Throw Your Arms Up to the Sky
It took her a little over two hours to drive from the airport. Tomorrow was Christmas Eve and she had told her parents that she would be there in time for their annual soiree. Christmas Eve was reserved just for the family, but tonight, the Prentiss house would play host to the local elite. Her mother had wanted her to fly into the small regional hub near the family's vacation home, but the thought of two hours to herself, not on display, not having to act the part of the dutiful daughter, was too tempting, and so she flew into Bradley and rented a car.
She managed finally to make her way through the traffic and congestion, through the choking growth of housing and mini-malls that had once been rural northern Connecticut, passing the crumbling sprawl of Springfield, MA, the roads in disrepair, the buildings lining the highway showing signs of decay. Speeding by the exit sign for Northampton, the traffic began to drop off, leaving only a handful of cars for miles on end.
Interstate 91 cut a straight line through the western half of Massachusetts, past small, affluent towns and wide swaths of open fields, the brown dirt left muddied by the recent rains, the scattered remnants of the fall's crops left to return to the earth that bore them. The hills were brown as well, bare of the riot of color that had covered them like so many Christmas lights, orange and red and gold. Now, as December wearily finished out the last desperate lap of the year's race, only the muted green shades of fir and pine broke the barren canvas of hill and valley.
Once she crossed the state line into Vermont, the fields grew fewer, the road edged now by the sloping rise of mountains and hills and the sharp relief of jagged stone, where the highway had been blasted through the earth itself. Every so often, as the interstate rose above the hills or dipped into a valley, she could see the black snake of the Connecticut river winding its way toward the sea. The familiarity of the drive soothed her, the steady whine of the tires against the road and the passing landscape calming her fragile nerves.
For the thousandth time since she left D.C., Emily wondered why she was doing this. Again. It seemed that every year that they were in the States, her mother managed to guilt her into making the trek to Vermont for the family Christmas. Every year Emily acquiesced, and every year she regretted it, leaving the day after Christmas determined not to make the same mistake again next year. And yet, here she was.
It wasn't as if she had siblings to see, or nieces and nephews to pamper. There were only her parents and an unbearable handful of relations with whom she shared nothing but the same gene pool. Her parents, the perfect strangers who had flitted along the periphery of her life while servants and teachers and her mother's various aides raised her, the ones that dragged her around the globe to grow up alone in distant lands, who yearly beckoned her home for Christmas. Home indeed.
Her father's sister, Aunt Millicent would be there, unfailingly, along with Uncle Charles. The two were always anxious to share the latest news about their daughter, Sarah, her handsome, successful husband and their three gorgeous children, and their son Emerson, his lovely new bride, and their equally lovely new mansion in the hills above San Francisco Bay. Meanwhile, the offspring in question sat in smug humility and begged their dear mother not to brag.
And then, of course, there would be the guests. There were always guests. Completely interchangeable foreign visitors, invited by her mother to experience the beauty of a white Christmas in Vermont, sparing them the drudgery of spending a lonely holiday in Washington, so far from their own homes. It might actually be pleasant, a true example of the Christmas spirit, if only her mother truly cared and wasn't simply playing politics.
And if only, somehow, Emily measured up.
Emily had no doubt that this year, as she did every year, her mother would gloss over what her daughter did for a living, making it sound secretly, vaguely glamorous and exciting. She would make excuses for the fact that Emily hadn't settled down yet, and that at thirty-eight, there were no children on the horizon to be pampered by a doting grandmother. Instead, her mother would look askance at her, disappointment shimmering in her eyes as clearly as tears, and change the subject when Millicent asked when Emily was getting married or what it was exactly that she did with the FBI.
Emily was tempted to bring along some crime scene photos from one of their more gruesome cases, but she doubted that the satisfaction in ruining her relatives' holiday would be worth the expression on her mother's face. Still, it couldn't be much worse than the one she usually wore.
It wasn't that Emily disliked Christmas. In fact, there was something almost childlike in her desire for it. She wanted the Christmas that peered out at her from syrupy Christmas cards and Hallmark movies, the ones where families realized that it wasn't perfect presents and the perfect tree and the perfect meal that made the holiday. It was the family, the love, the shared memories. Except that there really weren't any shared memories. Not ones Emily cared to keep anyway. And the truth of family had always come a distant second to the appearance of family.
As for the love, well, that was the one thing that has always seemed in short supply in the Prentiss house. Clearly her parents had never read O. Henry.
The house was a huge old farmhouse that sat in the shallow dip of a valley just outside Woodstock, in South Pomfret. The pale, creamy yellow of the paint stood out against the skeletal branches of bare trees and the rust and brown of the hills behind it. The curving driveway swung around the front of the house, giving a lovely view of the stout red barn that now served as a garage and shed, and the small, round pond that lay beyond it. The front door was covered with a huge wreath of fir and holly, a crimson bow like a slash of blood across the middle.
In the front parlor window, Emily could see the ten foot spruce, white lights gleaming warmly against the wavy imperfections in the hand blown glass panes. In each window, a small white candle glowed, and from the shutters smaller, matching wreaths provided a colorful contrast to the white trim and yellow paint. The house looked gracious and welcoming. Picture perfect. But like a picture, it was only an image, a two dimensional representation that hid what lay on the other side of the photograph.
Emily stood in the driveway, her breath a cloud of condensation hanging in the air. As a child, she had imagined that she was a dragon, breathing fire, leaving behind trails of smoke that gleamed silver against the night sky. That sky curved over her head now, the dim light of a billion stars creating a pattern she wished she understood, something in her sensing the coded answers that lay hidden with it, just out of reach. It was only five o'clock and yet the sun had set completely, leaving the world in shadow.
A sudden shaft of yellow light fell across the gravel drive as the wide front door swung open. A figure stood in the doorway, a thin, dark silhouette.
"Emily?" Her mother's voice carried clearly on the crisp night air. "Are you planning on staying out here all night? We've been waiting for you. We were beginning to get a bit worried."
"Were you really?" Emily asked, her voice holding just a trace of suspicion. She shut the car door and walked slowly toward the house, her footsteps crunching on the stones and echoing into the dark Vermont night.
