"What the hell, Hotch? Why would you do this?" Dave bit out as he stormed into Aaron's office early the morning following their case in Florida. It had been rough enough with Erin there, given everything she was going through at the moment and now this. "She's vulnerable right now and you send her to the Gitmo of rehabs?"
Aaron looked up at him from the file he was working on. "Shut the door, David, and sit down." There was real ire in his voice and Dave felt his eyes narrow as he followed orders. "She went to a posh rehab over the summer. Obviously it did nothing for her, as she fell even harder this time. She was drinking on this case, Dave."
"And her daughter may by dying. Allie is looking for a bone marrow donor, as the chemo and radiation is no longer working like her doctors had hoped it would. Erin's not a match for her. I think I would drink, too, if I were her. Imagine yourself in her shoes. What if it were Jack?"
"I wouldn't drink on the job, and neither would you. We're stronger than that."
Dave shook his head, feeling vast disappointment in his friend. "It's not about strength, Hotch. It's about the fact she has no one to turn to here. Everyone, including me, expects too much of her, and she needed an outlet to feel normal." He sighed and ran his hand through his hair. "You are so hard on her."
"Has she ever been kind to me, to us?" was his short reply. Aaron stared into Dave's eyes, the flinty look causing him to blanch. "She has never done one nice thing for my team."
Dave felt his heart harden towards Hotch in that moment and decided to come at him with all guns blazing. "What about Haley?" It was Aaron's turn to blanch, and he looked away from Dave to stare at a picture on his desk. "That's right, what did she tell you at the end of the inquest?"
Aaron was silent for a few moments and Dave just sat there, staring at him. "That if we ever needed anything, to just ask her."
"And was she being sincere and honest?"
"And during the Senate subcommittee trial, who do you think twisted arms to make sure we were kept whole, that none of us were shipped off to other units, other departments?" He wouldn't look at Dave, as if knowing he were right. "You know, it is a bit hypocritical of you to do this, too."
"Excuse me?" The anger was back in his voice and Dave knew he'd hit a sore spot. "How am I being hypocritical by sending her to get the help she so obviously needs?"
"Dr. Spencer Reid." Dave drew in a deep breath, hating to involve the kid in this. "How often was he high out on the field? How many times did you let him question suspects when he could slip into a hallucination at any time?"
"I hardly think…"
"That that's relevant? Of course it is, Hotch. Allie could die while her mother is locked away for two months. I won't deny that Erin needs help for her drinking problem, but I will never agree to how you've let this go down."
Aaron shook his head. "How has she managed to beguile you so? You used to be on our side."
"There are no sides when it comes to an ill child." Dave looked down at his clenched hands, feeling tears sting his eyes at the thought of his son, born too soon, fated to live a too brief life. "If Alexandra should die before Erin gets out, her grief and sorrow will be on your head. I dearly hope that you can live with that on your heart. I'm sure the ghost of Haley would welcome the company."
It was a low blow and Dave knew it hit the mark by the way Hotch winced. Shaking his head, he stood and stalked from the office, slamming the door behind him. A couple of people looked up at him and Dave quickly made his way to his own office, locking the door behind him. Sinking into his chair, he ran his hand along his goatee. He should never had pressed Morgan this morning when he'd called to say he wasn't coming in. And yet…
A few minutes later, he heard a sharp knocking at his door. "Dave?" came Emily's low voice as she tried to open the door.
"One second." He stood and went to the door, letting her in. "Yes, Emily?"
"What's up?" She took a seat in a chair in front of his desk, waiting expectantly.
Shaking his head, he sat down next to her. "I went off on Hotch for a decision he made last night. It was the wrong one and he can't see that yet."
"Does it have anything to do with Morgan's errand for him? We were going to hang out and then that came up."
He nodded, unwilling to rat Erin out. Rehab was so deeply personal, and she didn't need her dirty laundry aired to all and sundry. "I saw Morgan go out on the errand and pressed him for details. He was all too willing to spill to me." It was a lie, but the only thing he could give her at the moment. Dave stared into her eyes and sighed. "It struck a nerve with me."
"So you took it out on Hotch. That probably wasn't the smartest."
"No one ever said I was quick on the uptake. I can only pray that nothing bad happens in the next sixty days as a result of this decision. She does not deserve to be put through that Hell as well."
"A new girlfriend, Old Man? I thought, what with Carolyn, you'd give it some time."
He smiled a little at her assumption as he shook his head. "No, this person is not linked to me romantically. I respect them a great deal, and wish them nothing but the best. But how are things between you and Morgan? I've noticed things aren't quite as strained between you lately."
"We're friends, for now. He still hasn't been able to trust me fully. Not that I blame them." She stood and smiled gently. "I hope everything else works out for you and your friend."
"I do, too, bella. I do, too." He heard the door open and close, and then he sighed. This was a fine kettle of fish he'd gotten himself into, and yet, he thought, Allie, and by extension, Erin, was worth the concern. He just hope he didn't lose his friendship with Hotch as a result of his actions that day.
"March Madness doesn't begin to cover that last case. I am looking forward to landing and heading out to the nearest bar. Who all is with me?" Morgan asked as they began their descent into Quantico.
"Sounds good to me. How about you, Jayje?" Emily replied, looking over at the other woman.
"No, I'm heading home and snuggling with my guys. Maybe another time," she said, her eyes and thoughts miles away.
"Same goes for me. Jack's been missing me a lot lately." Dave tried to conceal his snort of derision, knowing the man was really missing Beth. Hotch glared at him and he shrugged going back to the magazine he was reading.
"And what about you, Old Man? Feel up to a night on the town?" He looked back up at Morgan and shook his head.
"Sorry, a night of carousing hold appeal at the moment." Morgan frowned a little, and Dave watched Emily touch his shoulder, shaking her head slightly. They'd spent a night talking about the case and why it had bothered him so, and she knew why this was not a good night for him. The victims had reminded him so of Carolyn and Erin.
Erin. She weighed heavily on his mind, even after Allie had gotten her clean bill of health. An innate air of sorrow lingered about Erin since her return to the Bureau three weeks ago, and though he had tried so hard to be kind, to show his support, she'd barely acknowledged his existence. Or anyone's for that matter. Whatever had happened to her in rehab, it had destroyed some spark in her that Dave found himself missing.
The plane landed with no troubles, and he rode with JJ and Hotch back to the Academy. No one was in the mood for talking, which suited Dave just fine. He stared out the window, not really seeing anything as he thought of Carolyn. He hoped she was in Heaven, watching over their son until he was able to join them. "Have a good night JJ, Dave," Hotch said as he carried his go bag and briefcase over to his car.
As they waited over to the elevator, Dave could feel JJ's eyes on him. "What is it you want to ask, JJ?"
"How do you know I want to ask you something, Dave?" she countered as she pressed the up button.
He waited until the elevator came and they were unlikely to be overheard. "I'm a profiler, Jen, this is what I do for a living. It's how I knew Prentiss hadn't truly left us. So, what questions do you have for me?"
JJ leaned against the back of the elevator, smiling a tiny, worried, smile. "Morgan's been acting weird around Hotch ever since we got back from Camp Creepy. Not that I blame him, what with Aaron sticking us with Strauss without warning. I was surprised that she wasn't such a bitch on that case."
"She's going through some things right now." JJ raised an eyebrow at him. "She was a friend, once. I still care for her."
"So, what did Hotch do to her that pissed you off?"
He wondered what had given him away as he shrugged. "It's nothing I can say to anyone. All I can tell you is that what happened to her never should have. And it's something Hotch will have to live with."
"Ah." JJ's phone beeped and she pulled it out, looking at the screen. "Oh my god."
She looked horrified, he noticed, taking in the pale skin of her face, her widened eyes, and flared nostrils. "What is it, Jen?"
"There was another helicopter accident in California. Five confirmed dead, though they're not releasing the names of the victims yet," she said as she skimmed the article. "It appears that it was a family, though. At least they died together, right?" A few tears rolled down her cheeks and she swiped them away.
"I hope it was quick," he murmured as he crossed himself, sending up a quick prayer for their souls.
"So do I." The doors opened and they stepped out of the elevator. He walked JJ to her office and then went back to his own. Looking down the hall, he saw Erin's light still on and wondered what she was doing here at almost eleven. Though he knew late nights were the norm for her, she was never here this late.
"Hey, Rossi, how'd the case end?" He looked over to see his Kitten standing in the doorway of the bullpen, smiling softly.
"We got the bad guys, so that's a plus," Dave said as he ambled up to her, a part of his mind still on Erin. "But why aren't you out with Morgan, Emily, and Reid?"
She shrugged, hooking an arm around his waist and leading him into the bullpen. "I have this awful case I'm working on for Sam's team. I could really use another pair of eyes, if you're busy or tired."
Taking one last look in Erin's direction, he nodded and let her pull him up the stairs to her office. "So, what do you need me to take a look at, Kitten?"
She sat down in front of her computers and turned to face him. "Sit. We have something to discuss first." He was surprised by how firm her voice was and found himself sinking into an open chair. "I hate it when there's tension in my family. Reid was easy to read, as usual, but it took me some time to realize there was something up between Hotch, Morgan, and you. Spill."
He stared at her, watching her brown eyes soften and then fill with tears. "Oh, Garcia, you know what tears do to me."
"I know. Sorry." She wiped her eyes clear, but moments later, more tears were rolling down her face. "It's just, Kevin and I have been going through this rough patch lately – he thinks I slept with Morgan and that's why I turned down his proposal, and now this looming over our team. I hate secrets, I hate lies, and that's all I'm feeling from you lot lately. What is going on?"
Dave rolled his chair over to Penelope's side, reaching out to her. She leaned forward, resting her head on his chest. "Hotch has never been good at trusting any of us. In some way, we've all failed him, even himself, and each time it happens, he holds his cards a little closer to the vest. Despite his seeing Beth, he's becoming more cut off from his emotions."
"I don't understand how these things work, Dave. I just want to believe in the good of everyone and then all this junk comes up." He felt the tears wet his shirt front, and he rubbed her back lightly, trying to comfort her.
"Keep believing in the good, Kitten. In all of us, even Strauss. She needs a believer right about now."
Penelope stiffened in his arms, pulling back to look at him, her brow furrowed. "What does Strauss have to do with all this?"
"She lies at the heart of this whole fiasco. And you know what? I'm sick of the lies and the secrets, too. But this is her secret to tell, and I cannot be the one to betray her, not when Hotch has already done so. You ask Derek about his errand he had to run for Hotch after getting back from Camp Creepy. I'm sure he'd be more than willing to tell you what it was."
She surprised him once more that night, reaching forward to hug him tightly. "I'm sorry for whatever he did that hurt you, that made you this bitter." Penelope kissed his cheek lightly and then turned to her monitors. "Now, about this case I'm working on. Prophet said this case is even giving him the creeps. Sam wouldn't let me look at the crime scene photos, so I need to know something, anything, that will give me some direction here."
Dave took a deep breath and nodded. "Let me see them." She called up a folder on her computer and then turned to look at him.
"They're in there." He slid forward and clicked through the gruesome pictures, seeing in a heartbeat why Sam had kept her from those photos. "Well?"
"They're looking for a woman in her mid to late fifties, married, though the marriage is strained. One second and I'll get rid of these." He clicked the red x and the pictures disappeared from her screen.
"Thank you, Dave." She hugged him once more as they stood and made their way back out into the bullpen. As he leaned against the railing, looking out over the empty desks, he saw Erin go past, her face white and scrunched up as if she were in pain. Absently, she wiped at her cheeks and he realized she was crying. He'd never seen her cry. In tears, yes, but they had never fallen. "Dave, what's wrong with her?"
He couldn't take his eyes off her as she moved past. "I don't know, Kitten."
"Where do you think she's going? She didn't stop by the elevators." Penelope touched his arm lightly and he finally looked over at her.
"I don't know. The only thing in that direction is the stairwell. She was still wearing her heels, so I doubt she was going to climb down six stories of stairs."
