she also had to buy her own food and toiletries, but Spencer was just across campus and he was always good for a loan. Suddenly, she had friends her own age—even if they were freshmen to her junior—and the agency to live how she wanted to, no hiding how she wanted to be anymore. For better or worse, the care of Emily Prentiss was now left solely to one Emily Prentiss, and she was sure she never ever wanted that to change, ever. Never again would she sit below her mother’s boot. In fact, she was pretty sure that life right now, the week before Spencer’s eighteenth birthday, was as good as it would ever get: she was happy, only sometimes hungry, free, and most importantly living. There was only one downside, and that downside was currently sprawled on her bed trying to knit her a scarf.

“I’m sure I had this figured out yesterday,” Spencer mused, staring at the odd angle his scarf was beginning to take and wondering how this had happened when he was sure he’d mathed it out perfectly. Eyes narrowed, he began to pick it apart, completely failing to notice the way Emily was looking at him from her backwards seat in her desk chair, legs folded below her and chin on the backrest. He was completely focused on his task, determined to have it done before the weather turned cold since Emily was utterly hopeless at dressing appropriately and always ended up stealing his clothes when she inevitably got cold.

Emily, on the other hand, was smitten. That was a word that she found detestably trite and therefore it was completely appropriate to how she was feeling right now, all mixed up and angry at herself while also being completely unable to look away from his fingers working quickly with the needles. Ever since the stupid date that she’d hated, thank you very much, she hadn’t been able to push out of her mind all kinds of new realisations about him, things she’d never quite noticed before.

At first, she’d worried that maybe she was coming down with something, feeling hot and strange the first time he’d hugged her following that day. That had never happened before, so she must be sick. Perhaps she’d even die of it, she hoped, since that would be better than admitting that she almost wanted her best friend to kiss her again, just to see if he was as good as she remembered or if it had just been a by-product of that wonderful night.

Later, she’d admit to herself that maybe she was being a bit of a dumbass about him, but was also adamant that it was a kind of dumbass that would pass quickly. It had to. She refused to be something as gross as ‘smitten’ about her best friend for long, especially not when he was lying on her bed with his hair all ruffled and scowling at a scarf he was trying to make for her. Because he cared about her. About her health, that was, because they were friends—and that was all. Not for any other reasons.

Emily swallowed, hard, and swung the chair around feeling uncomfortable and warm again.

“Stuffy in here,” she announced, standing and wincing as pins and needles attacked her legs. “Just gonna open a window.” But the window, when she opened it, sent in a gust of freezing fall air, sending Blackavar the raven spinning wildly around above Spencer’s head and earning a protest from him; he’d always hated the cold. She closed it again, pressing her cheek against the glass and wishing her brain sucked a little less.

Emily Prentiss was free to make all her own decisions, except, apparently, about who she was having an entirely inappropriate crush on; but she was sure that it would pass by soon.

 

“Emily’s acting weird,” was the first thing Spencer said to Ethan when the man arrived on the weekend of his birthday, grabbing Ethan’s bag with one hand and reaching out to brush their fingers together in a subtle greeting with the other. “She keeps staring at me.”

“That’s just because you have a bizarre face,” Ethan informed him cheerfully. “I’d stare at it all day too if I could. There’s just so much I could learn from it.”

Spencer scowled at him, much like he’d scowled at the now severely right-angled scarf. “I don’t know why I thought you’d be any help. You’re such a comedian.”

“Oh, come on. That was funny. Staring doesn’t seem weird for Emily. Didn’t you guys once booby trap her bedroom with explosives? Now that’s weird—she’s set a high bar here.”

“She also dropped a cup on my head.” Spencer rubbed the afflicted spot wryly, thinking of the strange look she’d given him right before fumbling her drink. It had been equal parts panicked and flustered and he wasn’t even sure what he’d said to make her look so confused: something about the poem he’d been trying to write out for Ethan, copying from one of his mother’s old books. “And then told me it was my fault for looking at her.”

“Ah, yes. You definitely deserved that, I can see her reasoning there—I’ve brought a whole range of cups with me to discipline you with, of every possible size and shape.”

Ethan, much to Spencer’s chagrin, was trying to stifle laughter.

“I don’t even know why I like any of you people,” Spencer declared, throwing Ethan’s bag at him and stalking off out of the train station with Ethan chasing after him. “You’re both horrible to me.”

“But we love you,” Ethan cried out, earning stares from all the other passengers and not even caring a whit. “Spence, wait! Wait for me! I’m not even holding a cup!”

 

Emily was indeed acting weird, even she could tell. It was infuriating to her that she was suddenly mixing up everything in her life that had been normal and stable before—which had never been her love life—and making it feel dangerously uncertain. And, apparently, much like she’d always responded to her mother when she was being infuriating, her solution to being frustrated by this was snark.

“Ethan’s here!” Spencer declared, knocking twice before bursting into her room, practically bouncing with how happy he was to have them all here together again. “Em, Ethan’s here!”

“Oh boy,” said Emily, lowering her magazine and moodily staring at them both. Ethan was Ethan as he’d always been Ethan, tall and stupid and handsome with his dark hair pulled back into a ponytail and his expression unbearably smug. And he had facial hair now, which she smirked at because she knew Spencer would pout over his inability, and then attempt to grow his out. Which would be fantastic for her and her current need to tease him instead of being nice to him. “Who dragged you in?”

“I dragged myself in, thank you very much, I’m a grown man and I do my own dragging.” Ethan didn’t even hesitate, just flung his bag aside and sprawled onto the bed with her, using his hip to shove her over. “You wouldn’t happen to have a cup within reach, would you? Spencer’s been doing an awful lot of looking and, quite frankly, I’m sick of it. The nerve of him.”

Emily turned her head slowly to stare at Spencer, who suddenly felt like he was in terrible, terrible peril and tried to find something to do with his hands to hide how they were sweating.

“Spencer says you’ve been acting weird,” Ethan continued, apparently unaware that he was in serious danger of being defenestrated out of the third-floor dorm. “Do you want to talk about your feelings, little blackbird?”

Emily narrowed her eyes at Spencer, who backed away.

“Spencer regrets saying anything,” he muttered, now trying to avoid eye-contact with her, his cheeks flushing red. That was unfortunate for him, because Emily saw the blush and remembered how he’d blushed that night, her scowl turning fiercer.

“Spencer needs to shut up and not talk about things he’s not involved in.” Emily shrunk down further into the bed, feeling her own cheeks beginning to burn. This was nightmarish. She wished they’d never gone on that stupid date, and then she paused. Maybe she could just… fake it. Compartmentalise, right? Like her mom was always telling her, fragment the bits of her brain that were obsessing over that night and tuck them away behind the part of her that wanted to be normal for Spencer’s birthday. What would normal Emily do?

Lie, probably.

“Fine, I’ll tell you,” she declared, sitting bolt upright and sighing for effect. “But you need to not be assholes about it, like you’re always assholes about it. That means no betting.”

“Oh,” said Spencer, who’d realised what was bothering her with a rush of relief. And he’d been beginning to think she was sick or something; instead, he realised she was just—

“I’m in love again,” Emily sighed, quickly conjuring up a man in her mind with lovely hands and a dark smile and hair that was definitely blonde, the kind of man she liked to fall in love with. Kind of arrogant and a little mean, but sweet enough when he wanted to be, and maybe he liked magic…

“Okay, nope,” Ethan said quickly, launching out of the bed like she’d shot him. “It’s your turn, Spence. I cleaned up last time.”

“But—” Spencer stopped, wincing when Emily raised an eyebrow at him in a very ‘I knew you’d be like this’ look. “I mean, oh… that’s… exciting. And definitely not going to end in disaster. What’s his name?”

Emily went blank.

She was saved by her roommate arriving home, eyes flickering appreciatively over Ethan before turning to Emily and tossing two small cards at her: Emily’s birthday present to Spencer. “There,” she said. “Picked them up this afternoon. You owe me, gal.”

“I absolutely do,” Emily said with relish, holding the cards up for Spencer to examine. “And you owe me, Spence. Happy eighteenth birthday, you’re now legal in Australia and we’re getting you plastered.”

“Oh no,” said Spencer, taking his new fake-ID with resignation visible on every inch of his face.

 

“No,” said Spencer.

Emily and Ethan both gave him identical, longing looks, standing on either side of the doorway like they were guarding the entrance to hell and he had a one-way ticket through. It was nine hours until his eighteenth birthday officially rolled around, and they were making good on their plans to drag him out of his dorm for the night. He wondered if either of them knew how terrifyingly alike they could be with a mission.

“It won’t hurt,” said Emily.

“Much,” added Ethan.

“Come on.” Emily again, and she smiled at him like she’d used to, before all the weirdness of the last month and a half had seeped into their daily interactions. Spencer loved life in the dorms, he really did, but his favourite bit about living in the dorms was that he still had Emily. She was a short walk away and barely a day went past where they weren’t together for at least a little bit of it: he’d missed how easy that was with how snappy she’d been just recently. “Me and Eth are going to do it, aren’t we, Ethan?”

“Commemorate having survived this long.” Ethan winked, reaching out to take Spencer’s hand and pull him closer. Spencer flushed nervously, looking around to see if anyone was watching this public show of affection before letting himself be pulled, the three of them gathered close on the stoop of the shop. “You jumped off a pier, how hard can this be?”

“I fell off the pier and, since you seem to have forgotten this bit, I broke my leg while doing so. That doesn’t really sound like something that’s not going to hurt, does it?”

But Ethan hummed their song gently, tipped back on his heels and smiling at him with the shy, soft smile that was just for them, and Spencer melted a little. Thought about saying yes.

Looked at Emily and saw her staring strangely at Ethan, almost worried.

“I’ll go inside,” Spencer finally conceded, ignoring their excited whoops. “But no promises beyond that!”

And, hand in hand with Ethan and with Emily leading the way, he followed them into the tattoo parlour with a distinct feeling that tonight was going to be a long night of conceding his wishes in the wake of his much more confident companions.

 

Emily had known exactly what she’d wanted as soon as she’d walked in there, the rough sketch in her pocket immediately landing on the ink-stained front counter. Ethan had been more changeable, flitting from book to book and fretting quietly before finally ushering Spencer over. While Emily stoically sat through the application of her new tattoo, wincing every time it stung, her eyes lingered on the two boys leaned together talking in soft voices, Spencer drawing something out on a scrap of paper as Ethan guided him. She wondered what they were talking about, anxiety building that they were planning something grand, some romantic gesture that would tie them together at the age of eighteen and twenty-one… and then she remembered that she was supposed to be locking that part of her brain away and wrestled with it for a moment, almost getting it under control. Almost.

“A name?” she heard the tattooist ask, glancing at the scrap of paper as they showed it to him and asked for advice on the lines. “Not a girlfriend, I hope. You’ll regret that.”

“Not a girlfriend,” Ethan replied in a strange voice, full of feeling, and Emily flinched.

“You alright?” asked her artist, pausing with the needle gun resting on her hip.

“Fine,” she squeezed out through gritted teeth. “Keep going. And don’t tell them I winced.”

He smiled, murmuring, “Mum’s the word,” and keeping on working without that smile slipping.

 

Ethan kept staring at his wrist as they walked down the street after, the sun finally falling and the night growing dim around them. Spencer was wearing his purple scarf, Emily the right-angled disaster he’d knitted her, and she kept having to stop to edge the waistband of her pants down so it didn’t touch where the bandage sat over her new tattoo. The boys didn’t know what it was yet; she didn’t plan to show them until later.

Ethan’s, however, he kept peeling the bandage back and peeking, ignoring Spencer’s scolding. Emily caught a glimpse: it was a heavy line of what looked like the Greek alphabet.

“Whose name?” she asked finally, almost bursting with curiosity. “Tell me it’s not Spencer’s. Imagine having him on your wrist forever.” She teased, but her heart hammered.

“It’s not Spencer’s,” Ethan said with a snort, tugging the bandage back again, this time to show her, revealing the word:

φιλομηνη

“Philomene,” Spencer said quietly.

“Loved,” Ethan added, covering it back over. “Never tell her, or I swear no one will ever find your bodies when I’m done.”

Emily didn’t say anything, stunned completely by this show of utter love from a boy to his sister. Did she love anyone like that? Truly and completely, without the mess of sex or the complicated feelings she had for her family getting in the way?

She didn’t think she did. Maybe two months ago she’d have said Spencer… but now she knew that wasn’t right, her brain was just as broken about him as it had been about John. And maybe she loved her mom, but she didn’t like her, not like Ethan both liked and loved his sister.

It was with a heavy feeling in her heart and her stomach that she resigned herself to knowing that there was no-one she loved quite like that, walking onwards and feeling very alone on this night despite the boys beside her.

Spencer, on the other hand, smiled because he was absolute in the knowledge that he had people as special to him as Phil was to Ethan. Ethan and Emily and his mom and Elizabeth: he was turning eighteen feeling sure that his life was filled with the most wonderful people, and maybe this surety was why he didn’t notice how lonely Emily looked beside them.

 

Midnight ticked closer and they were all drunk and rowdy, having been tossed from a bar after an unfortunate incident with an ice machine. Stumbling down the street together, they were warm despite the cold, silly despite their ages, and vividly alive in this singular moment.

“A park!” Ethan hollered, vanishing from their sides and sprinting away into the dark. “Playground! Swings!”

“Don’t hurt yourself!” Spencer called after him, a distant “Ow!” floating back following the distinct sound of a very tall person misjudging the height of said swings, chains rattling sadly. Spencer just sighed and turned back to his slowly trudging companion, holding his hand out to her. “Come on. If we don’t catch up, he’s going to fall in the pond trying to pet a duck.”

“Does he do that a lot?” Emily asked, focusing carefully on that offered hand before reaching out to take it. His fingers in hers were warm and narrow, folding comfortably around her. They walked along together like that, arms swinging absently between them with Spencer humming—Emily didn’t know this, but it was the refrain Ethan had composed for them—in and out of the circles of lamplight set along the bike path they walked upon. Spencer was watching the moon drift overhead, waiting for the beep of Emily’s digital watch to announce his birthday’s arrival. Emily was watching Spencer, wondering what he saw in the stars above.

“More than you’d expect,” Spencer answered finally, long after Emily had stopped expecting an answer. They slowed under one of those circles of light and he turned to her, hand slipping from hers. “So, are you going to show me what you got?”

She swallowed, heart hammering. Her hip burned, the skin both oddly numb while also aching like a bruise. Almost like she was dizzy—which she was, as the alcohol she’d drunk hit again and made her waver and regret the last three shots—she reached to her waistband and slipped her pants down lower, suddenly cold and clammy in a way she’d never been around him.

“Need help?” he asked, her brain stammering to a stop as his fingers came to her hip, easing the band down a little more. She too drunk for this and Spencer entirely unaware of her focus on him, they both eased the bandage away so he could examine the curled black lines of the design in the yellow light above.

“Oh,” he said, stunned.

She said nothing, just closed her eyes to stop from wondering if he’d kiss her again if she asked. She didn’t feel like herself in this moment: she hadn’t felt like herself since he’d held her to the sky and told her to reach.

She wanted to feel like herself again. And, long ago, Fiona had told her that the best way to find if you loved someone was to kiss them: that had been long after the day she’d first kissed him while they were young and looking for adventure, trying to save him from a terrible poison—it was also long before John had entered her life and, almost without her knowing, rearranged her understanding of what ‘love’ was. Love, to Emily, was sex and hurting and being dangerously vulnerable.

She didn’t want to love Spencer, not like that, and she never considered that there were other options.

“Fiver and Blackbird,” Spencer finally said, reaching as though to touch the sore, swollen skin before thinking better of it. Under the inch of space he left between his fingers and her hip was the drawing they’d put on his bedroom wall one lonely Christmas, the hare with his blackbird’s wing sheltering him. “You got Fiver and Blackbird, permanently …”

“They’re a part of me,” she admitted miserably. A part she was ruining, with her messy, fucked-up brain. “You’re always going to be a part of me.”

And that was true, absolutely.

Her watch beeped, breaking the moment, and she forced a smile as she stuck the bandage back and dropped her shirt over it. “Happy Birthday,” she said, reaching up to hug him like she’d hugged him so many times before, despite how much taller he was now and how much more broken she was.

He didn’t see the broken parts of her, all he saw was his best friend in the world, beaming at her and hugging her tight as he breathed in this night and knew things were going to keep on being like this, this comfortable groove in his life that he’d searched for for so long and finally found.

But, when he pulled back from her hug a little, still stooped lower than usual as he used her to prop himself up—also regretting the alcohol that wasn’t fading as fast as he’d like it to fade—he found her staring at him strangely.

“What?” he asked.

Asked later, she’d have no idea why she did it. Not right now, right here, in this park on his birthday when it should have been about him and only him, but she did.

She kissed him.

It wasn’t at all like before. He went stiff and surprised against her, mouth open only because he was startled and hand coming up between her. But he didn’t jerk away and she misconstrued that, freezing in place, unsure whether to push forward or pull back as they stood there in that ring of light, drunk and out of their depth.

It was her who broke the kiss, stepping back with her hands flicking up to her mouth and her eyes wide, the alcohol lurching dangerously in her gut and threatening to send her heaving. She felt hot and scared and horrified, realising with a burn of tears that she’d given away the game she’d been so frantic to hide, seeing nothing but recrimination in the look he was giving her.

“Emily,” Spencer breathed quietly, not sure what he was feeling but recognising somehow that they were on dangerous ground suddenly. “What—”

And maybe she could have talked her way out of it, blamed the alcohol and her excitement and the rush of the night, if she hadn’t done what she did next: whispered, “I’m sorry,” and began to cry.

“Oh,” said a soft voice beside them, Ethan standing just outside that ring of light with his eyes locked on Emily and nothing familiar in them. “Well, that’s… expected.”

“Eth,” Spencer said, voice shrill and worried. “Don’t—”

But he was already walking away. Emily stood there, saying nothing. Spencer froze, torn between his best friend’s tears and his boyfriend’s hurt as the watch’s beeping finally died out.

It hadn’t even been a minute.

She had to go, Emily realised. If she didn’t go, Spencer would stand there frozen instead of chasing after Ethan—she had to go. And so, without a word, she turned and left, waiting until her feet hit the grass before beginning to run, from Spencer’s shock and Ethan’s hurt and her own messy brain, wondering if this was the part when she burned it all down.

Spencer, after a minute of staring after her and wondering what the hell had just happened and what exactly was so obvious about it—because he really had no clue—turned and ran after Ethan, recognising at least that there was somewhere he was needed.

 

There was very little Spencer felt comfortable with in Ethan’s expression when he hurtled after him and grabbed his boyfriend’s arm, yanking him around to face him properly.

“What on earth is going on?” Spencer yelled—actually yelled, because he was upset and confused and it was his birthday. “I have no idea what just happened!”

“Don’t you?” Ethan snapped. But he wasn’t angry—Spencer, incorrectly, read his profile as anger and stepped warily away from it, but Ethan wasn’t mad. Not with Spencer, and not with Emily.

Instead, he was terrified.

“No,” Spencer said quietly. Around them, the night was silent. None of them felt drunk any more, just tired and sad. “I don’t. It’s not fair that you’re angry with me when I didn’t do anything wrong, and there’s no point being mad at Emily if we don’t know why she—”

“I know why she kissed you,” Ethan replied. He brought his fingers to his wrist, touching at the bandage there with a wistful kind of misery. “Of course you don’t know, but I do.”

Spencer waited expectantly.

But Ethan just folded forward, wrapping his arms tight around Spencer with his fingers threaded tight into Spencer’s hair, mouth buried above them and muscles trembling like he was holding some dreadful tension back. Spencer, rigid in the sudden encompassing grasp, made a soft noise of confusion—something cold dripping into his gut.

“She kissed you like that because you’re remarkable,” Ethan said finally. “And it was only a matter of time before someone better for you than me realised that.”

“What, no, Ethan…”

Spencer trailed off. Nothing had prepared him for this: nothing. He didn’t know how to unpack everything that was wound into that statement, all the new grief and the uncertain sadness. It wasn’t a side of Ethan he recognised; he didn’t think it was a side of Ethan that had even existed three years ago when they’d first held hands. This was new.

“Is this why you told me to go on the date with her?” he realised out loud, a car sweeping by and catching them for a moment in the spotlight of its passing. Just two static figures in an onlooker’s life, the people within that car driving past with no idea of just how momentously destructive this night had suddenly become. “And all that stuff you came up with about me sleeping with other people? Has someone been telling you there’s something between me and Emily? Because there’s not—I don’t know what that was back there, but it wasn’t anything other than me and Em being drunk and Emily being silly, like she always is. She’s reckless and thoughtless and weird, we know this about her—I doubt she even thought about what she was doing before she did it. It doesn’t mean anything. And if you’re trying to push me away, you can stop it. I’m not going anywhere but right where I am, stuck in love with a jazzy idiot who needs to kiss me right now and stop drowning himself in his over-imaginative brain. And I don’t understand why it’s so different tonight when you were fine with me kissing her—”

“When I wasn’t watching. I was specific that I didn’t want to see or know or think or, fuck, Spencer, I don’t know, okay! I… I don’t know.” Ethan stepped back, rubbing his eyes before trying to shove his hair out of his way. Spencer watched him fight with it for a second, the wind whipping up around them making it impossible to wrangle it all at once, before reaching into his pocket for a hair elastic that he held out. They both stared at the elastic, Ethan blinking and Spencer sheepish. Some of the tension of the moment faded along with a soft, tired smile appearing on Ethan’s face.

“Emily always breaks hers and then gets angry at her hair,” Spencer explained. “So, I started carrying one. They’re surprisingly versatile.”

“Remarkable,” Ethan said again, shaking his head. “Can we go home? And talk later? I don’t want to ruin your birthday.”

“Only if you kiss me and promise not to ruminate yourself into a dumb decision,” Spencer said firmly. Ethan, with that same tired smile, complied and they trudged home together, neither having any idea of the changes that that new wind was bringing with it.

Chapter Text

The morning brought with it three sore heads and three even sorer hearts. Alone in her dorm-room, Emily hadn’t slept. She lay on her back looking up at Blackavar spinning above, wondering about the repercussions of what she’d done and if it was fixable. All night, the image of Ethan’s heartbroken face had haunted her, skipping back into her brain like a horror-movie still every time she closed her eyes. Her hip ached deeply where the tattoo was still setting and she kept touching it, wishing it was yesterday and they could do it all over again. Had she ruined Spencer’s birthday?

She was rather worried she might have.

In Spencer’s room, he and Ethan were curled together. Spencer’s roommate was away for the weekend, leaving them alone, and they’d taken full advantage of it by abandoning the camp bed they’d rolled out in a pretence of Ethan not being there as his partner. Right now, hungover and still sleepy, Spencer was barely awake and Ethan only slightly more so, pressed so tightly together in Spencer’s single that there was little room for elbows or wiggling.

Ethan watched Spencer doze, his gaze intent and brow furrowed. There was something quietly captivating about having another living person so close to him, he thought, something about the moment that felt infinite. A feeling he thought he would like to capture in a song, the moment two heartbeats overlaid each other for just a single second. He also thought, at this moment, that he loved the boy against him very, very much—and that scared him deeply.

Spencer was just sure the good things he had going right now would continue on as always, because he’d decided that nothing he loved this much could ever go away.

There was very little they wouldn’t do to keep each other they thought at once without realising that the other felt quite the same, firmly setting them both on the path to disaster.

 

Emily opened the door to a sheepish looking Ethan standing there, ruffle-haired and kind of sour smelling, which didn’t really matter since Emily was pretty sure she didn’t look or smell much better.

“I need to apologise for freaking out last night,” Ethan said, shuffling in place. “It was dumb. I wasn’t angry at either of you, I was just… I guess it dredged up some things I thought I’d buried, and I’m sorry about that. I ruined the night.”

“Oh, fuck you, Ethan,” Emily snapped, watching him blink with surprise. “Why you gotta be the noble one here? I can’t top you apologising first—what the fuck is with that? Who apologises to the girl they caught kissing their boyfriend for being upset about that? Who does that?!”

There was a long beat of silence where they stared at each other, Ethan surprised and Emily scowling fiercely, before they both began to laugh.

“You’re such a sap,” Emily declared, stepping aside to let him in. “No wonder Spencer likes you so much, you’re so wet.”

“I’m not going to dignify that with an answer,” Ethan responded snootily. “Besides, we both know I apologised first to make you feel bad and I’m not actually sorry at all.”

Emily did know; she was glad. At least some things didn’t change, Ethan Coiro being one of them.

But that was wrong. Everyone changed.

Even Ethan.

 

They didn’t talk about it until the day after Ethan left back to New York, Emily borrowing the car and informing Spencer he was coming to dinner with her. They drove to a park with a take-away meal, sitting together on the leaf-strewn grass watching kids hurtle around the nearby playground.

“I guess we should talk,” Emily said eventually, reluctance dragging her down. She watched as Spencer struggled with his ketchup packet before taking it and tearing it open with her teeth, pouring it into a pool on his burger clam before doing the same to the barbeque sauce and mixing it with a fry. They ate from the same sauce pool despite Spencer’s germ thing, having long ago perfected this horrifying mix of condiments in order to dismay the help.

“We don’t have to,” Spencer said when his mouth was empty, wiping salt from his lip. He was wearing the scarf she’d bought him so many years ago, chosen with some thought to everything that scarf meant about them: no matter what came between them, they could work through it together. “It doesn’t need to mean anything if you don’t want it to.”

“Well, I mean, I can’t retroactively make it not mean something if it did.” Emily poked a fry at the sauce, her appetite fading. “And I think it did. Mean something, I mean…” She paused, brain racing: hadn’t Ethan once told Spencer he’d be… okay with that? Spencer seeing other people? Spencer had told her about it, confused and looking for guidance that she hadn’t been able to offer at the time. And she hadn’t understood except, maybe, now she did?

All this raced through her brain fast, ignoring the small voice that whispered not with you. Why would it be different for her than anyone else—

“Emily, don’t,” Spencer said, a small hiss of panic in his voice. “Don’t say it. I can’t—”

“I think I’m falling for you,” she blurted out, realising two seconds after saying it how awkward and stilted and Hollywood romance it sounded, even as he stared determinedly at his corduroy pants and said nothing. She charged forward wildly: “I don’t know why or when but, I don’t know, you notice me and no one else notices me, ever, not like you do and ever since the date I can’t stop thinking about that, how it felt to be noticed—”

“I’ve always noticed you,” Spencer whispered, his voice hoarse. She couldn’t tell if he was upset or shocked. He didn’t know how to avoid hurting her. “You’ve always been important to me.”

Exactly.” It felt integral that he understand this—how important it was to her that she feel that again, even a hint of it. It was something too fragile and precious to offer and then rip away. “Don’t you think that means something? That you feel like that about me? Because I feel it about you and that has to mean something, right?”

“It means I love you,” he replied, finally looking up at her. Her heart sunk into her stomach, the burger fighting to escape. That wasn’t a ‘we can do this’ face. It was a ‘I wish you hadn’t said that’ face. “The same as I’ve always loved you, no different. We’re friends—”

“You were friends with Ethan before you loved him,” she argued. “Why can’t it be the same with me? And, I don’t know, Ethan works too, we can work Ethan in—we could be together and not hurt him…”

But he was shaking his head.

“I don’t understand you,” he said finally, not standing up and walking away, which was a relief to her and an important decision for him. To walk away from this, no matter how weird and out of his wheelhouse it was, would be a rejection of her. He could never reject her that absolutely. “And I don’t understand Ethan. Honestly, the two of you should be dating each other. You both seem to share the same fundamental misunderstandings about love.”

Emily was nonplussed. “Excuse me?”

“What do you want, Emily? Be frank. When you say ‘together’, what do you want?”

He knew the answer, even as he asked it. She didn’t seem to.

“I…” She trailed, thinking that over. All the fumbling, all the new awkwardness around him, all the breathless fantasies—what did they have in common? “I guess I want to see you the way I did that night… as more than just the kid I grew up with. You don’t get it. You didn’t see what I did that night, you didn’t see the… potential. I felt important and real and loved, and don’t tell me I’ve always been those things because I’ve never felt it like that and it’s just feelgood bullshit to say it if you haven’t felt like that alone before.”

“You’re not the only person who feels alone, Emily,” Spencer said simply. “I’ve felt like that every day of my life since the day my father walked out on my mom and I, right up until the day Ethan told me I was remarkable and meant it. And me realising I had value beyond my father’s abandonment of me, that someone else could look at me and see someone they could love so completely—that’s more than sex, Emily.”

Emily breathed under the weight of that proclamation.

“I don’t just want sex,” she said finally, hurt by that. And a little weirded out, now, because while she’d definitely fantasied about a distant person who might have been sort of like Spencer in bed with at her night, now that she was here and thinking about it while sitting on a grassy lawn with the living, breathing object of those fantasies they felt silly and fake and almost untenable.

“Don’t you?”

“No! That’s just sex, I’m talking about…” And she stopped, because he’d smiled sadly.

“Exactly,” he said. “You say ‘just sex’. Ethan says that too, you know— ‘just sex’. He thinks he’s going to be okay with me having sex with other people because it’s just sex, and you think the same, don’t you? That we can separate me loving Ethan from sex with you to make you feel loved, and that’s not how it works for me. It’s not just sex for me. And maybe you’ve convinced yourself that sleeping with me or dating me or whatever is going to help fill whatever hole John left in you that you’ve never really managed to fill by sleeping with guys you don’t care about that much, but I think it’s just going to make an even bigger hole in the both of us. You want to know why I never took Ethan up on his offer of letting me sleep with others?”

Emily didn’t, but she was smart enough to realise that maybe she’d gone into this with the selfish desire to get what she wanted and, in the process, she’d damned his feelings.

“Tell me,” she said, bracing herself.

“Because the idea of sleeping with someone I don’t love completely and wholeheartedly is anathema to me,” Spencer replied with absolute surety. Emily didn’t understand. “For me to do that, I don’t know… I don’t want to be that vulnerable. I’m too scared of losing something important. Incidentally, that’s the exact same reason why you need to realise we’re not going to happen, not the least because you’re looking for something from me I can’t and don’t want to give you. I won’t hurt Ethan like that. And I definitely won’t hurt you by encouraging this idea that we have to be together for you to be someone. You’re still someone, Emily, even when you’re alone, and I don’t need to become another regret like John for you to learn that.”

The fries were definitely cold by now. Emily sucked at the straw of her drink, making the liquid slurp through the ice and earning an irritated glare. Oddly, despite the fact that she’d just gotten the firmest rejection of her life as well as what she was pretty sure was the most kind-hearted scolding ever, she didn’t hurt. Much. Mostly, she felt very young and very, very stupid, and a little bit like maybe Spencer had grown up without her looking and was fast becoming someone she didn’t really understand anymore.

But that felt too big for her to think about right now, and nor did she want to tackle what she saw as a dangerous level of romanticising the concept of sex, so instead she wheeled around to the one thing she did.

“Are you and Ethan okay? I didn’t…”

“You didn’t do anything. We’re fine.” Spencer, just to make her smile, picked up his own drink and blew frustrated bubbles into it through the straw. “We’re all fine. This is a hiccup. That’s all.”

“I really screwed the pooch here, didn’t I?” she said finally.

Spencer laughed, choking on his drink. “That’s one way to phrase it, sure,” he spluttered. “Em, seriously. I’m not angry, neither is Ethan. And I get it, I do. Sometimes I miss Ethan so much I think I’m going crazy—and when I feel like that it’s the loneliest feeling, like you’d do anything to feel otherwise. But sex isn’t the answer. All that does is give the illusion of company. Want to catch a movie?”

He segued so smoothly into the topic change that she was thrown for a moment, before feeling profoundly grateful.

“Only if I get to pick—no more Alien.”

“Spoil-sport,” he muttered without seeming to mean it.

With that, they stood up, gathered their litter, and moved on, Emily firmly pushing any wayward thoughts about him to the back of her mind. She’d swung, missed, and been gently redirected towards a more appropriate sport, and Emily Prentiss wasn’t the kind of girl to keep throwing herself at the same unyielding wall hoping for a result other than more bruises.

And they were sure that would be the last of it.

 

Emily made the conscious decision after that that she was going to do better. His words haunted her. She’d been selfish, she knew this, even if she secretly thought deep down that it was an understandable kind of selfish, really. And the feelings she’d now been convinced were just a product of her loneliness didn’t fade as sharply as she’d hoped.

But she knew she wasn’t going to linger on them anymore, no matter what that entailed.

Spencer noticed the difference. It manifested as an expected new kind of distance between them, one that profoundly hurt him. It was the distance he’d seen hurtling towards them the moment she’d told him she was falling for him; it was the same distance he feared was popping up between him and Ethan. Their phone calls were just the tiniest bit shorter, the littlest bit quieter. Only four nights a week instead of every night, then every other day. And Emily didn’t automatically bounce into his dorm-room after classes, making herself at home on his bed or reorganising his books just to upset him. She still ate lunch with him when their schedules allowed, and when they were together the conversation was as easy as ever, but he could feel her slipping away.

It started with her deciding to ‘find herself’ and enrolling in every group and club the college offered, burning through all of them on a frantic quest to find something to lose herself in. Suddenly she was only available once a week, Spencer nodding placidly as she apologised to him after realising that her busy schedule left no time for movies or hanging out. He knew she’d eventually find a group she clicked with, just like she had John and Fiona, and once again he’d be left behind.

This time though, he wasn’t as frightened by it. Instead, he approached his professors and discussed his research with them; he figured that he wouldn’t miss her if he didn’t have time to do so. Emily bounced into his room three weeks after their talk excited about the music group she’d found only to find that suddenly he was busier than her with no real explanation for why. He’d just abruptly vanished into his work, leaving her ruefully deciding college was crueller than ever imagined.

Just like that, Spencer smoothly side-stepped Emily ever realising that she was building walls between them he was reluctant to dismantle. After all, he’d practically encouraged this. And if it was what she needed to do to feel normal around him again, without her feelings muddying the waters… well, he could handle a few months without her.

After all, he was sure they’d reconnect eventually. They always had before.

He turned his attention to Ethan and let Emily be Emily, as she always had been before, sure in the knowledge that nothing they did now would break their friendship, even if it changed a little.

 

Elizabeth hadn’t yet taken another posting and thus they still spent some weekends at home—Spencer more often than Emily, which Elizabeth noted and pondered over. She assumed, correctly, that Emily was beginning to discover how freeing it was to live away from home and Spencer, in stark contrast, was discovering how lonely it could also be.

This weekend was remarkable in that they were both home for once, the week before Thanksgiving and with Emily eating her roast chicken with a kind of ferocity that suggested to her mother that she’d also forgotten how to feed herself in the few months since leaving home. Spencer picked at his, distracted.

“So anyway, I was thinking about joining debate but honestly I don’t think I’m cut out for it because I get mad when they’re obviously wrong and then I sometimes tell them that, which apparently is bad debating,” Emily was chattering cheerfully, more talkative now than ever. Elizabeth nodded along, paying close attention to Emily while surreptitiously eyeing Spencer. “Also on the list on bad debating is name-calling, which is just no fun, and interpretative dance, which I didn’t try but I saw on the rules is disallowed and I don’t know if I want to be a part of somewhere that’s outlawed dance—”

Spencer flipped a piece of chicken over, poked the bottom a little, and then glanced over to the clock and then the silent house phone in quick succession. His shoulders slumped.

Elizabeth wondered.

“How are you finding debate, Spencer?” she asked, working under the assumption that, as always, they were taking it together.

“Hm? Oh, no. I’m not… I took a teaching position.” He said it so calmly and disinterestedly that Elizabeth was nodding along before realising what he’d said. “Just as an aide right now, but with an aim to have me teaching classes solo as I finish my engineering degree and move into full-time doctoral studies instead of part-time.”

“That’s amazing, Spencer!” Elizabeth put her fork down, shocked that neither of them had seen fit to inform her of this. “Emily didn’t say anything when I saw her yesterday—when did you take the position?”

Spencer shrugged and mumbled, “Last week,” despite Elizabeth’s hatred of his mumbling. Elizabeth let it go, because Emily was staring at him with a forgotten pea falling from the fork she was holding aloft.

“I didn’t know,” Emily said finally, looking stunned. “You didn’t tell me?”

They waited for an explanation that didn’t come, Spencer looking at the phone again before turning so swiftly in his chair Elizabeth felt her neck twinge in sympathy for his.

“Elizabeth, would you mind if I spent Thanksgiving in New York?” he asked with all his intent focus suddenly on her. “Ethan’s parents are away and Phil’s at college in DC—he’s alone.”

“Why don’t you both spend Thanksgiving here?” Elizabeth suggested, frowning a little at the idea of sending him off to New York for the holiday she’d planned on them spending together. “Ethan is always welcome. I could be on a post by next year, I’d really rather—”

“He doesn’t want to be a bother.” Spencer was doing a remarkable amount of begging with his eyes, Emily avoiding looking at anyone. “And it’s sort of like celebrating that we can do this on our own, spending it with just us. Please? It’s important.”

“Very well. I suppose Emily and I can manage on our own for one holiday.”

“Goody,” muttered Emily to her chicken, earning a scowl from her mother.

Spencer just looked relieved.

 

Thanksgiving rolled around, the first one in a long time with Emily and Spencer so far apart from each other. Emily felt the distance keenly as she sat in her room at her mother’s listening to her CDs and thinking about the empty room up the hall. Spencer, in contrast, wasn’t thinking about Emily at all: on what would turn out to be a momentous night for all involved, he and Ethan were together and ignoring the world that was changing so rapidly around them.

There came a knock at Emily’s door, Elizabeth entering with a kind of wary glare around the room.

“I’m working on dinner,” she said stiffly, standing there with a dish cloth in one hand and looking supremely uncomfortable. Emily stared. “I was wondering if you’d like to join me.”

This was unprecedented. Emily had never cooked with her mother, ever. She’d never even been allowed in the kitchen in the few, rare, times Elizabeth had cooked. And, at first, her immediate reaction was to decline.

Then she thought about it a little more. These nights at home, the ones with Spencer up the hall and Elizabeth downstairs… they were beginning to feel endangered. Maybe soon they wouldn’t exist at all: this normal house and the normal life Emily had enjoyed for the past few years, it would be gone along with Elizabeth. There’d be a For Sale sign out the front and no bedroom up the hall from hers, and from then on they wouldn’t be Spencer and Emily anymore, just… Spencer. And just Emily. Two separate beings with no home to link them, and Elizabeth gone as well.

With a desperate kind of feeling like she was trying to grasp for something that was already gone, Emily tossed her magazine aside and followed her mother downstairs, sure that this was going to be a disaster which would end in tears for all involved, but also determined to give it a go despite that.

 

She found a very startling scene down there. The radio was playing music she didn’t recognise, the kitchen a homey kind of mess.

“Diana taught me this recipe,” Elizabeth said without even pausing to consider her words, walking back to a bowl of flour and tossing the dish cloth aside. “We used to have Thanksgiving together, every year. We didn’t have anyone else to spend it with, so we made of it what we could.”

“That sounds nice,” Emily said suspiciously. With a lack of guidance on what she do, she floated over to a bowl of beans in water and poked at them.

“Oh, I loathed it. It felt, at the time, like two people trying to pretend they had more than they had, a couple of college students drinking cooking sherry while rubbing old lemons on a discount chicken. But, you know…” Elizabeth trailed off, her expression so strange that Emily felt that looming danger again: the danger of time passing. “Looking back, I miss those Thanksgivings. We’ve never really had any like it, you and I. I’m sorry for that. I haven’t been a very good mother.”

Emily stared at her from over the beans, completely thrown. Finally, she found words. Not good words, but… words. “Oh, you’ve been…” she began, trailing off and wishing Spencer was here. He was so much better at making people feel valued than she was. “…Mom.”

“Have I?” Elizabeth shot her a firm look that was much more her than the wistful one had been. “I don’t think so. Diana is a better mother than I am and she’s, well…”

They both fell quiet, the radio playing softly and a kitchen timer ticking. Emily, for a lack of anything else to do, poked the beans again.

“Oh, don’t poke them, Emily, shell them!” Elizabeth snapped. “Honestly, don’t you know—”

“No,” Emily said quietly, not rising to the bait. She felt sick. Here was her mother, missing her best friend from all those years ago… was this them? Was this her and Spencer thirty years from now, hundreds of miles from each other and only just realising what they’d lost? “I don’t know how. You never taught me.”

The quiet returned.

“Well,” Elizabeth said, the snap to her voice gone. “I guess better late than never. Come here. I’ll show you.”

It was an important moment for them both.

 

Far away from where Emily was having a surprisingly nice night with her mother, Spencer was having an entirely different kind of experience. Ethan had his own apartment, his roommates home for the holiday, and they had it all to themselves. Dinner cooked and devoured and thanks given, they were now settled in for a planned marathon of Star Trek with Spencer warm from his shower and cosy in flannel pyjamas Elizabeth had given him as a leaving home gift, thick and soft and fleecy. They were curled together in front of the TV: a snuggly, happy mess of limbs that had Spencer wondering why he’d ever been worried that there was distance growing between them, and it would have been perfect if Ethan could sit still for just ten minutes. He kept getting up and vanishing, nervously pottering around the apartment despite Spencer reassuring him he didn’t mind if it was messy. After the first five times he did this without an explanation, Spencer just shrugged and ignored him. He’d settle when he was ready. Ethan took management like a cat: careful handling, otherwise he’d get skittish and the claws would come out.

The couch dipped below Ethan’s weight as he reappeared in the darkened room, crawling down next to Spencer and studying him intently. Spencer poked his tongue out at the other man, feeling a little disconcerted when Ethan just eased himself closer and kept up that unsettling observation. But there was a warm, wide hand slinking up Spencer’s pyjama top to settle on his stomach and Spencer relaxed into his arms, trying to shake off the unease.

“You’re being weird,” he said finally, realising Ethan was still tense. “You didn’t burn dinner and, so far, neither of us are exhibiting symptoms of food poisoning, which narrows down the list of things I know you were anxious about tonight. So, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Ethan replied quickly. Too quickly, almost. “You’re just very interesting in your pyjamas.”

Spencer stared. “Is interesting the word you’re looking for?” he teased, seeing Ethan realise his misstep.

“Cute,” Ethan said quickly, before pulling a face. “Wait, no I don’t like that. Uh. Handsome?”

“Handsome.” Spencer couldn’t help his deadpan snark, knowing he was pulling a face and unable to stop it. If Ethan was Emily, she’d have already risen to the smug bait he was offering.

“Yes,” said Ethan, which was surprising, as was the nervous breathiness to his voice. “Yeah, that’s it. Handsome.”

And he did a very discomforting thing.

Something startling and dark jolted hard in Spencer’s stomach, right underneath Ethan’s hand still resting there, as Ethan slipped down the couch a little and lowered his mouth to kiss at the small line of bared skin above Spencer’s waistband. Spencer stared, for a moment lost for words at this unexpected turn—and then, following that, shocked right out of responding as Ethan trailed his mouth along Spencer’s hip and every part of Spencer fired up at once with the mistaken belief it was about to get laid.

“Ethan,” Spencer hissed, going rigid with mounting discomfort as he felt a definite interest sear right from his spine to his toes and stopping in his pants to make everything very awkward. “What are you do-ah.”

It would forevermore be an intense kind of shame for Spencer that he didn’t say no right at this second. Years from now, in the late hours of the night, this night would invariably return over and over and over in his memory with the mortification of hindsight and he would endlessly judge his eighteen-year-old self for letting it go on longer than it should have. He never really remembered how astoundingly overwhelming the arousal was as Ethan’s mouth pressed down on him, or how his brain had completely rerouted hard onto the expectation of sex, or how this was all his late-night fantasies and dreams come to real, vivid life against him—but he remembered the feelings that followed.

Locked in a desirous kind of fascination, Spencer didn’t say stop to Ethan mouthing at his pants, eyes flickering up to watch Spencer’s reaction through his lashes. In the dark, Spencer couldn’t tell if they were excited or worried, and he didn’t say stop when Ethan carefully straddled his knees and slid those warm, fleecy pants down. He only managed a soft gasp of shocked confusion when suddenly there was a hand curled around him and he was out, right there, visible in the light from the TV in all his awkward, aroused glory—

—Ethan paused, breathing quickly and paused over bowing down to slip his mouth over Spencer for real this time, with no cotton-blend between them, and Spencer’s brain slammed back online.

“Wait,” he breathed, still more excited than concerned. “Wait, hey. Wow. Okay. Eth?”

Ethan looked at him, Spencer’s stomach dropping hard with a sheer want he’d never felt before, something in the way his boyfriend looked at that moment messing hard with his limbic system. Maybe it was the dark eyes giving the illusion of shared arousal, maybe it was the lips bitten pink and dark in the gloom—maybe it was that, for that second, Spencer convinced himself Ethan wanted this too.

And in that second of dizzy glee, Spencer twisted up and out of his grip, launching down and kissing him hungrily. Ethan was receptive to his kissing in the same way he’d always been, giving as good as he got and relaxing against him, a soft sigh working from his body and his thundering heart quietening a little. But there was something off, something discomforting about it—an unsettling aftertaste—and Spencer frowned as he tried to redirect his brain back to whatever it was and away from Ethan’s hands on him and his entire body throbbing along.

Then, Ethan shifted his kissing, mouthing along Spencer’s throat—Spencer, in that moment, found an erogenous zone on his body he’d never realised before—up to his ear and purring, “I want to have sex with you.”

“Oh my god,” Spencer managed. “Wait, really?”

Ethan nodded. Frowned. Opened his mouth to say something, Spencer waiting with a fixed kind of fascination for what was coming next—before his shoulders dipped forward, his eyes widened, and he pitched off the couch with a deep-seated, wet kind of groan and threw up.

Shock slamming hard and removing all thought of sex from his brain, Spencer pitched upright so fast that he belted his knee on the coffee table as he went. “Eth!” he cried, one hand on his boyfriend’s back as Ethan retched—unfortunately, putting himself in the firing line of the vomit as they’d find later—before realising that they needed something to save the carpet. “Wait there, I’ll get a bucket or something.”

And, ignoring Ethan’s worried noise, he darted out of the room and into the kitchen, brain set on finding any kind of receptacle to help and fretting over the possibility of food poisoning. That fretting continued until he found what Ethan had clumsily left on the kitchen counter, staring at those things for a good minute and a half before picking them up and walking back into the living room.

“Ethan?” he asked, holding up the almost-empty vodka bottle and the small glass he’d found next to it. “…Why?”

“I thought you wanted it,” was Ethan’s response, curling his knees up close to his stomach and looking, now that the light was on and Spencer knew, completely fucked “I just wanted to give you what you wanted, so you wouldn’t…. so you wouldn’t leave me.” He curled smaller, lowering his head and choking out, “Please don’t leave.”

For Spencer, the guilt those words brought immediately would take a very long time to fade.

But the night wasn’t over yet.

Chapter Text

Elizabeth woke to the phone ringing. The digital readout beside her bed read: 22:38.

This was not the time of night that good phone calls came. But, dutifully and with her brain rattling possibilities into her thoughts like an endless stream of negativity—it could be Diana, it could be some political disaster, it could be her estranged husband or maybe Emily had snuck out and—Elizabeth stepped out of bed and made her calm way to the phone to answer it with a clipped, “Prentiss household, this is Ambassador Prentiss speaking.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw light briefly flicker upstairs as Emily opened and then closed her bedroom door, feet padding up the hall towards the bathroom. So, it wasn’t Emily then, which was some kind of relief—

“Elizabeth?” rasped the miserable voice on the other end. “It’s Spencer. Can… I need help. Please.”

 

Emily woke early the next morning to a misty light leaking through her half-open blinds and the distinct sound of voices whispering in the otherwise silent home. Blinking into the gloom, she listened intently—recognising the rattle of Spencer’s wheeled suitcase and Elizabeth using her ‘firm but quiet’ voice from what sounded like his bedroom up the hall.

Why was Spencer home so early? she wondered, slipping barefoot from her bed and tiptoeing across to the door to press her ear against the join, listening intently. The voices were too indistinct for her to make out clearly, and she continued to stand there for some time listening to the hum of them as Elizabeth moved around and her voice rose and fell with the distance between her and Emily’s door. Whatever was happening, it sounded serious.

She waited until the voices receded further before pulling her door open gently—she’d long since master the art of opening and closing doors without any noise—and slinking up the hall. Placing her feet carefully, with all her weight on the floorboards against the siding that were the least likely to creak, she made her way quickly and silently up to the slight glint of light shining out of Spencer’s room, yellow and bright compared to the misty grimness of the sunlight outside.

As soon as she stopped, ear cocked towards the gap in the door, she realised something tremendously sobering: Spencer was crying.

Emily froze. Terrible things slipped into her thoughts, horrible possibilities, and she bunched her cold hands against the thick flannel of her pyjamas and curled her toes against the floorboards. Suddenly, eavesdropping felt precarious and cruel, as there was no longer an amusing mystery about Spencer’s arrival home to wonder about but, instead, some potential anguish.

“There’s no good crying about it, Spencer,” she heard Elizabeth say shortly, Emily wincing. Maybe she should go in there—she really didn’t think much of Elizabeth’s ability to counsel someone out of misery. “What’s done is done. It’s dealt with now.”

“We shouldn’t have left,” Spencer responded wetly, his voice all thick and snotty. Emily pressed harder against the wall, heart hammering. “I shouldn’t have left, it was a mistake, all just a horrible mistake and I handled it all wrong. It’s all my fault, every bit of it, and I messed up and—” His voice cut off with a loud gasp of air, like he’d struggled to suck it in around a tightening throat.

And then nothing.

Elizabeth, for a moment, was quiet. Straining her ears, Emily leaned dangerously close to that line of light, a humming in her brain offsetting how hard she was listening. Footsteps sounded across the thick carpet of Spencer’s room, followed by the soft creak of bedsprings. Emily frowned, perplexed. What was happening? This was maddening!

The springs creaked again. More quiet.

And then Emily heard it: she heard Spencer inhale deeply, a snuffling kind of gasp of an inhale, and then she heard him begin to cry like he hadn’t before. Real, actualised sobbing that was quickly muffled as though he’d buried his face into something… or someone.

“I’m sorry, Spencer,” Elizabeth said softly. “I know. It hurts. It always hurts.”

Emily leaned around, peering through the gap in the door as her brain struggled to piece together what was happening out of her line of sight… and then stared, stunned, at the sight that met her. Her mom, her mom who Emily couldn’t remember when she’d last been held or comforted by, was sitting beside Spencer on the bed… hugging him. Emily stared, at the way Spencer was huddling in against her sobbing like his heart was breaking and the way she was holding him in return, as though his pain was hers and there wasn’t a thing she wouldn’t do to stop it if she could… and maybe she made a noise or something, because then Elizabeth looked up and directly at her.

There was nothing she could do. She was caught. But Elizabeth didn’t give any indication that she was going to scold or snap; instead, she just twitched her head towards the barely open door in a clear command: go away.

Emily did. There was nothing here she knew how to understand, wondering just the hell what had gone on in New York.

 

What had gone on was this:

Elizabeth had received the phone call asking her assistance and immediately sprung into action. After all, this was Spencer who needed her—she quite calmly assumed that he was sensible and level-headed enough that whatever he was calling her about was something that she was definitely equipped to handle. She asked him what it was that he needed from her, fully prepared to offer any legal or monetary aid that he required.

However, there was nothing sensible or level-headed about his behaviour over the phone, as he flipped wildly from rambling about something being ‘his fault’ right back to crying right around again to what she realised was a bout of hysterics she had never seen him characterised by before. This was entirely out of character; because of that, it was also entirely concerning. What was also entirely new was this: she was terrified by this in a way that was deeper than her bones and right down into the core of her self, in a way she had no idea how to explain. It was a sensation of rushing terror and focus that she’d only ever felt a few times in her life: once, when Emily had fallen into a pond as a toddler; once more when she’d run towards a frozen lake and towards a child screaming.

When she realised that there was nothing she was getting from him right now except a jumbled request for him to ‘come home’—something she realised that he was capable of doing on his own so there had to be more to his calling her—she made another choice. She told him to stay put where he was—Ethan’s apartment, of which she had the address—and then she calmly went and got her keys. With that, and entirely unaware on most conscious levels that this was what she was doing, Elizabeth got in the car and drove to get her child, who needed her and had asked for her and thus was getting her.

If she’d taken a moment to consider this, she’d probably have been very surprised to realise how instinctually she was acting, when there were far faster and cheaper options that didn’t involve an almost four hour round trip to New York and back in the middle hours of the night.

And she didn’t tell Emily she was going, because she was certain—and probably correct—that Emily would demand to come, and there was no way she was taking her other child into a situation that could encompass any number of concerning things. Not least one of which was the potential for it to be something Spencer would rather his friend didn’t know about.

At the end of her drive, which she spent refusing to fret, she found a barely-nice apartment building of the sort which made her shudder to consider living here. Up she went—finding a broken elevator and signs of rats in the corners of the stairwell, despite the fresh coat of paint on the walls and what looked like new carpeting in the halls—to the door containing her family.

She knocked. Surely by now, with an hour and half between whatever had upset Spencer and now, he would be calmer.

He was not.

The door yanked open and he appeared, wide-eyed and—she frowned, smelling vomit—distinctly panicked looking. “He won’t wake up,” Spencer yammered at her, swinging on the door for a moment as he teetered between her and whatever was hauling him back into the sickly-smelling apartment. “I tried to call you but remembered you’d be on the road and he won’t wake up and I don’t know what to do I don’t know if he’s—”

“Quiet,” she said sharply, thinking fast.

His mouth snapped shut.

“Where is he?” was her next thought, assuming, correctly, that the ‘he’ here was Ethan. Still mute, as though she’d flicked the switch on his volume button firmly to off, Spencer launched back into the apartment and led the way to his boyfriend. Elizabeth found Ethan propped into the safety position on his unmade bed, wincing again as she crouched by him and found that the towel shoved roughly under him was to cover the vomit he was lying on. And he was pale, breathing, and slack under her hands on him as she felt to make sure of those things—finding a thudding pulse and shallow inhalations and thanking whoever watched over idiot teenager and their idiot boyfriends for all of that.

“Is he dead?” Spencer rasped behind her, quite inanely she thought at the time considering the boy was clearly very alive. “I wanted to call an ambulance but he said no and then he passed out and Emily passed out from drinking once but not this bad and she yelled at me and called me a wet brick when I said I was going to call for help so I was worried maybe that was this again and I just didn’t understand and it’s my fault I made him do it—”

Spencer,” Elizabeth said. “Breathe. He’s not dead, and you are going to get me the phone now.” Because, despite the signs of life in the boy beside her, he was only barely rousing to their voices.

“Why?” This was said in a squeak.

“Because we’re calling an ambulance, and then you’re going to tell me what the hell you boys did. And if you did any of it.”

With a whimper, Spencer fled for the phone.

 

It was only later that morning, the hours right before sunrise when Elizabeth left the hospital room and walked out into the hallway to find a miserable looking Spencer all slumped over in the waiting room chairs that she took the time to consider the emotional toll of the night. From the moment she’d walked into that apartment, although her first concern was Spencer, she’d been focused on ensuring that Ethan was taken care of. Now, conscious and with a sore head and miserable stomach from the pump, Ethan was most definitely as okay as Elizabeth was required to ensure of him.

Spencer didn’t look up when she walked over to him, just kept poking the weave of his pants with one finger.

“Ethan is awake and as comfortable as it is possible to be when one has stupidly consumed as much alcohol in such a short period as he did,” Elizabeth said firmly, seeing Spencer’s shoulders fold in a little more. “I don’t think I need to reiterate for you how absolutely ridiculous his behaviour was, do I?”

“He doesn’t drink much,” Spencer mumbled to his pants. “I don’t think he realised how hard it would hit him, or how fast…”

“Oh yes, and that makes it much better that he decided to dive headfirst into a bottle of spirits. Honestly, Spencer, what were you both thinking?”

Spencer remained static for a moment, finger still tracing his pants, before rasping out, “I think I might have accidentally broke up with him.”

Ah.

Elizabeth didn’t really know where to take that.

“Perhaps you should go and speak to him before I take you home,” she said finally, standing aside to let Spencer slowly stand and look from her to the hospital door. “Go on. The nurses said it’s fine since we’re leaving before he’s being released.”

Finally, he nodded and moved past her, vanishing into the room and leaving her standing there thankful that she was well past nineteen.

 

And now here they were. Elizabeth held him close and wondered at how tall and awkward it was to hug him like this now—when had be become this almost-grown boy who had to slouch for her to hug him? What had happened to the skinny little child who’d shadowed Emily for what felt like all of their childhood, the little boy she didn’t remember ever really holding when he was small enough for her to do so?

When was the last time she’d held Emily, come to think of it?

It hit her in that moment, just how much time had slipped by. Her children were almost gone, and right when she’d only just realised how much they both meant to her. She knew there was a Russian posting coming up that was earmarked for her—and she knew that it was unlikely either of her children would visit her there, not with the political uncertainty of the position. Spencer was letting her hold him now in the wake of his heartbreak, but this was it. It would be the potential first in her memory, as well as the final, time it happened.

For a single heartbeat, she longed to gather Emily to her as well and cling to them both and pretend time couldn’t touch them. But the moment passed, Spencer pulled away, and she firmly put her mask back on.

But only for a moment, because he was still red-eyed and forlorn and she couldn’t see him like that without trying to help, even if she doubted that she was at all equipped to do so.

“Do you want to talk about what happened?” she asked, feeling him go rigid with tension at the concept. “Despite what you may think, I had my own wayward youth. Likely I can assist, in some way, with whatever you’re struggling to comprehend.”

Spencer eyed her warily and with what she regarded as a wholly unnecessary amount of disbelief.

“You said at one point that you ‘made him do it’,” she pressed gently. “What did you make him do, Spencer?”

The distress that flickered over his features only really cemented her resolve to discover what had taken place; she’d questioned Ethan when he’d woken up but he’d, naturally, been nothing but confused about what had happened beyond his second drink. Idiot.

“I can’t, I…” he spluttered, now red on his cheeks as well as around his eyes. “It’s… I can’t talk to you about sex.” The word ‘sex’ was whispered, barely managing to make it past his lips, and she bit back a choked smile at the horror on his features because, in all honesty, a bit of that horror was sinking into her gut too. Oh, she really didn’t want to have this conversation, having always handed off the specifics of that to other people to explain to both Emily and his, with mixed results, she was suspecting.

Perhaps that was part of the problem.

Stiffly, she managed, “I have a daughter, Spencer. Clearly, I am aware of sex. You cannot shock me with whatever you need to discuss. And if it’s an issue of consent, considering Ethan’s state tonight, I would rather we discussed it bluntly than danced around—”

“It’s not—” He stopped, breathing in deeply and seeming to, finally, compose himself. “I… I didn’t know he was drunk, I swear, but I let him do… it… and I’m scared I hurt him? I mean, he didn’t want to, he really didn’t want to, but I didn’t know and I did want it and then he was… crying.”

Elizabeth was very suddenly regretting having taken this on. But she had, and here they were, and she was stuck with it. “Who initiated?” she asked, flicking her gaze to the door to check for wayward Emilys eavesdropping.

“He did… I guess. We’ve never done anything before because he didn’t want to. It should have been obvious, I’m so reta—”

Spencer.”

He cut off whatever he’d been about to say—she could guess, having once caught Emily snapping it at him in a fit of pique and having firmly scolded her for it—as he eyed her guiltily. “Sorry. Do… do I have to tell you, uh, details?”

No longer regretting that her children were almost grown, Elizabeth wished they were a little more grown. Grown and well beyond sticky questions of consent and lines crossed and the kinds of things she didn’t want to think about her children engaging in, especially not the one who she’d been happily existing in a state of denial about.

“If this is something that may cause legal or emotional distress to either of you, I would prefer not to be blind-sided by it in the future,” she said carefully. “Was there ever a suggestion of him wishing to cease activities that you ignored?”

Spencer blinked, stunned. “No! What, no, I wouldn’t—no!”

“When he revealed how upset he was, did you stop?”

“Yes! I mean, sort of, I wasn’t really—I wasn’t really doing anything. But I, well. He threw up, so that kind of…” Spencer stopped, now very, very, very red.

Elizabeth counted down from three in her head to calm herself. “Were you both being safe until the cessation of activities?”

Spencer stared at her, confused.

Facing irate heads of state had nothing on this.

Elizabeth took one more breath and then clarified: “Protection, Spencer,” she pressed. “Some form of barrier method between you both. HIV is a very serious concern for any form of—” She coughed. “—anal penetrative act.”

Spencer spluttered a little, inching away from her on the bed before managing to choke out, “Oh no oh no we weren’t, we didn’t… not that. Just, um. His hand. His hand on me. That’s, uh… that’s… it.”

And he stared very firmly at his knees, refusing to look at her; this was just fine by her because she was considering that perhaps doing the same would be more comfortable than this conversation.

“I thought you meant you were—” Elizabeth cut herself off, recognising the utter relief in her voice as probably only going to confuse the situation. “Oh, Spencer. You were hardly taking advantage of him, what on earth are you so worried about? From what you’ve told me, you were barely even sexually engaged with each other!”

“He said he did it because he didn’t want to lose me,” Spencer burst out with, the words leaving him with such a vicious expulsion of air that she could tell he’d been holding it in this whole time. “Something I did made him think he had to have sex with me to love me. I did that to him—I don’t know how, or when, but I did and that’s reprehensible of me. Everything that happened to him tonight was because of something I did to make him feel so… so… unloved?”

Elizabeth pondered that. It took some time, the silence between them painful as Spencer waited for some kind of answer. She didn’t know what he wanted from her—whether he wanted validation that he was as horrendous as he seemed convinced he was, or if he wanted evidence he could use to absolve his guilt, but she wasn’t of the mind to give people what they wanted when instead the blunt truth was an option.

“Was it a mistake?” Spencer said suddenly, breaking the quiet. His voice was a whisper. “Breaking up with him? I don’t even think he’ll remember it… he didn’t seem to when I said goodbye, just told me not to worry because he had a friend from college coming to pick him up and that he’d call me sometime.”

“I think,” Elizabeth said finally, “that you and Ethan need to have a very serious discussion about what you are both looking for in a relationship, and what you are both willing to give to that relationship. You’re not fifteen anymore, Spencer, and neither of you are the same person you were when you began this relationship.”

“We’re not that different—”

“He lied to you,” she said quietly, his mouth closing with a snap as he gave her an infuriated stare that she ignored. Honestly, did he really think she’d cower at a glare from a nineteen-year-old? “You stated that he doesn’t drink much. Are you so sure? There was alcohol in his bedroom.”

Spencer swallowed. Hard.

“His response to uncertainty in your relationship was to self-medicate in order to force himself into engaging in an act he couldn’t engage in sober,” she continued, knowing she was hurting him with every word but figuring the end result would likely be healthier for all of them. “Spencer, that’s untenable for stability. His assumptions of your needs are not the same as your beliefs about your needs and that dissonance is spawning from somewhere—I don’t believe it’s consciously from you, despite what you may think, but it is from somewhere. My guess is that it’s from Ethan himself, in some fashion, perhaps misreading signals from you. However, the end result is that he has given a clear and blatant warning to you that he will absolutely put aside his own needs and comforts in order to please you. Having been in that situation before, I can only warn you that there really is no way that the both of you, in your context and with your ages in mind, are going to be able to work through this to find a result that you’re both happy with.”

“You want me to give up on him?” Spencer said, his voice cracking painfully. “Just give up? I didn’t mean it, when I said we were breaking up, I swear I was just—”

“You meant it,” Elizabeth corrected gently. “In the moment, you meant it. Perhaps not now that you’re sitting at home and realising that you’ve brought an end to your relationship and everything comforting and familiar that that entails, but your feelings now are far less clear than they were in the second you saw what he’d do to himself to sustain an unequal relationship and reacted by ending that inequality.”

Spencer said nothing, and Elizabeth took the plunge.

“This was why your mother and I separated,” she said, seeing Spencer’s eyes flicker to hers and hold there, curiosity warring with his devastation. “Something very much similar. She saw her duty as being to deny herself in order to maintain a relationship with me in the face of her illness, in the face as what she saw would be the only way we could be together. I disagreed with her supposition that I would prefer her medicated beyond reason rather than face what she saw as some potential embarrassment if she was outwardly unwell. However, I didn’t cease our relationship as I believed I could, I don’t know. Coax her into understanding her worth to me. She ended it. I remember at the time she was quite vicious in informing me that I would be far happier married to a man who could ‘bolster’ my social standing rather than a mentally ill woman who would do nothing but ‘degrade’ me. And then there was Emily’s father on the scene, which Diana very much did not approve of, but I resented her by that point and, well… we both made our respective mistakes which, however, led to you and Emily being here with us so I suppose the mistakes evened out in the end.”

“And staying with Ethan would be a mistake?” Spencer finally asked, his fingers bunching tight into his pants and holding there, going white from the strain. “Even though I love him?”

“In my opinion, yes. It would only compound whatever struggles he’s facing, and draw you deeper into them.” Elizabeth reached out, pausing a second before touching his hand and watching as he loosened his grip on his clothes, letting go. “You’re nineteen. You’re not a therapist or a doctor or anyone who can help him with his demons. It may not feel like the age gap is that disastrous between you both, but this is one reflection of that difference—your twenties can be a rough time for everyone. They’re a time of discovery and understanding and, unfortunately, not all that is discovered is comfortable or easy. Ethan is learning that, and you can support him through this as a friend far better than you can as the source of his insecurities.”

He nodded slowly, taking a breath that she fancied came easier than his last.

“Okay,” he whispered, before speaking again in a voice that was stronger. “Okay. But I need to tell him in person, not over the phone. I owe him that.”

“I trust that you’ll do what’s right by you both in the end,” Elizabeth said, standing. It felt as though she’d run a marathon instead of simply having a conversation, her entire body aching as the sleepless night caught up with her. “I’m going to New York for an engagement next weekend. If you wish, you may attend and return with me. And, Spencer?”

He looked up at her, nodding sadly and waiting for her final word.

They didn’t come easily but maybe that was because things that were important were rarely easy.

“No matter what happens between you and him,” she said softly, “you will always be loved by your family.”

He was quiet, before nodding. “I love you too,” he said, earning a smile.

 

Emily, sitting in her room, looked up as the door creaked open. Her mother leaned in.

“Is he—” Emily burst out with, but Elizabeth gestured for her to be silent.

“When he wants to talk to you about what transpired, he will,” she said firmly, Emily sinking back onto her bed. “But this is not about you, Emily. You need to respect that, for this moment in his life, you are not involved beyond any support he wishes to ask of you and you wish to give. Understood?”

“Understood,” Emily said glumly. “But he’s going to be okay, right?”

Elizabeth paused. “Given time,” she said. “He will be.”

 

Emily waited patiently for the time that followed. They returned to college to finish their fall semester, time crawling by and Spencer keeping so resolutely to himself that she began to worry that he was never going to open up to her again. When she dropped casually by his dorm, his door was closed to her. When she tried to lurk by his classes, he vanished before she could corner him.

Miserable, she accepted the distance between them, and she wondered what had happened. But she didn’t force the issue, letting time tick by until, suddenly, one week after Thanksgiving, she went home for the weekend only to find that Spencer and Elizabeth had gone away together to New York without telling her beyond leaving a hotel contact number in the book by the phone.

Wary of what that could mean, Emily declined all her friends’ offers of companionship and she sat at home… and waited. And waited. And waited.

At some point, it occurred to her what might be happening.

She called the number her mother had left for her, waiting impatiently before Elizabeth answered.

“I’m on my way out the door, Emily, what on earth do you want?” Elizabeth asked, sounding terse.

“You don’t have to answer me, but is something going on with Ethan and Spence?” she asked, knowing she wasn’t going to get an answer and figuring she’d be able to tell anyway. Because if there was something happening between them, something bad, wasn’t it kind of her fault? “Is that why he’s snuck away to New York?”

Elizabeth sighed. “Emily, you need to pay less attention to the worries of those around you and more to your studies—”

“So there is something going on. Are they breaking up? Have they broken up?”

“Goodnight, Emily. Vacuum your room, please.”

And the line went dead.

Emily considering that call for a while, before making another choice and another phone call. It wasn’t a hard one to make, really. Ethan would be mad at her, not Spencer, and if they were breaking up, well. Spencer had her.

Who did Ethan have?

When the line connected to the number she hoped was still accurate, Emily could hear the raucous sounds of a party going on down the line. “Yo, this is Phil, what’s up?” came the breezy greeting.

“Phil, hi, it’s Emily. Emily Prentiss. I’m calling about Ethan.”

And Emily told her what she thought might be going on.

Before they hung up, as Emily listening to Phil yelling at her boyfriend to ‘get your shit together, we’re driving to New York’, Phil said one more thing that Emily would hold very close for a very long time, because it wasn’t something she was told very often.

“You’re a really good friend, Emily,” she said. “You tell that Spencer he’s lucky to have someone like you around, huh? And look after him for me.”

“Thanks, Phil,” said Emily, with no real way to verbalise just how much those words meant to her.

 

They returned late Sunday night. Emily lay in bed, listening to Spencer making his slow way up the hall to his room. When silence fell upon the house, Elizabeth in her own room and Spencer sequestered in his, she made her move.

He’d locked his door, but she’d been picking locks since they were twelve. It didn’t take long to get the door open, slipping into his room and closing the door behind her. It was dark in here, a long time since he’d slept with a nightlight, but she thought he might be awake despite this since there was music playing very softly from her old Walkman she’d given him barely visible on the bed beside him as a shadowed square. He didn’t make a noise though, as she crept across the room and touched his shoulder gently.

From here, she recognised the music as one of Ethan’s songs, swallowing that down with everything else that felt mean and unfair about this moment. It wasn’t fair. They were supposed to be…

Happy.

Spencer looked at her, unsure what she wanted from him or why she was even here. He was feeling raw and hurting, and didn’t want to have to talk to her to make her feel better when he didn’t even though—

But Emily didn’t say anything, just tugged his covers back and crawled into bed beside him, waiting until he’d wordlessly made room before curling close. They lay in silence, just like they’d used to when they were kids, both of them looking at nothing as they thought about all the distance between now and then.

Emily wished they were little again, when everything was simple.

Spencer was wishing much the same.

Finally, Spencer slid her headphones from his ears, pressing pause on the tape before speaking.

“Do you think you could stay tonight?” he asked her quietly, letting his head lean forward onto her arm and breathing as harshly as though he was holding some terrible pain back. “I just… I don’t really want to feel alone.”

“Absolutely,” she said, knowing in her heart that, right now, she was exactly what he needed her to be: a friend.

Chapter Text

Life hurtled by after that, faster than even a hare could comprehend. Nineteen-eighty-nine brought with it their impending nineteenth birthdays as well as Spencer graduating from two of his degrees as he moved into full-time post-graduate studies, now with a cemented position among the faculty staff.

Emily fell in love, fell out of love, and fell back into it once more with a regularity that was comforting to the people around her. Her crush on Spencer faded, although never truly went away as it settled into a deep, lingering appreciation of his presence in her life that she’d never really had before, when he’d just seemed like a natural part of her existence. This had mixed outcomes. On one hand, she’d never been gladder for him. On the other, she was now tortured by the thought that, one day, he would leave. Fall in love, get married, move away… any of the above. And she’d be alone. Growing up suddenly seemed more than just independence—it also felt like impending heartbreak, and thus she decided early on that she wasn’t going to have a bar of it. Until she was given a reason, she was going to stay exactly as she was and hope that maybe, just maybe, he’d do the same.

Spencer declared himself—after two months of moping, Emily was quick to remind him—healed of heartbreak although, as no one but himself knew, Emily’s hand-me-down Walkman remained hidden among his bedding with the one tape within it played almost to death. When no one was there to see him, he listened to the music within and felt sorry for all the things he’d said goodbye to.

And life in the dorms continued much as they always had, with some notable standout points.

 

Spencer’s moping at some point frustrated his dormmate so much that his response to him, with no warning to anyone, was to walk in with a vase continuing a smuggled kitten, of all things, dumping it on Spencer’s lap and informing him that, “No one can be sad with a pet cat, enjoy.”

The cat, who took an immediate and firm dislike to Spencer despite the fast that he spent three hours trying to hand feed it pieces of kibble one at a time, thanked them for his new home by sinking his sharp, kitten teeth all the way into the meaty part of his thumb. Four hours later, after receiving a phone call from Emily that was only less worrying because the whole story was recited between giggles, Elizabeth went to the hospital room to find a miserable looking Spencer waiting for a series of shots for his newly swollen hand.

When Elizabeth drove Spencer back to the dorm with his hand freshly lanced and bandaged, the cat was nowhere to be found. Incorrectly, she assumed this was because her nonsense children had gotten rid of it. This assumption would be proven false three weeks later, when the RA of Emily’s hall found the kitten—now with a neon-bright collar complete with metal studs and a tag declaring that its name was ‘Kinky Briefcase’—fast asleep in Emily’s hanging-open underwear drawer.

The animal would have to go, they were told, despite Elizabeth’s wry response that at least it was only a cat they were sneaking into the building, since precedent had suggested any pet those two brought home would be far less litter-trainable. Eventually, after a four-month game of cat-and-mouse with the college authorities, as the kitten was whisked from room to room on a hall-wide quest to ‘Keep Kinky Safe’, this command would come to fruition: for now, however, Spencer and Emily—and the collective floors of their respective dorms—were momentarily united in their honourable pursuit to retain their strange, orange, often-volatile cat.