"Of course we were," her mother assured her, the hand that slipped along Emily's back sending a rush of memories coursing through her, moments of tenderness lost to harried schedules and career ambitions, to misunderstood choices and disapproving looks.
But for just an instant, in the warm foyer of that lovely old house, amid the gleam of wood and the scent of a crackling fire, Emily remembered how it felt to have her mother tuck her in to bed, her hand smooth and cool against her forehead; she remembered the rich scent of her perfume as she kissed Emily goodnight. The animosity that she normally experienced as an adult fell away and she felt again the warm affection of the little girl she once was.
She turned to her mother and slipped her arms around the slim body, hugging her gently.
"Merry Christmas, Mother," Emily said softly, closing her eyes for just an instant to secure this moment in her mind.
"Dear Lord, Emily, are you wearing your gun?" Ambassador Prentiss's voice sliced away at Emily's thin layer of contentment, leaving, as it usually did, a shallow, open wound. "I can't believe that you came to a family Christmas armed."
"Oh, I don't know, Mother, I can't think of a more appropriate place to need a weapon, can you?" Emily parried, an expression of resignation settling on to her lovely features. "I'm an FBI agent, Mother and I was driving up here alone. It would have been foolish not to have brought it."
"Emily, please, try and be agreeable, all right?" Elizabeth Prentiss asked, her tone making it plain to her daughter that she thought that the chances of that were slim. She turned away and walked toward the large room to the right, toward the sound of voices.
Emily followed her, pausing in the threshold to take in the Dickensian scene. A fire crackled merrily in the marbled fireplace, the mantle covered in fresh garland. The polished wood of the floors reflected back the glow of the lamps, the tree sparkled with white lights. The room was rich and warm and infinitely civilized. And Emily hated it.
She should have never left Washington.
The week before she left D.C., JJ had asked Emily what her holiday plans were. Emily had assumed that the blonde would be traveling to Pennsylvania to be with her family. However, JJ had told her that this year she was staying in town and celebrating with Garcia.
"I hate the thought of her being here all alone for Christmas. Plus, I have no doubt that spending the holiday with Garcia will prove to be highly entertaining. She claims that her eggnog is better than sex. You should come over and spend Christmas with us. We're going to have a slumber party. Well, sort of, anyway," JJ had offered, her smile crinkling the corners of her eyes, the mention of sex causing a momentary stall in Emily's breathing.
"Believe me, I would love to, but I promised my parents that I would go to Vermont," Emily had answered, the depths of her regret clear in her face.
"Oh, okay," JJ had smiled, the unspoken question in her eyes revealing her surprise that Emily would be spending the holiday with her parents. The brunette had told her a little about her relationship with her mother, and JJ had witnessed it first hand when the Ambassador had come to the B.A.U. for help. Spending three days together, especially with the stress of the season, didn't seem like something that Emily would subject herself to.
"Well, I wish you could come. If you change your mind, I'm supposed to be at Garcia's around two. Apparently, we're making wassail. I'm not sure if there will be wassailing involved later, but with Garcia you never know," JJ had laughed, her blue eyes twinkling, and Emily had to force herself to look away from JJ's lovely face.
Her unacknowledged emotions when it came to Jennifer Jareau did little to add to Emily's seasonal state of mind. Christmas was bad enough in itself without factoring in the simmering attraction that she felt for her lovely colleague. Add to that the fact that there was no chance in hell that JJ felt the same and Emily's mood dropped from merely miserable to abysmal. She had spent a good portion of the drive up here from Connecticut admonishing herself for being so asinine.
And now this. The Stepford Family Christmas, complete with her cousin's three children all decked out in matching green velvet jumpers. In the other corner of the room, her mother held court and Emily could make out the lilting cadences of France. French ambassador. Or maybe Belgian. Emily had a sudden vision of ending up sitting next to Hercule Poirot for dinner.
Her father was nowhere in sight. Not surprising. No doubt he was ensconced in the library, a phone attached to his ear as he orchestrated and designed, a master conductor. She knew in her heart that not only hadn't he been worried about her late arrival, but that he hadn't even noticed that she wasn't there.
Against this elegant, tasteful picture, Emily conjured up an image of Garcia's apartment, the vivid, gaudy colors, the knickknacks and books, the strange paintings and beaded curtains, the over the top fiber optic white Christmas tree, covered in vintage ornaments, and in the center of it all, Garcia and JJ, camped out on the couch, drinking Garcia's special eggnog and watching The Nightmare Before Christmas.
It took her all of three seconds to realize where she would rather be.
Up until she took the posting with the B.A.U., Emily hadn't really felt a part of any of her previous assignments. They were jobs, nothing more, populated by people who, while generally pleasant, never made it through the patented Prentiss line of defense. But her team, they were different. She loved thinking of them as her team. She had been tested and found more than adequate. She had been accepted, taken in, made to feel a part of something. They spent ninety percent of their lives together and they had quickly become her family.
So, what the hell was she doing here?
"Is that a real gun?" The high pitched voice came from somewhere to the south. Emily looked down and met the green eyes of one of her cousin Sarah's small replicas.
"Yeah, it is," Emily answered.
"How come you have a gun?" The small blonde head was tilted sideways, her expression quite serious.
"I'm an FBI agent and we carry guns," Emily explained as patiently as possible, given her already frayed nerves.
"Caroline, stop bothering cousin Emily." Caroline's mother suddenly appeared behind Emily, every blonde hair perfectly in place, a dress of deep red setting off her fair coloring. The child turned without question and trotted off toward the sofa where her grandmother was ensconced.
"Hello, Sarah," Emily smiled, greeting her cousin.
Or at least she tried to smile. The inevitable moment with her mother, less than a minute after she arrived, had set Emily's nerves even more on edge and she was finding it difficult to be anything more than civil, especially to the woman who had been held up as a shining example of who she should be.
Sarah had always been the perfect girl. Pretty, popular. She majored in Political Science at Wellesley, was the president of her sorority, married an MBA from Harvard right out of college, producing the requisite three children, all girls, in short order. She worked for the Republican Party of Massachusetts, mainly organizing fund raisers for state candidates.