"It would only be four stories of stairs up to the roof," she murmured absently. They both stared at the empty space Erin had just occupied, a pregnant silence falling over the room. He turned to gaze at Penelope, the blood draining from his face. "She's strong, Dave. She wouldn't do that. Would she?"
"I don't know." He hated those words and yet he had used them three times in rapid succession. "But I am going to follow her. If you don't hear from me in ten minutes, come up to the roof." She nodded and he jogged down the stairs, hurrying over to the door of the BAU.
Looking around the hall, he saw it was clear and he turned in the direction she'd been walking. Peeking into the windows where lights were still on, he frantically wished for her to be there. At the door to the stairwell, he found her phone and he picked it up, sticking it in his pocket. Taking a deep breath, he opened the door and listened for footsteps. He heard them above him and he took the stairs two at a time to try and catch her.
The slam of the door echoed through the stairwell and he redoubled his efforts to reach her. Opening the door at last, he looked around the rooftop for Erin, finally finding her standing at the edge of the roof, staring at the ground. "Erin, don't!"
She turned her head slowly, watching him approach her. "You can't save me, David. No one can. Please, just let me go."
Her voice was so heartbroken and he felt himself reach out to her. She arched away from his hand, weaving slightly, and he gasped, closing the small gap between them and pulling her into his strong embrace. "I cannot let you go, not here, not this way," he whispered in her ear as they came to sit on the roof. It was colder than he'd thought and he shivered a little.
For a moment, he thought she was shivering, too, but then he felt her tears soak through his shirt. "Dave?" Turning slightly, he saw Penelope standing there with a blanket, her eyes sad.
"What is it, Kitten?"
"I couldn't wait the full ten minutes. I took the elevator to the top floor and then came up here. It's so cold out tonight, that I thought you could use a blanket." She knelt down next to them and rested a hand on Erin's shoulder. "Let Rossi take care of you, Ma'am. He's kind of good at that." With those kind words, Erin began to sob and Penelope just looked at him, a devastated frown on her face.
"I'll just leave the blanket here with you. Oh, Ma'am, I hope we can convince you to stay." Penelope rubbed Erin's back gently and Dave watched as tears ran down her cheeks as well. "Call me, Dave, okay?" He nodded and she got up, leaving them alone.
"Why, why does sh-she care? She-he should hate me, I deserve her hate," Erin managed to sob out, clenching her hands tightly in his shirt as she cried all the harder.
"Penelope loves the wounded, she needs to take care of her lambs. And now, I guess, you've become one of them."
"Oh," she said softly, nestling into him as she sobbed. He rubbed her back in slow circles, knowing that had always calmed Carolyn when she was upset. Instead, the gesture just seemed to make Erin cry all the harder. He picked up the blanket and wrapped it around them. Erin nuzzled into the warmth and he heard her sigh deeply.
"Nothing." Her cried lessened and he listened to her breathing even out. His shirt was soaked with her tears, which chilled him even more, but he made no move to wake her up or adjust how they were sitting. More time passed and he felt the tight grip on his shirt relax and he reached for the phone clipped on his belt, dialing Penelope as soon as it was in his hand.
"Yes, Dave?" she asked, picking up on the second ring.
"How do things look from here to the parking garage?"
"Just give me one second, Sir." He heard her tap away on her keyboard and smiled at the comforting sound. "Okay, take the stairwell down to the tenth floor and then ride the elevator down to the parking garage. Call me again when you're about to get on the elevator so I can make sure no one else gets on with you two."
"You can do that?"
"There's not much a tech genius like me can't do. I thought you knew that by now." She giggled a little, though it sounded strained even to his ears. "And don't worry, I'll make certain to purge the video feeds so no one else sees what happened tonight. She deserves that at the very least."
"Do you have any idea how much I respect you for this, Kitten? Thank you for treating her so kindly."
"Well, the only times I've seen people cry like that is when their whole world has come crashing down around them. Where are you going to take her, Dave?"
"To my place. It's closer than her home, and she needs to rest in a bed. I don't know if we'll be in tomorrow. Cover us with the Director, too?"
"Consider it done. You needed to take a personal day today." He smiled at her tone and knew she'd defend him to Aaron if need be. "All right, you should get going before both of you face hypothermia."
"Okay. I'll give you the signal in just a few minutes." He hooked his cell phone back on his belt and then adjusted Erin's weight in his arms, taking care not to wake her. For the first time, he noticed how much weight she'd lost in recent months, as he could feel her hip bones more distinctly through her skirt. His hand accidentally brushed against her breast and she snuggled into the touch.
"Alan," she murmured, closing her arms around his neck.
Damn, I didn't even think of her family. We'll just call then when we wake up, he thought as he made his way over to the door. Penelope had left the door propped open with a brick, probably left up there by their colleagues who still smoked. Kicking it out of the way, he slipped into the stairwell and carefully carried her down to the elevator.
Resting one hip against the wall, he managed to grab his phone and call Penelope back. "We're at the elevators now."
"All right, the one on your left is on the seventh floor, I'm sending it up to you now. Keep her safe, Dave."
"You've made her one of your lambs, haven't you?" he asked, watching for the elevator to come.
"I'm that obvious, huh? Do you think she'll mind? Oh, Dave, everyone needs a friendly face when they're going through Hell."
"Where were you in December?" he muttered, looking down at Erin's sleeping face. There was no peace there and his heart ached to look at her. "I think she'll get used to you, Kitten. Everyone does."
The doors to the elevator opened and he stepped inside. "You should know that. Only took a few months for you to like me." He pushed the button to close the doors. "Don't leave her alone tonight. I know she's going to need someone's shoulder to cry on." Dave could hear the tears in her voice and knew she was thinking of her parents. "Hold her close."
"For you, I'd do anything. After all, you're the All Knowing Oracle." He heard the watery laugh and knew he'd cheered her up. "I'll call you if we need anything."
"All right, sleep well." She hung up and he put his phone back in his belt. The ride down seemed to take forever, but still Erin slept on, never stirring.
The parking garage was mostly deserted and he quickly made his way over to his Cadillac. Opening the passenger door, he got Erin in, buckling the belt around her sleeping body. The radio was playing a Rachmaninoff piano piece when he started the car, and he turned it down so it barely filled the interior of the vehicle.
Dave used the ride home to think about what he would say to her when she woke. He knew she wouldn't be too happy with him and he decided to call Alan to give him a head's up. The other man's cellphone went right to voicemail and Dave shook his head, deciding to call later, at a more agreeable time. He pulled into his garage, turned the car off, and stared at Erin. "What am I going to do with you, Topalina?" he whispered as he got out.
He opened his interior door first, knowing he'd never get it open with her in his arms. Going back to the car, he carefully got her up in his arms and carried her inside. The walk upstairs took a long time, but he didn't want to disturb her. Mudgie was curled up on the bed and he shooed him off before sitting heavily.
Dave tried to get her to let go of him, but she just held on all the tighter. "Toplina, you can't sleep in your shoes," he whispered, kicking off his own loafers. She moaned lightly and turned into him, wrapping her arms around his waist.
"Oh, Alan," she murmured, beginning to cry once more. Her grip momentarily relaxed, allowing him to stand and pull her heels off, setting them next to his own shoes. Turning back to the bed, he watched her curl up in a ball on the bed.
"How am I going to get that jacket off you when you're curled up tight?" he mused as he shrugged out of his own suit coat. He hung it up in his closet and turned around to see her on her back, an arm thrown over her head. "That's better."
Going over to the bed once more, he sat and quickly unbuttoned the jacket. It took some finagling, but he finally got it off her. Reclining, he draped it over the chest at the end of the bed. Sitting up, he pulled the covers down and crawled off, hoping to get Erin over onto that side so he could cover her with the blankets.
It was not to be, though, for as soon as he touched her, she was wrapping her arms around his neck, pulling him down on top of her. "It was all just a mistake, Alan. You've come back to me," she sighed before kissing him passionately.
The kiss was more than anything he'd ever expected from her. She tasted incredibly sweet and he had to remind himself that she thought he was her husband, not a man she worked with who loved to antagonize her. Pulling away, he heard her whimper lowly. "Oh, Topalina, don't tempt me so."
"Alan…" she said lowly before beginning to sob in her sleep. He rubbed her back and the cries lessened once more. Dave went to stand up, but this time she refused to let go of him. Sighing, he crawled under the covers and pulled them over their bodies.
Erin plastered her body against his, her arms and legs tightening around him like iron. Shaking his head, he tried to ignore the feel of her heavy breasts pressing against his chest, to let his body relax and give in to the sleep he so desperately needed. "Erin, what's happened to you?" he asked as his eyes closed heavily.
He woke up half an hour later to the feel of her beating on his chest with the heels of her hands. "Why, Alan?" She cried out and he opened his eyes to look at her. With one glance, he could tell she was stuck inside a vicious nightmare. Without thinking, he leaned forward and kissed her forehead.
"I'm sorry, Topalina." He rubbed her back until she got past the nightmare. She splayed her hand out on his chest and they were soon breathing in tandem once more. Within minutes, he was sleeping again, his hand cupping her head gently.
Forty five minutes later, a sharp scream startled him awake. "Allie, no! Don't get on!"
He wondered what nightmare she was trapped in this time. He knew it involved her daughter, but what didn't she want her to do? "Erin, everything is all right. You're safe," he whispered. Sighing, he got up and used the bathroom. When he returned to the bedroom, Erin was once more curled in a tight ball. Dave climbed into bed and spooned his body around hers.
Erin snuggled back into him. "Alan…" She turned and fiddled with the buttons on his shirt, her breathing thready. "Tell me you're all right, that they were wrong. Please."
The pleading in her voice broke his hear once more and he rubbed her back gently. "Oh, Topalina, I can't promise you something I don't know."
She didn't seem to hear him, though, as she murmured, "Why would you let them on there? I told you I hate them…" She drifted back into an uneasy sleep and he followed her soon after, wondering what was going on.
When he woke up next, she was stroking him through the silk of his boxers. Somehow, she'd gotten his pants unzipped and he bit back a groan as he fingers did delicious things to his body. Carefully, he removed her hand and then crawled out of bed. Going back into the bathroom, he pulled down his pants and finished the job she'd started.
Dave had to bite back another groan as he came, trying not to think of the way her hand had felt on his dick. Shaking his head, he cleaned up the sticky mess he'd made of himself and stepped out of his pants and boxers. Throwing them in the hamper, he went out and grabbed a pair of silk pajama pants and pulled them on before going back to bed. Hopefully, that would keep her dream hands out of his pants.
Erin was curled up in her ball on his side of the bed when he returned to her. Sighing, he pulled back the covers and crawled in on the other side. It took only a moment for her to find him once more and he breathed in her scent as she wormed her way back into his arms. He fell asleep once more, wondering what spell she was weaving around him.
The next time he woke up, he knew it was late morning and that she was finally coming to wakefulness. Erin was still in his arms and so he felt her tense up as she woke. "Alan?" she asked softly, her hand reaching up to cup his face before her eyes opened. He knew his facial hair would give him away, and sure enough, her eyes flew open to stare into his. "David?"
"Yes, Erin?" he asked as she pulled away from him to look down at her clothes. Confusion flashed over her face as she took in her wrinkled blouse and skirt. Her eyes met his again and he saw a flash of anger there before she reached up and smacked him across the face.
"Am I in your bed, then?" He nodded. "Did you get me drunk?" He shook his head. "Then why am I here?"
It was his turn to be confused, wondering if she had forgotten the previous evening and her attempted suicide. "Don't you remember the roof? How I pulled you back from the edge, kept you from making a horrible, awful, decision?"
Her face crumpled a little. "Then I was sober yesterday? It wasn't a drunken hallucination?"
"I don't know, Erin. You didn't tell me what was going on last night. I will tell you that you scared the hell out of Penelope. She was the one who sent me after you." She nodded and looked away from him, biting her lip as she began to cry once more. "Do you want me to get you something?"
"Your cellphone, please. I need to confirm something." Wordlessly, he turned to grab it, handing it over to Erin. "Do you even use half of the apps on here, David?"
"No, Penelope put them on there for me."