 

Right before graduation, Spencer—on a whim—wandered over to Emily’s dorms, finding the place crawling with police for no apparent reason. No one seemed to notice him standing there looking as puzzled as every other student, so he continued his wandering right into the dorm—later he would assume perhaps it was his staff pass pinned to his vest that got him disregarded—and up to Emily’s room, where he found her happily chatting to the police woman searching her room.

“Emily,” he said warily, staring in.

“Oh, hi, Spence,” she said cheerfully. “This is Amy. Amy, this is Spencer.”

‘Amy’ gave him a short look and told him to remain outside the room.

“What did you do?” Spencer asked, already envisioning how fast Elizabeth—who was preparing to leave the country in just under a month and was already tetchy because of the stress of that—was going to pull them out of school if Emily got herself arrested.

“I didn’t do anything,” Emily said with just as much delight. “I saw them searching rooms and wanted in on that, so I asked.”

“She did,” said the police woman, looking vaguely amused now. “Apparently it’s part of the ‘college experience’.”

“Wouldn’t her asking to have her room searched suggest that there’s nothing in here to hide?” Spencer asked, already resigning himself to this madness.

“Or,” Emily said with a wicked grin, “I could just be saying that to throw them off my scent and I actually have a ton of drugs in here.”

Amy looked at her.

“She doesn’t have a ton of drugs in here,” Spencer said hurriedly.

“Hey, do you get to always carry a gun?” Emily asked, suddenly zeroing in on the officer’s gun belt. “Do they teach you to shoot it? Do they teach you to kick people? Wow, my mom would hate me getting a job where I can kick people. What’s the pay like?”

Oh no, thought Spencer, seeing a gleam in Emily’s eye that he didn’t like.

“Yes, I always carry the gun and, yes, they teach me to shoot it. I’ve also been taught how, and when, to kick people. I don’t recommend working as a police officer purely for the people kicking though.” Amy looked like she was hiding a smile, closing the cupboard door and then pausing to open it again. “Why is this coffee can filled with… are these peepholes?”

Spencer looked at the door beside him and the neat round hole bored right through where the peephole should be.

“Apparently they twist right out,” Emily said matter-of-factly.

“That doesn’t answer my question.”

“Doesn’t it?” To her credit, Emily really did look puzzled by that. “Are you sure?”

“Are these… your peepholes?”

Spencer began counting backwards in his head, a trick he’d learned from Elizabeth in order to calm himself down when his anxieties were showing.

“I mean, do peepholes ever really belong to anyone?” Emily paused for effect, before adding, “If I promise to put the peepholes back, will you tell me what being a cop is like? I’m considering a career.”

Amy, to her credit, obliged.

 

The end of the college year rolled around, bringing with it Spencer’s graduation and a meeting between Emily, Elizabeth, and the head of dorm residence that basically amounted to them asking politely if Emily would consider off-campus housing the following year. As Spencer would discover later, they were unable to pin Emily for any of the ‘misbehaviours’ they’d recorded over the past few months, and Emily certainly wasn’t admitting to any of them, but she was most definitely suspected.

Elizabeth, deciding to approach this politically, asked Emily to leave and them lashed the Dean with the sharp side of her tongue for insinuating without proof that her daughter had—after consulting the list—been responsible for flooding the entirety of her own floor after stopping up the shower drains with towels or for, as quoted exactly, writing ‘Quoth the raven, fuckface’ on the RA’s door using a can of EZ cheese. And, as for the accusation that Emily had stolen the entire fourth floor’s peepholes, that was just utterly ridiculous! Despite this lecture, as soon as she left, she began looking up apartments in areas she felt safe storing Emily in. She was protective, not stupid, and she knew her daughter.

Emily, later, would say to Spencer how offensive it was that they’d accuse her of flooding her own floor. “Honestly,” she said with a roll of her eyes, “do they think I have no class? I shower on my floor.”

Spencer refrained from asking what was classy about EZ cheese graffiti, wisely deciding that he didn’t want to know. And, at least, Emily finding her own apartment would solve the problem of the freshly-rediscovered and re-evicted Kinky, currently asleep in one of Spencer’s shoes.

 

The dorm, upon being told that Emily was leaving, held an alcohol-fuelled candle-light vigil in honour of her, one that was ended promptly when the long-suffering RA walked out to find that the third-floor boys had ‘poured one out’ in Emily’s memory, right into the carpet outside of her room. Twenty-three write-ups later and following the removal of thirty-nine fire-hazards, the RA was glad to be finally shot of one Emily Prentiss, pain in his ass for two years now… only to return to his room to find another twenty-nine lit candles set up around his room circling a framed photo of a raven, and a sad face made of EZ cheese drawn on the linen of his bed.

The photo, after some deliberation, he decided to keep.

 

Emily, despite all attempts by Elizabeth up to and including offering to bankroll her entire rent for her so that she didn’t have to space-share, forged ahead determinedly on her own path to independence, finding herself the seediest possible looking apartment in the worst neighbourhood she could find to share with a girl from college and her brother who were both looking for an excuse to leave the dorms. Elizabeth, upon looking at the place, utterly refused to assist financially, operating under the assumption that this would force Emily into leaving and finding somewhere more suitable; somewhere without masking tape holding the window-sills on and a brick acting as doorman on the barred front door of the building.

“I’m not supporting this madness,” Elizabeth said, looking around at the interior. The fridge door that didn’t fully shut—just shove it a bit, Emily suggested to her roommate as he fought the door for a can of soda—and the blankets used as curtains and the deck chairs instead of a couch. “Honestly, Emily, if this is some kind of rebellion, aren’t you far too old—”

“To sponge off my mom, yeah, probably,” Emily said fiercely. “Mother, seriously, it’s fine. I like it here. The bugs are cute. And fine, don’t give me money. I’ll get a job.”

Elizabeth looked at her.

“I’ll waitress or something,” Emily added, scowling at the clear disbelief on Elizabeth’s face. “Or get a job in a kitchen.”

“You can’t cook.”

“I’ll learn!”

Elizabeth threw her arms in the air, before retracting them quickly before they touched a wall, and turned her back on Emily to stalk to the door. “Fine!” she snapped. “Spencer, come on. We’re leaving this insanity. Emily, enjoy catching the plague.”

Spencer, his nose buried in a book he’d been reading this whole time while ignoring the war going on around him, popped his nose out of the book for a single moment to wish her goodbye, point out that there was a mouse on the counter eating her bread-rolls which Kinky seemed to be ignoring, and to add, “You’re probably going to get scurvy from malnutrition.”

“Bet I don’t,” Emily snapped in return, slamming the door shut behind both the meddling nannies, determined to prove them wrong.

 

Absolutely no one was surprised the day that Emily sheepishly appeared two weeks into the new college year on the doorstep of Spencer’s new post-grad dorm-room, both to ask for a loan to cover sudden electricity bills— “honestly, Spence, I didn’t know that they turned it off, what’s with that?”—and to question him on the symptoms of scurvy.

Spencer, with a sigh, put aside his grading he was working on and instructed her to drive him to the store. Three hours later, they returned with food to her apartment, where he worked on getting their power reconnected before cooking her a meal he didn’t really know how to cook but figured he could work out from the meal-prep booklet he’d been given for free at the deli counter.

They both quickly adjusted to life as it was now. Emily would continue on attempting whatever job she found here and there, waitressing and ushering at a cinema and even one time working at a pet-store, right up until she told the wrong person to do something anatomically inappropriate in a fit of peevishness and ended up right back at Spencer’s doorstep guiltily admitting she was late on rent or bills or that she hadn’t eaten more than a bread sandwich in two days.

“What’s a bread sandwich?” Spencer asked curiously.

“Two pieces of bread around another piece of bread,” Emily replied with a certain amount of humour. “And if you think that’s great, you should try wet cereal, or sad eggs. Sad eggs are a staple.”

Spencer pulled back a little, mouth twisting.

“Honestly,” Emily added, “sad eggs aren’t bad. They’re when you only have eggs so you put them in the pan and just kind of optimistically shove them around. Sad eggs!”

“Oh my god,” said Spencer as he vastly readjusted his opinion of whether Emily would survive on her own. He didn’t really understand; Emily was so capable when she wanted to be, he couldn’t fathom how basic survival functions seemed to be beyond her.

Emily, who was refusing to be anything her mother wanted her to be, including capable, was perfectly content to continue to be a disaster right up until she was given a valid reason to be otherwise.

And that continued.

 

The highlight of life in the apartment came about when Emily realised that she could throw her own parties, her roommates eagerly assisting her in doing so. Before long, most weekends were lost to a delicious haze of alcohol-fuelled teenagerdom, with Elizabeth now long settled in Russia and with no adult eyes upon them. Spencer, far from being a calming influence on Emily in this time, placidly allowed himself to be drawn into the madness.

“We’re going to get you laid,” Emily declared this evening as she placed the finishing touches on her makeup and then turned on him, eyeing his cheekbones thoughtfully.

Spencer turned another page of the magazine he was reading and hummed noncommittedly.

“Come on, Spence. It’s been forever since Ethan and you’re too pretty to waste. Use your looks before you lose them!”

“I’m not sure that’s a valid reason for rushing a sexual encounter,” he responded, finally lowering his magazine. “Emily, leave it. I’m happy as I am. Let me be.”

“And you can be happy as you are, but while getting a little action.” She leaned over, offering him the eyeliner and earning a grumble in return as he tried to wiggle out of the way of her artistic endeavours. Emily was utterly determined to make sure that Spencer lived, sometimes lying awake at night imagining him growing up nerdy and alone and eternally sad, like he always seemed to be ever since Ethan. “Look, fine. I won’t help you pick up… on one condition.”

“What’s that?”

She beamed, Spencer’s heart sinking a little at the happy smile. Emily smiling like that always meant that she’d gotten the upper hand on him, somehow, and he only ever sometimes realised in time before she sprung her trap on him.

“If you see someone you’re into, you have to tell me,” she said with a fierce kind of passion. “Promise?”

Spencer, who was sure he wouldn’t, warily agreed.

And Emily sprang into action.

 

“Spencer, this is Art,” Emily said, dragging a guy through the throng of guests at this party to where Spencer was quietly stacking cups into a pyramid at the kitchen table. “Art, this is Spencer. He’s into musical dudes.”

Spencer peered through the gap in his cup mountain, groaning a bit when he saw ‘Art’. Art, for want of a better description, looked incredibly like Ethan, from his hair to his eyes right to the shy-almost-smile Spencer got when he looked at him. If it wasn’t for the fact that this guy was dressed in a far more Emily-esque way than Ethan ever would have, they could have been brothers.

“Emily, no,” Spencer whispered, but too late. Emily was already bouncing away, yelling back at them to ‘have fun, boys!’ “Uh. Hi. Art?”

“Arthur, actually, but people just call me Art.” The guy stood there for a second, looking astoundingly awkward before speaking again. “I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to be saying? Emily just told me to talk to you…”

Spencer resented her deeply for a moment, before deciding to approach this like Elizabeth: with raw honesty.

“She’s trying to hook us up because she thinks I need sex to be happy,” he said bluntly, steadying his cup mountain as someone walked past and banged their hip on the table, each cup tottering precariously. “You look like my ex, so she’s clearly approaching this from a visual angle.”

“Oh,” said Art, blinking a bit. “Oh, well. I mean, is that a compliment? A bit? No one’s ever approached me from a visual angle before, that’s exciting.”

Spencer looked at him for a moment. “Sorry, it’s not happening,” he said finally. “You’re very attractive though, if that helps.”

“It does,” Art answered with a confused kind of grin. “I’m not gay, though. But thanks.”

And then he was gone.

“I know,” Spencer muttered to his cup mountain, only to sigh two moments later when a flying beer can took the lot out. Weary, he picked up his soda and went to find Emily, who was examining a broken light-switch. Spencer leaned beside her, stating, “It helps if you find people who are actually sexually attracted to me.”

“Hey, I’m doing my best with what I have,” Emily retorted. “Do you think if I poked that with a screw-driver, it would be fixed?”

Spencer looked at the light-switch, which was cracked so neatly down the middle he could see bare wiring underneath. “I think you should give me every screwdriver you own so I can forestall any attempts at poking that,” he said firmly. “And not try any electrical work until you’re sober. Also, I’m taping that over.”

“You’re no fun,” she complained, but obliged.

 

Three weeks later, it was a guy who Spencer couldn’t immediately judge the age of just at a glance.

“I checked his ID, you’re good,” Emily said, shoving the guy at Spencer and then vanishing into the crowd. Spencer was beginning to doubt her wing-womaning abilities.

“Uh,” said the guy, eyes going wide and terrified. “What are you doing?”

“The dishes,” Spencer said honestly, lifting his hands from the soapy water and shrugging. “I don’t like parties.”

The party, heedless to his distaste, went on around them nonetheless.

“Do you live here?” the guy asked.

“No. I’m a friend of Emily’s. She complains at me if I don’t come.”

“Oh.” There was an awkward silence, broken only by the yelling and music around them. Spencer waited for him to talk again. “Do you want me to dry?”

Spencer turned and stared, but the guy seemed completely sincere. “Sure? I mean, okay.”

Nine hours later, Emily rolled over in her bed and hung over to look down at where he’d made a comfortable bed of couch cushions and blankets on the floor. “When did you get there?” she asked him, frowning and then groaning as her head thumped. “What happened to… what was his name?”

“No idea,” Spencer replied honestly. “But we fixed your windowsills and replaced the washer in your bathroom tap, so you’re welcome.”

Emily blinked owlishly at him. “I don’t understand you.”

Spencer just shrugged.

 

Emily took a different angle next time, pouncing on him on an agreed-upon movie night between the two of them, which he thought wasn’t exactly sporting of her. But here they were, and here was Klara, and he was most definitely not enjoying that Klara—with a K—kept using the blankets over them as they watched Terminator as an excuse to try get her hands down his pants. However, out of a desire to ‘not rock the boat’ as it was, he said nothing.

Emily, who was pretending focus on the movie while actually hyper-focusing on the fixed silence of the couch Spencer and Klara were on, wondered what the hell was going on over there. Her roommates were sprawled on various deck-chairs around the room, narrating the movie as it went and flinging popcorn at each other, and her ‘date’ for the night, a man named Tom she’d found splattered with paint and stoned out of his mind at a local wine festival and who had hands to die for, was happily discussing the merits French photography on her other side… but the couch was silent.

Finally, on the pretext of offering Spencer popcorn, she turned and looked at them, immediately recognising Spencer’s ‘help’ face when he hit her with a woeful stare that told her where Klara-with-a-K had her hands.

No one complained when she tossed her out, least of all Spencer.

“Honestly, Spencer, you could have said and I’d have kicked her out sooner,” she said later when Spencer was eating the pizza she’d bought him as an apology for getting him groped and all seemed to be forgiven. “Not suffered in silence like some kind of martyr.”

“I didn’t know what to say,” he responded through a mouthful of cheese. “But new rule—movie nights are off-limits to your insane schemes, okay?”

Really, she owed it to him to agree. So, she did.

 

Two weeks later, she asked him to a group movie trip and he said no, which wasn’t unusual. What was unusual was that he didn’t give in to her coaxing.

“What could you possibly be doing that’s more important than complaining about movie anachronisms while everyone in the cinema tries to shush us?” Emily asked him.

After a moment, he decided to answer, keeping an air of snootiness around his tone so she knew he was only telling her to keep her off his back.

“I’m going out to dinner with someone,” he said, waiting for her to demand details.

Instead, she just seemed surprised. Not excited, not curious, not teasing… just, surprised.

He’d wonder about that later.

“Well, have fun,” she said. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

And that was the last she said of it.

 

Emily didn’t know the specifics of how Spencer’s mysterious date had gone, and she wasn’t entirely sure she wanted them. It was one thing when she was actively encouraging his re-entry into the world of love and heartbreak, but to have him independently meeting people? That felt dangerous. That felt too much like a reminder that one day he was going to meet someone, move on, and forget her completely.

And maybe she was a little jealous, but she’d never admit that.

However, two weeks after when she decided to have a party just for the hell of it, there he was without her even asking, wandering around and answering various trivia questions for the group engaged in what looked like a vicious game of Trivial Pursuit, with shots.

“I didn’t even drag you out tonight,” she teased him when he made his way over to her and accepted a can of soda. “Look at you, seeking social companionship.” And it was killing her not to ask, so she added a nonchalant, “Not seeing your mysterious date tonight?”

Spencer shrugged. “Wasn’t a date,” he said, avoiding eye-contact. “I might have someone coming tonight, dunno.”

That brought a rush of uh oh into Emily’s gut as she realised that this guy hadn’t just popped in and out of Spencer’s life like a candle—that he might not be temporary. Suddenly, she was regretting her plan to get him hooked up with someone—suddenly all she wanted was the Spencer post Ethan, who’d been happier once his heart and healed and, more importantly, with her as his only real sole social outlet.

As soon as she thought that, she paused. Was that really what she wanted? Spencer stuck with hanging with her, because he didn’t have other options?

Was she really that small?

But those thoughts vanished ten seconds later, when Spencer tensed by her side with his gaze fixed on her front door. She looked.

And she groaned.

“You’re a fucking idiot,” she snapped at him, ignoring his spluttered ‘Emily, no, wait!’ as she put her cup down and stalked over there, ready to unleash unholy hell on them both. “Ethan, get your ass out of here.”

Ethan cocked his head at her, giving her a tired smile that had her pausing. It wasn’t really an Ethan smile, it just looked worn and sad. “Hello to you too, Emily,” he said. “Don’t worry, I’m not staying.”

“You’re not?” Spencer said from behind her, the disappointment in his voice audible.

Idiots, the both of them, Emily decided right then as she jabbed her thumb at the front door and followed them both out. They ended up on the stoop of the stairs, with Spencer sitting on the top, Ethan leaning on the railing examining his thumbnail, and Emily standing beside Spencer with her arms crossed.

“Tell me you’re not getting back together,” Emily said firmly, ready to be disappointed.

“We’re not getting back together,” the boys both chimed, Spencer sounded glum and Ethan oddly okay with it.

“Even though you’re going on sneaky dinner dates?”

“That wasn’t with Ethan,” Spencer said. Emily glanced at Ethan, but he didn’t seem shocked. “Phil’s here with him and wanted to talk to me before we met up, mostly to ensure we weren’t going to be stupid. She wanted to invite you too, but I didn’t want you to hear what we were talking about… I’m sorry.”

For Emily, none of this really made sense. It all felt so clandestine and made her feel fraught, as though there was some whole level of something she was missing and had missed to do with Ethan and Spencer’s breakup. Like she was on the outside looking in… like, just as her mother had told her, maybe their story wasn’t her story and she wasn’t a part or a consideration, at all.

But, looking at her friends, she made the first of what would prove to be a series of very adult decisions.

“Okay,” she said simply, deciding that she was fine not knowing if it was important to them that she not. “I guess I’m a little confused as to why you’re here, Eth, but I believe you.”

“We’re leaving tonight,” Ethan said quietly. “I’m going back to DC with Phil for a while, taking some time off of college. Maybe focusing on my music for a bit. And I’m going to therapy for… things. Things I should have dealt with a long time ago and I’m sorry I didn’t, Spence. I should have done better by us both.”

“I just want you to be happy wherever you are,” Spencer said. Emily looked from her best friend to Ethan, and saw something between them that landed deep… something she’d never had with any of her exes. Something more.

“Same to you, buddy,” Ethan said. “But I’m not worried. You’ve always been remarkable, and you’re always going to be. Right, Em?”

“Right,” she said, settling her hand on Spencer’s shoulder. “Remarkable.”

And, for that moment, he really seemed to believe them.

 

It wasn’t a remarkable night, the night it happened. It wasn’t like it had been for Emily, on a night filled with fireworks and bonfires, a night of celebration. There was no alcohol, no drugs, no regret. It wasn’t planned and it wasn’t anticipated, but it was special. To Spencer, at least, it was special, despite the fact that it was nothing like he’d expected and maybe, just maybe, it was better because of that.

Five months into Emily’s quest to ‘wing-woman’ for him and he was beginning to suspect she was giving up on him, especially after the last girl. This suspicion was compounded by tonight, when he arrived at the Halloween party they were throwing at her apartment with a feeling of longsuffering commitment to this friend and some hopeful books in his bag; Emily, who’d never let him wallflower before when she was committed to improving his love life, only rolled her eyes at him a little when he found a corner, tucked his headphones on, and began happily reading to the tune of one of Ethan’s songs while the party raged around him. The party-goers, well used to him, left him alone except to occasionally drunkenly offer him alcohol, which he declined.

Emily staggered over to him at one point, clumsily tugging his headphones from his head and earning a wry look as he tried to avoid being strangled by them as she listed violently to the left.

“You’re a book,” she declared, pointing at him and almost jabbing him in the eye. “This is Alice, she also likes… books. So you can book together.”

And then she was gone, leaving Spencer sitting there with his books and tangled headphones, looking up at the girl she’d left behind. His first thought about her was that she was plain and nervous-looking, tipping back onto her heels to study him.

Then she smiled and he quickly and irrevocably adjusted that opinion, because there was something in that smile that was utterly captivating. There was nothing shy about it. It was an Emily smile on a face that wasn’t like Emily’s at all… somehow.

“Well, hi there,” Alice said. Spencer sat dumbly, noticing everything: her straight, dark hair and her rainbow scarf and the way her jeans stopped before the feet so he could look down and see a thin, golden anklet blinking light at him every time she shifted her foot. Her smile was crooked and she had a mole under one eye, the eyes that crinkled a bit when she smiled with her entire expression. “Sorry, Emily didn’t tell me your name? Just said something about you being a book…”

“Spencer,” Spencer said, remembering his manners and standing in a cascade of books and his Walkman, shoving his hand out to her while trying to stoop to catch things at the same time. It failed, he over-balanced and tipped, and she grabbed his hand to stop him falling.

In that quiet space he’d marked out as his in the middle of Emily’s chaos, suddenly there was another. And, when he was safely on both feet and no longer in danger of falling, she didn’t let go of his hand.

“This is blunt of me,” Alice said with that same all-consuming smile, “but I really don’t like parties… I got dragged here kicking and screaming, except I’m not quite as resourceful as you about it apparently. Do you want to bring you, and your books, outside with me, maybe? I’d love to talk about them.”

“I’d love that,” Spencer said breathlessly. It only took a moment to find Emily and tell her he was leaving, earning an uninterested wave as she cheered on someone drinking alcohol from a shoe.

As they walked out the door, Alice took his hand.

 

They did end up outside, for a short time. Spencer read to her from the book he had been reading, before asking her her favourite book and then reciting that from memory just to see her smile with wonder. She wasn’t shy, perched on the wall near Emily’s apartment building with one leg crossed over the other, the anklet catching light with every car that passed, quizzing him about his memory and his studies and his life—but in a way that made him feel real, somehow, like he really was fascinating to her. Like he was someone she was connecting with, not just a person passing by.

She asked about Ethan’s music and he, for some reason, told her about Ethan. And then he told her more, feeling that something deepen between them as the night darkened and made it solely them. He even told her about that night, the night that had torn them apart.

She was quiet for a bit after that. A cool breeze kicked up and she shivered. It felt like the most casual thing in the world to slip his arm around her, letting her curl into his coat just like Emily would, except she was different in so many intangible ways to Emily. There was none of Emily’s insecure need to please; Alice just seemed sure that he was talking to her so he must be interested, without trying to gauge for disinterest like Emily often did. She didn’t flaunt her individuality like a shield, she just was. And she wasn’t confident on the top but frantically overcompensating underneath, she was just confident, something Spencer recognised and envied deeply. When Alice told him about her studies and her interests and her life, she was focused and assured and dedicated, and that combination was alluring enough to leave him dizzy. He was reminded, forcefully, of how heady it had always felt to watch Ethan sing, when the man had been well and truly in his element and revelling in it.

When she wrapped her rainbow scarf around him and her both, he let her, just as he let her kiss him when she initiated that too. She was a stranger, someone he barely knew, but it didn’t feel like it right now.

“You fascinate me,” she murmured against him. He’d never forget the scent of her scarf, or the way her eyes looked at that moment. “If I asked you to come home with me, would you?”

He hesitated, but only for a second. “I’ve never…” But it felt like assuming, despite her hand on his chest and the leftover warmth from her lips on his. What if he was misreading her interest?

Really, deep down, he was just as insecure as Emily, even if he’d discovered tonight just how much this actualised confidence in another person captivated him.

She paused, looking at him and cocking her head.

“I don’t mind,” she said, “if you don’t. I get if you don’t want to, but if you’re up for sex, I’m really into you. You’re cute as hell. But it’s no commitment, I’m just looking for a night—it’s not like it was with your ex, I promise. There’s no pressure, but hey. Your choice. Maybe it’ll be good for you, to not have to perform up to this standard you’ve set in your mind about how it should be.”

He was also beginning to suspect that he’d been wrong when he’d told Emily how disinterested in casual sex he was; as soon as she confirmed that it was just a night, far from being disinterested, suddenly the prospect felt a thousand times less dangerous. Just a night—it wouldn’t, couldn’t, be like Ethan. There was nothing here to ruin except a single, forgettable night with one brilliant woman, this girl who enchanted him so completely with all her easy competence. And maybe, just maybe, it might not be so forgettable. Whatever had gone wrong with Ethan, whatever horrible mistakes he’d made… they wouldn’t be repeated with her.

“I don’t think I want just sex,” he stumbled out, trying to understand what his brain wanted and didn’t want and what was a product of this pretty girl who really liked him and who he really liked in return.

“Good,” she replied. “I’m not offering just sex. Just because we’re never going to see each other again, doesn’t mean it’s worth nothing. Sex doesn’t need to be some passionate endeavour with your one true love to be important, you know? Maybe I’ll forget you, or maybe I’ll be eighty-eight and still talking about the cute guy with the wavy hair and the gorgeous eyes. Isn’t that important too?”

In the end, where she went, he followed.

And it was gloriously okay.

Chapter Text

Emily’s final year began with a bang, and with the unexpected arrival of an old face. Strolling through the college grounds on a break between two classes, she was absentmindedly trying to calculate how to get through the month without begging, borrowing, or stealing money for the overdue electricity bill that was starting to get a bit desperate. Out of nowhere, as though summoned by his need to scold her for being as financially incapable now as she’d always been, Spencer appeared by her elbow and grabbed her arm.

“You’ve got to come see this,” he panted, having clearly been running. She didn’t question how he’d found her, just let him drag her along up to the office he’d been given for his doctoral studies.

“You kidnapping me is great and all, but what am I supposed to be seeing?” she asked him as he dug through his desk searching for something and she floated around examining the décor. Spencer’s office was an ordered kind of chaotic that she could never aspire to, since she tended towards either a disaster zone or neat as a pin with no in-between.

“Wait, it’s here somewhere…” came his voice from the file cabinet he was now pawing through, spools of what looked like some kind of longform dataset tumbling out under his hands. Emily perched his officemate’s desk and waited patiently. “Here!”

He’d popped up holding a nondescript college memo, the kind for the faculty staff and post-docs. Emily took it, noted his wide-eyed face, and then scanned the contents. It took a second until she saw the name on the guest lecturer schedule: SSA David Rossi of the FBI.

Now that was a familiar name.

“It’s him, right?” Spencer asked, hovering too close as he tried to look too. She put her hand on his chest, pushing him back out of her personal space, but he wouldn’t be pushed. “Stop shoving, Em—is it him!?”

“No idea,” she said honestly. “Guess we’re going to have to investigate.”

 

Emily hated these career lectures. Surrounded by people who had plans and goals and knew where they were going, they were a vivid reminder that in under a year she’d be graduating and this safe bubble of college life, where it didn’t matter that she couldn’t hold down a job or plan a budget or really aspire to be anything, would burst. They left her feeling anxious and wound up, a creeping paralysis sneaking into her brain that felt like it would only ease if, somehow, she sabotaged herself from that devastating graduation. She hadn’t given into that temptation yet, of delaying the inevitable… but she suspected that she might. Or, maybe, she’d go on to post-grad too in some field she was passionate in.

As the crowd around her jostled and settled, the lecture theatre bustling, Emily wondered: was there any field she was passionate in? Passionate enough to study the way Spencer threw himself into his many fields? What did she want to do?

Who did she want to be?

Anyone but me, Emily thought glumly, sinking in her seat as she lost all desire to see if this was truly the return of Rotten Rossi from her childhood. Who cared if it was? All that would be was a reminder that she’d used to be more focused than she was now, that she’d used to have purpose… that she’d had more direction at eleven than she did now at nineteen.

“Here it goes,” whispered Spencer next to her, practically bouncing in his seat from excitement. Emily sunk lower. “Hey. You okay?”

He was looking at her, his glasses refracting the light oddly. He’d taken to wearing them more often lately; she wondered if his contacts were aggravating them again. That was something to focus on that wasn’t her bills or her life or her directionless lack of purpose—especially as she suspected this wasn’t something she could talk to Spencer about. He wouldn’t understand, she thought.

That was wrong; Spencer would have understood her far better than Emily would have ever expected but, as it turned out, she never discovered this. Without much fanfare beyond strolling out before the students and barking for quiet, David Rossi launched right back into their lives and knocked them both in the direction of a certain future.

“It’s him!” Emily gasped, her melancholy forgotten as she jerked up in her seat and elbowed Spencer hard. “It’s Rotten Rossi!”

“Amazing,” said Spencer with the same giddy grin she was feeling. Suddenly, those two alone of the sea of student faces they were lost in, felt the weight of their shared pasts hang heavy over them. Spencer touched Emily’s hand as he thought of being small again; she touched his fingers in return, and, grinning, they both leaned forward to listen to what their old friend had to say.

 

Both were too flustered to put their hands up during the QA time when Rossi was finished detailing to them the new techniques he was putting into play in the creation of the young unit of the FBI based around behavioural analysis and profiling. Spencer kept up a steady litany of whispers in her ear throughout the whole thing, queries and comments and expansions on theories Rossi was mentioning in relation to several of their cases, but Emily shoved a blank notepad at him and ignored him, letting him write down all his thoughts instead.

“We’ll take it to him after and you can interrogate him,” she hissed, someone kicking the backs of both their chairs. Rossi was answering another student’s question about family annihilators and her brain was spinning around everything he’d newly shoved into it: behavioural analysis? Could that be something she could do? Using her mind, her knowledge, to make a difference while still excelling physically, as a field agent? Along with the danger and prestige that came with it?

“It’s a difficult, challenging, and confronting job,” Rossi told the crowd. Emily shivered, feeling the hairs on her arms stand on end. Even if she didn’t focus on the fledgling BAU… could she be a field agent? “It’s not work everyone can, or would want, to do. And there are sacrifices you make for the work, things you miss out on—just ask my ex-wives.”

A titter of laughter followed that. Spencer was busy writing.

Emily just thought, well now, that didn’t matter. She didn’t plan on having a family anyway. What could she offer a family except the same kind of distance she’d grown up with, except without the hyper-competency of her mother?

So what was holding her here?

 

The lecture ended, Rossi finally managing to shoo off the few eager students still quizzing him on his new book. Emily grabbed Spencer’s arm, dragging him out of a side door and down towards the exit she knew they’d be taking.

“Why are we being surreptitious about this?” Spencer asked her, letting himself be hauled with his notebook flapping in one hand. “We are allowed to go talk to him, you know. That’s the point of him being here.”

“I don’t want to talk to him in front of everyone else,” Emily said. “Hurry up—he’s escaping!”

Rossi, who hated lecturing and hated students although he did like the attention, was indeed rapidly escaping. When he saw the two students skid out from a side corridor and cut him off, he groaned: this. This was why he should have brought Gideon. The man resonated with ‘go away’ vibes.

“I don’t do autographs,” he told them as he breezed past, seeing the dark-haired girl roll her eyes with a sour look on her face. “If it’s questions, you should have asked them before, now it’s time for me to—”

“But Agent Rotten, we just wanted to tell you how great we found you,” the girl said. Rossi stopped. Had she just…?

What?

He turned, staring at her. She stared right back, her expression a familiar kind of smug.

“I know you,” he said, trying frantically to place that look. Where had he seen that look before?

“But I have so many questions,” the boy was babbling, holding a notebook absolutely covered in what Rossi would politely refer to as ‘serial killer handwriting’—and he’d know—out in front of himself. “Emily, I told you we should have asked before, why’d you stop me! He doesn’t want to talk to us now, we’re bothering him—”

“Stop being neurotic,” she shot back in a low whisper. “You’re going to freak him out!”

Me? I’m going to freak him out! You cut him off like a lion at a waterhole!”

It clicked.

“Mother of God,” said Rossi, realising exactly who’d just hurtled back into his life. “Emily? Emily Prentiss?”

“Hi,” said she with a sharp smile that was just as dangerous on this almost-grown-ass woman as it had been when she’d been eleven. That, Rossi thought, was terrifying. After three divorces, he’d gathered a healthy appreciation for how dangerous headstrong women could be. “Miss us?”

Rossi looked at her companion, completely forgetting how eager he’d been to get away in the face of this unexpected reunion. “Spencer?” he double-checked, not at all surprised when the tall beanpole next to her smiled shyly in confirmation. After all, where one had been, there was always the other—that had always been their constant.

“Of course it’s Spencer, who else would it be?” Emily said impatiently. “Can we talk? We were at your lecture and we have a million questions.”

“Not quite a million,” Spencer corrected, pushing his glasses back up the bridge of his nose where they’d slid down. “But we’re sure you’re busy, so it’s okay if you don’t want to, it’s just really nice? To see you again, I mean…”

Rossi stared at them, still trying to handle the fact that the two kids he’d left behind in London over seven years ago were now here, in New Haven and grown up and so different than how they’d been. It was, for him, the first time he’d slammed hard up against the passage of time, something he’d been tempestuously ignoring since he’d turned thirty, and since his son had…

“We could talk in my office?” Spencer asked, still watching him.

Rossi blinked. “Your what?”

 

Rossi ended up taking them both out to dinner, shouting them to an expensive meal of the likes he suspected they hadn’t been enjoying since leaving home, judging by the relish on Emily’s face as she dug in as quickly as decorum allowed and, on top of that, Spencer’s wary stare at the priceless menus.

“I’m paying,” Rossi reminded the boy, just to stop him looking so worried. “Least I can do to get you both here. You have questions? You’re not the only ones!”

“What?” Emily mumbled through a mouthful of pasta. “What could you possibly want to know about us? We’re so boring.”

“Yeah, and the last time you spent an extended period of time with Emily, she peed on you,” Spencer added. There was a thump under the table and he muffled an ouch.

“We don’t talk about that,” Emily said dangerously. Rossi, wisely, took that advice.

“Doctoral studies, huh?” he asked instead, aiming the questions, for now, at Spencer. The kid had always been a little smartass, ever since the first day Rossi had met him, but it sure was something to see how focused that keen intelligence now was; before he knew it, his food was going cold and he’d spent the last half hour listening to Spencer delve deep into expansions on theories that Rossi and Gideon themselves had barely managed to scratch the surface of. Emily ate quietly; Rossi, despite his focus being set firmly on Spencer right now—he was beginning to get a sharp suspicion that the BAU needed someone like Spencer working for them—kept one eye on her too. He hadn’t forgotten how devious she could be too, her intelligence just as sharp even without the prodigious gifts Spencer was blessed with.

“You know, you can’t join the FBI until you’re twenty-three,” Rossi said finally, waving to get his wine refilled. “How old are you now?”

Emily was frowning, he noticed.

“Oh, uh,” Spencer stammered. “Nineteen. But I don’t… I don’t want to be in the FBI.”

They both looked at him.

“You don’t?” Rossi was bemused. “You practically wrote a thesis on my work during the course of a single introductionary lecture and you don’t think you could do the job? Kid, this is brain work, it’s not just explosions and guns. High-precision analysis, endless data work, countless case studies. Intensive interviewing and comparison with prior transcripts, statistical analysis. This is the kind of stuff you were into at eleven, let alone now! What’s holding you back?”

“I like academia,” said Spencer simply. “I like where I am. And I like… I like that I’m achieving something where I am?” He went quiet for a moment, gaze drifting away. Rossi followed his gaze, finding that he was watching a family against the wall, two parents and a teenage son. “I get to use my brain and get recognition for that work in a tangible, realised way.”

Rossi smirked. “Yeah, nothing says ‘fuck you’ to the people who didn’t believe in you like a whole wall of degrees, you got that right.”

Spencer grinned a little sheepishly as Rossi said this, plainly stating what he’d been dancing around.

“I also don’t like guns,” said Spencer sagely.

Rossi shrugged. “Well, I’ll be hitting you up again in five years to see if you’ve changed your mind,” he said, half joking and half deadly, deadly serious: if Spencer’s interest in forensic analytics started to take shape in his research, he’d have head-hunters after him within the decade as behavioural work took hold. Rossi had absolute belief in this. “Shit, I’ll even start petitioning for permission not to carry—the unit is relatively new and everyone in it so far has been a field agent, but there’s no reason we can’t have unarmed operatives. Why so moody, Em?”

Emily, who’d been resolutely staring at her plate for a good five minutes now, shrugged violently. Rossi, gauging somewhat incorrectly that she was pissed that Spencer was taking up most of his attention, attempted to turn the conversation to her.

“So, what’s your plan?” he asked, sensing his misstep when her expression darkened even more. “Okay, not a good subject. What are you studying?”

“Criminal justice,” she said stormily. Rossi opened his mouth to expand on that, but she continued: “For what it’s worth. I hate it.”

“You do?” Spencer asked, surprised. “That’s not true, you’re always talking about how much you like your…” He trailed off, sensing the same as Rossi had: there was something more going on here.

“Dunno why I bothered,” she said, dropping her fork and standing. “I’m just going to be a bored socialite by twenty-five. Thanks for dinner, Dave. It was really great to see you again and I’m glad your work is going well.”

And then she was gone.

“Oh, uh,” said Spencer, still sitting there looking stunned. “I should go after her…”

“I don’t think so,” said Rossi mildly. “When has going after Emily when she’s in the middle of a mood ever been helpful? Stay, have dessert. Talk to her after.”

“We carpooled in her car…” Despite this worry, Spencer didn’t stand. “I don’t know what just happened.”

Rossi took a gamble. “I do,” he said. “Have dessert and I’ll drive you home, but only if you give me her address.”

Startled, Spencer agreed.

 

A knock at her apartment door at ten at night was almost certainly Spencer and, thus, Emily answered it in a bathrobe with a towel wrapped around her hair, making sure he could see just how annoyed she was to be interrupted by the glare she was levelling on him.

It wasn’t Spencer.

“If looks could kill, there’d be a vacancy in the unit ready for you now,” said Rossi mildly, giving her the same look he’d used to give her when she was a kid. “Am I interrupting something important?”

“Hardly,” she snapped. There was a brief moment where she realised she was being rude for no reason and relented, stepping aside. “Come on in to Villa Prentiss. Don’t pet the cat, he bites.”

“Interesting.” Rossi came in with a bag slung across his back, looking around and seeming surprised by the battered interior. Kinky skittered away, probably to circle around and hunt down Rossi from the back. “I’m surprised your mother lets you live here. She’s always been one for a finer lifestyle.”

“I’m not my mother,” Emily said. “I live my life how I want, not how she wants me to be. She doesn’t get a damn say in it…”

“And how’s that working for you?”

Emily didn’t answer.

“Moving out?” Rossi asked, nodding to a pile of moving boxes against one wall.

“My roommates are, end of this semester. We’re still figuring out the specifics.” Emily didn’t expand on what the ‘specifics’ were, but Rossi assumed she meant ‘on how I’ll make rent without them’ seeing as he could see at least three overdue notices stuck to the refrigerator with a variety of novelty magnets. That, for him, was relatable. He remembered how desperate the wish to be independent had been, and how hard he’d made things for himself in the interim.

“I brought you some books, anyway,” he said, opening the bag and pouring the contents out onto her sagging couch. It was his old textbooks on behavioural profiling and a few detailed looks into the FBI and the training processes. She stared at them. He picked one up, waving it at her: “I signed this one.”

“You actually wrote a book.” Her tone, completely deadpan, was stunningly alike her mother’s just then, something he’d never tell her. In fact, he could see a lot of Elizabeth in this girl standing before him—this girl who wasn’t how she’d been at eleven, not even close, because there were a lot of walls between him and her that she’d only just started drawing the blueprints up for when he’d known her. He kind of missed how she’d been, fiery and wild but passionate. This girl? How she was now?

She was missing the passion.

“I actually wrote a book,” he said mildly, perching on the corner of her coffee table without asking permission. “Come on, sit down. Have a look. I think you’ll like what they have to say.”

But she didn’t move.

“This is Spencer’s thing, not mine,” she said with faux disinterest, trying to hide how avidly she’d been listening when Rossi had been talking to Spencer about a potential career. “I don’t have goals.”

“Oh yeah, goals are terrible,” said Rossi. “Terrible things, I hear they have the unholy outcome of possibly making your parental figures proud of you. Truly abhorrent. You know, if you live your life trying to fight her at every step, no one is winning. There’s a middle ground between ‘black sheep of the family’ and ‘perfect clone’, you know.”

“You’re making an awful lot of assumptions about me,” she shot back.

“Am I? I don’t think I am. You know what, I think I’ve figured it out—what’s so different about you. You’re trying so hard to be anything but your mother that you’ve stopped being you. This?” Rossi gestured around the crappy apartment which didn’t have anything of Emily in it, not really, considering how her exuberant personality usually spilled over into all the space around her. “Bullshit this is you. You were a chaotic kid but fastidious about it. You made your mark on the space around you, but a precise mark. And you took risks, measured risks—not risks for the sake of frightening your mother, but risks with some kind of reward at the end. Where’s that bravery now, huh? What are you doing right now that’s brave?”

Emily stared at him, looking a little thrown and very lost under her towel-hat.

“This apartment has the sole purpose of pissing off your mother,” Rossi finished firmly. “That’s it. That’s not you, Emily. Everything you did as a kid had a purpose beyond upsetting Elizabeth, that was just a happy side-effect of you being you—being the kind of kid who doesn’t have to fake interest in things that upset her parents. Remember how much you loved the idea of self-defence lessons? I remember, I think I still have bruises—that was you. That was your interest and passion driving you. Sneaking out at night to go ghost hunting? Climbing the walls to find squirrels? Gambling with the help?”

“That was Spencer.”

But he’d got her; she was smiling at the memory.

“You drove her nuts, sweetheart,” said Rossi carefully, adding on the pet-name very deliberately. It seemed like it had been a while since Emily had had anyone really attempt to parent her. Hell, he wasn’t the parenting kind, not really… but he’d thought a lot about those kids he’d left behind over the years, and his pride in how Spencer had shaped up was only tempered by his worry about Emily’s apparent aimlessness. “But you were just being you. You know, I think you’d be a killer FBI agent, really great… smart and sharp and determined to make a difference. It’s the kind of thing you used to chatter my ear off about doing, back when you’d make Spencer play spies with you in return for letting him read in peace later that day. Yeah, you’d be incredible and, as a side effect, your mother would be appalled that I encouraged it—you win, she doesn’t, unlike if you do nothing with your life and you both end up unhappy. Think about it.”

He stood, showing her his card before resting it down atop the books he’d left lying there, where it was immediately attacked by her murderously orange cat.

“Isn’t the FBI a bit of a boys’ club?” she called after him as he turned to leave.

“Absolutely,” he said, confident that his turned back would hide his satisfied smile. “So there would definitely be a ton of people who’d take one look at you and tell you you can’t do the work just because you’re a girl… people who wouldn’t think twice about Spencer being in your place.”

That, he knew, would piss her off.

And she’d always excelled when angry.

“I’ll think about it,” she said. When he glanced back, she’d picked up his book—the one he’d written a message for her in on the front page that he didn’t want to be here for when she read it. “I’ve got four years to figure it out, right?”

“All the time in the world for a girl like you,” he said. “Give me a call if you want to talk more about it, Em. I can help.”

After all, he’d always been brilliant at benevolent manipulation.

 

Emily curled up in bed that night with the book she’d been given, the one Rossi had written, opening it slowly as she pondered the potential she had on her lap. What he’d said had struck home. There was a fire she felt like she was missing, some intangible force that had always driven her to act before.

He’d written on the front page, a couple of lines of overwrought handwriting under a doodle of a hedgehog that she laughed to see. She stopped, readjusting the book in the lamplight, and read what he had to say.

Don’t ever avoid greatness because you don’t want others to bask in your light. The best way to beat them is to exceed them – and you’ve always had the potential to be terrifyingly brilliant. Fly, little Blackbird. I know you can.

Thoughtfully, Emily reached for her cell. She needed to ask her mother about something.

 

Spencer arrived at Emily’s several hours before they were due at a performance he’d been excited to see—and therefore had paid for a ticket for her to come to, since he was pretty sure she was broke again and hiding it—to find that she’d filled her living room with junk.

“Where on earth did you get all of this?” he asked, dodging stacks of books and papers and trinkets that all looked oddly familiar and yet not. “Also, are you ready? We’re going to be late.”

“Storage unit,” Emily said, popping out of the chaos. “It’s a ton of our stuff from Mom’s, stuff she put into storage since the Seattle house. Look—I found your clock things.”

“Whoa,” said Spencer, taking the toolbox she gave him and opening it with steady hands to find all his small clock-working tools that Gilbert Chambers had left him. “I forgot I had a lot of this… is my clock in there?”

“Yeah,” said Emily, Spencer rushing over to help her lift the clock out and shooing Kinky away from it. Even after Spencer replaced the pendulum carefully, it didn’t tick anymore, Spencer grieved by this. “Oh no. Can you fix it?”

“Maybe,” Spencer said, studying it. “I’d have to read the books again before I touched it—it’s very delicate, and I don’t have the old man here to help me this time.”

They smiled sadly, remembering their old friend before noting the time. Emily swore, darting away to get ready while Spencer continued looking through the piles of paperwork she’d unearthed from the boxes, curious what had driven her to go diving into Elizabeth’s storage unit.

“Hey, I think these are your old stories,” he called out, finding several glittery notebooks in there filled with childish handwriting and drawings. “This one is—”

Emily had appeared and lunged at him, yanking the books from his hands. “There they are!” she cheered, hair half-done and tumbling everywhere where it wasn’t pinned at the back and her dress barely holding to her front with the back hanging open. Spencer blinked, an odd flush of heat hitting him hard as she leaned to study the notebooks and the dress slipped down to reveal a hint of her bra. “Spence, get the back of my dress, would you? Also, you’re driving. I want to read these.”

“Why?” he asked, still feeling unsettled as he walked around her to fasten the hooks along the back of the emerald green dress. With a jolt, he realised that this feeling was very much the same as the night with the girl with the rainbow scarf, as he’d slowly unbuttoned her shirt to reveal the clear, pale skin underneath, a night he hadn’t told Emily about… swallowing hard, he tried not to look at Emily’s back as he fastened each hook.

“Because,” she said, but wouldn’t say anything further. Deciding to just let her be her, he shrugged and moved on with his day. Maybe she’d be more forthcoming after the show.

 

She spoke up in the car, as they idled in traffic that was setting his anxiety dial right to ‘extreme’. He hated, hated, hated being late, and late they were going to be—which meant he would have to rush in a theatre he’d never been in before, talking to strangers who’d judge him for his tardiness, plus sidling in when the show was already underway… his fingers tightened around the wheel, gritting his teeth against his worry.

“Rossi was right,” said Emily, Spencer shooting her a sideways glance. She ignored his clear tension. He hated driving and was always a basket-case of nerves behind the wheel, but right now she was more focused on the notebook on her lap. He’d be fine.

“About what?” Spencer gritted out. The traffic had begun to move, thankfully, as they picked up speed and entered the expressway. He relaxed, just a little; maybe they’d make it.

“He thinks I’m so focused on trying to not be my mother that I’m neglecting being myself,” Emily said, earning a startled look from Spencer. “And I was like, how can I be neglecting being myself? Isn’t that automatic. But then I read this book and I was a weird kid, holy heck, I don’t know how you put up with me… but I was so confident in who I was that it didn’t matter. Where did I lose that?”

“I was a weird kid too,” Spencer said quietly. “We were weird together.”

“Yeah, but you’re still weird,” Emily said with a small smile that told him it was a compliment. “Me? I’m, I don’t know. What am I?”

Spencer didn’t know how to answer that. He wasn’t entirely sure that Emily wasn’t still the same weird kid she’d been—and felt like pointing out the peepholes as evidence of this—but he suspected that that wasn’t the answer she was looking for.

“I just feel like you’re leaving me behind, you know?” Emily added. “You’ve already got multiple degrees and you’re so happy getting more, even though you could get a job just like that. A career, a real career, doing something important. Rossi would have hired you that night if he’d thought he could get away with it, and I know Mom’s talked to you about working with her.”

“She’s talked to you about working with her too,” Spencer pointed out.

“Yeah, but she knows I never will. She’s hopeful about you. You’ve got options, and I think I peaked at twelve.”

“You’re being ridiculous.” Spencer shook his head at her, unable to look at her expression to judge her mood as he kept his eyes on the road. “You’re nineteen, not dead. You’ve got time to figure things out. You know that, so what’s really bothering you—”

He’d cut off with a sharp inhale.

Emily didn’t look up from her book, opening her mouth to tease him about the strangled noise—then she slammed hard against the door, her head cracking the window and the world ceasing to make sense. She registered the crunch of metal on metal moments after the impact had actually happened, right before another impact slammed into them from behind. She was distantly aware of screeching Spencer’s name, closing her eyes against the wail of horns, the screams of tires on the tarmac as cars slammed to a halt, and the sound of glass shattering—and then there was a resolute thunk that she felt more than heard as their car came to a firm stop against the guard rail.

Emily opened her eyes, finding that the windshield was a strange array of spiralling cracks, sagged down the middle where it had buckled. Her head hurt abominably and her chest and stomach stung where the seatbelt had bit in… but she was okay? She’d lost her notebook, but she was okay.

She looked at Spencer, who was staring at the windshield with his expression so utterly shell-shocked that she wasn’t sure he even knew what had happened. Not that she knew either.

“Are you okay?” she asked him, her head ringing. “What hit us?”

Spencer didn’t answer, just kept staring and staring until, finally, he slowly turned his head to look at her. He went to lift his hand, to reach towards her and touch at the side of her head—she began to suspect he hadn’t heard her talking to him—and then he went a ghastly shade of grey, his arm dropping.

“Ow,” he wheezed, tears springing up.

Her heart slammed into action, adrenaline sparking through the shock: he was hurt. And, now that she’d realised, the rest of their precarious situation came solidly into focus. The side of her car, his side, was buckled to hell, his door firmly knocked in and the wheel kinked at a jerky angle. The window was gone, his hair and clothes absolutely coated in glass and with small cuts all over the side of his face, and she unbuckled her seatbelt and fought her dress to climb up on her knees and lean over to check on him.

“Emily,” he wheezed, jerking around to look out the window. She ignored him, trying to get the glass off of him and see if he was bleeding—see just how badly he was hurt. “Emily!”

“What?” she gasped, snapping her wavering vision up to his face. “Where does it hurt? Where are you hurt?”

And she was barely breathing through the terror that he was hurt worse than she knew how to handle, that he was going to die right here without her even being able to get his seatbelt off with how his seat had shifted.

“I’m okay,” he said firmly, gaze flickering back to the window. “Is everyone else?”

She stared, confused. Who else? Who else needed her other than him?! Didn’t he realise that he was…

But she’d followed his gaze and realised where he was looking. They collateral damage of a larger crash, and there were other cars out there looking worse then they were. Emily could see one man climbing out of a green sedan that looked like it might have been the one who’d hit them, and another small grey two-door looking thing that didn’t look okay at all. There was blood on the window, and no one was going near it.

“Go see if everyone is okay,” Spencer urged her. “Go—I’m okay, I just can’t get out. Seriously, Em, someone needs to make sure help is coming. Look at them, you’re the calmest one here. You can do it.”

Emily closed her eyes, breathed for a second, and then opened them as she nodded. It was the hardest thing she’d done, turning her back on him and climbing out of her broken window to slide down the buckled hood, but Rossi had been right: it had been a while since she’d been brave and this? Walking away from Spencer when all she wanted to do was make sure he was okay, make sure he didn’t somehow slip away while she wasn’t looking? That took all the courage she had, and that was even without her knowing that it was a decision that would change her life.

Chapter Text

It was a dismaying moment for the man walking into the hospital waiting room, finding Emily sitting there looking shell-shocked, bruised, and very confused with a blood-stained green dress in a plastic biohazard baggie sitting on her lap. She was dressed in hospital pyjamas but still wore the strappy shoes she’d put on in expectation of a theatre performance, her hair tumbling in odd half-waves around her battered face. It was all very not-Emily, and the fear he’d been choking down since she’d called his cell-phone to alert him to the accident rose again.

There was no sign of Spencer.

When she saw him approaching, she did something else just as worrying: she burst into tears.

“Oh, sweetheart,” said David Rossi, crouching to take her hand and hold it gently. “We’ll get this sorted, just you see. You’re gonna be okay.”

Emily, still sobbing, didn’t really believe him, but she still let him lead her from the hospital and out to his waiting car.

 

They drove in silence. Emily was curled with her knees to her chest, face pressed into those flannel-clad legs, and Rossi wondered whether this older Emily would respond to questions as explosively as the younger one had when in a mood.

“Thank you for coming to get me,” she mumbled suddenly, face still hidden. “I’m sorry to bother you, especially when you look all dressed up… I didn’t have anyone else to call.”

“It’s fine, Em,” he said with complete honesty, glad that he’d still been in town to receive the call. “When are they releasing Spencer?”

She shrugged morosely. “I’m not family, and Mom wasn’t answering… I don’t know… they wouldn’t tell me!”

The tears were back.

“I couldn’t even see him because they said they had to prep him for surgery,” she wheezed, face finally appearing and revealing that she’d been probably crying the whole way judging by her red, swollen eyes and patchy skin. Rossi eyed her as they hit some red lights, wary of the spreading bruise on her temple and her glassy stare, as well as the paper bag with the pharmacy logo clutched at her side. That and the bloodied dress was stressing him out just as much as the tears were.

“Did he say anything when you saw him?” Rossi asked.

Emily shook her head and then whimpered, hands coming up to press at her skull. He winced for her. “They had him all doped up, he didn’t even know I was there.”

Rossi took another angle: “And you?” he asked. “What’s the prognosis on you, kiddo?”

The furious glare she gave him, even squinty-eyed and dismayed, was somewhat relieving.

“I’m fine,” she snapped. “It’s a concussion, it’s nothing, I should have done more.”

“Ah,” said Rossi. Suddenly, he thought he might understand her manic misery. “How about we just get you home, and then we’ll talk.”

“What’s there to talk about?” Emily mumbled, face hidden again.

Rossi, wisely, said nothing.

 

At her apartment, Emily allowed herself to be poured into bed with a bottle of water and the painkillers she’d been given. Rossi pulled the curtains for her, leaving her in the blessed dark as a deep-seated headache continued trying to rip her skull apart, and she curled under the covers and tried to stop crying for the eightieth time today. It didn’t work—every time she closed her eyes, she saw Spencer whimpering ow, or she heard the squeal of brakes again, or, even worse, she saw his face. It wouldn’t go away, lingering behind her eyelids and popping out like a ghost when she blinked.

Rossi reappeared, slinking the door shut behind him so her bedroom remained dark and perching on the side of her bed, watching her from under his bushy eyebrows.

“Would you like me to call your mother for you?” he asked. Emily, despite being an independent girl who didn’t need any help with anything, thank you very much, nodded miserably. She couldn’t handle it right now, not with her head and that face… “Right, easy done. She can get onto the hospital for you and we’ll know about Spencer before you can sneeze. How’s the head?”

Sliding her hand out from under the covers, Emily waggled it to indicate ‘so-so’. Rossi grunted.

“Alright.” He leaned back on his hands behind him, staring across her gloomy bedroom and seemingly focused intently on her band posters on the wall opposite. “Do you want to talk about what you saw today?”

Emily did not.

“Hmm,” said Rossi. There was a long beat of silence where Emily wished that Rossi would leave and Rossi wished that Emily was easier to talk to. “Well. I remember the first time I saw someone die, and it was a hell of a thing, Em.”

Emily wheezed a little, closing her eyes against those words and seeing his face again: those bloodied lips and the foamy saliva and the way his breathing had been wet and kind of chunky and—

“I was just a kid really, not so much older than you… and I was a soldier, but it wasn’t an enemy combatant. It was just this homeless guy laying on the side of the road, starved to death. I still remember how thin his face was. Shit, I don’t think I remember my mother’s face as well as I do that man’s, and I never knew his name.” Rossi fell quiet, still looking at her posters. “You’re probably going to need to talk to someone about that, Emily. I don’t know what happened, but—”

“I think I killed him,” Emily whispered, the terrible truth. Rossi looked at her. “He was in his car and wasn’t breathing and I know you’re not supposed to move people in accidents but I couldn’t do CPR with him in the car and—”

“Breathe,” Rossi reminded her.

She breathed, and tried again.

“So I got someone to help me get him out the window and then I tried to do CPR like we got taught ages ago, but he…” She swallowed, licking her lips again and tasting an echo of the blood he’d coughed up into her mouth before dying, the blood that meant she was getting a battery of tests over the next six months to make sure she hadn’t caught something. A nightmare that wouldn’t end. “He died anyway. But I kept going.”

And some. Her back ached like it never had before, her muscles as weak as jelly. Her throbbing head was nothing to how sore those were.

“Don’t tell Spencer,” she said finally, closing her eyes and seeing him again. “It was the driver of the car that caused the accident, it wasn’t Spencer’s fault at all but… he’ll get weird.”

“The police are going to want to talk to him,” Rossi said gently. “You shouldn’t hide it from him, especially not if you’re struggling.”

But Emily had decided: her focus, right now, needed to be Spencer. She’d deal with her problems later.

“Please,” was all she said.

“Alright,” he replied. “Well, I’m going to go call your mother and then I’m camping on your couch. Shout if you need me.”

She blinked. “You’re staying?”

“Damn right I am. Are you really going to get me to ring Elizabeth Prentiss, tell her her daughter was in a car accident, and then tell her I’m going? She’d have me hanged immediately, my god. Now, go to sleep. You’re going to have a hell of a day tomorrow dealing with your insurance company.”

And, with a thin smile, he slipped out of the room and left her lying there thinking of the man who’d died. Her dreams, when she finally slept, were predictable.

 

Elizabeth Prentiss was not having a good day. She’d been woken at two a.m. by, of all people, David Rossi—who’d informed her that Emily and Spencer had been in a car accident! Elizabeth’s panic had been immediate and all-consuming, but not a single hint of it showed in her voice as she’d calmly gathered the information she needed: the hospital Spencer was admitted to, Emily’s status as being home, concussed, and sleeping, and anything else David knew, which wasn’t a whole lot.

“Why on earth did she call you?” was the last thing Elizabeth asked him, truly puzzled by this. “I thought you were living in DC now, the last I heard of you. Doing very well for yourself.”

“A surreptitious meeting,” was all he answered, his usual rowdy amusement audible through the long-distance phoneline despite Elizabeth’s exhaustion. “And what am I to tell Emily about this call?”

Elizabeth made a very rash promise: “Tell her I’ll be there on the next flight,” she announced, standing and going for her suitcase. Moscow be damned, she remembered Spencer’s appendicitis. And, while she planned on calling the hospital immediately following this phone call both to ascertain Spencer’s condition and to remind them of his allergy to post-operative antibiotics, that would not be any form of substitute for her standing there beside her children certain that they were alive.

Also, she was going to need to call Diana.

Oh lord, she was going to need to call Diana.

“I’ll tell her when she wakes up,” David said, bidding her farewell and hanging up.

Elizabeth, after a brief moment of contemplation, dialled the hospital—and the chaos continued.

 

When Emily awoke, it was to news. Spencer was okay, something that Rossi was quick to tell her before anything else.

“A broken leg?” she asked, half-amused and half-annoyed by this news. “All that fuss for a broken leg?”

“And collarbone,” Rossi added, “so he’s going to be sore and useless for some time. Your mother says they had to pin the break since it was a particularly nasty one, and he’ll be needing to come back here when he gets released tomorrow until alternate care arrangements can be made.”

Emily scowled, thinking that over.

“Alternate care arrangements?” she asked slowly. “Who? Mom?”

Rossi, who was also aware that Elizabeth was having trouble extracting herself from Moscow as smoothly as she’d been hoping to, paused. “In due time,” he said diplomatically, nudging Emily’s pills towards her in a not-so-subtle gesture to take her medication for the headache he could tell was still lingering. “Until then, she’s trying to arrange a carer to assist him with moving around until he can put weight on the limb. The collarbone makes crutches un—”

“Why can’t he stay here?” Emily demanded. With that, she was up, her brain racing over Spencer’s horror if he found out a stranger was to look after him. “He hates strangers, especially strangers touching him. It’s only a broken leg, surely I can help him out, right?”

“Well—”

“Gosh, this is so like her,” Emily raged, well and truly worked up now. “She always does this! Just steamrolls over us without considering what we want. Look, I’ve got this apartment all to myself, why can’t he stay here? He can have my bed and I can help him, fuck. I’m so sick of her. When are we going there? I’ll tell him right away that he’s staying with me and then I’ll call her and tell her to go jump.”

And, with that, she was up and stalking around looking for clothes. Rossi stood awkwardly by, wondering whether to argue or not. In the end, he decided not: this wasn’t a hill he wanted to die on and, to be honest, he was pretty sure Spencer would prefer this anyway.

“She has the worst ideas,” Emily declared on their way out the door, neither of them having any knowledge that the worst was yet to come.

 

Elizabeth, having realised that she was not going to make it home anytime soon and horrified by the notion that Emily, of all people, was planning to act as caretaker for an incapacitated Spencer in that nightmare of an apartment, knew very well that Emily was going to be stubborn about the concept of a stranger coming into her home to help, but Elizabeth needed eyes in that apartment reporting back to her on her children’s conditions. As a stubborn Emily was a nightmare to deal with when living under the same roof as her, let alone several continents away, Elizabeth did what she did best: she found a loophole.

Emily, when informed of what would be happening, was furious.

“I don’t need help, Mother,” she snarled into the phone, curled up beside Spencer’s bed and watching him sleep off the post-surgical haze. The tubes up his nose were freaking her out, despite the nurses reassuring her it was just a precaution after being anesthetised, and she was eager to have him—and his bulky cast and ugly sling and all his collective bruises—up and out of this hellhole. “I can do it on my own.”

“You’re being ridiculous,” Elizabeth scolded. “For once in your life, Emily, listen to good advice when it’s handed to you. You cannot possibly do everything he requires, despite your best intentions—you can’t even cook!”

“I can learn!” was Emily’s hot response. “Why are you treating me like a child? If it was the other way around, bullshit you’d be on Spencer’s ass—”

“Language.”

“—like this. You’d let him look after me!”

Elizabeth sighed. “I wouldn’t be having this conversation because Spencer, unlike you, understands his limitations. And while, yes, I would trust Spencer to care for you in a manner beyond how I trust you to care for him because he, unlike you, has proven that he is not a child and is fully capable of considering other people, he wouldn’t be so pigheaded to assume that—”

Emily, incensed beyond belief, strangled down an angry noise that was probably inappropriate for a hospital and ended up sounding like a cat being stepped on. Spencer twitched.

“Oh, for crying out loud—he’ll need assistance showering, Emily! Consider his feelings if you—do not hang up on me!”

Midway to doing just that, Emily paused. It was a little uncanny that Elizabeth had known and, reluctantly, she pulled the phone back to her ear, wrapping the cord moodily around her finger.

“I wasn’t going to,” she lied. On the bed, Spencer was pretending to be awake. She knew he was pretending, doing that strange, glazed blinking at the ceiling he’d done five times the last fifteen minutes before going back to sleep. Guy took being operated on as well as a cat handled a rocking chair factory. “Why won’t you trust me? He’s my best friend, I’d never hurt him. He trusts me.”

“Spencer’s propensity to trust so easily and absolutely is his most unendearing character trait,” Elizabeth muttered, Emily flipping the phone off just to silently voice her feelings right now. “Quite frankly, Emily, I wouldn’t trust you with a puppy let alone a living being in a vulnerable state—especially not the child of someone so dear to me—”

“You act like he’s your kid,” Emily grumbled, a kick of something she’d never really felt before digging deep into her gut. “Except, no you don’t, because you’ve never cared this much about me…”

Elizabeth was quiet for a long moment. “That was harsh of me,” she said finally. “But the fact of the matter is, I will not be strongarmed into compliance on this issue. I also respect that you will not allow a stranger into your home and, as such, I’ve contacted you father.”

Emily, who’d expected anything but that, blinked. Spencer had ceased pretending to be awake and was now actually awake, looking down at his leg with a dawning kind of horror on his face, or maybe he was just surprised that it was still there at all.

“Dad?” she rasped. Spencer now looked at her, still blinky. She gave him his glasses with the cord-wrapped finger. It helped, a bit. “But, he… but…”

“He’ll be there in two hours,” Elizabeth said resolutely. “He’s agreed to assist you with anything you need up to and including organising a day nurse if Spencer requires it.”

There was simply no way that Emily could voice what she wanted to voice through her shock. It was clearly showing on her face however, as Spencer was looking increasingly alarmed as he watched her without saying anything.

“How?” she finally managed, feeling sick. Her headache was back. She wondered where Rossi was, and why he couldn’t just stay until Spencer was better or why her mom just couldn’t come home or why…

Anything but this.

“Never you mind, just know that he’s happy to help and hopes that this may mend the rift between you both,” said Elizabeth, who hadn’t said anything so blatantly untrue in quite some time and felt somewhat uncomfortable about it right now. However, she’d made the choice to call her estranged husband and she’d laid out the cards required into tempting him to do her bidding this one last time, and it was on her to deal with the fallout of that. “At the very least, he’s not a stranger and he will be of physical use if Spencer falls. He is also some financial security for you both, a fall-back perhaps.”

Emily wanted to say, “but he is a stranger,” or even, “I don’t want to see him,” or perhaps, “please tell him to go away.” Instead, she sat silently and tried to remember what he looked like.

“This is a good chance for you all to reconnect,” Elizabeth tried.

Emily remained silent.

“I’m glad you agree,” her mom said finally, giving up on this conversation. “I’ll try and be home within the month. Emily?”

Emily stared at Spencer’s cast, still saying nothing.

“Be good,” said Elizabeth, changing her mind last minute from reassuring her daughter of her love for her. Now wasn’t the time, she guessed. Emotions were too raw; she’d try again when she was back. “Tell Spencer to call me when time allows. Goodnight.”

She waited a moment for a response, hanging up when that response failed to appear.

“What was that about?” rasped Spencer, wincing as his throat scratched. “Am I allowed water?”

“I hate my mother,” was all Emily would say, leaning forward to press the call nurse button for him.

 

Rossi helped Emily take Spencer back to the apartment, apologising the whole time that he couldn’t stay and assist her. She didn’t really know why he was apologising so much when he barely knew them now and couldn’t possibly care this much; Rossi, who’d seen how utterly devastated she’d looked when telling him her father was coming to help her, was having an uncharacteristic attack of almost paternal worry.

Spencer, who’d been helpfully doped up in order to transport him home by a combination of Rossi’s car and a borrowed wheelchair, said very little as he alternated between being stoned and awake and sleeping like the dead despite the bumpy ride.

Once there, Rossi assisted her with getting Spencer into her bed—with Emily furiously noting that she’d bought new sheets for the occasion so Spencer wasn’t using hers, plus new pillows and she’d set it all up so there were books and all kinds of things from his apartment next to his bed and within reach including a basket he’d asked for but told her not to peek in—and then helped her set up a friend’s borrowed cot in the living room beside the couch she’d be sleeping on for the foreseeable future. Spencer slept through it all.

“Do you think I could do it alone?” Emily asked Rossi midway through unfolding the cot, looking up at him plaintively. “Look after Spence, I mean. I’m not useless, am I…?”

“Emily, despite just being in a catastrophic car accident, you ran in and gave CPR to a dying man on the singular chance you could save his life,” Rossi reminded her. “You’re not useless. I wouldn’t have given you my books if I thought you were useless.”

“So you think I could do it alone?” she demanded.

He gave her an odd look. “I don’t really understand why everyone is so adamant you’re alone in this,” he said cryptically. “By default, you have at least one other person in it with you.”

Emily, confused by this, just scowled.

Rossi decided to let her figure that one out on her own, since she seemed to be making the same reasoning error as everyone else around her and pointing it out while she was fretting would likely just earn another frown. “I think that if your father falls through,” he said, diplomatically not saying ‘when’ instead of ‘if’, “you will rise splendidly to the occasion.”

After all, he thought privately, she was already on the cusp of realising her current life was unsustainable.

“I guess,” Emily said warily.

“Don’t guess,” he told her with a wink. “It’s unbecoming, and invites disaster. Now, come on. I’m going to teach you how to make soup before I have to catch my plane. There isn’t a single thing easier to feed to the bedridden, I promise you.”

And, for a few hours at least, it seemed things would be okay.

 

Michael Prentiss breezed back into their lives as though he’d never left; much like their childhoods, he did this by being ever so slightly off the mark with even his most well-intended gestures.

“There’s my little girl!” was his first proclamation as he entered the apartment and opened his arms to hug his cautious daughter, who was neither ‘his’ nor ‘little’ in her eyes and immediately irritated by both these presumptions. The third strike was the hug, Emily stiff and ungainly in his grasp as she battled the childish urge to shriek ‘Daddy!’ and hug him back like she would have the last time she saw him warring with her more learned behaviour of avoiding embraces from almost everyone. “Come here and let your father look at you, my lord. Photos don’t do you justice, Emmy, you’ve gotten so tall and pretty.”

Emily smiled tightly, inching away from him and trying to decide what to do with her hands. ‘Emmy’ grated, as did the implication that he cared enough to ask for photos but not to actually visit her in person, as did… well, all of this. She didn’t want to seem happy about this, but also not standoffish; she also wanted him to leave while also hoping that he never vanished from her life again. It was a sickening crash off too many emotions, and there certainly wasn’t enough Emily in her brain to deal with it all.

“Not much of a talker, huh?” said her dad, continuing to smile a little manically at her. “Well, you never really were one for chatting, were you?”

This was entirely untrue. Emily, instead of pointing this out, shrugged. Maybe she was misremembering herself, after all, surely her dad knew her, right?

“I guess not,” she said unsteadily. “Uh. How was your… flight?”

“Good.”

They looked at each other some more, Michael bumping his heel against his suitcase as his foot shifted a little indecisively.

“You know, it wasn’t fair of your mother to take you so far from me,” he said, his face falling. Suddenly he looked old and worn and sad, and something in her heart hurt at the combination as some long-forgotten love for this man surmounted unexpectedly. “I missed your whole life so far, so much time gone. That wasn’t fair, it wasn’t right. Don’t you think that was wrong?”

Emily, who could have pointed out that he’d had until they were eight together and that they hadn’t left Seattle until she was ten and that he’d left them, said none of this. Instead, she latched onto something she felt comfortable with: being angry at Elizabeth.

“It was wrong,” she said with a seething anger that really had nothing to do with her childhood and everything to do with feeling useless and unreliable and confused right now. “I don’t think she’s ever cared about any of us, not once. Not even a little. It’s like I’m not even her daughter… she doesn’t trust me at all…”

“Well,” said Michael with a smile that was too bright for Emily’s misery, “lucky your dad is here now. We don’t need that old bat now, do we?”

Emily smiled, holding out her hand for his suitcase.

“I’m glad you’re here,” she said, at that moment in time meaning it.

 

It took a day for this fragile truce to fall apart. Michael had seen a thin thread of familiarity between him and his daughter and, desperate to make this work, he clutched at it. It was after the thirteenth snide jibe at Elizabeth’s parenting in so many hours that Emily realised that she didn’t actually hate her mom, not like her dad apparently did.

Perhaps that was because Spencer heard this one.

Michael had remembered that there was one other person in the small apartment, letting himself into the bedroom where Spencer dozed without asking or knocking. Emily scuttled after, thrown by his rudeness but unwilling to admit he was wrong until she’d decided on how she felt about him, and found Spencer looking startled and awake as Michael tried to shake his hand and accidentally grabbed the one that should have been in the sling.

Spencer yelped, Michael let go fast, and the whole thing was a resounding disaster.

“Where’s your sling?” Emily asked grumpily when things had settled down, looking around for it. Spencer sullenly conjured it from under his pillow, his skin looking sallow and his eyes locked suspiciously on Michael. “Why are you wearing it, you twit? It won’t heal if you don’t wear it, they warned us.”

“It’s uncomfortable,” Spencer complained. “And it’s too hot. And my leg itches.”

“I’ll get you a pedestal fan.” Emily took the sling, carefully trying to ease his arm back into it without hurting him. He helped, as much as he could, still watching Michael. “And a couple of rulers taped together, just like last time.”

“Minus the fleas, thanks,” Spencer said. This earned a laugh and, for a moment, she felt the tension in her body loosen just a little. He seemed fine.

“This has happened before?” asked Michael, startling them both.

“Spencer broke his leg when we were kids,” Emily said after a beat of realising it was a question aimed at her. “Off that old pier behind our house, you know the one. It was so dumb…”

“And your fault,” Spencer reminded her. “You dared me. And then you gave me fleas bringing my hare inside.”

“That sounds like Elizabeth all right,” Michael commented. “No supervision at all, it’s a wonder you didn’t drown in that lake, either of you. She never was one for parenting.”

Emily laughed a little thinly just to defuse the awkward silence, but Spencer was frowning.

“My mom was there too,” he said hotly. “Are you saying my mom wasn’t parenting me either? We weren’t infants, we were perfectly capable of looking after ourselves.”