Emily had always known that her mother approved of Sarah, had probably wondered why her own daughter didn't make the same choices. Her mother had followed that same path, marrying, entering the political realm, having a child and a successful career. Emily wondered, staring across the room at Ambassador Prentiss, watching her talk and laugh with her foreign entourage, if it ever mattered to her mother that she had only been successful with the career, not the child.
"So, Emily, how are you?" Sarah's voice cut through her musings.
"Um, fine, thanks," Emily answered, the corners of her mouth turning up in an attempt to be congenial. "And you?"
"I'm great," Sarah stated, her tone a little less confident than of old. "I was hoping that you would being coming up. How are you liking being in D.C.?"
"I love it," Emily responded, her attention caught by the lack of the usual exuberance in her cousin's voice. "It's nice being back on the East Coast again. So, how are Chase and the kids?"
"Oh, you know. Chase is always busy with work, and the kids are all in school now," Sarah replied, trying for breezy and falling a tad short.
"That must leave you with a lot of time on your hands. I know that mother mentioned that you were only working part time now," Emily remarked casually. They were still standing half in the doorway to the front parlor, and Emily leaned back against the wide frame, her stance a bit more relaxed than it had been when the conversation began.
"It's not too bad. I actually started volunteering with a local crisis center for kids. The Junior League had a program with them, and when it ended, I just kept going," Sarah explained, the confidence returning to her voice, although Emily noticed that it was different now, no longer arrogant, merely excited.
"Wow. That's a big change from throwing $1000 a plate dinners for Republican candidates," Emily's eyes narrowed a bit as she watched Sarah react, a shadow of what Emily could identify only as shame slipping across Sarah's eyes.
"You're right, it is," Sarah's voice dropped conspiratorially, as she took a step out into the foyer, crossing to sit on the stairs, her expression clearly expecting Emily to follow.
With a mental shrug of her shoulders, Emily walked over and dropped down on the step below her cousin, her back against the deep claret of the wall. It was obvious that Sarah was in a sharing mood, and given that the last thing Emily wanted to do was be dragged over and put on display for her mother's guests, she was content to hear what her cousin had to say.
"It's really funny," Sarah began again, her gaze focused on the vertical lines of the wide pine boards of the flooring. "I mean, I knew that there were disparities in this country in terms of income and education. Despite what people think, not all Republicans are blind to the fact that everything isn't perfect, and that we need to come up with ideas to change things."
Seeing the trace of scornful disbelief cross Emily's face, Sarah reached out and placed her hand on her cousin's arm.
"I'm serious. We aren't all evil followers of the great Satan, Emily. Some Republicans are quite open-minded and caring people. We just have a different idea about the economy and the size of government." Sarah was oddly earnest, a light of animation in her eyes that Emily couldn't remember seeing before. Not that she saw Sarah all that often, but still, memories of the flawless teenager she had been lingered.
"I know that you probably don't believe me, but I'm not the person that you think I am," Sarah stated, a note of sadness in her voice.
"I barely know you at all, Sarah," Emily said matter-of-factly.
Emily could see that the other woman was fighting the compulsion to speak further, as if the words themselves were attempting to pry open her lips, to be free. The bright green of her eyes searched Emily's, although what she was seeking Emily didn't know. Whatever it was, she seemed satisfied with what she found.
"Chase and I are getting a divorce," Sarah announced, her tone relieved at having allowed the words their freedom.
"Oh. I'm sorry," Emily replied automatically, not sure if this was the desired response or not.
"It's okay. We've grown apart. God, that sounds pathetic, doesn't it? The truth is that we aren't the same people anymore. Well, I'm not anyway. I don't really care about the money and the house and the vacations and the cars. I don't even know if I believe in my party anymore. That's the reason I stopped fundraising. Who we are, our ideology has been shanghaied by the conservative, religious right and I don't think that I can keep assisting them in their agenda.
"Since I started working at the center, I've seen things that I never thought that I would see outside a Third World country. I live in a prosperous area, and yet the lives of these kids are so bad, Emily. So bad." Once the dam was opened, the words spilled out of her at a frenetic pace.
All Emily could do was nod her head, as her cousin began telling her story after story of kids with no way out of the desperation of their lives.
"So, I take it that Chase doesn't share your newly acquired sense of moral responsibility?" Emily asked in a brief moment of silence as Sarah caught her breath.
"No. He thinks that I've been corrupted. He begged me to stop working there, but I can't. That isn't the reason we're divorcing though. Well, it comes from there, but it's not the main reason. I…," her voice trailed off and her eyes dropped, "I'm having an affair. With the head of the center. His name is Kenyon. He's black."
Emily knew that her face had registered her shock, not at the interracial relationship, but that her cousin was the one having it: her conservative, Republican cousin who lived in one of the whitest enclaves in Massachusetts.
"Have you told your mother?" Emily asked finally, curiosity winning out.
"No, she doesn't know about any of it," Sarah answered, her expression making it clear that informing her mother wasn't on her list of things to do for the next decade.
"Can I be there when you tell her?" Emily asked, an impish smile sneaking across her face. "I've never actually seen anyone's head implode."
Sarah looked startled for a moment and then a wide smile creased her face. It was followed quickly by a chuckle, one that just as quickly turned into a full-fledged laugh, joined in whole-heartedly by Emily.
Still smiling, Sarah asked, "So, really, how are you? Your mother said that you're working with the Behavioral Analysis Unit. That's pretty impressive."
"Thanks. It's what I've always wanted to do, profiling that is, and I'm getting to work with the most amazing team. It's grueling and hard and horrific more often than not, but I feel like I have finally found what I'm supposed to be doing," Emily answered, none of the reserve of her earlier remarks evident.
"That's really great, Em. I'm so glad for you," Sarah replied, her smile genuine and sincere. "So, are you seeing anyone?"
Emily hesitated, unwilling to lose the tentative connection that she and Sarah had formed, but not confident enough in her cousin to answer honestly.
Sarah saw the conflict in Emily's face and, for the second time, reached out her hand and laid it on Emily's arm.
"Emily, I know. I've known for years and I honestly don't care. It so doesn't matter to me. I'm not my mother. I mean, God, Em, I went to Wellesley. It isn't like I don't know any other lesbians," Sarah rushed to reassure her.