"Ah." She quickly looked up something and he watched her face fall as the first sob tore from her throat. "They're gone." She sat up and wrapped her arms around her legs, burying her face in her limbs as her sobs shook her frame. "It's true," he heard her whisper as he pulled her close to him, rocking her back and forth as he frantically thought of a way to comfort her.
"Topalina, what's true? Who's gone?"
"Alan, Allie, Patrick, Nikki." He knew those were the names of her family and he felt a hard knot of dread form in his stomach.
"Start at the beginning, Erin. I'm still a little lost."
Erin turned her face to look at him, tears still streaming down her cheeks. She wasn't a pretty crier, but her sorrow made her real to him. "The beginning? God gave me a heart. And it would have been fine had I not gone to Milwaukee."
"That was the first time you were in the field in years," he murmured and she nodded, cuddling closer to him.
"And it did not end well. I stepped on that poor woman's hair and it just shattered something in me. My drinking problem began the night we got home from that case. Yet I couldn't excise her from my mind, no matter how much I drank. With each progressively bad thing that happened in my life, I drank more and more. It quickly spiraled out of control once Allie was diagnosed."
"But she got better," he interrupted, rubbing her back gently.
"Yes, she went into remission right as I began my second month in Hell. Then she decided she wanted to take a vacation to California." The knot in Dave's stomach pulled tighter as he thought back to what JJ had read to him in the elevator last night. "She'd always wanted to go, you see, and what better time than when she was just given a clean bill of health."
He had to say something to give him time to process what she was telling him. "Why didn't you go with them?"
Erin shook her head slowly. "Two months in Hell, David, meant no time off for me. If I had gotten it, I would have been with them, would still be with them, forever." Her sobs took over her body once more and he let her cry until he heard her start to gag.
"The door on the right, Erin." She nodded as she flew off the bed and ran to the bathroom. He could hear the retching and couldn't stand leaving her alone. Getting up, he crossed the room in a few long strides and knelt beside her, smoothing her hair back as she emptied the contents of her stomach. The stench of bile concerned him, and yet it seemed as if she couldn't stop throwing up. "Topalina," he whispered, rubbing her back in slow circles.
"Water?" she finally croaked, leaning back against him as she tried to catch her breath.
Dave nodded, unconsciously kissing the top of her head as he reached over and flushed the toilet. He helped her to stand and then led her back into the bedroom, getting her settled on the bed. He went back to the bathroom and filled a glass with cold water before wetting a washcloth and then going back to her. "Erin?"
She looked up at him and he felt himself drowning in the sorrow evident in her eyes. "Thank you, David." She took the glass from his hands and sipped at it. He touched her shoulder and she turned her face up to him once more. Delicately, he cleaned her face free of the residue of her illness. Her face crumples up once more under his touch and he felt the tears against his fingers. Slowly, Dave sat and she curled up into him once more. "Why?"
"Why what, Topalina?"
"Why would God take them and leave me? Couldn't He have taken me and left them? I'm the fuckup, David. I'm the one who nearly pissed away everything I'd worked so hard for. And then, in the blink of an eye, they're gone." She reached out and clasped his hand tightly. "The only thing that matters in my life is gone."
"What happened?" he pressed, needing finally to hear what happened to devastate her so.
"Allie wanted to take a helicopter ride over San Francisco Bay. She promised to take tons of pictures for me. I didn't want her to take that ride, there had been too many accidents recently. She laughed at my worry, David."
"Why not, Topalina? After all, she'd survived cancer. The young think they're invincible, and she would have been no different."
"And now they're dead, David. The damn helicopter hurtled from the sky like Icarus to be dashed upon the rocks. The ME told me it was a blessing that they died instantly. A blessing."
She shook her head and he rubbed her arm, trying to comfort her. "They always tell you that, thinking it will magically make it hurt less. Babies can't feel pain, he only took a breath. It was a blessing."
"Oh, David," she whispered, turning into him as she began to sob once more. "I'm sorry." He just held onto her tightly, rocking her gently. "I never knew. Carolyn?"
"Yeah. Our marriage never really recovered from that." He kissed her temple and felt his own eyes well up with tears. He understood such a small portion of the grief she was going through and that was shattering his carefully built defenses towards her. "Somehow, you'll get through this. I don't know how long it will take, but you'll make it to the other side, stronger for it."
"I doubt that."
"I did too, at the time." She nuzzled her face into his chest, sighing deeply. "Go back to sleep, Topalina. It heals more than you think." She nodded against him and he held her closer, rubbing her back and arm as he continued to rock them.
It only took a few minutes to get Erin back to sleep. Yet he still held her, unwilling to let her go just yet. Finally, his arms started to ache and he got her carefully laid out on the bed. Pulling the covers up to her chin, he pressed another kiss to her forehead before finally going to his closet and pulling out clothes for the day. Rummaging through his drawers, he pulled out a favorite sweater and set it on top of the trunk at the foot of the bed, hoping she would take the hint when she woke.
Going into the bathroom, he stripped off the worn clothes and put them in the hamper before stepping into the shower and turning on the water. The warm stream did little to refresh his mind, and he found his focus returning to Erin once again. There was no good way to comfort her, no way to tell her that everything would be okay, in time.
After he'd dried off, he pulled on his clothes and went back into the bedroom. Erin was once more asleep on his side of the bed, his pillow clutched to her chest. Smiling sadly, he went to her side before bending and kissing her forehead. He didn't know exactly why he wanted to comfort her, but something in her called to him.
Picking up his cellphone, he left the room, shutting the door quietly behind him. Going downstairs to his study, he pulled out a cigar and lit it. As he sat in his favorite chair, he stared into the dark fireplace absently petting Mudgie. He had to get to the bottom of things, confirm what Erin had told him. Pressing the phone icon, he quickly dialed Penelope's number.
"Hello, my kind Italian Stallion. How is my little lamb this morning?" she asked cheerfully.
"Erin. Did you forget you labeled her as one of mine last night? So, how is she?"
"Sleeping. Heartbroken. And how are things there?"
"Hotch is on the warpath since I told him you were taking the day off. He seems to think you're dumping all the paperwork off on him." He heard her sigh. "Did he cause this? I know Morgan told me not to say anything, but I know how he forced her into rehab. Did he push her into doing this?"
Dave hadn't made that connection, but now, as he thought of the possibility, it angered him. "I suppose, in a way, he did. I need you to confirm something for me first, though. Do you have a pen ready?"
"Yes, and paper."
"Good. I need you to look into the financial transactions of Alan Strauss for the past week. I then need you to cross-reference those records with the helicopter accident yesterday afternoon in California."
"California? What would he be doing…oh god, Dave, no. No. You cannot be implying that it was her family that was annihilated yesterday."
"I am, Kitten. She told me so this morning. I don't want to believe it, either, so I'm asking this of you." He puffed on his cigar, needing some time to compose himself. "I hate to ask this of you, but I need to know, and you're the best tech we have."
"All right, I'll do this. Just give me a little time, since I'm working on a case for Sam's team right now. I'll call you once I know something."
"I'll be waiting." He hung up the phone and stubbed out his cigar, suddenly sickened by the taste and smell. Standing, he turned on the overhead fan to disperse the scent and went to the kitchen. He wasn't hungry, but he did get out the orange juice and poured himself a glass. Sipping at it, he stared out the window and watched the rain pour down.
Dave was jarred from his reverie by his phone ringing and he jogged back into the study, wondering if it was Penelope calling back already. "Did you find something already, Kitten?" he asked without bothering to look at the display.
"No, Dave. It's me, your boss. Where the hell are you?"
He breathed in deeply, feeling ready to lay into Hotch and knowing it wasn't the time. "I'm taking a personal day today. And tomorrow. Will that be a problem?"
"Yes, especially when you give me no warning. And you have Garcia doing what for you exactly?"
"That's personal, Hotch. I'll see you when I get back." Dave hung up before he said something that would get him suspended. He sat down once more, thinking about what to do. There was no way Erin could go back to work anytime soon. The stress of her job on top of the sorrow she was facing could very easily cause her to turn to drinking once more. And he would not let that happen to her.
His phone rang and this time he made sure to check the screen. "Yes, Kitten?"
"I found out what you asked." She sounded despondent and he knew that he'd drawn her into their orbit of sorrow. "The authorities in California are not releasing the names of the victims yet, but I tracked the receipts, like you suggested. Based on that data, and the fact that there has been no further activity on the credit cards, I'm concluding that it was her family. Dave, what are we going to do?"
He knew she was crying and he knew how she felt. "We'll take care of her, Kitten. I promise, we'll make sure she's okay." The minute the words were out of his mouth, he knew they were the right ones.
"May I come over? I know a little of what she feels, given how I lost my parents. Please?"
He weighed her words carefully, wondering how Erin would feel. "That might be nice, Penny. I'm sure she could use a friendly face right now."
"Thank you, Dave. I'll be there in about ninety minutes. Does she have a favorite food that I could bring?"
"I know she orders Indian quite a bit from that café three blocks down from us. They're sure to have her order on file."
"Okay. And I'll bring us food, too. See you in a bit."
He hung up and Dave shook his head, wondering if Erin was ready to have the human tornado that was Penelope Garcia in her life. Sighing, he thought of one last call he had to make. Flipping through his contacts, he touched Director Shepperd's number. "Director? This is David Rossi."
"Dave, what can I do for you?"
"There's been an incident with Section Chief Straus…"
"Oh, god, as she fallen off the wagon? Aaron thought something like this would happen," he interrupted, and Dave frowned.
"No, Sir. She tried to kill herself by jumping off the top of our building last night. Her family was killed yesterday in that helicopter accident in California. She would have been there as well had you not denied her time off."
Dave heard the quickly indrawn breath and nodded slightly. "My god, is she okay?"
"She's sleeping now, but she is understandably heartbroken. Penelope Garcia and I are taking care of her right now. She's going to need time off. As much as she needs, Harold."
"Of course, David, of course. Anything she needs. I'll put Aaron Hotchner in charge of her duties once more…"
"No, I think that would be a mistake in this case. I'll take over her duties until she is able to return. Since Garcia and I are taking care of her, I'll be able to get her approval on how I run things."
There was a long pause before Shepperd spoke next. "Fine, that will work, too. When do you plan to start?"
"The day after tomorrow. Today will be a lull day, but tomorrow will be rough. It will wash over her once again, knocking her feet out from under her." He sighed and rubbed his face slightly, thinking of Carolyn and his son.
"I'll see you in a few days, then. Take good care of her, Dave."
"Would you expect any less of me?" He hung up before the Director could answer and set his glass and the phone aside. Mudgie started to whine and he got up to let his dog out. When he got back, he heard a sharp cry come from his room and he rushed up to Erin.
Opening the door, he found her sitting up and crying. "Dave?" she asked, looking up at him from where her head rested on her knees.
"Yeah, Erin?" He sat on the bed and she leaned against him. "Was it another bad dream?"
"They'll come, Topalina."
"I know. I just hate them. I watched the footage of the accident over and over, trying to make sense of it. I burned the images in my brain and now it won't stop stalking me."
"Oh, my sweet Topalina," he whispered, wrapping an arm around her waist as he felt her rub her face into his chest. "Penelope will be here in just a little while with food. She's still concerned about you."
"I don't know why. I've never given her cause to be nice."
"She loves people very easily, especially when they've been hurt by life. Don't be surprised if she calls you her Lambie, though. I think that's the nickname she's going to settle on for you."
Erin nodded against him and sighed a little. "It might be nice to have someone like her in my life. There would never be a dull moment," she said softly, curling her hand in his shirt.
"That is most definitely true, Topalina," he said before kissing the top of her head once more.
Erin had fallen asleep fairly quickly and Dave found himself content to sit and hold her close. He had no idea what he was doing here, but it felt so right to have her in his arms. "Those are dangerous thoughts, Davie," he muttered, looking down at her. Her face had finally relaxed, the tortured look easing.
Again, he kissed her forehead before getting up and going downstairs. He paced back and forth, trying to think of a way to make this all better. He needed to be a friend to her at this time. Not think about how soft she was in his arms, how lovely she looked when she trustingly relaxed into him. Dave barely noticed the time passing, he was so lost in thought, and the doorbell ringing finally snapped him from his reverie.