Michael fumbled for words for a moment, Emily frozen between them. “I meant no offense to your mom, son,” he stammered out. “I was just saying, I doubt Elizabeth was all that caring after, was she? She was never around when Emmy was sick—”

“No one calls her that,” snapped Spencer with uncharacteristic anger, the come-down of his pain-killers shortening his temper dramatically. “And you weren’t there either, were you?”

Silence.

“And neither was my dad,” Spencer said furiously. “Elizabeth was. She’s always been there for me and my mom, work allowing. I think being bad at showing how much you care for someone but still being there is eons better than being present but faking that you care, don’t you?”

More silence. Emily swallowed.

“Perhaps I better order dinner,” said Michael finally, forcing another smile. “Chinese? Yes? Good, good.”

And he vanished from the room, leaving them standing there.

“All I’ve heard all day is him sniping at her,” Spencer said, feeling a little shamed now that he looked up and saw Emily looking grey and worried next to him. “It’s not fair, not when she’s always done her best by us. Why is he even here, what does he even want? We’d be fine on our own.”

Emily opened her mouth to agree, right as the lights thumped off with a resounding click. She closed it again, heart sinking as she remembered those overdue notices that she’d completely forgotten following the accident.

And she definitely couldn’t afford to get the power back on alone.

Resigned, she slumped her shoulders, muttered, “We need him here,” and crept from the room to go ask her father for help.

 

The next day passed in a haze of unhappiness for Emily. Spencer pinwheeled from being lucid and angry to stoned and uncomfortable for her to talk to, realising how much she relied on his razor-sharp awareness to feel like things were okay around her. Her apartment had become foreign ground. There was a men’s shaver that wasn’t Spencer’s on her bathroom sink and strange food in the fridge and Michael spent most of his time going through her paperwork and trying to get her affairs in order after taking her to task for letting the power get shut off.

It rankled a bit, that he felt his place was to scold her, but she told herself that he was her father and he was here trying to reconnect with her, so she let him do it.

When she slept—which wasn’t often, between trying to keep Spencer comfortable now that there was a distinct awkwardness between him and Michael and her father’s snoring keeping her awake—she dreamed of the man she’d seen die, and woke quickly without getting any real rest. There was no comforting conversation to be had, with Spencer barely aware and, when he was aware, seemingly nothing but hateful about her father, and with her father hardly offering any kind of support. The few times she tried to talk to him led her down weird trails of conversation that she didn’t really know what to do with, right up until she realised that he talked to her like she was still eight and he was just humouring her until she got bored and went off to play. That was a sobering realisation. And, among it all, she ignored Elizabeth’s phone calls like never before.

Then she received an odd text. It was from Rossi and said nothing but for her to check a page of the one of the more popular city newspapers. Puzzled and eager for the chance to escape the stifling apartment—with the power back on now really not helping since Michael seemed to run the TV at full blast all day as background noise, which grated—she vanished to find a copy.

What Rossi had sent her on a quest for turned out to be the funeral pages. Emily stared at them for a while, until it clicked: the man who’d died. Dead people needing burying because people needed to grieve, right? To come to terms with death.

She didn’t know his name, but someone did.

Rossi, once he answered the phone, was only too glad to assist.

 

Emily hadn’t decided if she was going to go the funeral right up to the day of. With it lingering on her mind, she ghosted around the apartment that didn’t really feel like hers, dodging her father’s clutter as she wordlessly made breakfast for them all, tided the dishes, and then took Spencer in a meal. He was awake and sore, and outrageously bad-tempered judging by the book that had been tossed across the room and his stormy face—boy was she looking forward to his mood improving—but she ignored this in favour of dropping his pills beside his OJ and standing there with her arms crossed.

“I hate the pills,” he whined without a good morning, leaning around to eye the door as though Michael—who’d learned quickly that Spencer didn’t want a bar of him—was about to burst in. “They’re horrible. I hate sleeping so much, can’t I come out into the living room?”

“Dad’s out there,” she reminded him, his mouth thinning. “Just take them, Spencer.”

“Why? It’s my pain if I don’t, what does it matter…”

“And you’re a total cunt when you’re hurting,” she snapped back. Her chest felt tight every time she thought about the funeral today, her stomach hurting so much she doubted she’d be able to eat her own toast now, even if it wasn’t going cold out there while she fussed in here. “Just take them and stop being an asshole, I’m sick of dealing with assholes.”

He slouched, expression turning even more thunderous, but he didn’t bitch anymore; he swallowed the pills wordlessly.

“There,” he muttered when done, “now I’ll just sleep and be stupid and you won’t have to deal with me. If you’re so sick of me, why not let me go home? I never signed up to be your burden because of my mistake…”

And he looked away, his eyes dangerously bright and guilt adding to the pit in her gut.

“I didn’t mean it like that…”

He didn’t answer, just kept staring at the wall. Emily, instead of tackling what hurt to talk about right now—that she’d just made him cry and that gutted her—sniffed and tried to change the subject.

“You need a shower,” she said firmly. The bathroom had been solved, at least, Michael being able to help support him up the short hallway and letting him lean his weight on the sink while they lingered outside hoping he didn’t fall, but showering was going to be a job and a half. “I can help—”

“No,” he said bluntly. “I’m not getting naked in front of you. I’ll do it alone.”

“You’ll fall, you idiot—”

“I don’t care.”

They looked at each other, neither willing to budge.

“Dad will—”

“No.”

Silence some more, broken by the TV yammering on uselessly outside Spencer’s door. Emily felt a headache beginning; she thought, again, of the funeral.

Anger sparked.

“Come on,” she snapped, grabbing the breakfast tray and moving it as she yanked the covers back. “We’ll tape your leg up and get you in there—”

He grabbed the covers with both arms, Emily letting go fast when she heard the distinct sound of something shifting in his chest and his skin paled completely. But he didn’t let go, clutching the covers hard and staring at her all wide-eyed and panting, nothing familiar in his panicked expression.

“No,” he wheezed, clearly struggling through how much that stupid move had hurt him. “I’m not getting changed in front of you. No, no, no. Get out—I’ll do it myself, get out.”

“Why are you being so weird?” she snapped, voice rising. “I’ve seen you in practically nothing before—”

“It’s not the same!”

“—and you really stink, you need this. Come on, look, if you’re really going to make me do this.”

And, without further ado and reacting mostly out of a stubborn determination to get at least this done for him, she yanked her shirt off and went for her bra.

“We’ll both be naked and then no one is awkward,” she said with a thin smile, only stopping when she saw how horrified he looked as he snapped his eyes shut and looked away, chest heaving and knuckles white where they were buckled into the covers over him. “What now?”

But he didn’t answer, just gasped for air through what she realised too late was some kind of panic attack, goosebumps lining every extremity of his arms and his entire body trembling. Her own panic skyrocketed along with the assurance that she’d hurt him, somehow, maybe when grabbing the covers.

“My shirt’s back on,” she said quickly, doing so fast. “See, look, hey—Spencer? I’m dressed, man, I’m dressed, it’s all fine. No one needs to shower, no one needs to do anything, we’re all okay. Why are you freaking out?! I don’t know how to help!”

“Please leave,” he wheezed through lips that looked bluish in the light, eyes still scrunched up. “Just, please.”

Terrified, she bolted, out the door and up the hall and past her father, out through the front door and onwards until she’d left that place behind.

 

When Spencer came back to some semblance of understanding what had happened—his muddled brain all choked on Ethan and that night except, this time, it was Emily in his place and Spencer causing more trouble—he found that the apartment was silent. He had a vague memory of Michael sticking his head in and asking what had happened, although he didn’t know what he’d answered… and he didn’t know where Emily was.

Unwilling to shout for her and earn her father’s attention, he lay quietly and wondered how much damage he’d caused this morning. He didn’t really understand why he was so pent up and angry over the past few days, incorrectly attributing the moods to everything up to and including that he was just an awful person instead of pinpointing the real culprit, which was the narcotic cycle he was currently in from the painkillers that no one had yet noticed he wasn’t responding well to.

Finally, he realised that he needed to apologise. Here was Emily, trying to do everything she could to keep him comfortable, even inviting her dad into her apartment to assist—which he still didn’t understand or like, but if she wanted it he guessed he supported it—and he was just being monstrous to her in return.

He’d apologise, he decided with surety, looking around for the crutch he used with Michael’s help to get to the bathroom. At the same time, he’d show her that he was capable of moving unassisted, which would give her an excuse to ask her father to leave if she wanted it. Maybe.

But he barely managed to, with a great deal of pain, wobble his way to the door with every step thumping right through his collarbone to send waves of pain radiating up to his head before he had to rest. He crinked the door open with his fingertips, leaning on the frame and just breathing for a moment.

He could hear a voice out there, someone talking. Michael, he realised, on the phone.

And it wasn’t really eavesdropping, since he was in the same apartment and the man had clearly once again forgotten he was there at all since his voice was raised but, in the end, that didn’t matter. Spencer still felt terrible for having heard it anyway.

Assuming, and hoping, that Emily wasn’t here, he hobbled back to bed, lay down, and pondered what to do next.

 

The funeral was hellish, but also oddly sobering. Emily drifted home after, going the long way and stopping for a coffee she couldn’t really afford while she waited for her bus, staring out the window and thinking hard. So many people grieving a man Emily couldn’t save… beyond that, so many people grieving a man who could have killed her, and Spencer too.

That was sobering as hell.

But he was dead and she wasn’t and she’d sat at the back feeling sorely out of place, listening to all the kind words the man’s family had had to say about him. His name was Anthony. He had children. An ex-wife. Brothers. A life, a world, more beyond that day…

Her troubles didn’t feel quite as big anymore, not in the face of that. This morning, which had been awful and confronting, felt manageable. More manageable than the woman holding her crying children, and that coffin. Open casket. They’d fixed his face.

That had helped Emily more than she’d understand for a long time, seeing that they’d fixed his face. There had been a kind of peace in that.

She’d sleep on her problems with Spencer and her dad, she decided. That was the best decision. Move a day away from today with all its high-octane emotions and try again tomorrow when she was clear. When she wasn’t emotionally and physically drained.

With that decided, she went home.

Her dad was sitting at the kitchen table, looking troubled.

“There are you are, sweetie,” he said. Emily stared at him, that ‘sweetie’ managing what all the Emmys and the misremembering hers hadn’t: this man really didn’t know her at all, did he? Not even as well as Rossi, a man she’d known for barely a year when she was twelve, and who it sounded right from when he called her sweetheart, since it sounded like he really and truly meant it. “I need to ask a favour—if I duck out for a day or so, just to catch up with Liam, you and Spencer will be okay here, right? It’s just some fuss about his birthday, nothing important, really, but I don’t want to disappoint the lad.”

“Liam?” she asked numbly.

Her dad looked surprised. “Sarah’s lad,” he said. Emily stared blankly. “My, ah. Well, I suppose, my partner. I guess you could call her your stepmom, really. Which would make Liam your brother, isn’t that exciting! Wow, you really don’t know them?”

Emily didn’t know what part of her expression even remotely suggested that this wasn’t absolutely out of left field for her.

“Well, of course Elizabeth—” began Michael, but Emily had had enough.

“Didn’t tell me you’d fucked off to play happy families somewhere else?” she said with saccharine sweetness to her tone, suddenly finding her smile and dialling it up to savage. “Oh jeez, what a surprise. How about you go see Liam for his birthday and tell him best wishes from me, the actual daughter who hasn’t seen you on a birthday since I still had baby teeth, and we stop shitting on my mom, who has been at every one of my birthdays since I was born, thanks a lot.”

Michael seemed speechless, just looking at her and saying nothing, something complicated crossing his face. Characteristically, he took refuse in cowardice.

“We won’t need to mention this to her, will we?” he asked. Emily swallowed down something that hurt, her eyes burning with tears she wouldn’t shed for this asshole. “Emily, look, I…”

But her expression, she knew, was cold.

“I don’t care,” she said in a low whisper. “I just don’t care, alright. I don’t care.”

And she walked past him, to the hall where the person she actually did care about was, remembering, suddenly, the time Elizabeth had taken them skating and held Spencer’s hand because he was scared… despite how busy she’d been. Despite everything.

She’d always cared, in her own way.

“You’re a lot like her, you know,” her father called after her. Emily didn’t even flinch, although she knew this was an insult. “Every time I look at you now, I can see it. I shouldn’t have left you with her.”

“I’m glad you did,” she responded. “I’m proud to be her kid, something I bet Liam is never going to say about you.”

And then she was gone, vanishing up the hall to safety without hearing the front door close behind him. Probably worried she’d tattle on him now, if he left, or upset at her. Maybe she’d ruined Liam’s birthday for him.

Whatever.

“Where’s your dad?” Spencer asked when Emily crept into her room to hide. With delicate care, she crawled onto the bed—around his leg—and burrowed in next to him so she was invisible from the doorway. “That bad, huh?”

“Worse,” said the bedcovers covering her face. “You sound lucid. Are you taking your pills?”

“Sure,” lied Spencer, who hated how dopey the painkillers made him almost as much as he hated how hard it was to breathe through the pain if he didn’t take them. “Why don’t you just ask him to leave? We don’t need him. I can hobble around to do stuff, I don’t need him—especially not if he’s going to upset you.”

Emily reappeared, her hair wild around her face. “He put the electricity back on,” she said miserably. “I can’t kick him out now. If it wasn’t for him, you’d be…” She paused, looking at the balls of wool on Spencer’s lap and the knitting needles in his hands, “…doing that in the dark. Doesn’t that hurt?”

“Pain is a construct,” he said wryly, ignoring how much it did—oh god, did it—hurt in order to continue knitting a rainbow scarf. “And it’s better than being bored.”

Spencer did not respond well to boredom.

Emily wiggled closer, warm against his side as she cautiously leaned her head against his uninjured arm and watched him knit. She was desperately trying not to think about her father and, as such, found refuge in a different topic. “I recognise that scarf,” she said, narrowing her eyes as she remembered. “That girl from that party, ages ago. She was wearing one like it. I remember thinking how ugly it was.”

Spencer let her change the subject, recognising that now probably wasn’t the time to bring up this morning.

“I really liked it,” said Spencer with a wistful smile only somewhat tempered by the pain from his collarbone as he forgot it once more and moved his un-slung arm, the bones grating horribly and setting his teeth on edge. “Alice was sweet, and it suited her.”

And Emily stared at him.

“Where did you go that night?” she asked, zeroing in on the smile like a lion on the slowest zebra. Spencer, very suddenly, felt endangered. “I woke up and you weren’t here, I thought you went home—but you didn’t, did you? ‘Alice’, huh? You never remember the names of the people I try to set you up with, why do you remember her?”

Spencer, whose cheeks were burning with more than the uncomfortable warmth of his healing body and who was trying to focus very hard on the scarf and not on his shifting collarbone, said nothing.

“You went home with her, didn’t you?” Emily crowed, forgetting for a second how miserable everything was in the face of this exciting information. “Oh man, Spence. Did you smooch her?”

Spencer stared at the needles, knitting a little quicker.

“Aha! You did! You smooched, you…” Emily trailed off. Spencer had never hidden smooching from her before… and he was bright red and his eyes looked glassy and… “Oh my god.”

“Emily, don’t,” he rasped.

“Oh my god,” she said again, stupidly. For some bizarre reason, her fleeting good mood had vanished instantly. “Wait, you said you didn’t want casual sex—are you seeing her?!”

“No,” Spencer spluttered, perhaps sensing that him hiding a relationship from Emily would have likely caused friction with his best friend who was still adjusting to the adult distance between them. “We’re not, I haven’t seen her since that… it was just sex, Em.”

But that was the exact wrong thing to say.

“I see,” said Emily, who didn’t understand at all. “Well, I guess you’re well and truly grown up now, huh, Spence? We’re definitely not kids anymore.”

Spencer didn’t understand where this conversation had gone or why she looked so angry. The thinnest thread of suspicion built up that maybe Emily hadn’t quite gotten over her rash proclamation of feelings from years ago, but he quashed that quickly as ridiculous. Maybe her dad was just leaving her feeling raw right now.

“I hardly think sex is an indicator of maturity,” he said, finally giving up on his scarf and leaning back with a low groan as his entire body throbbed hot. It was a sick, feverish kind of heat, centred in his leg and radiating out, and he knew he was beginning to sweat horribly. “It wasn’t that big of a deal…” He closed his eyes, trying to gather his scattered thoughts as a numb realisation that he was going to need to take a pill soon sunk home. He hated losing time to the medication, even though—as Emily assured him—he was usually awake. “We just…”

But he couldn’t remember what he was going to say, nausea now battling the pain as he fumbled for the sling and found that his shaking hand couldn’t get his arm back in.

Emily wasn’t looking at him. “I hope it was nice, at least,” she was saying, unaware that Spencer was struggling. “Mine wasn’t nice. I mean, the first time… I’m assuming, maybe it wasn’t your first time. I guess now I realise you wouldn’t have told me even if it wasn’t, which is fine, fine, okay. Just fine. It’s cool.”

“Doesn’t sound cool,” said Spencer. He wondered how to politely ask her for a basin, glancing to the door and wishing Michael would poke his head in. A stranger he was, and a stranger Spencer despised for all that he represented, but it would be less embarrassing to inform a throwaway man that he was about to hurl than his best friend. “Generally, you don’t need to repeat yourself when things are ‘cool’. The single time suffices.”

“No, it’s cool,” Emily said firmly, before probing a little bit still without looking at him in case he read the confusing whirl of emotions she didn’t fully understand that she knew were showing on her face. “I mean, whatever. You probably had sex with Ethan, anyway.”

“Didn’t,” Spencer choked out, swallowing what tasted dangerously like bile. His leg felt like it was twisting despite being unmoving. He had no choice. “Emily…”

“Oh, well, I guess…”

Emily looked at him finally, blinking.

“Are you…?” was all she managed before he pitched sideways and threw up spectacularly on himself and off the side of the bed. There was a mortified silence, broken only by his groan. Emily waited to let his stomach settle before kneeling up and helping ease him back on the bed. “Spence…”

“I’m really sorry,” he whimpered, looking absolutely mortified. “I didn’t want to…”

But he stopped, just looking at her.

“If I ask Dad to leave, will you let me help you shower?” she said finally. To Spencer’s eyes at that moment, she seemed sad and unconvinced he was going to agree, despite how badly everything smelled now.

“I’m not going to be able to stand,” Spencer admitted with grim misery, looking down at the vomit on his lap and closing his eyes against it. “Or clean up, sorry… I’m already dizzy.”

Doctor appointment, Emily decided. That was definitely on the cards, and quick.

“But you should ask him to go,” Spencer added, flushed red. “He’s only here because your mom made him. She asked him and he said no, so she had to bribe him. Don’t get mad at her though—I heard your dad on the phone saying something of the sort to his girlfriend, so I rang Elizabeth to check and she admitted it, but only because she was worried about us. She’s doing her best, Emily.”

“I know,” said Emily, who did know, now. “Look, remember Rome? The period thing?” Spencer raised an eyebrow, still greenish, but he nodded. “I trusted you then, okay? So now I need you to trust me too, even if you’re embarrassed and shy. And I was wrong, this morning, trying to brute-force you into doing what I said because I thought it was what was right. Maybe it was right and you’re probably going to need to come to terms with that because I’m not leaving you covered in vomit and I can’t handle my dad staying any longer, but it wasn’t right how I was going about it. Rossi said something, you know—he said I’m not alone in this. And I’m not. I’ve got you and everyone including me seems to keep forgetting that, that we’ve always got each other’s backs. Help me? Please?”

Spencer thought about that for a bit. The idea of her helping him clean up was still abhorrent, but so was remaining filthy. He liked being clean, and wanted it badly.

Especially now.

“Okay, but I have to admit something,” he said, relieved to finally be able to say it. “Can I do that without you getting mad?”

“Only if you let me admit something too,” she said, smiling a little uncertainly. “Same time?” He nodded. “Okay, on three… one, two… three.”

And, within the same breath, they both burst out with their tightest held miseries since the accident, Spencer managing, “It was my fault, I saw the car coming and drove right into it because I panicked and I’m a crap driver,” and Emily babbling out, “The driver of the other car died and it might have been my fault and I didn’t tell you because I saw him die and it’s fucking me up.”

Startled, they both processed what the other had said, before reacting.

“He drove head-on into the other cars, Em,” Spencer said quietly. “I knew he died. I had a friend find me the articles and read them to me over the phone—and it was ruled a suicide. He did it deliberately. Cause of death was massive head trauma. There’s simply no way it was your fault.”

“Alright, fine, but you had a split second to respond to the other car being shoved into us and, where exactly do you think you were going to go?” she shot back with. “We ended up slammed into the guardrail anyway, there was nowhere to manoeuvre. That’s not bad driving, Spence, that’s bad luck. And if you don’t believe me, believe the insurance company. They’re paying up without a whimper, and they don’t do that if they think they have a chance of insinuating fault.”

There was a quiet moment of them thinking that over, Spencer taking the chance to reach for his tablets. If he took one now, it would start numbing him enough to get him to the shower and be well and truly kicked in to knock him out from any residual soreness after. He did so.

“Dad says I’m a lot like my mom,” Emily said finally. “And I think he means emotionally unavailable when he says that—don’t frown, I’m having an important moment and your weird faces are ruining it—but I don’t think he’s right, really. I think I’m a lot more like him, right now, and that’s why Mom didn’t trust me with you, because I sure as hell wouldn’t trust him with something important and I guess she wouldn’t either. I was mad at her for that, but I’m not now because I get it. I kind of get it. He left me and Mom because he wanted a different life and he thought he could be happier elsewhere and he didn’t consider us when he did it because his feelings were the most important, and that’s what I’ve been like about this. My feelings of needing to be useful and make up in some way for failing that driver were more important to me than Mom’s worrying that I’m not mature enough and your nervousness about being naked or seen as a burden to me. And I don’t want to be like Dad. I’d rather be like Mom.”

“Would you really?” asked Spencer, truly fascinated by her answer because this wasn’t something he’d ever expected her to say, ever.

“Yeah,” said Emily firmly. “Because Dad’s the man who walked out on his kid and resents his kid for that. Mom’s the person who raised someone else’s kid when they couldn’t purely because she loved that person too much to let her down, despite having the most demanding and bullshit job in the world. Emotionally unavailable, my ass. I hope I’m a quarter of that available when I’m her age. I think I realised that today, at the funeral… life is really stupidly short and dumb and weird and it stops really suddenly and without warning, even if there’s a nineteen-year-old in a fancy dress trying to force it to keep going despite you. And that’s horrible and I’m scared of dying like that, but not as much as I’m scared of living like my dad and disappointing everyone. So, I’m done being that person. I’m done being his daughter. I’m going to be me from now, but the me I should have been if I wasn’t so busy resenting Mom for bullshit reasons… and I guess, if you’ll let me, I’ll probably start by helping you get a lot less gross than you are right now. You could hide your junk with a towel, if we’re clever about it. And can you teach me to knit later? That way you can still occupy yourself with scarves without the pain of actually making them.”

Spencer was looking at her oddly with an expression she didn’t recognise.

Later, she’d realise it was pride.

“Em,” he said quietly, “I think I could probably teach you anything you wanted to learn. Nothing would stop you.”

She’d hold that comment dear for a long time to come.

Chapter Text

As Rossi had predicted, when left to their own devices, Emily and Spencer adapted splendidly. Emily, with very little qualm, sent her father packing and then rung her mother to inform her why. Elizabeth, who had never expected to hear the words, “I want to be more like you,” emerge from her daughter’s mouth, was so stunned by that that she didn’t even respond to Emily’s eviction of Michael, although nor did she admit to Emily’s insinuation that Michael had taken money in return for being there for them.

Emily would never know because Elizabeth would never tell her, but this insinuation was incorrect. Money had never changed hands between the Prentiss parents in return for the disastrous caretaking. Rather, Elizabeth had finally agreed to something she’d been reluctant to have mar her career before then, as she knew it would: divorce papers waited upon her desk.

They’d never be signed, but that was another story entirely.

After a doctor’s appointment to discover why Spencer was so unwell, he was successful in his quest to be taken off the narcotic painkillers he was on. This was a turning point for them. Spencer’s mood stabilised, as did his sleeping, and suddenly Emily had her best friend from prior to the accident back by her side to face everything difficult with her. It made everything seem far more attainable and Emily, who’d began to feel like she was drowning under the weight of all the world’s expectations, could suddenly breathe again. More importantly yet, the distance between them that had been there since beginning college, since leaving the Sometimes Homes all those years ago—that distance finally began to evaporate.

And their lives changed again.

 

Teaching Emily to knit had gone well enough. Spencer was cautiously optimistic about how motivated she seemed to be to learn, although also unsure as to why she was so interested. She wasn’t exactly the knitting type, since he’d never seen her maintain the patience for any kind of long-term craft project, especially one which took such intent focus and math.

It probably helped that he mostly handled the math side of it.

He was knitting on this day when Emily breezed in with her arms full of bags and a cocky expression on her face.

“Uh oh,” he said upon seeing that expression. Kinky, who’d been trying to eat his wool as he unspooled it, rolled immediately onto his back and looked innocent despite his bared claws and lashing tail. “What are you planning?”

“I’ve solved the pants conundrum,” Emily announced proudly, brandishing a bag that he recognised as being from a nearby charity shop. He stared at it nervously.

“I told you, I’m not wearing a skirt,” he replied. The shower problem had quickly been eclipsed by another: that it was really, really difficult for him to get pants on and, the few he could, he’d had to ruin to get over his cast. He was running out of pants and with another three weeks still to go of being in a cast. “Or a dress.”

“I heard you the first twenty times,” said Emily with a roll of her eyes, “but you do love cardigans, right?”

And she whipped out of the bag the ugliest knitted cardigan Spencer had ever seen, clearly made for a very large woman since it would droop to his knees and made of some thick, heavy wool of what had once, before being washed out by years of use, been a light lavender colour. There were stripes knitted into the sleeves and ‘World’s Best Grandmother’ stitched into the back. The overall effect was one of absolute incredible ugliness; neither of them had ever quite seen anything as awful as this, ever.

“Who needs pants when you’re the world’s best grandmother?” Emily asked. “It’ll cover your butt, at least.”

“Oh my god,” replied Spencer who, completely and unabashedly, loved it more than he’d ever loved another item of clothing, ever. His love affair with terrible cardigans, which would last approximately the rest of his life and continue driving the more fashion-orientated Emily to distraction, began that day with a vengeance. But at least it worked: Spencer, despite how awkward he felt clomping around the apartment pants-less and with the heavy cardigan covering all his most delicate bits, was grateful that didn’t have to ask Emily to help him with his pants anymore.

 

On yet another day, he was amusing himself with the rubber duck Emily had bought as company for him when he was stuck in his shower chair, a single item of an outdoor setting that Emily had bought and shoved—with great difficultly—into the shower stall for him to sit on so he could keep his bag-wrapped leg out of the water. Kinky, who wasn’t bothered at all by water, loved the duck and it always amused Spencer to spend the time he was left languishing in the shower before Emily returned to fetch him out squeaking the duck at Kinky and tempting him into the shower to hunt it.

“Wak wak,” said Spencer to the cat, wiggling the duck. Emily had painted spectacles on it and named it Peter. Kinky watched him from the bathtub, his eyes and ears just visible as he peered over the rim, pupils huge as he watched hungrily. “Wak wak wak come get the duck, kitty, wak wak, delicious, delicious duck for you.”

“Are you talking to the duck?” Emily asked, bursting in without knocking. Spencer yelped, dropping the duck in his flurry to get the washcloth over his lap and scowling at her. “Oh, don’t frown, I have to make sure you’re not drowned. Why is my cat in here?”

“We’re bonding,” lied Spencer, who liked soaking the cat purely because it made him laugh and would never admit to Emily this uncharacteristic sadistic streak. “Aren’t we, Kink?”

Kinky, who was chewing on the dropped duck’s tail, ignored both him and the water pattering onto his head, leaving his fur all slicked down like a fantastic orange otter. Spencer snorted.

“You’re a monster.” Emily set aside the box she was holding so she could scoop up both cat and duck, tossing them out of the bathroom before returning to sit on the bath. Spencer watched her curiously from the shower, leaning around the glass with his leg jabbed out awkwardly onto the milk crates they’d piled there for his foot to rest on and with his hands still cupped over the wash cloth on his lap. “Hey, check this out. Dad sent it along with some bullshit apology. He wants us to catch up more.”

The water pattered down gently as Spencer watched her pop the top from the box, pulling out a polaroid camera and aiming it at him; he wasn’t quite quick enough to duck back behind the shower screen before she snapped a picture of him.

“Really, Emily?”

All this earned him was her sniggering as he peeked out again and found her shaking the picture, looking smug.

“That was for trying to wet my cat,” she told him. “Isn’t it the lamest present ever?”

Spencer didn’t think it was lame. It was rather cool actually and, he realised with a jolt, it would be… nice? To have a picture of her?

But he didn’t really understand this sudden urge and, even if he had understood, he had no idea how to ask for it.

“Very lame,” he agreed, flustered. Emily nodded, staring down at the camera; as much as she wished she believed in the gift’s lameness, she actually really, genuinely loved it—and she didn’t like loving a gift from someone she was so mad at.

“I don’t understand my parents,” she said finally, lifting the camera and snapping another picture of Spencer, who sighed; he, correctly, suspected that both he and Kinky were going to be the main targets of Emily’s new photographic interest.

“I don’t think anyone understands their parents. I certainly don’t understand mine.”

Emily glanced at him oddly as he said this. “Do you think about him much?” she asked suddenly. “Your dad, I mean. You never talk about him.”

“I don’t know,” said Spencer, uncomfortable with this line of conversation. “Hey, if you’re in here anyway—want to help wash my foot?”

And he wiggled the toes of his casted leg at her, grinning at her grossed out expression. Kinky had pushed the door open—the latch long ago busted and held shut, usually, by a random boot—and walked back into the bathroom with the duck in his mouth. Emily took the duck from him and, camera in one hand, lobbed it at Spencer’s head.

He caught it before it bounced off his ear. “Wak wak,” he said cheerfully, squeaking it at her and still wiggling his toes. “I don’t understand how my toes are grosser than when I threw up. You have weird boundaries. Besides, I can’t reach.

Emily didn’t answer, just took another picture of him, this time with the duck included.

 

One week before he was due to have the cast off, Spencer made it down to get the mail and back, with Emily’s help. This was resoundingly celebrated by both of them in a ritualistic—and symbolic—burning of his arm sling. They didn’t burn the actual sling as, Emily reminded him, he’d probably need it in the future, but they did burn an effigy Emily knitted of it, with Emily doing so perched out on the fire escape while Spencer sat from his propped-up position against the kitchen sink watching her.

In honour of his arm’s returned range of full motion, and with the caveat that he kept up his arm exercises, Emily agreed to move him from her room into the living room. With him moving around more on the leg, it was hurting him more, especially with him only being on mild over-the-counter pain medication. She was sure that a change of scenery would offer far more scope for distracting him from that pain than her room, which he’d been trapped in for over a month and a half now except for small bursts of exercise, would.

She brought home an armful of every possible documentary she could think of and, between classes, hung out with him watching them. He was taking the semester off work while he recovered, this made possible by both his incredible ability to save money as well as Elizabeth assisting them. Emily was mildly perturbed to realise that he wasn’t at all as reticent about accepting Elizabeth’s monetary help as he usually was—although she never realised it was because this monetary help was helping Emily just as much as it was him.

The documentaries proved to be a failure, at first.

“Your mom wants me to tell you she’s coming home next week,” Spencer informed Emily as he watched her attempting to fix the TV. It had blown in an impressive shower of sparks and an off-putting burning smell midway through a truly fascinating documentary about stars that he was glum to have interrupted. “She rung before. I really don’t think you should be trying to fix that… it smelled like fire.”

“Fire just means it’s working harder,” Emily argued. “Why is she coming home? We’re doing fine.”

“She wants to help you find a car.” Spencer ignored her groan. “She’s right, you know. What about when I move out? You won’t be able to use mine then.”

“I can barely use yours anyway. It only starts when it feels like it.”

This was true, but Spencer ignored that. He was proud of his little car, quirks included. The TV, as though to distract from this conversation, popped again. Emily rolled away quickly to avoid getting sparks on the wool sweater she was wearing. Spencer sighed.

“Unplug it,” he said firmly. “You’re going to kill us in a fire. I’ll just go the library sometime this week and find a book on stars, it’ll be a nice adventure.”

“But you’re bored now.”

“I’ll sleep.” This was true. In the time since the accident, he’d gotten very good at sleeping on command; that said, he rolled over and closed his eyes. Emily sat on the floor, legs crossed and hammer tapping on her knee, just watching him thoughtfully.

“Spencer,” she whispered suddenly. He didn’t respond. She really doubted he’d gone to sleep that quickly and inched over to him, whispering, “Spencer,” again.

He didn’t even twitch, mouth hanging slightly open.

“What the fuck, weirdo,” she whispered in his ear, close enough to him now that her breath shifted his hair a bit. “How—”

He made a sleepy noise and she scuttled back quickly so he didn’t catch her looming.

She pondered the broken TV some more, flopping on the carpet and staring up at the ceiling. She was bored too, and a bored Emily was a recipe for disaster. Kinky walked up her leg, his claws making soft popping noises in her jeans as he went.

“What to do, Kink?” she asked him, tapping his nose with her finger and earning a purr. “What… to… do…”

And she turned her head, spotting a pile of paint cans left over from patching the walls after one of her parties had gone very, very wrong. The paint had been there, forgotten, for months.

Grinning, she got up and went for the linen cupboard.

 

Spencer woke and immediately sensed that silliness had occurred while he was napping. He opened his eyes, scenting paint. The ceiling was a strange dark colour, shadows catching it weirdly. He blinked, trying to work out what on earth he was looking at as it billowed a bit in his vision. The overhead light was off and it was dark outside, the room solely lit by the desk lamp Emily had brought out for him and had now cocked right back to point upwards, casting the most bizarre light.

“I’m hallucinating,” he told the wafting ceiling. “And I can smell paint. Am I having a stroke?”

“That’s toast,” Emily refuted from beside him. He heard her jump down from somewhere, feet thumping the ground and earning a shout from the apartment below; he looked at her, finding her paint-splattered from her nose to her hair to her woollen sweater and grey jeans, brandishing a paintbrush dangerously.

“What are you doing?” he asked, struggling upright and letting his cast thump to the ground as he reached for his glasses. Once they were on, his vision sharpened and he immediately spotted the source of the silly which, of course, was Emily.

Emily beamed from where she’d been busy trying to copy a star map she’d found in an old atlas up onto the sheet above his head, that she’d pinned into the ceiling. His shock was delicious as he gazed up at the bright splotches of white on the black sheets.

“Welcome to your own interactive galaxy documentary!” Emily declared, sweeping her arms out to encompass the fully sheet-covered room. “I don’t know much about stars but I’m a damn good liar so just ask me anything and I’ll make it up for your entertainment!”

“Emily,” he gasped, unable to say anything else. He was completely perplexed; no one had ever done something like this for him before, he was sure.

“Here,” she said to him, tossing a novelty laser light they usually used to play with Kinky with at him. “Show me where to finish off the stars and then I’ll turn on your documentary.”

“You’re not actually going to act this out, are you?” he asked her as he shone the laser light up to mark where Cassiopeia should be if that big blotch was the sun.

Emily just smiled and dragged her stepladder over to paint where he was indicating, barely avoiding Kinky leaping for the red dot with his claws out and eyes wide.

 

She absolutely was going to do this for him, although from a prone position beside him rather than dancing up there. They laid together under their painted stars, Emily’s camera in her hands as she snapped pictures of them while Spencer quizzed her.

“Hmm,” Spencer was saying, his hand trailing idly in the air as he chose something to point to. Emily took a picture of his hand, fascinated by the way his fingers moved. “My question is… what’s that star called?”

He clicked the laser light on, circling a particularly wonky one.

“Oscar,” answered Emily confidently.

Spencer looked at her, his eyebrows up and his mouth wide in a grin. “I don’t believe you!”

“It’s true,” she asserted. “It’s on his driver’s license, I checked.”

He laughed and, quickly, she took a photo of it, earning a scowl from him that was still laughing around the corners of his eyes. Feeling a weird smile slip onto her face, she turned a little away and focused on waving the polaroid around waiting for her laughing snapshot to develop.

“Fine,” he said. “What’s your favourite constellation?”

“You’re not supposed to ask about me,” she argued. The photo had developed and she studied how a laugh changed the geography of his face, turning it into something so familiar and wonderful that she felt like she’d probably do anything just to get another laugh from him. She felt him tap her shoulder, trying to get her attention, and curled up a bit. Instead of grumbling that she was ignoring him, he just chuckled in a low voice designed to fuck her up and traced his finger down her spine instead. The shiver that followed his finger was intense enough that she felt her eyelids flicker half-closed, appalled by how fundamental her reaction to him lately was. What was wrong with her?

“But that’s what I want to know,” he replied. “What kind of a documentary doesn’t tell me what I want to know?”

“A good one.” But she relented. “Fine, my favourite is Porthos. The otter star.”

“The what star?”

“Porthos, that one.” And she rolled over and pointed up confidently, grabbing the hand he’d pulled away from her spine to make him point up too. Too late, she realised this meant she was holding his hand, but he didn’t seem to mind so she didn’t let go. “That’s Porthos. He’s a silly star—”

“Not as silly as this documentary.”

“—and he gives fishy dreams to very good girls and boys, which he thinks are the most splendid kinds of dreams. Now I get a question. How big is Pluto?”

She was mostly rambling so he didn’t take his hand back, but she needn’t have worried. He wasn’t inclined to, letting their hands fall together and rest in a loose pile between them.

“Pluto isn’t a star, Em,” he said softly, looking at her all weird. “Is this a star documentary or a space documentary? The sun is a star, you could ask how big the sun is—actually, that’s my question. How big is the sun?”

“Big enough,” she declared and then, out of nowhere, she thought about kissing him. The thought burned; she remembered how badly last time had gone and pulled her hand back, busying herself with her camera so she didn’t have to see if he looked disappointed.

He was quiet for a bit, before:

“If I stacked average-sized male elephants on top of each other, how many would it take to go around Mars?”

Emily choked out a laugh. “Now who’s asking space questions!” But a look at him showing he was grinning stupidly and she couldn’t help it, she couldn’t ignore that idiot smile. “You’re awfully obsessed with how big things are today. Why are boys obsessed with how big things are?”

“We are not,” he disagreed quietly, still grinning, until that grin faded a little. “Did I ever tell you what your mom told mine one time about the stars?”

“No, what?”

Emily didn’t know what she was expecting, but it wasn’t what he said. In fact, up until that point, she’d never really considered that her mom had ever even noticed anything that wasn’t firmly on the ground.

Spencer looked up at the sheets above, his expression distant. At that moment, he missed his mom very much. And he said, “She told Mom that they couldn’t be friends unless they appreciated the stars together. Mom told me, it was raining and cold and Elizabeth stood out there, in the rain, and warned her never to take the sky for granted. Can you imagine that?”

Emily couldn’t.

But he wasn’t done. “I can’t imagine how fierce it must feel to love someone that much,” he whispered, more to the ceiling than her. “Can you?”

She could.

 

Emily pulled the sheets over the windows back, coming down to lie on the floor with him once more. On their backs, side-by-side, they watched out the window as the dark sky began to lighten. Spencer watched the stars dreamily, remembering a time long ago.

“Do you remember our date?” Emily asked suddenly. He glanced at her, finding her looking at him in the gloom of the shadowed room. The white splashes of paint on her cheeks and hair and clothes stood out starkly in the dark. “And what you told me?”

“Of course,” he said. “How could I forget? I meant them, you know. I’m surprised you remember them, though.” She gave him an odd look at that and he clarified: “I mean, I’d never gone on a date like that before so it was pretty important to me but you date people all the time. I bet you have dozens that were better than that, with better people.”

“I think of them every time I look at the stars, even now,” she told him quietly. “You’re wrong. I’ve never had a date like that, and I’ve never known a better person… you told me you believed in me, Spence. That you thought I could touch the sky. People don’t say that, people just don’t. They’re never that brilliant to each other and I sure didn’t deserve it.”

Spencer didn’t know what to say. He rolled over awkwardly, his cast making it hard, and faced her. She did the same, until they were inches from each other on their pillow bed, the stars above them and around them catching every inch of the morning light trickling through that bared window.

The camera Emily was between them and Spencer focused on that instead of the strange knot of feeling he didn’t really understand in his chest. Emily, feeling just as awkward as he did, propped herself up on her elbow and reached for the paintbrush still sitting in the open can.

“Stay still,” she commanded, dabbing in on his face as she added stars to him too despite his complaints. “Oh, shh. No one ever died from a bit of paint.”

“I’m sure that’s not true…”

But he still let her do it.

“Are you going to go back to your apartment when you get that off?” Emily asked suddenly, pausing with her brush on his nose and nodding to his cast. He shrugged, feeling twisted up by the idea of leaving this place which had become this haven for them how they had been; Emily and Spencer didn’t seem like the kind of friends to paint a room with stars, but Blackbird and Fiver… for the first time since college, they felt within reach.

It was right then that he realised how much he missed being the Fiver to her Blackbird. He’d left a part of himself in the past in his rush to grow up, and he wanted it back very, very much.

“You know, I was thinking,” Emily began in a voice that was a bit too breathless for how casual she was trying to seem, “maybe we could find somewhere to stay, the two of us. Our own place. A bit nicer than this one though, I suppose, to keep Mom happy… she’d never agree to both of us living in the Bronx. It’s just, having you close again… remember how it used to be?”

“With our beds twenty-two feet apart,” he said with a soft laugh. “I miss that.”

“I do too. What do you think? Should we tell Mom we’ll let her put us somewhere nicer?”

He nodded, using his arm to make himself more comfortable as he contemplated rolling back over to look out the window and instead found himself continuing to look at her like she was the most interesting thing in the room. The way the light caught her skin, the way the dark made a mystery of her hair, the shadows around her eyes making them brighter in comparison, her lips partly open as she smiled…

“She’ll be so pleased,” he said, not committing how pleased he’d be as well to words in case she snatched back this dearly desired prospect once confirming how much he wanted it. “We should go to bed, we’ve stayed up all night.”

“We should just sleep here,” Emily corrected him. She grabbed a pillow and flopped down, looking up at the ceiling; she knew he was looking at him and couldn’t look back without her heart beating faster, her palms clammy with nerves. “I’m too comfy to move.”

“Mm,” he hummed in agreement. “We’ll sleep under the otter star, with his whiskery face looking down us bestowing fishy dreams…” She laughed and he pressed his face into the pillow he was on to hide his wide smile at the sound.

They fell quiet.

“Goodnight, Portho,” Spencer murmured to the otter star what felt like only minutes later, expecting her to laugh again. But she was silent; he peeked up, finding her eyes shut and lips ever so slightly parted. Asleep with her paint-speckled face and one hand thrown across her chest, the other between them. The morning light as it slipped into the room was right across her, a soft gold glow.

He was captivated.

There was a still wet smudge of paint that was near enough to her eye that worried him a little, reaching out and whispering an apology before drawing his thumb over it to move it away. She was warm under his hand and he briefly gave into the temptation to outline her face with the side of his hand, leaning close to study how his fingers looked against her jaw.

“Mm, Spence, stop poking,” she mumbled.

“Sorry,” he breathed, pulling his hand back fast. “You’re just…” She grumbled and rolled a bit away from him, clearly not awake enough to hear his soft, “very beautiful.”

He looked down at the paint on his thumb, feeling very off-centre. Unsteadily, he sat up and shuffled on his rear back to tug the curtain back over the window, the sheet following—but he paused before doing so, glancing back to her. And it took a few minutes more of risking the morning sun waking her up for him to lean back and grab the camera, staring at it before committing to this.

“Sorry, Em,” he said without lowering his voice, deciding that if she woke up and growled at him, he’d take that as evidence that his candid photography was frowned upon. “But, honestly, this is just payback. You took pictures of me in the shower.”

And she didn’t wake up which was essentially permission; the photo, today, would spend the day tucked under his pillow with his hand curled possessively over it. Later that night, he’d squirrel it into the book beside his bed; later yet, it would be regulated to a frame on his desk at the college and there wouldn’t be a day that went by without him smiling at the memory of their star map and everything that followed.

 

Elizabeth was soothed from her ire about Emily digging her heels in about what car she wanted by both of them distracting her with the promise that they’d move into an apartment she chose for them. Given this permission to meddle with her children’s safety, she did so with relish. Before they knew it, they’d been swept up in a wave of hyper-organisation and they, and Kinky, were swiftly removed from Emily’s battered old apartment. Spencer’s leg was barely out of the cast, still pale and with the muscles atrophied from eight weeks of disuse, when they found themselves standing outside the door of their new home in a far nicer corner of New Haven then they could afford.

“How much did your mom say the rent was?” Spencer whisper-asked Emily as she unlocked the door. “There are staff in the elevator, Emily. We can’t afford that?”

“She definitely lied about the rent,” Emily agreed with a shake of her head. She was a little irritated with her mother for finding this place without their okaying but, if Elizabeth was willing to foot the lion’s share of the bill, well maybe it was time Emily learned to bite her tongue. Plus, there were a few things about this place that Emily already really liked; one was the cute elevator guy she’d spotted on the way in, the aforementioned staff that Spencer had baulked at and she’d appreciated the cut of his uniform on; the other was that it was a ground level apartment—likely because Elizabeth was fretting about Spencer’s leg and the crutch he was still using on heavy-use days. And it wasn’t that she was worried, she wasn’t, it would just be nice to not have to worry about him using stairs.

But she wasn’t worried.

Honest.

And what they found when they walked in was that they almost certainly couldn’t afford this place; it was furnished, which was nice, but the furniture was also nice. Spencer poked at a settee with his crutch before looking plaintively at Emily as he tried to figure out how he was going to fit amongst all this sterile upper-middle-classness.

But Emily didn’t seem bothered.

“Gee, it’s almost like being back in London,” she teased, grinning at him as she tossed the keys down with a clatter onto the polished coffee table. Spencer winced. “Well, looks like we better entertain Mother about keeping this place nice until she leaves.”

“And then what?” Spencer asked suspiciously.

“Then we make it our home.”

 

Nineteen-ninety broke on a very different scene than the year before. Instead of their separate apartments miles away from each other, Emily and Spencer rang in the new year in the singular space, which was now their own. Life in this new place had by now taken on a kind of comfortable regularity: they worked, studied, and lived as though they’d never lived apart. Emily attended therapy without telling her mother, to deal with the lingering trauma left over from the man who’d died despite her. Spencer regained the full use of his leg as it had been before the accident, finally giving into Emily’s prodding and agreeing to—on the new year—take up some kind of physical exercise to ensure he lost no movement in the affected limb. He was hopeful that he could talk his way out of this; he would not be successful.

Their bedrooms, despite Emily’s assurance that they would mark this space as theirs, remained bare of most except the usual clutter of everyday life. Clothes and bedding and some scattered books were all that filled Spencer’s; Emily had some half-hearted poster on the wall and clothes covering the floor in a wild mess but, other than that, her room was startlingly bland. This was for a very good reason.

In stark contrast to their bedrooms, the living room had quickly fallen prey to their chaotic interests colliding. Although they had never planned for it to happen, their natural inclination to busy themselves with their interests while still remaining close to each other meant that, over time, the room had become more of an eclectic office space cum workshop than anything resembling a den. The TV they’d gone halves in as an early Christmas present to each other had been long-ago lost under paint-splattered sheets, Emily’s lingering interest in painting which had yet to fade meaning that that corner of the living room was covered in tarps and sheets to catch the worst of the drips as she brought home strange canvases—including furniture left out for hard trash pick-up as well as chunks of wood or, once, a bicycle tire—and illustrated them with whatever took her fancy.

Occasionally, Spencer would wander in and notice that her painting was wilder than usual, Emily either quieter or astoundingly affectionate; diplomatically, he never told her that he knew she was dabbling again since she seemed to be at least keeping her drug use within the home and only sporadically. He did keep a careful eye on her during these hours though, shifting his book reading chair just that little bit closer and declining any offer that would have taken him away from the apartment until he was sure she had her feet firmly under her again.

One corner was swallowed by Spencer’s books which had started out in his room and slowly all migrated out here; he could usually be found buried in that corner either studying or writing or simply reading with blankets piled around him. There was a small table with a half-finished puzzle on it in that corner as well, which was Emily’s sole influence on the space for when she got bored of painting and crawled under the blankets with him to fiddle with it. It would never be finished; she wasn’t much for puzzles and Kinky had, as of yet undiscovered, eaten many of the pieces.

The couch was shoved to the side of the room, replaced by their desks which could have gone in the third bedroom, which Elizabeth had optimistically said could be an office but was currently empty except for unpacked boxes. On these desks were yet more books, more papers, the assembled detritus of two college students. Spencer’s clock had, at some point, made it onto this desk, been partially unassembled, and then left to linger there forever right in the centre. Next to this clock, a stuffed hare sat beside a stuffed raven, both looking proudly out over the disorder.

And they were happy there.

 

The day arrived: Emily graduated.

She hadn’t beaten Spencer to the finishing line but, still, as she accepted her diploma and refused to turn and face the crowd where her mom and Spencer were both looking up at her, she’d still gotten here. That was big. That was more than she’d expected when at her lowest, especially after John. He’d never meant to, but he’d made her feel small and, in the division she remembered him driving hard between her and Spence, she remembered all her insecurities. Her worries that Spencer would graduate and she wouldn’t, her worries that he’d leave her in the dust on his way onwards to great things.

But here she was, diploma in hand, capped and gowned, and she was graduated.

An unexpected hand fell on her arm as she walked back down to meet her family, weaving through the family members already congregating proudly around their graduates. She twitched, turning towards it to find Rossi, of all people, smirking at her.

“You’re a stalker,” she accused him.

“Your mother called me,” he said, which she didn’t think invalidated her comment. It was still stalkery… but she was glad to see him and, to his surprise, hugged him fiercely. “Look at you, little spitfire, you’re all grown up. Ah, heck, I’ve got something in my eye.”

“Are you here to bawl at me?” She couldn’t help the smile as she said this, knowing it was ear to ear and hurting her cheeks a bit to carry but unable to hide it; it just wasn’t the kind of day she could hide her feelings on.

“That, and,” he said mysteriously, earning a stare from her. “Hey, look, I missed Spencer’s graduation, okay—”

“Graduations,” she corrected. He’d had a handful by now.

“Whatever, fine, I’ll go to his next seven. I’m proud of you two, alright? You turned from terroristic little maniacs into well-rounded only sort of anarchist adults. That’s a hell of a progression.”

He was still looking intently at her and she could feel the ‘but’.

“But what now?” he finished. The way he asked it wasn’t like how Spencer or her mom asked it, like they were nervous she wouldn’t have an answer. He asked it like he knew she had an answer and was already anticipating being happy to hear it.

“Twenty-two till the FBI, huh?” she asked.

His grin, she thought, might actually be wider than hers.

“Another eight after that until the BAU, unless you’re spectacular,” he added, still grinning.

Emily spotted Spencer weaving his way towards her, his head bobbing up and down among all the shorter people around him as he bounced around looking for her. Behind him, Elizabeth followed sedately.

“Guess that gives me one year for Honours, two for Masters,” she declared for Rossi’s sake, feeling him actually puff up a bit with pure pride and glee. Why he cared so much, she’d never understand. “Or less, if I’m spectacular.”

“I’d be shocked if you were anything but,” was his happy reply. “I’ll go get your desk ready, soon-to-be Agent Prentiss.”

Now that, Emily thought, as Elizabeth had gotten close enough to hear ‘Agent Prentiss’ and baulked hard, sounded fantastic.

 

She got into Honours.

Spencer danced happily around their living room in a show of agility he rarely exhibited, leaping cat and tottering piles of books alike as he chanted, “You got in, you got in, you got in!” while hugging her acceptance letter close. Emily, much more sedate in her satisfaction, lounged on the unburied couch with two glasses of wine, one of which she’d nabbed from Spencer to stop him spilling it.

“Onwards and upwards, Fiver,” she said proudly, holding both aloft in a toast while Spencer kept up his excited dance. “Onwards and upwards for both of us.”

“We have to celebrate!” Spencer declared, finally ceasing to dance and earning back his wine. “How should we celebrate?”

“It’s been a while since we had a party,” she offered. “And I mean we. You need to get in and celebrate with me, Spencer—otherwise it’s just me partying. Promise?”

“Oh dear, fine,” was his cautious answer. “But… be gentle with me, okay?”

“When am I not?” she happily replied.

 

Emily seemed to really want him to ‘relax’ tonight and so he decided that was exactly what he was going to do. As Emily flittered around helping him move all their most breakable items into the bedrooms and shelve the rest away neatly to make it look like they weren’t two natural disasters, he pondered ‘letting loose’. He was starting to think that maybe he’d made a mistake when they were kids and Emily was learning how to have fun while he was following her and fretting. He thought of Rome and, with rose hued glasses firmly on, thought wistfully of how much Emily had seemed to enjoy her late nights out and her exciting nights in. He forgot how much work it had been for him to keep her from getting sent to boarding school, how many hours he’d spent covering for her… instead, he watched her set up her stereo so they’d have music and he stepped up behind her, pressing play and taking her hands as the music began to play.

“What are you doing?” she laughed as he pulled her into a dance that Ethan had taught him that was all swinging and tapping feet and fast moving. He wasn’t good, but it was exciting. “Spence!”

“I’m being fun,” he told her seriously. “I’m starting to think I’ve never really been much fun, I’m sorry.”

“What’s got into you? You’re tons of fun, you doughnut. Stop overthinking it.” And with that, Emily tugged her hands loose, shot him a grin, and sauntered off. “And save the dancing for tonight! You bet I’m going to be looking for dancer Spencer come then.”

“Dancing,” he noted with a nod. “I can do that.”

After all, they were celebrating for Emily; whatever she wanted, he was going to give it to her.

Chapter Text

He tried, he did, but it was hard to know where he slotted in among these people. Spencer lingered on the side with his plastic cup filled with wine, half-heartedly bouncing on his heels to Unskinny Bop and trying to work out which of the people surrounding him wouldn’t mind him dancing with them. Or maybe you weren’t supposed to dance with someone, but just kind of… dance.

He pressed back against the wall, feeling a little lost and far too sober for this as a clawing guilt reminded him that he’d promised to be fun tonight. But there was no sign of Emily amongst the small throng and, with a sigh, he slipped away to the kitchen for more wine. At least there was light in here more than the string lights Emily had hung. But the kitchen was crowded and he grabbed the bottle and bolted, scuttling up the hall to his room to breathe. They’d hung caution tape along the hallway to stop people going to the rooms, which he ducked easily, and felt the thump of the music fade from his body as though he’d slammed up a physical wall. It was just too loud, too much, and he—

“Emily?” he said, surprised, as he walked into his room and saw her sitting at his desk with her back to him. “Are you okay?”

She spun the chair around, glancing up at him through dark-ringed eyes widened with shock; and it took him a beat, looking at the thick eye-liner and sharp lines of her dark lipstick with her spiked-up hair, but he realised: this wasn’t Emily. Emily hadn’t worn make-up like this, or done her hair like that since… since…

Rome.

Something in his gut kicked hard at the reminder.

“Janie,” said the girl with a lopsided grin. “Sorry, I just needed some place to breathe. This place is massive, shit. It’s yours, right? Yours and Emily’s? You’re the hot roommate?”

“Yeah,” he agreed unsteadily. “Wait, what? Who called me hot?”

“I did,” she replied with another of those cocky grins that reminded him, weirdly, of being fifteen. “And you’re the most gorgeous face here, you’ve got to be that cute guy in Emily’s purse.”

“She has a picture of me in her purse?” was the only thing he took from that, sitting on his bed as the shock made him feel a bit wobbly in a way that the wine hadn’t managed yet. Janie, he noticed, had a bottle held between her legs but he couldn’t tell what it was and, before he could focus on it, he found himself noting instead her fish-net stockings and high leather skirt and those boots, those boots were familiar too, and it was all a bit too much like reliving that first hit of puberty for him to be comfortable with.

He drunk the from the bottle of wine instead, with Janie’s eyes locked on him.

“So why are you hiding in here, hot roommate?” she asked.

What a question, he thought.

“I was trying to live a little and found it was a little harder than expected,” he said wryly. “I’ll still be expected to ‘get my dance on’ as soon as Emily finds me though, so I suppose I should resign myself to that.” He tapped his feet on the ground half-heartedly, wishing he was better at this and regretting wasting his teenage years being, well, him.

“Oh, living a little is easy, bud,” said Janie with a laugh that was one hundred percent as sharp as Emily’s had used to be, back when she’d laughed more and for less reason. “You just gotta force it a bit at first.”

And she tugged the bottle from between her legs—he blinked and felt his cheeks flush hot as a glance at the bottle earned him what he suspected was a very deliberate glimpse of red satin between those stockinged legs—and waggled it at him. He read the label, the heat from his cheeks feeling like it was spreading down his body still as his brain took a moment to reroute away from that coy hint.

To his eternal horror, he realised he was hard, crossing his legs quickly and ignoring how that pinched.

“I’ve never had vodka,” he said, clearing his throat as his voice rasped. Janie was blatantly looking at his crotch. “Well, not since I was…” She’d stood up, walking over to him and uncapping the lid to tilt it towards his mouth. “…fourteen.”

“Sounds like you knew how to live at fourteen,” she said. The glass of the bottle tapped his lip. “I bet it won’t take much to find that passion again, huh?”

“I bet,” he whispered. She was very close.

“So, hot roommate,” she asked, still with the bottle tilted against him, “let’s make this easy.”

 

Emily was having fun and, to her delight, so was Spencer. That was a shock. She turned around from dancing with one guy, suddenly remembering her friend and wondering where he’d hidden himself tonight, only to find that Spencer was dancing. That was utterly astounding to her, stopping dead in front of two people walking just to stare and then, giddy with the moment, to laugh and leap into the fray.

“Yeah, Spence!” she yelled over the music, grabbing his arm from behind and earning a kind of sloppy grin from him when he lurched around to see who was manhandling him. “See! I told you you’d have fun!”

He just laughed, shaking his head at her as she dragged him over to the stereo and yanked the sound up, content in the knowledge that, first, their walls were fantastically thick and, secondly, even if some sound leaked out, they’d already let their neighbours know they were partying tonight. It was the most mature she’d even been and she was revelling in it; man, adulting was easy, she thought with a burst of affection for her friend as she turned and found him waiting.

“Dance with me!” she yelled, dragging him back out there and enjoying his company until she lost him in the crowd. But she didn’t really mind, it was honestly just nice seeing him not overthinking things for once.

She was proud of him.

 

Emily caught him when he stumbled, at least, he thought it was Emily right up until she took the chance to undo his belt.

“Hey,” he tried to complain, going to knock her hands away and almost falling over. “Not… hey. People are, look, hey.”

She snorted out a laugh he heard. “Sorry,” she said into his ear, nipping at the lobe. Embarrassed, he looked around to make sure no one had seen, but the lights were low and people were busy. “Where are your words, motormouth?”

He looked for them, he really did. But the ground wasn’t being very groundy anymore and neither was his tongue and he turned in a circle and felt the circles keep going. Uh oh.

“Uh oh,” he said softly, making sure to lean close to her so she could hear him even over the loud electronic beat. She cocked her head back, black-stained mouth cocked in a familiar smile, and he kissed her before mumbling, “Uh oh,” again as he almost overbalanced on top of her. “Sorry, Em.”

The kiss was good. It made him feel alive. It made him want more; what that more consisted of, he didn’t know, but his dizzy brain longed for it.

“Em,” he murmured, kissing her again and closing his eyes, savouring the tacky touch of her lipstick to his mouth.

“Janie,” she corrected him, taking his hand with one hers. The other, he noticed when he opened his eyes, was holding the bottle. Or a new bottle. He narrowed his eyes at it and then, promptly, found himself distracted by her skirt and the memory of that flash of red. “I’m Janie, remember?”

“Janie,” he agreed placidly, letting her lead him back to the yellow splash of the caution tape and away from the thumping sound. He had a sudden thought, waiting until they were up the hall and the walls were less listening before he caught her around the waist and lifted her a bit, earning a surprised giggle as he curled close, mouth to the bare skin of her shoulder. “I got my words back,” he said with pride, getting another laugh in return. “Want to know about alcohol’s effect on the body? I know an awful lot about…” He paused, thinking, and she laughed again at his face, for some reason. “…bodies?”

Yeah. Bodies.

That was it.

“You’re wasted, hot roommate,” she informed him with a smile that felt a bit weird in his stomach to see. He blinked. They weren’t in the hallway anymore. When had that happened? But the lights weren’t on and at least, now, he was sitting down. “See? Isn’t this easy?”

He looked down to where she was kneeling between his legs, his fingers busy holding the bottle for her. And his belt was undone and her smile was sharp and he closed his eyes and wavered with the world.

“Easy,” he mumbled. “You remind me of when it was easy.” She gave him another look that made him dizzy and hard, all at once, although it didn’t last. Alcohol’s effect on the body, he thought with another dizzy rush. That was one of them. And he stumbled out, his voice a slurry mess, “You remind me of Emily.”

“Bud, if you get me off, I’ll be whoever you want me to be,” she said before her mouth was too busy to say much at all.

He closed his eyes.

 

The caution tape was loose, Emily noticed. She’d been about to duck under to go check on Kinky in the spare room when she’d seen it. No doubt someone had crept under and she sighed and went looking to make sure they weren’t touching Spencer’s stuff, since he really wouldn’t appreciate that.

There was a couple making out just inside Spencer’s room, which was odd because she’d thought he’d locked it. She flicked the light on with a hollered, “Dicks away!” and smirked as they broke apart and fumbled their shirts back into place, apologising to her as they went. Both of them being partners of people Emily had invited, Emily noted, amused by the drama that was going to happen there when they did the walk of shame back out into the living room. And she waited until they were back out into the allotted space before turning and, in her peripherals, noticing her door was very slightly ajar.

“Goddamnit,” she muttered. Oh well. Fair was fair. Spencer got people smooching in her room, it was only fair that she have to deal with it too. At least all their sheets were only one laundry load, if that was some consolation.

“Dicks awa—” she began to bellow, slamming open the door and hitting the light as her eyes locked with Spencer’s startled gaze. For a heartbeat, she went to grin at him and apologise for waking him up, assuming he’d crept in here to hide… then she looked again. “Oh, shit, fuck, gross!”

And she hurtled out, dragging the door shut behind her as her whole body burned hot with embarrassment. For a moment, she just wanted to die, honestly—she could have gone her whole life without walking in on her best friend fucking some random, but, here she was. That was in her brain and never getting erased.

As she stood there, she wondered: what was she supposed to do now?

Not stand here, that was for sure. For one, Spencer was sure to come scampering out after her once he’d gotten his pants back on and she didn’t really want to see him right now. With that, Emily shook her head and went to walk back out into the living room… staying soberish be damned, now she had a good reason to drink.

Then she stopped. And waited. And waited.

And waited.

Why wasn’t Spencer following her?

“Oh no,” she said, channelling Spencer as she realised she was going to have to go back in there. Him not following wasn’t good; it probably meant he was upset. And if he was upset, she had to suck it up and go talk to him and his… friend. She just really hoped he had pants on this time.

She stomped back over to the door, knocking hard and closing her eyes before swinging it open and going in. “Seriously, my room?” she snapped, hearing a flurry of movement and a feminine, “Would you fuck off?” that had her eyebrows shooting up.

“Um, no?” she replied. “This is my room and my apartment and my—”

She stopped. Why wasn’t Spencer saying anything?

She opened her eyes, narrowing them at her friend. The girl was staring at her, clearly pissed right the fuck off, but Emily didn’t give two shits about her. She was looking at Spencer now, and she knew that glassy stare on his face and the sluggish way he was responding to her being there. Even as she stared, he was struggling to sit upright and looking confused that the entire world seemed to be conspiring to keep him pinned down as neatly as the girl straddling him was.

“He’s fucked up,” she said, anger surging fast only to be swallowed two seconds by raw fear. “Hey, what the fuck, get off of him! Spence?”

“I’m fine,” Spencer slurred, clearly lying. He did have pants on, she was only sort of pleased to notice. That didn’t mean she couldn’t see his dick.

Great.

“See, he’s fine, now fuck off,” snapped the girl. “We’re busy.”

Emily looked at her, glad that she’d done so much mature stuff lately that maybe it was going to balance out what was going to happen next. “If you touch him again, I’m going to throw you through that window,” she said sweetly, making sure to smile as she said so. Her voice, when speaking to Spencer, was nowhere near as saccharine. “Spencer, put your dick away and don’t catch it in the zip because I am not helping you. You’re not fucking anyone until you can tell me the square root of eighty thousand.”

He blinked. “Eighty… what?”

“Exactly. Dick in. You, out.” Emily pointed to the girl, then the door, then folded her arms. For some reason, despite there being no real risk to her here, her adrenaline was rushing. It was making it hard to think clearly, her heart hammering hard and her blood pulsing. She was trembling.

The girl was standing now, looking just as angry as Emily felt. “Hey, if you wanted him, you should have gotten in earlier,” she was saying. Emily looked at her. “Just because I got in first—”

“My best friend is not a potluck,” Emily snarled, walking forward. She grabbed the girl’s arm, made a soft warning noise when Spencer went to stand up with a sudden rush of worry flickering across his flushed face—cleverly, he sat back down fast—and then went to drag her ass out. “Come on, move. Party is over. You ended it, good job, now get out so I can help my friend sober up.”

She saw the swipe coming from miles away, some long-remembered instinct from Rossi’s self-defence lessons kicking in. Emily hadn’t had to use those skills in years, not since a few scuffles in high school, but she still remembered them well enough to deal with this skinny bitch; she ducked the punch and used the girl’s own momentum to throw her. What a glorious moment that was, when Emily straightened and watched her opponent sail beautifully through the air with a detached kind of interest that came with not actually believed she’d thrown someone… but she definitely had. There was a shriek and a crash where the girl landed, Emily staggering a bit as she lost her feet—then the girl was up and throwing an actual punch at Emily’s face.

That one landed.

Emily yelped, feeling her cheek explode into pain before reacting fast. There was no time to be fuck-assing about right now—she had to end this quickly. And if that meant fighting dirty, well, she’d always used to win when wrestling Spencer as well. She went for that ridiculous hair, grabbing a chunk and dragging her down so she could pop her fast across her painted-black mouth. The girl went down, and hard, staring at Emily with shock in her black-ringed eyes instead of getting back up.

Spencer, Emily noticed through her throbbing heartrate and rushing pulse, was catastrophically silent.

“Get out,” Emily enunciated with deliberate care, “because I don’t have time to beat your ass as hard as you deserve. And here’s a tip, you stupid cunt, if they’re too drunk to stand up, you don’t fuck them!”

The girl went with one frightened glance at the expression on Emily’s face. Emily followed, leaving Spencer there without even looking at him—she didn’t think she could until the rush of the fight had burned away her anger and shame—unplugging the stereo in a swift yank and, when people turned to look at her, informing them the party was over.

No one argued with her. They just left. Maybe they saw on her face what that bitch had seen, something that scared them. Good. Let them know that she was angry.

Then she went to look in the mirror, staring at her eyes before shifting her gaze to the swelling bruise on her cheek. That and the red suggestion of maybe-bruises on her knuckle left very little to the imagination as to what had gone down, if a certain half-conscious roommate questioned what had happened while he was sloppy. With a sigh, she grabbed a towel, wet it for her face, and went to find him. When she entered her room, he wasn’t even awake. She stared at him for a while, resigning herself to this.

At least he probably hadn’t seen her hit someone.

 

Spencer woke up in Emily’s bed and froze, horror battling the oncoming rush of nausea he could feel building. The bed dipped a bit, his companion leaning towards him, and he had a vague memory of dark eyes and spiky hair and someone touching him…

“Basin beside the bed,” Emily said quietly. “Water too, and a towel. Don’t look at me, I’m mad at you.”

Wordlessly, he tried to mouth what he needed to ask her but couldn’t find the energy to voice.

“And no, we didn’t have sex,” she added, “since I’m pretty sure you have no idea what happened last night. You, on the other hand, almost definitely fucked some random bitch. What the fuck were you thinking, Spencer?”

“I don’t know,” he finally managed, curling his knees up as his stomach gurgled unpleasantly. He was wearing pants. That was good, he thought?

Then he clicked, rolling over and regretting it as he almost threw up but swallowed it down.

“I what?” he squeaked, before registering the cold set to her eyes and the snarl to her voice when she’d snapped bitch. Oh, she was angry. She was so, so angry. He wanted to bolt from that anger but knew he was definitely not going to be able to stand right now. Crawling, maybe… he could probably manage crawling.

Her face was bruised.

“Did someone hit you?” he asked hoarsely. Her expression turned even colder, going down a notch from ‘icy’ to ‘arctic’. He started to shake, suddenly sure that this was it, he’d broken their friendship. They were over and she was only here to make sure he didn’t die in his sleep sobering up. Once that was over, she’d leave. He’d shattered them.

“I can’t do this right now,” she declared, climbing over him and stalking to the door. He tried to sit up and groaned, the whole bed lurching with him. “I’m going to clean up. Don’t get up, you’re still smashed. And don’t throw up and choke on it because I’m not giving you CPR when your mouth is still covered in her skanky lipstick.”

And she was gone. Spencer curled back under the covers, digging his fingers into her pillow and clinging on for dear life to what was left of the life he’d loved.

He was sure he’d ruined everything.

 

Emily went for a long walk to think, trying to understand why she was so angry at him—it wasn’t like she had a say in who he took to his bed, or how. And she was very aware that her past partners had been a million times more destructive to her mental health than one drunken hook-up, so did she really have a leg to stand on…

But that wasn’t right, she thought, sitting down and staring at a café across the street as she pondered the night they’d lived through. The anger faded quickly out here, leaving her mind clear.

Was she jealous?

Maybe.

But that didn’t feel right either. Emily curled her knees close to her chest, tucking her hands in the sleeve of her coat and squinting against the cold wind blowing. She didn’t think she was jealous. That girl, what had she gotten? A barely-aware fumble she probably wouldn’t have teased out of him if he was sober and five minutes of glory when all his focus was on her. What did Emily have in comparison?

A lifetime of love, she realised. A lifetime of friendship. And that was why she’d been so angry; the girl hadn’t threatened her friendship or her love, she hadn’t taken something from Spencer that Emily wanted; she’d threatened his health and his happiness, and Emily was intimately involved in both those things because that was what people who loved each other did.

“Shit,” Emily said out loud in the face of this realisation. A woman walking past with a small boy gave her a startled look; she ignored this and leapt up, racing for home. After all, she’d known Spencer since they were seven years old: if she didn’t tell him that she loved him, he’d never figure it out.

 

Spencer was showered and dressed and midway through a panicky, anxiety-driven deep clean of the apartment that was interrupted by Emily throwing open the front door and bursting in while yelling his name frantically. Elbow-deep in hot, soapy water and on his knees, Spencer squinted up at her through his lingering intoxication—he really wasn’t sure if he was sober or still drunk or teetering on hungover yet—and tried not to swallow his own tongue in a panic of her potentially yelling at him.

“Emily, please listen to me,” he rambled agitatedly, earning a startled stare from her as she noticed the bucket of water and just how damp he was right now. “Please, listen—I don’t think I had sex with her, I mean, I found the bottle we were drinking and I drunk a lot and, this is embarrassing, but I don’t think we had sex because I don’t think I could so please don’t be angry at me, please please—”

Emily was giving him a look like he’d thrown her entirely off her train of thought.

“Are you trying to claim innocence because you couldn’t get it up?” she asked finally, eyebrows scrunching down and mouth twisting into an almost laugh. “Is this really the defence you’re going with?”

Judging from his red face and miserable eyes, she guessed the answer was ‘yes’.

“Spence,” she said finally, stepping in and closing the door before crossing the room and shoving the bucket away from him. The little flinch he did when she kneeled beside him and tried to meet his eyes broke her heart a bit; he was just too worried he’d see rejection in her expression to risk it. “No, dude, look at me. I worked out why I’m angry.”

“Because I disappointed you,” he mumbled, still looking down at his soapy hands.

“No. You didn’t disappoint me. You scared me.”

That got his attention, his head snapping up as he stared at her a little bemusedly. “You’re the one with the bruise,” he protested. “All I have is a hangover. But, I swear, I didn’t know it was your room. I didn’t even know where I was—”

“That’s my point,” she answered quietly. “Spence, the night I got pregnant, I was wasted. Too drunk to care what he did with me, too drunk to think about being safe or careful. Too drunk to even know, really, until I woke up the next morning and realised I was a mess. It didn’t bother me then—and I probably would have gotten pregnant anyway because, let’s face it, I was never safe or careful at fifteen—but the fact of the matter was, how the hell could I have thought about the consequences of my actions if I couldn’t even tell what he was doing to me… or whose bedroom I was in? And that terrifies me, thinking that something like that could have happened to you, even though you’re so so so smart and all because she got you as smashed as John did me and—”

“I drunk the alcohol too,” he pointed out. “It’s just as much my fault as hers.”

“She was sober enough to slug me when I tried kicking her out,” Emily retorted. “You weren’t even capable of standing. And I got angry because I’m not used to that, you know, seeing you vulnerable and so close to being hurt. It’s normally the other way around and you handle it better than I do. Maybe it would have been fine. Maybe it might not have been, but at the time all I could think was how much I was hurting when I was fifteen because of a drunken mistake and imagining you in my shoes.”