Emily could see the honesty in Sarah's face and a few of the muscles in her neck that she didn't even know were tensed suddenly relaxed.
"So, are you seeing anyone?" Sarah asked again, the smile on her face encouraging.
"No. I mean, not really," Emily answered, her expression difficult to read.
"What do you mean, not really?" Sarah prompted.
"There's someone that I," Emily stopped speaking, clearly at a loss as to how to continue.
"That you what?" Again Sarah's voice was gently probing.
"That I have feelings for, but it'll never amount to anything," Emily finished quickly, before her courage left her.
"Well, to begin with I don't think that she's interested in women," Emily started, interrupted by Sarah's next question.
"It isn't something that generally comes up in conversation. Plus, we work together and that's an issue on so many levels," Emily responded, her face tightening with the thought.
"Do you really care for her?" Sarah asked, her head tilted to the side.
"Yes." All of Emily's feelings were evident in that single word.
"Where is she? I mean is she in D.C. for Christmas?" Sarah's questions were so gently spoken that Emily wasn't offended by the sudden interest in her life.
"Yeah. She's spending it with another member of our team, Penelope Garcia. They invited me to join them, but I had promised Mother that I would be here." Even to her own ears, the words sounded stilted and vaguely self-pitying.
"So instead of spending Christmas with…you didn't tell me her name," Sarah began, pausing for Emily's answer.
"Her name is Jennifer. Jareau. JJ," Emily replied, feeling oddly like a teenager again as she felt a rush of excitement at just the saying of her name.
"So, instead of being with JJ, you decided it would be better to fly to Connecticut, rent a car, drive two and a half hours, all to spend the holiday with your family?" Sarah asked, her tone a little incredulous. "I mean, I know that your relationship with your mother is the not greatest and I haven't even seen your father since we got here. As for the rest of us, this is the longest conversation that you and I have ever had, not to mention the most personal, and I know that you can't stand my mother, or Emerson for that matter.
"So, explain to me again what the hell you're doing here? Emily, it doesn't taken a genius to notice that all these years things between you and your mother have been strained. Would you really rather spend three days feeling like a disappointment and leave vowing to never do this again or would you prefer to get the hell out of here and spend Christmas with someone you care about?"
Emily stared at her cousin, eyes wide and astonished. Through the open doorway, she could hear the delicate clink of good crystal and the sound of laughter and conversation. The thought of what the next three days held in store flashed across Emily's mind with all the accompanying feelings of guilt, anger, bitterness, and sadness. She knew that her relationship with her mother wasn't going to be repaired by being here for the holiday, if it was possible to repair it at all.
"If I were you, and I didn't have kids to worry about, I would be in that car so fast that my mother's head would spin," Sarah stated vehemently. "I love my girls, but it would be nice to spend Christmas with Kenyon."
Emily pursed her lips, weighing the options and the repercussions, before standing suddenly, towering over Sarah as she sat on the fourth step of the stairs.
"Would you be willing to tell a lie for me?" Emily asked, part of her still reeling from the whole conversation with her cousin.
"It would be my pleasure. On one condition," Sarah answered, rising to meet Emily's eyes.
"Let's not be distant cousins anymore? Call me. I could use a few new friends," Sarah admitted, a shy smile gracing her lips.
Emily grinned back at her.
"I'd like that," Emily told her, giving in to the urge and reaching out to hug Sarah. Her cousin responded instantly, wrapping her arms tightly around Emily's slender frame and squeezing.
"I'll tell them you got an urgent call back to D.C.," she promised, smiling at Emily. "Trust me, I'll handle your mother. She likes me, remember?"
With a laugh, Emily took the few stairs quickly, grabbing her leather coat off the antique hall tree, and pulled open the door, slipping out without a word into the surrounding darkness of the Vermont night.
The trip back to the airport and the plane ride home left Emily exhausted, but oddly at peace. Despite the message that her mother left on her voice mail, an unusually subdued diatribe about leaving without saying goodbye, Emily felt none of the guilt that she had imagined would be wrapping a sweaty palm around her throat, leaving her a trifle lightheaded and short of breath.
For the first time in her life, she had made a decision that was based upon her own needs and wants, and not the expectations of two people who had never evinced the least concern for her happiness, especially when it came into conflict with what they wanted from her. She felt liberated.
It was after midnight by the time she arrived back in her apartment in D.C.. Dropping her bag inside the door, she walked across the semi-darkened living room, the light coming in from the glass balcony doors falling in a yellowish swath along the wood floor. She walked up the stairs to her bedroom, shedding her jacket and shirt, tossing her clothes onto the back of a wide armchair, already layered with the clothes she had decided not to pack.
She pulled on an oversized FBI tee shirt and crossed to the bathroom, the sudden glare of the lights over the mirror causing her to blink. She squinted at the image reflected back to her, certain that the woman she was seeing must look different than the one that had left here only fourteen hours ago, but there was little changed about her, except for an infinite space that seemed to exist behind her dark brown eyes that hadn't been there before. An immensely peaceful space.
Quickly brushing her teeth and washing off the remnants of her makeup, Emily crossed to her bed, climbing in between the soft sheets of Egyptian cotton. Unlike almost every other night she could remember, nights when she couldn't get images of death out of her head, nights when she worried that she wasn't good enough for the B.A.U, or that they weren't good enough to stop the ever-widening circles of chaos and destruction, Emily Prentiss fell fast asleep.
She woke to the bright gold of the winter sun slipping unheralded through the heavy drapes that covered the balcony doors. Glancing at the bedside clock, she was startled to see that it was already almost ten. Throwing back the covers, she shivered a bit as the cooler air of the room touched her slumber warm skin.
There were several things that she wanted to pick up before she went to Garcia's, and she didn't want to feel rushed. After a quick shower, she dressed in jeans and a thick cotton sweater. As she left, she grabbed the suitcase she had dropped inside the door and headed out to run a few errands before two.
It wasn't until she was standing in line at the bakery that it occurred to Emily that while JJ had invited her, Garcia hadn't, and that perhaps just showing up at Garcia's door wouldn't be the height of good manners. Not that she thought that Garcia would mind. Still, it made more sense to swing by JJ's house and make sure that everything was all right with the addition of a third person.