Going to the door, he looked out and saw Penelope there, struggling to balance a few bags in her arms. Opening it, he took the largest one from her hands. "Hey, Kitten. That didn't take too long."
"It's been two hours since I called, Dave. I had to pick up some other essentials. How is she?"
"Still hurting. Devastated. She's been sleeping a lot, which is good. Carolyn slept a lot after we lost James, and it seemed to help her so much." He led her into the kitchen and Penelope began to take boxes out of the bags.
"Could you get out some plates and serving spoon?" she asked absently as she rooted through his refrigerator. "Honestly, do you live on whiskey? There's not one thing she can drink around here."
"Usually I have tap water. I find it better than bottled. And I hadn't thought of that, Kitten. I trust her, though. I know she wouldn't do anything so foolish as fall off the wagon at a time like this."
Penelope pulled her head out of the fridge to look at him. "She tried to kill herself, Dave. I remember what she's feeling so clearly, and nothing was beyond my scope of trying to find a way to forget. We'll need to keep a close eye on her, and if you're not up for that task, let me know right now. I have some vacation time built up, and I'll take care of her, but I'm only one person. I'm going to need your help."
He was shocked by her vehemence, and slowly he nodded. "I am more than up for that task, Kitten."
"Then you are going to have to wake up to her reality. When you and Carolyn lost James, you had each other. She believes she has no one in this world. She wouldn't have tried to leave if she thought someone, anyone, in her world cared about her. Maybe I'm just projecting, though." She smiled slightly and he went to her side, covering her hand gently.
"No, you just understand the grief she's going through. I trust your judgment, Penelope." He smiled back at her and then pulled out three glasses and a pitcher from the cupboard above her head. A he filled the pitcher with water, Penelope plated their food and he took a deep breath, relishing the delicious scent of Indian spices. Dave took out a tray and helped Penelope arrange the plate, utensils, and napkins on it before they went upstairs.
Erin was sitting up on the bed, a faraway look on her face. Dave noticed that she'd taken off her blouse and bra, setting them on top of her jacket, and had put on his sweater. "Good afternoon, Erin. I brought us Indian food for lunch. Nikel said this was your favorite." Penelope sat next to her on the bed, carefully balancing the tray on her lap.
Dave sat at the foot of the bed, setting the pitcher on the trunk as he pulled apart the glasses. Filling one, he handed it to Erin. "Thank you, David, Penelope." Erin delicately spread out the napkin on her lap and took the plate Penelope held out to her. "I appreciate this so much." Dave watched her bite her lip and knew she was trying not to cry.
"You are more than welcome, lambie." He caught the pleased smile Erin quickly swallowed. "Hotch wasn't very happy with me skipping out early, but sod him."
"Penelope! He's still your supervisor. You need to treat him with respect."
"I will when he treats you with respect, Erin." Penelope smiled gently and Dave watched Erin tear up once more, concentrating on her food. When they'd finished eating, Dave piled everything on the tray and set it aside. Penelope reached out and placed her hand on Erin's shoulder. "I know."
Erin pulled back a little, her mask slipping into place. "So, it's common knowledge at work, then."
"No, it's not. Only Dave and I know, I think. I didn't tell anyone, because it is your story to tell. I understand."
Erin let out a bitter laugh. "How could you have any idea, Penelope? Nothing bad has ever happened to you."
"On the contrary." Penelope slid her hand down to Erin's hand and clasped it tightly. "When I was eighteen, my parents went out looking for me. I wasn't home on time, you see, and they were worried. They were so worried about me that they never saw the speeding car coming at them. The driver was drunk, but I felt with every fiber of my being that it was my fault."
Dave had never heard the story come from her lips before, and he saw the tears that pooled in her eyes. "Oh, Penelope, it was never your fault. Even at my worst, I knew not to drive drunk. It's one of the most horrible decisions a person can make, and I couldn't do that."
"I know that, too. Helen and I devised a system, you know, to make sure a cab was always ready for you. I didn't really like you then, but I did respect that decision so much."
"And how do you feel about me now?"
"And now, we're sort of on equal footing. I know what it feels like to have everything that matters to you destroyed in a heartbeat." Erin nodded slowly and leaned against Penelope, resting her head on the other woman's shoulder. "This is going to be hurtful, and I apologize in advance, but have you thought about making arrangements?"
"No. I guess I've pushed that detail to the back of my brain. I've never done anything like this before. All of our parents are still living. Where do I even begin?"
"Penelope and I can help you with that, Erin. We both have experience with things of that nature." Dave tried to smile at her and she nodded in return before burying her face in Penelope's shoulder and beginning to cry in earnest once more.
"What's wrong, my sweet lambie?" Penelope asked tenderly as she rubbed Erin's back.
"You both are being so kind to me. It's a little overwhelming." Her voice was so low that Dave had to strain to hear it. "Could, could you give me a few minutes?"
"If course, Erin." Dave got up and looked pointedly at Penelope. She nodded and then softly kissed Erin's forehead. "We'll be down in the study when you're ready to join us once more."
Penelope joined him as Erin nodded absently. Penelope remained quiet until they were in the study. "Dave, what has her life become that a little kindness can disconcert her so? I don't care what the others think or say, I'm not going to leave her side. She is my lambie now, and I will protect her with every ounce of my being."
He smiled at the ferocity in her voice. "I know you will, Kitten." He led her over to the plush sofa and they sat. She held his hand tightly and he smiled at her. "If we're in this together, where do we start?"
"One day at a time. Tomorrow is going to be the worst. It just hits you. The numbness disappears and you're left with this raw hole where your heart used to be." Penelope swiped away some tears and frowned. "I think I should be the one to stay with her, Dave. I know, perhaps a little better than you, what she's going through."
"She's not a child, Penelope."
"I know, but I wish someone had stepped up in my case and offered to be there for me. Do you think she'll let me in?"
"I don't know, Kitten. You'll have to ask her yourself…"
"Yes, I will, Penelope." They both turned back to look at Erin, who was smiling tremulously. Penelope stood and went to her side, holding out her hand. Erin clasped it tightly and let herself be led over to the sofa. "I want to go home. Will, will you come with me? Both of you? I don't think I should be alone right now."
"Whatever you want, Erin." Penelope tucked a piece of hair behind Erin's ear and smiled at her.
"Thank you." Dave watched Erin's eyes close as she leaned against Penelope, tears tracking down her face once more. "Do the tears ever end?"
"Eventually, lambie. But let them come, you'll feel better in the long run." Penelope rubbed her back lightly, letting the older woman burrow into her. "Are you ready to head out now?"
"I suppose," Erin mumbled, not moving from her spot. Gently, Dave pulled her up and she smiled sadly at him. "I guess I've lost my mooring, David."
"We'll be your safe harbor, Erin, for as long as you need." She nodded and let him lead her out to the kitchen and then into the garage, Penelope following close behind.
The drive to Erin's home didn't take very long, though Rossi felt a bit like a chauffeur. Erin had ensconced herself in the back of the car, curling up against the seat and flipping through her phone. She'd kept his sweater on rather than asking to change before leaving, and he smiled a little at her murmured directions. Finally, though, they pulled into the driveway of her home.
"Well, I guess we're home," Erin said, looking up at him in the rearview mirror. He nodded and got out, waiting for his passengers to join him. He was surprised when Erin laid her hand on his upper arm, gazing up at him tenderly. "Thank you for coming along."
"I won't leave you alone, Topalina."
"Good." Her hand tightened around his upper arm before she clasped his hand, leading him up to the porch. "Penelope, would you get the mail?"
"Certainly, Erin." As Penelope did that, Erin unlocked the door and stepped inside. It was odd to see how she had decorated her home, it was so different from her work aesthetic.
She stood stock still in the center of the foyer and Dave heard her breath catch in her throat. "What is it, Erin?"
"The picture, Dave. I can't bear to look at it." Dave followed Erin's gaze and saw the large portrait of her family. It was a beautiful shot, capturing her warm smile and the love her family shared. "Will you take it down, please?"
He nodded and moved forward, carefully taking it down and leaning it against the wall. "Is that better?"
"Yes, thank you." She came up to his side, wrapping an arm around his waist as she rested he head on his shoulder. "Will you and Penelope stay the night? I can feed you."
"Whatever you want, we'll do, Erin." Penelope joined them in the foyer, her arm coming to rest around Erin's waist. "You have some messages on your machine. Do you want to listen to them?" Erin nodded and Penelope moved over to the table, pressing the blinking button.
"Hi, Mom. This has been the best day ever! I wish you were here with us, though. Then the best would be even better. We're about to get on the helicopter ride, so I'll be sure to take lots of pictures I love you, Mom, and I'm so glad you're better." Dave felt Erin's tears once more wet shis shirt, and he rubbed her back.
The next message was even worse, though. "This is Lionel Craymer with the San Francisco Police Department. I'm sorry to do this through a phone message, but there's been no answer at either this number or your cell phone. There's been an accident, Ma'am, and I'm sorry to say that your family was killed. Please call me at…" The sound of his voice was drowned out by the sound of Erin's sobs and he led her into the living room.
They sat heavily on the sofa and Erin curled up tightly into his side. "I'm sorry," she choked out.
"Don't be, Topalina. This is perfectly normal. We have you and we won't let you go, I promise," he whispered, kissing her temple lightly.
They sat there for a few long minutes and then Penelope came in. She looked pale as she sank down next to Erin. Dave saw that she was crying, and felt his heart crack a little. "I called Lieutenant Craymer, and told him you'd call tomorrow, that you need time to process what's happened. He was okay with that. I also told him to keep their names out of the news. You deserve your privacy."
"Thank you, Penelope." As Dave watched, Erin deliberately laid her head on Penelope's shoulder, letting the younger woman stroke her hair softly. "Did it hurt this much when you lost your parents?"
"No, I had my brothers, and I had a few friends who were close to me. You lost your entire family. I cannot begin to imagine your sorrow, though I am familiar with my own." Penelope looked over at Dave, smiling sadly. "But like I told you, I will stick close to your side. And if anyone bothers you, I will take care of them."
Erin sighed, and somehow Dave knew she was crying again. "Will you both come upstairs with me? I need to take care of some things before I go to sleep tonight."
"Yes." Dave stood and held out his hands to his ladies. Slowly, Erin uncurled her body and took his left hand, holding on for dear life. Penelope took his right and he led them out of the room. "Which way, Erin?"
"Follow me." She took the lead, tugging them along. Dave and Penelope stumbled up the stairs behind her, but she pressed on, eager to get to her destination. "With three kids, we couldn't have a guest room. And I can't sleep in their rooms. Too much of them in there, you know? But then, too much of Alan is in here." She opened the first door on the left and Dave found himself surrounded by her presence. Her hand was all over the elegant room and he smiled.
"What do you need us to do, lambie?"
Erin looked at them, visibly struggling. "David, would you put his clothes in Patrick's room? I-I think I'm going to lay down on the bed." She moved so slowly, as if trying to stave off some anguish she did not wish to face. As she slipped beneath the sheets, she pulled a pillow close to her chest and began to sob once more. Penelope sat next to her, somehow getting Erin's head on to her lap.
Dave opened the closet and pulled out as many of Alan's clothes as he could carry. He hustled out of the room and quickly found Paul's. It took several trips to remove all traces of him from their room. When he'd finished, Erin was sitting up, her knees pulled tight to her chest as she murmured quietly to Penelope.
"Is there anything you'd like for supper, Erin?" he asked as he sat on the edge of the bed.
"It will sound silly…"
"No, it won't, Topolina. Name it and I will make it."
"Macaroni and cheese, then. It was the only thing Allie could eat during her treatments…" The admission brought forth a fresh torrent of tears and he rubbed her knee gently as Penelope cuddled her close.
"Everyone needs comfort food once in a while," he said lowly, leaning forward and kissing her cheek tenderly. "I'll go down and see if you have all the necessary ingredients. Kitten, ask her about that time I made a royal ass of myself at the Christmas ball." Erin glanced up at him, a relived smile quickly flitting over her lips.