The thought visibly flickered across his face but he was, thankfully, keen enough not to be a smartass about it. If he’d sassed her about his inability to get pregnant, she’d probably have pushed him into the bucket.

“I’m not used to being scared,” she finished weakly. “And you know what? You deserve better than that bitch—”

“Your bias is showing,” he said in a low, sad voice. “My culpability is—”

“You deserve more than someone who doesn’t even care that you were almost unconscious while on your back,” Emily continued, shuffling forward until she could make him look at her. His eyes widened; he was seeing something in her expression that she couldn’t control or know about. It didn’t stop her. “You deserve more than someone who wouldn’t have noticed if you’d choked yourself like that, you deserve more than someone who got you wasted just to have sex with you like that’s all you offer to them, and you deserve more than a best friend who yelled at you instead of asking you if you’re okay because, last night? That wasn’t like you. You don’t do things like that unless you’re hurting—you told me that once. I hate that girl because she could have hurt you and not even cared, because she doesn’t get you like I do so she didn’t even realise the danger she posed. And I’m sorry I yelled and I love you a lot and I’m here right now asking you, are you okay?”

For the longest time, he said nothing.

And, when he spoke, he gutted her completely.

“I don’t remember what I did with her,” he said quite clearly, Emily nodding along as though she followed even though she really, really didn’t, “but I remember what I said to her.”

“What did you say?”

“I said…” He went quiet, struggling to get the words out. But she’d trusted him; he trusted her. “I told her she reminded me of when it was easy, I remember saying that… and meaning it. Because she did. There was something about her, she reminded me of all the good parts of being a teenager. And I didn’t really want the sex, beyond the biological imperative, but I wanted… that. I want that.”

“What?” Emily couldn’t help it, she laughed a little, earning a wry stare from Spencer. “Spence, what? She was a goth nightmare, she’s nothing like you at fifteen, and you weren’t getting drunk and—”

She stopped; she’d realised. The room was very, very quiet.

“I’m scared I grew up too fast and lost you,” Spencer finished in a rapid, frantic voice that wobbled and cracked. “And I wish I could go back and grow up with you, and I wish we’d just… just, stop.”

“Do…” Emily didn’t know how to ask what she needed to ask. “Do… you want to have sex with me? Was that…” But that wasn’t right, even before she’d finished stammering it out, she knew it was wrong, and he didn’t dignify it with an answer. “You never lost me, Spence. I’m right here. Right beside you, and I love you just as much as I did then, if not more.”

“But that’s not true,” he rebutted gently. “You don’t love me like you did that night, my birthday. Do you remember that? We could… we could have…”

Emily could hear Kinky meowing for his breakfast and to be released from the spare room. Her own head was aching and she was tired and fraught and Spencer wasn’t looking much better. This wasn’t the time, she realised. It wasn’t the time to unpack this, to unravel the tangle of everything Spencer was struggling with. She knew better than he did: they couldn’t have. Not then; they weren’t the right people at eighteen, and maybe not now because she wasn’t sure they were the kind of people who could unpack thirteen years of friendship into something more now either, not quite yet. Not without risking something important.

And she’d realised on her walk: she wanted a lifetime with him. She wouldn’t risk that, not for sex, not for a relationship, and especially not when she didn’t know if he really wanted any of the above or if he was just in a temporary rut caused by the uncertainty of their lives right now and their renewed closeness.

“I think we should sleep on this conversation,” she said finally, compartmentalising everything away until she had time to process. “We’re both exhausted and stressed. You’re still drunk, probably, and my head hurts. I got punched for you, you know. I think that earns me some time to think.”

He frowned at her, all damp looking and sad. She leaned forward, acting on impulse, and kissed his cheek. His startled stare was absolutely worth it.

“My bed is a mess, thanks,” she reminded him, “so come on, we’ll go crash in yours. Just like when we were kids, remember?”

“When it was easy,” he rasped wetly.

“When it was easy,” she agreed with a deep inhale. “And we weren’t as lonely as we are now. Because that’s a bit it too, isn’t it? We’re here, right beside each other, but we’re still lonely. I didn’t notice you were struggling with this, and you haven’t noticed that I spent Mom’s car-money on a motorbike—”

Spencer choked with an outraged sound, but she grinned at him and ignored his horror.

“—and sometimes when you get that lonely, you’ll do anything to make it stop, remember? You’ll even profess that you love your best friend even though he’s in a happy relationship, because you just so desperately need to know that someone loves you. That you’re someone worth loving. Well, I love you and you’re someone, Spencer.”

This time the noise he made was thick and chest-deep and she folded herself forward and found herself collapsing into his waiting arms, hugging him tight despite his soapy-scent. “Even when I’m alone?” he squeezed out between hoarse breaths.

Especially when you’re alone,” she said firmly, the same as he’d said to her all that time ago when their roles had been reversed. “We find ourselves and then we talk, okay?”

“I’m scared if we wait we won’t have this—” he said, gesturing at the apartment around them. “This closeness, what if we grow apart again? What if we wait too long—”

“Bullshit,” she told him. “For a genius, you’re pretty dumb. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that the only way I’m going to find myself is if I’m standing right beside you—the same as we always have. And always will. Do you trust me?”

And he replied, “Yes,” meaning it absolutely.

Chapter Text

It was post New Years and there was a motorcycle in their living room, partially dismantled and with Emily tucked underneath and poking at it with a socket wrench and a bemused expression.

“Um,” said Spencer. He stood in the doorway with his arms full of groceries, something leaking down his calf from the corner of one he’d caught in the car door while trying to juggle bags and keys. “Um?”

“It was working,” Emily said with an annoyed huff, clanging the wrench against the bike. “Why isn’t it working now? Why aren’t you working?”

“Um,” said Spencer again. The wrench swung around to be waved threateningly in his direction.

“If you’re not going to say anything useful, go away,” declared Emily.

Spencer, upon considering what he thought was most definitely the object of Emily’s fast and fiery death sitting innocuously on a blue tarp, decided to say nothing but this: “There’s nothing to fix underneath a motorcycle. All the components are to the side.”

There was silence in the living room. Kinky padded out at a rapid pace from the hallway, doing a lap of the bike before sprinting back up the hall for no apparent reason.

“I knew that,” said Emily, sliding out from under the bike while still retaining both her dignity and the dangerous angle of the wrench. “Now go away before you start Nanaing. Also, you’re dripping on the rug.”

He went.

 

With great difficulty, Spencer managed to bite his tongue about the motorbike. After all, it currently wasn’t working and was therefore safe. He was also pretty sure Emily didn’t know how to ride it even if it was working, and also relatively sure that she didn’t have a license to ride it anyway. Therefore, lecturing her would do nothing except get him in trouble and make her more determined to engage with catastrophe.

Besides, if it really came down to it, he didn’t need to lecture her to stop her from killing herself on her new fascination. All he’d have to do was call her mother. Which he didn’t, because he liked having all of his limbs attached and functional, something that him tattling would endanger.

But he could. If needed.

That was a relief to him.

 

The morning that the bike vanished from the living room was an alarming one for him. Emily, who’d started her honours year overlapping with work experience as a community service officer—clerical work only, she’d told Spencer, and she wasn’t authorised to carry any kind of weapon—was barely there for him to question about it, so he sorely hoped it was because she’d come to her senses and sold the thing to buy a sensible sedan or tricycle or something.

This was incorrect.

“Where’s your motorbike?” he asked her when she trudged out of her room looking sleepy and making a bee-line for the electric kettle. “I’m fairly certain it wasn’t stolen in the night since even I would have heard that happening.”

Emily sensed disapproval in his tone and smiled as best she could at him when still decaffeinated and with a full day of research ahead of her. It seemed like that smile didn’t work. He was still frowning. “Tristan picked it up to take it to the garage,” she told him.

“Who’s Tristan?”

Emily paused. Spencer noticed this pause.

It became an uncomfortable pause.

“He is…” said Emily carefully, as she was very aware that Spencer was likely to disapprove of the truth, “…my…boyfriend?”

The pause continued. Spencer tilted his head, his own coffee going cold in the mug resting on the table in front of him.

Emily smiled.

“That feels like a…lie?” Spencer said finally. “Why did you say it like that?”

“Like what?”

“Like it’s a question? There was a question mark on the end of that—why is him being your boyfriend a question?”

Emily’s smile was beginning to seem strained. “There wasn’t a question mark there. You’re imagining things. See, this is why I said grammar is bad for you—it’s infected your thoughts now—”

“No, there was definitely a question mark there, and you stalled before answering. I know when you’re lying to me, why would you lie about that? I’m confused.” Spencer really was puzzled—and a little discomforted that maybe Tristan was her boyfriend and he’d somehow missed that happening.

He really hoped not, although he refused to face why he was so uncomfortable with the prospect.

Emily gave up; she may as well face the music now. “Okay, fine, he’s not my boyfriend,” she declared, Spencer exhaling and looking more relieved then she thought was appropriate since they still weren’t talking about ‘it’. “He’s teaching me how to ride.”

“Oh no,” said Spencer. “The bike is staying, isn’t it? You’re going to kill yourself.”

“Nonsense,” said Emily. “Tristan says it’s perfectly safe, so long as I’m careful and don’t take too many risks.”

“Too many risks? Not ‘no risks’? He specifically stated too many was the threshold for danger, implying that some are perfectly fine?”

With a dismissive wave of her hand, Emily continued making herself a coffee and bagel for breakfast, feeling his stare burning into the back of her messy hair. “It’ll be fine, Spence,” she told him. “You worry too much.”

“I hate him,” Spencer said sulkily. “He’s going to be responsible for your death and I hate him.”

“I’ll be sure to let him know, he’ll be devastated.”

And that was the last they spoke of the motorbike for quite some time.

 

“Remember your promise?” she announced one day, interrupting what had been, up until this point, a lovely, calm evening filled with nothing but him luxuriating his way through a bag of caramel sweets as he caught up on several periodicals he was subscribed to.

“Which one?” he asked warily. As a general rule, Spencer tried to make as few promises as possible, in case they backfired. Emily was very much like a monkey’s paw; she had an astounding gift for finding the worst possible outcomes of what should be nice things.

“You said we were going to pick up some kind of physical exercise, for your gimpy leg. You still have a limp and you shouldn’t, which means you need to start working on it.”

“Ah,” said Spencer.

Emily folded her arms and gave him her best intimidating stare; it came off as rather insolent which, all things considered, still had the desired effect. Spencer lowered the journal he was currently reading. “Have you thought about what you’d like to do?”

“I have not.”

“Swimming? Ball sports? Fencing?”

Each of these earned her haughty look. She ignored those looks.

“Fine then,” she said, her grin breaking through. And, just like that, Spencer realised that a trap had neatly been sprung around him. “Guess I get to pick for you.”

His quiet ‘oh no’ went unheard and, even if it hadn’t been, it wouldn’t have helped him. The very next week, Emily dragged him along to what turned out to be lessons in close combat. Spencer, glumly, walked out into the room filled with mats and people grappling and resigned himself to being thrown for eternity.

“Did you sign us both up?” he asked her morosely.

“Absolutely,” was her cheerful response. “Don’t worry, Spence—I’ll be as gentle as I always was.”

That, unfortunately, was what he was worried about.

 

There was a man on their coffee table. Spencer had been discomfited to come out from the study—their third bedroom having finally been turned into a shared study to try and recover some of the living room for guests—and finding this man, his head shaved and a considerable amount of tattoos covering what Spencer could see of his muscled arms, sitting on the coffee table with his long legs thrown out in front of him. Emily was on the couch, legs tossed over the back as she held a book in the air over her face and prattled on about something that sounded mechanical and complicated.

“Uh,” said Spencer.

“Oh, Spencer, this is Tristan,” said Emily. Spencer hid a frown. “Tris, this is Spencer, my roommate.”

“Yo,” said Tristan. “Nice socks.”

Spencer looked at his socks, one of which had donkeys on it, the other submarines—both gifts from Emily. He mumbled, “Thanks,” and looked over to the kitchen, wondering if it would be rude to make himself a coffee and not offer Tristan any, since if Tristan stayed for coffee maybe he’d end up getting comfortable and then he’d visit more often and use their furniture inappropriately—which was fine when Emily did it but he wasn’t Emily—and then maybe he’d move in and fall in love with Emily and they’d get married and—

The phone rang.

Spencer, distracted from the strange man sitting on their coffee table, went to answer it. Emily wasn’t distracted at all, firing an endless stream of bike-related questions at him, which he was answering quite easily and with the kind of smile that made Spencer’s mouth go dry—that smile aimed right at Emily—and maybe he’d have kept up anxietying himself into a miserable mess about this ‘Tristan’ if a surprising voice hadn’t answered his, “Reid and Prentiss residence, this is Spencer.”

“Reid and Prentiss residence, huh?” said Ethan with a laugh that still, after all this time, twisted Spencer’s stomach into loops. Within seconds, Tristan and Emily were forgotten and Spencer slipped out of the hall and into his room, the cord of the phone straining as he pushed his door shut as far as it would go with the cord stopping it closing completely. “My my, that’s serious. Should I expect the pitter patter of tiny goth-punk geniuses soon enough?”

“Eth,” breathed Spencer. For a moment, he didn’t know what to say. He wasn’t even sure what he was feeling. Finally, he settled on, “I didn’t know you had this number.”

“I didn’t. Phil did. Apparently, for some reason which is just as miserable to think about as you’d expect and which I refuse to repeat because, quite frankly, it’s ridiculous. And irrelevant now. Anyway, how are you?”

Spencer thought about that statement for a bit, hooking his desk chair with his foot and dragging it to where the phone cord would reach before sitting down. His chest hurt. The last he’d heard of Ethan, which hadn’t been much, Phil had just said he was ‘going away’ for a while. Spencer had figured it out.

“How’s Seattle?” he asked, ignoring Ethan’s low huff. “Are you still living with your parents?”

“I am indeed and it is gloriously suffocating. We’ve decided that perhaps college is not a healthy experience for me. But I’m okay, seriously, I wouldn’t be calling if I wasn’t. We agreed on that, remember? I’ve been okay for a year now. No alcohol, no silliness, none of it. And you’re dodging my question so, come on, Spence, we haven’t talked in like, what? Eighteen months? Two years? I miss my friends. Phil misses her friends. And you’re living with Emily again!”

“We’re roommates.” Spencer eyed the closed door warily. It wasn’t really like he was talking to someone he hadn’t spoken to in so long; Ethan sounded like Ethan, before all the trouble, before everything they hadn’t told Emily about because Ethan hadn’t wanted her to know. Like no time at all had passed. “Nothing more, and I’m not saying that to flirt. I’m saying that because we’re not.”

“That’s convincing. Keep saying it like that and you’ll probably believe it soon. You’ve always been an idiot where you and her are concerned.”

Spence ignored that. The voices in the living room had stopped. He heard the front door and assumed they were leaving, together.

“She rides a motorbike now,” he said morosely, searching for a safe point of conversation. “So I’m guessing she’ll be dead soon.”

“That’s melodramatic. I ride a motorbike and I’m not dead.”

It was very disconcerting for Spencer to picture that and then realise with surety that, yep, he was definitely still sexually attracted to not only Ethan as a person but also the concept of Ethan in motorcycle leathers and astride a bike. Not only disconcerting but also infuriating, since Spencer didn’t like that he didn’t have control over his weird and slightly sexist limbic system. After all, he didn’t get all flustered over picturing Emily on a bike—just worried.

Maybe this was why he was harsher than he needed to be with his response. “Yeah, well, two years ago you were suicidal, so forgive me if that doesn’t fill me with confidence for her survival.”

There was a terrible silence following that. Spencer could hear Ethan’s breathing, slow and haggard, and he remembered: Phil had told him not to let Ethan know that he knew.

Oops.

“I didn’t mean that,” Spencer murmured.

Ethan said quietly, “Yes, you did,” and the horrible silence returned. Finally, he spoke again, his voice subdued: “I really wish you didn’t know that. Fucking Phil.”

“It doesn’t matter. I don’t care. I mean, I do, but I don’t judge you or anything. You weren’t well, and now you’re better, and that’s all that matters.”

“It’s embarrassing.”

“It’s okay.” Spencer stressed the last word. “I wasn’t old enough to deal with it then, right, but that doesn’t mean I ever held it against you. We just… never got to talking about it because it wasn’t exactly the right time and Phil was insistent I needed to keep away for a while after, you know. Why are we talking about this? You didn’t call to talk about this. Why can’t we talk about something else, like, I don’t know, the motorbike or, hey, Emily’s doing honours now, which is awesome, and work experience and she’s going to join the FBI, which are all super fascinating and not this that we could be—”

Ethan laughed. The sound was real and some of the tension that had frozen Spencer to his desk chair seeped away, letting him relax and lean back, the cord no longer so tight that it was threatening to pull the handset from his hand and ping it wildly into the door.

“You know, one day you and that girl are going to kiss and realise you’ve been smitten with each other since before puberty and the entire world is going to roll their eyes and say ‘finally’,” he said, which Spencer didn’t dignify with an answer because how he and Emily felt about each other was not that simple and he wished it was, but Ethan wasn’t done. “And then I get to be best man at your wedding so I can make a speech about how I got to kiss you first and save her the experience of being the person who had to teach you not to choke on your tongue mid-Frenchie. Anyway, you’re right. I didn’t call to talk about how much of a dickhead I am or even to listen to you ramble endlessly about Emily—”

“I don’t ramble about Emily,” Spencer protested, ignoring all evidence to the contrary. He also ignored the kissing remark: that had been one time.

“—I called to ask if you guys were busy in August. And probably at least once beforehand, I guess, so we can catch up and make sure we still like each other before spending a solid six days together.”

“August is eight months away,” Spencer pointed out. “What takes so much planning that you’re asking if we’re busy now?”

“Oh, you know,” said Ethan slyly. Spencer didn’t know and let his silence speak for itself. “Maybe I’ve been doing a bit of dabbling in the things I love as a kind of musical therapy, and maybe some of that dabbling has been getting a bit of headway in places here and there, and maybe in return for that dabbling I’ve been given a sweet handful—by handful, I mean four—of tickets to a small thing you’ve likely heard nothing about but I bet Emily is all over…”

“Are you going to tell me or just be really annoying about it while racking up your phone bill?”

“I have tickets to a music convention, Spence, an exciting one. Honestly, you call yourself a genius. If you’re free in August, you should definitely come and definitely bring Emily because, hoo boy, she is going to love this one. It is all punk and alternative rock, which is her bread and butter as a tiny little anarchist in training, and I’ve heard whispers that the first night is entirely focused on female punk banks, which will appeal all over to that diehard feminist living in her brain you know is just waiting for the perfect moment to rise up and start burning brasseries. No one is expecting this thing to take off, but it is going to be a wild experience. One of a kind. Please come?”

Spencer thought about that for a second, unable to help but smile a little that Ethan still thought of them when something like this came up, even if it wasn’t really his thing. “Emily’s pretty respectable now,” he said doubtfully. “I’m not sure she’s still the bra-burning type, if she ever was, which I also doubt.”

“Maybe not around you she wasn’t, but only because she and Phil never got stoned and righteous while you were there, for some reason. I don’t know why, you’d have probably gotten up and marched with them, you little activist, you.”

Spencer snorted out an undignified, “I’ve never been an activist in my life, I’m shy.”

“You’re kidding me. If Emily asked you to march on the Capitol for penguin rights, you’d have it organised within the hour. Go on, ask her—she’s there, isn’t she?”

Spencer swung his feet down, standing and reaching out to open the door with the intention of leaning into the hall and calling Emily to him, if she hadn’t left with Tristan—but he found her propped against the wall opposite and giving him the strangest look instead. A little thrown by this, he blurted out, “Have you ever burned a bra?”

Emily stared at him.

“Smooth,” Ethan crackled into his ear, the connection distorted by his laughing.

“You do know that bra-burning stemmed from a hypothetical connection between men burning draft cards as a protest against the Vietnam war and feminist marches to try and give the latter credibility in the eyes of the media, right?” Emily finally said, silencing Ethan’s laughter. “There was no intentional bra-burning during the original 1968 marches, only incidental.”

“Oh no,” Spencer dimly heard him say like he’d turned his head away from the phone to speak without them hearing, “she’s turned into you. You’ve ruined her.”

“But no, I’ve never burned a bra,” Emily finished, continuing to stare weirdly at him, “they’re expensive. Is that Ethan? Why is Ethan on the phone? Is he okay?”

“He’s being really annoying,” Spencer answered. “And he wants to know if you still burn bras to know whether you’d be interested in going to a punk convention in August. It sounds very anti-establishment. I told him you’re too respectable for it now, you don’t even wear leather anymore.”

But Emily was grinning.

“Oh baby,” she said, loud enough for Ethan to hear her, “if you bring the bras, I’ll bring the lighter fluid, I am in.”

Spencer sighed. “Did you hear that?”

But Ethan was cheering too loudly to respond, chanting “They’re coming, they’re coming!” to someone, Spencer assumed Phil, in the background.

 

Details were exchanged, a plan was made to meet up in May when Ethan and Phil would be up this end of the country again, and the phone call ended with Spencer back in his desk chair but with Emily now sitting on his bed watching. Tristan had left.

Spencer lowered the handset when Ethan hung up, the dial-tone just loud enough that he leaned it against his leg to muffle it without standing to go return it to the cradle and give the abused cord a rest. He didn’t move, because Emily was still giving him that weird look.

“So,” he said, unsure how to tackle this weirdness, “Ethan sounds good. That’s good. We’ll have fun, hanging out, I think. Like old times. Yeah, that’ll be cool. Hey, yeah, we can relieve that summer, remember that summer? The one before we started college, at the Seattle house, that was a nice summer. I loved that summer. One of our best, don’t you think?”

He was rambling.

Emily rolled over, curling her knees and not breaking that stare. She was, without really knowing how to tell him why, feeling very sad under the excitement of the distant lure of the convention. “I didn’t like that summer,” she said quietly instead of trying to explain her sadness. “You started dating Ethan that summer. I thought I’d lost you.”

“Oh.”

There was a quiet beat between them, Spencer looking a bit lost.

“Well, maybe it will be like when we were a bit younger, then,” Spencer said finally. “When no one was dating anyone, although I don’t really want to break my leg and we didn’t hang out with Phil as much then. I’m not going to date Ethan again, if that’s what you’re worried about. That wouldn’t be fair on him at all, not when he knows how I feel about…”

He trailed off and looked down at the phone on his knee. They hadn’t really tackled the distant conversation after that disastrous party yet, even though it had been months. Sometimes Spencer caught himself watching Emily; sometimes Emily caught herself watching Spencer; neither had wanted to take that potentially catastrophic step towards facing it just yet.

But they were very aware it was there.

“Maybe it will be an entirely new thing,” Emily offered in a soft voice. “Where maybe some of us are dating, or maybe not, but whatever happens is good and stands alone without having to be lodged in the past to mean something. You didn’t miss growing up, Spence. Stop circling back to that. It’s not done yet—we’re still growing. Just… more carefully now. Some would say too carefully if you’re going around telling people I’m respectable now, just saying. I am not.”

“You’re not going to date Tristan?” he asked, tilting his head and narrowing his eyes a little.

“I don’t even want to kiss Tristan. He’s helping me get my bike license and get the actual bike running properly, and that’s it. Sometimes dudes do things for chicks without wanting to get in their pants, you know. I know I’m cynical enough to doubt that, but it shouldn’t come as a shock to you. You’re nice to people all the time without wanting to fuck them, and you’re half a gay so everyone is prey to you.”

Spencer choked on nothing, dropping the phone in his shock. It skipped across the carpet and wound up lodged between door and wall, the cord pulling it back to the cradle. “Half a gay?” he spluttered. “Prey? I’m bisexual, not a velociraptor!”

Emily just looked smug and didn’t answer, Spencer grumbling as he went to collect the phone. But, when he returned, she had that weird look on her face again. Suddenly, he knew what it was about.

“How long were you listening?” he asked.

She just looked at him.

Oh, he thought.

“I know you’re probably mad I never told you,” he began with, but she was already shaking her head.

“I’m not mad. I mean, I kind of… appreciate the discretion, I guess. I’d want that, discretion. If it was me. I think I’m just…” She inched back so she could curl around one of his pillows, knees drawn up; drawn to how gloomy she looked over there, he walked over and sat on the bed beside her, waiting for her to shift to the side against the wall before lying flat and looking up at the ceiling, waiting for her to speak. “God, fuck, you know what? Suddenly I get you. I understand this weird thing against growing up you’ve got going on. It really did a number on us, didn’t it? I mean, I got pregnant, Ethan got suicidal, fuck. What happened to being three kids on a pier daring each other to face the world without looking?”

“He’s not suicidal anymore,” was all Spencer could say, his chest hurting enough that he had to roll over to face her just so he could breathe properly without feeling like all of his weight was resting on his lungs. “And it wasn’t, I don’t know. It wasn’t that dramatic. Phil says it was kind of anti-climactic, really.” He tried to force a smile but it wouldn’t appear. “Apparently she got home one day and he was sitting in her room. When she asked him what he was doing, he very calmly told her that her room had the fewest ways to die in it and therefore he was waiting there until she got home and could help him. She tells it like a joke.”

Emily had no idea how that could be funny. She supposed maybe it was because Phil either had to laugh about it or cry, and laughing was far, far easier. “Is it because you guys…?”

“Because we broke up? No, I don’t think so. I think maybe that got tangled up in it, but if I’m being honest he was probably heading there when we were together. He was drinking to fight something, although he never told me what that something was.” Spencer reached up to rub his eyes under his glasses, his knuckles nudging the bridge. “I blamed myself for a while, even though Phil didn’t tell me about that night until the day I went to lunch with them, last year. I just blamed myself for him being sad. But it wasn’t my fault, none of it was. Ethan was just trying too hard to wear shoes that didn’t fit him and he’s not the kind of person who can push through pretence like that. Am I doing that thing, that thing people hate when you talk about your ex too much? I feel like I’m doing that.”

“You’re not,” said Emily. They were very close. She could see fine hairs on the top of his lip he’d missed while shaving. Could count them, if she was so inclined. “You’re talking about a friend we both love very much and something sad that happened to him. It’s okay, Spence. You know, Ethan had Phil to help him through all this—did you tell anyone?”

“Why would I tell anyone?” Spencer really didn’t understand where she was going with this, taking his glasses off as the arm was pressed painfully into his ear by his leaning on the pillow. It meant he had to focus more intently on her face but that was okay: he’d long ago lost his discomfort with direct eye contact where Emily was concerned. “It wasn’t for me to tell.”

“Because when our friends are hurt, we hurt with them,” Emily pressed. “And when it’s something so big and potentially catastrophic as this, we hurt a lot. I mean, the first time you talked to him post finding out about it, months later, you brought it up. That doesn’t sound like you’ve moved past it yet—it means something that it’s come up now.”

It was his turn to be looking and her strangely, and she didn’t think it was just because he’d taken his glasses off either. They were in his hand, which was closed gently around them, and he’d be mad about smudging the lenses later.

“Ethan spent a long time trying to force himself to be someone he wasn’t,” Spencer said slowly, averting his gaze very slightly. Emily watched him. “And it eroded him. Although I’m aware I wasn’t at fault for it, I was a part of that. We didn’t fit so he tried to force it. Since then, I’ve been very aware of the damage two incompatible people can do to each other, even if they love each other very much. Especially if they love each other very much. I am… very… scared that maybe, maybe… maybe me and you, maybe we’re not compatible. And maybe I’m going to do it again to someone else I love.”

There was very little Emily could do except attempt to tell him he was catastrophising, but the words wouldn’t come and she was forced to do it soundlessly, reaching out to take his hand and, then, when he pulled away and charged on with his frightened diatribe, just lie there and listen.

“Ethan, on the phone just then? He sounds good, he sounds healthy. He sounds happy and he’s talking about music again like he has purpose and meaning once more. He wouldn’t have found that if he’d stayed in New York to be near me, to follow me—he’d never have let himself be the college drop-out chasing music as a career while dating the guy with two PhDs with aspirations of getting more. So if we… I’m being presumptuous, I guess, thinking there’s a we, but if there is and we are, what will I hold you back from? In what ways will I erode you? Because the only reason I didn’t crumble when Phil told me about Ethan was that she’d already been there and handled it and he was alive and okay in front of me, even if I’m guessing there was a downswing after that pushed him back to his parents before he found his feet… I can’t handle having to be the Phil. I don’t ever want to walk into a room to find you looking defeated and telling me that you’re done. I can’t even be tangentially involved with that because, that? That would destroy me utterly.”

“I’m not Ethan,” was all she managed before he cut her off, suddenly propping himself up on his elbow and looking intently down at her despite his lack of focus.

“No, you’re not, that’s what makes this such a terrifying concept, don’t you get that?” He wasn’t looking at her anymore, instead looking away with his ears and what she could see of his cheek turning red. “You’re this fierce, brilliant force of life. You’re furiously alive and wild and you make me more, you always have—there’s no sudden ‘falling in love’ realisation, no waking up in the middle of the night and thinking ‘fuck it’s her’, no gut-churning moment in the passenger seat of a car you’re driving. There’s just you and how you are and have always been and how that makes me feel and always has, and there’s the fear that I’m going to lose it by trying to force it to be more when it’s perfect how it is.”

 

And Emily did the only thing she knew to answer that astounding expression of something that she recognised now as being something that Spencer was struggling to describe because, to him, it was big and boundless and such a part of his life that trying to describe it was like describing the sky above or the ground under his feet; she also recognised that he was struggling so hard to describe because what if, in the act of description, it caused that sky to fall?

She recognised this because this had been the way she’d felt all along, finally the first to know something he hadn’t.

So she kissed him.

 

The first Spencer knew of it was the bed dipping as Emily slid over. He thought she was going to hug him and relaxed ready to accept what was, between them, an accepted and familiar form of comfort; the next, there was a hand cupping the cheek faced around from her and it was gently turning his jaw to face her. Then there were lips on his, soft and hesitant, and her eyes were closed. His were not. They were wide enough and focused enough, finally, that he could see the way her brow was lined with worry, how her eyes were scrunched nervously shut and, before he closed them and let go of the panic that was making his response to her stiff and unyielding, he also noted how beautiful she was.

Then he closed his eyes and let it happen. The hand on his cheek slipped away to splay against his chest—he worried that she’d realise how fast his heart was beating; she was glad she wasn’t the only one it was happening to—and he missed it briefly before realising he was forgetting to breathe through his nose and having to break away quickly to suck in a sharp hint of fresh air.

Emily watched him warily, unsure how he was going to respond to that, if his fears were still cluttering up his overactive brain and if that was going to stop him from stepping forward along with the leap she’d taken.

He responded by sliding close enough that their knees were knocking together and turning his body towards her, bringing his fingertips to, first, his mouth as though he was shocked they were still there before leaning over to brush them against hers and marvel at how her eyelashes flickered at the touch.

“May I kiss you again?” he asked breathlessly still, and he marvelled more when she nodded because, this?

This was truly remarkable.

Chapter Text

Emily woke in Spencer’s bed.

Uh oh, was her first thought as she spent a panicked moment reorientating herself to her position in the world—then she looked to the left and found Spencer sprawled there, fast asleep, and the panic faded. Manufactured light spilled through the open blinds of his window, lining his face in vivid orange broken by the grey-black of drawn shadows. He looked very peaceful, laying there like that, and she was reminded suddenly of all the times she’d woken to this sight before. Countless times in countless beds at countless stages of their lives.

This was nothing to panic about; this was just how they’d always been and, she hoped, always would. With that to soothe her, she curled close to him, let her hand drift to lay flat upon his stomach, and closed her eyes; she thought of Ethan and she thought of the convention and she thought, briefly, of the fact that they’d fallen asleep in between shy bouts of nervous kissing, and then she fell asleep once more.

 

Spencer woke with Emily barely awake beside him. Dawn was breaking outside the window, the blinds opened to reveal the washed-out grey sky just barely lightening.

“Morning,” she mumbled, curled so close he could feel her heart beating slowly through his side. “Your breath smells.”

He turned his face away from her, flushing hot with embarrassment for a second before relaxing as she closed her eyes and nuzzled her mouth against his shoulder. Emily had never been a cuddler before. It was doing unprecedented things to his lethargic brain to have her here and cuddling and so close in this early light; he wiggled down and tipped his hips away from her before thinking about what this meant for them and swallowing down another wave of nervousness that almost solved the problem of his morning erection without him shaming himself completely.

“No good morning?” she asked, lifting her head. He realised that he’d failed to answer her. “Oh boy, is that your ‘I have regrets’ face? It is, isn’t it? Fuck.”

“No,” he argued. There was danger in the way she was narrowing his eyes. “It’s my ‘I need to pee’ face.”

She raised both eyebrows at him, which was barely any better than the narrowing had been in terms of him getting out of here without her noticing, especially when he really didn’t want to get out of here. “Well, go.”

He looked at her.

She looked at him.

She grinned.

“So,” she said with that grin turning devious. He sighed and rolled out of the bed, well aware that she knew. As he walked out of there with his shoulders—and other things—stiff, she called after him, “What’s it like peeing with an erection, anyway?”

 

Really, she thought, him throwing Kinky in the bed with her upon his return and the cat immediately attacking her hair, she deserved that.

It didn’t stop him crawling back in and kissing her with his newly minted breath, before stopping mid-kiss to pertly inform her that her breath was hardly any better than his had been. Unlike her, he didn’t seem to care and didn’t let her leave to go brush her teeth.

They didn’t talk about it and they wouldn’t: it was decided between them that things would continue as always except if, occasionally, one got the desire to kiss the other, well that was okay. It was more careful than Emily was happy with, but she knew pushing Spencer too far too fast would see him close himself away from her for good. She’d learned from Ethan’s mistakes.

 

Despite this determination to be as careful as possible, there was nothing careful about what happened in the months following. Before, it had almost seemed like change had been creeping slowly up behind them, giving them time to adjust to the status quo before throwing something new at them. Now, new experiences arrived at a furious pace, several months passing in a blur of them rushing to catch up on their hectic lives. In the brief moments in between great steps forward, there were snatches of frozen realisation.

 

Spencer looked up one hazy afternoon to find that they were already beginning to approach the end of the teaching period and he was beginning to approach the end of yet another doctorate. Somehow, he’d missed the interim. It had just darted by so fast. The last thing he remembered clearly in the blur of marking papers and placing the finishing touches on what was almost a complete dissertation just waiting on final results was he and Emily beginning close combat classes together; that had been almost six months ago. Without complaint, he’d attended every week and tolerated the bruises and sore muscles that had followed. Except today. Today, despite the session the night before, he wasn’t stiff at all.

“Interesting,” he noted, putting the thought aside to consider later. Perhaps, as bizarre as it was to think about, he was simply getting fitter. His limp had faded and his leg no longer ached if he was on it too much. He would have to thank Emily for her part to play. Then he promptly forgot this thought, focusing once more on his dissertation and never returning to ponder it more, just accepting his new ease of physicality as an unstated fact of being.

It hadn’t completely gone unnoticed, however. Emily had seen it weeks before he noticed. It was mid-lesson, Emily was lounging against a wall eating a muesli bar while watching their teacher trying to patiently explain to Spencer how to not end up on his ass every single sparring match. Emily could have told him he was probably wasting his time—and then Spencer and his partner tried the exercise again and, to everyone’s surprise, it was his partner who ended up on the mat.

Emily joined in the shocked smatter of applause for her friend, thinking how uncomfortably warm the room suddenly was as Spencer walked towards her.

“Did you see what I did?” he asked giddily, bouncing like a fawn on the tips of his toes. “I did it!”

“Yeah, you did,” Emily said breezily, ignoring how fast her heart was racing at the sight of his broad shoulders she hadn’t realised were that broad and the muscles in his arms he rarely used and she hadn’t noticed before now. “Good job, you bruiser, you. Rossi would be proud.”

If he thought her praise was stilted, he didn’t comment upon it, and she wandered away to see about opening a window.

 

Another was on a snowy day; he’d returned home for lunch and Emily wasn’t there. As he was making a sandwich and puzzling over some small thought that he’d never quite get to the bottom of before discarding, Emily walked in. He looked at her as she greeted him and it was every bit an everyday, normal, forgettable instance, except in the ways that it absolutely wasn’t.

There was snow in her hair as she stamped her boots clean and tossed several heavy items onto the couch. Her cheeks were flushed pink and she was wearing black leather. He hadn’t seen her in leather in years, he thought, his mouth suddenly dry around the sandwich as she breezed past and his eyes automatically followed, confused, for a second, about the way her slim build was filling out her outfit.

It clicked. He looked to the couch, recognising the heavy item she’d tossed down as being a motorcycle helmet wrapped in her scarf, with her handbag inside the helmet.

“When did you buy protective gear?” he asked her when she walked back out. While he’d seen the bike parked next to his car, scowling at it every time he went to pull away, she’d always been very careful not to let him see her on it. He’d never be fully aware of the extremes she’d gone to to avoid his disapproving stare in this initial period, always nervous that he’d look at her in ‘that’ way that left her feeling like she was a teenager again and he was covering her ass to stop her getting in trouble with her mother.

“When I bought the bike,” she said as casually as she could muster, having not expected him home. “Well, shortly after, anyway. You seemed worried so, you know, I figured maybe I should make sure I was as safe as possible to keep you from blowing a gasket.”

“You bought them for me?” He was astounded.

“I mean, I bought them for me to avoid being degloved if I hit the asphalt, but yeah, I probably wouldn’t have bothering if it wasn’t for you and the weird faces you pull at me when you know I’m out riding.”

His sandwich still untouched, Spencer said nothing as she leaned beside him and nabbed half, perching on the table as she ate it. She was close enough that he could look up to her shoulder and watch the snow in her hair melt onto the black leather, leaving wet trails when she moved her head.

“I feel big in it though,” she commented around the sandwich, pulling a face as she looked down at her thighs and lifted her legs so they weren’t pressing against the edge of the table. “It has padding, plus it goes over my normal clothes. It’s not flattering. See? Never say I don’t love you. I’m taking the risk that our hot doorman is going to think I’m chunky just to keep you happy.”

He was going to say ‘I appreciate that’ but what he actually said, realising too late that he said it while also staring her at thighs, was, “I think you look stunning.” The look he got from her following that was heated enough that he quickly added, “After all, I’m not sure anyone thinks degloving is hot. Emily with skin? Sexy. Emily without skin? Yikes.”

“Yikes,” Emily repeated flatly, raising both eyebrows at him. Her stare was intent enough that he lifted his gaze just a little to avoid it, feeling his entire face flushing red as he studied the perfectly groomed underside of her arched brows. “You’re a weirdo, you know that, right? And I’m not going to ignore that you just called me sexy.”

“Only with skin,” he contested. “I specifically stated that you have to have skin to qualify.”

“Weirdo,” she said again, eating the other half of his abandoned sandwich. “Come on, I know you’ve got to be back at class soon—walk me out. I’ll even wait until you pull out before I get on the bike, okay, Nana?”

Spencer grabbed his keys and tote, shuffling through it quickly to make sure he had everything he needed. Leaving the plate on the table—where it would inevitably be licked by the ever-hopeful Kinky—he hurtled after her. She scooped up her helmet and handbag, waiting patiently for him by the door as he forgot, at first, his coat and then his shoes and then, once more, his wallet.

“Scarf,” she reminded him when he slid to a stop next to her as though waiting for her to leave. Crestfallen, he turned back to look for it, and she sighed and grabbed it from the hook beside her. “Honestly, Spencer. What would you be without me?”

She looped the scarf around him without waiting for an answer, using it to pull him closer so she could knot it effectively, the helmet propped on the arm of the couch beside her. They were very close. Close enough that Spencer could hear the soft sound of the leather scrunching. Close enough that she could feel the warmth of his skin against her hands as she tucked the scarf into his coat, making sure there were no gaps for snow to creep in.

He quietly said without appearing to think about it, “Less than I am with you,” and leaned closer. For the first time since that day, a month ago, he kissed the corner of her mouth before pulling back, still tinged pink.

She looked at him, wondering what he was thinking about that was making him look at her like that, his eyes soft but heated and his cheeks still as pink as the rest of his face had been before.

What he was thinking, as he studied her how she was now, was that maybe he didn’t mind growing up so much if it meant that he got to share his life with this woman who was most definitely a woman now—there was no mistaking that, not in this outfit, despite what she thought it did to her figure—but also who was focused and passionate and intent on achieving her aims. Her hands, near his throat, made his nose sting a little with a scent he only knew theoretically: gun powder. She’d taken up visiting the firing range when she had spare time, something that frightened and thrilled him simultaneously. No longer learning to compete with him or to out-do him, she was learning because she wanted to, because she was just as thrilled by it as he was by that treacherous scent on her hands that she hadn’t quite managed to wash away before coming home, and that was potentially the most exhilarating thing of all.

She broke the moment first, shifting those hands up from his throat to his cheek but not, as he almost breathlessly expected, kissing him back. They were flirting with the idea of more, but cautiously.

He wondered when they were going to stop with the caution.

“So when are you going to let me take you out on the road?” she asked.

He did nothing but laugh in response, this mirth lasting well beyond when she—now irate with him—thought it should have faded. It lasted down the hall and past the doorman and out the door that led to the parking garage, and continued until, just because she was pissed at him, Emily stalked off and pulled her helmet on. When, between giggles and hiccups, he called goodbye after her, she flipped him off and kept walking.

Amused, Spencer leaned against his car and watched her go, suddenly curious instead of afraid—or perhaps, more accurately, he was both curious and afraid but at this point in time more curious than afraid—of what Emily looked like engaged in something that she was passionate about, because she was passionate about her bike, despite his disdain. And he discovered what was probably the most pertinent new experience of this period of time; he’d been wrong to think that his reaction to Emily astride a bike would be viscerally different to seeing Ethan astride his.

“Oh no,” he whispered quietly to himself under the roar of her bike as she pulled out and peeled away with one last turn of her helmeted head towards him. A man from up the hall walked past, nodding at Spencer as he went. Spencer grinned weakly, eyes still lingering on the spot he’d last seen Emily as he slid his tote back around to his front even though he was sure his pants obscured all as he shuffled mutely over to his car.

He was never going to be able to scold her about the bike now without thinking about this—and there was no going back to the before when he’d been innocent of his response to her.

 

She came in this day to find him cross-legged on the floor with the coffee table before him scattered with pieces of clock and tiny tools. Several of their lamps had been gathered around him and aimed down into the innards of the complicated machine he was peering into, open books bordering the mess, propped at unlikely angles. Setting her coat and scarf aside, she shed bag and mittens onto the armchair without distracting him from his intent work before skirting him. He didn’t react anyway, too engrossed in his work, and even when she returned from the kitchen with a snack, he didn’t seem to realise she was there.

Intrigued, she slid onto the couch behind him and just watched, sprawled on her side with her knees tucked up. Silence reigned steady in that room, broken only by the soft clicking of his tools inside the clock, the tapping of rain at the windows, and the occasional turn of a page. It was fascinating, seeing him like this. Completely enthralled by something that he was dissecting to see how it worked, learning it so intimately as his hands explored with deft precision. They were steady and calm. They never faltered. She stared at his fingers, which didn’t hesitate, and his eyes, which saw everything, and she felt as open and exposed as the clock was right now.

She wondered what it would feel like to have him touch her like that, pulling her knees up tighter as her mouth went dry.

He twitched, turning to look at her with one hand abandoning the clock to rub at the back of his neck. “Oh, hi,” said Spencer, blinking as the lamplight hit his eyes uncomfortably. “Are you home early from work?”

“It’s almost seven thirty,” she pointed out. “I’m finished, bud. Are you fixing Chambers’s old clock?”

“Mmm.” Spencer looked back at the clock, some of the focus returning. She was still peripheral in his world right now, but she didn’t mind. It was a startling reminder of when they’d been kids and how he could lose himself in some niche pursuit, comforting instead of isolating. “I think I might almost be done for the day though. My hands are cramping.”

He leaned back, weight settling against the couch as he flexed those nimble fingers, Emily inching around a bit so he was more comfortably propped against both her and the cushions. Even as she watched, the focus fell away, and he tilted his head back to smile at her; just like that, he was back in her world away from the hyper-fixation of his incredible mind.

She swallowed.

“Mm, eyes,” he mumbled, letting his head loll back against her leg as he slid his glasses off and set them on the coffee table among the forgotten tools, rubbing at his eyes. “Think I might have strained them.”

“How long have you been there?” she asked. This was just like him, she thought fondly, to over-exert on something that could have taken much less exertion if spread over multiple attempts. Illuminatingly, he didn’t answer, just gave her a guilty side-eye from under his spread fingers. “Figures. You twit. What didn’t you strain spending twelve hours hunched over a coffee table?”

But he looked so woeful and stiff and, really, she loved that he cared so much about fixing a long-dead man’s old clock so perfectly, that she relented.

“Fine. Come on, get up. Take the couch. I’ll make dinner and get you something warm for your neck.”

“My neck?”

She waited patiently as he let his hand drop, frowned with confusion, and then attempted to turn his head from side-to-side. Attempted, not managed, because as soon as his neck registered a request that wasn’t ‘keep very still, arched downwards’, she could tell it had rioted.

If she smiled a little at his shocked whimper, she didn’t let him see it.

 

When she came back, he looked perfectly glum, flopped on the couch like his body had given up all pretence of containing bones. With soup simmering on the stove and a hot water bottle in her hands—a dangerous thing in a house that contained Kinky, but the cat was usually locked away when Spencer had his clockwork out—Emily kneeled beside the couch and helped prop the water bottle behind his stiff shoulders. She had to lean over him to do so, leaning back to find him smiling affectionately up at her.

Her heart beat a bit quicker at that and she remembered how he’d held her, all those months ago.

“I want to kiss you,” she told him.

His smile barely flickered.

“Finally,” was his soft response. “I was beginning to think you’d never initiate again. I’ve been waiting forever, it feels like.”

There wasn’t really much she could say to that, except to make good on her impulse and lean close to touch her mouth to his. He couldn’t move very well to meet her midway, so she went to him. Up onto the couch, settling down lightly around him with one hand cupped around his neck to stop him from twitching the stiff muscles—the water bottle a source of disorientating heat behind his shoulders—and she pressed into the kiss before it could break. He’d simply been letting her lead before this, content to be kissed however she wished, but now his hands came up to adjust her more comfortably against him as they focused on the way their mouths kept meeting. Gentle touches of skin to skin that were fleeting and small, followed by longer periods of pressing close and feeling the heat, the pressure, the inhale and exhale and pulse of another human being.

They broke apart, panting. Emily was flushed. Spencer looked dazed, his hair rucked messily, his mouth crooked. Still propped on her knees, despite being almost atop him there was a wary space between them.

“Come here,” Spencer asked of her, his voice unlike any voice she’d ever heard. She went, at the same time, cold and hot at the whim of it. He’d never spoken to her like this. Not ever. Not in that voice. She didn’t know how to respond to it.

“I am here,” she argued, but without any heat.

“Closer,” he husked. His hand came between them, pulling her down gently. Closing that gap.

She settled against his long, warm form, pulled tight to him from top to toe and hyper-aware of every shift of their bodies. All at once, it hit her who this was: it was Spencer. Her best friend. The boy from the garden, the boy she’d known since he was seven years old, the boy who’d walked her through her first period and held her as she’d cried about her first heartbreak, who’d seen every dark and grim part of her…and she was lying here flush against his body with her entire focus rapidly devolving as her brain shifted focus from their irreplaceable friendship to trying to figure out if her was as absurdly aroused as she was.

“Are you okay?” he asked, finally sounding slightly more like himself as he studied her. No glasses still, and she reached up to trace down the line of his angular face on a whim, fingers settling around his mouth. He kissed the tips, lashes flickering as his eyes shut for just as second, as though overwhelmed by her touch. She shivered again.

“Fuck,” she said, earning a strange look from him, but it had just hit her all at once. Everything she’d known but fought believing since she was eighteen, everything that the night of his birthday had comprised. And she was smiling a little, despite how shaken she felt, as she leaned close, slipped her mouth neatly against his, and breathed, “Fuck, it’s you. It’s always been you. I’m terrified of that. I never thought you’d agree.

“It gets less scary if you just give into it,” Spencer assured her after a beat of thrilled silence. He was trembling against her, his heartbeat so fierce that she could feel the thrum of his pulse through every part they were pressed close. “Em, I need to hear you say it. I need to hear—”

There was a knock at the door, sharp and rapid. Emily twitched, feeling Spencer jolt against her and then hiss a sharp breath as he tried to crane back to look and twitched his neck muscles.

“Ignore it,” Emily said. She kissed his throat, following that same impulse that had driven her here, and felt him quiver oddly, a strange noise pulled from his mouth. “God, what are doing. We shouldn’t be doing this. This is going to screw everything up, Spence, we’re going to fuck it all.”

“We’ve been so careful,” was his soft reply, arching a little into her. “We are careful—but it hasn’t gone away and I can only assume that’s because it’s real. Haven’t you noticed it, these last few months? It just…it’s always there, and I’m not scared of it anymore, not if it’s always going to be like that. So natural to who we are, together. I’m calmer now. I can believe in it. Can you?”

“I’m—”

But the knocking came again. Furious, Emily launched up and strode over there, yanking the door open. She could hear Spencer rustling on the couch behind her, probably sitting up and trying to straighten his clothes to some semblance of presentability.

“What?” she barked before it was fully open, only slightly regretting it when it was revealed who was standing there. “Mom?”

Elizabeth said nothing, just stood there with her hands at her side and looking uncharacteristically lost, not even speaking when Spencer popped up behind Emily and chirped a startled hi. Emily exchanged a look with Spencer, completely unsure of what to do when faced with…well, with this.

“Did something happen?” Spencer asked. “When did you get home? I thought you were in, uh. Milan, wasn’t it?”

Elizabeth took a long, shaken breath, suddenly coming back to herself as she looked dead at Emily, who stepped back. Fear struck home. Suddenly, she wanted to hide. She didn’t want anything to do with that look, not at all. All of the warmth from her prior activities fled; swiftly, she was a scared, trembling child standing before her mother waiting for the bad news.

Spencer grabbed her hand and hung on tight and she leaned into that grip, feeling him warm and solid against her; he’d never let her fall and she clung to that.

She clung to that.

“Please sit down,” said Elizabeth.

“Oh, fuck,” Emily replied.

Chapter Text

The following week opened on a day much like that one, only beginning far earlier. Rain pattered against the darkened windows as Spencer dressed himself with a kind of fastidious care he hadn’t needed since leaving Rome. His bedroom door was shut against intrusion and he stood before his mirror, watching his fingers carefully as he buttoned his shirt, one, two, three, four, tucked it in, all the way around, and moved to reach for his dark satin tie. He knotted it without actively considering what he was doing. It was crooked. He looked at it for a while, how it fell oddly down his slim chest in this expensive shirt. Rightfully, he should retie it, but such an act felt too much for him right now. He was too wired from what the eventual day would bring. Instead, he reached for his vest and glanced up and down himself, just to check for anything out of place. But his shoes were shiny, his trousers neat and pressed without a speck of lint. On the vest went, his tie sitting crookedly still. Then the suit jacket.

He was dressed.

Robotically, he walked from the room and up the hall, stopping in the living room to look down on the couch where, a week ago, he’d been so close to finally finding something they’d been circling for so long with neither brave enough to make that final leap. So close, and then this. It had never felt further out of reach.

The clock ticked over. Three a.m. They were going to be late, thanks to Emily’s furious refusal to pay for—or have her mother pay for—a plane ticket to something like ‘this’.

“Are you ready, Emily?” he called, glancing once to the rain against the pre-dawn windows before turning and walking back up the hall to her room. Half of him had expected her to be ready and waiting for him; the other half wasn’t surprised to find it locked tight with no answer to his polite knock.

So he knocked again, leaning his head against the cool wood and closing his eyes.

The guest room door opened and, on instinct, he straightened and smiled as brightly as he felt he could manage. “Morning,” he chirped, one hand still resting on Emily’s silent door. “Did you sleep?”

“Assuredly more than Emily did,” said Elizabeth. She looked from him to Emily’s door, her heart twisting for them. Here was Diana’s boy, her beautiful, tall son who’d become a man without either Diana or Elizabeth realising it was happening, and his hand splayed against the dark wood was everything that needed to be said about the mixed sorrow of today. “Your tie is crooked.”

His face fell, and she regretted her words, walking forward and straightening for him without question. It was evident from her neat dress and makeup, her hair done perfectly, that she’d been awake for hours.

“Has she changed her mind about attending the viewing?” Elizabeth asked. “It’s not too late for us to procure tickets for you both, to save the abysmal drive. Honestly, Spencer. Five hours! Why?”

“You could ask her yourself,” was the response, but it wasn’t said cruelly. It was just said.

From inside the room, no one stirred.

Elizabeth didn’t reply, just stood there looking old and tired and hollowed out. It was hard to look at her like this, so less than usual. Her polished mask askew.

And, finally, Spencer added, “You should probably go, if you’re set on arriving early. We’ll be there in due time.”

Elizabeth nodded slowly. “Very well. And how are you?” she asked, seeming to struggle with the words. Her eyes were shadowed. Her mouth lined. Spencer looked at her, and he hurt for her. “Are you coping? I understand you didn’t know Michael, but a death like this—”

“Wasn’t your fault,” Spencer said.

Elizabeth swallowed, hard.

He continued, almost unconsciously leaning closer to the door so the woman inside the room could hear him too: “It wasn’t either of your faults. He left your lives years ago. His actions now are his.”

“Despair drives people to idiocy—” Elizabeth began.

“His despair was his. Not yours. Not for years—it’s no more your fault than it is Emily’s, or mine, or my mom’s. There’s nothing you could have done differently to avoid it.”

Elizabeth thought of a lot of things she could have indeed done differently as he said that: she could have been home more, been a better wife, a more loving mother, a less distant companion. She could have fought for him, not chased him out the door; she could have done something. But, ultimately, she knew Spencer was right. That would continue to be a common theme over their lives.

“Thank you,” she said.

Spencer looked down at his shoes, immediately seven years old upon facing a compliment, and he never saw how much love she looked at him with at that moment.

This was another common theme, these small gestures of love missed by both parties as they continued on believing the other remote.

Emily still didn’t emerge.

 

In the end, Elizabeth went. There was too much bad blood between the three Prentisses, the two living and the one dead, for her to know what to say to her daughter today. And so she left, to see her husband down, assuming that her daughter would either follow or she wouldn’t. After all, hadn’t Diana said so long ago that if Emily was abandoned by her mother, she’d respond in turn?

It would be unsurprising, Elizabeth thought as she set her handbag on the passenger seat of her rental car and glanced across to where Spencer’s vehicle sat dutifully awaiting the long drive, if Emily decided today that Michael’s final abandonment of her was unforgivable.

Utterly unsurprising and, perhaps, ultimately deserved.

 

Spencer sat down by that closed door, his back to the door, and called back, “I’ll wait until you’re ready, Em. Right here when you need me.”

There he stayed, as the clock ticked onwards.

 

Inside that room, Emily was petting Kinky and feeling fine. She wasn’t dressed, and that was why she wasn’t letting Spencer—or her mother—in, but that was it. It was just that she didn’t want them to see her half-naked, that was all.

Honest.

“Mrrp,” said Kinky, rolling twice until he rolled right off her lap and padding towards the door before looking at her expectantly. Emily didn’t know what time it was in human time, but apparently in cat time it was time for ‘out’. Ignoring him was rarely an option. “Mrrrrow!”

With a sigh, she got up and marched right over there. Without thinking about what she should be doing, or where she should be going, she just wrenched open the door and blinked as Spencer tumbled back into the room. Spencer, laying on his back on the threshold and looking up at her, looked away quickly when he realised she was wearing her underclothes and very little else. Unfortunately, there was small opportunity to see anything else from the angle he was at; instead, he just closed his eyes.

“We’re going to be late,” he said, cheeks flushing hot.

“I don’t want to go,” she said plainly, before realising what she’d said.

 

There was a long beat of nothing but silence, before Spencer sat up.

 

“Okay,” he said.

Emily blinked. That had not been what she’d expected.

She decided to press her luck.

“I want to go out,” she declared, looking to the window where rain beat down steadily.

“Okay,” said Spencer again, now standing. He moved over to the bed, sitting down on the ruffled covers with his fingers fiddling at the corner of her sheet. “Where do you want to go?”

Emily stared suspiciously at him.

“Why are you being so accommodating?” she demanded. “I should go to my dad’s funeral, right? I should. That’s the socially acceptable thing, and all my family is going to be there. Well, some of them. Most of them. Also all of his, that new family he’d picked up and probably hasn’t even told about me, so whatever. Mom will be there. I assume she’s left for the plane.”

Spencer said, “Yes, she will be and has,” without his tone changing from placidly accepting.

“Ethan is coming. I know he is. Dad was friends with his dad, apparently, so they came across. Don’t you want to see Ethan again?”

“We’ll see him in a few months for the concert,” was Spencer’s calm reply. “We don’t have to go today.”

She paused.

She’d noticed the we.

We can go anywhere I want, do anything I want?” she asked slowly. Spencer nodded. “You’ll go along with whatever I say?”

He nodded again.

“Well, okay.”

And, with that, she went and sat on the bed beside him, and neither said anything.

This continued for quite some time.

“We’re definitely going to be late now,” Emily said finally, staring out the window at the continuing rain. It was still dark out there, but neither suggested going back to bed. “You don’t seem surprised that I’m doing this, by the way.”

“Of course I’m not,” was his quiet answer. “I knew the moment you refused to get a plane ticket that you weren’t going to go.”

This, Emily felt, was unfair; after all, she hadn’t really known she wasn’t going until she’d woken this morning and just thought ‘nope’.

“I don’t even think your mother wanted to go,” he added.

“Mom? Pfft…she’s probably excited to spit on him.”

But she didn’t sound like she meant it, sitting there with her shoulders slumped and her head bowed forward. Spencer shuffled over, wrapping an arm around her and feeling her relax into his hold, the stiff fabric of his best suit making a soft noise as she leaned against him.

“That’s unfair,” Emily said finally, her voice almost muffled by his arm. “I know that’s unfair. If she was excited to go, she’d have stayed in New York in a swanky hotel or something, not here in our guest room. That’s why I didn’t want to go, you know. If we’d agreed to fly, Mom would have flown us over early—she fucking loves being early, it’s pathological—and we’d have had to spend days there rattling around being useless while his other family, his wanted family organised everything. Fuck, my family is fucked.”

Spencer said nothing, just held her as she lanced the wound that had clearly been festering since receiving the news.

“Mom hates being useless too, that would have driven her wild,” Emily said, breathing in. It sounded damp. Spencer hugged her harder. “God, why am I sad? I don’t care about him, he doesn’t deserve me being sad.”

“I’d be sad if my dad died and I don’t feel much about him at all, as a general rule,” said Spencer. “I suppose I’d be sad for the man I did know and love, before he hurt me. I’d be sad that there’s no fixing that, even though I don’t want to fix it. Right now, it’s a statement that I refuse to speak to him. I’m setting the rules of our estrangement. If he died, despite the fact that I doubt he’d have chosen to die, suddenly he has all the power in the relationship—I’m beholden to the fact that he’s dead, and there’s no statement to be made except the one that I’m fatherless and there’s absolutely nothing in the world that can change that. In this, I’m pretty sure we’re similar…I learned how to hold a grudge from the best, after all.”

Emily hid her teary smile against his suit, appreciating suddenly the fine cut of the expensive material. “Your psych degree is ruining you.”

“Am I wrong?”

She didn’t answer, just shuffled back further onto the bed and used his arm around her to pull him down with her. Suddenly, they were together on the bed—much like how they had been all those months ago, when they'd begun this tentative dancing about each other, except this time with her in far fewer clothes and him in far more.

“You’re cold,” he pointed out, leaning over her to pull the covers up and over her. She ignored how he left himself uncovered, his legs hanging awkwardly off as he avoided putting his shoes onto the bed, and twitched the covers the rest of the way over him before wrapping her arms around his torso and pulling tight. “Whoa, hey. This is…unusual.”

“Apparently I get cuddly when people die,” Emily said, refusing to let go. “Just enjoy it. What if what I want to do today is just stay here in bed with you?”

He studied her carefully. “If that’s what you want.”

For some reason, this infuriated her. She hated when he was overtly agreeable. With a grunt of irritation, she buried her face in his chest and did her best to mess up his tie and vest with her wet face.

“What if I want to finish our conversation?” she declared, sitting upright and, when he went to sit up too with his eyes widening, pushing him back down with one hand on his chest. His air expelled a bit as he hit the bed on his back, the blanket sliding from them, but she narrowed her eyes at him and refused to release the pressure. “I’m done with fuckassing around about it. Do you know what I want? To live my life, Spencer! We could die so easily, just like that guy in the car, just like Dad, and I refuse to die running from this.”

“Have you heard of transference—” Spencer began, but she silenced him with her mouth on his. He tensed for a moment before letting her kiss him, but she was under no illusions that the kiss was enjoyable. When they broke apart, she glared. “Em, I told you how I feel that day. Our feelings are real, they’re staying, and they’ll still be there when you’re not grieving. Do you really want to associate us with your father’s funeral?”

“That’s offensive. That implies that we’re beginning today, and we both know that’s bullshit. We began almost thirteen years ago, Spence. I associate us with our entire life. Every important part of it is us, every bit of it. If that’s now how it is for you, I understand your reluctance—but that’s how it is for me.”

Spencer, taking a moment to compile his thoughts in the face of that startling reframing of their relationship with each other, hesitated just a moment too long. Suddenly, Emily was out of the bed and peeling her hose off, kicking it down and grabbing pants. Feeling like he shouldn’t be watching, but also oddly captivated by how sure of herself she was right now, he stared without his brain managing to formulate any response.

“I’ve decided what we’re doing today since you seem to need convincing,” she declared, turning around and looking him up and down. “You can wear that if you want, but it’s gonna get wet.”

“Are we walking in the rain?” Spencer asked, probably optimistically.

Emily laughed darkly.

 

“You said you believed in us,” said Emily now, half an hour later as they stood in the well-lit parking lot of their apartment building staring at their certain demise. “Now it’s time to prove it.”

“When you said we were going to die, I assumed you were being fatalistic in the face of losing a parent,” Spencer said glumly. “I didn’t realise you were prophesising it happening today. Is this really how you want to grieve?”

Emily stepped close, pressing the spare helmet into his hands and ignoring his sad-eyed stare of woe and his nervous shiver. Instead, she leaned close, brushed her nose against his cheek in a soft almost-kiss, and said, “We were wild once. Fiver wouldn’t have baulked at this, not if I told him he’d be okay. Fiver always trusted Blackbird.”

“From memory, that wasn’t always a good thing.” But, at her wince, he relented. “You won’t crash?”

That didn’t even deserve an answer.

“You won’t speed?”

And, to that, she just laughed.

Despite this, he still followed her to the bike and, when she straddled it ready, slid onto it behind her; he was absolutely certain that this was it, but at least it would likely be fast and potentially painless. There was no backing out of it. After all, he’d always been able to tell when she was hurting, and Fiver was always there for his Blackbird when she needed him to be.

Always.

 

While they were still in the city limits, it was fine. Spencer even wondered why he’d been so afraid, loosening his death grip around Emily’s waist and opening his eyes against the world whizzing past. He couldn’t see much, really, not with the rain on his visor, and all he could hear was the muffled sound of traffic and rain against his helmet, but he could feel it just fine. Feel Emily’s body under his arms and pressed against his front; feel the powerful throb of the motor through his tense thighs, feel the way the bike moved against the wet roads below them as it was goaded by Emily’s deft handling. The cars around them seemed monstrous but in a strangely controlled way, and he leaned closer to her and felt his heartrate beginning to slow and his focus turn, unpleasantly, to the twin discomforts of the rain on the suit he’d refused to change since he hardly had anything any more ‘motorbike’ appropriate and the sudden realisation by his body that his life was entirely in Emily’s hands and she was alive and real and vivid against him. There was a physicality to this that was intoxicating, and he almost guiltily accepted the stir of arousal as being a part of it.

Emily, for her part, wasn’t thinking much about Spencer at all; her gloved hands were tight around the grips, her mind racing, her senses vividly aware of the hazards of the treacherous roads even as she glanced around through her opened visor—it was easier than shaking away rain—and saw nothing but cars around them filled with happy families and laughing people. Suddenly, her surety that getting Spencer on the bike would show him it was okay to be reckless sometimes drained away; she just wanted to be anywhere else.

So she fled.

The bike throbbed under them and she felt Spencer’s arms tighten hard, his grip locking on, but there wasn’t much she could do about his fear right now; not when facing the wall she was about to crash against. The wall that was exactly as Spencer had warned her: her father was dead and she was grown up, and there was no going back to being the little girl who’d leapt into his arms ever again. He’d left her, like he had before, like he had again and again and again, and like everyone after him would too.

“Emily!” Spencer yelped into the screaming wind, but there was no way he could be heard. They were out of the city limits now.

They hit the highway and flew.

 

Spencer knew terror. Terror was the bombing at the London embassy on Emily’s birthday. Terror was waking up alone in an Italian hospital as his body attempted to shut down without his permission. Terror was reading everything he could get his hands on about schizophrenia and facing up to the reality that his mother was never, ever going to get better.

This?

This wasn’t terror.

This was insanity. This was flying down a highway at an easy seventy-five miles an hour on a wet surface in the dark and with nothing between him and the tarmac except Emily’s control on the machine they were straddling and sheer luck. This was the rain slashing his clothes like needles against a pincushion. This was the realisation that he couldn’t let go if he wanted to, frozen by the cold and the fear and the rain to clutching Emily tighter than he’d ever held her before. This was flying towards a reluctant sunrise choked out by the rainclouds crowding overhead. This was insanity—and he’d never been more alive.

Safe in the knowledge that she couldn’t hear him, he held on tight and hollered with excitement into the wind, gloriously real and knowing that, right now, he’d never been further from dying.

 

When they stopped, it was dawn.

Emily felt Spencer slide from the bike first, staring down at her hands as she slid them slowly from the grips and kicked the stand down. With shaking hands, she removed her helmet. The rain had stopped, for now, but it was a short reprieve. She knew that she’d ruined it; there was no way Spencer was ever going to get back on the bike with her, not after that. At some point, she’d lost her damn mind, and now he was going to kill her.

Getting off the bike, she followed him. He had the helmet under his arm and his back to her, his hair flat against his head and his clothes saturated. She felt bad for him; he must be cold.

“Sorry,” she mumbled, rubbing her mouth with her damp glove to try and get some feeling back into her face. “I don’t…”

But he turned and looked at her. She blinked. Framed against the moist green of the trees behind him, a stormy grey glint even further back promising a lake, his face was flushed, his eyes were strangely alive, and he looked at her like he’d never ever seen her before in his life. Before she could say anything, he was crushed against her. His hands on her face—fuck, they were cold, she thought—and his mouth on hers, and he was kissing her like there was nothing else in the world but them and the parts of each other they were crashing up against. His fingers threading roughly through her hair, swooping down, tugging tight around her waist and cinching her tight; she stumbled back from the force of his attention, finding herself dragged up into his grip as he used her disorientation against her.

When he made a soft, breathless noise of pure desire against her skin, dipping to mouth at her throat, she very abruptly noticed something else.

“Jesus, Christ,” she gasped, her own hands grabbing at his hair in response to the surge of delirious heat that rushed her, “how are you this cold and that hard?!”

He didn’t answer, just pulled away and gave her a look as windswept as the sky before grabbing her hand and hauling her back to the illicit cover of the trees.

 

 “You wanted to run,” said Spencer, leading her out of the trees and onto the rocky, isolated shoreline of this grim lake. It was a cold, frightful place, Emily thought; how appropriate. Exactly the place you’d expect to end up when running for your life and finding something hopeful and fragile at the end of it. “Here we are. What now?”

Emily, glancing at him with all the weight of the years they’d shared behind that stare, reached out and undid his crooked tie.

 

“If I promise you this isn’t some kinky transference thing, that this is real,” she breathed against his damp skin, eyes closed against the rain that beat down around them and upon them, “will you show me?”

“Show you what?” he asked. Unlike her, his eyes were open. Despite the rain, he saw her clearly; hair flat against her skin, skin pale in the wet light, clothes saturated and fingers curled into the soft ground below them. They curled and uncurled anxiously, shifting smooth river pebbles along with the loose sand, water pooling in the grooves her fingers left.

“You had sex with the girl that night and you told me it was special, that it wasn’t just sex, but you never looked for her.” Emily cocked her head back, eyes still closed, mouth firm; raindrops ran down her cheeks, her chin, pooling in the cupid’s bow above her lip until Spencer leaned in and kissed it away, feeling her gasp and arch against him. They rolled together on the stones, until she was below him and he stretched long and firm above her as a shelter from the harsh weather. Only then, with him blocking the worst of the rain, did she open her eyes and look at him. “You never needed or wanted her again. Show me that that isn’t what this is. Show me what I’m feeling isn’t just special, it isn’t some fleeting fancy for you—that you’re not going to love me exactly as much as you love every other human because that’s how you are, you just love. Show me that you understand what we do to each other, that you’re not going to leave me. Just, don’t leave.

He didn’t speak in response to her.

He didn’t know what to say.

One of her hands wrapped around his neck, fingers tracing the bumps of his spine. Those fingers traced up, twined into his hair. And she hung on grimly as the clouds rolls overhead and the waves behind them joined in on the chaos, both of them braced against the forces of nature that tried to drive them away from this space. Her other hand was still curled into those round stones, the stones that endless tides had worn down into liminal smoothness. Her hands, later, would be marked and bruised. They were silent; she hadn’t asked him to speak. Any noise they might have made was washed away with the storm. He kissed her fiercely and, in every kiss, he tried to layer everything he was feeling.

He tried to say, there’s nothing fleeting about this.

He longed to add, I wholly understand.

He knew she needed to hear, I love you entirely.

What he actually said was, “I trust you,” as he gave himself to her completely.

 

Was he successful in convincing her?

He didn’t know. It had been a long time since the Sometimes Homes, and he struggled to be as clear with his desires as the boy who’d slid a letter under his best friend’s door had once been. He struggled to know himself as well as the boy who’d run beside a girl had known himself; he struggled to be that vivid, and he knew he had everything to lose even as their mouths met again and instinct drove his body down and he saw her eyes widen against his intrusion.

Was it working?

He didn’t know that either, just curled his body down against the inching dark and the pulsating sweep of rain and felt the way her skin felt below his lips, her fingers in his hair. Those nail marks in the sand. The dips her toes left, much the same, as she curled them in, and how her body would twist and be fleetingly pockmarked with sand until the water swept it away. His jacket and hers both tossed aside, his neat vest ruined by the weather. They were undone by each other. Everything was transient. Everything was unreal. Everything was slipping out of his grasp, and he buckled, and he cried out against the inchoate nature of it when all he wanted was certainty.

And it was nothing like Alice.

 

She heard him despite his silence.

It was nothing like John.

Emily had challenged Spencer. She’d brought him to this place on the back of the bike he loathed, away from the funeral where they knew his presence was desired perhaps even more than hers was; she’d brought him here and stripped him bare and then challenged him to be vulnerable. To prove himself, despite the stones, despite the rain, despite the circumstances. He’d risen stunningly to the occasion, and she was losing. Losing this battle to prove it was nothing, that she could keep running away from it at seventy-five miles per hour until she’d escaped the terrible, glorious truth that she was deeply and irrevocably in love with her best friend; that there was no going back on that. She’d lost the battle to prove she’d be okay if he left; she definitely wouldn’t. She’d challenged him like this, in the rain, in the sand, and it was hard and hurting and with every thrilling wave that she rode mercilessly she was driven into the stones, but it was something.

It had always been something, and there was no more running from that.

 

They clung close to each other, exposed but obscured by the rain, and rode out the weather together until the storm broke unsatisfyingly and they were left sitting alone on the shoreline. Toes in the water, barely dressed, and Emily smoking moodily. There had been no climactic moment of realisation, no hurtling to an unstoppable end for either of them. They’d just furiously battled the circumstances together until they’d become lost in each other and slipped free, laying there together in the dying rain tasting the water on each other’s skin in a hazy quiescence. Emily stubbed her cigarette out on the stones. The rain was gone. They were quiet in each other. Neither had really thought at all about what was happening in New York; there was just this, and them, and what they’d always been moving towards.

 

As they walked back towards the abandoned bike that would take them anywhere they wanted to go, together, they took each other’s hand and held on tight.

Chapter Text

It was day three of the International Pop Underground Convention and Spencer was beyond exhausted. Somehow, somehow, Emily was still going and this came as utterly no surprise to any of them. She seemed to be, rather much like Ethan was, continuing on sheer hype energy alone. They’d lost Phil on day two, although Ethan seemed unconcerned about where his sister had vanished to and Spencer tried to emulate that nonchalance even though the disappearance of their friend into the mass of writhing bodies and wide-eyed excitement filled him with anxiety. She hadn’t returned to their hotel room either, which Ethan also seemed unconcerned about.

“She’s partying, Spence,” he soothed, leaning out the window with a joint and a handheld fan trying to keep the smoke from blowing back into the room. “She’s like an alley cat when you let her loose at a gig. She’ll show up in three days with a new tattoo and ready to sleep for a week.”

“I’m never going to sleep again,” Emily declared from where she was dancing about on the rug, eager to return as soon as they’d refuelled. “Sleeping is boring.”

Ethan chuckled at her, swapping places as she danced her way over to him and took the joint. With the sliding, sloping stride he affected when he was approaching stoned beyond reason, he slid his way over to Spencer’s bed where Spencer was trying to regain feeling in his muscles. Suddenly, Ethan was wiggling into the bed beside him, all scruffy beard and soft hands and bringing with him a veritable cloud of smoke. Spencer coughed disapprovingly.