Plus, she'd get to spend a few minutes alone with JJ, something that didn't happen all that often. After all, she had left Vermont just to be able to see the lovely blonde. A couple precious minutes didn't seem like much to ask.
An hour later Emily stood nervously on the doorstep of JJ's house. She had raised her hand three times now to ring the bell and three times she had dropped it before her finger touched the buzzer. Maybe this wasn't a good idea. Maybe JJ had merely been being kind when she had asked her to join them for Christmas. Maybe the sight of Emily standing on her front stoop wasn't what she had in mind for a holiday surprise.
But unless she actually got up the nerve and rang the bell, Emily wasn't ever going to know.
She heard the faint 'ding-dong' sounding behind the door and the approach of footsteps, before the door swung open and she met JJ's astonished blue gaze. Emily smiled shyly, her arms wrapped around her chest, her hands disappearing into the brown of her leather jacket. JJ just stared for moment, before a wide smile lit her face.
She pushed open the screen door and stepped out onto the stoop, so close to Emily that she could smell the clean, fragrant scent of her perfume. Instead of greeting her however, JJ walked down the two front steps to the walkway, and turning toward the house, peered up at the roofline, going up on bare tiptoes to get a better view. Emily watched her, perplexed, a small frown just creasing the smooth skin between her eyebrows.
"Um, what're you looking for?" Emily asked, her voice hesitant and not a little bemused.
"Reindeer," JJ stated enigmatically, her lips still turned up in a very satisfied smile. "I thought that I might catch a glimpse of them, because Santa obviously came early this year. It seems that I have been a very good girl."
"I'm sorry, but you've totally lost me," Emily admitted, though she couldn't help but mirror JJ's infectious grin.
"I mean, that I must have done something right this year, because old St. Nick just sent me a wonderful present. You." JJ chuckled, amused at the confused look on Emily's lovely face, one that quickly included the faint stain of pink on her cheeks.
"Not that I am complaining in the least, but what are you doing here? I thought that you left for Vermont yesterday," JJ asked, climbing the two steps to brush against Emily as she opened the door, ushering the brunette inside the warmth of the house.
"Um, well, I did," Emily managed to get out, her mind still caught on JJ's earlier words. Of all the things that Emily had imagined the blonde would say upon finding her on her front porch, being likened to a gift wasn't one of them. And a wonderful gift at that.
"So, you've actually been to Vermont and back since yesterday morning?" JJ prompted, leading Emily into the kitchen and pouring her a cup of coffee.
"Yeah. It's a long story." Emily's face told JJ just about all that she needed to know.
"Well, we've got all evening, and tomorrow, too, if you're planning on staying, so when or if you feel like sharing, I'd like to hear it," JJ smiled gently at her. "I can't believe that you're here. I was just lying on the couch, wondering what I was going to do with myself for two days, trying to figure out just how many episodes of iThe Twilight Zone/i I have on DVD, and the doorbell rang and there you were."
"Wait a minute. What about Garcia's?" Emily queried, feeling the gauzy film of confusion settle over her eyes again.
"Ah. Well, after you left on Saturday, Morgan came by Garcia's office and asked her if she would be interested in flying with him to Chicago to spend Christmas with his mom and sisters. You know how overprotective he's been of her since the shooting. Anyway, he gave her the patented Morgan, you-know-you-can't-resist-me smile and I could tell that she really wanted to go, but she wasn't saying yes, since she was worried about me.
"I, of course, assured her that I was only staying in town to keep her company and that I could just drive to Pennsylvania this morning. So she went. She was nervous as hell, and packed enough to stay for a month, so Morgan's mom is probably going to wonder what's going on with that, but I was just happy to see her so excited. Even if they're only friends and are never more than that, I think it's pretty great," JJ explained succinctly.
"But you didn't go to Pennsylvania," Emily stated. Although it was obvious that JJ hadn't gone, Emily just wanted to make certain she was fully up to speed.
JJ laughed and answered, "No, I didn't go to Pennsylvania. To be honest, I was using staying with Garcia as an excuse. Not that I didn't want to spend the holiday with her. But I never had any intention of going home."
"Okay, so, just so I have this all straight, Garcia has gone to Chicago with Morgan. I went to Vermont and came all the way back. And you were going to spend Christmas with Garcia, only because you didn't want to go home?" Emily questioned, a teasing smile lifting the corners of her mouth.
"And now you and I are going to spend Christmas together," JJ elaborated, although her tone became noticeably less teasing and much more uncertain as she continued. "That is, if you want to. I mean, if you have other plans, that's fine."
"JJ. I just walked out of my parents' house without saying goodbye, drove nearly three hours back to the airport, used my credentials to get a seat on a flight to D.C., then flew another three hours, all to be able to spend Christmas with you. And Garcia. So, no, I don't have other plans," Emily said softly, her eyes shifting away as the import of her words struck her.
When she raised her eyes, she was startled to see the tender look on JJ's face. Her blue eyes were soft and full of emotion.
"Like I said, I must have been a very good girl this year," the blonde teased, her head canted to the side, straight white teeth showing against the pink of her lips.
If Emily didn't know better, she would have sworn that JJ was flirting with her.
"Um, I brought some stuff to take to Garcia's. Bread, olives, wine, éclairs. They're in the car." Emily announced nervously, rising to walk toward the door.
"I love éclairs. And olives. And bread and wine, too. Did you bring clothes?" JJ asked, charmed by Emily's jitteriness.
"Yeah, actually, I never unpacked. I just brought my suitcase with me, thinking that we would all be staying at Garcia's. Of course, I can just head back to my apartment later," Emily answered over her shoulder as she made her way out the front door.
"Emily." The sound of her name brought the brunette up short. She turned back to where JJ stood in the doorway.
"So, you don't mind the thought of sleeping on Garcia's couch, but you don't want to stay here with me?" JJ asked pointedly, her gaze intense.
"That's not what I meant. I just didn't want to assume that you wanted me to stay." The vulnerability in Emily's eyes was heartbreaking and JJ automatically took a step towards her.