He walked out the door just as he heard Penelope ask, "So, how did my Italian Stallion manage to make an ass of himself?" He chuckled lowly as he heard Erin begin to explain his escapade. Making his way downstairs, he found the kitchen after looking behind every door in the house, it seemed. Going through the cupboards, he found pasta shells and set the box on the counter. Digging through the freezer, he pulled out a bag of broccoli and set it next to the pasta.
"Let's see what you have in the way of cheese," he said as he opened the refrigerator. "Swiss, provelone, and parmesan, should do nicely." Taking them out, he quickly found a grater and mixed up the three cheeses in a bowl. With that task completed, he filled a pot with water, adding some salt to it before turning on the fire to let it boil.
As he let everything simmer, he turned on the oven so that it could pre-heat. "There's garlic in the pantry." He whirled around to look at Erin. "Penelope's sleeping. Really, David, do you have to work the poor girl to death? She's at work longer than I am."
Dave shrugged a little as he moved to where her hand had indicated, opening the door and finding a braid of garlic bulbs hanging there. Taking one out, he looked at her. "Take it up with Aaron."
"I can't talk to him, David. Especially not now. He just looks at me, and I feel so, so, defeated." She bit her lip as a spark of anger flitted across her face. "He upsets me, and that makes me crave, and that distracts me, and I get nothing done."
"Call on of us, then. Kitten might ream him a new one, but then she'll take care of you. Me, I'll just tell him to go to Hell." He sighed and began to root around her drawers for a garlic mincer.
"It's over here." She handed the mincer to him and then pulled herself up onto the counter, watching him work. "I'm craving right now."
"Penelope figured you would be. She saw that much more clearly than I did. I'm sorry."
"Don't be. Being an alcoholic sucks." He made a noncommittal noise in the back of his throat, not really knowing how to respond. "Alcohol is a substance you can't escape, you know."
"It does seem to appear everywhere, doesn't it?" The water began to boil and he poured in the shells/ "I need a ceramic pan."
"Under my feet." He went over to her side and knelt, opening the cupboard and pulling out the pan he needed. "David?"
"Would you kiss me?" He looked into her clear blue eyes and nodded. Leaning forward, he tenderly kissed her lips and her hand came up to cup his cheek. "Thank you." Nodding, he cupped her face in return and they stared at each other until the buzzer went off.
"I have to drain the pasta now," he said, strangely upset to break contact with her.
"I know." She pulled up one of her knees to wrap her arms around and continued to watch as he made supper, a contented peace falling over the room.
Dave woke up to a very annoying beep. Without opening his eyes, he reached out and felt for the off button on the alarm clock, only for his hand to meet empty air. Groaning, he sat up and looked around the unfamiliar room, the reality of what had happened slamming into him once more. His back ached from spending the night on the floor and as he cracked it, he saw a slim harm reach out and turn off the alarm.
"Are you up, Dave?" Erin asked softly as she sat up on the bed.
"Uh huh. That is one aggravating sound," he replied as she sat up on the bed.
"That's why I got it. I'm surprised Penelope slept through the beeping." Erin reached over and stroked the other woman's hair. "You know, when she's sleeping like this, I could almost imagine her being my Allie. She slept so trustingly with me whenever Alan went away on business. I didn't realize how much I missed that."
As he watched, tears tracked down her face and he opened his arms. She crawled over to him and he focused on her face, trying not to look down her nightshirt. She snuggled into his embrace, letting him pull her into his lap and rub her back gently. "When James was born, the doctors knew right away that he wouldn't make it and wanted to take him away right then and there. Carolyn wanted to hold him until the very last moment, though, and demanded they let us hold him."
"And did they let you?"
"Yes. He was so tiny, and he'd passed by the time they gave him to me, but I've never forgotten how he filled my arms, how he felt cradled there. When I handed him over to Carolyn is when the doctor told me how much of a blessing this was for us, given the problems he would have faced if he'd survived."
"Oh, Dave," she murmured, rubbing her face against the fabric of his nightshirt. "How you must have suffered." She raised her face to kiss his cheek tenderly. "You never forget how they feel in your arms."
Dave nodded, holding her a little tighter. "I can't listen to that James Taylor song anymore. I cry every single time."
"Oh, god, I didn't even think about music. How am I going to move forward, Dave? And what about work? I could so use a stiff drink right now."
He rubbed her back gently. "No, Topalina, you don't need a drink, you need to rest on us. And do not worry about work,. I am going to try and fill your shoes until you feel ready to come back. Director Shepperd approved it."
Pulling back, she smiled a nit at him, wiping her cheeks. "Thank you. But how about moving forward?"
"We do that one step at a time, Lambie," Penelope softly said as she sat up. "Did you sleep well?"
"I think so. I don't remember any bad dreams at least." She tightened her grip on Dave's nightshirt, and he knew she wasn't exactly being forthcoming. "I suppose I should call Lieutenant Craymer today. What else is there to do?"
"You'll need to call your family and let them know. Penelope and I can help you with that. You'll have to get in touch with a funeral home and begin to make arrangements, things like if you want a visitation time, how you want the service to go, how you want the obituaries to read, and other things"
"Oh. I suppose I'll have to pick out clothes for them. I, I guess I want to start there." Dave nodded and she reached up to caress his cheek. "Okay. Let's start with Allie's room." Getting up, she stood in front of them, her hands clasped.
"Oh, Erin," Penelope whispered as she scrambled off the bed and wrapped her arms around Erin, hugging her tightly. "Come on, Dave. There's work to be done." Smiling a little, he stood and joined them, and Erin surprised him by letting go of Penelope to plaster herself to his side. Penelope raised an eyebrow and he shook his head. "All right, where's Allie's room?"
"Across the hall." Erin took a step forward, tugging him along with her. He followed her closely and rubbed her shoulder as she stopped in front of a closed door. "Would you open it?"
He did so and sighed at the typical teenage room he saw. The walls were painted a cheery yellow and there were posters of the Harry Potter cast on them. "So, what would you like for Allie?"
"Her prom dress. She never got to wear it…" Her control snapped in that moment, and Erin turned into him, wetting his shirt with her tears. "Do you think that will look okay?" she finally gasped out.
"Perfect, Erin. Just perfect." She nodded and let go of him to step over to the closet. Thumbing through the articles of clothing, she finally pulled out a lavender, floor-length, gown. "This is beautiful."
"She fell in love with it the moment she saw it. I tried not to balk at the price tag too much. There are shoes to go with it, as well. Penelope, would you find them while I look through her jewelry?"
She nodded and Erin moved to the bed, picking up the pink jewelry box that rested on the bedside table. "That was yours once, wasn't it?"
"How did you know?"
"My sister had one as well, just like it." He covered her hand with his and helped her open the lid. "The amethyst pendant would match her outfit." Dave pulled it out, letting it dangle from his fingers. "She was a February baby, wasn't she?"
"Uh huh, but she should have been a January baby. When she finally made her entrance into the world on the second, she was sixteen days overdue."
"And she was four when I retired for the first time. I remember you bringing her to my retirement party."
"She refused to go to preschool that morning because I was sad. And I was sad that morning, since my period had just started. We'd been trying for another baby for six months. She loved you from the minute she saw you. When she started high school, I bought her your books."
"Even though you couldn't really stand me."
"Oh, I think you have that wrong, David. I could stand you all too well. Semper fi."
Erin leaned against him as she took the necklace from his hand. Softly, he stroked her hair, trying to make sense of what she had said. "Semper fi," he finally repeated as she set the necklace on top f the dress.
"Okay, on to Nikki." She stood up and swallowed loudly. "Is it bad that this is getting a little easier?"
"No, Lambie, it just means you're processing things a little differently now that you're moving forward." Penelope held out her hand and Erin clasped it tightly. "Now, where to?"
"Next door." They left the room and went to the other bedroom. Erin honed in on an elegant emerald dress that would match Alexandra's dress. "Is there…" Her stomach growled hungrily, and Penelope giggled in response.
"I'll go down and make us breakfast while you finish up here." She made her way over to Erin and kissed her forehead gently. "Do you have flour, milk, eggs, and chocolate chips?" Erin nodded. "Excellent, pancakes it is, then."
When she'd left, Dave closed his arm around Erin's waist once more. "If you want, I can find color coordinating outfits for Alan and Patrick."
"Thank you, but no. I have to see this through to the end." He nodded and they went across the hall to Patrick's room. "Did you hand everything up or just strew it about?"
He smiled at the slightly acerbic tone of her voice, knowing she was steeling herself up for the task at hand. "I hung everything up," he said as he opened the door.
"I knew I could count on you. They have matching tailored navy blue suits. Do you think white for Alan and light blue for Patrick would look nice?"
"Yes, that sounds nice. They wouldn't happen to have matching red ties, would they?"
"No, they don't, but I think they have similar pink ones." She went to the closet and dug the suits and shirts out, setting them on the bed. "Dave?"
E was at her side in an instant and she collapsed into his open arms. "Shh, Topalina, I have you. Neither of us are going to let you go through this alone." Dave rocked back and forth on his heels, trying to sooth her.
"I, I'm not sure I can do this, Davie." He helped her to sit on the bed and watched her lift the shirt to her nose, breathing in deeply. "I miss them so much."
"Cry on my shoulder, Erin," he softly said, running his fingers through her hair. She rested her head against his shoulder and sobbed.
When she had finished crying, she pulled back to look at him. "I'm sorry, I'm probably going to be like this for a long time."
"That's fine, Erin. Penelope is trained to handle that, doing the counseling she does. And I know where you're coming from, too well." She nodded a little and hugged him tightly. "Now, I'll look for the ties. You go help Penelope."
She nodded and stood up, kissing his cheek before she left. "Thank you for saving me, David. I see now that I was trying to take the easy way out."
Erin disappeared from the room and he sighed, going over to the closet once more to find the ties that Erin wanted. Setting them on top of the suits, he made his way downstairs, eager to join the women once more.
Dave woke up to that annoying alarm once more. He didn't think he would ever get used to that sound. Once more, he watched Erin's slim arm reach out and turn off the alarm. "Are you heading in to work today?" she asked quietly.
"I have to, Erin. Hotch is already pissed at me as it is. But go back to sleep, Penelope's spending the day with you. If you need anything, just give me a call, all right?"
She nodded and lay back down. "You'll need a fresh shirt and tie. Take one of Alan's, you're about the same size, and someone should get some use out of them." He could hear her start to cry once more and he stood, going over to her side and sitting next to her. "Shouldn't this be getting easier?"
"No, Erin, this will hurt for as long as you need it to. Your heart has to heal, you can't put a time frame on that."
"I guess. Before you come home today, will you go to my office and bring all the photos back? I, I want to change them out. I have better ones here."
"Of course I can do that, Erin. Is there anything else I can do for you?"
She shrugged. "Not that I can think of. Feel free to use the toiletries in the master bath." She yawned deeply and he smiled down at her. "I think I will go back to sleep now. Have a good dat."
Erin turned on her side, curling up against Penelope. "I'll see you this evening, then, Topalina." She nodded and then he bent over to kiss first Penelope's cheek and then Erin's. "Remember me, call me."
"If I need to, I will." He stood up and watched her cuddle closer to Penelope, sleep coming over her in moments. Once he was certain she wouldn't wake again, he left the room, going over to Patrick's and picking out a light blue shirt and purple tie. While Alan was a few inches taller than him, they were about the same chest size, and he picked out a navy blue blazer to go with everything.
He then went into the master bath, stripping off his clothes and stepping into the shower. As the water washed down over him, he thought about how he would react to whatever Hotch said to him. It would not be anything good, the man had made it clear that he didn't care how much Erin had changed.
Picking up the bar of soap, he lathered the washcloth and washed his body. Erin was fragile and open to him, more so than she'd been in the twenty years they'd known each other. And he couldn't help but want to protect her. He was good at that, Carolyn had told him so numerous times. And Aaron would use her fragility to his advantage, making certain their team was favored. Dave shook his head in disgust as he let the water wash off the soap.