“You smell,” Spencer told him, wrinkling his nose. “Have a shower.”

“Just gonna get dirty again in a few hours,” Ethan mumbled into the blankets, eyes closed and a cat-like satisfaction painted across his whiskery face. “What’s the point of going to a punk convention if we don’t get a little grimy? Look at Emily.”

Spencer did. Ethan wasn’t wrong. Even the normally tidy Emily had given up on her neat appearance and simply dragged her hair back into a jagged ponytail, her makeup smudged and her clothes dusty and faintly sweat-scented. Spencer hadn’t quite gotten to that level of tired yet, and he grumbled under his breath about how offensive Ethan’s unwashed sweat-and-alcohol-and-weed smell was.

“Shhh,” Ethan murmured, burrowing in harder and suddenly going completely lax as his body gave in to the desire to crash. “Snzzzz time.”

And then he was asleep.

Emily kept smoking, now quiet. The only movement from her side of the room was the damp breeze pushing the curtains and blowing the smoke from her pilfered joint back, the slow tick of the abandoned hand-held fan, and the bounce of her foot against the window frame. Spencer watched her, greedily taking in every inch of how she looked right now, undone and human and dirty in a way she never usually was.

“He asleep?” she asked, turning her head without warning to glance at Ethan. Spencer checked, moving around until Ethan was flopped heavily against his side as a long, warm line of human. He didn’t respond to Spencer’s poking, just snored quietly. “Have you decided if we’re going to tell him yet?”

“Not yet,” Spencer demurred. He gave into the desire as he looked down at his best friend to try tuck back some of the locks of sweaty, tangled hair hanging loose into his friend’s face, feeling Emily’s eyes boring into him. “I don’t want to, I don’t know. Mess this up for him, you know? I think this is more about him then us, this whole party.”

“Party,” chuckled Emily, stubbing the joint out and sighing as she slid both feet back into the room and sat there looking at him. “You’re such a dweeb.”

He frowned at her.

“Do you want to tell him?” he countered.

Emily shrugged. “I mean, I miss you,” she said in a low voice. Ethan kept snoring.

“We haven’t been apart in three days. I should know, I’ve been very conscious of every minute of it…” This he said with some regret. The convention, he was finding, was exhausting in a way nothing else had ever been. So many people with so little control over their excitement, all those bodies on crash courses with each other. Surrounded by drunk, partying, wild strangers dressed fantastically and with the loud, booming music overhead; his senses had been on overdrive for days and he was wired beyond belief, but not in the way Ethan and Emily were.

“That’s not what I mean and you know it. I miss you.” She said this with heat and he shivered, willing himself not to get aroused thinking about sex with her, which had proven to be a surprisingly pleasant part of their lives now. The allure of it, for both of them, had yet to fade, and even months on from that tempestuous first time he was still finding new ways to please and be pleased by her. “And not just the sex, you perve. I miss sleeping with you, just sleeping. Phil isn’t anywhere near as comfy.”

“Phil’s been gone for days.”

“Exactly, the empty bed sucks.”

They both looked at Ethan, Spencer thinking with some regret that it would probably be suspicious if he slunk out of bed to go snuggle with Emily, leaving Ethan in his deadened state.

Emily changed the subject as though she’d sensed the danger of giving up their secret just yet: “Are you having fun?”

“Yes,” Spencer said automatically. It wasn’t entirely a lie, although it wasn’t entirely the truth either, and Emily narrowed her eyes at him. She could see that in him. “No, really. Look, Eth needs a break, yeah? Just with him and his friends around, somewhere thrilling. This is it for him. I don’t want to drag that down by being neurotic and over-sensitive.”

Emily didn’t answer for a while.

“How about I distract him today so you can stay and sleep in for a bit?” she offered finally, winking at him when he glanced up at her with hope in his eyes. “We’ll come back and get you later, if you feel up to it.”

“I would love that,” Spencer said with a passion brought about by his exhaustion. “But you’ll drink water without me there reminding you, won’t you?”

She stared at him.

“And you’ll keep him safe?” he fretted, looking down at Ethan. “Don’t let him do anything you wouldn’t do—”

She raised an eyebrow, mouth quirking.

“—or like, you know, I know you guys have been avoiding the drugs because I’m there and I don’t know, I don’t want to…” He paused. “…‘hash your vibe’…”

Emily, astounded, mouthed those words as he said them, barely avoiding falling out of the window as her stoned brain tried to shape them into sense, but he was still chattering.

“…but, you know, be careful.

“Spencer?”

“Yes?”

Emily slid from the window, padding across to her boyfriend tucked up in bed with his ex and leaned close, taking a risk to kiss him quickly while Ethan was too out of it to notice. This was thrilling in and of itself, she thought, that she could just do this now. Kiss him whenever she wanted, or touch him, or call him without reason just to tell him some random thought she’d had; it was permission to his time, and she was delighted by it, even if they were cautiously hiding it from the people around them as though talking about it with others would somehow lessen the tentative magic.

“Go to sleep,” she told him firmly, careful not to promise anything.

“Okay,” he said, and did.

 

Spencer woke up six hours later still exhausted to a silent hotel room. The bed beside him was cool, both Emily and Ethan’s water bottles gone from the sink. One of them had refilled his and left it beside his bed for him, along with a candy bar from the vending machine, and the hotel was utterly and completely noiseless.

“Spectacular,” he breathed with delight, closing his eyes and sinking back into a delicious, glorious sleep that felt like it would last for the rest of time.

 

Emily had lost Ethan.

“Damnit,” she said, turning and trying to crane over the crowd to spot their lanky friend. He was about as impossible to keep wrangled in one place as Phil was, so easily distracted by shiny things that he scampered away at the first sign of something interesting happening elsewhere. Since she’d been having the time of her life making friends with a small crowd of punk-girls from Illinois, she hadn’t even noticed him absconding. It was midway through helping those punk-girls decorate a man sleeping by a wall—post Emily checking that he was still alive and responsive, which he responded to by grumbling at her and pointing out his neatly unlaced boots sitting beside him indicating the voluntary nature of his prone state—that she looked up and realised Ethan was gone.

“Bother,” she said again, leaving her new friends to finish off with the man’s hair. “Spencer’s going to kill me if he gets arrested.”

Which was entirely possible as she was well aware the man was carrying bank roll with a dozen LSD strips hidden within it.

“You know I’m trying to get into the FBI,” she’d told him when she’d seen him tucking it back into his pocket and turning innocently away from the two men he’d been talking to. “If you’re caught selling that, you’re going to get us both canned.”

“It’ll be cleaned out by the hour,” he’d said with a shrug that had her narrowing her eyes a little at his apparent disinterest. “Don’t tell Spencer. Besides, I’m not selling. I’m gifting, like a little LSD fairy.” He wiggled his fingers as he said this, probably to indicate fairyness.

And now he was vanished, probably already in the back of a patty wagon. Emily grumbled some more, thinking that maybe she should have brought Spencer along just to babysit his troublesome buddy. She decided right then that if he was arrested, she was leaving him there and serve him right—because she sure as hell wasn’t arguing his innocence to a cop while she had two pills of E tucked into her bra in a little plastic bag.

 

Spencer was making himself some pancakes. It was still a lovely, peaceful day by himself, with just his own company and the TV playing quietly in the background. His pancakes came out perfectly, his book was just getting thrilling, and he settled into the couch and closed his eyes, luxuriously relaxed and sure that, wherever they were, Emily and Ethan were entertained, hydrated, and certainly being very, very sensible. After all, she’d promised.

He frowned for a moment, suddenly unsure if she had promised. Had those exact words left her lips? He’d been very tired at the time…

But he shrugged off his unease and replaced it instead with utter trust in them.

 

Emily found Ethan. He was very clearly off his face and looking politely bemused by the girl who was making out with his neck with her hand down the front of his pants. Ethan, looking over her head, saw Emily coming and beamed.

“Hi, Em!” he cheered. The girl continued on like a very lipsticky vampire. Emily sighed. “She seems to be having fun, doesn’t she?”

“Aren’t you gay?” Emily yelled at him over the music, leaning close enough that the girl could hear. The girl separated from his throat, looking up at his face and frowning as she registered what Emily had said.

“Dunno,” Ethan said after a long moment of thinking. “I am stoned and I didn’t ask for this. She just seemed very eager and you know, I hate to disappoint people.” He looked down, staring at her hand down his pants for a long, befuddled moment before mumbling an almost inaudible, “Heeeeeey,” as though he’d just noticed.

Emily looked at the girl, who vanished like she’d never been with one last, furious look at him and a roll of her dark-ringed eyes.

“Do your pants up,” Emily told him. He was already doing so, pulling the zip away from his crotch with an amusing attention to detail before zipping up with his tongue poked out in concentration. Focused on not catching his dick in his fly, Emily assumed, snorting out a laugh that set him off into a peal of giggles despite him not knowing why she was laughing. With water from her bottle and her sleeve as a rag, she stood on tiptoes and did her best to wash the dark lipstick from his throat, before giving up and taking his hand. “Come on, you baked weirdo. Let’s go dance.”

 

Spencer ordered pizza just how he liked it, piling the thing high with toppings and devouring it with impunity. What a delightful day this had turned out to be! In fact, he was feeling so good about his life and this week and even returning to the festival maybe tomorrow, that he pondered if maybe he should pull Ethan aside sometime soon and chat to him about their ‘little secret’ that him and Emily were holding close to their hearts…

There came a knock on the door.

 

A man accidentally elbowed Emily in the nose, toppling her down into the dangerous world of the edge of the pit where her and Ethan had been lingering contemplating diving in. The music was loud here, the crowd clustered tight and close and wild, and no one had seen her go down. She rolled quick into a ball to protect her head and her stinging, bleeding nose, unable to spring up to safety on her feet once more with the press of the crowd around her, and she did not panic. A foot caught her side, someone else tripped against her, and suddenly the press of people surged back as someone managed to draw their attention to her danger.

Giddy and silly with her near miss, Emily felt hands haul her back up to the land of the living, away from the sticky, dirty floor and those stamping feet. Eyes still closed against the shock, mouth and nose clogged with blood and every sense jangling excitedly, vividly, hands patted her down and touched at her, voices screaming if she was okay, if she needed help, yet more voices yelling for people to back the fuck up.

She opened her eyes and looked at Ethan, who’d effortlessly dived into the mess to pull her up and out while driving the crowd back. He commanded attention when he wanted it, and everyone was looking to him to see if she was okay; he stood before her with his wide hands on her shoulders and his green eyes boring into hers. She was drunk by this point, and he was still riding some kinda high of some sort, but he felt like the steadiest fucken thing she’d ever touched in her life as he studied her. There was a holler from the crowd and she zapped back to attention, realising the gig playing had paused their set and were yelling into the mic asking about her

give us a cheer if you’re okay there, gal—

and she laughed and cheered even as he slid his arm around her shoulder and drew her away from the pit and towards the medical bay, people waving to her as she went.

“For a dumbass, you’re certainly useful,” she informed him as they went, yelling over the throb of the music.

“That’s all I’ve ever aspired to be,” he responded happily.

 

It was Phil.

“Hey, Squeak,” she told him with a beaming smile as she breezed in smelling of booze and perfume. “The others at the convention?”

“Yeah. I’m glad you’re not dead, by the way.” He tried to sound disapproving of her vanishing act, but couldn’t quite manage it as she shot back a wide grin and him and dived on his pizza. “Are you back for the night?”

“Nope,” she confessed through a mouthful of pizza. “And neither are you. Don’t worry, we don’t have to go back to the convention if you don’t want to—I can tell how wiggy it makes you—but we’re gonna have fun anyway.”

“Oh no,” he said with a sigh, sitting down and accepting the warm can of beer she dug of her pocket and tossed his way. “Do we have to?”

“Oh, maybe yes, maybe no,” she told him, smiling wickedly. “Depends if you want me to tell Ethan about you and Emily doing the nasty pasty together or not.”

Despite his furious stare, Spencer couldn’t really be mad at her.

 

It was relatively silent in the medical bay, Emily sitting quietly while the medics worked over someone else. Her nose wasn’t broken and the bleeding had stopped, so she was just hanging around now until they were satisfied she wasn’t too drunk to notice a concussion before releasing her. Ethan seemed happy to stay while they waited and, honestly, one glance at the clock informed her she’d been on her feet for almost eleven hours and it was damn nice to sit down.

At some point, she’d lost her shoes, wiggling her toes against the floor and wrinkling her nose as she caught sight of the blackened soles. Gross, but also, she thought, very freeing. Ethan had lost his coat, along with the bank roll of LSD, but he didn’t seem to care about either of those things. Both their water bottles were gone and Emily’s mouth was dry. Ethan, after a long, hard stare from the medic, had sheepishly accepted a fresh bottle from them and was guzzling it.

Ethan suddenly paused.

He leaned close, his beard tickling her cheek, and whispered, “How many pills do you have left?”

“Two,” she whispered back after a glance at the medic. “Shut the fuck up, dickhead, you’ll get us tossed out.”

But Ethan just nodded very seriously, grinned, and made a gesture with his two fingers indicating ‘gimme’. Emily eyed him. She didn’t know what he’d been rolling on hours ago and wasn’t willing to risk murdering him with something, but now he was jerking his head towards the door with his eyes doing some weird wide shape and his mouth pulled into a strange line. Hell, he had just saved her ass from being trampled into the sticky floor, so she quickly dipped into her bra and emerged with the sweaty plastic, which he nabbed from her, popped open, and returned one of the pills to her fast.

“Schnell,” he said mildly, swallowing it down with a gulp of his water and tossing the bottle to her. Emily paused, frowning, before seeing a flash of uniform by the door as a cop entered carrying someone who looked knocked clear out of their brain.

The pill caught on the way down, but it was gone before the cop glanced at them. Both Emily and Ethan beamed back at them innocently, the baggie shoved down the side of the mattress she was sitting on.

“You should stay hydrated,” Emily told the unconscious person as he was carried past by the cop. “Water is very important, isn’t it, officer?”

The officer eyeballed them but said nothing.

Ethan managed to choke down his snort of laughter, but it was a very close thing.

“You’re going to be an awful FBI agent,” he whispered to her when the danger was past.

“Fuck off,” she replied. “I’m going to be fantastic.”

 

Phil, Spencer had discovered, was dangerous. He didn’t know how he’d gotten this drunk. He didn’t know where his pizza was. He didn’t know when he’d decided to get dressed and go out with her, and he didn’t know where the ice cream he was happily slurping out of its sticky waffle cone had come from, and he definitely didn’t know why he was wearing a novelty hat, but he did know one thing.

He was having a blast.

“So, you and Emily, huh?” Phil slurred, sprawled on the grass beside him just far enough away from the convention that they could hear the music thumping into the humid, August night. “When did that happen?”

“Oh, I dunno,” Spencer said with a warm bubble of pure happiness as he thought about Emily and the life they had together, which was good and stable and everything he’d dreamed of having, “I think maybe it was there all along.”

Phil laughed gently, leaning her head on his shoulder and watching what he was watching, a gaggle of teenagers trying to climb a shopfront across the darkened park and the adjourning road.

“Yeah,” she said with a warm little sigh. “Yeah, I guess it was. Ethan never stood a chance against her, did he?”

“It was never a competition,” said Spencer.

Phil just smiled and didn’t answer.

 

They were waylaid as they exited the medical bay, clutching at each other as the pills kicked in and threatened to send them off into fits of helpless laughter. Ethan saw him first, straightening with a low whistle of appreciation. Emily just huddled close and muffled her giggles into Ethan’s side, pleased by his warmth and closeness and wondering where Spencer was and if he was having as good a night as she was.

“Wow, my glimpse of you in that crowd of faces did not do you justice,” said the man who’d just walked up to them, Emily looking up at him to find a mess of all the things she found gorgeous. Dark, smoky eyes and dangerous lips on a jawline that could cut glass, wearing leather in black and a tight cotton-blend shirt with low-slung jeans. Her dry mouth got dryer and she wasn’t really focusing all too well, so she wasn’t super sure who he was looking at when he said, “You are breathtaking.”

“You’re from that band,” Emily stammered, losing all her cognitive functions as Ethan slipped back a bit and kept just his hand on her, thumb working slow, gentle circles into her shoulder blade as a reminder she was safe, he was there, she hadn’t been shaken entirely from her moorings. Feeling warm and delirious with love, she realised she was grinning sappily at the strange man and added a fast and incautious, “This is Ethan, he’s gorgeous and single and I have good intel that he has a very attractive penis, if you’re into that. I’m not. Not into that, I mean. Or you. I mean, I am into you, but not like, really.”

Ethan made another undignified sound, folding back into himself in a lanky impersonation of a card table collapsing as he fought not to choke on his own laughter. Emily eyed him haughtily.

“And gay,” she declared with a roll of her eyes, seeing the band man grin delightedly at her. “He’s very gay. I don’t know if he’s good at kissing though so I can’t vouch for that, although my boyfriend probably could. Wait, are you calling me or him breathtaking?”

She’d confused herself.

The man’s face fell slightly. “Boyfriend, how expectedly disappointing,” he said with an overwrought sigh. “I was hoping to invite you backstage, as an apology for that terrible fright you’d gotten falling.” But the smile was back, as he looked at her and only her. Abruptly, Emily realised Ethan wasn’t laughing anymore. She blinked. It was warm in here, and the man was holding out his hand to her. What was his band’s name again? “Perhaps you’d come anyway?”

Emily blinked some more, reeling. The pill had hit, hard, and she was briefly very distracted by that. Her silence must have alarmed Ethan, because suddenly he was card tabling around her instead and drawing her away, and she was absolutely and utterly distracted by her bare feet on the interesting floor, toes tracing warm lines on the dirty tiles.

“Sorry, singing man,” Ethan called back, pitching his own voice as though he was singing, “but she is very taken up by a man seven bazillion times better than you and you cannot hope to be anywhere near as excellent a kisser as he is. I know, I taught him. And I’ve decided I’m not gay tonight, so my attractive penis is also off limits. Goodnight!”

And they were gone, swept away out past the crowds and beyond the music and out the door into the summer night where Emily whirled and shrieked with delight at her bare feet on asphalt and how warm and alive the roadways felt.

“Come feel this!” she yelled at him, sprinting away as fast as she could. She heard him call after and didn’t stop, letting him chase her into the night with his heavy tread always a comforting echo behind her.

 

Spencer and Phil had made it back to the hotel and were sitting on the grass outside, looking at the stairs up to their room and wondering how they’d ever in their lives managed to totter up such a sharp, dangerous incline.

“Someone should report that,” Phil said about the stairs. “It’s not safe.”

“Mmmm,” said Spencer, lifting his shirt up and staring down at his hip, vision fuzzy and mind surprised by what he could see. “Phil, can I touch it?”

She slapped at his poking hands.

“No,” she scolded. “Let it heal.”

He stared at it some more before lowering the shirt and looking around, before lifting his shirt and looking again. It was most obviously the most interesting part of their surroundings, although he did agree about the ridiculous stairs.

After a bit, he decided just to take his shirt off so he could look without having to pull it out the way.

Phil, ignoring his fight to undress himself, which took a truly remarkable amount of time and somehow ended in him rolling on the grass in a fight with his fiendish shirt cuffs, kept scowling at the stairs.

And this was how they were reunited.

 

Emily had slowed to an exhausted walk as they approached the hotel, Ethan dragging himself along beside her. Both were bruised, dirtier than ever, still high, and very ready for bed.

“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me about you and Spencer,” Ethan said suddenly. They were holding hands awkwardly with their outer arms across their fronts, the arms closest to each other slung about their waists, and it made walking difficult but Emily was craving touch and didn’t want him to let go. “Honestly, I’m insulted. Am I that unstable you didn’t feel like I could be trusted with the information? And after telling that lovely man how nice my dick is too…I’m getting mixed signals from you, Prentiss.”

“I can’t believe you felt like you had to step in to stop me cheating on Spence with some punk wank,” Emily countered. “Seriously, did you really think I was going to take him up on that offer?”

Ethan looked startled. “No, I didn’t think that for a second. It was just…” He paused. “You know, you helped me earlier, with that overly friendly lady, and I wanted to help you. Plus, I could tell you were about to kick in and didn’t want you get angry and upsetting that. He looked pushy. And not gay, I have zero idea why you zoomed in on that.”

“People in bands always are.” That earned her a low stare from him. “I’m kidding. Kidding! And we haven’t told anyone about me and Spence, it just happened. When we were supposed to be at Da…the funeral.”

“Oh,” he said. His fingers curled tighter around hers before loosening and his thumb tracing a line across her palm. “Well, I’m happy for you both and not even a little bit surprised. Nothing Spencer does ever surprises me, you should know. I know him too well.”

“I know the feeling,” she responded with a sigh. Spencer truly was a completely non-surprising individual, at least that was how it felt right then, walking home with the human embodiment of gentle chaos.

Two heads had popped up from the lawn in front of the hotel, watching them approach with keen-eyed interest. Emily recognised Phil and, moments later, the wild hair beside her as Spencer before he tottered up and held his arms out wide. He was covered in grass and grass-stains, and appeared to be wearing a strangely bird-shaped novelty hat.

“What the shit,” deadpanned Ethan, both of them realising Spencer was shirtless and drunk, the first part of that the most alarming since Spencer had been known to shower in his clothes just to avoid being seen if there were strangers in the apartment.

“Emily!” declared Spencer with a strange, taut, shocked kind of smile, “I got a tattoo.”

“Phil!” both Emily and Ethan yelled at once, Phil looking guilty but not at all sorry.

 

Phil and Ethan were out like lights in the other bed, sleeping heads to tails with Phil being vocal about how she was refusing to get in the bed with him until he showered and—when he protested—dragging him fully clothed, with Emily’s help, into the shower. When Emily had emerged from the bathroom where Ethan was hollering for CPS, she found Spencer glaring at her.

Sheepishly, she’d also showered once Ethan had been removed, and now, finally, they were clean and down for the night.

They’d pulled the sheet away so Emily could examine Spencer’s new tattoo, the one that was such a close sibling to her own, her fingers carefully tracing it without touching the sore skin. Even sobering up, he didn’t seem too bothered by its existence, but she felt overwhelmed. Lying there watching her, Spencer was fascinated by the mix of emotions crossing her features.

“I don’t mind that you told Ethan,” he said finally, reaching down to tangle her fingers with his and pull her down against him. She nuzzled close, almost sober now and sleepily loving. “Even accidentally.”

“I like your tattoo,” she said back, sliding down his body to kiss near where the blackbird’s wing touched the tip of the leaping hare’s nose. It was Blackbird and Fiver, and they were playing. “It feels like us.”

“It does, doesn’t it?” he said fondly, closing his eyes in the quiet exhaustion of their hotel room. “Hey, Em?”

“Mmm,” she hummed against his hip.

He said, “I’m absolutely in love with the person you’ve become,” flooring her completely, before following up with, “Do you want to do something different for the rest of our week off?”

She did.

Chapter Text

Emily drove, Phil’s legs hanging out the window and Ethan and Spencer discussing something insufferably nerdy in the backseat. The windows were open, the wind whipping through their hair and driving them to distraction, and there was nothing around but the fields, the sky, and their intolerable futures. Emily drove on steadily to that uncertain horizon and she felt young and cocky and alive and nervous and wild all at once; Spencer watched her as Ethan chattered on and on, and he felt nervous and excited and human and tentatively young along with her.

They were going home.

 

They slept on the side of the road, pulled up to a rest stop with the girls nesting in Phil’s beat up car and both boys on the verge in sleeping bags padded out with spare blankets. As the stars crowned them, the cicadas singing away the summer, all four looked up and wondered what was to come. Phil sung quietly. Ethan tapped a beat on the ground beside them. Emily slid into Spencer’s sleeping bag and wrapped as close to him as the confided space would allow which was, obviously, quite close indeed. Her breath touched his cheek, her hands on his chest, and he pressed close and longed for time to stop right now.

“I adore you,” he whispered to her.

“Gross,” said Ethan.

 

The next time they slept, Emily was out under the stars with Spencer. Ethan had been asleep for the past eight miles, Phil the last twelve, and neither of them had the heart to wake the two dozy siblings. They were midway through Oregon heading for Las Vegas, and Spencer had the strangest feeling that his desire to visit his mom on this road trip to nowhere was somehow predestined. It had been a wild whim, a strange out-of-nowhere drunken desire that the others had happily gone along with. He’d been feeling worked up all day for no good reason as the highway had been eaten under their steady wheels, and he began to worry that something was happening that he had no control over.

Emily, recognising the worry sneaking into his eyes and nibbling at his lower lip, abandoned her sleeping bag for his and, once again, crept in beside him.

“Show me your tattoo again,” she requested greedily. To her, it sealed them together more firmly then any ring could ever; it was her claim to his heart painted on his skin over the sharp line of his bony hip. It was infinite and everlasting and he’d carry it to the grave no matter what, much like she’d carry the twin to it on her own skin; it was unchanging. She adored it for its steadiness.

He unzipped the sleeping bag, wiggling up and out into the heavy August air. His shy unveiling of his hip, barely moving the elastic of his loose pants down to show her, was interrupted by her hands tracing, at first, the bold lines of the tattoo and then circling a line around it.

“We should add words,” she pondered out loud, earning a slow tilt of his head. “Something pretentious. I feel pretentious right now, don’t you?”

He didn’t not really, but he’d be happy to be pretentious if she asked it and said so, earning a smile.

“I can’t think of what would fit,” he admitted.

Neither could she.

To distract from her uncertainty, she hooked her thumb over the waistband of his pants and slid them lower. He sighed with heady uncertainty as she shifted herself against him, mouth coming to trace a slow line across his collarbone.

“Don’t wake them,” he ended up conceding, giving one wary glance towards the silent car before accepting her body atop him and muffling his delight in the still, swollen summer air.

 

He woke her early with his revenge. The sun wasn’t even up yet and she could hear soft music coming from the car, someone having woken up and put the radio on. Weak, pre-dawn light made a murky mystery of their pocket of soft ground where they were curled into the same sleeping bag under the shelter of an overhanging tree. His fingers were making short work of her as a low rumble overhead suggested a later storm. She heard Ethan and Phil shout at each other, some fight over something to do with socks, as she curled and choked out a gasp into the heated skin of her arm.

“They’re going to see,” she panted, writhing back against him as he shuffled closer—she knew he had one eye on the car, but that didn’t seem to stop him in this fey mood he was in—and cocked himself into place to easily replace his fingers inside her.

“Let them look,” he muttered against her neck, his voice half-asleep and hoarse as Hell itself, all kinds of sinful. “Can you feel that?”

She didn’t know if he meant the heavy storm-filled air, or the suffocating sense of being watched as he fucked her with sedate swings of his hips, or his sticky hand splayed on her sweaty stomach, or the sticks and rocks below their makeshift bed, or what he was doing to her right now, recklessly, fiendishly, and without compunction; or maybe he actually meant ‘all of the above’. It didn’t really matter.

She felt it all and so said, “Yes.”

 

It was a forty-minute drive until they found public showers. The windows were open, but that didn’t stop Ethan from sniffing theatrically and informing them both that they were ‘outrageously skanky’. Phil responded by teasing him that he was just jealous.

Ethan frowned and said nothing.

The tight feeling in Spencer’s chest grew and he wound his window up and leaned against it, cold glass on his overheated cheek. He felt sticky and gross. Emily’s hair had dirt in it. Ethan was still frowning.

The apprehensive feeling continued.

 

The storm hit and they stopped, parked on the side of the road with the windows up and all staring out silently. Spencer’s nervous mood had infected them all, turning their fun road trip into something akin to a walk down the Green Mile. Emily jittered, changing the radio station with a passive kind of disinterest while Phil painted her toenails and Ethan stared at the raindrops on the window.

“Maybe we should have called ahead,” Ethan said suddenly, narrowing in on the nervous feeling with his usual delayed accuracy. Spencer jittered. “Maybe she’s busy.”

Emily looked at Spencer.

“Do you feel that?” he said again, taking his glasses off and wiping them on his shirt with small, anxious twists of his hand.

“I should call Mom,” she answered.

 

They found a payphone, Emily dialling for Elizabeth using all the change they’d scrounged up as Spencer paced around her. There was a lull in the storm, the clouds breaking, but Emily looked back up and remembered the weather report: these storms were expected to remain over the western seaboard for the rest of the week.

“Mom, hi,” she said when the phone was answered with a clipped, “Ambassador Prentiss, how may I assist you?” “Uh, so we bailed on the convention early and decided to drive up and see Diana. Do you know if she’s up to visitors?”

“Diana? I can’t see why not. Her doctors haven’t said otherwise. Have you called ahead?”

Emily watched Spencer, his eyes darting around the roadway around them and a shadow of his unshaven facial hair beginning to both sharpen and blur his narrow features. She’d never noticed his facial hair before. For some reason, it was uncomfortable to notice now, like something he’d been trying to warn her about was suddenly manifesting. She turned to look at Ethan and Phil, standing just behind Spencer. The three of them on the roadway, she realised suddenly how tall they all were. Spencer taller than all of them, then Phil an inch above Ethan’s lanky height in her high-waisted jeans and neon-patterned shirt. Then Emily, standing there shivering in her sundress with her bare legs pimpled with nerves. No sign of their childhood selves here anymore; she was looking at three adult strangers standing there watching her with wary, grim expressions waiting for the boot to fall.

She looked away.

“Not yet,” she said slowly. “Should we?”

Elizabeth was silent for a moment.

“I think so,” she said after that moment. “Yes, I think it would be smart. I’ll get you the number.”

 

Diana was fine when they called, excited, even, to receive a visit. If Emily had hoped this would break the tension of the trip, she was utterly disappointed to realise that, if anything, Spencer was even more wired now. There had been no reason for this inchoate mood, as sudden to come and go as the building stormfront blowing north back towards Seattle, and that frightened her. Spencer very rarely did things without reason so, therefore, there must be a reason, even if he didn’t know it.

The drive continued, the desert spreading out around them.

 

The next day, refreshed from a sleep in a hotel and showered, finally, Spencer and Emily left the twins to explore Vegas together while they drove alone to Bennington. It was hot here, no signs of the storm they’d driven out the other side of, and Spencer was feeling as though the familiar sight of the baking Vegas sun overhead was doing more to assuage his worries then all the restless movement had managed the whole way back. Emily chattered excitedly all the way there and up the neatly gravelled drive until they were walking through the front doors and introducing themselves to the polite receptionist, whose smile flickered when Spencer gave his name.

“One moment,” she said, lifting the phone.

Apprehension crashed down upon them both.

 

Emily paced. Neither Ethan nor Phil were answering the hotel phone when she’d called, so she was left bouncing off the wood inlaid walls of the reception room while waiting for Spencer to return from wherever he’d been taken by the doctors. She hadn’t caught much, just seen Spencer’s fraught expression and the way he hadn’t even glanced back at her once before hurrying away.

She worried.

 

Spencer was sitting with his mom, and Diana was crying into his arms.

“What’s wrong with her?” he’d asked the doctor as the man had led him into this darkened bedroom to be faced with his mother sobbing inconsolably. “Is she sick?”

“No,” the doctor had answered quietly. “She’s just sad.”

This, Spencer had found, was true. His mother wasn’t psychotic. She wasn’t delusional or confused or sickening. She was simply sad; deeply, deeply sad, and he didn’t know how to help her. He simply didn’t know; he had never been faced with anything like this. Elizabeth, in sweeping him away from the reality of his mother, had sheltered him utterly from the destruction wrought upon her, only allowing him structured and planned glimpses into a façade of her life both Diana and Elizabeth had worked hard to ensure was gilt-edged and swept clean; but those glimpses were not the truth of Diana Reid. This was. And so she cried, and so he held her, until it became too much and he found himself weeping too, burying his cries in the familiar scent of her cotton-clad shoulder. Alone in that room where she was a shadow of the woman who’d taught him the epitaph of a hare, he rocked her gently along with his own overwhelming grief for being unable to save her until his grief was spent and he was listless beside her.

Her crying continued, as it had for hours now, blowing as suddenly upon her, as without warning, as the storm had on a crowded sleeping bag on the side of a highway.

“How do I fix this?” Spencer cried helplessly.

Diana couldn’t answer.

 

When Spencer called for Emily, she went reluctantly. She wasn’t sure she wanted to see what waited for her within the bowels of this place that was painted prettily but, under that paint, she could sense terrible harm. Suffering had occurred here, and she curled into herself and crept through the halls feeling as though she was thirteen again and sitting on the sidelines holding a stuffed raven and wishing she could leave.

She found them in Diana’s room. Diana was slumped against her son’s side, head pillowed on his arm and face obscured. Spencer had been crying. Emily crept forward like a mouse, unsure of what to do but to look helplessly at Spencer and wait for guidance, her heart shattering at the lost expression on his reddened face.

“Mom is sad,” said Spencer simply.

“Oh,” said Emily, sitting down on a chair beside the bed and pulling it forward. It dragged on the floor, making a terrible noise. Diana’s hand slipped forward and Emily froze, expecting to be scolded; instead, she took Emily’s hand and held it loosely in a paper-light grip that felt temporary. Weakened. Fragile. “Is there anything we can do?”

Spencer’s shoulders shifted in the barest whisper of a shrug.

“Should I call Mom?” Emily mouthed at him.

Another flicker of movement from his shoulders.

“I miss them,” Diana said suddenly, lowering her arm and revealing her eyes. She’d been crying too and the sight gutted Emily; Spencer looked away. There was something so so so utterly terrible about seeing a parent cry, so irreparably awful. A truth that, once unveiled, could never be hidden again: that parents, just like children, could hurt and be hurt; that parents, just like children, could cry; that parents, unlike children, could have no one to come to their aid when they did so.

“Miss who?” Emily asked as Spencer seemed wordless.

“Them,” Diana said vaguely. Emily looked at Spencer, but he was silent. “They went away.”

Emily looked again at Spencer for help, frowning at him. “If you tell us who, we can find them for you,” she suggested, irritated with Spencer’s silence.

But all she got from Diana was another soft ‘them’.

“Schizophrenia is characterised by vague and empty speech,” Spencer said dully, his voice dropping into the room like a heavy rock into a disturbed puddle, breaking the edges completely with the impact.

“I’m not a diagnosis, Spencer,” Diana shot back with twice as much spirit. Spencer blinked, looking at her, but the fire was gone as quickly as a spark, leaving her looking startled and quiet.

“I’m not a diagnosis,” she whispered again, beginning to shake with her eyes filling. Her hand, in Emily’s, was thin.

 

Leaving Emily with his mom on the bed, Spencer went to her desk and, after obtaining a sluggish kind of permission from Diana, sifted through the loose papers there. Very few of them made much sense, although he found a half-written letter to him that she’d clearly been in the middle of before this spiral had struck. He set that aside. And then he found ‘them’.

 

Emily crept away to call Elizabeth—who would fly there immediately, she was promised—and when she returned Spencer had stolen her chair and was sitting in it with papers stacked in his lap. When Emily perched on the seat beside him and took one to see for herself, Diana just sighed lowly and closed her eyes, murmuring something inaudible.

“It’s us,” Spencer told Emily, gesturing to the paperwork. “She’s lost us.”

“But we’re right here,” said Emily.

“Exactly,” said Diana, both of them looking at her. “I let you both go on that awful plane and you came home like this, all grown and terrible. Terribly grown. Terrible, terrible, terrible, because I cannot carry you anymore, my babies. I’ve lost the power to lift you high. Isn’t that terrible? When did I last hold you, Spencer? My perfect boy, I put him down for the last time and the awful plane carried him away.”

Emily looked at Spencer critically. “She’s not wrong. You would be impossible for her to lift now, there’s an awful lot more of you.”

Spencer muttered ‘ha’ and ignored her, which she probably deserved.

“How do I protect the children I cannot carry from danger anymore?” Diana asked.

Neither could answer.

 

They went back to the hotel with heavy hearts that night, ignoring all Ethan and Phil’s attempts to cheer them up. As soon as the morning dawned, they left again to see her once more, this time parking Phil’s car in the Bennington parking lot beside a sleek rental that Emily stared at for a while, knowing who had brought it here.

Elizabeth was inside when they arrived, sitting with Diana in her room.

“The children are here,” Elizabeth said as they entered, eyeing them critically. Emily fought the urge to poke her tongue out at her mother, barely succeeding.

“The children are adults now, dear heart,” Diana corrected. She seemed calmer today, sitting at her desk with her hands folded and no sign of her shattered misery. “Hello, my loves. Come give me a kiss, the both of you.”

They obliged, sitting together after on the bed in awkward, muddled silence as their mothers said nothing.

“I believe it is time we all had a discussion,” said Elizabeth finally. Spencer closed his eyes as the strange mood from the last few days finally folded down atop of him; suddenly, he understood what that mood was. It was this moment, it was the day before; it was all the moments leading to it. It was realising that this was it. Adult things were upon him.

Childhood was over.

“May I speak to Spencer first, Liz?” Diana asked quietly.

Elizabeth agreed and her and Emily left the room together.

 

“Spencer,” said Diana, coming to sit in Emily’s vacated spot. He kept his eyes closed. “May I ask a favour?”

“Always, Mom,” he choked out around a tight ball of realisation lodged in his throat.

“Will you introduce me to my grown-up son, this beautiful man sitting so complete before me? I do not know you, I realised yesterday. A man called me, a man! And he said, Mom I’m coming to visit and I was excited but then I realised…I do not know you. And that saddens me greatly.”

She trailed off, Spencer giving her what he knew was a startled look.

“I wish to,” she finished with. “What does the life of my son look like now, now that my little boy I held has flown out of reach?”

“Oh, Mom,” he grieved, pulling her into a hug that was tight and hurting; she hugged him back with just as much ferocity.

“Don’t leave out the parts about Emily,” Diana instructed him despite the hug not being over, determined to have this. “You know how I adore our little demon child.”

He told her about Ethan and how they’d been torn apart so wholly. Diana listened quietly, although later when he was away from her and couldn’t be hurt further by naked emotion she’d cry for the two boys who’d only wanted to be loved by each other. He told her about the girl with the rainbow scarf, appropriately censoring this version of the story. Diana knew what he wasn’t saying anyway, saddened by the knowledge that her son had grown so completely and in such an achingly lonely fashion. He told her about his work and his education and his world, about a cat named Kinky and his students and his bedroom and all the things he’d said before in his letters but he felt needed restating now. She listened to them all.

He told her about the tattoo on his hip and, when she was appalled and curious in equal amounts, he sheepishly showed her. For the longest time, she said nothing.

“We were thinking of adding words,” he said out of lack of anything else to say about his reckless ink. “Emily and I, I mean. She has one just like it, on her hip.”

“Soul marked,” Diana mused quietly, earning a low snort from Spencer, who didn’t quite believe in anything as easy as ‘souls’ to explain the human condition. And then she reached for a pen, tore loose two strips of paper and wrote upon them, folding them many times before handing them to him. “Put those in your pocket. They’re words for you and Emily both.”

Interested, he did so.

“I disapprove of the tattoo, just so you know,” she added, earning a laugh that she cut off abruptly with a sharp, “Now, when are you going to tell me about you and Emily?”

Spencer went quiet and wide-eyed, caught.

“Oh, Spencer,” said Diana with a tired smile. “I’m paranoid, not blind. Do you think I don’t recognise the love in the way you touch her?”

“I’ve always loved her,” he protested weakly.

“Perhaps you have,” was the reply. “Perhaps you have.”

 

When Spencer left Diana for a brief examination by her doctor, he found Emily and Elizabeth standing in the grounds. Emily was quiet, her expression thoughtful and giving nothing away about the content of their conversation. Spencer stood beside them and had no idea that both he and Emily were looking out over the shaded grounds upon which the Vegas sun was beating as they both considered that this was the end of an era for them both.

“As I was telling Emily,” said Elizabeth as soon as Spencer was stood beside them, “I believe it is time for a change.”

Spencer looked at her; Emily continued examining a nearby tree, her mind miles away and years ago.

“I am not the kind of person to continue persisting with that which has lost effectiveness,” Elizabeth continued, “and this place, in some areas, has become ineffective.”

Now they were both looking at her. Spencer, for lack of anything to do as his heart sunk and that terrible, nervous anxiety began chewing at his edges once more, pulled the slips of paper from his pocket and unfolded the one that read ‘Spencer’ in his mother’s shaky handwriting. He knew that Elizabeth was going to suggest a new institution, perhaps one even more closed up and cruel than this one.

The paper read:

Astra inclinant, sed non obligant.

He didn’t know what that meant, although he recognised the Latin word for ‘stars’.

“I do not think hospitalisation is able to cure a heart as well is it can mend a mind,” Elizabeth was still saying and, if he’d been listening properly, Spencer would have been shocked by this coming from the firmly pragmatic Elizabeth, but he wasn’t. He was unfolding the paper labelled ‘Emily’, which read:

Luceo non uro.

Of which he understood nothing of.

“And, as such, I have decided to retire,” Elizabeth finished with heavily, the word ‘retire’ so laden with feeling that the dull wind seemed to pick it up and drop it instantly, unable to carry it away like it did the quiet chatter of other patients.

Spencer’s head snapped up to stare at her.

“It is time Diana came home,” said Elizabeth.

Spencer, stunned, could do nothing but nod. He had been right; change was coming—but it was brighter and more real than he could ever have hoped.

“Thank you,” he whispered.

 

Diana was asleep. Emily and Spencer sat quietly, Elizabeth smoothing out the blanket on the daybed she was to stay on until she left to organise the details of her move back to the Sometimes Homes, this time with Diana beside her, for good. The Sometimes Homes, home forever.

It was an incredible beginning, Spencer thought; Emily considered it a resounding ending.

“Elizabeth,” Spencer said suddenly, his voice soft to avoid waking his mother, although she slept deeply and wouldn’t have woken to a noise much louder than his quiet query. “Do you regret not staying with Mom to begin with? To avoid all this?”

“What on earth do you mean?”

He gestured around the room. “Bennington,” he said. “Losing twenty-five years of life with her. All those years when she wasn’t sick, you could have had those. Now you have to leave a career you adore to help her, when she’s…”

Elizabeth sat heavily upon the daybed.

“Understand this,” she said, “I am leaving nothing I am not willing to give up.”

Emily stirred. “You never put it aside for us, when we were small.” ‘For me’ was unsaid, but audible.

“I believed in my work,” Elizabeth responded. “I believed, I believe, that I provided an excellent foundation for you both. Oh, I don’t doubt I failed to provide a perfect childhood. I have been referred to as an emotionless shrew, and by people who like me, nonetheless. I am sure you were both lonely and sad, often. I am sure you wanted for fun things, or fripperies, or as Diana would put it, love. I am not open with my affection, but I am sure that the raising I gave you both was the foundation for excellent lives that will give you the very best opportunities to reach whatever goals you desire, a gift which will continue to abet you both long after I am gone.”

Emily went still. Spencer glanced at her curiously, never to know that she was thinking of a New Years celebration where she’d watched a father lift his daughter to the stars and longed for someone to raise her that high, never realising that her mother had been doing that all along in her own careful way.

“I may have set aside time I may have had with Diana in order to do so,” Elizabeth continued with her voice brooking no argument. “But I don’t regret a minute of it. And I regret nothing going forward. I am not helping your mother, Spencer. I am bringing her to the home I can afford because of the twenty-five years of hard, unrelenting work that I persisted in, the home where she will be loved as openly as I am able and want for nothing. Love is not help. Love is love. I did not help you as a child, I loved you the same as I loved Emily. Do I regret those years?”

She was quiet for a moment.

“No,” she said again, more firmly now. “I don’t regret them, and I wouldn’t do them differently. If I did, I wouldn’t have my beautiful daughter and the utter joy she brings me.”

Emily blinked, stunned.

Elizabeth continued, quieter now: “And I wouldn’t have my loving, compassionate son and all the light he also brings to my life. The two of you? I would live through a thousand Michaels, seethe about William a million times, to have the joy of you with us exactly as you both are now. And that is all that needs to be said about that.”

 

They sat in the car outside of the hotel, neither saying anything as they thought about everything they’d seen and lived through this past twenty-four hours. Neither of them felt like the same person anymore. The convention seemed a very long time ago, happening to very different people.

“I’m scared, Spence,” Emily said suddenly. “I don’t feel like…”

She trailed off.

“It’s like something that’s always been there is gone, right?” he said. “A safety net. Elizabeth was always there as our mom, ready to catch us. Maybe I guess I figured my mom was too. And now she’s leaving her job, Mom’s going to live with her, and they’re taking it back, aren’t they? They’re not just our moms now. They’re their own people, living without us.”

“And there’s no going back,” Emily finished, breathless as the enormity of it crashed down on her. “Oh fuck, this is it, isn’t it? We’re on our own, the nest is gone. Sink or swim. What the fuck do we do now?”

“Do you remember Rome?” Spencer asked instead of answering that. Emily gave him a look that said ‘duh’. As he was speaking, he was fiddling with those slips of paper that he hadn’t let Emily see yet, fingers tracing the words. “Do you remember how different everything was all of a sudden, especially with you and your mom?”

“Yeah,” Emily said. “I suddenly realised that she was a mess, a total mess. You know, I fought with her before that, but I still thought she was some untouchable perfect being. I guess that comes with being a kid.”

“Exactly. And then you realised she wasn’t perfect and you hated her for that, railed against it. And I think that was the moment you stopped being a kid, at least, that was the moment I always saw as you taking a step away from me. Growing up without me.” He kept going as Emily opened her mouth to cut him off, not letting her speak: “No, wait. Hear me out. But you forgave her for that, right? For not being some perfect, untouchable superhuman mom who always knew what to do, how to fix you?”

Emily thought about that for a moment, remembering, suddenly, standing up to her father for her mom. Declaring that she’d be proud to become half the woman Elizabeth was. “I guess,” she answered.

“Well,” said Spencer. “I read somewhere, a while ago, that realising your parents aren’t infallible is the end of childhood. Forgiving them for that imperfection is the end of adolescence. And I guess I’ve been thinking about the logical conclusion to that pattern, the final step.”

He handed her the papers, almost absentmindedly. Emily opened them, furrowing her brow as she tried to reach back into the depths of her ill-used Latin lessons to translate them.

“I guess becoming an adult means not only forgiving our parents for the choices they’ve made, but understanding them,” he finished. “But I’m not sure I’m quite ready for that yet, not quite. I know what’s coming next but…”

He looked at her, studying her staring down at the papers his mom had written for them.

“I don’t want to grow up now that I’m being forced to,” he said softly, touching her hand. “I’m scared of it, scared like my dad was scared of what was going to happen to my mom. He chose to run from her, to flee that fear. I don’t understand that choice at all, not yet. I need to, because if I don’t I don’t know how to move forward, alone.”

“You’re not alone,” Emily said, setting aside the slips for now. “I’m with you.”

 

It was Ethan and Phil who translated those two lines on the two strips of paper for them, waiting until Spencer and Emily had fallen into exhausted sleep after telling them everything that had happened. They left their friends to their slumber, sneaking from the hotel room with their hearts aching for their oldest and dearest companions, and went to the library to find them the smallest comfort they could. There was little, after all, that they could do for the big things.

When Spencer woke up first, he found the room quiet, Ethan with headphones on lying on his bed with his eyes shut and Phil reading a book on the couch. Beside Spencer’s glasses on the side table, the slip of paper had been returned with Phil’s bubbly handwriting below Diana’s. It now read:

Astra inclinant, sed non obligant.

The stars incline us, they do not bind us.

Emily, when she opened her eyes, found that hers was now scrawled with Ethan’s incautious words to her, translating Diana’s notion of Emily Prentiss:

Luceo non uro.

I shine, not burn.

And she knew what they had to do next.

Chapter Text

Life did its best to stop them from doing what they needed to do until, finally, an opportunity arose. Emily grabbed at it with both hands, startling Spencer who’d, ever since that fateful trip to Vegas, been withdrawn into his overactive brain stewing fanatically over their indeterminate futures. She needed to goad him into action and away from his nervous stalling.

“Mom needs someone to go check on the Seattle house now it’s vacated,” Emily declared come the spring of 1992, some seven months later. Spencer, sitting at his desk swapping his glasses for his contacts, set down the case and studied her with one blurry eye. “She’s still dealing with the end of tenancy bullshit and closing up her current posting, so I volunteered us until she’s back Stateside.”

“That’s very generous of you,” Spencer said. “And unusual. Since when do you offer to help your mother with business? Normally, you’re happy to leave it to me.”

“Since now,” Emily said firmly, reaching down to her pocket where the folded-up paper she’d found jumbled among a box of her childhood belongings was seated with care. “It’s very important that we both go.”

Spencer seemed unconvinced and, Emily noted, tired.

“Plus,” Emily added nonchalantly, “Mom says that Fiona is in Seattle with her family. Wouldn’t it be good to see her again?”

 

The months since that Vegas trip had been quiet. Spencer had taken his mother’s declining happiness hard, seeming to pull it into himself and extrapolate from it some miserable future that was looming above them all. Emily had watched him disappear into mountains of books and research papers on schizophrenia, alarmed by a cursory glance through them to find that many of them were exploring the genetic basis of the disorder. He wasn’t sleeping well, or rather, he wasn’t sleeping. Emily worried about him, and she worried about her mother’s plan to rattle around in the Big House with nothing to fulfil her, and she worried about Diana, and she realised that their lives, as she’d expected on that night all those months ago, had become ruled by fear.

They were stuck right when they needed to be marching forward fearlessly.

Emily had a plan to unstick them.

 

The paper in Emily’s pocket was a story written by a childish hand, Emily’s childish hand, in fact, and it said this:

And Fiver outsmarted the terrible trolls because they were not very clever and he wasn’t at all scared of things that weren’t clever.

“But what are very clever?” Blackbird asked him to find what he really did fear. And he replied “Dragons are the most clever of all. I wouldn’t be at all smart enough to slay a dragon, I would be so scared I couldn’t think.”

“Is that all that is very clever?” she said. “I’m not afraid of dragons. I could slay one easy with a sword or even just my beak.”

And Fiver said. “No, because dragons aren’t things you can stab or bite. They are beings of FEAR that you’re afraid of, so your dragon wouldn’t be like mine. They wouldn’t be trolls that we outsmarted or books that we love, they would be terrible things. Mine would be dark and horrible.”

“And mine?”

He didn’t know.

So it was decided: they would find their dragons, so Blackbird could see what hers was, and so Fiver could slay his. Off they went, first to the Rainbow Death Meadows, where the carnivory (which is SO a word that means catching and eating) unicorns would tell them about where to find a dragon or two (unlike the unhelpful Gnods and their punnets of stinky butter).

And so Emily had decided; at the age of twenty-one, they would finally find, and face, their dragons for good.

 

Emily drove, as Spencer had never quite recovered from the shock of their accident to find himself comfortable behind the wheel of a vehicle. Their rental car carried them easily through streets that were familiarly unfamiliar, Emily turning away from her destination for a short moment to take them past the gates and grounds of their old school.

“Wow,” said Emily, idling the car as they both looked at the swarms of uniforms dashing about in eternal excitement for the glorious day today and every glorious day to come. “They’re so small. Were we ever so small?”

“They’re so energetic,” Spencer said with a wry grin. “I definitely wasn’t that.”

A teacher appeared, shooing a small gaggle of students away from the gates where they’d been clustered. Spencer and Emily watched with interest and unspoken hope but, when the teacher turned to face them, they realised she wasn’t anyone they recognised. This wasn’t their place anymore; there would be little mark left within the walls and grounds of the school to show their time there.

Without a word, Emily put the car into drive and pulled away. The paper in her pocket pressed against her leg.

She wasn’t sure that seeing their school had helped at all.

 

They drove down the long, lakeside road that led to the house. Past the glittering water, the sweeping lawns, the expansive homes that crowned the lake. Along a road that Spencer remembered pedalling furiously down one grim evening, searching for his missing friend and on a quest for the bridge behind them. Down the narrower lane Emily bumped, trees yawning overhead. This, they realised, was the route their bus had taken. Here, where Ethan would clamber aboard the school bus every dark school morning, yawning and grunting in a sleepy fashion and where he’d leap from the bus, usually singing, in a barely contained whorl of vivacity. And here, where they’d leave the bus themselves when not driven—usually hand in hand, often chattering about their plans for the rest of those halcyon days.

They were quiet as they pulled through the gates and up the gravelled drive until, suddenly, there it was. Their home.

They were home.

 

There was a reunion. From the work shed tucked to the side of the property strode a grizzled man with his face set into a seemingly permanent scowl, a scowl that suddenly lifted when he recognised the two people standing before him.

“Well I’ll be damned,” Garret, the gardener who’d worked these grounds long enough to remember Emily as an infant, murmured softly to himself, seeing the little boy who’d cried over his hare in the tall man before him and the whirlwind girl-child who’d ruined more gardens then she’d planted in her formative years in the unsurprisingly beautiful woman beside him. “Don’t that make you feel old.”

But to the children-no-longer smiling at him all he said was, “S’pose you’ll be wanting to check on yer ol’ hare then.”

 

As Spencer dealt with the business end of the home, which he’d expected Emily to leave to him and therefore had prepared for, Emily walked the grounds slowly, looking at everything and trying to remember if this was how it had always been. Voices floated down to her from the open windows above, discussing something dull like the foundations, but Emily was lost in her own thoughts. She’d found Balthy’s rock and was looking down at the wonky rabbits painted upon it, the single line of text in Spencer’s hand:

“My heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today.”

And she shivered, hands touching at the story in her pocket. “Hi, Balth,” she murmured, feeling a little silly talking to a rock. The paint was faded from the sun overhead, but thanks to Garret’s addition of the sealant, still immaculate. The grass was overlong around the rock, mowed carefully around without moving it. A metal sign had been added to the scene some time ago without her ever knowing, the pole banged deep into the turf and the black text on white-glossed metal reading DO NOT MOVE THIS ROCK. She wondered if her mom had put it there, or if Garret had.

There was no sign of Balth’s descendants, which was unsurprising. They were, after all, crepuscular animals—and Emily laughed softly as she remembered Spencer teaching her this.

“You’d love Spencer a lot now,” she said suddenly, losing her embarrassment as a wave of warmth washed over her for the man who’d guarded their hare and the boy who’d loved that hare to begin with. Here, under this rock, was the beginning of them. The boy and his hare, in her garden, and she bit at her lip to hold back the wave of feeling that bought. “I mean, you loved him all along, I know. He gave you the best treats, you fat thing. But you’d love him more now. Spencer is…” She paused, thinking. Those voices still continued, moving to a different part of the empty, echoing house by now. “He’s as he’s always been, but more. Gentle. Compassionate. He’s a man with a soul, you know? And he’s mine. What did I ever do to deserve that?”

Balth didn’t answer, but Emily didn’t need her to.

“I love him so much,” said Emily, brain wrapped around her man now and her boy then. “Fuck, I love him. Thank you for him.” She looked back to the house, seeing a door open as Spencer emerged out into the spring sunshine, blinking from being inside as he looked around for her and then began to lope towards her across the grass.

“Thank you for us,” she added softly before stepping towards her man and into the arm he wrapped around her, kissing her sun-warmed hair.

“You should be wearing a hat,” he warned gently and without any real belief she’d listen, his eyes falling on the rock and a slow, sad smile appearing. “Oh, Baltharog. Hello.”

“I love you,” she said, feeling him startle against her. Had she ever said it before so plainly? She suspected she’d always hidden it among other things, or behind a veil of all their history. So she said again, “I love you,” and reached her arms around him, pulling him close into a kiss that lingered.

“Remarkable,” Spencer responded giddily into her kiss, giving himself unto it entirely.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Garret said upon seeing them there, shaking his head with no small amusement. “Wonder what the ma’am thinks of that.”

 

Elizabeth, however, knew nothing of ‘that’ and wouldn’t yet for quite some time, as neither Emily nor Spencer had had the courage to tell her, and Diana was inclined to wait until her partner figured it out for herself.

 

They found their tree.

“Oh, there is no chance of me climbing that,” Spencer declared, ducking below a low-lying branch that he would have sprinted under without fear some thirteen years prior. Emily, who would have leapt and grabbed that branch in order to swing her—usually bare—feet forward and fling herself bodily into the air—traced her much quieter hands along the bough, finding, in fact, a small twist in the branch that was caused by actions much like those just described. This was a branch that, unbeknownst to her, she had shaped. “I think climbing trees is an activity left in the past for the health of my poor bones.”

He laughed, although he felt saddened by the proclamation.

Emily studied their tree.

“Nonsense,” she decided, earning a nervous glance from Spencer. “You never outgrow trees.”

And, with that, she kicked her strappy heels off, hitched her dress with one hand to cinch it around her waist more securely, and reached up for the closest branch overhead. Astounded, Spencer watched her leap up, grab it—for a moment, her body was lithe and long as her arms supported her whole weight, firm muscles defined with the effort, and he felt a stir that was uncomfortably adult in this resoundingly childish locale—before swinging her legs up and over another branch and letting go. He yelped and leapt to catch her as she dropped, but it was a controlled fall and she laughed at him as she hung upside-down from her legs hooked over the creaking branch. Her long hair trailed in the dirt and her dress gave up and flipped down completely exposing her bare, pale legs and dark, cotton underwear. Emily, far from being embarrassed, found this hysterical and laughed with delight as gravity reddened her face.

“You’re showing everyone your intimates,” Spencer teased with his heart still thudding, tweaking her dress up before letting it fall again, revealing the barest corner of the tattoo on her hip and the fresh words added to them. “What would your mother say?”

“Let them look,” she reminded him with an impetuous grin that reminded him dearly of his wild childhood friend, before she twisted herself up and over herself and pulled herself up the tree with capricious abandon.

Spencer considered this for a moment. It felt, in this place, as though his fears were very distant. The lake so close, the sun so bright, the day so very alive; what place did their future have here?

What place did fear?

He too kicked his shoes off, sent his socks to join them abandoned in their pile on the soft sod, and reached up with some trepidation to join her. After all, there was so much more of him to fold through those willowy branches, and he’d never really trusted in anything other than himself to hold his own weight.

But it did.

And he climbed.

Until his head broke the crown alongside hers and they both looked, the tree groaning in a surprised kind of fashion under their feet and neither daring to share the same branch anymore, with her sitting upon an uppermost one and he standing on a thicker one below that. He used his height to see out over the lake and towards the distant smudge of the mountains to the north.

“I don’t think the tree appreciates our return,” said Spencer, turning slightly to glance back across the trees to the house and being surprised by how close it was to their secret climbing place. The distance, when they were small, had been it seemed to him much further. He could see the back of the Big House from here, the eaves over the treetops, and slightly before that he could see the barest sliver of the lake house he’d shared with his mother.

“What did I call the lake?” Emily pondered, staring at where she was sure there’d once been horses but which, now, was a flat expanse of manicured lawn sweeping right back to the home. The witches’ trees were also gone, now a grey blotch of modernity over there with the winking lights of passing cars catching the chrome and glass of storefronts.

“I don’t remember,” admitted Spencer.

She didn’t remember either.

The wind was cold up here and Spencer shuffled closer to Emily, the branch bowing below his feet—toes curled as though to help him hang on in some retained simian instinct—and leaned his chin on her shoulder, following the line of her gaze to the mountain range.

“Are you going to tell me now why you wanted to come back here so much?” he asked.

“They painted over my drawings in your old room,” was all Emily answered.

“I know. I saw. It doesn’t matter.” His fingers traced along the soft material of her dress, resting warm and real over the spot where her tattoo was. “We took them with us.”

She kept staring.

“Emily?”

“Come to the mountain with me,” she burst out with, turning her head to look at him finally with her eyes alight. “We never made it there as kids—let’s do it, finally. Together. Tomorrow. Please?”

Startled by the passion in this entreaty, Spencer said, “Okay.”

 

Emily was nervous about meeting Fiona once more. It was understandable. Their lives had taken very different paths since their separation in that Italian airport. Emily was, she was sure, not at all the person Fiona had liked back then, a surety compounded by the fact that the letters they’d exchanged for a few years following Emily leaving Rome had slowly dwindled.

Emily never once considered that the change had occurred for Fiona too, that inexorable trudge towards adulthood.

Spencer drove, reluctantly, while Emily changed in the backseat of their tinted rental. Her dress, which had been neat and clean before their adventure into the tree, was discarded in favour of jeans and a flannel shirt, unsure of herself now with the prospect of seeing her old friend.

“Do I look alright?” she fretted, diving into the front seat through the centre gap and tugging the visor down to attend to her makeup. “Yikes, I’m a mess. Fiona won’t even recognise me. Maybe I should have worn black…”

“Fiona never cared what you wore, I doubt she’s going to begin caring now,” Spencer told her, as always non-committed to commenting on her fashion choices. The closest he would come to expressing a preference would be a delighted smile when she let her hair settle back to its natural straightness over the coming year, replacing the teased bangs with her customary razor-sharp cut—a look that he found utterly alluring in every possible sense.

But, as a smart man, he avoided voicing his distaste for her current perm.

“Oh my god, we’re here,” Emily breathed. They were. Fiona’s college stretched before them and Spencer parked between two sedans with the least dents in their bumpers, wisely assuming that at least there they were likely to avoid damage to their rental by distracted college drivers. “This is it. Where were we meeting her? Oh man, I feel ill.”

Spencer took her hand.

“Come on,” he said. “Save the fear for tomorrow.”

 

Fiona had changed. That made sense, they supposed, because they’d changed too. In fact, for a moment, as Fiona looked up to see the two strangers walking across the grass towards her—the man so tall and comfortable in his own skin, dressed in a vivid cardigan and with his hair a mess that only gave the illusion of artfulness, and the woman in faded denim with her hair fashionably curled—she didn’t recognise them. Spencer had never been so self-assured; Emily never that mainstream.

And then her brain clicked.

“Emily!” she screamed, leaping up in a wave of tartan skirt and dark stockings, launching herself at speed towards the friends she hadn’t seen since Rome. “Oh my gosh, you’re lost your punk soul!”

“Never,” laughed Emily. “Under this hair, my heart is counter-culture.”

Spencer just smiled widely at the confirmation that Emily’s fears had been unfounded, his gaze, for a moment, landing on the dark-haired man watching them all from an easy distance away. The man stood there staring openly. Dark shades hid his expression. Uneasily, Spencer looked away first; Emily hadn’t noticed him.

“Oh, we must get lunch,” Fiona declared, sharp eyes catching immediately the unconscious way Emily stepped back and reached to touch Spencer’s hand. “I think you two have a lot to tell me.”

“Of course,” said Emily.

Fiona turned, gesturing at the man. “Oh, this is my shadow,” she said with a roll of her eyes as the man slowly walked towards them. “I’ll introduce you.”

“Your shadow is carrying a gun,” Emily said, eyes widening as she saw the way the man’s suit pulled as he walked, the tell-tale broken line. “Uh, should we be concerned? Spencer’s harmless, I swear.”

“Good eye, Ms Prentiss,” said the man, now within earshot. “But I’m actually wearing two.”

He smiled. It was not a smile that met his eyes, nor one that looked at all comfortable.

“Oh, don’t be such a spoil-sport, Shadow,” Fiona sighed, her dislike clear. “Em, Spence, this is Shadow. Shadow’s my father’s man. No doubt he’ll be following us to lunch to stare creepily.”

The man’s smile didn’t fade but that was only because it was false. They could all see the irritation in his posture.

“Special Agent Aaron Hotchner,” he gritted out in the uncomfortable lull as both Spencer and Emily stared at him. “FBI. I’m Ms Duncan’s protective detail. May I suggest we take this meeting somewhere private?”

Junior Special Agent,” was Fiona’s dry retort. “And, no. I’m in zero danger and I’m sick of Dad being such a priss. Shall we go?”

With that, she bounced off. Emily only glanced once more at the agent before following.

Spencer lingered, managing a tight smile as Agent Hotchner looked at him.

“Anything we should be worried about?” Spencer asked.

“Not at all, Dr Reid,” said Agent Hotchner with another of those false smiles. “There’s little danger, I’m simply a precaution during some delicate proceedings Ambassador Duncan is involved with.”

“Is lunch an issue?” Spencer pressed. “You seem uneasy.”

“I dislike open areas,” was the agent’s short response. “Harder to establish a perimeter.”

“Ah,” said Spencer. “About that…”

It was only later, as Fiona shrieked with delight about Emily’s idea to hike up Mount Rainier, that Spencer realised: he was sure he’d never told Agent Hotchner that his title was ‘doctor’.

 

They ate lunch at a small café adjourning Fiona’s campus, of which the notice board attached to one wall was liberally bedecked with signs denoting its proximity to a place of learning. As Fiona filled Emily in on everything in her life, Spencer studied that board; as Emily did much the same, telling the intently listening Fiona and the seemingly disinterested Agent Hotchner—who, Spencer noted, was listening despite appearing to be watching the door and the wide plate windows—he saw a surprising announcement pinned up there.

Federal Bureau of Investigation Seminar for Upcoming Graduates

with special guests

Agents JE Gideon & DS Rossi

from the Behavioural Analysis Unit

And it was occurring, in a startling act of serendipity, over this week. Spencer leaned over and nabbed a copy from the loose sheafs below, turning back to the conversation and finding Agent Hotchner now openly studying him.

“You should come with us to Rainier tomorrow,” Emily was offering generously, although Spencer felt as though their visit to the dragon mountain should be done privately between the two of them, not least because Agent Hotchner looked supremely unhappy with his charge’s desire to stretch his patience. “We’re just hiking, not climbing. It’ll be fun!”

“Oh, for sure,” Fiona said with a beaming smile aimed right at Agent Hotchner, whose expression failed to flicker an inch. “We’ll put Shadow through his paces, won’t we? I lose him at the end of the week so I should make use of him while he’s here.”

The agent said nothing.

“Did you know,” Fiona said, “that Agent Shadow here was a lawyer before he gave it up to perve on me?”

“I don’t blame you,” Emily said to Hotchner. “How boring is law?”

Fiona, who was studying law, sighed at her friend.

“I enjoyed it,” said the agent quietly. “But I felt I could make more of a difference on the front line.”

“I think I’d prefer the lawyering,” said Spencer, everyone looking at him as he spoke for the first time. “The FBI is Emily’s desire, not mine. I dislike the inherent coercive values of law enforcement, no offence.”

“None taken.” Despite his glib response, Agent Hotchner seemed surprised by something Spencer had said, his countenance shifting to interest for the first time all afternoon. “I have heard of Ms Prentiss’s interest in joining the Bureau. It distresses her mother greatly.”

Now they were all looking at him, Emily frowning.

“I recognise you!” she burst out with, startling several nearby patrons. “Hey, you worked with Mom! Like, eight months ago, protective detail—wow, you really are a trained shadow, aren’t you?”

Agent Hotchner’s scowl was back. “Indeed. I remember you from then.” There was a loaded silence in which he seemed to be trying to hold something back, something that slipped out despite his attempt at control: “That was my first detail.”

There was something slightly accusing in his tone. Spencer ran back over his memories of that time…and his heart sunk.

“Oh no,” he said. Fiona leaned forward, looking curious. Agent Hotchner looked almost sulky. “Oh dear. Emily, this is…”

But Emily had realised, covering her mouth with wide-eyed horror sparking along with that recognition.

“You’re the agent who was on that night, weren’t you?” she said slowly, referring to a night that had quite firmly earned her a ban from any of Elizabeth’s postings and, very nearly, a disowning. If Elizabeth hadn’t been so used to Emily’s reckless idiocy, likely the fallout would have lingered. Here, however, it seemed they’d found the one person who hadn’t forgiven Emily for it.

“Yes,” said Agent Hotchner bluntly. “I was very nearly fired, thank you very much.”

“So was that cow,” muttered Spencer under his breath, unsurprised when Hotchner seemed to hear him and shot him a grim look in response.

“You almost shot me,” Emily exclaimed. Fiona was now covering her mouth.

“I thought you were a terrorist!” Hotchner protested, other patrons beginning to inch away from them. “I thought you had a bomb.”

“It was a firework!”

“It was ticking.

Spencer looked at Fiona, who looked back at him, as the agent and Emily began to bicker about who was more at fault that night, Spencer privately of the opinion that it was resoundingly Emily—but he’d never admit that.

“Well,” said Fiona cheerfully, raising her hand for the cheque. “At least now I know why he got stuck with following me around. Papa’s clearly hoping he’ll mistake me for a terrorist and shoot me.”

The bark of laughter from Emily was almost worth the deadly glare Hotchner aimed at them in return.

 

“You should probably apologise to him,” Spencer told Emily as they left the café with Hotchner and Fiona walking ahead. “I suspect his career might have taken a small hit that night.”

“I’ll get Mom to call his superiors,” Emily whispered back. “Like he needs my help though—ferocious scowl like his, he’ll probably be Director within ten years, cow or no cow.”

Thus, the initially acrimonious relationship between Emily Prentiss and Aaron Hotchner—which would, later in their lives as they both settled more firmly into their selves, morph into a pleasant amity—was begun.

But that amity was a long time from now.

 

They went to the seminar and, their curious luck in coming across their old companion firmly intact, were delighted to find that they only had to wait some three hours to see him. This time, neither Spencer nor Emily sat in the audience eagerly scribbling notes into a handy notebook; they sat smugly awaiting a sure reunion, learning little from the seminar that their voracious appetite for the activities of the now established BAU weren’t already aware of. However, there was one notably new discovery for them both. They met Jason Gideon, this week becoming firmly known as a week of many first meetings that would later turn out to be almost preordained.

With Fiona there to see and be impressed by their prestigious friend, they proudly approached Rossi at the end of his lecture and found him grinning delightedly upon seeing them. Hotch lingered behind, little of whatever he was thinking showing in his closed features—and Emily, who at this point in time profoundly disliked the man, as he did her, would have been shocked to realise how similar their longing for what was on offer here was. In this, as in many other things, they were incredibly alike.

“I can’t escape you two, can I?” Rossi boomed, grabbing Emily in a rough, one-armed hug and reaching out with the other hand to ruffle Spencer’s hair. He did, Emily noted with amusement, have to reach up in order to do so. “It’s uncanny how often you seem to track me down. Jeez, beanpole, what has Emily been feeding you?”

Spencer, having just noticed the Jason Gideon wandering towards Rossi without noticing them, was too awestruck to answer.

“Dave, did you see this entry in—oh, hello.” His distracted attention was suddenly upon them, flicking from Hotchner lingering in the background to skim Spencer before switching back to Rossi, completely overlooking both Fiona and Emily. “Students? Are these students?”

“That one’s not,” Rossi said with a jab towards Hotchner, who blinked. “Taught him last year at the Academy. Guess they finally let you off leash, Hotshot? Thought you were still in the shit box for that whole thing last year. Glad to hear it, I told Anton you’re too good to waste babysitting paranoid diplomats and their brats, and all over one bad job.”

“Sir,” said Hotchner without committing to a tone. Fiona sniggered at him. Emily looked away to hide her wince.

“Ahhh, as conversational as ever.” That done, Rossi pointed to Reid, first, and then Emily: “These two, now these two you need to meet. Jason, this is Emily Prentiss. She’s vying for your job, and she’s dangerous enough she might actually get it.”

Gideon didn’t say anything, just studied Emily intently. She swelled with pride; whatever he saw in her then, he didn’t comment on it.

Rossi continued: “And this stick is Spencer Reid. Dr Spencer Reid, actually. I’m still working on convincing him to join us. Remember that thesis on psychosexuality and arson I showed you a few months ago, the one you presented to Clarke during the Connecticut case? You’re looking at the author.”

This, Emily noted with some unease, had a much more profound effect upon Jason Gideon. Immediately, that distracted gaze sharpened and lashed up and down Spencer, who stood mute, taking him apart without compunction or care as the man disseminated whatever information he could take from Spencer’s bearing and appearance and behaviour and tucked it away for further perusal at a later date.

“Fascinating,” the man decreed, thrusting out a sure hand to be shaken by the still mute Spencer. “Dr Reid, was it? Walk with me.”

This was not stated as a request, and nor did the man take any notice of Rossi’s cheerful, “We have a meeting in twenty, Jase.” He simply waved his hand dismissively and waited for Spencer to step beside him and move away from the group, with no apparent doubt that he would.

“Do you mind?” Spencer asked, turning to Emily with some measure of shock on his expression at the turn this reunion had taken. “I don’t think I’ll be long?”

Gideon didn’t bother to answer the clear question in that, eyes distracted once more.

“It’s fine,” said Emily. She leaned up on tiptoes, struck by some senseless desire to claim him for her own before Jason Gideon attempted to whisk him away, and kissed him quickly. His returning embrace was fleeting. “We’ll wait for you by the car.”

When they walked away, Emily turned with some regret to find Rossi grinning at her as though all his Christmases had come at once. Fiona was giving her a look that was very much the same.

“I just won fifty bucks from that stuck-up steward back in London,” said Rossi with intense satisfaction. “About bloody time.”

“You two are going to make the prettiest babies,” said Fiona with relish.

“Oh, shut up,” Emily said mournfully, glancing back to the door her boyfriend had exited through. “Please tell me Gideon is going to give him back when he’s done? That seemed planned. He doesn’t even know Spencer!”

Rossi’s smile vanished.

“Ah,” he said. “Well, actually…”

“Oh no,” said Emily.

 

It wasn’t until the day later that Spencer spoke about what they’d discussed on that fateful walk. It seemed, Emily would think later, a very significant place to talk about it, sitting on the side of a trail watching Fiona coax Agent Hotchner into walking a little further up the trail with her. A wildflower meadow in full splendour stretched out around them, the snowy cap of Mount Rainier looming distantly. Reaching the peak was, as Emily had glumly found out, impossible without some climbing experience, but she found a great deal of pleasure out of the act of finally being here anyway.