"I want you to stay." There could be no doubt as to the sincerity of JJ's words.
Taking in a deep breath, Emily allowed all the potential meanings of the past few minutes to sink in.
"I'd like that," Emily replied simply, smiling at JJ before walking out to her car to gather the various bags of food and her suitcase.
Half an hour later, the two were settled comfortably on JJ's overstuffed couch, shoes off, blankets tucked around them. The coffee table was coated with the crumbs from a crisp baguette and littered with various white containers of olives, along with a marble cutting board with three different wedges of cheese, and a bottle of 1986 Chateau Margaux.
JJ swirled the ruby liquid in her glass, savoring the taste of black currants and vanilla that provided a perfect complement to the morsel of Roquefort and the thick chunk of baguette on her plate. She had her legs tucked up under her, turned to lean against the arm cushion of the couch, so that she faced Emily, who occupied a similar position at the other end.
Chuckling lightly, JJ asked, "Just how much does a bottle of this run?"
"I'm not sure. Probably two or three hundred," Emily answered, a sad smile gracing her lips. "I swiped them from my parents house last Christmas. It was the only thing that kept me sane."
"Do you want to talk about what happened in Vermont?" JJ broached the subject cautiously, sensing that Emily didn't really want to discuss it. At least not yet.
"Do you mind if we don't?" Emily asked, her eyes intent on the muted plaid pattern of the blanket.
"Of course I don't mind. I just want you to know that you can if you want to," JJ reassured, slipping one of her feet out from under her blanket to touch Emily's jean clad calf.
"Thanks. Maybe later. Right now, I thought that you promised me a iTwilight Zone/i marathon?" Emily smiled at her, her eyes grateful.
"I did. I mean, what could be more appropriate for the holiday than a show about what's real and what isn't?" JJ laughed, rising to cross to the DVD player and slide in a silver disc.
For the next five hours, the screen was filled with the crisp black and white images of the classic television show. Various episodes brought with them discussions about life and the nature of existence and both women reveled in the other's intellect, the conversations becoming more and more serious.
"The After Hours", an episode about department store mannequins who come to life, able to live for a few weeks as real people, only to be forced to return to their former existence, left the two talking and debating for an hour after the screen had reverted to a blank blue about who we are and who we think that we are, about the ultimate reality of our lives.
"So is what we are only what we perceive ourselves to be, or is our entire existence all just a lie, governed by the dictates of our society?" Emily asked, her eyes pensive.
Somehow, while they were watching the show and during the conversation that followed, they had shifted positions on the couch. They were close enough to touch now, bodies swiveled towards each other, JJ's knee pressing against Emily's thigh.
"Right now, right in this moment in time, what are you, who are you?" JJ asked, responding to Emily's question with one of her own.
Emily was very still for long minutes, the only sound in the room the faint ticking of the mantle clock over the fireplace. JJ didn't pressure her, staring in fascination as thoughts and emotions flitted across Emily's face, raw footage across a screen.
"Right now, I would have to say that I am content. I'm healthy. I have more than enough money. I have a job that challenges me and gives me a sense of doing good. I've made wonderful friends, who also challenge me and make me feel worthy of their friendship. And I'm sitting here with you, on one of the best Christmas Eves I can remember.
"As for who I am, I guess I'm the sum of all my experiences, some good, some bad. I'm the product of my relationships with others and my definition of myself," Emily spoke slowly, her face so solemn that JJ had to resist the urge to reach out and draw Emily to her.
"And if tomorrow someone came along and told you that all of that was a lie, that you aren't who you think you are, or worse, that who you perceive yourself to be is somehow wrong, would it change any of it?" JJ probed gently, sensing that the entire conversation had its origins, not in an old television show, but deep within Emily's psyche, and in her relationship with her mother.
"How did you get to be so remarkably brilliant?" Emily asked, the answer to the question in every line of Emily's body, lines that seemed to relax with every passing second, as if she were releasing a stranglehold on muscles held for years in abeyance.
"I have a lot of smart friends and I pay attention." JJ smiled sweetly at Emily, reaching over to wrap her fingers around Emily's slender wrist, the pads of her middle and ring finger automatically finding the strong pulse of blood just below the surface of warm, soft skin.
"You know, for someone who isn't a profiler, you're pretty damn good at figuring out human nature," Emily answered, her smile appreciative.
"You sit and listen long enough and you start to pick things up," JJ responded modestly.
"Only if you have the skills to begin with. You can hand anyone a pile of wood and some tools and tell her to build you something, but only someone with the talent to see the table in her mind will be able to actually create it," Emily stated quietly. "Thank you."
"For what?" JJ grinned, her eyes unreadable in the darkened living room.
"For being exactly who you think you are," Emily answered, trying to keep her tone light, but only partially succeeding.
"You're welcome, Em." JJ reached out with her other hand and grasped Emily's forearm, squeezing gently before releasing it.
"God, I can't believe that it's after eight," JJ grinned, standing slowly and stretching her arms over her head, the movement exposing a line of pale honeyed skin from which Emily couldn't seem to force herself to look away.
"I know. It doesn't seem like it's been six hours," Emily agreed, rising to help JJ clear up the mess of their afternoon of grazing.
"So, what would you be doing tonight if you had stayed at your parents?" JJ called from the other room.
"Other than drinking heavily?" Emily laughed, coming to stand and lean against the counter near the sink, as JJ loaded the dishwasher.
"Yes, other than that," JJ smiled at her, pleased that Emily had taken the question in the spirit intended.
"Well, at ten we would leave to drive over to Woodstock for the Christmas Eve service. Despite the circumstances of being with my family, I've always loved the midnight celebration of Eucharist. There's something serene and still about it, as if for just those few moments, the world takes a deep breath and holds it," Emily explained quietly, obviously unused to sharing her thoughts like that.
'Then we should go. To church. I'm sure there are any number of services tonight. Exactly what denomination are we talking about?" JJ smiled, picking up the local paper and turning to the section that contained the church news.
"Episcopalian. But we don't have to go to church. You just asked about Christmas with my family and that's something we've always done. I didn't mean that we needed to go tonight," Emily protested half-heartedly.