Turning off the water, he stepped out of the shower and dried himself off. Quickly dressing, he went downstairs and rummaged through the fridge, grabbing out a bagel to eat on the way in.
The drive was quiet, and he made it to the office in good time. As he rode up to the bullpen, his phone vibrated and he pulled it out, expecting to see something from Erin. Instead there was a text from JJ, asking him to come up to the war room right away. With a groan, he shoved the phone back in his pocket and squared his shoulders in preparation for what would come.
The doors opened on his floor, and he stepped out, looking into the bullpen. Reid and Morgan were outside his office door, and he wondered what was going on. Picking up his pace, he dug out his keys and quickly jogged up the stairs. "Good morning."
"Morning. Do you know where my Baby Girl is? Kevin's in her office and even he doesn't know where she is or what's going on."
"I'm not sure what's up with Garcia. I was off yesterday, so I'm as out of the loop as you are." He lied easily as he opened his door and set his briefcase down. "Why are we meeting with Jayje?"
"No clue. Let's go, though. Neither she, nor Hotch, are in good moods today." Reid looked out and shivered. "She's coming." They hurried over to the war room and Dave found Hotch wouldn't meet his eye as they took a seat.
"Good morning, everyone," JJ said as she shut the door. Her face was grim and Dave knew Shepperd had met with her sometime yesterday. "There's no easy way to say this. We've been grounded for the foreseeable future, as per the Director's orders. Desk duty or teaching for all of us and we have to deal with Lynch. Penelope had to take some personal time. Again, I don't know for how long, but I was told to expect her to be out three to four weeks."
"And we get no say in this?" Morgan asked angrily, looking to Emily for support.
"I'm sorry, no. This is a done deal. Welcome to custodials, paperwork, and subbing in classrooms for a month." She sighed and took a seat next to him. "I'm not looking forward to this, either."
"It could be worse, you know. And you'll get to spend time with your families for a month." Dave felt her gaze hone in on him. "I'm just saying…"
"I'd can it, if I were you, Rossi. Jayje does not look in the mood this morning," Emily drawled. Taking a good look at the woman, he nodded. "After all these years, you're finally learning."
As he shrugged, JJ spoke once more. "I'll be coming around with your assignments in a little bit. Rossi, if you'd stay behind, I have a few things I need to discuss with you." Morgan and Emily both laughed as they left the room, and Reid followed them, hot at their heels. Hotch gave him a long, searching, look before he left and he knew his day was only beginning.
"What do you need, Jen?" he asked as she closed the door.
Taking a seat next to him once more, she steepled her fingers. "The Director has instructed me not to give you any assignments. He said that you're doing a special assignment for him for the entire time of Penelope's absence. Care to tell me what's really going on here?"
"Not really much more to tell, Jen, besides the fact that I'll be out of the office as well."
JJ frowned, crossing her arms across her chest. "That tells me nothing."
"Exactly. That's all you need to know at this point. When I am at liberty to tell you more, I will."
The tension drained from her body. "Are you going undercover? Aren't you a bit old for that?"
"It's not undercover work, it really is a special assignment." He smiled and got up. "I'm going to be fine, trust me." He opened the door and began to head towards his office.
Dave had almost made it to the safety of his sanctuary when Aaron's door swung pen. "Rossi, I need to see you. Now!"
Taking a deep breath, he spun on his heel to face his friend. "What can I do for you, Hotch?" he asked as he stepped inside the man's office, closing the door behind him. He took a seat in one of the chairs in front of his desk, wanting to put some distance between them.
"You're gone for two days, Penelope's out for almost as long, and now she's going to be out for a month or more? What is going on here?" he asked angrily as he sat down.
"Wouldn't you like to know, Hotch? There are some things that are none of your business." He tried to sound bored, but knew his voice was tight, one of his tells. "Oh, and before you go whining to Erin about how we're keeping secrets from you, don't bother. I'm the acting Section Chief for the foreseeable future."
Aaron's eyes narrowed as he sat forward. "What, did she fall off the wagon again? Already?"
It took everything in Dave not to stand up and slug Aaron on the nose. Instead, he breathed deeply through his nostrils to calm himself, staring his best friend down. "No. I spoke with her and Shepperd yesterday. It seems that something came up in her personal life that she has to deal with."
"Are their names Jack and Jose?"
He felt his jaw clench almost as tightly as his fists. "Fuck you, Hotchner. I knew you could be a bastard like me, I just didn't know how big of one you truly are." Standing, he sneered at the man, his hands shaking from anger. "If you'll excuse me." He stalked from the room, taking care not to slam the door as he exited.
Emily raised her eyebrows as she caught his eye and he shook his head. She stood and hurried up the stairs as he unlocked his door, and she followed him inside. "So, what has Aaron done now to piss you off?" she asked as she shut the door behind her.
"He's just pissed with a decision the Director made. He'll live with it. I am going to need you to be my eyes and ears around here, though, while Penelope is out. I'm not going to be in the office much, either."
"I don't play politics. You know that, Dave."
"I'm not asking you to spy. I just need to be kept in the loop. I trust you'll know the difference." She nodded and they fell into an easy conversation as he packed up his briefcase with what he'd need for his time away from the office.
After lunch, Dave holed himself back up in his office. It had been a long morning, what with him trying to avoid Hotch as much as possible. It was an easy task, he soon found out, as Hotch was avoiding him as well.
Around three, Penelope called his cellphone, and he grimaced a little as he answered the call. "Yes, Garcia?"
"How much time were you able to wrangle off for me?"
Her voice sounded tired, sad, and he nodded, feeling the same. "We have at least a month off, Kitten. How is she doing?"
"She slept most of the morning away. I woke her up for lunch and she ate most of it. Right now, she's vegging out on Netflix. We need to fly out to California."
"Well, Erin and myself. You probably can't, given your temporary duties. Lieutenant Craymer told me that Erin would need to escort the bodies home, and she's not strong enough to do that on her own. Since you can't be with her to do that, I'm stepping up to the plate. How did the others take the news?"
He cleared his throat and looked out at the bullpen. The others were milling about, though Emily did glance up at him, a pensive look on her face. "I only told Hotch about my temporary position. And I nearly lost my cool with him."
Dave let out a soft sigh. "I don't think you want to know, Kitten. I know that you look up to him, as you should, and I wouldn't want to do anything that might change your opinion of him."
"I can handle whatever you have to say, Dave. Do I need to remind him what happens when someone hurts one of my friends?"
A soft chuckle escaped his lips as he shook his head. "He was just trying to tell me that Erin's problems were the fault of Jack and Jose."
"That bastard," she hissed and he heard Erin murmur something in the background. "No, Erin, in this case, he is a bastard, and if I was there I would slap him on your behalf."
"Retract your claws, Kitten, I'll keep things under control here. Did you get plane tickets yet?"
"No, I was planning on doing that later this evening, actually. Why?"
He looked down at the picture of Erin and her family that he had nicked from her office during lunch and rubbed his thumb over her face. "I'll get back to you in about fifteen minutes, okay? Just wait until I get back to you before you make any more plans."
"All right. Oh, here, Erin wants to talk to you for a moment."
He listened over the line as Penelope handed the phone over to Erin, and they both sighed in unison before she started speaking. "David, please, remember that Aaron is under an enormous amount of pressure. I'm certain that he doesn't mean the things he says."
Dave reached up and stroked his goatee, trying to think of a way to frame the question clawing at his lips without upsetting his Topalina. "Why would you say that to me, Erin?" he finally asked, hoping she wouldn't take offense.
"Because I know he's your best friend. And I know that if I had a best friend, I would want to be reminded that sometimes the words we say in a moment of pique are not what our heart truly feels. Give him some slack. Please?"
He smiled a little as he looked down at her picture, grinning up at him from behind glass. "For you, I think that I would do anything, Erin. All you ever had to do was ask."
"I wish I had known that back when you came out of retirement. I might have asked for a lot more." It was good to hear her teasing him a little, and his smile grew as he chuckled a little.
"Then it's a good thing I didn't let you know that. I'll see you tonight?"
"Yes. We're making lasagna, though I know it won't measure up to your exacting Italian standards. So, just pretend that you like it?"
"Maybe I won't have to pretend," he responded and she laughed a little at that. "See you tonight." He hung up with her and then took a deep breath before calling the Director. "Harold, it's David."
"Good afternoon, Dave. How is Erin today?"
"She was just joking with me, but I'm not too certain that that was a good thing. She has to fly out to California and claim her family, and Penelope wants to go with her. And I have a rather large favor to ask of you."
"You want them to take the jet you normally use to get out to your cases, since I've grounded your team anyway for the time being."
He let out a soft chuckle as he nodded. "I guess I'm sort of transparent, aren't I?"
"About some things, yes. And I am fully behind you in this one. Her family should come home with honor, given her position with the FBI. A commercial flight would just never do. Would you like me to inform her of my decision, or would you like to do the honors?"
"I was hoping to do the honors. If you wouldn't mind."
"That would be fine. You're closer to Erin than I am, anyway. When should I have the jet ready?"
"Tomorrow morning, with takeoff at nine?"
"Yes, that will work perfectly. Give her my best regards, and I'll talk with you later."
"Thank you, Sir." They hung up and he grinned as he called Penelope back. "Kitten, I have good news for you."
"What?" she asked, a bit shortly, and he wondered what was going on.
"The Director agreed to let you use the jet for the transport. He said it was only right that the FBI honor Erin in this way. May I talk to her, tell her the news?"
She sighed. "She's in the bathroom right now. I said something that upset her, and she ran off, crying. I know that it's to be expected, but it still hurts a little."
Suddenly, Dave wished that he could be there with them in that moment, and he looked back out at the bullpen. Emily was talking to JJ, and then they both looked up at him, frowning a little. He smiled and waggled his fingers at them, and Emily smiled back, giving him a tiny wave in return. "I think I'm going to come home a little early, then. I know that you were planning on making supper for me, but perhaps we could make it together?"
"I think that we'd all enjoy that, Dave. How long do you think you'll be?"
He glanced down at his watch. "I could be home in about ninety minutes. I still have to grab a box for Erin's pictures."
"Her house isn't home for us, Dave."
He started at that realization, and nodded to himself. "I know that. But, for her, we are home at the moment. If that makes sense."
"It does. We'll see you soon, then."
This time, she was the one to hang up, and he shook his head a little as he stuffed the phone in his pocket before picking up his briefcase. Stepping out into the bullpen, he searched out Agent Anderson and quickly made his way over to the younger man. "Anderson, I need to ask you a favor. I need a medium sized box, strong enough to hold some picture frames and a bonsai plant."
The agent looked up at him quizzically. "The only person who has a bonsai here is Chief Strauss. Has she quit on us then?"
Dave shook his head. "No, she's just going to be working from home for a month or so, and I was tasked with bringing over her family pictures and the tree. She seems to think that no one will be able to take care of her precious tree quite like she can."
"She does have a point there, Sir," Anderson replied as he stood up. "Just follow me."
Together, they went over to a storage room and the agent pulled out a large box. "Maybe a little smaller," Dave said as he took a look at it. After rummaging around a little more, Anderson showed him the perfect sized box, and he nodded. Then, they went to Erin's office, and he nodded to her assistant before fishing out the key to Erin's office.
"Come inside," he told Anderson as he flipped on the light. Dave immediately zoned in on the pictures that decorated her space and he slowly packed them all in the box, trying desperately not to start crying.
He must have failed, though, because he heard the soft click of the door closing, and he looked up into the younger man's eyes. "Is everything really okay with Chief Strauss?" he asked delicately.
"I can't tell you what she's going through, Anderson. But if you pray, send up an extra one for her?" The younger man nodded. "And this goes without saying, but you are not to tell anyone else that she is suffering. There are many in the BAU who would be all too glad to gloat."
"I understand, Sir." Dave nodded and picked up her box, setting the tree on top of her pictures. "And tell her that shared sorrow is half sorrow."
A warm smile slipped across his lips as he nodded. "I will, Anderson," he replied as he walked out the door.
"I'm home!" Dave called out as he entered the door, setting the box down on the kitchen table. "Kitten? Topalina?"