Since the majority of the walk had been taken up with adjusting to the physicality of the uphill trail, rocky and tricky and liable to veer away suddenly, this was the first time her and Spencer had been alone and able to speak throughout it. Even last night, back at their hotel, they’d said very little.

Emily suspected he’d been thinking.

She was very correct.

“I think he actually does like her,” Spencer said, watching Agent Hotchner relent and follow Fiona up the trail. “He seems like he doesn’t, but I think that’s just how he is.”

“Dave said he’s a lot friendlier when he’s not grumpy about being sidelined,” Emily offered, not at all wanting to talk about the uptight Hotchner right now when there were more pertinent things to discuss. “He even smiles.”

“I don’t believe that,” said Spencer with a quiet laugh, lifting his boot to check for stones.

“So,” said Emily.

Spencer looked at her.

“Are you going to tell me about Gideon yesterday? I know he offered you a job because Rossi’s been hyping you up. Did you take it?”

Looking off over the meadow, Spencer didn’t answer immediately.

“No,” said Spencer. Emily nodded, unsurprised. “You don’t finish your program until next year and it would mean long distance until then if I’m stationed in DC. I reject that, not when we’ve only just begun. Besides…this is your dream, not mine. I don’t think…”

The time had arrived. Emily took from her pocket the folded story, glancing quickly to make sure Fiona and her stalwart shadow were distracted. Once it was free, she gave it to Spencer, earned a quizzical stare, and watched as he opened and read it.

“I don’t see why it can’t be a dream for both of us,” she told him, placing her hand over his as he stared at the familiar story for longer then it would take him to read it. “It suits us both superbly, unless something else is holding you back.”

“What if I get sick?” he whispered to the paper held in his slightly trembling hands. “What if I inherit…everything I’ve gained, everything I’ve achieved…what would it be worth?”

“You’d become a burden instead of a benefit to the unit?”

He nodded glumly.

“Bullshit.” She rolled her eyes as she said it, to really hammer it home. “Bullshit, Spence. Your mom’s achievements didn’t vanish with her diagnosis. They didn’t just pop out of existence—she’s still as brilliant as ever.             So what if you get sick, which you won’t? So what? In the time before that, you’d help people, you’d do incredible things. If Jason Gideon is offering you a job at twenty-one, then he can see that. Why can’t you?”

“What if I take the position and because I’m in it, you’re pushed out?” Spencer countered. “I’m poaching your dream right out from under you—I can’t do that, don’t you see? I can’t be responsible for denying you something you desire so much.”

“Then I need to work harder to prove I deserve a place, just like I did at school when I decided I was going to be just as smart, just as excellent as you. Come on, we’ve learned this lesson. Don’t you dare make yourself duller so I seem brighter in comparison, don’t you dare. It’d be Rome all over again, and look how that ended.”

“I’m scared of losing you,” he admitted.

She looked up at the mountain overhead, drawing his attention to it. “And I’m scared of failing,” she said in reply. “I’m scared of finding out that I’m not as smart as I hoped I’d be, that I’m not as capable. That I’m going to turn tail and run as soon as I’m challenged. But look at us—we’re standing here, on our dragon. Perched right on his great, fat tail and there’s nothing here that can hurt us, nothing dark or terrible or carnivory. Everything we’re afraid of is in our own stupid thoughts, and we need to leave those behind if we’re going to get everything we want from this world.”

Spencer smiled a little at that, glancing once at her silly story. “You shouldn’t be afraid of being challenged. You excel when challenged.”

He was right, they both knew.

“Then challenge me,” Emily demanded of him, pulling him up to his feet and pointing to the head of the dragon, so far above. “Challenge me, Spencer. Take the job. Now or when I have my masters, it doesn’t matter—just make sure you do. And then I’ll fight like hell to stand there beside you, you know I will. You want this. You keep saying you don’t, but I know you inside and out. This fascinates you. Stop convincing yourself you don’t want it because you’re scared of stepping on my toes, not when I want my toes stepped on.”

She leaned close, his head inclining towards hers as he seemed to unconsciously expect her to kiss him, but she didn’t.

“No more fear,” she said intently, locked close to him as a cloud drifted overhead, Seattle far below them. “No more stopping. I’m going to fight like I’ve never fought before to show them that I’m everything they want in an agent and more. You being there just gives me all the more incentive—you know how I respond to you having a head start, you have fourteen years of evidence showing that I don’t give up until I catch up with the standards you set. So what are you going to do?”

He was, she noted with amusement now that she was pressed up against him so close that she could feel the steady thump of his heart, decidedly aroused. She wasn’t quite sure what had done it, but suspected he liked the idea of her demanding his best so she could outdo it.

And when he replied he was, indeed, smiling: “Emily Prentiss,” he announced in a voice that was barely silly and mostly delighted, nipping at her ear for a moment as though trying to tempt her into the shadows of the nearby trees to really test themselves against each other: “I hear you think you’ll be a better FBI agent then I will…”

“You’re damn right I will,” she countered.

He nipped at her ear again, breathing his reply against the cool mark he left behind.

“Then I challenge you to prove it.”

Chapter Text

They were an imposing trio, the three people strolling through the apartment Hallie was showing today. She lingered by the door watching them with the practiced realtor’s eye, trying to gauge their interest. Distantly, she wondered, the two younger ones were certainly a couple, and a handsome one at that, but the older woman—was she the mother of the man or the woman?

Definitely the man, Hallie decided as he obeyed a single sharp glance from the elder woman and reached up to open a high cupboard for her. He looked at her with all the love of a son for his mother, obeying her desires with the sharp attention of a boy who’d never noticed that he’d grown into a man, not when it came to his mother’s command.

The younger woman had drifted towards Hallie as she pondered this. Hallie noted with some dismay that her expression was disinterested; it seemed this sale was a lost cause.

“So, what brings you to DC?” Hallie asked, determined to attempt to reforge a connection. Even if this apartment was ill-suited, she had plenty of others in her catalogue…perhaps another may tempt them.

“Work,” the woman answered with a fast, almost uncertain smile. Hallie checked her listing quickly: her name, as signed, was Emily Prentiss. “Newly graduated and joining the rat race, that age old tale.”

“Oh, exciting!” Hallie beamed at her. “And buying an apartment together! That’s very sweet.”

“Mmm.” Ms Prentiss scanned the living room, eyes lingering on her partner and his mother for a long moment. “I doubt we need this much space though. Three bedrooms? That’s just extra to clean when we’re both working our asses off, Spence.”

“We can hire a cleaner,” was the man’s soft reply, although he didn’t sound like he had his heart in it. “We definitely don’t need a formal dining area though. We hardly dine, let alone formally, unless we start breaking out the good china for Indian takeaway.”

Ms Prentiss looked surprised. “We have good china?” she mused, almost to herself. “Then why have I been eating stew from a mug all this time?”

The older woman, Hallie noted, looked extremely grieved by this conversation.

“You’ll need three bedrooms if you’re to have that disaster man, Ethan, over to stay,” said the older woman in a tone that brooked no argument. “We have discussed this. You are adults now and adults do not welcome their guests to sleep on sofa cushions beside their beds like a child at a sleepover.”

“But Ethan likes the floor,” said Ms Prentiss with a smirk.

“What other three-bedroom apartments do you have listed within this area?” the lady asked of Hallie, who quickly shuffled through her paperwork as the simple question sparked a short but fierce argument between the woman and her, Hallie assumed, daughter-in-law.

“Two bedrooms will be fine, excessive even,” Ms Prentiss complained. “Honestly, Mother—”

Hallie blinked, hiding her surprise.

“—Ethan would be happy if we folded him up to store in the linen cupboard at night like a spare blanket. We should not be choosing an apartment based on his whims, he doesn’t even own an iron.”

“We don’t own an iron,” stated the man. Both women looked at him, Hallie barely holding back a laugh. “I don’t think we own linen either, actually. Do we need a linen cupboard?”

He paused.

“Maybe we should just buy a single room,” he said thoughtfully.

“I will not be staying in a linen cupboard when I come to visit,” said the older woman firmly. “And nor will Diana. Unless you two plan on sharing a room, three is the minimum. Honestly.

She turned away, not seeing the sharp glance that the two younger people shared as she stalked off, banging cupboards in another room as she aggressively examined the place once more.

“Do we tell her?” Ms Prentiss whispered to the man. Hallie felt very much like she’d become invisible.

“It’s getting silly that we haven’t, I told you that,” the man whispered back. “The longer it goes on, the angrier she’s going to be when she finds out.”

Ms Prentiss hummed thoughtfully. “Well, she’s old…”

“Emily!”

“I’m kidding.” She didn’t sound like she was kidding. “I definitely don’t think we should wait until she dies and announce it at her eulogy. That would be silly.”

But she looked wistful.

Hallie coughed politely, both of them looking at her with identical expressions of surprise. They’d clearly forgotten she was there. “Would you like to see smaller apartments?” she offered.

“Do you have one that says, ‘Dear Mom, your children have been knobbing each other for years so sharing a room is hardly an issue’?” Ms Prentiss muttered below her breath. The man choked on a laugh, turning quickly away from them both—and there was a startled crash from the next room.

“You what?” came the shout, two sets of eyes widening in horror.

Hallie began backing up to the door, just in case. This showing was suddenly seeming a lot less straightforward, and she was feeling more than a little confused about the family dynamics on show here.

“How did you hear that?!” Ms Prentiss gasped softly, but the other woman had already appeared in the doorway and was surveying the two standing there, frozen as though they were children awaiting some terrible punishment. Everyone in the room seemed to be holding their breath. In a louder voice, she added, “I mean, what excellent hearing you have considering your advanced age. What’s your secret?”

“Don’t escalate,” muttered the man.

“Bite me,” she replied.

The older woman, one or both of their mothers, was staring, saying nothing. The tension lengthened. Finally, she spoke—not to the young couple, who were standing there looking increasingly nervous, but to Hallie.

“Two bedrooms it is then,” she commanded with the air of someone very used to getting their way. The couple deflated with relief, as though they felt they’d escaped some terrible fate…but with a small flicker of a smile, she added, “Of course, in that case, perhaps we should be discussing a nursery or two…”

 

“So,” said Elizabeth to them on the tense drive to the next apartment. “When did this happen?”

“Approximately or do you want the exact time down to the second?”

Emily.

Spencer hid a smile from the backseat, covering it up with the property listings he was examining. Emily was on a real winning streak today, having been sniping at her mother from the moment Elizabeth had met them at the airport this morning; he knew it was her nerves about this momentous step for all of them, but that didn’t make the ice they were standing on less tentative.

“It’ll be two years next month,” he answered for her to save Emily’s sass. Elizabeth inhaled with shock and he regretted, once more, how long it had taken to tell her. “We didn’t know what to say that wouldn’t sound…”

He trailed off. Everything sounded accusatory.

“You’re not exactly easy to talk to,” said Emily.

Elizabeth thought that that, coming from Emily of all people, was a bit rich.

“Is it serious?” she asked of them, trying to decide herself how she felt about it. Oh, there had been times, especially in Rome, when she’d wondered about them but she’d always figured it for a passing fancy. While neither of the children had ever treated each other as siblings, she’d been sure of their status as firm friends and little more; although, thinking back to how her and Diana had stepped so smoothly from friendship to romance, she realised how reductive that line of thinking was.

Moments later, and realising no one else in the car had deigned to answer her question, she noted how the question itself was also rather silly.

“What am I saying?” she sighed, placing her hand on her forehead and feeling tired and old. “Of course it is. When is anything Spencer does not serious?”

Emily scowled, aiming that scowl at a car indicating too late before merging into the lane she was in, cutting her off. “I do serious things too,” she muttered, her mood souring further. “I got into the FBI, didn’t I? That’s serious.”

“We’re not talking about that,” Elizabeth said bluntly. In her chest, her heart gave a strange and alarming flutter at the reminder. “I wish you’d discussed it with me first, both of you. Honestly, I blame David.”

“You should,” said Emily. “He’s a bad influence.”

“Terrible,” agreed Spencer from the backseat.

Elizabeth, rarely excellent when it came to complex conversations with her children, took the chance to charge forward down a trail of her own.

“So I suppose we should discuss what comes next for you both then,” she said, mind already working fast. Emily gave her a startled look, concerned that she was going to bring up nurseries again, but… “Spencer, what are your views on marriage?”

There was silence from the backseat.

Emily almost swerved into the next lane.

“Are you both consolidating your earnings? What will you do in the event of an unexpected child? Would you prefer we put the apartment into your names jointly instead of mine?”

“Ah,” said Spencer.

Emily was still stuck on ‘marriage’ and shook her head slowly, saying nothing.

Elizabeth eyed them, well aware of the effect of her words. “I see these are all thoughts neither of you have discussed,” she pointed out which was, of course, the entire point of her having said them at all. “Well, while I would never presume to direct the course of your lives—”

Emily giggled a little hysterically at that.

“—I would point out that if you both intend on continuing on in a romantic fashion, these are all conversations you would do very well to have. As it happens, when they become necessary conversations, that is often when it is far too late to be having them.” And then, in typical Elizabeth fashion, she did as she always did when it came to Emily: she overstepped. “While I can’t say I would mind grandchildren, there is Emily’s career to think of—”

“Mother,” said Emily.

Elizabeth looked at her. Spencer pressed his nose to the property listings, peering overtop the paper with just his eyes showing.

“Yes, Emily?” she said.

 “Stay the fuck out of my uterus.”

Opening her mouth to scold her daughter for her tone, Elizabeth puffed up indignantly—

“Oh look,” Spencer said, yanking on the door handle before the car was even pulled into the park, “we’re here!”

“Time is going to move faster than you expect!” Elizabeth called after Emily as they hurried out of the car.

Emily, naturally, ignored her.

 

The apartment, this apartment, Elizabeth hated. The walls were butter yellow, the kitchen was an orange and brown faux-wood nightmare, and the third bedroom—more of an office, really, Spencer said as he examined it with stars in his eyes—had rabbit wallpaper.

“This is a nursery,” said Emily, filled with doubt.

“It’s covered in Balthy!” was Spencer’s delighted exclamation. “Look at her little whiskers!”

He was, Emily realised, completely enraptured with the ugly place.

Thus, seconds after realising this, she was too; she would never ever admit how swayed she was by his opinion, and something like this that he clearly loved this much? Well, that could never be ugly in her eyes.

“Good news, Mom,” she called, striding from the rabbity study. “We’re getting three bedrooms after all.”

“My God,” said Elizabeth in horror, peering past into Spencer’s new kingdom. “It’s repulsive. There’s probably lead paint in the walls!”

“Even better,” said Emily smugly. “It would be positively irresponsible to have children here, so I guess that’s out.”

“Who needs children when you have rabbit wallpaper!” came Spencer’s excited shout from within the study, Elizabeth simply sighing and walking away.

 

Their first night in their new apartment, they slept in the study. Spencer strapped a flashlight to a gallon jug of water since their power wasn’t connected yet, and it lit up the entire room with an eerie blue-yellow-liquid glow that was almost hypnotic to stare up at. He was spending the night in a state of manic excitement about their new home, knowing he was rambling madly but feeling gratified by his life and his love every time an inch of self-consciousness would sneak in only to be chased away once more by an adoring glance from her.

“Am I talking too much?” he asked, bobbing up once more with the blue-yellow light rippling across his flushed skin. She shot him an amused look that was only moderately frustrated. “I feel like I’m talking too much.”

“No, Spence, I love hearing about the seventeen-thousand different forms of lighting humans have used over the last billion years,” she said honestly despite the hyperbole and wry tone that she often found impossible to control. His brow furrowed for a moment, trying to deduce her mood from that. “I’m serious, and also impressed. You multi-task like a demon.”

“I do,” he said smugly, dipping back down between her legs and continuing his lecture. Emily, with a roll of her eyes, let her leg rest on his shoulder and tried to enjoy his attention…

…one of the rabbits was staring at her. She locked eyes with it during a particularly enthusiastic moment for Spencer, concerning him greatly when she twitched away from his tongue.

“Did I hurt you?” he asked, bobbing up once more.

“The rabbit is looking at me,” she admitted.

Spencer looked at the rabbit. So did Emily.

The rabbit looked back.

“Hmmm,” said Spencer. “We could…push a box in front of it?”

Emily was now looking at Spencer. “Are you seriously concerned about covering the rabbit’s eyes so we can have sex?” she asked him. “What about his eight dozen wallpaper cousins? Is it just that particular rabbit you don’t want looking?”

He was grinning now, the weirdo. “That one is my favourite,” he declared with passion. “I don’t want to scar him. I think he has a future, you know? The rest of these rabbits are no-hopers, layabouts. Rabbit peasants. That one…that is a bourgeois bunny.”

Emily gave a snort of laughter, looking back at the Favourite Rabbit and wondering whether she should point out that he was outnumbered by his proletariat peers. Spencer leaned on his elbows, watching her watch the wall.

“This isn’t about the rabbit, is it?” he said, his voice softer now. He could see uncertainty on her face, a nervous kind of musing that usually meant she was getting tangled up about something. With their voices echoing in this so far empty apartment, all their furniture not due to be delivered until the next day and with Kinky their only companion, his words sounded loud and hollow. There was no way she couldn’t have heard him.

She didn’t answer immediately anyway, just lowered her legs flat and laid there still staring at the wall as he crawled up next to her and sat cross-legged by her side. As he scrubbed at his face with the towel they’d laid down to save the sheets, she kept looking. It wasn’t until he laid down and nuzzled close, clean now, that she inhaled damply and confirmed she was close to tears.

He’d known as soon as she’d locked her gaze on the wall that she was trying not to cry. That was always how she was; she couldn’t stand to share her pain.

“You don’t have to look at me,” he kissed into her shoulder, words brushing her now-chilled skin. “But talk to me, Em.”

“I’m emotional about the rabbit’s potential,” she joked thinly. Spencer continued kissing her shoulder before coming to rest with his nose tucked close and eyes closed. She knew he was listening despite this. “Spence, you do realise where we are, right?”

“How could I not realise we’ve fallen into the United States of Rabbit? Look at them, they’re everywhere.”

“Spencer…”

“Sorry, sorry. We’re in…my study, in our apartment, that we own.”

“We have a mortgage,” Emily moaned.

“Well, your mother has a mortgage…we have a low-interest payment plan.”

Spencer.

He studied her carefully, eyes open now and with no danger of upsetting her now the threat of tears had passed. Emily cried like a sneeze; it came on fast and without warning and was gone just as quickly, leaving little sign that it had been there at all except a slight sense that she was embarrassed. “This isn’t about the mortgage,” he guessed. “Or the rabbits.”

“It’s a little bit about the rabbits,” she argued.

“It’s only peripherally about the rabbits. I’m assuming it’s actually about your mother. It’s a pretty valid guess, seeing as I doubt starting at the Academy would bring you to tears.”

Damn him, Emily thought. He was annoyingly correct.

“We have a mortgage on an apartment with a nursery,” she enunciated carefully, in case there was a danger of him mishearing. He seemed unconcerned. “A nursery, Spencer. What do you put in nurseries?”

“Well,” said he, “I’m going to put my desk over there, bookshelves over here. Maybe a nice rug, would you like a nice rug? Also, I could really see a nice armchair in that corner with a lamp, right in the sun from the window…imagine, I’m working busily away, you’re sitting in that chair in a lovely sunbeam holding a—”

“Baby,” said Emily coolly.

“—book,” he finished with a slow blink of surprise. There was a very long moment. “Do…do you want a b-baby?”

His blinking, Emily noted, was speeding up exponentially.

“Do you want a baby?” she countered.

They both stared very intently at each other, neither wanting to answer first. From the hallway, Kinky miaowed furiously, battering at the closed door. Since letting him in was an admission that sex was not going to occur, neither moved to do so.

“Count to three and answer?” Spencer suggested. Emily nodded, heart hammering. “Okay. One…two…three!”

As he spat out a fast and nervous, “Maybe?” Emily exclaimed, “No!” with the venom and exuberance of a person asking for something deadly and scaled to be removed from their vicinity.

“Well,” he said as Emily shrunk back, horrified at their conflicting answers, “that solves that then. I really think a rug would look nice in here. Where are we going to put your desk? I wouldn’t mind sharing.”

Emily shook her head, speechless as all the worries of the last week—that she’d pushed back further and further until they’d felt like they were fighting for priority in her brain—seemed to skate by him without concern. “It’s not that easy!” she spluttered, struggling to find the way to voice how her thoughts were circling the drain on this one. She was viciously torn between repulsed and compelled by the concept of a child, their child, and she had no idea what that meant.

“Why isn’t it?” he asked. “You don’t want a baby. We’re hardly in the position anyway, despite our study-cum-nursery, and I’m not the final say on the matter. I am a voice in a conversation where yours is predominant. As far as I’m concerned, the conversation starts and ends with your wishes. Unless you want to discuss it?”

He didn’t understand, Emily thought helplessly, which wasn’t a surprise. She didn’t understand either.

But she wanted to.

“I’m…” she began, wondering how he’d react to her admitting—after all these years—that she was frightened to her core by something. It was a victory she was sure he’d savour, after fifteen years of her pretending otherwise.

But the rest of the sentence wouldn’t come. All she had to say was that: ‘I’m scared’, but she couldn’t. She couldn’t voice the nightmares of a creature writhing inside her, the nausea that turned her stomach when she imagined the bones and organs and all the weird parts of a human forming from her body, the utter gut-wrenching horror of thinking of childbirth. The baby at the end? That was compelling, exciting even. The process to get there?

All she had to say was ‘I’m scared’.

But she couldn’t.

“It’s fine, Em,” he said, not realising that it wasn’t. “Ignore your mother. That was probably her revenge for not telling her we’re together, she’s just trying to get under your skin. You don’t need to worry about whether I have what I want exactly how we are—just the two of us.” He beamed. It was a happy smile. The knot in her stomach loosened. “I’m too selfish to want to share my heart with anyone but you right now.”

She smiled, letting herself relax into his arms. It was a non-issue, she told herself. The nightmares would fade, they were just the stress of the big move to DC, starting at the Academy, the paperwork that came with the apartment…they’d fade.

And when they faded, Spencer would still be here and always would be.

“No baby,” she said with relief.

“No baby,” he confirmed. “Let’s focus on being kickass agents first, hey?”

And that, he thought, was that.

 

They began at the Academy together. It wasn’t as confronting as they’d worried it would be; the theory was all as familiar to them as the bedtime stories they’d told each other as kids, probably because after London their bedtime stories had become the content of their current lessons. David Rossi, they realised, had most definitely put them on the path to this place and, what was worse, he knew it. They’d both flown through the preliminary testing to get here in the first place; they both now flew through the work once they were here. The few areas in which Spencer was certain he’d struggle—anything physical—he was surprised to find he only needed to adjust to before excelling, especially in close combat where it became apparent that those classes Emily had dragged him to after the accident, years ago, continued to pay off for him.

“Told you so,” she said smugly afterwards as he bragged to her. He allowed her this moment; she’d earned it.

Emily, meanwhile, loved it all. She loved the weapons classes. She loved the theory. She loved the people she was learning beside; she loved the Academy; she loved the feeling of being part of something bigger than herself. Sometimes, at night, she smiled to think how horrified John would be to see her here, working for the ‘Man’, but she never felt like she was betraying herself. John had never understood who she was anyway and, as she sat in Rossi’s office one day after class rambling to him about everything she was learning while he listened proudly, she saw a picture framed on his shelf behind his desk and knew she was home.

 

“Did you know,” she told Spencer that night as they were shopping together, Spencer packing the cart as she pushed it along and battled the wonky wheel, “Dave still has our picture.”

“What picture?” asked Spencer, holding up two sticks of antiperspirant for her to choose between before returning the loser to the shelf.

“The one we gave him back in London. Blackbird and Fiver, except Blackbird is made of swords. I think I drew that.”

Spencer chuckled, reaching for toothpaste. She let him pick that. He had Opinions on oral hygiene. “You definitely did. I wrote the caption though.”

“Come visit, Love Blackbird and Fiver,” they both repeated together, Spencer flushing with pleasure at the memory.

“What a goof,” Emily said. Secretly, she was chuffed. In that framed drawing he displayed so proudly at work, Rossi was declaring that they’d impacted him just as much as he’d impacted them—although she hoped he never told anyone just who ‘Blackbird and Fiver’ were, Gideon especially. “Oh, leave that.”

Spencer stopped, fingers brushing the box of tampons he’d been about to pick up.

“Unless you need them,” she sassed, pushing the cart past. “Don’t give me that look, if you trust me with anything, trust me with knowing how many tampons we need in the household.”

“But—” he began. She stopped the cart and stared at him.

“Spencer?” she asked warningly. He looked guilty, confirming her suspicion. “We talked about this. What did we talk about?”

“No calculating your cycles,” he said with a woeful expression. “I can’t help it. I love math, and I also fret about your health, you know this. How can I be expected not to combine the two?”

She was sure he was kidding.

 

He wasn’t. A week later, she walked past the bathroom only to see him frowning at their small bathroom cabinet. A cursory peek around his bare shoulder, her fingers trailing on the towel slung around his skinny waist, revealed that his frown was for the still-sealed packet of tampons which he’d bought anyway because he had a system and it took more than a small deflection from her to break that system. Emily resented his shopping system. It meant that if she got bored with her favourite cereal without warning, there was a danger that he’d just keep buying it out of habit until they had honey oats coming out of their ears.

“I told you not to buy them,” she told him, taking it from him and sliding it in alongside the other five untouched boxes that were starting to clutter the lower shelf. “I have enough to supply a small choir by this point.”

“Choirs are unisex,” he said thoughtfully. “I thought you had a handle on this. Shouldn’t the pill be helping? Are you in pain again? Spotting? Cramping?”

This, she said with a wordless scowl, was not a conversation she wanted to have again, but he was relentless.

“I’m irregular, kid, deal with it,” she said moodily, stalking away. He followed, still naked except for the towel and oozing second-hand anxiety as he fretted about her hormone levels.

“It’s stress,” he declared, watching her pour orange juice into a glass. She eyeballed him. He ignored the warning. “You’re stressed, aren’t you? Or is your diet? Maybe we should make a meal plan…I should check your vitamin intake…”

He wandered off, muttering to himself and still naked.

“Christ,” Emily said. All because of a box of tampons, now she was going to have to deal with weeks of him calculating vitamins, unless she headed him off at the curve.

Resigned, she reached for the phone and called the doctor.

 

Spencer was sitting his in—now set-up—office, delighted by the way the sun was falling on the new armchair he’d set up in what he now thought of as ‘Emily’s corner’, when she walked in wearing her motorbike leathers and looking resigned. When he smiled a greeting at her, she handed him paperwork. An odd greeting, but they’d certainly been odder, and so he didn’t question it as he unfolded that paperwork and read it.

“There,” she declared. “Not pregnant, not sick, not vitamin deficient. Now, will you leave me and my whacky reproductive organs alone? We like to keep people guessing, okay?”

“Hmm,” he said, studying her bloodwork. “So it is stress.”

It was always a delight, he thought afterwards, to discover just how many languages Emily knew how to swear in.

 

It was midway through their six months of training, during a rainy night home, when Spencer realised that this, what he had right now? He’d never been happier. They were home, together. Winter pressed in outside but in here they were warm and content. The apartment was theirs, they were easily making payments on the mortgage, their training was going splendidly. He was tired from the training on top of the profiling classes he was also taking, as well as working alongside Gideon on being inducted into the BAU once his training was complete, but he was succeeding. Their careers seemed set; their home was filled with second-hand furniture and bargain finds, but it was comfortable and the bar heater clicked softly as it warmed the room they’d closed themselves into.

Emily twitched against his chest. It was a drowsy twitch and she made a strange, shocked noise as it faded, eyelids flickering. She was asleep, or very close. He lowered his pen, looking away from the homework he was working his way through and examining her carefully. Her sweaty hair still pulled back, her FBI windbreaker scented lightly with gunpowder. She’d come straight home from the firing range, through the rain and the wind to reach him, and trudged in exhausted. Not even making it to the shower she’d planned as she’d kicked off her shoes and pants before succumbing to that exhaustion and crawling atop him. Now, here she was, a sneeze away from fast asleep with her bare legs tangled with his under the light blanket.

He’d never once expected to be this happy, her weight on him a reminder of how lucky he was. He was loved and safe and, looking at her, he knew there was nothing he couldn’t face so long as she was beside him.

Smiling with no one to see it, he returned to his paperwork. The heater clicked some more. The rain lashed the windows.

Emily twitched again, lost to some dream he trusted was as hopeful as their reality.

Chapter Text

Elizabeth, Emily decided, had put an evil eye onto them with her ominous declaration of ‘Time is going to move faster than you expect!’ she’d shouted after them. Before she’d said that, time had been dribbling by at a satisfying rate. Years felt like years, days were productive, weeks were perfectly spaced. Emily knew how long until something would happen, and she was never surprised by the movement of the calendar.

After?

She lay down one evening to enjoy the last gasp of winter, warm under the thick duvet with Spencer cuddled contentedly to her side, and got up midway through summer to find Spencer getting dressed for their graduation.

“You’re going to be late,” he warned her with an over-excited smile.

“Where did the last six months go?” she gasped, shocked. How were they graduating?! Hadn’t they just started at the Academy?

She didn’t feel ready to be a field agent at all.

But Spencer just laughed and crouched to take her hands in his. “We’re going to be splendid,” he promised her. “You’ll see. Now hurry up!”

Resolutely, Emily decided that this wouldn’t happen again. She was going to cling to time now—no more letting it get away from her.

 

Spencer was the happiest he’d ever been. He took to work at the BAU like a duck to water, stepping from the Academy into a world he felt like he’d been born to be immersed into. Gideon encouraged this fascination, swooping him out from under Rossi’s wing and offering him tantalising glimpses into the work they’d done to reach this point. Rossi, accepting this, stepped back and for a while Spencer found himself solely under the guidance of one Jason Gideon.

Emily, similarly, seemed perfectly content. At least, she did the few times their schedules brought them together. His was erratic, swooping him away for days as a time as he travelled about America wedged into the backseat of the Bureau-issued SUV while Gideon or Rossi drove. Hers plodded along, keeping her busy with the relatively mundane activities of a fledging field agent still locked onto desk duty while it was decided where she would be most useful. Her language skills, far from being a boon quite yet, had her working over endless communication intels and translation work, which were mind-numbing and, she thought a little crabbily, far more suited to Spencer than her. But it was a first step towards more, and she accepted it with grace.

She missed him though. Their beds were empty more often then not now, with Spencer wherever the hell he was in America in a shared hotel room staring up at the roof and wishing she was beside him, and her curled at home in the bed they’d bought together, her arm hooked around his pillow to pull it—and his scent—close. During the day, she didn’t mind the distance so much, not even when she was home alone. They both liked their space as much as they liked being with each other, but the nights grated. Despite this, they were happy this was the direction their lives had taken and, besides, they had all their lives to spend together; sacrificing some time at the beginning of their careers seemed perfectly acceptable.

Slowly, and separately, they began to prove themselves.

 

The work was beginning to pile up on the desks of the BAU as they continued to exceed the closure rate of every other department. Spencer would never know this because Gideon wasn’t given to growing egos, and Rossi was under instruction not to tell him, but this was in no small part due to his assistance. Soon, the work was too much for even three dedicated agents to handle. Another was needed.

Spencer thought of Emily immediately, of course, as he sat in the corner of their side office listening to Gideon and Rossi discussing the future of the BAU. They were no longer in the basement and hadn’t been for years before Spencer had joined them, replacing Max Ryan with Spencer’s quiet aptitude, but adding another desk and person to this office to bring their team up to four would tighten the space they had.

“Maybe the Bureau will let us take two cars to cases now,” Rossi said wistfully. “Four men in the one car for cross-country trips? Lord save me.”

Spencer looked down. Maybe he shouldn’t mention Emily…

“Anyway, I think we should petition for a newbie,” Rossi was finishing, Spencer’s ears burning as he listened while still poking at a map he was studying. Geographical profiling was new, a fledging science, and he was at the forefront of it. Right now, his maps and statistical overlays took up a considerable amount of their limited space, with an entire filing cabinet wedged in between him and the wall dedicated to the practice. “We just got rid of Ryan, we don’t need to replace him with another crusty oldie.”

Gideon stared at Rossi. “Are you calling us old?”

Rossi waved a hand around his ear in some odd gesture, Reid now looking up too and staring at him with much the same expression as Gideon. Those two, Rossi thought, were spending way too much time around each other.

“If the shoe fits, maybe it’s past it,” he suggested, earning a frown. “I’m just saying, Jason. We brought Reid in and the kid is a godsend—”

Reid beamed.

“—He’s revolutionising how we work this place. We need brains like that, new and sharp and, most importantly, not like ours. Neither of us would have figured out geo-whatical profiling.”

“Geographical,” Spencer said happily, still riding the high of being complimented.

“Whatever,” said Rossi. Spencer deflated a little. “We want more of that. And what I see in this room is two big brains, one handsome devil, and nothing to compliment them. We need new blood, something sharp-edged. An entirely new way of thinking. Also, it’s exhausting being the only one with people skills. I mean, Reid has people skills, somehow—I assume Elizabeth—but he’s so damn nerdy I’m scared he’s going to get bullied out of his lunch money if we leave him in a precinct alone.”

“And you have someone in mind, I assume?” asked Gideon.

Spencer tensed. Was he thinking of…?

He hardly dared to hope.

“Of course,” said Rossi. “You get your pet, I want mine. And I can promise you, mine is excellent.”

 

Spencer was alone in the office when there was a polite but serious knock at the door. He looked up, blinking to find himself staring into the steady gaze of one Special Agent Aaron Hotchner, who looked only mildly surprised to see him. For a moment, they studied each other.

Hotchner broke the startled silence first.

“I thought you disliked the inherently coercive values of law enforcement?” he asked.

Spencer gestured to the paperwork around him, the maps and teetering piles of data and liberally scrawled upon lecture pads of mathematical values, pulling from Elizabeth’s long-ago lessons on political manoeuvring as he answered with a glib, “Turns out all the government needed to tempt me was more math.”

Hotchner, with a slow blink, began to laugh. It was a surprising sound from him, warm and soft and very approachable. He was, Spencer realised, just as Rossi had said: much friendlier when not being sidelined.

“Well, your reputation precedes you,” Hotchner said when he was finished laughing, reaching up and ruffling his dark hair with a self-conscious hand. Spencer spotted the glint of a wedding ring as he did so, his floppy hair settling back almost immediately after he’d roughed it as though determined to remain presentable. “The Bureau is lucky to have you, if you’re half as incredible as Elizabeth makes you sound.”

Spencer, quite taken by this, knew he was blushing. He mumbled a thank you, too well trained by Elizabeth’s army of tutors to deny a sincere compliment, and then remembered where he was.

“Oh, was there something you needed?” he asked. “Rossi and Gideon are off talking to the Section Chief about a new recruit, I believe. They should be back soon if you require them.”

“Ah,” said Hotchner, pausing. “Well, yes. I know. I believe I’m here for an interview.” Spencer frowned, confused. It took him a moment too long to realise, and Hotchner added gently, “For the position. Your new recruit.”

“Oh,” said Spencer.

Despite not daring to hope, his heart sunk. He was suddenly very glad he hadn’t mentioned it to Emily.

“A rousing recommendation, I’m sure,” Hotchner said.

Spencer, still quietly mourning the barest sliver of a chance to have Emily’s desk beside his, didn’t think to answer.

“I probably won’t even get the job,” lied Hotchner, who knew he had it but was probing to see just why Spencer seemed so crestfallen. “If you’re lucky.”

“Mmm,” agreed Spencer. “Wait, what?”

But, eyebrows raised, Hotchner didn’t have time to answer because Rossi and Gideon were back.

“Hotch, my boy!” boomed Rossi, earning a slow stare from all three of the other men in the small office. “One question before we begin.”

“Sir?” queried Hotchner, no longer as casual as he’d been with the younger-than-him Spencer but standing at attention with his expression sharp.

“Do you snore?” asked Rossi.

There was silence.

“No…sir,” Hotchner answered eventually, managing to make his answer sound completely sincere.

“Excellent,” said Rossi. “You’ve got the job, and I dibs driving with you. At least if you nap on the way I won’t be certain there’s a maddened man with a chainsaw in the passenger seat. That can be Reid’s pleasure from now on. Now, where do we put your desk?”

“Fascinating interviewing technique,” said Gideon.

“Thanks,” said Rossi. “I thought so too.”

 

Emily looked up that night as Spencer arrived home with the queerest expression on his face.

“What’s up with you?” she asked him, wiggling over to let him onto the couch with her. He flopped onto her lap, lying there like a thoughtful cat as she patted the tension out of his broad shoulders. “You look pensive.”

“We have a new team member,” said Spencer. “It’s Aaron Hotchner.”

Emily was silent for a moment.

“You should definitely put a stuffed cow on his desk,” she said finally with a sharp grin.

“I definitely should not,” was Spencer’s quick response. “Our desks are inches apart. I really don’t want to remind him of that.”

“That’s fair. Why are you looking so thoughtful about him? He’s a good agent, from what I’ve heard. A bit hot-headed but, hey, who isn’t? Aside from you, anyway.”

“I’m not sure,” said Spencer. “I just don’t know what’s going to happen. I’ve never worked with someone like him before.”

“Oh, I’m sure it will be fine. It’s not like you have to be friends with the man, you just have to work with him. You’ll figure it out.”

 

It came as a surprise to all of them, Emily included, as months passed with one Aaron Hotchner sitting at the desk that was exactly one inch away from Spencer’s—they’d measured—and what happened between he and Spencer was this:

They became firm friends.

 

Meanwhile, Emily had been given a new partner. He was her senior by six years and, initially, entirely unimpressed by her abilities.

This changed very quickly.

“Well, Prentiss,” said Sean McAllister, coming up behind her at the firing range and waiting until she’d emptied her clip and was bringing her target back before speaking. “I think I misjudged you.”

“People usually do,” she told him coolly. “It’s the mark of an unimaginative mind, you know.”

McAllister grinned, nodding at her target. The shots were grouped in a neat circle in the centre.

“I don’t make the same mistake twice, no matter how unimaginative I am,” he said. “I won’t misjudge you again. Glad to have a shot like that by my side.”

Emily muttered something unflattering in French.

Without missing a beat, McAllister responded in the same fashion. They eyed each other with a wary respect, Emily breaking first as she turned back to her target.

“Do you have any pointers?” she tossed back over her shoulder.

McAllister watched her before answering. It would be a long time before she figured what his calculating gaze was working to discern. Finally, he answered, “You’re a better shot then me already,” as though that answered her question.

It didn’t.

“I know,” she said. It was entirely without ego, simply a statement of fact. Emily was very aware that she was a better shot than almost every single agent in the unit she was assigned to, bar one. “But that doesn’t mean you don’t have anything to teach me.”

Oh yes, McAllister decided at that moment, this one, eventually, would do nicely—once she got some years under her belt, that was.

 

Elizabeth’s evil eye, as Emily had finally admitted to Spencer she was calling it, continued casting its ill magic down upon them. Six months passed, followed by another six, followed by twelve more. Before either of them knew it, it was fast approaching two years since they’d joined the FBI and all the eyes that had been on them since their graduation, waiting for time to prove their worth, were now beginning to emerge as offers of interest. Spencer was regularly headhunted, something that he shared freely with Emily as they joked about the alphabet soup quickly filling his email inbox. Nothing could tempt him away from the unique environment of the BAU, however, or his firm loyalty to Rossi and Gideon and his now cemented friendship with Aaron, so Emily wasn’t worried.

Emily, on the other hand, hadn’t told Spencer any of the offers she’d drawn in. She suspected, potentially correctly, that he’d encourage her to take the offers on without thinking through the repercussions—repercussions such as the fact that none of the offers were for any positions within DC. There was a posting in the Midwest she politely turned down, and another in New York that was pushier and not at all put off by the three times she’d already declined it. The problem was, no matter how tempted she was by a higher position with new risks and rewards to explore, she loved their messy, weird apartment and the small, satisfying lives they were living in there. She adored Spencer, she treasured her cat, she found nowhere more calming then her soft armchair in the corner of the rabbit study as Spencer worked away busily at his desk, and she’d even come to enjoy the twice-monthly dinners with Aaron and his wife that was all the socialising either of them had time for these days. Haley, while she seemed distant and suspicious of Emily for reasons Emily couldn’t fathom, was polite enough, but Aaron was a fascinating man to learn about outside of the workplace.

She also, although she’d never tell him, was more than a little fond of her now-easy partnership with Sean. She knew one day, likely soon, he’d move on to follow his own path onward and upward, but until then she was in no hurry to replace their familiar partnership with something unknown and potentially nowhere near as satisfying. But it was Spencer keeping her there, and she didn’t resent that one iota even as he sunk further and further into his work and their conversations turned almost wholly towards the Bureau. It didn’t really matter. After all, she didn’t really have much going on outside of work either, so it was natural that that was their one point of common ground these days.  

Put simply, she’d been with Spencer longer then she’d been without him by now as they rapidly approached five years together on top of their fifteen years prior as firm friends, and she couldn’t see anything coming between them that would overshadow the weight of that time. One day soon, she was certain, they’d look away from work and see each other again, standing beside each other just as they always had. And she’d always been patient where Spencer was concerned, so she was perfectly content to keep turning offers down while she waited exactly where he’d know to find her when that time came.

 

They turned twenty-eight within weeks of each other and wondered where the time had went.

“We’re still young,” Spencer said in an uncertain tone. “Right?”

“Right,” Emily said, much surer than he was. She still felt young, after all. And when she looked in the mirror, she still looked young. He certainly hadn’t aged at all. They were celebrating their birthdays in style, naked and drunk in the living room on a soft rug she’d splurged on the year prior, and there was no doubt they could keep this celebration going all night until they collapsed from exhaustion. That was certainly something that came with being young, she thought proudly, glancing down to see whether he was interested in continuing for another round.

He was.

See? she thought smugly.

Young.

But when he rolled to meet her, he winced.

“What’s wrong with you?” she teased him.

“Pulled something in my back at work,” he complained, trying to arch to work the kink out of his spine. “It’s been bothering me for days.”

Uneasily, they looked at each other.

“I’m sure it’s nothing,” Emily declared.

“Sure,” Spencer agreed nervously.

 

The next day, Spencer woke cheerful. His back no longer hurt, he’d had an entirely satisfying night, and they still had two days off together to fully and completely enjoy.

Emily, however, whimpered from the bed.

“Are you okay?” he asked, alarmed.

“Stop talking so loud,” she moaned into her pillow. “God, my head. Do we have a bucket?”

“I thought you didn’t ever get hungover? You never have before.”

“Spencer, bucket.”

He went and got the bucket.

“I think we might be getting old,” he whispered to Kinky as he jogged back through the apartment, holding said bucket. Kinky merely twitched his greying tail, sleeping peacefully in the sun from the window. “Don’t tell Emily. She’ll panic.”

Kinky, of course, said nothing.

 

Emily began acting strangely a month after their birthdays. Spencer, once he’d noticed this, couldn’t help but keep noticing more evidence of this, becoming more and more alarmed to realise that it was likely that she’d been acting like this for a long time and he’d been too preoccupied with helping Rossi compile manuals of profiling for Academy training to notice.

Emily, when he queried her about the things he’d noticed, rolled her eyes at him and told him he was worrying about nothing, before expertly diverting his attention away by pulling out one of his half-finished manuals and coaxing him into a conversation about the specifics of his current chapter. This was a very effective tactic to distract him. Spencer could talk about his work for days, until completely everything else vanished from his mind. And, as expected, it wasn’t until she’d left on a week-long conference that he even realised he’d never gotten an actual answer to his questions.

The next day, he was ruminating.

“What’s wrong with you?” Aaron asked, glancing over at him. “You’ve barely written a million words today.”

He smiled to show he was joking, but Spencer didn’t return the gesture. Just shrugged and swung his office chair in lazy half-circles, unable to spin it wildly in circles without accidentally kicking Aaron. They’d been, thus far, unsuccessful in petitioning for a larger office, although Rossi seemed certain it would be soon.

“Something up with you and Emily?” Aaron pressed an hour later, after he’d spent some time watching Spencer surreptitiously out the corner of his eye.

“No, not really,” said Spencer honestly. “It’s just…”

Aaron set his pen down and waited. Rossi and Gideon weren’t in that day and the office was quiet. They could afford the distraction.

“She hasn’t come to dinner lately,” Aaron pointed out. “Haley’s missed her company.”

That was untrue, as Aaron knew. Haley resented that chose to talk about work with Aaron instead of literally anything else with her, seeing it as further evidence that she’d never escape the Bureau stealing her husband’s attention. But Spencer didn’t know that, and Aaron didn’t offer the information.

“She’s been working,” Spencer said automatically.

Aaron continued waiting attentively.

“She’s very busy,” Spencer added, fiddling now with his pen. Aaron nodded along, clearly expecting more. Lost, Spencer gestured helplessly. “It’s just, I guess…”

More expectant silence.

“It’s silly…”

“I think the silly things are often the things we tend to bottle up the most,” said Aaron quietly. “It’s never the big things I fight with Haley about. Always socks or how I put the milk in the fridge or the way I answer her calls. I guess that’s because we don’t treat them with the same importance, so they never get resolved like the bigger things do.”

That made sense, Spencer thought.

“She has two cell phones,” he said.

“So do you,” Aaron pointed out sensibly. “We all do. Work phone, personal phone.”

“Yes, but she has my work phone’s number,” Spencer said slowly, seeing Aaron frown. “Of course, I gave it to her straight away. Because something could go wrong and I need her to be able to contact me wherever I am, right?”

“Right.”

Spencer looked down at his own cell, sitting silent on his desk. His work phone. His personal phone was in his bag hanging on the back of his chair, still accessible if he needed it—if he was on a case and missed her late at night, for example, a time when he wouldn’t want to use his Bureau issued device to make a personal call. Unless she was on her own assignment, that was, because those had been increasingly common lately like they’d never been before and Emily, unlike him, left her personal phone at home in her bedside drawer when she went on them

And she’d never given him her work number.

“Never mind,” he said, unwilling to voice it in case it made it seem something it wasn’t. “It’s silly.”

Aaron didn’t say anything for a while, finally settling on a soft, “Here if you need to talk,” that Spencer appreciated, even if he knew he’d never take his friend up on the offer.

 

The next week, Spencer was preparing a load of washing to take down to their building’s laundry room, pausing over Emily’s work shirts.

“How did the conference go?” he called out to her as she passed by the bedroom on a mission to make a sandwich. He kept his voice light, curious.

“Oh, you know,” she called back. “As uneventful as they always are. I think I slept through ninety per cent of it.”

“Oh,” said Spencer.

The shirt in his hands, which smelled familiar and comforting despite the old scent of sweat—he’d never really found her sweat to be an offensive smell to him, which he supposed was because he was utterly biased to love everything about her—lost a lot of that comforting familiarity in the face of this answer, marked as it was with the tell-tale traces of acrid gunpowder.

Throwing the shirt into the basket, he wandered out and forced a smile when he found her licking the butter knife free of peanut butter.

“Guess you’ll be hanging for a visit to the firing range then,” he said, already feeling guilty for not being upfront with his questioning. What was wrong with him? Emily wouldn’t lie to him…

“You’re not kidding,” she replied with an easy smile. “It’s been that long since I fired my gun, I’ve probably forgotten which end goes bang. McAllister will have my ass.”

“Oh,” said Spencer again.

He walked away before he could ask anything else, certain now that he wasn’t ready to know.

 

Four months after this, Emily was shot for the first time.

She’d been working the case undercover for five months now, McAllister having recommended her for the operation before he’d accepted an overseas position and left the Bureau. She hadn’t had time to miss him yet, as busy as she’d been with this new work and new learning curve. It wasn’t deep cover, but that didn’t matter; it was still more exciting than anything else she’d done before, and she was good at it. Good enough that her superiors had commented on her ability to step without pause from one alias to another without faltering, never blurring the names she took on with her own identity as Special Agent Emily Prentiss.

She never admitted to them that that was because, as far as she was concerned, the aliases had nothing to do with Emily Prentiss. They were wholly separate. She didn’t even tell Spencer about the work, because there was no need to; he existed on a different plane from it, and she refused to bring those planes into alignment.

Her superior officer was her emergency contact, not Spencer, and it was he who was standing outside the hospital room on this day as the doctor studied the bullet wound and assessed whether it would need surgery. Spencer was in Seattle, visiting their mothers.

Not once did it occur to Emily to call him. His number wasn’t programmed into her work cell and, although she’d memorised it, it would be alien and uncomfortable to bring him here. Aligning those planes.

She’d tell him when he came home, she decided.

“I think we may actually be able to simply close this with stitches,” the doctor decided after far more prodding then Emily felt was needed. “It’s quite a clean wound. You’ll need to see your own doctor to establish your work readiness, however.”

Emily looked at her superior, who raised his eyebrows at her beseeching look.

“You heard him, Prentiss,” was the short-tempered response. “Until I get an all-clear, you’re benched.”

“But it’s a clean wound,” she protested. “It doesn’t even hurt.”

The doctor leaned close and touched it.

“Ow,” she hissed.

And that was the end of that. Emily flew home grouchy and sore, knowing she was going to an empty apartment and no prospect of work to distract her. Her boss, in a show of what she supposed he thought was support and what she resented entirely, hadn’t even given her paperwork to keep her occupied until her assessment.

 

Spencer, meanwhile, was having an interesting visit. Diana had finally forgiven him for ‘joining the fascists’, as she’d put it when he’d invited her to their graduation from the Academy and she’d resolutely refused, but Elizabeth had never really given up on what he knew Emily called her ‘evil eye topics’ and now she’d recruited Diana.

“You work too much,” she was fretting at him today. They were sitting in a park, enjoying the warm weather together and Spencer had bought them both ice cream cones to enjoy. “When do you have time together?”

“We have plenty of time together,” he said idly. “Mom, seriously. My relationship is perfectly fine.”

He didn’t mention the two phones; nor did he mention the lying.

“Not just time together, but time together,” Diana pressed. “Romantic dinners, poetry nights, visiting somewhere you’ve never gone before. Picking a restaurant at random from the phone book and going adventuring. Silly, important, focused times, my boy, those are the glue that holds together all the every day small moments and keeps them from drifting into mediocrity.”

Spencer, watching a small girl of five or six with long, dark hair being taught by her father to fly a kite, didn’t answer.

“I knew your father and I were in trouble when I realised it had been months since we’d had sex on a whim,” said Diana suddenly. Spencer choked on his ice cream, spluttering and spraying his shirt with double fudge. “Oh, we had sex, of course, but it was hardly romantic.”

“Mom,” he wheezed.

She continued blithely.

“Once it becomes procedural and automatic, that’s a trouble sign. You have to watch out for that. Intimacy is the canary in the coal mine of many relationships, and too few people notice when it stops singing. Is the sex procedural, Spencer?”

She looked at him.

He was still choking on his ice cream.

“Of course,” she added, “procedural sex still successfully created you, so I must admit it wasn’t all bad. Babies do not care whether the relationship is stable or rocky, they come regardless and often when they’re least wanted. You, of course, were wanted dearly.”

Spencer, unable to form words, merely whimpered.

“Emily doesn’t want kids,” Spencer coughed, hoping this would take attention away from the abysmal concept of discussing his sex life with his mother.

“Doesn’t she? I’m not surprised. Ever since you made her watch Alien as a small thing, she was always so fierce about the concept. I’m afraid you shot yourself in the foot there.”

“I don’t want kids either,” Spencer disagreed, unable to stop from glancing back at the little girl and her loving father.

Diana, of course, missed very little.

“Your wishes matter too,” she said quietly. “What do you want?”

“Emily to be happy,” he answered automatically.

“And is she happy?”

That, he realised, he didn’t know how to answer. She had been, the last time he’d checked, but time had been moving so fast lately—when had that been? When they’d been twenty-three? Twenty-five? It certainly hadn’t been at twenty-eight, he knew that for sure.

“Are you happy?” Diana asked.

He was, he thought, under all the uncertainty. He definitely, absolutely was.

But…

“I wish I knew why she doesn’t want kids,” he confessed. “Sometimes, I wish we could…”

Diana was surprised by this admittance. “She won’t tell you?”

“No,” he answered, surprised to think about that. “I…I don’t think I asked?”

The look he received as an answer to that said all he needed to hear about what his mother thought about that.

“Emily does not offer information freely,” she said in the same tone she’d used to scold him with when he’d been very small. “You, of all people, should know this about her. You must ask her these questions to have her answer them, she won’t simply gossip about her deepest, most confusing desires. The why is very important, Spencer. Never forget that. If you stop asking her the whys of things, she’ll stop telling you—and then you’ll be in far, far more trouble than even procedural sex, I can promise you. She’ll read that as disinterest and pull away to protect herself. She always has. It’s all of the trouble her and Elizabeth have faced, with Elizabeth refusing to ask why Emily does things and Emily assuming that refusal means Elizabeth doesn’t care about her. I sincerely doubt she’s broken that thought pattern, and it has a deeply insidious nature. Are you listening?”

Spencer was.

“Don’t worry, Mom,” he reassured her. “We’ll figure things out. We always do.”

“You’ll ask her the why? No matter how busy you are, how small the everyday conversations feel?”

Spencer promised, “Absolutely. There’s nothing to worry about. We’re fantastic.”

 

Of course, when he returned home to find a sulky Emily with what was clearly a bullet wound in her arm, all thoughts of procedural worries or asking about whys were promptly forgotten in the face of what he considered the much larger issue of Emily putting herself in danger and failing to tell him. It wasn’t their first fight, or even their meanest, but it did cement one thing absolutely.

Emily would now more fiercely hold the secrets of her work to her chest to avoid seeing him that worried about her again, unable to verbalise how much it hurt her to see him frantic like that; this time, Spencer knew she was hiding it.

He assumed, of course, that it was because she didn’t want to fight, and he never thought to ask her why she’d never told him in the first place.

 

And time continued getting away from them.

Chapter Text

Nineteen ninety-nine brought many things with it. In no particular order, the year contained the following events of interest, none of which were large on a global scale but all which mattered very much to the space contained in a small apartment in the heart of DC with a greying ginger cat and study that was home to one Favourite Rabbit (and many of his wallpaper cousins):

1) A bout of the flu

2) A hidden hare

3) A retirement party

4) A rash decision

5) A grim reaper

6) And a lost cat.

 

Each of these things, small and quickly forgotten on their own and yet dangerously cumulative, moved both Emily and Spencer onto a fast-track to one final item in that list. That item was this:

1) The resolute end of Fiver and Blackbird.

But that was later.

 

It began with the party.

 

They weren’t quite twenty-nine yet, although it was fast approaching, faster then either of them liked to think about. Indianapolis, Indiana, 1988 had finally caught up on one David Rossi. Another blood-soaked case, another home with screaming children left standing bereft in their night clothes, another haunting memory. He couldn’t do it again. Not the late nights of circling the drain, not the charm bracelet he kept close, not the haunting the ghosts of the dead parents. Aaron and Spencer had proven to be stabilising influences that had kept him in his position at the BAU for longer then he would have without them, but even they couldn’t delay the inevitable.

David Rossi retired early and the Bureau let him go, leaving the three men left behind in their small office to rattle about feeling like marbles in a packing container. Far from feeling crushed in together, now they had entirely too much space to fill. Ironically, two weeks after Rossi announced his impending retirement—requesting a party which he had no idea would bring about the disastrous early meeting of one Emily Prentiss and Jason Gideon and the eventual breaking of at least two hearts—they were called to a meeting where they were informed that the BAU, no longer a fledging unit, would be given its own space on the sixth floor with Jason Gideon as their Unit Chief. A momentous promotion. It felt empty without Rossi there alongside them.

They were also to add more people to their team. Once more, Spencer thought of Emily. But she had been so elusive lately, so focused on her own work—was she even interested in the BAU anymore? Besides, before he could say something, things had moved too fast. Two new recruits were added. Devon Wright, who even then Spencer thought felt transitory, flimsy, provisional, and one Special Agent Derek Morgan.

Morgan, Spencer thought, was a stayer.

 

Emily was uneasy. This was that plane alignment again, she thought as she wall-flowered against the wall of Rossi’s modest townhouse and watched the people she didn’t really know mill about her. There was a glass of red wine in her hand and it wasn’t her first. It was amusing, she was finding, how she could walk without fear into any situation where her life was in literal danger, but being at a party with Spencer’s co-workers had her trembling with anxiety and stress-drinking to stop from slipping out and away. Hers and Spencer’s planes were aligning, and she was sure she’d embarrass him or slip up somehow.

“You look neurotic,” said a deep voice by her side, almost startling her through a gaudy pot plant. She turned. Aaron examined her solemnly with those eyes that saw everything. “Where’s Reid?”

She stared.

“Spencer,” Aaron corrected with a small smile. It had become a joke among their small group of four how uncomfortable Emily and Haley felt hearing their partner and husband respectively referred to as ‘Reid’ and ‘Hotch’. Haley had often said she worried about the day she kissed Aaron goodbye only for it to be Hotch who returned home from work that night and forever-after. Until she’d said that, Emily had never been worried about Spencer becoming Reid. Now?

Now she worried about a lot of things where Spencer was concerned.

“David is getting him absolutely plastered the last I checked,” Emily stated dully, the wine deadening her ability to emote her voice to a correct level of ‘fine’. “He seems happy.”

“Indeed,” said Aaron. They stood in silence, watching the crowd. There really was a crowd on this night; Rossi had lived an excellent life, it was true, with plenty of reason to celebrate every stage of it with the people he was surrounded with. Emily was pretty certain there were some minor to middling celebrities in this gathering. If the man ever wrote a book about his life, he’d be rich.

“You’re not happy though,” said Aaron even quieter as she saw a server wandering towards them—a server, she thought wildly with a hiccupped laugh, maybe the man was already rich!—and drained her glass to exchange for another. He laid a hand on her elbow and Emily, trained from birth to respond to manners such as his, allowed him to guide her out of the crowd and into the relative privacy of the small, walled garden. Some partygoers were out here, but Aaron dispelled them with a glance. They scattered back inside. The door closed behind them, shutting the sound of music in. It was cold out here.

Emily gulped her wine until Aaron took the glass and set it beside a statue of a heron.

They stared intently at the heron for a moment before either of them spoke.

“Rossi has fuck-awful taste in statues,” Emily declared.

“Do you want to talk?” asked Aaron at the exact same moment.

Emily did not.

“I’m sorry,” she said. She truly was. Their acrimony with each other had died down in the wake of Aaron and Spencer’s friendship, but not to the point where she was excited to air her relationship laundry with the man. Besides, she and Spencer were happy together. Truly. “But not really.”

“Understandable. Do you want water?”

She did, but not more than she wanted to just stand here in silence with this man she felt safe and solid with. He wasn’t uncertain or unpredictable or, or, or…

“Spencer has nightmares,” burst out of her violently. Aaron said nothing. The wine or the night or maybe the last few months in general all added up to make it an unstoppable torrent of words, impossible to hold back now she’d started. “Constant ones. I mean, he’s always been prone to them and we’ve worked through it, yeah, even though I feel weird that he gets them and I don’t and I’ve seen some pretty godawful stuff too. I guess I’m just broken that way, I don’t feel like he does—”

Aaron opened his mouth, frowning, but she cut him off.

“That’s not up for discussion,” she said with a jab of her finger to his sternum. She didn’t need him to talk, not right now. For once, she just needed someone to listen. “But they’ve changed, thematically…”

“Thematically,” he repeated.

She nodded. “Right, yeah.” Her head was spinning. She sat down next to the heron, knocking her wine into a planter where Aaron rescued the glass, if not the contents, before sitting beside her. “Cases with kids, man. Cases with kids, they fuck him up. I’d say, uh…three months?”

She didn’t need to expand on this drunken musing. Aaron knew. He’d been there too.

“Texas,” he said.

“Texas,” she agreed with a nod.

 

Texas had been terrible. They were all terrible, but Texas had been worse. There had been a fire. Aaron and Spencer were closest. Aaron had carried a survivor out slung over his shoulder; Spencer had cradled his in his arms. The smoke had been suffocating. They had suffocated.

Some more than others.

 

“He dreams of Texas,” she finished weakly, “and wakes up thinking he’s choking. Sometimes he says stuff, and that stuff fucks me up. Like, he says this when I’m with him…but I’m not always there. Sometimes he sleeps alone, and I’m laying in my bed wherever the Bureau has taken me and I’m thinking, is he talking to no one right now? Is he still convinced he’s suffocating because I’m not there to show him he can breathe? Fuck, man, fuck.”

Aaron was looking at the empty wineglass, the dirt encrusted up the side that had toppled into the planter. He seemed to be regretting its state of emptiness.

“And I’m really fucking selfish,” Emily continued morosely, “because when I’m over how horrible it all is, when it feels far away, I’m super fucking glad that him dreaming of Texas means he’s stopped pointing out cute babies in the street or at the park, or stopping while we’re shopping to stare at socks for infants. Tiny feet, you know? He has this weird thing for tiny feet, gets all mushy, and I can’t deal with that…”

They sat in silence, all their words spent.

“I think you need to talk to Spencer,” said Aaron. For all his quiet compassion, he was very aware that some things he couldn’t fix. This was one of them.

“I’ve tried,” said Emily helplessly. “He doesn’t listen.”

This, sadly, was true. Spencer was so sure of his way, he hadn’t noticed that Emily was doing the one thing Emily had never done before: she was faltering.

 

They sat in silence together until the back door slid open and two men stepped out. One Emily recognised. The other she did not. Both men were familiar to Aaron, who helped her up and turned to introduce her to them.

“Agent Prentiss, this is Agents Gideon and Morgan,” Aaron said. “Agent Prentiss works with Landy over in CD.”

“Counterintelligence Division?” Gideon asked. Emily shifted a little uncomfortably under that stare, wondering how Spencer could stand to be stared at all day like that. Belatedly, she realised she was supposed to nod and did so, fighting a smile at how her mother would scoff if she saw her right now. “Landy is the Section Chief for Counterespionage, correct?”

“Correct, sir.” Emily wished she’d had a little less wine, especially seeing the other man, Morgan, give her an amused glance.

“Hmm,” said Gideon. He was still staring at her.

Suddenly, Rossi was there, bringing with him an inebriated Spencer who beamed when he saw Emily and latched himself onto her like a droopy limpet, barely seeming to realise who their companions were.

“You’ve met!” Rossi bellowed. Drunk as he was, his volume setting had been unfortunately knocked askew. They all edged away from him, even Spencer, who kept a determined arm around Emily’s waist. “Excellent! Jason, this is Emily! I adore Emily, what a champ. She’s smashing records over in the spooks department, absolutely killing it. Didn’t I tell you, Em? Didn’t I tell you you’d be spectacular?”

In the face of this, Emily’s drunken anxiety was quite rapidly melting away. There was something about being enthusiastically declared excellent that was supremely enticing and she stood prouder. Far from embarrassing Spencer - here she was, proving her worth!

“Gideon never bothers to pay attention to other departments,” Spencer told her cheerfully. “He wouldn’t know if you were Section Chief yourself, he honestly wouldn’t. But Rossi hears all the gossip.”

“Ear to the ground, my boy. Ear to the ground, and the ground is very pleased with this one.” Rossi lurched forward to clap her on the back, catching a shoulder-blade and shoving her into Spencer, who toppled into Aaron, who steadied them both without missing a beat. “Give her a couple more years to build her contacts up, establish her name on her own, and you’d be an idiot not to snap her up for the Unit, Jason.”

Emily thought she might burst. This was, this was…she couldn’t find the words for how gratifying this was, not after stalling out hard in the career department, not after how torn she’d been between progressing upwards (and away) or staying put—

“No.”

There was silence. Emily looked at Gideon. She didn’t know if anyone else was looking at him too, or if anyone else was speaking. Spencer’s arm around her waist had slipped away and she felt like she was standing alone, just her and this man with his disinterested eyes as he finally stopped studying her. The loss of his stare was shocking. She’d hated it while it was here, but she hated the dismissal of it moving away even more.

“No?” someone was spluttering. Spencer or Rossi, she didn’t know. She was standing silent. “You haven’t even seen her in action…”

But the night was very quiet now except for Gideon’s staunch reply.

“No family,” he said without a hint of wavering on this very firm decision based on nothing but Spencer’s arm that had been around her waist but was now gone. “Family doesn’t think straight when there’s danger. The unit as a whole will be set aside in favour of their loved one. I won’t risk that undermining our team.”

“I always put the work first,” Emily heard her own voice say from a million miles away with Elizabeth’s sharp distaste lashed through her words, the only sign of her tremendous anger. Here it was, the label she’d feared: she was now Spencer’s Girlfriend, for now and forever. Agent Emily Prentiss and all her achievements, washed away in a heartbeat because of a single, careless arm.

“Do you?” Gideon asked. He still wasn’t looking at her. She felt very, very small and unimportant. “I believe that. You wouldn’t work well with Landy if you weren’t calculating.”

She blinked, thrown.

“But,” the man she loathed continued, “what about him?”

They all, she realised dully—there were so many people watching her shame—looked at Spencer, who wobbled a little drunkenly and said nothing. Torn between his loyalty to his mentor and the woman he loved, he simply had no idea what to say. Emily, if she’d been feeling kinder, would have likely understood this. However, she was not, and did not.

“Me?” peeped Spencer nervously. Rossi was suggesting they take this conversation elsewhere. Aaron was trying to take her arm. Morgan just watched.

“You,” said Gideon firmly. “Agent Prentiss, if it was you in harm’s way, who would Spencer put first? You or the case?”

That was easy.

Reid,” she stressed, “would do his duty.”

“Ah, but with you there, he wouldn’t be Reid, would he? He would be Spencer, and he would be distracted. I cannot afford that. I need him at his absolute best, and his best is when you’re not there. I’m sorry. I’m sure you’re excellent – Dave isn’t given to false praise. But I need him more than I need you. Your place to excel—which you will—is elsewhere. Goodnight.”

With that, he smiled absently, nodded to the silent group, and walked away. Rossi hurtled after him, looking utterly furious.

“He’s not very good with people,” Spencer said finally, quietly. “I’m sorry.”

It was easy to be sorry when you had everything you wanted, Emily thought for the first time.

Oh how much easier to be sorry it was when you were the one holding the cards.

Maybe because Aaron had told her to, she tried to say this, wording it gently.

“I know,” she said. “It’s just…”

The look Spencer gave her was fraught, worry and misery clouding his excitement, and she couldn’t do it. Just like every other time she’d tried, just like every time she’d pushed past his anxious misery and worry to try and cut to the heart of them, she stepped away from causing him pain.

“Oh well,” she said brightly, fooling only one of that silent group. “We’ll see how he feels when I’m Section Chief instead of Landy, huh?”

She laughed, feeling like the toppled wine glass, dirty and empty and running out of purpose. Spencer laughed with her, clearly relieved.

Morgan said nothing, his dark eyes latched on her.

Aaron was watching Spencer, his mouth thin.

And Emily did her best to be happy.

 

That night, having finally poured him into bed, she lay beside him knowing there was no point sleeping herself quite yet. Still drunk, still shaken, their bed felt torn down the middle. There was an impassable distance between them.

It felt, she thought dully as he began to twitch beside her, his breathing turning shallow, as wide as Texas, and just as suffocating.

 

It was Emily’s turn to have nightmares. Spencer fretted but she brushed him off, constantly, and he was exasperated enough with her unwillingness to share that he didn’t push. Besides, there was work and Aaron swiftly overtaking him to take Rossi’s place beside Gideon despite Spencer’s seniority in the unit. Spencer wasn’t sure how he felt about that yet, part of him knowing that Aaron was simply better equipped currently for leadership…but the other part of him pointed out that, if given the chance, he could lead. Easily. Hadn’t Elizabeth taught him all he needed to know in that quarter? And she’d also taught him ambition, no matter how deep he tried to bury it.

He wasn’t content to be a field agent forever, not with her teaching driving him.

How to prove to Gideon that he was more than just intelligence still hadn’t occurred to him though. Ever since Rossi’s party, Spencer had found himself stepping back and re-evaluating his relationship with his mentor. Emily hadn’t seemed bothered by Gideon’s rejection of her when Spencer had asked her the next day about it, brushing it off with a roll of her eyes, but that didn’t mean Spencer was okay with someone treating his partner in life and in his work like that. Emily, of course, he knew would hate him acting as her protector, so he didn’t tell her the day that he knocked politely and stepped into Gideon’s office to tell the man that he was wrong about very few things – but Emily Prentiss belonging in this unit was most definitely one of those things.

Emily never needed to know, he thought afterwards, sitting at his desk and pondering Jason Gideon. She’d only laugh it off. After all, since when had Emily needed reassurance of his belief in her? And she’d never believe him that Gideon had listened to his concerns and promised to consider them further. There was some respect between him and his mentor, even if not quite enough to lift Spencer out of the protegee basket.

As though it had reminded him, he nudged his desk drawer open with his foot and smiled down at what looked back up at him. Unlike the photo of he and Emily on their first day of school together, which was proudly displayed on his desk at home along with their copy of Watership, this memory was tucked away for now.

“Is that a stuffed rabbit?” asked Morgan, walking past and noticing it. Spencer nudged the drawer shut, still smiling.

“She’s a hare,” he said dreamily, mind a million miles away.

“Whatever she is, why’s she hidden in your desk?”

Spencer didn’t answer, he didn’t have time. Hotch appeared overhead; they had a case.

 

Emily Prentiss, on the day that Spencer flew to Boston to face the shadow of the Boston Reaper for the first time, had done something unprecedented.

She’d taken a sick day.

If Spencer had known, he would have been alarmed indeed. It was unheard of for Emily to admit weakness, especially when it came to keeping up with those at work, but here she was lying on the couch feeling like death had not only warmed her up but potentially also set her dial to slow cook on a medium temperature. She’d considered calling him, but that would simply either worry him unduly—as there was little he could do for what she considered a slight head cold, despite her unit chief having been scathing of that self-diagnosis when he’d kicked her ass out the door—or it would bring him home to be infected alongside her. No, Emily had decided she would suffer through this bravely on her own. Besides, she was loath to have Spencer see her this dishevelled, as fatigue and a tiring cough made way quite swiftly for vomiting and an upset stomach to match.

This would have been perfectly adequate if Emily had been a good judge of her own capabilities. Emily, lacking this judgement as well as any kind of medical training, had mis-diagnosed herself miserably.

This was not a head cold. And, while it had been flu, the day Emily had marched herself home to sweat it out alone, by the time Spencer returned from Boston it most certainly wasn’t.

 

“I’m annoyed with you,” Spencer said again from the driver’s seat, ignoring the sad, rattling cough that was his answer from the bundle of blankets covering Emily in the passenger seat. All that could be seen of her from her cocoon was the tufts of the tissues she’d shoved under her nose poking out from the air gaps he’d made her leave. “Have I mentioned that?”

A wet mumble sounded out what might have been a ‘yes’ from the blankets.

“You need to tell me when you’re sick,” he continued lecturing as he drove them home from A&E, where he’d immediately rushed her as soon as he’d walked in and heard how her breathing had rattled and popped in her liquidy-sounding chest. He was still in his work clothes.

At least, Emily thought dozily, he’d put his gun away.

She coughed. It was wet and tasted solid.

“You tried to sweat out pneumonia,” he bit out carefully. A pale hand emerged from the blanket, gesturing something he decided to believe was an apology, but probably wasn’t. “Pneumonia is the leading cause of death worldwide for children under five years of age! You could have died!”

Emily sneezed, coughed, and whimpered a bit all at once as the combination of discharges made the rest of her body ache. In the mess of illness, there may have been a moody stare at him that said clearer than her snotty words would have right now: ‘Spencer, I am clearly not five.’

“I’m going to keep lecturing you for eternity,” Spencer warned her.

Emily finally spoke. She said, “I’m going to throw up,” and then promptly did.

 

All in all, it was not a joyous homecoming.

 

Since Spencer still had work and he was not leaving Emily at home to drown in her own lungs, she was deposited on the footloose and fancy-free Rossi’s doorstep for nursing. Rossi, in his own dear way, immediately gave her the couch, his best blankets, and whiskey. He gave Spencer his fiercest promise that he would guard Emily with his life, so long as no one told Emily she was being guarded. And Spencer, reluctantly, blew a kiss at Emily—he definitely wasn’t going to kiss her when she was leaking—and slouched out to work with half his mind left fretting on the couch beside her.

Emily shortly realised that the retired Rossi was not writing his book or going on grand adventures or anything quite so exciting. While she slept, still absolutely exhausted now that breathing had become enormously difficult, he watched daytime TV and eagerly updated her on the plot of his favourite soaps every time she blearily opened her eyes and accepted the soup he fed her. At least it didn’t require her brain, just a willingness to open her mouth so soup and water and, occasionally, antibiotics could be spooned in.

This continued for several days.

 

On the second night, Emily shuddered out of a nightmare to realise she was sobbing scratchy, hoarse cries while someone rubbed her shoulder blades gently, a bowl nearby.

“Oh jeez, please tell me I didn’t puke,” she rasped, closing her eyes and feeling her lashes stick together, her cheeks clammy. She didn’t remember what she’d been dreaming, but she could guess. This wasn’t the first time she’d woken in tears.

“No,” said Rossi kindly, hunched to stop the lamplight from glaring into her eyes. “But your coughing is getting stopped up, I thought you were going to choke on your lung. Come on, girl. Spit it up. I’ve seen grosser. I’ve shared a hotel room with Gideon for the last twenty years, after all.”