JJ had watched Emily's face closely as she described the feeling of being in church on Christmas Eve and she knew that despite her denial, she really did want to go. Scanning down the page, JJ found quite a few services.
"Here's one. It's over in Stafford, just a few miles from here. It's one of the oldest Episcopal churches in Virginia. The service starts at eleven," JJ told her, moving over and pointing at the announcement with a slender finger as Emily came to the table to look.
"Honestly, JJ, you don't have to go to church with me," Emily told her, expression earnest.
"I know that. I want to go to church with you. How's that?" JJ leaned in a matching pose against the counter next to the table, eyebrows raised challengingly.
Emily chuckled at the look on the blonde's face. The entire day had been a revelation to her. JJ had been a revelation. What she thought that she knew about the other woman barely skimmed the surface: an outwardly calm, reserved, nurturing surface, that JJ clearly put a great deal of effort into maintaining.
A surface that told almost nothing about who this woman was. But for these few momentous hours, Emily had been allowed to look beneath the artfully decorated cloth that hid her from the world and see JJ. Emily said a silent prayer of thanks for the glimpses into the mystery that was Jennifer Jareau.
"Fine. Church it is, then. Although we don't have to go to the Episcopal service. Do you have a religious preference? Emily asked, smiling at her own politically correct phrasing.
JJ laughed, giving Emily's arm a little punch as she turned and walked back over to the table.
"I'm a lapsed Catholic. Very lapsed," JJ half-smiled, half-grimaced.
"Well, that makes you a good Episcopalian, then." Emily smiled back. "And you should be perfectly at home in the service. We do the Christian calisthenics, too. Sit, kneel, stand. Sit, kneel, stand."
Laughing now, JJ fell gracefully into a kitchen chair. It was hard to believe that just last night she had been feeling rather sorry for herself. Not sorry enough to provoke her into anything as foolish as heading to Pennsylvania for Christmas, but still, the thought of spending the holiday alone hadn't been one she relished.
And then she had opened the door to find the one person she had been thinking about the most, the one person who it seemed was constantly in her thoughts these days, standing diffidently on her front stoop. Who said there were no Christmas miracles anymore?
"Well, it doesn't start until eleven. Although they are having seasonal music at ten thirty that I wouldn't mind hearing. That gives us two hours, well, minus time to get dressed and drive over there. Any ideas about what you'd like to do until then?"
The instant that the words left her lips, JJ wished that she could snatch them back in a huge butterfly net. It wasn't the words themselves really, but the tone of her voice and the intense expression that she knew, from the answering look in Emily's eyes, was on her face.
Emily didn't respond, her gaze locked with JJ's, a completed circuit that both of them were loathe to break. Everything that had passed between them before this: the smiles, the brief touches, the looks that carried the weight of words too numerous to speak, all of it came, stumbling and yet triumphant, to this center of the convoluted maze they had been traversing.
This was who they were, right there in that moment, complete, sacrosanct, and JJ felt as if the indecipherable equation of her life finally had a solution, a sum that was Emily.
Emily felt the link, as well, the last missing piece of her life's puzzle slipping effortlessly into place. It was as if that space she had seen in the mirror last night had expanded exponentially, encompassing her, searing away all the meaningless parts of her life to leave only this. This room. This woman, whose blue eyes echoed the space within her.
JJ rose slowly from her chair, an invisible tether drawing them together, a silken thread that JJ would have sworn she could see, white and luminous against the dark tile of the floor.
They met in the middle of the kitchen floor, stopping inches from each other, blue eyes never leaving brown. Slowly, as if the movement itself would reduce all of this to illusion, dissolving into a dissipating mist, Emily raised her hand, cupping the smooth, perfect curve of JJ's cheek. JJ turned her head into the touch, nuzzling into the cool palm.
Words of warning sprang, unbidden, to Emily's lips, warnings of the finality of this moment, of the line that could never be uncrossed, but looking at JJ's expression, Emily knew that those admonitions weren't needed. JJ knew, as well as Emily, the staggering potential of this moment. She also knew the only response she could give to the question in Emily's eyes.
Her hand rose to cover the one cupping her cheek, linking their fingers together as she pulled Emily closer, reducing the space between them to nothing. JJ's eyes fluttered shut for a moment at the feel of that slender body against her own, at the rich, subtle scent of Emily's perfume, and at the stuttered hitch in her breathing as JJ's hands slipped into the thick fall of dark hair, gently tugging those full lips down to meet hers.
JJ had been kissed a fair number of times in her life, often passionately, occasionally with extreme tenderness, but nothing had prepared her for this. It was as if the entirety of Emily's feelings had been distilled, like a fine liquor, into this single kiss, and JJ could taste it: taste the desire, the longing, the passion, the need, the gentleness, the affection, the respect, the admiration, the friendship, the love, all coalesced into this soft, warm meeting of lips.
When Emily raised her head, JJ wrapped her arms tightly around Emily's waist and buried her face in the soft, thick, black cotton of her sweater, drawing in a deep breath, inhaling the fragrance that was solely Emily. Hands caressed along her back, and she felt the tender press of lips against the smooth skin along her hairline.
JJ finally looked up, meeting eyes so dark she could barely distinguish iris from pupil.
"Nothing horrible happened in Vermont, did it? You walked out on your family and came back to be with me, didn't you? Just me?" JJ asked, knowing the answer, but needing to hear Emily's affirmation.
"Just you," Emily confirmed, slender fingers tracing along the silken skin of JJ's neck.
"That's a good thing. That's a very, very good thing," JJ grinned, the depth of meaning in Emily's words seeping into her bones.
Emily grinned back at her, shaking her head a bit at the sheer wonder of it all.
"You could kiss me again, you know?" JJ urged, her eyes focused on the soft fullness of Emily's lips.
"I could?" Emily teased, and JJ marveled at the change that had taken place in Emily's whole being. The reserve that Emily once wore like a thin layer of tempered steel, providing a line of protection against anyone getting too close, was gone. There was just Emily now, and JJ realized how privileged she was to be the one who was allowed to see her.