There was no reply, and he frowned a little as he began to go through the house, looking for them. He had arrived a little earlier than the ninety minutes he had told Penelope, but still, there should have been some response. He headed to the living room first, knowing that Erin spent a lot of time there just based off the amount of carpet wear there was. They weren't in there, and he let out a low breath of disappointment.
Shaking his head, he turned around and began to make his way up the stairs, hoping that Erin had decided to take a nap. He smiled a little as he heard the low murmuring of voices behind the door of the master bedroom, and he knocked softly to let them know that he was there. "Come in, Dave!" Penelope called out and he opened the door, peeking his head inside. Erin was asleep on the bed, her head resting in Penelope's lap.
"How long has she been sleeping?" he asked lowly as he closed the distance between them, sinking down onto the mattress and picking up Erin's hand, gently massaging it, needing to feel her.
"For about fifteen minutes. She came to apologize not five minutes after we hung up, and then she complained of having a headache. I think all the crying has started to make her hurt. I remember this phase, too. Where I wanted to sob so badly, but my chest hurt from breathing so hard, and my eyes hurt from the tears, and my cheeks felt like they were sanded by my rubbing the salt from tears over them." She looked up at him helplessly, her brown eyes looking so wet and luminous. "Dave, I just want to hug all the pain out of her, and I know that I can't do that."
"Don't worry, I want to do the same. So, Anderson is praying for her, as well. I had him help me gather the things that she wanted, and I wasn't very good at hiding my emotions. I trust him to not go telling tales out of turn."
She gave him a warm smile as she nodded, letting her fingers run through Erin's hair. The woman stirred beneath the touches, her eyes blinking rapidly as she came to awareness. "David, you're home already." A soft smile curved Erin's lips upwards, and Dave had to fight the urge to lean down and kiss her just as softly.
"I couldn't bear to be away from two lovely ladies any longer. I made certain to bring your bonsai tree home, even though I know Helen would have looked after it. Your assistant is a most loyal woman."
"That she is, and thank you." Her eyes closed once more as she groaned lowly in the back of her throat. "I've slept so much, and I still feel so tired. Is this going to be my new normal?"
Dave looked to Penelope, and she pursed her lips together a little. Taking a deep breath, he nodded. "Yeah, it is, Erin. Until you become accustomed to this life. And I'm not going to sugarcoat things, it is going to suck."
She sighed as she sat up, leaning forward so that she could drape her body against his, her arms coming to rest around his neck. "I don't think that I'm strong enough to do this, David," she said lowly, her voice full of sadness.
"Alone, no. That is why you have Penelope. And me. We are going to be by your side, for as long as you need us, and nothing that you can say or do will chase us away. I swear to you on James's life that this will be my truth until you tell me to go."
Erin let out a heartbroken sigh as she nodded, burying her face into the crook of his shoulder. He could tell that she was crying once more by the way her shoulders shook, and he gently ran one hand up and down her back as he met Penelope's eye. There was a tiny bit of censure there, and he frowned, shaking his head. "I'm going to go down and assemble everything that we need to make the lasagna, Erin. Do you want to come with me?" she asked as she climbed off the bed, clearly expecting Erin to tell her yes.
"Would you mind if I stayed here for a moment? I need this, Penny." Erin sighed as she nuzzled her nose into the collar of his shirt, and he saw Penelope shake her head slightly.
"As long as you know what you're doing, Erin. I'll be in the kitchen, whenever you decide to come join me."
She stalked from the room, and Dave knew that he would have to make serious amends with her before the evening was through. He just wanted what Erin wanted at the moment, and could only hope that his Kitten would come to understand in time. "David, I have to call Alan's friends, and his boss. Penelope was helping me to make lists today, and it seems so overwhelming. There's the school, Allie's choir, our church, not to mention our families. I have no idea where to start, or if I even want to start. They're going to put me under a microscope, judge me for living when everyone else died. I don't know if I can handle a visitation service, let alone the two that Penelope thinks will be necessary. Can I tell you something?"
He nodded a little. "You can tell me anything, Erin. I promise that I won't judge you at all. I'm here to be your friend and support."
"Oh, David, you have no idea how good those words sound, but I know that you'll judge me after this. I judge me for these thoughts. I was really tempted today to drive over to your house and drink every bottle of alcohol that you have in your liquor cabinet. In the back of my head, I know that doing so would likely kill me, but…I want to see my babies again. I want to hold them and kiss them and tell them that everything will be all right."
Erin's sobs choked out her words and he just held her as he struggled to keep from crying himself. "Shh, Topalina. You'll make yourself ill if you cry this hard, and then you won't be able to enjoy supper. And we need you here, with us. Promise me that you'll think of us before you do anything rash."
"I'll try. That's the most I can promise right now. Every hour, every minute, that I'm awake, I feel like I'm going to crawl out of my skin." She took a deep breath and pushed away from him to look into his eyes. "I don't know why I'm always asking you this, David, but, would you please kiss me? You make me feel grounded, rooted to this world when you do."
A small part of his brain screamed at him not to oblige her, that it was madness to encourage something between them when she was grieving for the family that she had lost. His heart, however, broke at the way Erin gazed up at him trustingly, as if she knew that he would never do anything that would harm her. "All you had to do was ask, Topalina," he finally responded before lowering his head and brushing his lips against hers.
Erin sighed lightly before deepening the kiss, her hands quickly becoming anchored in the fabric of his shirt as the buss lingered. Knowing that he had to stop this before they both crossed a line that would irreparably rend their friendship, Dave took the initiative and gently covered her hands with his, pulling them away as he ended the kiss. There was a mixture of sorrow and confusion in her eyes as she stared at him, and he reached up to caress her cheek tenderly. "Why did you push me away?"
"Because I respect and care for you too much to ruin our friendship with something as tiny as a kiss. I want you to heal, I do not want to set you back in your recovery, at all." He let his fingers run through her hair a little as she nodded. "All right, do you feel like heading down and starting supper now?"
"I suppose. I'm not as hungry as I was earlier, but you two need to eat. We went grocery shopping this morning, and I made certain to pick up what I remembered to be your favorite cookies. There are still a few things that I remember about our past."
He chuckled a little as he helped her from the bed. It didn't surprise him that she plastered her body to his as they made their way from the room, though he was surprised at how natural it felt. David couldn't help but rest his head against hers as they went downstairs, knowing that he was quickly moving into dangerous territory, and not really certain that he cared.
"All right, we have to be at the air field in an hour. Is there anything that I can do before we get under way?" Dave asked the next morning as he put the last of the breakfast dishes into the washer.
"No, I think that we're good, Dave. Remember, the jet will come back tomorrow afternoon at about five. I left you a list of people you need to call yet, and then when we get back, we can finalize the details of the funeral." Penelope gave him a tight smile as she picked up her purse. "All right, let's head out. It might take a little extra time to get there this morning, what with the construction."
"That's right, I forgot about that." He picked up his keys from the hook and slipped them into his pocket, smiling sadly at his Erin. The possessive thought gave him pause, and he took a deep breath before meeting her eyes. He could tell that she was fighting the urge to cry once more, and he opened his arms.
Without a moment's hesitation, she stepped into the embrace, nuzzling her cheek against the fabric of his shirt. "I miss them so much already," she whispered heartbrokenly, and he nodded against the top of her head, fighting the urge to kiss her in front of Penelope. He knew that his friend was not too keen on the fact that he and Erin were growing close, and if he was honest with himself, he was a little unnerved by the quickness as well.
"I wish that I had words to give you, Erin. I wish that I could tell you that you're going to wake up tomorrow and everything will be perfect. But that's not the way that life works."
"I know," she said before running her hand down his arm and hooking pinkies with him. "We have to leave now. I have to go bring them home."
Her voice broke on the last word, and he sighed as he led her out to his car. "I will be lifting you up to God the entire time that you're out in California."
"I know you will, David. That's why my heart trusts you already. You welcomed me back from rehab, you made certain that I was okay, and that my office was dry." He went to protest as he opened the car door for her, and she shook her head. "Don't try to deny it, my assistant already told me that it was you. And you left me tulips, because you remembered how much I loved them."
They paused for a moment, and Erin looked up at him, her eyes swimming with tears. "I had to do it for you, Erin," he said lowly, watching Penelope get in the back, her eyes never leaving them, as if she was watching to make certain that he wouldn't hurt Erin any more than she already was.
"You are such a good man," she said lowly before raising up on her tiptoes and kissing him lightly. "Thank you for saving me."
"I would do it again in a heartbeat, Erin. Never doubt that."
She nodded and slipped into the car, curling up against Penelope, letting the woman sling an arm around her shoulders as Dave got behind the wheel and started his car up. As he drove to the airfield, he turned the music up enough so that it would mask their conversation, since he didn't want to eavesdrop. Though he did hear his name bandied about a few times, he resisted the temptation to interject with some smart comment, instead keeping a running prayer going for her as the miles slipped away.
Dave nodded to the pilot as he pulled to a stop, and then went to the trunk of the car, popping it open and grabbing the two bags that Penelope had put there earlier. By the time he had closed the trunk, the women were already climbing the stairs and he rushed over to put the bags on the plane with them.
"Are you coming along, too?" the pilot asked, and he shook his head. "All right, I plan on taking off in fifteen minutes."
"Thanks, that should be plenty of time to say goodbye." He shook the woman's hand and then climbed the stairs to see Erin and Penelope huddled together in the back, already talking lowly to each other. "Will one of you call me the moment you land? I want to make certain that you arrive safely, and that everything goes well. You are both in my heart."
Erin looked up at him, a tender smile gracing her lips as she nodded. "I will do that, David. Thank you again."
He nodded and gave them a small wave before leaving the plane and heading back to his car. He sat there and watched the plane take off, needing to make certain that they were safely in the air before heading off to work.
As Dave drove, he wondered how to field the questions that he knew the others were bound to ask about Penelope. And a small part of him was sad that no one would ask after Erin, that they would be relieved that she was out of the office for a few days. His thoughts were interrupted by the jangle of his phone, and he touched the Bluetooth button on his steering wheel to answer it. "Rossi here."
"Dave, where are you?"
He sighed at the slight annoyance evident in his friend's voice and fought the urge to snap at him. "I'm on my way in right now, Hotch. I had an errand to run this morning, and it took a little longer than I planned."
"All right, just get here as soon as possible. We have to deal with Kevin for a few days, since Penelope took an unexpected vacation, and he is already working on my last nerve."
And just like that, Dave was glad that he was driving and could roll his eyes at Hotch, knowing the man could do nothing about the slight insubordination. "Kevin is just really earnest. And I should be there in half an hour."
He hung up before Hotch could reply, and tried to focus on the drive in. He could only keep a constant prayer going through his mind for Erin, the pilot, Penelope, and everyone that they were going to encounter the moment they landed in California. He knew that Erin would have a rough time out there, because he knew that he would have a rough time trying to get through the task that she was facing.
Somehow, he made it in to the office safely, and he shook his head a little, trying to dissipate the fog that was surrounding his heart and head that morning. He knew that he had to be focused, otherwise Hotch would just start picking at him until he had the full story out of him. Taking a deep breath, he got out of the car and made his way over to the elevators, holding it when he heard a familiar voice call out.
"Hey, thanks, Rossi. I am running so late this morning. But it looks like you are, too. I would have thought that you would be well rested after your little vacation. Is everything okay?"
Dave wondered how much he should tell Emily, since she wasn't the fondest of Erin. "I had a rough few days, there's some business that I'm taking care of, and the problem still hasn't resolved itself. I don't think that it will be a quick fix, however. This is such a mess, Emily."
"Well, you know that I'm always here to listen to you, if you need that."
"I know, thanks. I just don't think that I can share this problem at the moment, since it is so personal. Just, think good thoughts for a dear heart going through one of the worst times in her life."
Emily reached out and touched his shoulder lightly, and he looked into her eyes, noting the concern there that went deeper than just a casual friendship. "If there's anything I can do for your friend, you just let me know, okay? If you're this concerned for her, it must be something awful, and I wouldn't even wish whatever that is on Strauss."