Emily, with a moan, did so, hacking phlegm into the bowl with a relieved reluctance. Being sick was revolting.

“Spencer almost died of appendicitis because he was embarrassed to be sick in front of people,” she remembered out loud suddenly, feeling dizzy and detached from everything. It was hot in here. “I didn’t understand that until now.”

“That sounds like him. What was the nightmare? Sounded like a doozy.”

“Texas,” she lied, curling her knees into her chest.

Rossi wasn’t fooled.

“Bullshit,” he said. “You weren’t there in Texas. And you were apologising, between crying.”

Emily was quiet. Quiet, that was, except for her lungs and her wet, ghastly breathing that she was sure was never going to get better. At least she’d die up to date on The Young and the Restless.

“A girl,” she admitted finally. “It’s a little girl and she’s alone on a hill and I can’t get to her no matter how hard I try. I’ve had it before. It’s different now.”

Rossi didn’t say anything, just waited. His hand still rubbed strength into her back.

“It used to be me, that girl…whenever I was feeling like I was letting myself down or losing myself. It’s not now. She still has my hair and anger, but she cries differently. It’s…so expressive and explosive. She cries…” Emily sucked in a breath that hurt before continuing. “…she cries like Spencer does, and that’s always fucked me up. I can’t handle that. And I can’t stop it. And I think it’s my fault because I’m not a very good—” Feeling the word falling from her mouth, she tried to stop it, but it fell anyway and lay leaden on the ground between them: “—mom. Our girl is alone because we’re so busy being good at everything else, we forget to be good for her…”

“Just like Elizabeth?” Rossi said quietly. For the first time in a long time, Emily was vividly reminded that this man knew her as more than just the adult she was now.

“Just like Elizabeth,” Emily answered with resolute sadness. “Spencer has me all knotted up about what I want. I don’t know, Dave, I just don’t know. And I wouldn’t be saying this if I wasn’t tired and feverish, just so you know.”

“Oh, I know. I strike when I sense weakness, you know that.” Despite his joviality, his eyes were serious.

“I dream of dying too,” Emily added casually, seeing him wince. “Except, it’s not the dying that’s the focus. It’s what I leave behind, you know? I’ve carried a part of Spencer for so long, and he’s carried a part of me, what are we if we don’t have each other? What am I if I’m not Blackbird? I’m not Emily, because Emily has Spencer beside her. Maybe I’m an agent, but I haven’t done that alone either. Am I dead? I feel like I’d be dead. Meaningless. And fuck, holy fuck, if we have a kid—and I know he wants one, even if he’s not saying it, I know he wants to propose, that fuck—if we get married, have a kid, we’re making that worse! Suddenly, I’m a child’s mom and his wife, and he’s my husband, and we’re just taking more and more and more of us and carving it up into titles that will cease to exist when the other half does. We take up too much of each other and, god, Dave, how am I supposed to love anything else when he feels like the reason I even have a heart?”

“You are a mess,” Rossi said, very aptly. “Calm down, rodeo. One thing at a time. No wonder your lungs are filled with crap if you’re carrying all this around with you. Hey, hey—look at me. You talked to Spencer about this?”

She had, partially.

“He’s the one who said it,” she admitted. “I asked him what he was without me and he laughed and said dead. It was a joke, but now…now I dream that. He’s so sure our hearts beat in unison, and I’m just here wishing I knew who I am alone.”

She looked away. Her eyes were dry. Emily rarely cried when awake.

“I don’t want to lose him to find that out though,” she added firmly.

“Well, I can say one thing with absolute surety. This mess you’ve got going on in your oven-baked brain right now, that is a mess that says nope no baby right now please, no marriage, no nothing until we’re straightened out again. Trust me as a man who has married more women then I’ve pleased, don’t make any rash decisions when you’re feeling lost—wait until the people who are reaching through the dark to pull you out have found you. Because they’re there, Em, believe me on that. No matter how you feel, no matter how alone, no matter how many little girls on hilltops are looking at you like you’re your mother about to fuck up the next generation, there are people reaching for you wanting you close to them. Understand?”

She nodded damply, despite her dry eyes.

“And trust me on this—Spencer? That git with the big brain and no idea about how good he’s got it? He’s me. He’s me dialled back to six or seven, without the womanising or the baggage—”

“Hardly you at all,” Emily sniped.

He ignored her.

“—but, at work? He’s me. Right now, that boy’s got tunnel vision. That’s not to say you don’t exist in his mind, you do and you’re a not unsubstantial part, but that just means that he’s working so hard to impress the world he’s tucked some things he thinks he has in the bag back to deal with later. You see, when I did that, I thought I’d always have my beautiful wife, my baby boy, to go home to. I thought they were a sure thing, so it was safe to look away for just a little while.

Emily was quiet. Rossi wasn’t looking at her anymore, now focused on some point on the wall that she didn’t think was what he was actually seeing at all.

“I didn’t know you had a son,” she said quietly.

“He died,” said Rossi with devastating finality. Emily felt a shudder deep inside curl up small and tighten into a hard knot of tremendous fear. “While I wasn’t looking, he died. My sure thing, my sweet boy. I never held him when he was warm, you know. I was…at work. He was born and I was at work, and then he died.”

That, thought Emily, was more suffocating than Texas could ever be.

“Caroline wasn’t like you either,” Rossi said to her, a warning now in his voice. “She didn’t go quietly. She was screaming for me that entire time, begging me to come home. Oh, not with her words, not in so many. But in her behaviour, the way she’d hold me, the way she’d flip from distant to furious to longing. The way she’d beg me with her eyes to stop leaving her. The way she’d cry when she thought I wasn’t looking.”

Like when she was sleeping, he thought but didn’t say.

“She was howling my name and I simply did not hear her. Em, sweetheart, you have always been the loudest most ridiculous child—but right now, as an adult? Darling, I love you, but you are quiet. You resonate fine so absolutely you didn’t go to the hospital until your lungs tried to drown you. Spencer is thinking of marriage and his career and you’re dying in your dreams imagining losing your soul to him. Where’s my girl who tantrumed so successfully she could have brought London to her knees? Where’s the spitfire who forced that absolute dullard Eric Chambers to refer to her as Raptor Emily? Why are you hiding this from Spencer, the one person who can help you fight it off?”

“I don’t want to hold him back,” she admitted in a voice that was accidentally muted.

“Oh?” he asked her. “That’s funny. The only person I see held back right now is lying on the couch in front of me with bed-hair and jacked up lungs. And what is she going to do about it?”

The answer was absurdly simple but also absolutely devastating.

She spoke it anyway.

“Talk to him,” she gritted out, her heart sinking to knot tight in that deep place at her core where everything painful went.

“That’s right. Use your goddamned words before everything cocks up for good. And, for god’s sake, if he’s not listening, make him.”

 

She woke up just after midday on the fourth day feeling more alive. Alive enough to peel herself from the couch and go and shower anyway, spotting Rossi pottering around in his small garden and, apparently, talking to the stone heron. There were seventeen texts from Spencer on her cell that she didn’t quite have the finger-brain coordination right now to handle, so those she ignored until she was clean. Despite her breathing still rattling a little and a bone deep exhaustion she couldn’t quite shake, it was a pleasure to emerge from the shower feeling nothing but human all the way through.

Midway through getting dressed, she heard a cry from the street.

Emily moved without thinking, swooping on the closest shirt and darting for the window. A quick survey of the area showed a little girl wailing on the pavement, long legs sprawled out below her and her mouth gaping in an expression of abject misery. Emily swept her wet hair up into a rough ponytail and went out there – her exhaustion promptly forgotten.

 

Rossi, still gardening, suddenly had the insidious feeling that he’d lost control of his charge.

I’m sure she’s sleeping, he thought to himself despite immediately turning and marching inside. I told her to sleep and surely she wouldn’t disobey…

The couch was empty.

Rossi, honestly, probably should have expected that.

Well, no matter, he decided. It wouldn’t take long to track her down, since she couldn’t really go far and his home didn’t have that many rooms. He began searching promptly, grabbing his cell phone on the way and opening a text from Spencer noting that he’d be back soon to collect his sickly girlfriend.

His sickly girlfriend who Rossi should probably find before the man arrived, lest he be accused of neglect of the infirm.

It was about then that he heard the cheer from the street.

 

Spencer pulled the car into the driveway at Rossi’s with half his focus on the automatic task of parking and the other half on the small crowd of over-excited children, and one David Rossi, gathered slightly up the street staring up at the sky. A little uneasy, Spencer got out of the car and walked up to join them.

“Where did you get all the children?” Spencer called out to Rossi, forcing his tone into cheerful nonchalance. “I wasn’t aware you were running a day care.”

Rossi, suspiciously, startled at his approach. Slowly, he turned. Spencer narrowed his eyes as their gazes met.

Then, resigned, he looked up to what the children were looking at.

“David,” he said with absolute calm, “why is Emily, who has pneumonia, climbing that tree?”

Rossi didn’t answer, probably because he recognised that there was simply no answer Spencer would accept. And Spencer, with another furious glance at him, tugged off his holster, handed it to the man, and marched on over there.

“Where are you going?” Rossi called after him.

“Up,” said Spencer.

 

“Hullo,” said Emily when she reached the branch where the miserable looking kitten was sitting. Its owner, sitting below, let out an impressive bellow of unhappiness at their separation. “You hear that? You’re upsetting someone who loves you a whole lot, you silly thing. Stop climbing higher and higher the more people try to coax you down.”

She paused, sensing, almost, self-awareness. The kitten mewled, trying to climb to Emily and almost slipping.

Emily sneezed, startling it back to the other end of the branch, where she couldn’t reach or put her weight.

“Bother,” said Emily hoarsely.

The tree shook below her. Her excellent head for heights had somewhat abandoned her in the face of her illness-induced vertigo, so she didn’t look down. Just called, “I hope you’ve brought a butterfly net,” to whoever was climbing up beside her.

“I brought my gun,” said Spencer’s head, popping up on the other side of the branch and glaring balefully at her. A quick glance at his waist from around the trunk confirmed that this was a lie.

Despite this, Emily joked, “To shoot me or the cat?” and snorted an unwise laugh out when his stormy expression grew stormier. “I have a cold, not cancer. I can get a cat out of a tree to cheer up a kid, seriously. I know my limits.”

“You do not,” Spencer exclaimed. “You’ve never known your limits! Ever! You only ever try to find your limits when you’re planning to exceed them, it’s pathological!”

“So, what? We should just let the kid cry her eyes out while a kitten starves?”

“We call someone to come get it! We don’t send you up here to play hero, or to slip and break your neck!”

Emily glared. Spencer glared. Both of them felt extremely irate at the other, mostly for very different reasons. The kitten watched them warily, unsure if she liked these strange, bickering, tree-dwelling humans. Spencer, dutifully, set aside his irritation and began to shuffle out after the kitten, using his height to balance his weight on a stronger branch.

“I’m mad at you for wanting kids,” Emily blurted out.

Spencer stopped shuffling.

From below them, there was a distant shout of, “For crying out loud, Emily, not now!”

But Spencer was still staring at her, and so was the kitten, and if she didn’t say it now she never would. With an uneasy cough, she added, “And I’m scared you’re going to propose and I’m going to say yes to avoid breaking your heart and then we’re going to end up married and resentful with children we have no time for, that’s if I even survive childbirth, which I am certain I won’t, just so you know.”

“You mean,” said Spencer slowly, “you think we’re going to turn into Elizabeth and Michael?”

“Or William and Diana,” Emily said with morose surety.

“Mewl,” said the kitten, beginning to sidle up the branch towards Spencer, who wasn’t looking at her.

“Is that why you’ve been so weird lately? You’re freaking out that we’re becoming our parents?”

“I don’t know. It’s such a mess. I was angry about one thing initially and now it’s become so many, I can’t untangle them to find the centre stuck point. And now we’re fighting in a tree…I’m sorry.”

The kitten had reached Spencer’s hands and was elegantly stepping between his fingers.

“We’re not fighting,” said Spencer in a quiet voice. “We’re talking. We haven’t done that in a while, have we?”

“No.”

The kitten was past Spencer now. He was watching it walk towards Emily with the oddest expression like he’d completely forgotten why they were up here in the first place.

Someone below was hollering “Grab the cat!” but they were busy.

“I lied,” he said suddenly. “I do want kids. I want them more than anything, I want them with you. I do want to marry you, I want all those things. I thought saying I didn’t want them would stop you from freaking out, but I think maybe it just made things worse because you just internalised everything instead of talking it out. I’m sorry.”

“I know,” Emily said. “I’m terrified of pregnancy, Spence. Like, ridiculously. Look at me—listen to me. If you hear one thing from me, hear this—I am petrified of pregnancy, childbirth, all of that. I almost clawed it out myself when it happened when I was teenager, sure I’d split open like an overripe cantaloupe if I let it grow. If it hadn’t been for Matthew, I would have done something stupid to escape it. This isn’t me choosing to set this aside to hurt you. I really can’t. Is that a deal-breaker for you?”

“I don’t know,” was the answer. “Maybe with someone else? But not with you. You’re enough. Even if I can’t have those things, you’re enough.”

That, Emily thought, was the problem right there in a nutshell.

She’d never wanted to be someone’s enough.

She’d never wanted to be the someone they settled for.

Mom was right, she thought glumly. They should have talked this out a long time ago.

“I lied too,” she said. The kitten had reached the trunk. Rossi sounded like he was having a heart attack down there, he was yelling so furiously. “I’m not happy at work. I was, for a while, then they started giving me undercover work and I lied about that so you wouldn’t stress…and then I started turning that work down so I didn’t have to lie anymore. And now I’m miserable because I’m going nowhere, and I don’t know how to go somewhere without losing you.”

“Does going somewhere mean being apart?” he asked her. Neither of them noticed that the kitten, fed up with these bizarre humans, had figured out how to climb down and was doing so clumsily, leaving them perched up there looking at each other as the cold wind pulled at them and Rossi gave up and walked inside to wait until they were done.

She swallowed. Twice.

It hurt, and not just because this was playing hell with her throat, being up this cold-ass tree.

“Sean McAllister,” she whispered so softly he barely heard her. “He put my name forward to the handler of the unit he’s working in now, told them to look me up as a potential recruit. It’s a big gig. Real career-definer. Elite taskforce, deep, deep cover. The handler made contact just before I got sick, Clyde Easter. I…was rash. I was rash and upset and stressed, and I agreed to an interview.”

“Ah,” said Spencer. “When’s the interview?”

Emily admitted, “That day. He met me that day. It wasn’t an assessment. It was an enticement. He already knew he wanted me.”

Spencer’s fingers were so tight around the tree they were going white. He was, although Emily didn’t know it, thinking of a hidden hare.

“I see,” he said.

The unspoken question lingered between them. Even the tree seemed to be holding its breath.

Finally, Emily answered it.

“London,” she said with finality. Then coughed.

“Ah,” said Spencer. He noticed the kitten was gone, looking down to the children dispersing back to their homes now things were getting boring above.

“Ah,” he said again, even softer.

Emily looked away quickly. It wasn’t long, really just the duration it would take to sneeze. And, when she looked back, her eyes were bright but dry.

“Do you want to go home?” she asked.

He nodded.

Chapter Text

They went home and spent the weekend not together, but together. Spencer messaged in to say he was taking several personal days and would be unavailable for calls; Gideon, somehow, seemed to understand. Spencer would never know, but he had Aaron to thank for that one – and one David Rossi, who still had fingers in the BAU despite his new daytime TV life.

Past the worst of it and left with only a lingering fatigue and a week of sick leave left to lounge around in before she could be cleared by the Bureau to return, Emily clung to Spencer. Neither spoke just yet about what was coming. They cleaned the apartment together—Spencer doing most of the work while Emily wiped tiredly at counters and windows—and then cooked an early dinner, settling down in the living room on the rug with the CD player playing one of Ethan’s old tracks quietly in the background. They ate in silence. Emily finished before Spencer, pushing her food around the plate.

Spencer put his plate down, taking hers and sliding alongside her after setting it aside. It was a simple, practised act to take her into his arms and let her lean into him completely but, he realised, it was also a strangely new act. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d held her like this.

“I’ve been thinking,” he began. Emily tensed. “A lot of what you’re feeling, you don’t need to be feeling it right now.”

“Spencer…”

“No, listen. I understand you feel like I haven’t been hearing you lately. I get that. But, worries about children, about marriage? Em, we’re not even thirty. We can worry about that later and just be us for now.”

Emily shook her head slowly. “How much later? If you want kids, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there’s a time frame for that.”

His fingers gripped her arm in an anxious hold.

“Don’t do that,” he snapped, stress lining his expression. For the first time, he looked his age and maybe a little more. “Don’t just cave like that. You said you’re terrified of pregnancy, so don’t immediately topple into resigning yourself to nine months of terror because you think I’m insinuating it’s what we need as a family. Emily, I want children with you but when have I ever stated they have to be our children? Why is you being pregnant a prerequisite?”

He paused, a shadow of nervousness passing over his features at her stillness.

“That is,” he stammered out, “if it’s the pregnancy that’s really holding you back and not the concept of parenting. If it’s parenting and it’s deeper then this obscene notion that having a child will erase you, or that we’re somehow incapable of loving both each other and someone else, well. Then we need to discuss that, I guess. But…”

“You’d adopt a child with me?” she asked him in a strange voice.

“Of course. Elizabeth loved me entirely despite my having no blood relation to her. My father rejected me wholly despite our shared DNA. I would love any child given to me to care for alongside you, whether they were biologically ours, mine or yours alone, or neither. Children don’t get to pick their parents, but I think us having the ability to choose to be someone’s parents is very powerful. Besides, this also means I can take the brunt of the child care if that’s an issue. I love my work, but I’m sure in ten, fifteen years, I’ll be happy to spend some time at home – and I am uniquely suited to working from home while you continue being fantastic…” He paused, smiling a little, and added a soft, “Maybe even in the BAU, which will certainly be needing someone to take my place.”

Emily stared at him. He stared back, uneasy.

And, finally, she whispered, “I love you so fucking much, do you know that?”

“Of course,” was his relieved reply. “Does this mean…?”

“God, not right now, nowhere near now, but later? Yes, Spencer, absolutely. Absolutely.”

It said something for how desperate she was to heal that she didn’t even mind that, right then, at that moment, she was crying freely for this fresh chance for them.

 

A plan was made for a holiday. It was sorely needed, they decided, and a cabin in the mountains was located. It was remote, forested, and, at that time of year, would be beautifully snow-capped. Most excellently, it tied in with when Spencer knew he’d be moved off active rotation for the team to be given a reprieve from the constant call-ins, and although Emily’s schedule was more uncertain he was confident they’d figure it out. They hadn’t discussed her work yet, not until she was entirely recovered, so their eager planning wasn’t forestalled at all by discourse surrounded whether she’d even be in the country, or within contact at all. Dreamily, they drifted to bed to continue planning with each other just how wonderful it would be to be snowed in, alone with nothing but their fire and their supplies and each other, and then—with Emily far less gross now—Spencer did his damndest to ensure they ended this day with nothing that even hinted to being procedural.

Emily appreciated his enthusiasm, greatly.

They slept deeply, tangled in each other, and neither of them dreamed.

 

The discussion came. It ended unevenly. It ended with Spencer sitting quietly at the dining room table staring without seeing the crossword in front of him.

It ended with Emily packing her bags for London.

“It’s just training for now,” she told him, begging him with her eyes for him to understand: she needed this. “Three months. I can come home between circuits, and we’re going to be so busy we’re barely going to have time to miss each other - is it really so different then when we’re both flying around the country and missing each other?”

It was very different, Spencer wanted to say, citing the distance and the time zones and the extreme danger of the word he knew this training was leading to, but he said none of that. Instead, all he said was, “You’ll tell me if it stops being just training and paperwork, right?”

Emily paused.

“I’ll try,” she said finally. He knew it was the best she could do and nodded in agreement.

He’d always known one day his Blackbird would fly, he just hadn’t realised it would be 3,662 miles away from their home. But she needed this. He knew she needed this.

She needed to find who she was without him.

 

He drove her to the airport. He wasn’t alone. Ethan was in town on some venture or another and he’d volunteered to look after Spencer in the wake of Emily leaving. Following the tearless goodbyes with the worried Kinky and the achingly silent drive to the airport, Ethan seemed to be regretting this decision. Right now, he was lingering back as Spencer and Emily embraced by the gates. It would be the last time they saw each other for a month at least, which felt like an eternity purely because of the ocean between them.

“Don’t leave me for some handsome English heir,” said Spencer glumly once they were finished holding each other. “You know I can’t compete with money and looks.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Emily told him. “There isn’t anyone in England who has you beat for brains.”

This earned a watery smile. Spencer was nowhere near as subtle about his tears as she was.

She leaned up on her toes, pressing a kiss to his clean-shaven jaw and closing her eyes to memorise his scent and his arms around her and his chest against her. “There isn’t a soul in England who has you beaten for heart either,” she said with zeal, feeling him shiver with some complicated, aching emotion. “What am I doing? I shouldn’t be doing this, I can’t do this…”

“Now whose being ridiculous?” He tipped her jaw up so he could look into her eyes, smiling despite his watery gaze. “You need this. Don’t do a me. Don’t flunk out now just to keep us together. We learned this lesson – and it doesn’t end with us together anyway.”

Emily froze. “Oh no,” she breathed, earning a worried stare from Spencer. “Oh fuck. Elizabeth parented. She fucking knew, she saw this coming, that witch. That’s why she hauled you across Europe after high school.”

Spencer laughed, folding down into her with the shock of his relieved mirth. Secretly, he thought Elizabeth would be riotous to know her long-ago lessons had resulted in Emily setting off for England to chase international terrorists and murderers with only a small team of strangers at her back, but he couldn’t deny that her firm handling of that situation was certainly a guiding force for them now. They’d only ever needed to learn once that crippling themselves to stay beside the other was equally as likely to rip them sorely apart.

And look how that had ended.

Emily glanced around him, her smile fading a little. “Don’t leave me for Ethan,” she said now, her turn to wallow briefly in insecurity. “It’s suspicious that he’s here right as I’m leaving the country, do you realise that?”

“I think he has a boyfriend now,” Spencer admitted. He refused to turn around and give away that they were talking about his friend, who he knew had just tried to lean against a wall nonchalantly and instead leaned on a cardboard cut-out of a pilot and fallen over. “Or a girlfriend. I think he has someone, anyway. I mean, not that that means anything, I mean, I wouldn’t, ah. We wouldn’t…”

He’d confused himself.

Fortunately, Emily knew him well enough to laugh at him.

“God, gross, imagine dating Ethan,” she teased, waggling her eyebrows.

Anything else they could have said was stalled by the intercom announcing boarding for her flight. They looked at each other. The time to part was here.

Suddenly, they both appreciated just how strong Diana had been the day she’d said goodbye and put Spencer on a plane. It may have been what was best for him, but that didn’t stop the hurting – not even a little.

Don’t forget me, Spencer wanted to beg her but felt ridiculous for fearing.

Please be here when I come home, Emily was thinking but would never have voiced.

Instead, they kissed once more, said goodbye, and then she was gone.

 

“Fuck,” whispered Spencer, staring at where he’d last seen her.

A hand touched his elbow, Ethan stepping up beside him.

“Sucks, doesn’t it?” Ethan said with a sad sigh. “Growing up, man. Growing up.”

“Fuck,” said Spencer again.

 

He refused to watch her plane take off and life went on, 3,662 miles apart with no end in sight for their separation.

Chapter Text

They proceeded to miss each other in every possible way as Elizabeth’s Evil Eye continued to work its evil magic upon them. Time, despite their best efforts, passed dangerously as they hurtled through a period of fixed loneliness broken only by the intense concentration their respective workplaces demanded of them. It was a thoroughly miserable time for them both and they had no idea it was going to worsen before it got better. Surely this, they both thought separately and never voiced to each other, was as hard as it could get.

They were wrong.

 

They started off calling every time their time zones aligned. It was exhausting keeping up with two separate cycles of the sun, but they did it. Spencer smiled every time she sleepily answered the phone at some horrendous hour of the morning; likewise, she appreciated that the last thing he’d do before falling into bed far too late into the night was check in on her. But the lack of sleep was cumulative. Emily struggled with the intel she was working with; Spencer faltered at work. For Spencer, faltering was dangerous. After one near-miss caused by sleep-deprivation slowing reflexes, it was glumly agreed that they would have to ration their calls more carefully to ensure sleep wasn’t being sacrificed.

The calls slipped to once a week. Spencer still smiled at the sound of her voice. Emily was still grateful for him.

Hanging up had never been harder.

Spencer began writing her long letters every day to go into the post once a week along with those that he wrote his mother. Emily never had the time to respond to them, but she appreciated them, and everything he wrote about, for some time, dominated their rationed calls and their endless texts. Aaron queried Spencer one day on just how much money they were making their phone providers in international communication; Spencer invoked his right to silence and refused to answer.

Elizabeth, in what was either a positive or a resounding negative, was refusing to speak to either of them after she’d, somehow, found out where Emily was working and in what work that was. Emily thought she was being unreasonable. Spencer suspected Elizabeth’s feelings were hurt because they had, once again, failed to tell her about something so momentous occurring in their lives.

Diana declined to comment on her thoughts, which Spencer was glad for because he had begun to consider that perhaps he and Emily were not very good children towards Elizabeth. He decided to rectify this, sometime soon. Perhaps he’d call her more often. Of course, as good intentions often do, this one fell along the wayside along with everything else.

The calls with Emily became every other week as work piled up. The letters kept coming. Emily even wrote back to two of them, although her response was hurried and brief. Spencer kept it in his bag, tucked into the pocket that would bump against his side with every step. Their phone bills came in.

The texts, they decided sadly, would have to stop. It wouldn’t do them much good to bankrupt themselves for the sake of one-hundred and forty characters or less at a time.

Time grated on while also flying far too quickly.

 

Ethan, Spencer found out to no small amount of surprise, had moved to DC. When this had happened, he wouldn’t answer, being astoundingly cagey about his current life. As they sat together over drinks on one of the few nights Spencer was both home and also in the mood to socialise in the absence of Emily, Spencer eyed him and wondered worriedly if his friend was relapsing into past mindsets.

“So,” Spencer asked while feigning calm, “how’s life?”

Ethan shrugged. He was watching Kinky chase his tail. There wasn’t much enthusiasm to his shrug, and Spencer worried more.

“How’s Emily?” was Ethan’s counter.

Spencer’s turn to shrug, but this time only because he didn’t really know how Emily was going in London. She wasn’t exactly forthcoming, although, he suspected, she didn’t sound like she was missing him as much as he was missing her.

“Whereabouts are you living, anyway?” Spencer tried again.

Ethan just looked uneasy and didn’t answer. He didn’t try to change the subject again either. Just sat there and fiddled with his glass, shoulders slumped with exhaustion and his skin lined around his mouth. He looked old. Old and tired, and he was barely past thirty.

“Eth?” Spencer waited for an answer and, when no answer was forthcoming, he pressed. “If you’re in trouble or something, you know I can help, right?”

But Ethan just sat upright, shook the distracted weariness from his shoulder, and smiled as brightly as if he’d never been withdrawn at all. “It’s nothing, just work,” he lied. “Anyway, what about you?”

It was a terrible part of becoming an adult, Spencer thought later that night as he stood by his window and watched the shadow of his friend walking up the darkened street to wherever he was going, that eventually all of them were left to face their problems just like Ethan was right now: alone.

 

Emily looked up one day and realised that it had been a month and a half since she’d come to London and she was due for a turn home the next week. Somehow, the time had completely escaped her. A ticket was booked, a plan was made, and Clyde waved her out the door with a promise to return; she was everything he’d wanted in an agent and more, and he’d be furious to lose her now when her contributions were moving the incipient JTF-12 along quickly towards real work. But Emily, for the first time all month, wasn’t thinking about the job.

She was going home.

 

Their homecoming was strange. Far from the planes aligning that Emily had always feared, those planes had never quite felt this far apart. After three attempts at conversation that faltered on the drive home from the airport, they gave up and regressed into idle chatter about unimportant things. Emily curled up small in the face of this inability to communicate; Spencer kept to himself about his feelings but, deep down, he desperately looked forward to their planned holiday as an extended period of time they’d have to get better. Two weeks versus three nights. Surely, that would be the balm to all their ills.

It wasn’t until hours later, in bed that night, that a single faltering reminder of how they were together flickered into life.

“Only six weeks until our cabin,” Emily said into his skin as she eagerly explored his familiar body with her lips and hands. He was lying sated below her, watching her with his hair a mess and his expression fixated, fingers idly tracing circles on the bunched-up towel they’d tossed aside when they were done. “Fuck, I can’t wait.”

She paused on his tattoo, nuzzling against it as he made a low noise of pleasure.

“I’ve missed you,” Spencer said. His hand lifted from the towel to her hair, fingers tracing her jaw. “It feels insane that you’ve been gone so long…I don’t know how I’m going to last six more weeks.”

He didn’t say it, but his brain coughed up a slow and all the time after our two weeks is over…the rest of our lives?

Emily quickly kissed the line of text along his tattoo before sliding up to curl alongside him, feeling his arm latch tight around her like he wasn’t willing to ever let go again. Maybe he wasn’t. Maybe she’d have to call Easter and tell him she’d changed her mind, there was no way she could leave this again…

But she knew she had to.

And Spencer, watching her sigh and twist slightly with some kind of deep sadness, knew she had to too.

“Well, whatever,” she declared. Pulling out of his arms—she did it so easily, he thought with a wry half-smile—she leapt up and marched, naked, for the ensuite. He watched, unwilling to leave their bed quite yet, not when it wasn’t lonely for the first time since she’d left. “Time marches on, right? We’ll get there eventually. So, catch me up – what’s new in DC?”

Spencer shrugged, waiting for her to return from the bathroom and lean against the dresser, as always completely unconcerned with her nakedness. He loved her for that. He loved everything about her, greedily drinking in every part of her body; all the parts that were different, all that was the same, anything he’d let fade in the six weeks since he’d seen her. She let him look, always amused by her desire for her.

“Rossi is finally writing his book,” said Spencer, still focused on trying to see if there were any new marks on her body, scars she hadn’t had before London. “I’m helping, apparently, or so he’s informed me. Aaron and Haley are thinking about trying for a baby. Uh. Ethan’s living in DC—”

“What? Why? What about his band?”

Spencer couldn’t answer any of those questions, stalling for time by gesturing her over and sliding his hands around her, resting them in the small of her back as he nuzzled at her stomach. She let him but didn’t quit with the sharp-edged questions.

“You don’t know? Why don’t you know? You two tell each other everything, bullshit he hasn’t told you why he’s moved across the country on a whim. Is his band here?”

Spencer shrugged again. “I really don’t know, Em, is it so hard to believe that he hasn’t told me?”

Emily, as evidenced by her alarmed stare, did seem to think it was.

“Is he in trouble?” she exclaimed. “Fuck, it’s drugs, isn’t it? Or he borrowed money from someone he shouldn’t. Oh God, what if they cut off his hands?!”

“I…what?”

They stared at each other, Emily’s alarm growing and Spencer trying to look as disapproving of her wild flights of fancy as he could when, really, his first reaction had been much the same.

Emily frowned. “Maybe it’s his, you know…sad thing.”

“You can say depression. It’s not a dirty word.”

This got him a cool stare from Emily, Spencer quickly trying to distract from the conversation.

“Why are we talking about Ethan? I don’t want to talk about Ethan tonight, I want to just be us…he can wait until tomorrow. This is nice…” This was him tracing his hands around her waist again, noting the barest addition of weight evenly dispersed on Emily’s narrow hips. Despite how good the extra weight looked on her, the muscles she worked hard for defined nicely without the sharp edges of her hips and ribs distracting attention, this earned a very deadly stare from Emily who was aware that a month of desk work with no time for working out had had its way with her. “London gyms have been lovely to you. You’re lovely.”

“That’s not muscle, genius,” Emily grumbled, pulling away, “and thanks for pointing out that I’m getting fat.”

“Oh,” said Spencer. At least they weren’t talking about Ethan anymore, he figured. “Well, you look nice fat.”

Emily blinked slowly.

Oops, thought Spencer.

“Not that you’re fat,” he added quickly but far too late. He tried to cover with, “Do you have any idea how much I’ve missed you recently? The only person who has touched me since you’ve been gone is my hairdresser, even my skin misses you.”

“That’s cute. Did you call her fat too?”

Spencer decided that maybe it was time to get up and go cook dinner before he made things worse than they already were.

 

Breakfast was mute. They had nothing to talk about. Anytime Emily tried to talk about work, Spencer withdrew from the conversation; every time he talked about his work, she was reminded of Jason Gideon and visibly began ruminating on the conversation at Rossi’s retirement party. Since neither of them had anything else going on besides work, they were silent and awkward until, invariably, the conversation turned to the one thing they did have in common.

“Invite Ethan over,” Emily declared. “I’ll get to the bottom of this mystery.”

“I think maybe he just wants to do his own thing. We should respect that.”

“Uh-huh, and we’ll totally respect that…once we’ve ascertained that he’s not here because there are gangsters trying to break his legs, or that he doesn’t have a smack habit, or that he’s not here to steal my boyfriend.”

That earned a huff from Spencer instead of the usual laugh. Emily eyed him.

“That joke’s getting tired,” he said, gaze fixed on the plate. Something in her gut tightened. “I wish that was why he was here. At least that makes sense.”

Her gut loosened again as she realised what the tone in his voice was; it was worry. Despite him telling her to back off, he was worried. He just, for whatever reason, didn’t want her to see that he was worried.

“Alright,” she said. “Do you want to get the groceries for dinner tonight? I’ll cook.”

“Sure,” was his quiet answer. “I could use the walk.”

 

As soon as he was gone, delighted to have an excuse not to ruminate on how stilted and awkward their lives together had gotten, Emily got the phone book out and started doing what she did best: snooping.

 

“I rang Phil,” was the first thing Emily said to him when he walked back in the door with the shopping bags in hand. “Did you know she had no idea he’d moved back here? He told her he was spending some time in Maine. In Maine. What the fuck is in Maine?”

“Emily,” said Spencer disapprovingly.

She ignored him.

“So I called his bandmates and two of them had no idea where he was, but do you know he gave away his keyboard? He gave it away, Spence! I’m starting to think I was right you know, this is clearly a scream for help. Anyway, the third—”

Emily.”

“—nice dude, but he lived with Eth for a bit in Seattle and some mail showed up for him so he asked Ethan where to forward it, and here’s the gig, Ethan gave him an address in DC and I looked that up—”

Spencer was silent, waiting for her to run out of steam.

“—and, well. Here.”

Emily gave him the phone book, the address she’d been given circled twice in there. Spencer stared at it. No one said anything. Emily wasn’t sure this was a win.

Finally, he spoke. “You know that you’re focusing on this to avoid focusing on how weird things are between us, right?”

Emily frowned, but he didn’t give her a chance to answer.

“We can’t start digging into his life to shift attention away from whatever this weird feeling is between us. That’s not fair on us. You leave in two days, Em. Do you really want to spend those two days chasing Ethan?”

“Are you kidding me?” she exclaimed. “You want to turn this into a relationship issue? He’s forwarding his mail to a domestic abuse shelter, Spencer! This isn’t about us anymore, I genuinely think we need to worry about him now. Call him!”

“Maybe he’s volunteering there.”

“Maybe he’s…are you even listening to yourself? Maybe he’s volunteering there. Sure, what the fuck, maybe he is. I’d definitely keep that a secret from my best friend. God knows, no one could ever know I was volunteering. Imagine the scandal.”

Spencer wasn’t looking at her now, instead staring down at the shopping bags. She had the sudden realisation that he’d spent the entire trip out working himself up, and this was the result. “I’ll call him, but not tonight. You’re leaving in two days Emily, and then you’re gone for another six weeks. This visit hasn’t been…I don’t think it’s going well, and you can feel that too and you’re panicking and trying to distract from it instead of facing it. I don’t want to distract from it. I want to know why you’re avoiding connecting with me.”

There was a layered silence, broken only by Emily standing and breathing in slowly and deeply.

“The only time you act this distant is when you’re lying to me,” Spencer finished, his voice now so tight she could barely hear it. “And I want to know what you’re lying about. Please.”

But Emily just reached for her bag, slid the phone book inside, and walked away. To their room she went, shoving open the closet to find the box that was dusty from disuse against the back.

When she emerged, Spencer was still standing where she’d left him. He recoiled when he saw what she was holding.

“Why is it when I want to talk about us, you can’t spare the time?” she asked coolly, bike helmet under her arm and her keys in her hand. “But when you have an issue, the whole world needs to stop and pay attention? Why is it that things are only important when you decide they’re important?”

“You don’t even care about Ethan, why is this what you’re—”

She cut him off, shoving past as she went for the door: “That’s funny, Spence, because right now you’re acting like the one who doesn’t care about him. You stay here and sulk that I haven’t come back from London exactly how I was when I left, I’m going to make sure he hasn’t got his ridiculous head kicked in. I’ll call you.”

And she left.

 

The apartment ached in the silence she left behind. Spencer rattled around, shaken beyond understanding by their small spat. It wasn’t like they never bickered before—their fights as teenagers had been notoriously vicious—but right now their relationship felt precarious and fraught, and he was starting to feel like it was slipping inexorably out of his grasp. He couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something she wasn’t saying, some secret made of devastation, and if only he knew it he could get his brain back in order and focus on making her happy.

But she wasn’t saying it, he couldn’t get his brain back, and no one was happy.

Eight times while she was gone, he tried to call Ethan. No answer.

No answer from Emily’s cell either.

If there really was something going on there, some danger his friend was in…Spencer groaned, curling over himself as he sat at the kitchen table with his cell phone silent on the table before him. He’d ignored it to try focus on Emily, bring her back to him—he hadn’t missed the slow declension of their contact with each other while she was in London—and now he’d just come off as uncaring. He did care, he cared so much; he just didn’t know how to show it.

Keys in the front door had him frozen, tensed and waiting for who would step in. It had to be Emily, he logically knew, but a small part of hoped it would be both of them so they could lay this to rest tonight and still have the rest of their time together…

It was Emily. She was alone.

She spoke first.

“He’s living in an apartment in Bellevue,” she said without emotion in her voice. “It’s a craphole, but you know, at least he’s not on the street. Looks like he’s traded in his bike for a sedan, cut his hair, oh and, here’s the fun bit, for some reason his craphole apartment building has the tightest security I’ve ever seen in a place that probably only takes cash for rent.”

“High crime in the area, I assume,” said Spencer, who felt sick. This whole thing felt like confirmation that missing each other was their lives now. “You didn’t stalk him, did you? You can’t do that, Em…”

“Mmm, sure, high crime,” she said. “Guess that explains the plainclothes cop moving people in and out of there.”

Spencer was silent, finally, she noticed, distracted from his moping. It didn’t take him long to catch up.

“Secure housing?” he said, eyes widening. “It’s a safe house?”

“Doubt it’s anything that fancy. I think it’s just a midpoint for people who need to disappear for a bit while the courts handle their cases. He’s not living there alone, you know. He came back with waaay too much shopping for one person. Oh yeah, and a broken nose, so you know.” She paused, letting that sink in. “Which I assume by your expression he didn’t have last time you saw him. Now, will you call him?”

Spencer was already reaching for his phone.

 

The next day was spent in anxious waiting. Ethan wasn’t answering. Emily was about one bad mood away from calling DCPD and demanding to know what was going on; Spencer kept thinking of his team and wondering if they’d help him out if he asked…and if that was a breach of Ethan’s privacy, which he clearly desired.

What this time was clearly not was them re-finding what had faded in their weeks apart and the fraught months leading up to their separation. Later, Emily would bitterly think it was Ethan’s fault for coming between them but, deep down, she knew it wasn’t. This was always going to happen.

“He’s not going to call,” Spencer said on their last night together. “We either go there now and see him or we let it go and just let what happens happen.”

There was a dull kind of resignation in his voice which answered what route he expected to take.

Emily looked to her bike helmet, sitting beside his by the coat rack. She stared at it for some time, before slowly looking over to her luggage which had never really been unpacked anyway for such a short time she’d been here. She’d just kept living like she was about to walk out the door, so focused on distractions there hadn’t been time to make herself at home.

She sat down beside him on the couch, closing her eyes and letting this decision settle around them.

They were letting it go. Both were too scared of what would happen if they pushed too hard to keep on trying to force an outcome.

 

Emily was, by all rights, allowed a lot more time home then she actually took, as payment for the gruelling hours she worked while she was there. Until she was embedded, she was encouraged to retain her connections with her home and family with frequent, short trips. While she’d been orientating herself to her training in those first six weeks, she hadn’t taken up any of these offers, something her and Spencer agreed on as it would only slow her acclimatisation to the work. After the disaster trip home on the six-week mark, Spencer didn’t bring up her coming home again.

Emily, however, was struck by the terrifying notion she was letting their relationship die. As soon as she was able, she took one of those weekends and was out of the door and heading for the airport before her office seat had even cooled. Her phone, heavy with Spencer’s surprised texts that she was coming home, stayed resolutely silent despite her determination to reach him until he finally agreed with what she read as a strange amount of reservation to pick her up from the airport.

When she landed, there he was, looking mildly surprised to see her.

“I didn’t actually think you were coming,” he admitted as he kissed her at the gate before pulling her into a hug that lingered. She relaxed into his familiar grip. He was here; he was solid; he was real. They were okay. The fear that had chased her from London to DC faded. “That’s a lot of money for a weekend visit, isn’t it?”

“I’d pay any amount of money to see you,” she said to him with relish. Briefly, she touched on the elephant in the room: “Ethan?”

Spencer just shook his head.

They went home.

 

Emily was in the shower when Spencer’s phone hummed. He reached for it nervously, hoping/dreading it would be Ethan while expecting that it would be exactly who it was. The bathroom door opened, Emily emerging in a cloud of steam and apple-scented shampoo, and he wasn’t where she’d left him. Towel-draped, she padded to the bedroom and knocked—knocked, on her own bedroom door!—and stepped in to find him not undressed and in bed like she’d hoped to find him, but standing by the open closet door knotting his tie.

Her heart sunk.

“Work?” she rasped around what she was sure was going to be furious tears if she let them be.

“Sorry,” was his reply. He kissed her briefly, his mind clearly already at the Bureau. “I’ll try to be home before you leave. I love you.”

“I love you too,” was her soft reply.

Then he was gone.

 

She went for a ride, wishing she could take her bike to London with her. It was yet another thing she missed deeply while she was gone, along with her boyfriend and cat, with the added worry that since Spencer wouldn’t ride it the damn thing was going to end up seizing up. Her baby needed to fly, not stay cooped up in the apartment garage watching Spencer’s Volvo come and go.

Somehow, while she’d been ruminating, her bike had taken her on a course of its own. She pulled up outside Ethan’s craphole, parked across the road watching the doorman—who was concealed carrying, which was either supremely illegal in DC or meant that he was some form of law enforcement—checking people’s IDs as they scurried in and out of the gated entrance. It was something to distract from Spencer and their lives, so she sat there watching and hoping to see a familiar, rangy profile loping from the parking area to the door.

A shadow alerted her to someone walking up beside her and she swung around, gloved hand tightening in a rush of surprise. It was sloppy of her, being snuck up on, but she was still wearing her helmet and earplugs below that, her senses restricted. The man beside her, dressed as the doorman across the road was but with his ID tucked into his pocket instead of on display, kept one hand at his hip as he gestured for her to remove her helmet. She did, earning a startled glance when he realised she was a woman under the helmet and bike leathers.

“You enjoying the view?” he asked her with some sarcasm evident.

“May I reach for my ID?” she asked, earning a suspicious nod. She carried with her, not her Interpol ID, but her still-current FBI one. Benefits of being on loan from DC. He studied it, looking up again as she tugged a picture of Spencer and Ethan out of her pocket, the picture folded back to hide Spencer. “Can you tell me if this man still lives here?”

He was silent for a long moment.

“If he was still here, I couldn’t,” he said finally. “That’s against regulations, you get me?”

She did.

“Can you tell me where he’s gone?” she asked with no real hope he could. “I’m his friend and I’m worried about him.”

The man shook his head. “Special case, that one,” he said, which earned a snort from Emily. ‘Special case’ indeed. “We don’t normally take men here, but they bent the rules for him and his partner and the kids. Guess they moved their case through quicker to get him out of here. Was making the other women nervous.”

“Oh,” said Emily, mind whirring over that. “Is he in danger?”

“I wouldn’t think so, not if they let them go. But who knows, this place is damning evidence that the system sucks. I’m afraid I do need to ask you to move on, Agent Prentiss. We have to take note of anyone loitering around here, you know why.”

“Thanks, anyway.” She took her ID and the photo back, making sure to smile brightly at the man. He’d helped, enough. It would give Spencer something to work with anyway. “If you see him again, tell him Emily is worried about him.”

“Will do. Have a good day, ma’am.”

She peeled away without another word, heading home to an empty apartment and no Spencer to greet her.

 

Spencer didn’t come home for work before her flight. She left a note to him on the table outlining what she’d found and left, nothing but a message on her phone apologising for her having wasted her money coming here.

Next weekend, she decided. She’d come back next weekend. They’d fix this.

 

Next weekend found her standing with her arms crossed as Spencer wearily packed his go-bag.

“I requested not to be called in,” he told her as he packed. “I promise, Em, I did. You know I can’t say no while we’re on rotation though, that’s not how it works.”

“I don’t even know why I bother coming back at all,” she snapped irritably, earning a hurt glance from him. “I just sit here on my own with the cat.”

“Holiday soon,” he promised. “Two weeks no one can tear us away from each other. You’ll see, everything will be okay then.”

Privately, Emily thought he was being naïve, putting aside all these small visits in favour of the big one, but maybe she was just grumpy this was her second plane ticket wasted.

“Two weeks,” she agreed tiredly. As he kissed her with a brief touch of his lips to hers and went for the door, she called out after him, “Ethan?”

Her answer was a fraught look and the door closing firmly.

“You better be fucken dead,” she told the photo of Spencer and Ethan, now bent down the middle and stuck to the fridge with a magnet on the bend. He beamed back at her. “Because if you’re not, we’re going to kill you for this.”

The photo said nothing, just kept smiling happily.

 

She didn’t fly home after that. What was the point? Both their workplaces had approved their holiday, with Emily warned that it would be her last turn home since it was seeming likely they’d be making a move into a field operation after that, with how the groundwork they were laying was coming together. Relieved, she used her nights and now-free weekends to hit the gym again in anticipation of the work she’d been waiting for. She warned Spencer of this, who took it in stride.

“That’s fine,” he said cheerfully. She could hear foil being crinkled on his side of the phone, victim to him and Kinky playing some sort of strange, loud, enthusiastic game. He was breathing heavily as he occupied the cat. “We’ll work it out. Do you think I’d be any good at skiing?”

“I can’t see how,” she said. “You were a disaster when we went as teenagers. Why on earth would you have improved?”

“Maybe by osmosis. I’ve been watching a lot of skiing on TV and, you know, I think I could really figure it out this time.”

“I think the only thing you’ll figure out if you try to ski is your face into a tree, and I say that with all the love in the world.”

Spencer made a sad noise before barking a laugh and, from what Emily could tell, diving down on Kinky and wrestling him one-handed for the foil and something that squeaked. “Well, if that happens you’ll just have to nurse me back to health, won’t you?”

“I don’t know what part of you thinks I’m capable of nursing a broken neck but sure, hey, why the fuck not. Also, guess what?”

“What?” he huffed, Kinky yowling at him. Emily rolled her eyes at them both.

“I’ve lost a kilo so you can quit with the fat comments now,” she teased. He’d been endlessly sorry about that conversation ever since, and she delighted in mocking him about it. “Honestly, fuck getting older. Two straight weeks of exercise back in my youth would have had the weight falling from me, now it’s a battle to get that much off…”

“You’re building muscle. It balances. Em, don’t stress, you’re always absolutely stunning to me. You know that.” He wasn’t panting now, having apparently stopped wrestling her cat. “I don’t like when you obsess over your weight. Your value isn’t tied up into the number on a scale.”

Emily rolled her eyes at him. “Sap. You’re a sap. I love you, sappy.”

“I love you too.”

She could hear him smiling and, for the first time in months, relaxed. They were okay.

“Oh!” he said suddenly, “I forgot to tell you—Ethan called me. From a new number, he said he lost his old one months ago.”

Emily thought that was unlikely, considering that the phone had continued connecting that whole time, just without an answer, but she let Spencer babble on.

“He’s fine. He said he’s working full-time at the moment so he doesn’t have time to catch up, plus nights at some bar, but he invited me to the bar to see him play. I think he’s doing the music there.”

“Have you gone yet?”

There was a guilty silence on the other end of the line.

“You should probably go,” she pressed gently. “Don’t put this aside like you have been everything else difficult. Nail that kid down before he vanishes into the ether again.”

“I haven’t been putting difficult things aside,” was the hot reply. “I’ve been busy with work. Why is it I can’t be overwhelmed with work? It’s okay when—”

“I don’t want to fight.” Her response was short-tempered, and he stopped with an irritated huff. There was silence broken only by the distant sounds of foil still being abused, although Spencer wasn’t laughing anymore. “I gotta go. I’ll call you sometime tomorrow when I get a chance, figure out flights. Can you check that our booking is still in place?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay. I love you.”

He didn’t reply for a brief moment, stalling her heart, before quietly responding, “I love you too. Bye.”

And he hung up. She was left holding the phone, looking at the calendar. Three weeks to their cabin. Two and a half months since she’d left DC.

It felt like an eternity.

 

Two days later, Spencer’s personal phone rang when he was in a hotel room preparing to leave for the local precinct. He had time to spare while waiting for Morgan to shower, so he grabbed it and answered it on a whim.

It was Emily.

“It’s late for you to be calling me, isn’t it?” he said, distressed. “Is something wrong?”

She drew in a breath that sounded damp and worried.

“Spence,” she began. His heart hurtled down, through his shoes and into the ground below leaving him standing hollow and frightened gripping the phone like it was all that was holding him up. He knew. He knew what she was going to say.

She said it.

“We’ve been assigned to the field early.”

“When?” he rasped. His head hurt. The hole in his chest where his heart had been did too, like it had ripped away all his hopes for recovery with it.

“They took blood today; I have a physical and get the results tomorrow. All leave has been cancelled. As soon as I’m cleared for the field, I’m in. It’s…fuck. Spence, it’s deep op. No contact. No end date. Once we’re in, we’re in.”

“Oh,” he said. There was nothing else to say, really, except, “Do you think we’ll get our deposit back?”

“I don’t know. I’m sorry, Spence, I am, but—”

“No, it’s fine.” It wasn’t. “I’m okay.”

He wasn’t.

“There’ll be other holidays,” she said. He could hear desperation in her voice. “When it’s over, when this is over, we can do something together. I’ll even teach you to ski—”

“Will there?” he asked in a voice he was aiming to hit ‘calm’ and instead broke ‘shrill’. “I’m not sure, Em, I feel like you chose this, right? You chose to fly across an ocean, you chose to make it impossible to see each other. You wanted exactly this.

“That’s not fair, I was coming home on the weekends. It was your work that kept getting in the way. And I warned you not to put all your hopes on this holiday, we knew this could happen. But, no, you had to decide it was the saving of us—”

“Yeah,” he said quietly, “silly me. Maybe I should have realised we aren’t worth saving.”

She made a sharp noise that made the line crackle unpleasantly in his ear.

“I have to go,” he said, which wasn’t untrue and he clung to that. He wasn’t fleeing this. “Good luck on your op. Call me if you survive. And if you don’t, well, hey. I’ll look after the cat.”

“Spencer—”

But he hung up savagely and, with a burst of fury reminiscent of a long-ago boy hurling a long-ago notebook into a mirror, whirling around and pitched the cell at the tiled floor of the hotel. It felt, he thought furiously, appropriate that it exploded into splintered fragments of plastic and electrical components at the impact. It felt symbolic. It was everything he’d bottled up in the months she’d been gone, or maybe even more that. It was a symbol of his inability to fix this.

Leaving it there, he grabbed his bag and slammed from the room.

Chapter Text

The strangest three days of Emily’s life began following that phone call.

Day one began with a sleepless night.

 

Spencer proceeded to ignore her calls and Emily was more livid with him then she’d ever been. She left him five scathing voice messages and another three furious texts and then tossed her cell aside with disgust, focusing instead on sleeping ready for the day that was coming.

Sleep, of course, refused to come. Instead, she laid there staring at the roof and cycling over their conversation and rewording it, thinking of a million and one ways it could have gone better. A million and one different things she could have said instead of the things she had said. She’d known he was going to be furious…why hadn’t she been kinder? Why hadn’t she eased him into it? Why was she so damn selfish? She didn’t need to work this job; she didn’t need to be so far away from him…

Why hadn’t they booked the holiday sooner?

“Fuck,” she whispered into her pillow, smothering her mouth into it and ruminating. She was the ruining of them. Hadn’t she always known she would be?

And there she stayed until the sun began to grind its way up into the sky, beginning a day that she was sure couldn’t get any worse.

 

“Gideon sent us back to the hotel three hours ago,” said Aaron from the doorway of the darkened precinct, looking in on where Spencer was hunched under a pile of paperwork that teetered dangerously. “Why haven’t you left?”

“Why haven’t you left?” Spencer sniped back, uncharacteristically snide. Aaron raised his eyebrows at that, noting the furious twist to his colleague’s mouth. “I’m working. That’s what we’re here for, aren’t we?”

“It’s two a.m.”

Spencer ignored that, reaching for another stack of files and adding them to his own pile.

“Do you need to talk?”

“I need to work. Is that a problem?”

Eyebrows still up, Aaron backed out of the room with a taut, “No problem.” It was rare that Spencer slammed into anything approaching rudeness, so for him to do so now warranted, Aaron thought, some space. They’d talk later.

He returned to the other office to do some work of his own just in case Spencer changed his mind and needed someone there.

 

“Oh, you look pretty,” said Tsia as soon as she saw Emily approaching the med bay at eight a.m. that morning. In Houston, where Spencer worked, it was two a.m. They were a mere six hours apart. “Late night?”

“You could say that.” Emily threw herself into the hard-plastic chair beside her partner, closing her eyes and feeling the severe angles of the seat fighting against her body to be supremely uncomfortable. The sleepless night and the stress of the last few days were doing a number on her. “Please tell me the docs aren’t running late. I’m dying to sit at my desk in a chair that doesn’t fight me…”

“They’re running late,” Tsia said sympathetically. “I get it. It’s big, you know. This whole thing. My head is spinning, I can’t believe it’s finally happening. It’d be weird if you weren’t scared.”

“I can do it,” Emily replied hotly, sitting up.

“I don’t doubt you. No one here doubts that you’re competent.” Tsia looked away with a small smile. Emily could not get comfy. She stood, pacing to try keep herself alert, Tsia’s eyes following her. “Too competent. You know Easter wants you to go solo one day.”

“Solo? No partner? Shit.” Emily stopped, her thoughts about Spencer dashing from her brain at that. “Wow. That’s a hell of a statement of faith…”

But she was distracted by a weird, uncomfortable sensation low in her abdomen. She frowned, shifting on her feet and trying to gauge the cramp. She’d stopped bleeding four days ago, surely it couldn’t be a return of the period from hell she’d just tolerated.

It’d be just her luck if it was though, with her bag back at her desk.

“Settle down. We’re going to be fine. How many of these things have we sat through before and they’ve never had anything to complain about before. There’s nothing to worry about.”

“You haven’t had the week I’ve had,” Emily joked, taking Tsia’s advice and sitting down with half her attention on her wayward reproductive system. Stress played hell with it, it could be about to do anything. “Scratch that, you haven’t had the year I’ve had.”

Tsia laughed. “Look, when we pass these and get cleared,” she said with a kind of relish Emily envied since Spencer had sucked all the excitement out of the assignment, “I’ll take you out for a celebratory drink and we’ll get hammered. Might as well while we can, right?”

“You have no idea how incredible an idea that is,” Emily said. “I’m holding you to that.”

They sat together in companionable silence. Emily shoved all thoughts of Spencer away and determined that she’d be present in the moment right now. Fortunately, years of being in the moment had served her well for this; she was perfectly calm for the first time all night, and so spent her last hour of peace quite comfortably.

 

It was the doctor, not the nurse, that called for Emily to come.

“Agent Prentiss?” he said. “Come with me, please.”

He didn’t smile as he said it.

 

It was seven a.m. in Houston when Spencer’s work phone rang. He glanced at it, frowned when he saw Emily’s cell number on the screen, and declined the call with an irate thought that she should know better than to call him at work just because they’d had a fight. There was no more thought of sleeping. They were standing in the precinct listening to Gideon instructing them on how they were approaching a hostage situation. Spencer couldn’t be Spencer right now; he couldn’t spare a thought for Emily or their relationship or whatever it currently was or wasn’t.

Reid set his phone to divert to voicemail before reaching for his Kevlar vest.

 

By two p.m. London-time, Emily was on a plane. She seemed perfectly calm. She smiled at the hostess, accepted a glass of water, declined wine, and showed no sign of what she was optimistically sure was the ruin of her career. She tried one last time to call Spencer before switching her phone off and resigning herself to the way her life had contracted in strangely with her at the centre of it, time skipping and hopping around her. For the next eight hours, she was locked into this seat on this plane in the liminal place suspended above the earth. For the next eight hours, she was at the mercy of her brain.

She was sure Spencer would be there when she landed. And she didn’t think about what the doctor had said. There’d be time to worry about it later.

 

What the doctor had said was very simple. It was life-ending. It was this:

“You’re pregnant.”

 

Heartbeats were strange things, Emily decided on that plane ride home. Strange much like how time was strange. In that heartbeat of time following those simple words, she’d lived a lifetime.

This plane ride felt like it was still encompassed in that heartbeat. Something of Emily had stalled out in that med bay; something had fallen quiet and failed to keep on going, keep on moving her forward. Instead, with silence where there should be sound inside her, she’d thanked the doctor, stood, and left. She’d called Spencer. No answer.

She’d booked a plane. Immediately.

All in the space of that stolen heartbeat.

 

When Emily landed in DC, it was eight hours later. Only five p.m. in DC, but ten p.m. if she’d still been in London, and she felt that old as she stood in the airport and looked around for a familiar shape. She hadn’t bothered turning her phone on because of course he’d be there; he always had been before. But five p.m. was peak hour. There’d be traffic. The traffic in DC was terrible.

She sat down on one of the chairs provided and waited patiently, still caught in that terrible heartbeat as she waited for it to thump back to life and bring her with it.

She waited.

 

She waited.

 

You see, she didn’t want to go home alone.

 

By eleven that night, Reid knew they were in for the long haul. They’d gotten themselves hemmed in during the hard entry, he and Hotch now sitting tight in the room they’d cleared and were now holding grimly. They could retreat, and they discussed that, but they also knew that the pressure both they and the SWAT members who’d pushed forward with them were putting on the perps were all that was stopping them making a break for the hostages. If they stayed, they risked a nasty surprise if the hostage-takers got the upper hand and managed to force their way in here; if they retreated, they’d allow the leader to get back in contact with the man still holding the hostages, the man who wouldn’t make a move without his leader’s say-so.

They stayed.

 

“Do you have someone we can call for you?” someone was asking nearby her. Emily ignored their conversation, instead watching a girl and her parents trudging tiredly across the terminal. The girl was four, maybe five. A stuffed rabbit in a strawberry dress hung from her hand, smiling emotionlessly at Emily with its beady eyes and cotton-stitched mouth.

She was thinking about that heartbeat and everything she’d wondered in that eternity of waiting.

 

These are the thoughts that she’d had while sitting in that med bay in London as the doctor had said those fateful words. He’d said, “You’re pregnant,” and she’d, of course, thought, “Well, fuck.”

It was betrayal she’d felt next. She was on the pill. This was ridiculous! And she’d said that, snide in her disbelief as her brain had circled around to the quiet word (abortion). Because, of course she’d abort, just as soon as she figured out what the hell had caused it. A mistaken test, maybe; or they had the wrong patient’s file. Maybe Tsia was the pregnant one? She’d said that…hadn’t she? She’d said, “But I’m on the pill.” There had been a conversation following it, the slow realisation that she pill was affected by antibiotics. Had she been on antibiotics recently? Perhaps even not recently?

There’s an irregularity in the results, Agent Prentiss.

When did you have your last period?

Last week, she’d laughed. Sorry, that laugh said. You’re wrong. That’s Tsia Mosley’s file. Poor Tsia. She was looking forward to this op too. And it was a doozy. A doozy of a period. She’d hated it at the time, but in that brief heartbeat, before the betrayal was over, she’d been glad of it because it had cheered ‘Not Pregnant!’

Does your partner use a barrier method? Condoms?

 

He did not. Spencer Reid had an intolerance to latex and, as they’d discovered, latex allergies worsened with exposure. They were cumulative.

They’d assumed the pill was enough.

 

And she hadn’t been on antibiotics for months. Eons, years.

Over twenty weeks, in fact.

A mistake, of course.

 

“Do you have someone we can call for you?” the person said again. Emily looked around, annoyed that whoever it was was ignoring the person speaking to them. Just let them call someone! she wanted to yell.

The someone was her. There was an attendant standing beside her looking concerned.

“No, my partner is coming,” said Emily politely, stunned that she hadn’t noticed the woman speaking to her. “He’ll be here soon. I called him as I got off the plane.”

She smiled.

“Which flight was that, ma’am?”

“London,” Emily answered distractedly. She wished they’d stop speaking to her. She was trying to keep an eye out for Spencer. If they kept talking to her, she’d miss him. And until he was there, strong and firm and always-there, well, she’d just keep on being trapped in that one frozen heartbeat. “I came from London, landed at five.”

“Ma’am…it’s midnight. Are you sure you don’t have anyone else to call?”

She didn’t want to be trapped anymore. She just wanted her heart to keep on beating.

 

The apartment was quiet. It was two a.m. Emily was too tired to do the math on how long it had been since she’d lost herself, walking into the apartment and stumbling to the couch to collapse upon it. She instinctively knew he wasn’t here. The air itself felt lonely.

 

She dreamed strangely. She dreamed of that heartbeat she’d been waiting for ending. She dreamed of what was coming next and it was vivid, realised, heartbreaking. Spencer came home and she told him. All her worries evaporated at that moment, all the fear. Swept away by the stunned way he whispered, “Pregnant?” and the nervous anticipation in her expression. He hadn’t wanted to celebrate because he’d been scared she’d sweep it away from him, rip it from his grasp. But she couldn’t, how could she?

They were going to be parents.

“We’re going to be wonderful!” she declared, wrapping her arms around him and dragging him down into a giddy, frantic dance.

“You’re wonderful,” he announced to her and the world, holding her up high.

She touched the stars with him below her and their baby along for the ride.

 

After the betrayal had come the hope. It was sneaky, hope. It came with curiosity, wonder, anticipation. It came with the idea of a small hand in hers; it came with the sight of that girl and her stuffed rabbits. Emily had wondered, would their child climb trees too? Touch the stars? Fall in love? Name a lake?

Would their child complete or destroy her?

Their child.

In a heartbeat, it had gone from a mistake to a child. She didn’t know what made this one different from when she’d been fifteen. She assumed the missing ingredient was Spencer. He’d always made her better; he’d always declared her wonderful.

He’d make this wonderful too.

 

She woke to terror because, a) she was pregnant and that was horrifying, and b) there was a man who wasn’t Spencer standing over her staring down with her with unrestricted shock in his expression.

“I have a gun,” she yelped, lurching up.

“I have a can opener,” Ethan countered, holding up said item. “And a can of cranberry cat meat. Why are you on the couch?”

She stared at him. He wasn’t the person she’d been waiting for. She couldn’t say it to him.

She couldn’t say anything, actually. Aside from the surge of terror before she’d recognised him—realising now that Spencer must have talked to him, asked him to come and feed Kinky which meant he wasn’t planning on being home anytime soon—her words had been taken by that doctor and his easy way of shattering her.

She stood and, bizarrely, thought of the rabbit-wallpapered office that had always been a nursery in waiting.

Her knees buckled. The strange feeling was back. Ethan’s eyes widened with fear. Oh, she thought with a nervous laugh, he felt it too. It was scary, being pregnant.

It was scary.

She dropped.

 

“Gideon wants to swap us out,” said Hotch. “We’ve been here too long. He wants fresh eyes in.”

“Any agent he sends in risks getting shot,” Reid pointed out. “There’s no cover. I’m still good and if we’re tired, they’re more so. We have the advantage here.”

Hotch thought about that for a moment. Things like this were make or break for a career.

“I’m good too,” he said, settling back in and checking, again, his gun.

 

Time had no meaning anymore. Was it an hour, two, twenty-four? Forty-eight? Emily had no idea; all she knew was that she was still stuck in time waiting for Spencer to come back and restart it. Nothing would progress in any direction until he was beside her, and that was what she repeated over and over and over and over to anyone who would listen.

“Call him again,” she said furiously.

“I’m trying,” said Ethan, pacing the bed where she was sitting with her arms crossed and her face a sedate kind of waiting fury. “He’s not answering, Goddamnit, Spencer, answer the damn phone!”

“Kinda like karma for you, isn’t it?” Emily sniped, smiling sharply at him.

Ethan didn’t seem to appreciate the joke, giving her a wide-eyed stare and nervously wiping his hand across the stubble of a hastily shaved face. There was, she noticed, blood still under his nails where he’d missed washing it.

She closed her eyes and waited until she couldn’t wait anymore.

 

The doctor had caused all this, really. This whole mess. It all would have been so much cleaner if he hadn’t followed up those dangerous words (you’re pregnant) with a single one that turned out to be the deadliest word in the world to her. Because being pregnant was scary, it was terrifying, especially if it wasn’t a quick abortion – and the idea of telling Spencer she wanted to abort something he’d helped create felt like it would ruin her too. But if it wasn’t her, it was flying back to DC and telling Spencer, and it was months of fear and anticipation; it was childbirth and more terror, and it was a boy with his eyes or a girl with her smile. It was diapers and learning to talk and teaching them to dance, and it was marriage and commitment and the loss of Emily Prentiss in favour of Emily and Spencer, forever. It was all of that and, if it was anything like their childhoods, it was wild and unpredictable and wonderful and wonderful, and wonderful…

 

“You’ll be fine,” Ethan said with a queasy smile as they came to get her for the ultrasound. She’d refused it in London. Refused anything else here until it was done, but only when Spencer was beside her. But now she knew: he wasn’t coming. He wasn’t coming, and the doctor had guessed that too. She looked at him. “Seriously, ultrasounds, they’re a blast! Looking inside you, woo. How gruesome. Right?”

She opened her mouth to tell him she hated how useless and not-the-right-man he was. He kept up that queasy, nervous smile because, despite it all, he wasn’t an idiot. He knew something was wrong even though she hadn’t told him.

She hadn’t told anyone.

She opened her mouth to say that and instead whispered, “Don’t make me go alone.”

Ethan took her hand and walked beside her.

 

“Is there anyone we can call for you?” they’d asked over and over, and she’d said no every time. There was no one. No one would answer. She was alone, just her and her one heartbeat and that terrible, awful word that had followed ‘You’re pregnant’.

 

She told Ethan that word. They’d given her a sedative and she was dozing. It was an eon after the ultrasound and he was silent. They weren’t bothering to call Spencer anymore. What was the point? What was done was done.

“He said ‘but’,” she murmured sleepily, seeing him start awake and look at her, something impossible to read on his expression. He’d never asked for this.

“What?” he asked her from miles away and years ago.

“The doctor,” she explained, closing her eyes. Ending that heartbeat. When she woke, it would all be different; it would be over. If she woke. A part of her expected not to. Maybe this was always how she was going to die: without him.

Maybe that was important.

And she never did finish explaining to Ethan what the doctor had said that was so terrible.

 

He was sitting stern in his chair, the kind of gentle smile she knew was supposed to be sympathetic on his face. Her gut lurched, and cramped.

“Your results do indicate that you’re pregnant,” he said in that same placating voice, “but there are some irregularities in the results. May I examine you?”

She nodded numbly.

“Excellent, Agent Prentiss. It won’t take long. First, we’ll listen to the heartbeat.”

 

Day three ended much as it had begun: with just one heartbeat where there should have been two.

 

Chapter Text

One word shattered the rush of success. Reid walked out of there with Hotch beside him and zero hostage losses, feeling untouchable as they moved towards Gideon standing at the command centre. He knew he was grinning because, this? This was the best outcome any of them could have asked for. It was the best outcome they could expect, and he knew it was because of his work.

That was a feeling very much like knowing his purpose and his place, and it was glorious.

Until Gideon broke it with a word.

“Spencer,” he said grimly. Hotch stiffened beside him. First names were rarely a good sign. “The Bureau just notified me that there’s been an incident. Agent Prentiss is at Inova Hospital. A Mr Coiro called the Bureau to try to reach you.”

“Emily’s in DC?” was the first thing Spencer said, stupid in his shock. “But, what? What? When?”

Gideon hesitated. Suddenly, Aaron’s hand was on Spencer’s arm, his grip tense.

As Rossi could have told them all, at length, Jason Gideon was not a man who understood being human. Oh, he understood humans, much as a child understands the bugs in their displays pinned neatly through the thorax, but when it came to being human he often faltered. He’d faltered in school, he’d faltered in his marriage, he’d faltered as a father, and he faltered now. Rossi, who understood being different, had accepted this but never allowed it to validate moments where Gideon, without recognition, could be cruel while pursuing the bigger picture.

But Rossi had retired early and the Bureau had let him.

“When?” repeated Spencer numbly, dreading and expecting exactly the answer he received.

 

Gideon drove. Aaron and Spencer were too tired. Spencer wasn’t even entirely sure why Aaron was there, but he was glad for it. His own anger was impossible to contemplate right now; it was gratifying to look at Aaron and see the rare fury written openly across his features that validated what Gideon had done to him. To them. Spencer was drowning under the terror of what he’d done.

The drive was silent, which was unfortunate. Despite Spencer holding the device to his ear as close as he could get, attempting to trap the shrill voices within as they recited his voicemails to him, everyone could hear. They heard Emily’s snarled threats for him to answer the damn phone; they heard her increasingly tense tirades. They heard the tirades turn from angry to scared. They heard as it stopped being Emily on the other end of the phone at all, Ethan’s deep voice replacing hers. He, unlike Emily, did not sound angry. He sounded…

He sounded scared.

And they all heard the final, damning one. It wasn’t Emily, which was somehow worse. Emily’s voice sounded deadened and defeated would have been terrible enough, but hearing it be Ethan? That gutted Spencer because, he knew, Emily would never have wanted him to be the one reciting this information if he’d had a choice.

“I guess you’re not coming for whatever reason,” said Ethan, his voice barely lingering a step behind panic. “That’s fucken fantastic. You know she lost the baby you didn’t tell me about? Yeah. Well. She lost it. I hope whatever’s got your attention is as important as that. Asshole.”

Spencer hung up, staring at the phone in his hand. He stared. No one said anything. A dull silence permeated the car.

“Ten minutes ETA,” said Gideon, his voice strange. Thin and worried. Spencer continued staring at his phone, wondering if whoever had passed on Ethan’s message had used the words ‘medical emergency’ and if Gideon, in his infinite knowledge, had decided that the omission of them meant that it was okay to hide this from Spencer until the job was done. Over thirty hours he’d been kept in the dark, while Emily…

He swallowed. There had been no more calls or messages since the last one.

Seventeen hours ago.

“I didn’t even know she was pregnant,” he said despite himself. Aaron reached his hand forward from the backseat to rest it on Spencer’s shoulder. It was all he could do.

They drove in silence.

 

Ethan looked up and Spencer was standing in the doorway of Emily’s hospital room. Emily was asleep.

“You look fucked,” said Ethan.

Spencer just stared.

“She almost died, you know,” Ethan added, smiling garishly as a rush of frustration threatened to raise his voice above the soft whisper he was trying to keep going. “You know that, right? They fill you in on what you missed?”

“How?” rasped Spencer.

“Haemorrhaged. She’s fine now, they stopped it. I guess she’s fine anyway. As fine as you can be, going through something like that alone.”

Spencer looked at him, and Ethan coolly added:

“I don’t count and you know it. I’m not who she wanted. I don’t recommend waking her up, by the way. She’s about as angry as I’ve ever seen her.”

Spencer sucked in a slow, lingering breath. He knew from the expression on Ethan’s face that there was no forgiveness there, but he was trying to find his feet.

“She told her doctor to fill you in if you showed up,” Ethan said finally, curling back into the chair he appeared to have been existing in for some time, ragged and unshaven and red-eyed with exhaustion. “Go see the doc then come back so I can go home for a shower. Unless you’re going to fuck off again.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Spencer promised.

Ethan just gave him a strange look and said nothing.

 

Spencer was unable to find the doctor in the time before he returned to take over Ethan’s chair beside Emily, one part of him noticing that Gideon was still sitting out in the waiting room. He didn’t pause to ponder why that was, just took up his stance by his girlfriend’s side and sat there watching her and imagining all the parts of him that would have died with her. Grief warred with confusion with guilt with anger; he didn’t know what he was feeling.

He didn’t know what to say when she woke up.

She woke up.

“Where’s the doctor?” she asked, her voice hoarse. It was the first words she said upon seeing him. There was no anger, no acceptance of his presence, no relief or joy or thankfulness. Just that blunt query. “I want to be discharged.”

“Is that a good idea?” Spencer rasped out.