Emily was feeling much the same way, as the calm, self-contained woman melted away and JJ was revealed, fearless and confident and uncertain and hesitant, no longer merely a construct of Emily's imagination, but vital and real and so very lovely.
"You could. In fact, I wouldn't have any objections if that was all you did from now on. Kiss me, that is," JJ stated, the seriousness of her tone belied by the slightly wicked gleam in her eyes.
"I'm fairly certain that would present a few difficulties, not to mention the fact that I don't think they'll let us in to church like that," Emily laughed. "But, considering that we have at least an hour before we need to leave."
Emily didn't finish her sentence, dipping her head down to capture JJ's lips again, this time more passionately. JJ responded with a low moan, her hands tangling in Emily's hair, urging her mouth closer. The world fell away, and there was nothing outside the warmth of the small kitchen and each other's arms.
From the choir loft, the clear, bright notes rang out, as the voice of a young boy floated on the rarified air, each tone echoed back by other voices of other young boys, arrayed in white robes before the altar. The scent of candle wax, polished wood and incense filled JJ's senses, the smoke from the lit tapers rising up against the brilliant white of the walls of the sanctuary.
"O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel."
The service had been beautiful, and JJ found that there was little difference to the masses she had been dragged to as a girl. Except that tonight, she wanted to be here. Emily sat beside her, so lovely in a dress of deep burgundy that each time JJ looked at her, her breath caught in her throat.
Emily glanced over for the hundredth time, as if she needed the constant reassurance that JJ was still there beside her, real and impossibly gorgeous, her own Christmas angel, hair gleaming like burnished gold in the candlelit church. If she closed her eyes, she could still feel the softness of JJ's lips under her own, taste the sweetness. Not the most appropriate thoughts for church, but Emily couldn't help herself.
The two had stood in the kitchen, locked in an embrace, lips moving with languid, simmering heat, hands exploring the silken warmth of skin under the weight of sweaters, until the need to sit down finally forced them back into the living room, their lips barely leaving each other's as they sank onto the overstuffed cushions.
It had taken a tremendous amount of self-control to stop things from moving too quickly, but both of them knew that there was no rush. They had all the time in the world.
"I don't want this to be about sex, JJ. If all either of us wanted was someone to sleep with, I'm pretty sure that we could manage it. This is too important to me to reduce it to hormones. I want to learn everything there is to know about you and then start over again, just in case I missed something," Emily whispered earnestly, her expression so serious that JJ reached a hand up to run a slender finger along Emily's lips.
"It will eventually include sex though, right?" JJ's eyebrows quirked up teasingly.
"Jennifer," Emily murmured, drawing in a ragged breath.
"Emily, I'm not arguing, sweetheart. I want the same things, I promise. But right now, I want to see you smile, okay?" JJ reassured her, placing small kisses along the chiseled edge of Emily's jaw line.
"I'm sorry. I guess I can get a little intense sometimes," Emily admitted, a smile trying to catch hold at the corners of her mouth.
"Only sometimes?" JJ kidded sweetly.
"Does this mean I am letting myself in for years of mocking?" Emily's eyes held a distinct twinkle.
"If you're very lucky, my sweet, if you are very lucky," JJ promised, before adeptly putting an end to further conversation.
They had managed to get to the church just as the opening hymn was being sung.
Now, as the service ended, they emerged into the chill, damp air of a late December night. Emily watched as their breath hung in the air, and she couldn't help but marvel at the difference a day could make.
"When I was a kid, I used to pretend that I was a fire-breathing dragon," she told JJ as they reached the car. JJ's fond smile was all the reply that Emily needed.
The drive back to JJ's house took them along the edge of barren fields, wide ditches separating them from the road. The sky was clear and every star imaginable, and perhaps a few that were completely unimaginable, littered the dark blue dome above them. JJ sat with her face pressed against the cold glass, peering up at the glittering display. Her left hand was held gently in Emily's.
Sitting up a little, JJ opened her mouth and with a soft "huff" sent a moist cloud of air against the window. It left a rounded mark of condensation on the glass. Raising her right gloved hand, JJ drew a large heart and in the center wrote, "JJ & Em", a silly grin creasing her face.
"How old are you, again?" Her voice was incredibly fond and teasing.
"Right now, I'm twelve and a hundred and two," JJ answered, her smile full of wonder and amazement. "Stop the car up here?"
"Is something wrong?" Emily asked, her expression at once concerned.
"No, nothing is wrong. I just want to stand out here with you under the stars for a few minutes on our first Christmas Eve," JJ explained, unbuckling her seat belt and stepping from the car to the hard dirt of the turnoff Emily had pulled into.
Emily got out as well, and gazed in awe as JJ titled her head back to the sky and spread her arms out in a pose of joyful surrender. Emily knew that if she lived to be a hundred and two herself, she would never see anything more beautiful.
She walked carefully over to JJ's side, her footsteps crackling on the stony ground and ignoring the occasional car that glided past them into the Virginia night, slipped her arms around JJ, pulling her close.
"Merry Christmas, Emily." JJ's voice was so full of emotion that Emily felt tears start in her eyes.
"Merry Christmas, Jennifer," Emily echoed, unable to articulate all that she was feeling, hoping that JJ knew.
"Let's go home and open that other bottle of three hundred dollar wine and snuggle on the couch," JJ urged, tucking her head under Emily's chin. "I know we agreed to take things slow, but I really want to fall asleep in your arms tonight, if that's all right with you?"
"I honestly can't think of any better Christmas present," Emily assured her, stepping back to lead JJ over to the passenger door.
Sliding in behind the wheel, Emily couldn't help but compare this amazing feeling that had expanded to fill her entire being with the dread she had felt just the night before. JJ turned and tucked her hand into the crook of Emily's arm, her hair pale against the black leather seat.
"Remind me tomorrow to call my cousin Sarah and tell her thank you," Emily mused, her eyes focused on the dark road ahead of them.
"For what?" JJ asked, her blue eyes warm and sleepy.
"Telling me to come home for Christmas," Emily answered, struck by the simple truth of the words.
"Did you come home for Christmas, Emily?" JJ asked, drowsy from the warmth of the heater.
"Yes," Emily said softly. "It took me a while, but I finally figured out where home is. It's you."