Emily turned cold eyes onto him. “Is it really your place to ask that?” she said in a low, dangerous voice. It was a bladed voice, knife-edged and liable to bite. He withdrew nervously from it. But he couldn’t stay quiet forever; despite knowing that it was definitely not the time for excuses as to why he hadn’t been here, his brain was circling the drain.

“Did you know?” he blurted out, remembering how sure he’d been that she was hiding something from him. Surely, not that…

Emily looked at him again, just as coldly.

“Did you know you were…pregnant?”

There had been silence around him asking. That silence remained when he was done. It wasn’t a silence composed of the absence of noise; it was a silence composed of the addition of noiselessness. A void where there should have been sound. Spencer thought the void should be filled with his or her voice, fixing this; Emily knew the void was where there should have been another heartbeat.

“Are you asking me if I hid it from you?” she asked him, tilting her head almost curiously. It was a deceptive curiousness. Anger at Gideon twisted inside Spencer, becoming pointed and wary. Suspicion sparked. “Why would I do that, Spencer?”

They stared at each other, Spencer’s fear, for the moment, distracted by a sharpened thought: would she…?

“Oh,” said Emily. “I see. You’re not asking if I knew. You’re asking if I not only knew but if I also hid it from you so you wouldn’t stop me aborting. Is that it?”

“No. What? No. I wouldn’t have…no. I just…”

His words tasted like copper; he’d bitten his tongue without realising. He swallowed around the leaden taste of it.

“Well, sorry,” she snapped, rolling away from him and sliding out from under the blankets as though she intended to stand. He reached for her. She bristled. “Sorry to disappoint. I didn’t know. But I get why you’re suspicious. You hear all those stories about women who just know that they’re pregnant, right? They just know, they have such a connection to the little parasitical clump of cells inside them, how could they not? And here’s me, walking around with a half-grown dead thing inside me and no clue. Guess I’m not much of a woman, or a mother.”

She was hunched away from him, either fury or sadness bowing her back and bending her shoulders in, and he had no idea what to say that wasn’t trite or useless.

“They place it somewhere around the nineteen-week mark, by the way,” Emily added almost offhand, tossing that information over her shoulder and depositing it into his shaking hands folded into his lap. “That’s how long I was oblivious to it. Shit, Spence, if I’d known I could have aborted it months ago and we’d be none the fucking wiser. Lucky I’ve got a shit uterus or we’d really be in trouble.”

He stood and walked out, taking with him those words and his mounting horror and grief, and taking with him the understanding of exactly what it was he felt like he’d lost but, really, had never really had a chance at anyway.

She didn’t call after him.

 

Gideon said nothing when Spencer took a seat next to him and stared at the wall across. For an hour, they sat there in silence, until the doctor called him back into Emily’s room to find her just a switched off, just as furiously silent. He felt hollowed out. Sickened by grief he wasn’t sure he was allowed to be feeling; he felt, most of all, very alone in that grief. Emily just looked…relieved.

She looked relieved.

Moments later, he found out why.

“Go over that again for his sake,” she said, nodding to Spencer. He bunched his hands at his sides and focused on breathing. “I’d do it, but he’d probably just ignore me.”

Spencer shuddered. There it was; there was her anger.

The doctor spoke and Spencer listened, because there was very little else he could do. They wanted Emily to stay in another night. She was refusing. They were letting her go, warning her there’d be pain from the procedure they’d had to resort to to save her life. Emily seemed to know about this procedure and was unconcerned; Spencer asked for more information. He received it.

“Endometrial ablation would be a hardcore punk band name,” Emily joked when the doctor finished, receiving an uncomfortable stare from them both. “Oh, don’t look at me like that. I get that I’m less without a working fucking uterus, but you could at least try not to look so horrified. Besides, I prefer that area to remain decorative.”

Down her gaze flickered, for a moment her hair obscuring her face. Just for a moment.

About the amount of time it took to sneeze.

Then she was sitting straight again, no sign of emotion on her face. Untouched by this.

Spencer mourned, alone and guilty for allowing himself to do so.

“Can I go home now?” she asked. Her voice wavering, just slightly. Spencer eyed her, hoping for some kind of sign that she was feeling it too, that she could meet him midway. That his missing this hadn’t broken them completely. There was nothing of the sort to be seen.

“We do need to discuss what you would like done with the remains,” said the doctor so smoothly that Spencer almost nodded along before nausea hit.

Emily baulked. “What? What remains? Can’t you just…” She stopped, losing whatever she’d been about to say and just looking confused.

“Nineteen weeks,” Spencer croaked out as a reminder to her that it was something tangible. Except that was cruel and he hated himself immediately, looking away from her before she could meet his gaze and show him if he’d hurt her by forcing her to see it his way. Instead, he looked at the doctor. “Won’t they use the re…won’t they use them to investigate why the miscarriage occurred? Loss of pregnancy is rare in the second trimester.”

“Normally, yes. However, in the circumstances, we would advise that coronial proceedings may further compound the potential trauma of the loss. The main purpose would be to ascertain if there’s a likelihood for further late-term miscarriages, but unfortunately, that won’t be a factor in your case any longer, Ms Prentiss.”

She muttered something neither of them heard.

“Do what you want,” she said finally, shrugging with apparent disdain. “Ask him what he wants.”

The doctor looked at Spencer. He looked at his feet.

“Can they tell us if it was a boy or a girl?” he asked, hearing a sharp intake of breath from the bed. “I would…I want to know.”

“Don’t you fucking dare tell me,” Emily hissed. “Find out if you want, but don’t you ever tell me.”

The doctor nodded, gesturing for Spencer to follow him out of the room. Spencer did, his back to Emily but feeling the pressure of her eyes on him bearing down until the door had swung shut behind them.

“Are you sure?” he was asked.

“Yes,” he replied.

 

When he returned, Emily was back in the bed. For a heartbeat, he panicked; she’d been so certain she wanted to leave.

“I’m spotting again,” she said without emotion. “They’re making me stay until they can find out why. Tomorrow, sometime. Probably.”

“Oh,” he said, his brain mushy under the lack of sleep and the strain of the last few hours. Fumbling for the connection they desperately needed to make to fix this, to see past the confusion and fear and chaos, to see each other. She’d never been hidden to him, ever, but right now he didn’t know what he was looking at in her eyes, and it scared him deeply. “I’ll grab a coffee and come—”

“I’d rather you left,” she replied, her eyes fixed on a point over his shoulder, as though she could see the secret he was now carrying. It felt likely. It was a grief so huge, a secret so shattering, that he guessed it must be visible clinging monkey-like to his back. “I’m telling you to leave. It’s not a request. Go home, Spencer.”

There it was, the blow. He buckled under it, unable to bear that as well as the weight of his grief and the secret, which every minute was feeling increasingly consuming, as well as his own tumultuous exhaustion. If he’d been calmer, more awake—if Gideon had gotten him here forty hours prior—maybe, just maybe, he could have battled this out easier. He could have stood his ground.

But he hadn’t, and he couldn’t, and so he accepted his dismissal with a guilty heaping of relief. It would be a relief, he knew in his coldest thoughts, to not have to look at her right now and think about what he’d missed. It would be a relief to leave this awful place behind.

“What time do you want me to come to get you tomorrow?” he asked her.

“Honestly,” said Emily, “I’d prefer if you weren’t here at all.”

And he said, “Okay.”

 

Gideon drove him home. They didn’t speak. Spencer wasn’t sure that they’d ever speak again.

When Gideon tried, Spencer stopped him.

“Spencer, I—” he began.

“Reid,” Spencer said quietly. “I’d prefer if you called me Reid.”

Gideon glanced at him, his expression unfathomably sad. All he said in response was, “I understand,” and Spencer supposed that maybe he did. There was genuine distress in his bearing but there was genuine distress in Spencer too. They were all distressed, and a lot of it was Gideon’s fault.

“If you need anything,” Gideon attempted again as Spencer exited the car at his apartment building. He didn’t get to finish.

“I won’t,” said Spencer, slamming the door shut and turning his back on the man.

He was determined: he never would again.

 

He slept in her chair in their study, surrounding by the rabbits and wishing his life was something different. Sure that she’d call at some point, tell him how she was. Ask him to come get her. Ask him to hold her so she could grieve spectacularly; offer to do the same for him for much the same reason. They’d be okay, he was sure, curled into that chair where so often before she’d sat while he worked. They’d be okay.

They always had been before.

 

He waited.

 

He waited.

 

It was ironic, really, that he’d been so determined that she not call him just three days ago, and now all he wanted in the world was for his phone to ring.

It didn’t.

But he was hopeful it would soon.

 

The next day was as dreary as Emily felt. She knew that, soon enough, Spencer would cease respecting her wishes and he’d be here with his sad eyes and his relentless misery and demanding all of her fractured attention. She couldn’t handle it, so she had her discharge papers worked out early and planned to be gone before morning broke cleanly. The doctors were thankful that she’d decided to stay for observation despite being technically able to leave the day before; she didn’t tell them that she’d just been practising avoidance. What was one more lie?

It was easier to tell Spencer she was still bleeding then it was to tell him that she was too much of a coward for this. And she was a coward. The real Emily Prentiss wouldn’t be packing her bags at the crack of dawn, ready to slink out of the state with her tail between her legs. The real Emily Prentiss would have said months ago what she’d been fighting to hide. The real Emily Prentiss, when Spencer had demanded to know what she was hiding, would have answered, “I want to break up.”

But the real Emily Prentiss had died along with the baby inside her, and this ghost of herself had none of the strength and all of the learned helplessness. She was fleeing, because she couldn’t stand to be seen like this. Not by him. Not ever by him. And running away…it was easy. It was as easy as calling Clyde earlier that morning and faking a smile so he could hear the ease in her casual, “Guess what? Not pregnant anymore. When can I come back?”

He’d said a week. Take a week. Then they’d be waiting for her.

Right now, she needed that.

There was a soft knock at her door and she tensed, panicked for a moment because the medical staff didn’t knock, before she realised the presence wasn’t Spencer. She turned, unsurprised to see who it was.

“Oh good,” she said with all of her emotions tucked carefully away where they wouldn’t leak out and complicate things. “I wanted to see you. Here.”

She rummaged in her bag for a moment before finding what she needed and hooking out her keys onto her fingers. Ethan watched with his brow furrowed and a teddy bear which she assumed was for her tucked under one arm, watched as she slid one key free of the ring and tossed it at him. The teddy was almost sacrificed as he fumbled to catch it, but she was glad to see survived.

“Don’t do this,” said Ethan after a long moment of staring at the key. “Fuck, Emily. Let me drive you home, talk this out—”

“Don’t presume to tell me what I should and shouldn’t do,” Emily snapped. “Look after her, would you? She’s a good old girl, but she has her own mind. Fights like hell sometimes…but man, she flies like the wind. Don’t forget to fly her sometimes for me, yeah?”

“I don’t want your bike,” he said firmly, trying to give the key back. She refused to take it.

“I’ll get all the paperwork organised for transfer of ownership. Just text me what address you want me to send it to and it’ll be done. Oh, and I figure he’ll want to keep the cat but, if for whatever reason he doesn’t, do you think you can take him? Kinky only likes the three of us, really. I’d hate to have him go somewhere he doesn’t feel at home.”

“Spencer isn’t going to throw your cat out on the street.” Ethan looked ragged, still standing there with the key in one hand and the teddy in the other. “Seriously, don’t do this. Don’t run out on him – he’ll never get over it.”

He’ll never get over it?” Emily was scathing. “Fuck, man, I wonder what that would be like, being traumatised by something like that, huh? Shit, how dare I do that to him. I’m a real bitch, right?”

Ethan swallowed, his grip tightening convulsively around the motorcycle key. Weirdly, the stab of grief and pain that Emily felt right then was more for the bike than the baby—the foetus—or for Spencer, who she didn’t plan on seeing for a good long time. Not until she was healed from the fuckery the doctors had wrought inside her, not until she was healed from the fuckery he’d wrought on her.

“You’re going to make me be the one to tell him, aren’t you?” Ethan said, going pale.

“You don’t have to,” said Emily with savage regret. “Just go home. He doesn’t know where you live. Let him figure it out. Fuck knows he’s got a brain. He can use it.”

Neither looked at the other in the face of this insurmountable cruelty. She knew Ethan wouldn’t do that to him. Ethan knew she would.

Stalemate.

“He’s your best friend,” Ethan tried. “He adores you. I get that he can be shitful, but this? Just…”

“Just what? What do you want me to do, Eth?” She held her arms out, showing him the room around her, their terrible context, but had to stop with the dramatic gesture midway as the movement caused an agonising feeling low in her abdomen like something inside her was fighting to tear itself loose. He knew better than to step forward and offer assistance as she buckled with a choked gasp, just looked aggrieved and miserable as she busied herself with her phone instead. Deleting all of Spencer’s texts without reading and opening the only one she was interested in.

Flight confirmed. He’s on his way to pick you up. Will be at the airport when you both arrive. Fly safe. I love you.

“Amazing,” said Emily irately, aiming a smile at Ethan that seemed to horrify him further. “The only time my mother says ‘I love you’ is after I’ve rung her to tell her that life is a joke and I’m the punchline.”

“You told your mom,” Ethan said. It wasn’t a question, just a tired statement of something that had surprised him.

“I needed her,” snapped Emily, annoyed with that surprise. “I…I need someone.”

Ethan didn’t say anything, just stared at his hand closed around the key.

“Look after that, won’t you?” Emily asked him as the silence lingering. “I love it, you know. Despite everything…I love it. Don’t let it fade away when I’m gone.”

“The bike or Spencer?” Ethan, when he wanted to be, could be as savage as she could.

But he didn’t try to stop her again. Just helped her pack and, when the doctor arrived with the wheelchair and a request to know how she was being transported from the hospital, offered to drive her to the airport.

“It’s okay,” she told him, still shoving down everything that threatened to stop her. Refusing to consider the repercussions of her flight. Not right now. Not now, not until she was safe, protected, able to collapse and have someone there she could bear to see the depths of her confusion and guilt and acrimonious grief. How dare she grieve, some part of her snarled at herself, some part of her brain with vicious claws and cutting teeth it was using to shred what remained of her confidence. How dare she grieve a baby she hadn’t even realised existed, a baby she’d failed so fundamentally, how dare she grieve Spencer, who’d hurt her.

She repeated, the slightest, horrifying quiver in her voice, “It’s okay,” and saw Ethan glance sharply at her. He’d heard it. “Someone is coming to get me.”

“Who?” he asked. Still holding that damnable teddy. In the shock of the damage she was about to cause the man they both loved, he seemed to have forgotten it.

Rescue arrived.

“That would be me,” said David Rossi firmly, stepping into the hospital room without bothering to knock. His expression was gentle, his eyes were soft, and his voice was calm and steady. She almost burst into tears at everything he was, everything she’d been needing but hadn’t found since hearing that devastating ‘but’. Dave wouldn’t let her drown like she had been; Dave would pull her free of the waves that were dragging her under even as Spencer stared dumbly from the shore, paralysed by his own destruction.

She was fine until Dave was there, fine until he said very firmly, “I’m here,” and then she wasn’t fine at all, but sobbing helplessly as Ethan stared and Dave dragged her into a hug that was so good it hurt. She felt like she was tumbling apart into that hug, all her parts unravelling gleefully at the promise of his protection.

“It’s alright, sweetheart,” he rumbled against her, rocking her gently like she was a little girl. Like he would swoop into her childhood bedroom and chase away all the things that were terrible. She sobbed harder, clinging to his expensive shirt as though it was all she was able to do. “It’s alright. Come on. Let’s get you to your mom.”

She whispered another secret into his shirt, one that only he—and maybe Ethan—heard. One she’d been hiding from Spencer for just as long as the other, maybe longer. Maybe forever.

“I’m scared,” she confessed into the wet patch she was leaving with her tears.

“I know,” he replied. “I know. But I’ll be with you every step of the way. You’ll only be alone if you want to be, and that I promise you.”

It was all she’d needed to hear; it was all she’d ever wanted to hear.

 

It had been an uneasy morning, which was swiftly turning into a nerve-wracking day. Emily’s phone was turned off. Spencer kept trying it, pushing back the growing discomfort of her refusal to answer until it dragged him up and out of the door, driving to the hospital and asking if she’d see him.

Emily, however, had been discharged.

When Spencer asked when they told him that morning. Hours ago.

But she wasn’t home.

Dazed and frightened, Spencer staggered from there. He didn’t remember driving home, just that suddenly he was lurching up the stairs towards their apartment hoping that she’d be there, knowing she wouldn’t be. He’d known. He’d known from the moment she’d told him to leave. This was a dragon moment, the same as when they’d been kids. And how had Emily dealt with it then?

She’d run. Taken her bike and fled from it. There’d been the pretty illusion that she was riding towards her dragon, but they’d always known that was an illusion. She’d been riding away, and likely she was riding still.

After all, she wasn’t here, was she?

Spencer looked around their living room, just to be sure. Nothing had changed from when he’d left, nothing had moved. No other living creature was here but him and the cat…

There was someone on the balcony. Spencer stopped, staring at the shadow of the figure out there leaning over the railing. The curtain obscured details, but Kinky lingering longingly at the closed sliding door was a clue. Hopeful despite knowing otherwise, Spencer dragged himself and his guilt and his grief and his secret over to that door, sliding it open and using his foot to push Kinky back as he leaned out and frowned at Ethan. The man was slumped over the railing, looking as exhausted as Spencer felt, and he was smoking. An empty coffee-can by his foot was half-filled with butts, some of which were clearly fresh, and even as Spencer watched his friend, he slid his fingers down and pulled a new one from a battered packet. It was tucked into his pocket without Ethan turning around, ready to be lit and smoked.

“She told me not to call you,” Ethan said around the remains of the current cigarette, taking it from his lips and stabbing it out violently against the railing. He lit the next one, dragging on it and holding the smoke while Spencer winced for his lungs and recoiled, at the same time, from what he knew was coming.

“And you listened?” he choked. First Gideon, now Ethan… “When did she go? Where did she go? Why didn’t you call me before she ran!?”

“Dunno,” laughed Ethan shrilly. “Dunno, man. I was going to. I watched her leave and thought I was going to but then I just, didn’t. Guess I figured she has a more of a right to her silence at the moment than you do, to be honest.”

Spencer reeled. “I can’t believe you,” he breathed in the face of this absolute betrayal. “You let her leave alone—”

“She wasn’t alone. Not once have I left her alone this week if you haven’t noticed. That’s your trick.”

“You still let her leave! You should have…” He faltered. “You should have done something…”

“Should I? Maybe I should have.” Ethan laughed again, the shrill hysteria fading and leaving something crueller. Spencer had never heard his voice turn cruel before, never really heard it angry. It was uncomfortable and he braced against it, his skin prickling as a mood as grim as the acrid stink of cigarette smoke on the balcony settled around them, lined into Ethan’s thinned out mouth and the narrow shape of his eyes. “Yeah, maybe I should have. Maybe I should have been there for her when she was in agonising pain. Maybe I should have been there when she almost died. Maybe I should have held her hand as they gave her an ultrasound without turning the screen towards either of us, keeping it real fucken carefully hidden from us so we couldn’t see. That was nice of them, you know. Like we’re stupid, like we don’t know what the fuck is going on.”

Frozen in the brunt of this torrent of frustration, Spencer rode it out. Accepted it.

He deserved it and more.

“Maybe I should have stayed by her side for days so she wasn’t alone,” Ethan added with a low, twisted sound that resonated from deep in his chest. “Maybe I should have answered my phone.”

“I was at work,” Spencer answered. It was a thin excuse and he knew it, but there was still a part of him that whispered and pointed and assigned blame elsewhere. “She can’t leave because I missed her calls once. She can’t!”

That was desperate. His voice pitched high and cracked, showing a thin undertone of his terror.

“She can’t,” he added desperately. “That’s not fair. I’ve done my best, Eth, you don’t get it. I try, I try to talk and she shuts me down, and I try to be there for her but if she doesn’t want me there nothing is getting past her walls. And she complains we never spend time together, but I’m not the one who flew to London! I’m here, waiting for her like I’ve always been! It’s her who wants to…leave.” He felt his fingers biting into the door, suddenly dizzy with the torment of this realisation. “She’s wanted to leave all along, don’t you realise? I could have answered the phone and it wouldn’t have made a difference, she mentally quit on me months ago! Gideon didn’t tell me—”

“You’re a dumbass,” Ethan said quietly, shutting Spencer up as quickly as if he’d reached over and slapped him. “You’re so close to self-aware, so close. She’s. Not. Gone. Because. You. Missed. These. Calls. Do you understand? Do I need to draw a diagram?”

“She’s wanted to leave all along,” Spencer repeated because that was easier than accepting what Ethan was trying to present. “Nothing I could have done would have…”

But he stopped. He couldn’t. He couldn’t insinuate that failing to be there for what he logically knew had been a soul-deep terror for her was ever an option he would have chosen. And Ethan was right. His pattern of failure continued far before this one time.

“You’re angry at Emily,” Ethan pointed out. Spencer refused to confirm this; he also knew he couldn’t deny it. “Do you know why?”

Spencer didn’t answer. He felt too sick to contemplate it.

“Because she doesn’t fit the parameters of your changed relationship anymore, does she? And that frustrates you because she’s always fit so easily before and you haven’t changed, so the fault here must be Emily, right?”

“What?” Spencer’s head snapped up, confused as hell at the turn this conversation had made. “I’m not, what? I haven’t changed anything, nothing has changed—”

I’m not the one who flew to London,” Ethan mimicked in a tight falsetto, no sign of humour on his face. “Fuck, Spence, you might not hear it but I can – do you realise how angry you sounded when you said that? You don’t even realise how knotted up about this you are, do you? Here’s the thing, buddy – you’re angry she’s checked out? Well, suck it up because she hung in there for years after you stepped out the door.”

That landed solidly, Spencer gaping. Ethan wasn’t budging, but Spencer was stunned. His friend was taking his world and tilting it to the side so he could shake it and see what fell out, and he didn’t know what to say next.

“And I dunno, man, what do I know, but I don’t think you get to be angry that she’s finally given up on holding you two together while you live the life you’ve always wanted. Em’s not a waiter. She doesn’t wait to be noticed, she demands it, and the fact that she waited around for you and you never even noticed, I think, says a fuckton more about you than it does her.”

“But we talked about it,” Spencer managed weakly. “We talked. We agreed she wouldn’t stop for me…”

“You had one conversation?” Ethan barked a laugh at that, an almost-familiar laugh. “Shit, well then. What are we standing here for? You talked once and then never had to talk about it ever again, that’s definitely how it works. Good job you. You fixed it. I mean, you did, didn’t you? She flew off to London because you talked once about it, and then you got angry at her for doing so. Maybe you didn’t show it. You bottle things till they pop, but I bet she could tell. I bet your calls got less, you slowly pulled away…I bet you stopped connecting on anything important, huh? And I bet you have a million excuses as to why you guys drifted apart, and none of them begins with ‘I was trying to punish her for not needing me as much as I need her’.”

“This is ridiculous,” snapped Spencer, turning to go back inside. He didn’t have to listen to this. He needed to find Emily, wherever she’d gone, and explain that this was all a mistake.

“Is it?” Ethan called after him, following him as far as the door and leaning in with his cigarette threatening to drop ash on the carpet. “She gave me her bike.”

Spencer cringed.

Ethan continued: “She’s not coming back because, like it or not, you’re the one who changed the rules without telling her, and you didn’t like it when she did the same. You made choices that hurt Emily—to pull away, to dive into work, to prioritise anything but her—but you expect your relationship to stay the same. And that’s bullshit, Spence. That’s bullshit. And I gotta ask, how come it’s so fucking obvious to me from the outside looking in, but you can’t see past your own ass to realise it’s happening?”

“I’ve never hurt her!” was Spencer’s hot reply. “I never hurt her, that’s unfair. She has always been my priority, for a damn sight longer then you’ve even been in the picture. You don’t have a right to insert yourself like this…you have no idea!”

“Why did you leave when she asked?” Ethan queried.

Spencer bristled: “Because she asked. What, was I supposed to chain myself to her bed? Stage a hunger strike? Refuse to—”

“Emily, your Emily,” Ethan said with resolute care, “the Emily who you’ve known since you were seven-years-old, the Emily who let you help her through an abortion at fifteen, the Emily who has loved you completely and wholly since you were eighteen, that Emily…she almost died. She almost died, she lost a child, and you weren’t there. But she asked you to leave and you just…left? You didn’t even ask her why she wanted you gone?”

“She wanted me gone because I was making her feel bad by demanding to know about the baby,” Spencer shot back, his own pain ripping into his words and leaving them jagged and mean. “She was angry with me because I want to know what we lost and she doesn’t understand, she’s not even sad she lost—”

“Where did Emily go when her dad died?” Ethan cut in.

Spencer stammered to a stop, brain rerouting.

“She…” He stopped again. “She…her bike.”

“She ran,” Ethan clarified. “You were there with her, but she was still running. She runs from grief, dude. You’ve told me that before. I don’t know Emily like you do, but I know her through your eyes. I have seven thousand letters and the memories of a million phone calls to draw from, and I know she runs when she’s scared and she runs when she’s scared and she sure as fuck runs from grief. But you know what she doesn’t run from? Anger. Since when has the Emily you know run from anger? Maybe if you’d stopped trying to make yourself the victim of Emily’s miscarriage, you’d have realised you weren’t the only one in that room grieving something.”

“Fuck,” said Spencer.

What else was there to say?

“Grow the fuck up,” Ethan finished with a twist of his mouth like he’d bitten into something sour. “Get your head out of your ass and realise that you gotta take responsibility for your life and mistakes. You can’t just keep pointing to work, or Gideon, or me, or Emily, and saying, ‘they’re why things are going wrong!’ You’re an adult, Spence, a fucking adult – grow up and look beyond yourself before you find out for certain that she’s the one thing you can’t live without.”

Spencer couldn’t help it; he laughed at that, a strange, fraught laugh that was layered with Ethan’s words and a terrible premonition that he might be right. “It’s hilarious that you can stand here and lecture me about responsibility. You haven’t been responsible for a single thing your entire life. You dropped out of college, you’ve never held down a serious relationship, you’ve never had to deal with anything like this, so what gives you the right to walk in here and lecture me?”

“First up, ow. I’m glad to know we weren’t serious, that’s really kind.” Ethan’s glare earned a wince from Spencer; he hadn’t meant to insinuate that, even when he’d been lashing out to hurt the other man as much as he was being hurt. “Second, what, you think I haven’t fucked up this royally? Bullshit, Spence, bullshit. I am living in my fuck-up. But you know the difference between us? After I fucked up, I took responsibility for the people I hurt, I didn’t blame others. I looked at myself and how I’d been acting, and I realised that I was the root cause of my own unhappiness…and then I got to work fixing that root cause, even when it was hard. And I didn’t get back everything I lost, because that’s part of being an adult too, you know. Actions have consequences and sometimes we lose people forever as a direct result of our action, or inaction. But I sure as hell didn’t sit at home and let people hurt alone because I was feeling bad and I needed to find someone else to blame for that.”

 

Spencer didn’t really know what to say after that. For a lack of anything to do with his hands, he started making coffees. Ethan, eventually, put out his smoke and came inside, closing the sliding door behind him and taking a seat at the table. They sat silently for a while before Spencer asked, “The broken nose?”

Ethan eyed him oddly. Spencer guessed, correctly, that Ethan had stayed away to hide that from him and didn’t know how he’d found out.

“I slept with someone,” Ethan said finally, with a blunt honestly to his tone. Spencer, for a second, was nearly distracted from his own misery by that proclamation. “His husband objected.”

“Oh,” said Spencer. “Well.”

Ethan shrugged. “I told you, I fucked up. I hurt people. I hurt the person I slept with, I hurt his husband, I hurt their kids. Actions have consequences and I was too much of a dumbass to realise that my actions had consequences. But I didn’t bail and let the ship sink with everyone on board, Spence. I took responsibility for what I’d done. I accepted that there were things I had to sacrifice to even attempt to begin healing that damage I’d caused. When their homelife crashed and burned because of it, I gave up the band and moved to DC. Found somewhere for us to stay, got a job. When the husband came looking for what he thought he owned, I stood up for them.”

“You got in a fight?” Spencer didn’t believe that for a moment.

“Lord, no,” Ethan snorted. “I let him hit me until I knew Paul had gotten the kids out, then I got the fuck outta there and called the cops. We have a restraining order now, it’s very nice. Very adult. And I think my crooked nose makes me look dashing. Here’s the thing: I know I’m not getting my music back anytime soon, I know that I’ve signed up to play the evil stepdad for two kids who know I’ve ruined their family, and I know I’m the reason Paul lost his job and can’t get another in the field. There’s no fixing that, but that’s not the point. Just because I can’t fix it, because I fucked up so much in the past…that doesn’t mean I don’t try. Dude, your relationship might be fucked. I don’t know, it probably is. Only you know that. But your friend? She’s still out there, man. She’s still out there and she’s hurting like you are, I promise you. I can’t help you grieve through this, I don’t understand it. But she does…and she needs someone too. You weren’t there for her, you haven’t been for a while and that was your fuck up – now you need to take responsibility for that and try to be better. You need to be better. Do you get it?”

 

Spencer thought about that for a while, picking it apart and putting it back together in his brain until it had sorted itself into a semblance of sense. With a low intake of breath to steel his nerves, he nodded. And he asked, “Where is she?”

 

Chapter Text

Fear chased him to Seattle. Fear kept him from calling ahead. He knew Emily wouldn’t answer, and he was terrified of calling Elizabeth and having her dismiss him. He’d hurt her daughter. How could she not reject him?

If this was the bed Ethan had told him to lie in, Spencer thought grimly, then so be it – but he was terrified of losing his moms too. Emily he could survive, barely, so long as she remained his friend. He’d be a devastated man, ruined utterly, but he could survive. Losing Elizabeth and, with her, Diana? There was no coming back from that. Utter ruination lay down that path.

So he didn’t call ahead, flying there alone and booking a cab to take him the final stretch from the airport to the lakeshore where the Sometimes Homes still sat, waiting.

And he was terrified that this drive would be the last time he came here.

He was terrified that he’d lost his family this day; all of them.

 

He arrived, standing at the stoop for longer then he knew was polite before knocking nervously. The cab was gone. There was no escape. Footsteps shuffled towards the door from inside, echoing hollowly in the vaulted halls. He could hear every step echoing with his heartbeat.

The door opened.

He swallowed.

“Mom,” he managed, his voice choking on the word – but before he could say anything else, she’d leapt forward and wrapped her arms around him. He could feel the bones of her arms through her coat sleeves, always too skinny, and he clung to her as tightly as he dared.

“My beautiful boy,” she said into his shirt, pulling him closer before letting him straighten once more. “It’s a terrible thing when a mom can’t turn back time for her children, make everything better.”

He barely managed a nod, already looking past her to the darkened depths of the hall. Inside, he saw Elizabeth step out of the doorway that led down to the living room, her grim eyes on him. Another shape lurked beyond her, his eyes too adjusted to the sun outside the make out who it was.

“Emily?” he asked.

“Perhaps you should come inside and talk first,” Elizabeth offered, but he shook his head firmly. He had to do this now; he knew. “Are you sure?”

He was.

“She’s in the garden,” said a male voice, Spencer’s eyes adjusting enough to make out the shadowed features of David Rossi there, a glass of some form of alcohol in one hand. Even from here, even shadowed, Spencer could see the disappointment in his expression when he looked at him. “Round the back.”

Spencer nodded once more.

“Okay,” he said, stepping back out into the cool air outside and turning to walk around the building to whatever was waiting for him.

 

This is the resolute end of Blackbird and Fiver. When Spencer walked down into the gardens where over two decades ago two strange children had discovered a shared love for each other, he felt almost as though the ghosts of those children were walking behind him asking how he could have possibly messed this up as badly as he had. Spencer at seven, he was sure, would never have been as utterly ruinous as the Spencer of just shy of thirty.

Twenty-three years later and he walked towards the end.

Emily knew his gait. She knew it like she knew her own heartbeat. Like how she’d, until this week, known her own body. Before he even drew up beside him, she knew it was him and rose to meet him midway. She had been sitting there watching the cold wind on the trees, enjoying how it lashed at her…watching the trees that were smaller now. All of this place, it was smaller now.

She missed the hares.

They met each other alone.

 

 She remembered him as he’d been then, a small, skinny boy with sticky-up hair and a rabbit in his arms. She remembered thinking he was magic; she remembered how sad his eyes had been. She’d been wrong, way back then. It wasn’t a rabbit in his arms at all, but a hare, and his eyes hadn’t turned out to be the saddest thing about him.

No. What that was was how easily he broke her heart.

But she hadn’t known that then.

 

Spencer had believed that Emily, when he’d first seen her here all fierce and frowning, was the kind of girl to kick first and ask questions later. He didn’t believe that anymore, but he almost wished she had kicked him all those years ago. Then they wouldn’t be standing here like this because he never would have let her close enough to fall in love with him, although he knew he would have always loved her from afar. After all, some things were fated, and he was sure his love for this woman was one of those things. He only wished that loving her didn’t mean hurting her.

But he’d never been good at finding his way.

 

“Are you okay?” he asked. What a dumb question, he thought immediately after voicing that. She very obviously wasn’t. If she’d been okay, she wouldn’t have fled to Seattle.

“Why are you here?” she asked dully. It was hard to feel much at all but confused and sore right now. Her skin prickled, hyperaware that there were eyes on them looking down from the blank face of the Big House. Dave, for sure. Elizabeth, certainly. Potentially Diana. Maybe even the hares were watching this. She wished they’d look away. “Tell me honestly.”

“To see if you’re okay. And to apologise.”

She just kept looking at him with that dull-eyed sadness. He didn’t know what else to say; he felt wild with the terror of that stare. Many thoughts raced through his mind—how could Gideon do this to us, how do I fix this, what have I done—but he was too scared to voice any of them. He’d never seen her like this.

“What are you apologising for?”

He blinked. He didn’t know how to answer that. Wasn’t it obvious?

Emily just kept watching him, waiting for an answer she knew he wasn’t going to give. She’d known from the beginning. If she’d believed he was going to answer correctly, she’d still be in DC.

“For not being there,” he said slowly. “I should have been there. And I wasn’t. You never should have gone through that alone.”

“Ethan was there.”

He shifted on his feet, shoes sucking into the wet grass as he tried to gauge where this conversation was going. His simmering anger at Gideon, barely tamped down, rose fast and furious and battered at the wall Emily had thrown up between them. Were they over? Had she mentally ended them already? Why didn’t she just tell him instead of torturing him like this?

“I understand I made a mistake,” he said with precise care in between rushes of that furious anger. “If you talk to me, I can fix it—”

“Talk? You mean, we talk once and then you assume everything is fixed on the basis of one conversation and continue on as though you’ve torn the band-aid off? You know that that doesn’t fix anything, right?”

Now, finally, he heard something in her tone.

Emily, beginning to shiver with a slow, burning heat that felt like it was building from the first time he’d dismissed her concerns right up until now, struggled to bite that something back.

“You didn’t tell me you—”

“We had one conversation. One. And then we went back to doing as we always did. Tell me again, what are you here apologising for?”

“I made a mis—”

“A. You made a mistake.” She laughed and it was as spiteful as the wind, her back straight and that something in her tone finally settling into her expression. He recognised it and stepped back, his own heart twisting tight in his chest and constricting the space assigned to breathing. “A singular, one-off, never to be repeated mistake, right? Next time I miscarry, you’ll be there, right? Next time I almost haemorrhage to death losing a baby you helped create, you’ll answer your fucking phone. Is that what you’re telling me? Is that the mistake?”

He didn’t answer suspecting, correctly, that she already knew the answer was yes, and that that answer wasn’t good enough.

But he didn’t know what answer she wanted instead.

 

At that moment, he had several choices. He could have backed off to continue the conversation when she was calmer; however, he likely knew she’d never be calmer about this and to insist she must be would be to invalidate her hurt. He could have stepped close and just offered his wordless support; he knew she wouldn’t have accepted it. He could have been sad. He was. Sad, that was. It didn’t feel enough. He could have listened to Ethan.

He chose, instead, anger.

“Don’t call her that if that’s not what you wanted her to be,” he snapped, his own tumultuous grief slamming up into his throat and choking the words out into a mess of vowels and consonants that dripped and tangled and lodged in his mouth before stumbling free. “D-don’t call her that.”

Emily was frozen. She hadn’t misheard.

“You bastard,” she breathed. “I didn’t want to know that.”

“I know you didn’t,” he snapped, still reeling from the rush of grief he wasn’t sure he was allowed to be feeling right now. He’d known there’d been a baby only after she had died. What right did he have to mourn what never really was? “You didn’t want to know anything about her. That’s what you said, right? When they asked us if we wanted to know the sex of the baby we lost – you said no, no because you would have aborted it anyway. And I wish you hadn’t said that because I don’t know what the hell I’m feeling right now because of it. Was it a baby we lost, Emily? Or a foetus you didn’t want? I can’t understand this until I know what I missed!”

“Why does it matter? It’s gone either way.”

“She matters!”

He’d screamed this. The shout echoed in the silent grounds, even the wind stalling out with the surprise of it. Emily cringed back, feeling those eyes in the house widen, the glass staring down on them accusingly. She wanted to hunch over and wrap an arm protectively around her stomach, to stop him from striking her again where she was rawest. She didn’t. She was determined to never let him see her that vulnerable again.

“Don’t you dare be angry at me for this,” she snarled instead of being vulnerable. “Don’t you fucking dare. This isn’t about you, you don’t get to make this about you. Do you seriously not see that it’s been about you for years now? Ever since we joined the FBI, it’s been your story, not mine – your successes and your hopes and your dreams and your life. And now you come here with your sadness and your anger and you demand an explanation from me because I’m never allowed to have my own story, am I, Spencer? Am I?!”

Spencer was rigid. In his head was Rossi’s disappointed silence, Elizabeth’s sharpened mouth, Gideon’s shocked guilt…and it was Ethan, Ethan who’d always been on his side, Ethan who’d stood there in front of Spencer and yelled exactly this – laid out everything he’d missed.

He wondered what he was still missing.

“Do you get it, Spence?” Emily asked. To him at that moment, she seemed as resolute as the mountains behind her, the lake, the wind. He felt as uncertain as their future.

“I didn’t realise,” he managed to mumble out around a tongue that wasn’t working. “I didn’t realise you were unhappy. I didn’t…”

“Listen,” said Emily.

He nodded.

“You never listen,” she said with a quiet, infinite sadness. “You know, we’re real easy together, aren’t we? We just click. We’ve always been together and maybe, if life was always easy, we’d always be together. But that’s the thing, that’s what I realised when you didn’t answer your phone. We’re only happy when it’s easy.”

“Isn’t everyone?” he asked her, still clinging to the barest, most anorexic of hope.

“No, Spence, that’s the thing…couples who are there for each other? They might be unhappy with the hard times during the hard times, but they’re not unhappy with each other. But us? As soon as things get hard, I’m…I’m just waiting for you to smile like everything is okay and switch off to everything that sucks. You’re not beside me when it’s hard. I don’t know when you stopped being there, because I feel like you used to be…but that’s how it is now. I struggle, and you don’t answer your phone. That’s who we are now. And I deserve better.”

 

There was a sudden, heavy intake of air around them as she said that. It was Spencer’s lungs and Emily’s heart; it was the house around them and the fading whispers of the ghost children who’d stood here before but were now vanished into the anger and the betrayal. It was the devastating, realised impact of the ghost child who’d never been, that little girl’s fading impression on them. The devastating impact of her non-existence. That one failed heartbeat, failing again.

 

“Is that how you feel?” he asked her.

She was silent for a moment. Now the shivering was the cold…her anger had abandoned her in the face of what she knew was the truth.

“Oh, Spencer,” she whispered. “We need to be our best, you realise that, don’t you? I want to be my best. I realised that in DC when they told me I could have died. I woke up and they told me what they’d done to save me and I just laughed because I didn’t believe them, and then I looked at Ethan and he was so pale. He was scared…I’ve never seen him scared like that. And I thought well, fuck. He’d believed that I could die. And I want to be my best before I die because that’s my legacy, my work is my legacy, and this cemented that. You want to know what I would have done if I hadn’t lost the baby?” She paused before adding a soft whisper he heard anyway which confirmed it just as well. “The girl.”

“I wouldn’t have wanted you to keep the pregnancy for me,” he said, suspecting a trap.

“I know. I know, fuck. But I probably would have anyway. Do you understand that?”

He didn’t, not really, and he tried to express the frustration of this moment – the frustration of feeling like he was hemmed in without a way of fixing this. “I wouldn’t have asked you to have a baby for me, but you would have anyway and blamed me? That’s not fair. You can’t pin that on me, that’s not my fault.”

“But I would have,” she repeated like he wasn’t understanding. “I’m…God, I don’t know. I’m trying to explain but it’s so fucking messed up in my head.” She could barely look at him right now, already firm on her path. She had to do this. She had to. She didn’t want to, not completely. Already it was sinking in exactly what she was doing, and it was killing her. Stopping her heart. But she felt as calculating and ruthless as Gideon had told her she could be, so she didn’t stop.

“We need to be our best,” she tried to explain again, stepping towards him. He stepped back. “But your best is when I’m not with you, when you’re at work being fantastic, and, you know what? I think my best is when we’re apart too. When you’re around, I live for you. I give so much to you and you don’t give back the same, and I’m sick of that. I need to live for myself. I need to be able to live without feeling like I’m being selfish or like I’m not giving enough to you because I’m stuck in this cycle of giving you more and more until there’s nothing left for me. To me, you’re a priority. To you? I’m just a constant. You expect me there. I’m easy. But as soon as I start needing something, or wanting something, as soon as it’s hard, there’s the work for you to hide in. It won’t end. It won’t ever end, and maybe next time this happens Ethan isn’t here but the work is and I’m going to face my absolute worst fear again. Alone, again, because you’ll be off being your best while I’m waiting for you to come home. Do you realise how unacceptable that is to me?

“But Emily,” he begged her, realising he was begging, hating that he was begging, “I want to marry you – I want to be happy! To make you happy, and I’d give anything…I’d give anything but…” He stopped. She saw it click. She closed her eyes against the realisation written all over the face she’d watched grow up beside her, the man who’d been the boy she’d always wanted to spend forever with. “But you’re not happy. Are you?”

“No,” she said. “I’m not. I haven’t been for a long time, and after yesterday I realised I’m not going to be anytime soon unless I change. Unless something changes. You know, I kept looking for you to be beside me again. I kept waiting figuring you’d be there, you’d have to be there eventually…but you never were. This last week, when I’ve needed you more than I’ve ever needed anyone, when I was desperate for you…you still weren’t there.”

She wasn’t just talking about last night, Spencer realised. It had been a long time since he’d been beside her.

He husked out, “I was at work,” but it wasn’t an excuse. It was an admission.

“You were at work,” repeated Emily sadly. Accepting his admission. “And I can’t. I can’t, Spencer. For a moment, for a fucking heartbeat, just one, I considered keeping that baby. I was tempted. But then you didn’t answer the phone and I realised, well. This is it then, isn’t it? He’s at work. He’s been at work for years now, he’ll be at work until we’re both old and grey, and I’m worth more than this. I’m worth more than waiting for you. I deserve more.”

Spencer felt them end with that. It was the final shattering of their singular heart and he shuddered against it, managing one last grasp at saving them.

“But, Em,” he said, preparing to be vulnerable, “I…I don’t know who I am without you.”

He truly didn’t. Was he dead? He suspected he might be. Who else but her would his heart bother beating for?

Emily shrugged listlessly, feeling as old and tired as she’d felt on the plane flying away from him. “That’s not my problem anymore,” she said quietly. “That stopped being my problem when I thought I might die and you weren’t there beside me. It’s done. It’s broken. You broke it. Well done.”

He nodded, accepting that too with a visible shudder as though something holding the structure of his body had just given in inside of him.

“You don’t trust me anymore, do you?” he asked. Well aware they were done, but just wanting to be sure he understood completely how and why.

“No,” was her reply. “And if I can’t trust you to be beside me when I’m that scared, then I can’t be with you. I’m sorry. It’s over.”

 

He said one final thing as she walked past him back to the house, passing within a foot of him but absolutely out of reach. He said, “I wish you’d said something,” as though he could hope to try and share this grief, portion out some of the crushing blame. He couldn’t carry it alone but, he felt, maybe he could survive it if he sectioned some off to Jason Gideon and some to Ethan Coiro and some to Emily Prentiss, and some to Clyde Easter…a laundry list of people he could despise for this just as equally as he despised himself.

But she stopped, her back to him, sighed once, and said, “I wish you’d listened.”

And then she said, “Goodbye.”

With that, Spencer discovered what Emily had days before. It only took a single word to stop a heart.

 

Goodbye.

 

He didn’t know what happened after that. He found himself walking aimlessly away from the house he knew could never be his home again, not with how much of it was permeated by memories of them happier. He didn’t know where his bags were. He didn’t know where he was going. He just kept walking until someone jogged up behind him and caught his arm.

“I don’t want to go back,” he stumbled out, trying to pull away from the firm grip. He was, of course, expecting Rossi, and couldn’t bear the disappointment. Before he’d even turned around, he confessed, “I don’t belong there, I messed up. I need to go. I just need to…”

He’d turned and stopped.

 

Elizabeth stared at her boy, her hopelessly serious boy who’d grown into this man who looked like he’d been beaten from the inside out and she wanted to cry. She wanted to pull him into her arms and hold him there until he became small again, a child she could soothe until nothing would ail him anymore. She wished this was something she could fix; it was impossible, as a mother, to see her children so shattered.

“You silly child,” she told him with her own tears choking her up just as much as his lost, vacant expression was. “There is your home. It will always be your home no matter what happens between you and Emily – I will never, ever turn you away. Come here. Please, come here.”

It must have been the please that folded him so neatly against her, crumbling into her hold and letting her cling tight. He was too long, too broad, all bones and height and awkward angles, but she held him despite all these things and refused to let go, much like she’d held Emily when her daughter had arrived the day before just as torn up inside. Face buried against her shoulder, he was making strange, terrible, gulping noises as though trying to choke back his grief.

“There’s more than enough room for all of us to grieve together,” Elizabeth told him softly. “I’ll eat my hat before I send you back to DC to mourn in an empty apartment.”

“Emily…”

“Understands. We discussed yesterday what we would do if you were to arrive, in anticipation of her requesting you be removed from the premises. Oh, don’t twitch like that – the thought hadn’t crossed her mind for an instant. Spencer, this is your home as much as it is hers. And I understand that Emily has been hurt, that something is happening between the both of you, but that changes nothing about your place here. Look at me.”

He looked at her.

“Come home,” she told him firmly. “Don’t run away. You deserve a place to grieve too.”

“It’s over,” he confessed to her with a choking gasp. The tears were finally falling. “I messed up and it’s over.”

“I know,” she said to him. “But you know what we do?”

He didn’t and said so, hiding his face against her again and trying not to choke on his own misery.

“We just keep going, Spence. We just keep going until it gets better. That’s what life is. Now, come home. Please.”

 

He accepted this, letting her lead the way back to his home, where he would be careful not to cross Emily’s path just as much as she was careful not to cross his. He spent that terrible, mournful week sitting with his mother, Elizabeth occasionally sitting in too, as they let him be quietly and determinedly sad for everything that had been and gone in his life.

When the week ended, he flew back to DC alone. Emily, he knew, was leaving that afternoon to London. He didn’t say goodbye before he left; they’d already been there and done that. With him, he took nothing but his sadness and guilt over how he’d ruined what they had.

Emily, similarly, took nothing with her back across the ocean except for two things: a determination not to return, and a photo tucked into the back of a battered paperback book. It was tucked deep into her bags, where she would never accidentally stumble upon it, but there it still was, the picture of them on their very first day of school. It was a promise to never forget him no matter how far she went from that place; it was also a reminder that she could be hurt if she wavered in her determination to stay away. When she landed, Clyde Easter was waiting for her at the airport.

“You finish up your business in DC?” he asked her curiously when she greeted him with a tired smile.

“It’s done,” she told him with a tired kind of surety. “This is where I belong now.”

 

She was sure, much like her seven-year-old self had been certain that she’d never be friends with a certain messy-haired boy, that it was over for good. London was her world now and she planned never to return to DC. Fortunately, Emily had never been good at predicting her own path and there were kinder times ahead for both of them. Blackbird and Fiver had ended, citing the unsustainability of remaining as close to what they were at the beginning as they could despite the changing years; Spencer and Emily’s story, however, had really barely begun.

But that was years from now and, for some time, life went on without them.

 

Chapter Text

Aaron Hotchner was an extraordinarily observant man. It was his gift, and quite often his bane, that he saw things in people that others didn’t. Of course, it didn’t take a man of extraordinary observation to see the changes in one Spencer Reid following that terrible week. The man was quieter at work, brusque with Gideon, and avoidant of both Aaron and Derek. He still contributed freely to their cases but, outside of that, he was withdrawn. The dinners at Haley and Aaron’s ceased and the few times the team ate together on a case or hung out at a favoured bar near the Academy, he was notably absent. Gideon never commented on this new distance, Aaron assumed because the man didn’t quite know how to approach his own guilt at the pain he’d inadvertently caused. But the photo of Emily that Spencer kept tucked behind his lever arch files, hidden from casual peruses but just visible to him as he worked, was gone, and Spencer wouldn’t make eye contact when they asked him how Emily was recovering.

Aaron cornered him at his hotel room at the tail end of a consultation in Colorado.

“I’m worried about you,” Aaron said to the man still refusing to meet his gaze. It had been a month and a half since the miscarriage; Spencer, Aaron noticed, had lost weight. His hair was too long, his eyes were red and, as Aaron studied him with fixed intensity, there were spots on his shirt and tie. “As your co-worker, I have no right to ask about your private life. As your friend, I want you to know that I see that you’re struggling and I worry. What happened with Emily?”

“She’s gone,” Spencer said blandly, no emotion betraying what he felt. Even Aaron was unsure of what he was broadcasting right now. “She’s gone and everything is worse now.”

There wasn’t much Aaron could say to that except, “Where are you going for Christmas?”

 

Clyde Easter was, as always, impressed with the work of one Emily Prentiss. It was Christmas Eve and they were curled up together in some shithole hovel with nothing but their gear and as many blankets as they’d managed to scrabble together to keep them company. Prentiss was a huddled pile of wool and cotton with just her beanie-covered head showing, the beanie pulled down over the heavy headset she was wearing as they listened in on the building across the street. Over the other side of the block, the others were just as uncomfortably cloistered. A gloved hand emerged from the blankets to fiddle with the controls before vanishing back. Distantly, Easter heard Russian from the headset.

Easter was supposed to be sleeping while Emily took her turn at the dials, but instead, he was watching her. She’d hit the ground running when she’d returned from the States, but he still wondered just how fine she actually was. There’d always been the distinct impression that Prentiss was the kind of person who resonated ‘fine’ to distract from how ‘not fine’ she actually was. It was part of his job as their team lead to make sure that the fine wasn’t simply a distraction.

He waited until the voices had died down and Prentiss was left waiting in the dark and the cold for them to speak again. It was the time of the morning when this work grated, both of them well aware that around them normal people were sleeping ready for festive celebrations. Yet, here they were, less than twenty-four hours until Christmas, alone except for each other and the men in the building across the street.

“I’m not much for Christmas myself,” Easter said, breaking the silence. Prentiss didn’t even twitch; of course, she’d known he was awake all along. “I resent the expectation of my cheer. Usually spend it avoiding family, which this job makes easy. I’d guess you and that man of yours would make something of the day, though. He seems the cheer type.”

Prentiss said, “Go to sleep, Clyde.”

Easter watched the way her breathed misted visibly in front of her, deciding that that was enough prying for one holiday. Her cheer, or lack thereof, was her own.

 

That Christmas was an odd one. Emily spent it in that tiny room, rationing sips of frigid water to avoid having to use their makeshift bathroom. Spencer spent his at the most unexpected of places for him: a public Christmas party Aaron had conspired to drag him to, ordering him to bring a friend. So here Spencer was, surrounded by strangers all dressed in Santa hats and reindeer antlers and enough beers in that the world was beginning to tip and slide around him. Aaron and Haley danced off together while he tried not to be too much of a wet blanket to what was clearly Ethan having a great time.

“Why is your beer empty?” Ethan demanded, appearing back with Derek two steps behind him. Spencer had no idea why the two of them were together; they didn’t seem at all to be personalities that would coexist peacefully. He suspected—correctly—that they were all conspiring to force him to be merry. “Come on, man. You gotta hit them fast to make sure you bypass straight past the sad drunk stage and onto fun, otherwise, we’re going to spend Christmas with you weeping in the roses.”

“I don’t think this is advice Aaron would approve of,” Spencer said, hiccupping and frowning at his lukewarm beer for betraying him. “I don’t know…”

The music changed from Elton John to a slow cover of ‘All By Myself’. Someone in the crowd drunkenly began hollering along, their voice breaking horrendously at the chorus. Spencer stared into his beer, feeling like his misery was visible floating around in there.

“Ouch,” said Ethan with a wince. Spencer didn’t know if he was wincing at the singing or the song. “Well, if this isn’t music to get smashed to, I just don’t know what is.”

“I’m blaming my steady descent into alcoholism on you,” Spencer said into the beer, deliberately not wondering where Emily was right now. Perversely, the more deliberate his not thinking about her was, the more determinedly she kept popping back into his brain, and his beer.

He drank it just to show it who was in control here.

“I’m blaming Eric Carmen,” said Ethan wisely. “Were you this gloomy after we broke up?”

“No.”

“Ouch,” said Ethan again.

 

Emily woke to a gunfight. She didn’t think of Spencer once.

Spencer woke on Aaron’s couch with a hangover and the grim feeling that everything had changed with that terrible week those months ago, vividly aware of the happy couple up the hall waking in each other’s arms. He was through the looking glass now and there was no stopping his backwards memory from lingering in the past while everyone else marched forward.

And forward they marched despite him.

 

On this particular day, it was five months post their breakup and neither Emily nor Spencer had caved and contacted the other. They’d made it easy on each other. Emily had never given Spencer her work number and, besides, it had changed with her shift to London; Spencer had changed his post the explosive shattering of his phone against the tiles of that hotel kitchenette. On this day, Emily was preparing a hard entry into the final bolthole of the organisation she’d been working to take down for those five months; Spencer had been quiet for weeks.

Ethan was worried and thus, as Emily waited for the call to bring the door down in her respective corner of the world, he marched his way up to the quiet apartment and battered cheerfully on that door, which opened.

“Hullo,” he said to the sleepily blinking Spencer standing there in his bathrobe and with a half-eaten banana in one hand. “You look pretty. Unshaven and sour-smelling works for you. It shouldn’t, but it does. What a fashionista you are.”

“It’s so early,” Spencer grumbled. “Why are you here.”

It was three p.m.

Ethan decided not to point that out and bounced past his friend into the apartment.

“Wow!” he called back. “Your fashion skills extend to interior decorating! I love what you’ve done with the place. I mean, Paul says to me, ‘Ethan you gotta open a door or window at least once a month, man, it stinks of feet in here’, but you’re just rolling with that badger burrow scent. Remarkable. What’s this? Oh shit, dishes! I love dirty dishes!”

Spencer glowered at him.

“Let’s see what you’ve done with the bedroom,” Ethan decided. “I’m guessing musty sheets and laundry everywhere and a burrow where you’ve been—oh, hi, Kinky.”

“Mrrrrrp,” said Kinky.

Ethan stared at the cat. There was, for a long moment, absolute silence between man and cat.

“Spencer,” said Ethan finally. “Did you dye Emily’s cat grey?”

“No,” said Spencer.

Ethan continued looking at the cat, who rumbled another meow before sitting down and splaying its legs over to lick busily at the ample yellow-grey stomach revealed. This standoff may have continued indefinitely if the real Kinky Briefcase hadn’t chosen to saunter into the room at that moment. He puffed up impressively at the sight of the grey cat, spitting and darting back out and up the hallway. The last they saw of him was his huge, ginger tail.

Ethan looked now at Spencer for an explanation, one that wasn’t forthcoming. Spencer just looked as glum and grey as the cat, which rolled onto its side and made an unhappy grumbling sound.

“You got another cat?”

“No,” said Spencer again, finally caving. “I found it outside. It looked sad, so now it lives here. For now. Until I find something better.”

“Oh.” Ethan looked some more at the cat. “It’s really dirty.” Spencer nodded. “And…smells. Why is it shaped like that? It looks like it swallowed a ball.”

“Dunno.”

This, Ethan thought, was concerning. The Spencer he knew would never bring something as potentially pathogen ridden as this off-white animal with the watery eyes and, if he did, it would have immediately preceded a visit to a vet.

“It doesn’t like people touching it,” Spencer supplied finally as an explanation. “I tried and, well.”

Up came his arm. Ethan recoiled, horrified, backing away from the white cat fast.

“I’ve tried to lure it into a carrier to get checked out, but it’s smarter than me.” The downcast way Spencer said this really resonated with Ethan. He too understood the pain of admitting defeat to an animal. Tenderly, he patted his friend’s shoulder.

They’d just have to make the best of it, Ethan decided. Maybe taming the demon cat would give Spencer something to focus on that wasn’t work or, well, Emily. “Let’s see what we can do as a team, hey? What’s its name?”

Spencer looked at the animal for a while without answering. Ethan waited patiently. And continued waiting, and waiting, and waiting, until finally…

“Cat,” Spencer decided. “Its name is Cat.”

“Descriptive,” said Ethan.

Spencer finished his thought with a sad sigh: “It’s probably just going to leave anyway.”

And he trailed off and wandered away into the living room, leaving Ethan with Cat.

“This is fine,” said Ethan to the cat, which vomited.

 

Emily was having a grand time. They were celebrating the take-down of the terrorist unit, the intel that Emily had translated proving to be the final crucial nail leading to eleven arrests.

“We’re nailing this!” Tsia declared, holding her glass up for Emily to tap her own against. “Here’s to future glory! Bet this is better than your desk back in DC, huh?”

Emily only paused briefly before agreeing.

 

They were in the ER.

“I can’t believe you have a blood infection from a cat bite,” Ethan said to Spencer, who stared down at his swollen hand. “Now will you get rid of the diseased thing?”

“I can’t,” said Spencer sadly. “No one else will ever love it like I can.”

“Jesus Christ,” said Ethan in disgust.

 

“Oh, nonsense,” her mother was saying, Emily holding the phone away from her to avoid permanent ear damage. “You can’t come home for a single week? I thought you were between assignments.”

“Honestly, Mother, when have your parties ever been something I’ve enjoyed? It’s going to be filled with a bunch of fussy old politicians all trying to schmooze with each other. I don’t want to spend eight hours on a plane to get leered at by geriatrics.”

Elizabeth made a scandalised sound. Emily felt rather pleased by that. It was good to know that she still had the knack of getting to her mother.

“Insults aside,” Elizabeth finally said, “when have I ever asked you to celebrate my birthday with me before?”

Emily paused. This was true. The actual idea of celebrating Elizabeth aging was entirely alien, and slightly disconcerting. Elizabeth, to her, was some kind of immortal, ageless being, the same now as she’d been all throughout Emily’s childhood, retired or otherwise.

A terrible thought struck her.

“Mom,” she said, hand suddenly slippery around the phone. “This is a family thing, isn’t it?”

“Of course it is, I opened with that. What part of ‘come home for my birthday party’ was unclear?”

“Spencer will be there, won’t he?”

There was a soundless moment on the other end of the long-distance line that, nevertheless, sounded extremely disapproving.

“He is family. Don’t insult either of us by insinuating otherwise.” Elizabeth’s voice was chillier than it had been in a long time, with Emily having carefully dodged the subject of her broken relationship and severed communications until now. “I’m even inviting that rapscallion, Ethan. Do not presume to place a value upon any of our relationships by using that as a reason to decline to attend. I will be exceedingly upset if you do so.”

Emily, desperately, sought for a way to decline now without making it seem like she was avoiding Spencer.

She failed.

Elizabeth struck.

“Besides,” she said with a soft kind of weariness sinking into her tone, “Diana has not been well lately. I think it would be good for her to see you children together again. She is…preoccupied…with the loss you both sustained. Spencer refuses to discuss it with her and I think that’s worsening her confusion about the subject.”

“Don’t put that on me. I’m not going to play nice with Spencer about my miscarriage to get him out of trouble with his mother. That’s a shit thing to ask.”

There was that loaded silence again. Emily seethed.

“One day,” said Elizabeth, “you will realise that while you suffered the most, you did not suffer alone.”

Emily hated these phone calls. She bet that Spencer didn’t have to deal with any of this bullshit week in and week out, with Elizabeth demanding he be better. He was already perfect in her eyes. The man was probably sitting there getting nothing but soothing words and kind comforts from her, every phone call—

“Emily?”

“Yes, Mom?”

“Come home for my birthday. Or else.”

 

Ethan had been sent back to the apartment to both a) check that Spencer was still alive and not eaten by the demon cat and the still-ruffled Kinky, and b) pass along a message from Elizabeth that had been passed to him by his parents and basically consisted of ‘Tell Spencer to answer his phone before Elizbeth issues a Missing Persons report and he ends up on a milk carton’. Having ascertained from Aaron that Spencer, who wasn’t answering his door, was not at work, this now consisted of Ethan attempting to talk Spencer’s super into letting him in.

This attempt was doomed to fail until salvation arrived in the form of Aaron Hotchner and his federal ID.

“You should go in first,” Ethan said to Aaron as they climbed the stairs behind the super. “If he’s half-eaten by cats, I don’t want to see that. I have a delicate stomach.”

“It’s been three days out of contact,” Aaron scolded. “He’s almost certainly fine.”

“Then why are you here?”

Aaron became suddenly very interested in catching up to the super, failing to answer Ethan’s question.

 

Spencer had not been eaten by cats.

“Amazing,” said Ethan, leaning against the doorframe and looking in on the study. Spencer glared back at him. “You’re coping amazingly, have I mentioned that? It’s not like it’s months since you two broke up or anything, you’re definitely still well within the appropriate ‘messy’ period.”

“Stop it,” said Aaron, sliding past and going in to kneel beside the clearly very drunk Spencer, judging from his wide-eyed and very unfocused grip on what looked like a tree branch wrapped in rope. “How much have you had to drink, Spencer?”

“Not enough,” was the slurry answer. “It’s not making sense.”

“What’s not?” Aaron was very gentle about this, far gentler than Ethan would have been. “I told you, I’m here if you need to talk.”

Spencer stared at him for a long moment. Ethan was sure Aaron was probably reading it as the man contemplating his offer, but he’d known Spencer for a long time; that was very clearly his ‘I have no clue who you are’ face. From experience, Ethan knew that Spencer’s facial recognition abilities vanished on about the eighth drink, his object permanence disappearing a few after that.

“What are you building, buddy?” Ethan asked, cutting in on the deep-and-meaningful Aaron was ramping up to. “Need a hand?”

“It’s…” said Spencer with a damp kind of focus, looking down and dropping the tree branch with a sad thunk, “it’s a…cat tree.”

He said this so proudly, Ethan didn’t have the heart to tell him it was a cat sapling, if anything.

Aaron looked up and across to where there were already three assembled cat trees arranged in a haphazard fashion around the study. Number four, still in pieces, was even more intricate than its brothers.

“That’s a lot of towers for one cat,” was all Aaron said.

“Two cats,” Ethan corrected, looking around for the demon cat and spotting Kinky under the desk, fur fluffed up, and more eyes watching him from inside one of the towers. “He’s got…that cat is black.”

The black cat growled dangerously.

“Oh, two cats,” Aaron was saying. “That’s nice. It’s good to have things to care about, right?”

“That’s a new cat,” Ethan said, despair leaking into his voice. Spencer listed sideways, grabbing for the cat tree and, since it was in pieces, finding that this did nothing to stop him flopping fully to the floor and laying in a morose, drunken heap. Whiskey-soaked and absolutely not coping. But Ethan was on a roll: “He’s got three cats now! This is exponential cat growth! Spencer, you cannot replace Emily with her metric weight in felines. Please tell me that’s not what you’re doing.”

“That’s not what I’m doing,” Spencer told the carpet, face mushed into it. Aaron moved the half-empty bottle of whiskey away from him, inexplicably leaning down low too and peering under Emily’s chair. “That’s Cat’s boyfriend. He was where I found her. I’ve named him Cat too. Cat Two. Boy Cat. He also answers to ‘Don’t Bite Me’ and ‘Oh No’.”

“Spencer,” said Ethan wearily.

“He looked so lonely,” Spencer mumbled into the carpet.

No one said anything.

Spencer added a fatalistic, “It would be terrible to be lonely…”

For lack of anything else to do, Ethan picked up the instructions for the cat tree and tried to work out where Spencer was going wrong with it. Aaron, still hunched low and peering under the chair, was contributing nothing to what was clearly a man in need of an intervention and therefore Ethan ignored both him and his fine suit-clad ass.

As it turned out, where Spencer had gone wrong was that the thing he was trying to attach the trunk to wasn’t even part of the cat tree at all, but the base of a pedestal fan.

“You’re a disaster,” Ethan told Spencer with relish.

“I am not,” was the sodden retort.

Aaron, as though ending this childish conversation, finally emerged out from under the chair with another, this time empty, bottle of whiskey and a grim expression.

“Did you know there’s a white cat under there with kittens?” he asked Spencer, who hiccupped.

“Oh, balls,” said Ethan.

 

Four days later, Spencer rang Ethan. The man was so pleased that his friend was finally initiating contact that he didn’t even think to be suspicious.

“Eth,” said Spencer when Ethan answered. “Okay, listen. Don’t be mad…”

“Let me guess,” replied Ethan with a laugh, still locked on the idea that Spencer was finally emerging from his post-breakup funk. “You’ve got another cat.”

He was kidding, of course.

Of course.

There was silence on the other end of the phone.

Ethan’s heart sunk.

“I’ve renamed the black cat,” was Spencer’s slow answer, guilt clearly shining through his voice despite Ethan being unable to see his face. “As it turns out, Cat’s Girlfriend is a far more apt moniker. And there are more kittens under the chair.”

“This is a catastrophe,” Ethan sighed.

To that, Spencer huffed the smallest, most tentative laugh; it was still enough to lift Ethan’s spirits. Maybe there was light at the end of the tunnel after all.

 

The aforementioned birthday party arrived, immediately preceding the uncertain reunion of Emily and Spencer. Emily arrived first, two days early and an eerie mix of disconcerted/relieved that Spencer wouldn’t be there until the day of the party, with Ethan in tow.

“They’re spending a lot of time together, are they?” she asked with an air of nonchalance when her mother delivered the news. Diana was in bed, Emily spending a tense afternoon in the living room with her mother…bonding. It wasn’t fun. “That’s nice.”

“It’s needful.” Elizabeth’s voice did not bode well for a sweet greeting between her and her wayward boy. It was nice, Emily thought with a sly grin, not to be the recipient of her mother’s moods for once. “Spencer hasn’t answered the phone to me since…” She paused, that ire switching direction straight to Emily, who stopped smiling. “Well, since you decided to swan off to London instead of facing your problems.”

Emily opened her mouth to protest but stopped.

“He hasn’t answered the phone in nine months?” she exclaimed.

“If it wasn’t for Ethan acting as a conduit, I’d be certain the man had died. His letters to Diana are few and far between and exceedingly thin of any content worth remarking on.”

Emily shifted a little uneasily at that information. “I did what was right for me and my life,” she said finally, ignoring Elizabeth’s frown. “Don’t look at me like that. You’re hardly an unbiased voice – you hate my working as a field agent, you always have. I can’t always live with one thought to whether it’s making Spencer happy, especially now we’re not together.”

Elizabeth stood with a huff, gesturing at Emily in a fashion that suggested she was supremely disappointed by all that she saw.

“It’s astounding,” Elizabeth declared in a voice that allowed Emily no input, “how focused you are on the fact that your relationship has ended. I suppose that makes it very easy to continue being cruel to the man who was your friend far before he was anything else. Since when has Spencer ever responded well to cruelty? If your intention is to continue punishing him for his failure to be an excellent partner to you, if that’s what you’re doing, I do wish you’d remember that he has always been an exemplary friend – and that surely the cessation of your relationship was punishment enough for those transgressions without you also withdrawing a friendship both of you treasure. I’m going to bathe. See Diana before you go to bed, please.”

Leaving Emily dumbfounded, her mother stalked out.

There was very little else to do but follow her instructions.

Deep in thought, Emily climbed the stairs slowly. Half her mind was on her path now, half on the path she’d taken before…she wondered if her mother was right, if this non-communication was by choice on both of their behalves or simply a continuation of Emily’s fury at her abandonment. Given the space to think about how they’d ended, she sometimes wondered if it had been avoidable; after all, Emily knew she was hardly one to crow about being easy to talk too.

“Men,” she muttered at the wall, before knocking gently on Diana’s door and sidling in at the soft ‘Enter’ that issued in response.

Diana beamed when she saw Emily. Emily’s heart sunk despite her smile. She’d seen Diana very briefly earlier that day when she’d arrived, but there was seeing her up and dressed and in the forgiving light of day, and there was now with her huddled up in bed looking small and frail and like a stiff breeze might carry her away if it wasn’t for the blankets covering her over.

“My Emily,” said Diana with great satisfaction. “Come here. I find myself lacking energy recently. A small illness, it will pass.” After a brief pause, she added a sharp, “My mind is perfectly intact, currently, despite what Elizabeth worries. I will be perfectly hale by the party. Did you hear – my son is to attend!”

If Emily had thought it was a jab at her, the bright smile on Diana’s weary face dissuaded her of that notion. “I did hear,” she said with her own smile. “I’m very excited to see him. I’ve…missed him.”

It was some surprise to her that she realised this wasn’t a lie, none of it. Despite her fears, despite her still-broken heart tucked deep under the sheltering roof of her ribcage, despite the recursive misery that still battled to keep her awake at night…she did miss him and she was excited to see him again, even just to assure herself that Elizabeth was wrong and he truly wasn’t suffering because of her.

“Oh, I’m so glad,” Diana said, reaching for Emily’s hand. Emily, perched on the side of the bed, allowed her to take it. “So very glad. I worried you were done with him, and his heart has always bruised so easily when people place him aside. His life is shadowed with those who have ceased desiring his company…his father did so much damage there. When he stopped writing about you and your little Whisper, oh I worried.”

Emily’s heart clenched tight, a pain that had been nine months waiting that she thought she’d left behind on the grounds of this very house. Left with Spencer and their shattered relationship. But here it was, back to collect.

With interest.

She rasped out, “Our what?”

But Diana didn’t answer with words. Instead, she reached a thin hand out and fumbled for a thinner-than expected bundle of letters tied neatly with a ribbon. Emily took the letters when they were offered.

She read the top page

 

I am haunted by her ghost. I can’t sleep because my mind has fixated on the idea that she’s breathing beside me and I must check to ensure that she’s still alive. Still! As though she was ever. I spend my nights checking for breaths she was never gifted to begin with. I despise the silence of this apartment and seek to fill it with the sounds of living, of any living. Maybe I’ll get more pets. Maybe I’ll invite a vagrant home with me. Maybe I’ll learn to sleep with the radio on – anything to stop my mind from cycling over that coniferous fantasy where she’s more than just this lunatic whisper in the night. A whisper child, which is fitting, because I feel her parents have become whispers also. Destined to fade.

I am haunted by what might have been

 

and tore her eyes away, horrified by the words scratched there in manic handwriting she recognised as his when he was tired beyond belief, only even more manic than she’d ever seen even then.

“He doesn’t write much anymore,” said Diana quietly. “I think he’s ashamed of how expressive his initial grief was, and by withdrawing he feels he can take the words back as though they were never written.”

“What did you reply to him?” Emily asked out of a lack of having anything else to say.

“Oh, I didn’t reply,” said Diana. “Despite my name upon the top, those letters were never meant for me. That is not the grief of a boy to his mother.”

Emily looked again at the letters, that broken heart suddenly coming back to life for the first time since she’d been here last.

“He never said anything to me,” she stammered out. “I didn’t…”

“Perhaps he was afraid of seeming weak,” Diana replied. “He always has been, you know. Afraid of seeming weak in comparison to you. Ever since you were kids, he fretted that you shone far brighter than he did. Or did you think you were the only one to compare yourself to the other and come out wanting? It would be a terrible thing to him if he had reached out with something as soul-baring as his complicated grief for a child he didn’t carry and feels no right to have such strong feelings over, only to be rebuffed by that person because she’s never quite been as open to feeling as he is. He often confuses that, you know. The feeling of emotions with the expressing of them. I doubt he knows that he’s not alone in his sadness.”

“I’m not sad about the miscarriage,” Emily said quickly. Too quickly. It wasn’t a lie.

She felt very little about that time.

But her beating heart said otherwise.

Diana just watched her for the longest time before speaking.

“Oh, yes,” was her slow, cautious answer. Almost reluctant. “I believe you. That was much the same as your mother said. How history repeats itself. It wasn’t until your loss reopened the wound that she ever really faced her own feelings about the topic.”

Emily frowned, confused, but Diana wasn’t done.

“I’m not at all surprised, with hindsight, that she welcomed Spencer into her home so gleefully,” she said. “She never did intend to have just one child alone.”

“Oh,” said Emily.

 

When she left that room, she carried the letters with her close, her memories even closer. She’d decided, even before she read those letters – whatever they weren’t any more to each other, whatever they’d lost that weekend, they hadn’t lost each other.

It was two days before he arrived there once more, and she hoped he was okay. She was determined to do better by him than she had – because he’d never deserved to lose his friend.