He tried to muffle his chuckle in a cough, and he thought he mostly succeeded, though she did frown at him for a moment before pulling him into a tight hug. "Well, she would be happy to hear that. She has a tender heart buried beneath the layers of ice that she's wrapped herself in."
"If you say so. I mean, you've known her longer than I have."
"There is that, Em." He clapped her shoulder as the doors opened on their floor and they stepped out. He could feel eyes watching him, and he glanced up to see Hotch standing on the walkway in front of their offices, glaring at them.
"Who pissed in his Cheerios this morning?" she asked, trying to bring some levity to the situation. Dave just shook his head, not wanting to get into the situation with Emily. It wouldn't be fair to ask her to choose sides, after all.
"I have no idea. Maybe the fact that we're both late has him upset."
"Maybe." Emily didn't sound convinced, though, and he knew that he would end up having to tell her sooner rather than later exactly what was going on. He only hoped that Erin would understand his letting someone else into her private Hell.
Dave had found himself distracted for the entire time that Erin and Penelope were gone, and he knew that Hotch was not pleased with him, at all. They had warily kept their distance from each other, as if they knew that by engaging each other during such a fraught time would only end badly.
Still, he was relieved when Penelope texted him two days later, informing him that they were landing at the airstrip in thirty minutes. Taking a deep breath, he pushed away from his desk, texting her back that he would meet them there. Grabbing his briefcase, Dave exited his office and quickly made his way over to the elevator. On his way out of the bullpen, he caught Aaron's eye, and tried to ignore the frown that was on his friend's lips.
By focusing on Aaron, however, he barged into Emily, knocking her coffee cup into her chest. "Where is your mind, Rossi?" she asked shortly, pulling the fabric of her blouse away from her skin.
"I have to go. They're landing in ninety minutes, and I haven't even called the funeral home to arrange transportation."
The words were out of his mouth before he even realized what he had said, and it was only when she gasped loudly that it dawned on him. "Dave?"
"Forget I even said anything," he muttered as he tried to brush past her and head out to the elevators. Emily reached out and took hold of his arm, shaking her head a little. "Let it go, Prentiss."
"I can't. Not when you mentioned a funeral home. Does this have something to do with Penelope being gone? I knew that we were supposed to think that she was gone on vacation, but it's not like her to be gone for a month." He gave her a look, but still she didn't back down, and he groaned a little as he tugged his arm free and stalked over to the elevators. "Don't think that I'm going to let this go, Dave. I'll bring Hotch into it, if I need to."
Dave fixed a hard glare on her, which managed to give her pause. "If you even breathe one word of where I'm going to him before I am ready to explain what's happening, not even your ambassador mother will be able to save your job. Am I clear?"
She nodded slowly, pressing the down button on the elevator bank. "Is it that serious?"
"Yes. I need to keep this as quiet as possible, Emily, and Hotch will just make this entire situation worse."
Emily sighed a little as the doors opened. "Is there anything that I can do? And don't tell me to pray, since that's ineffectual. I need to do something."
Dave cocked his head to one side as they stepped aboard the car. "I wish that I could let you into our inner circle. But given your fraught relationship…"
"With Strauss? I mean, that is what you're dancing around, right? The fact you won't tell me anything is because you think that I'll be pissy about it because it involves her." He gave her a tightlipped smile as he shrugged. "God, Dave, I'm not ten. If it's something serious, I won't hold a grudge."
He let out a deep sigh, thankful that they were alone in the elevator. "I know that it's so easy for gossip to get around the bullpen. But we've all kept as tight a lid on this as possible, so as to protect her. Yes, she and Penelope were in California these last few days, collecting, collecting…"
His voice broke, unable to speak the words that were fluttering in his heart. "Who died?"
"Everyone. She's alone."
The strangled gasp that tore from Emily's lips told him that she had heard his whispered words, and he sighed deeply. "No one deserves to go through that. Even if they were my worst enemy for a while there. Is there anything that I can do?"
"I'd say keep Hotch off my back, but he's my best friend, so I have to learn to deal with that. I think that Erin is going to go stir crazy sooner rather than later, which means we'll all be back in the office, and that's when I'm going to ask you to be kind. Not noticeably, falsely, kind, but…"
"Understanding. I can totally do that. And I'll nudge Mother to give her a call. I know that they were friends back in the day." She gave him a fleeting smile, and Dave nodded as the elevator came to a stop. "And text me her address," Emily called out as he began to make his way over to the parking garage.
"Flowers are always nice to receive, even if they are from an anonymous source."
The kindness of the gesture took him aback, and he nodded as he dug out his phone, quickly sending her the desired information. "Though I'll know who did it, if there's ever any vandalism."
"I'm not that mean, Rossi," she retorted, winking at him to let him know that he had been trying his best to tease her. Nodding a little, he turned on his heel and made his way out to his car.
As he drove to the airfield, he called the funeral home that was handling Erin's situation, and informed them of the impending arrival of the bodies, and the estimated ETA. "We'll be there to take care of everything, Mister Rossi, you can count on that."
"Thank you," he replied as he pulled into Erin's favorite coffee shop. He knew that they wouldn't want a full meal after the sad journey home, but he wanted to provide something comforting for her. Parking close to the door, he rushed inside, knowing that he only had a little time before they would be landing.
Thankfully, the line was short, and he ordered three drinks and had the barista start them while he looked for pastries to take with him. Unable to decide, he finally had another worker box up a selection of them and then he paid before juggling everything into his arms and making his way back to the car as quickly as he could. As he finished the drive, all he could think about was how he would need to hold back his own emotions, as Erin and Penelope would need him to be strong in that moment.
Dave pulled into the private airstrip at the same moment the hearses did, and he tried not to shiver at the sight of four black cars lining up to collect the earthly remains of the Strauss family. He stepped out of his car and began to approach the lead vehicle, knowing that the funeral director would be driving it. The man climbed out and shook his hand firmly before they both turned to watch the plane land. "Were you going to the funeral home right away, or be heading home first?"
"That all depends on how Erin feels. I know that we have to finish up the last minute details for the funeral, and the obituaries, but Erin might need some more space to breath. I don't want to push her harder than necessary, she's already come extremely close to the breaking point," he replied as the plane rolled to a stop on the tarmac. The man nodded as the door to the jet opened, and the stairs were rolled into place. The pilot was the first one off, and to Dave's surprise and gladness, he stood at the bottom and saluted as Erin and Penelope exited. Meeting Penelope's gaze, he saw that she was incredibly sad, and he wondered if something more had happened in California, something that he hadn't been privy to yet. Letting out a long breath, he held himself in place, not wanting to overwhelm the women, wanting to let them decide the pace to take things.
Erin was the first to start moving a little quicker, not letting go of Penelope's hand, instead tugging her along behind as she broke into a jog before finally shaking her hand loose and closing the distance between them as fast as she could, hugging him tightly as she buried her face in his chest. She didn't say anything, and he waited for Penelope to join them before giving her a tight smile. "It was a long flight, and I think that we should head home before you and I go to the funeral home and finalise everything."
He nodded and then looked up to see that the men from the funeral home were now by the pilot, collecting the remains from the hold of the jet. Part of him wanted to stay and watch, but feeling the way that Erin shuddered in his embrace, he knew that it would be better if he led them over to his car instead. Blocking the sight of what was going on from Erin, he opened the passenger door and watching her slide in before going around to the driver's side and getting behind the wheel. "I brought us coffee and pastries, so help yourself, your names are on the cups."
"This is too kind, David," Erin murmured as she pulled her cup out of the carrier before handing Penelope's back to her. He nodded as he pulled out of the small parking lot, not failing to notice the way Erin shivered again as she looked at the line of hearses. Sliding his hand off the wheel, he caressed her shoulder softly before pulling out onto the road and heading towards Erin's home, knowing that he would have to pull the story out of them both once they were home.
After he had pulled into the garage, Dave watched as Penelope helped Erin out of the car and into the house. He hadn't wanted to rush right after them, but a large part of his heart was extremely concerned about how passive Erin was acting. Before they had left, she had at least had a bit of her vitality, even if it had been performative at times, but now even that seemed to be gone. Rubbing his hand over his goatee, Dave took a few deep breaths before picking up the pastry box and his cup of coffee and finally heading inside.
After setting the box on the kitchen island, he made his way into Erin's living room, knowing that would be the first place they would go. Dave smiled at Kitten, noticing that she was standing near the window, staring out at the lawn, while Erin was curled up in a corner of the sofa, a blanket wrapped around her body as she stared at the floor. "I am glad that you're back," he said quietly as he took a seat on the sofa, making certain that there was an appropriate amount of distance between them. Penelope gave them a pained look as she came over to them, crouching down in front of Erin and reaching out to squeeze her hand tenderly.
"I'm going to bring our bags in and start a load of laundry. Why don't you talk to Dave about what happened in California. Please?"
"Okay," Erin said, never looking up at Penelope. The younger woman let out a deep sigh before leaning in and pressing a tender kiss to the side of Erin's head before getting to her feet. She and Dave looked at each other, and he was startled to see that her eyes were filled with tears. Suddenly, he knew that whatever had happened in California had loosened the ground beneath Erin's feet once more, and he gave Penelope a small nod before she left the room.
Once they were alone, Dave scooted a little closer to Erin unsurprised when she shifted in her position and flung her arm around his waist, letting her head thump down on his chest. "What happened in California, Topalina?"
"I made another mistake. When Penelope was talking to Lieutenant Craymer, I slipped into a pharmacy and purchased the largest bottle of aspirin that I could find. I just found myself staring down a black hall of despair, and I needed to get out. I waited until we were back at the hotel room to send Penelope out for food, knowing that I couldn't do anything while she was in the room. Once she had left, I poured myself a glass of water and took a seat on the bed before pulling the bottle out of my purse and staring at it. And then, I just kept staring, trying to will myself to open the bottle, to start washing the pills down with the water I had gotten. I must have zoned out and lost all sense of time because the next thing I knew, Penelope had returned, and the darkness seemed to lift once more. She knew, though, what I had been contemplating, and refused to leave my side for the rest of the trip."
"Because she is a dear and sweet woman who would fight tooth and nail to see that you didn't carry out that mistake." Erin nodded before bursting into tears. He let out a soft little sigh before kissing the top of her head lightly. "I am so glad that you didn't go through with that, because it might have destroyed me to have to explain to your parents that they would have to put their only daughter to rest, too. I don't want to guilt you, Erin. I can only imagine the depths of grief that you feel. But oh, how I want to wrap you in a bubble until you start to climb out of this pit you've fallen into."
"I don't know what I would do if I didn't have the both of you in my life, David. You've both been so kind and patient. I miss them so much."
"I know, Topalina, I know," he murmured as he started to rock them gently back and forth, humming beneath his breath. It didn't take long to soothe her into a light sleep, and then he carefully slipped out of her embrace before covering her with the blanket and heading back into the kitchen, hearing the sound of Penelope's voice grow louder as he approached her. Once in the kitchen, he saw that Penelope was leaning against the sink, a pensive look on her face.
"I think that would be for the best, since she didn't really want to make a spectacle of this. I've tried to keep their names out of the press, in deference to her, but that could all change with the publishing of the obituaries. Yes, I'll email you the list of family and close friends that she wants to be at the service as soon as I'm off the line with you. Thank you again for helping us coordinate this so late notice. Of course. We'll see you in three days."
She ended the call and then tapped away at the screen, and he assumed that she was carrying out what she had told the funeral director before sliding the phone into her pocket and looking up at him. "California was so hard on us, Dave. I wish that you had been able to accompany us, because she relies on you just as much as me. I am so not comfortable with how close the two of you are becoming, but if it keeps her here, I'll overlook it."
"I just want what's best for her, Kitten. Whatever that may be." Penelope nodded as the doorbell rang, and they both frowned. "I'm not expecting anyone, are you?"
"No. Their families won't be here until the day before the funeral, and no one else knows that we're here. The team all assume that I'm on some special assignment right now."
Nodding a little, he went to front door and looked out, seeing a woman standing there, a vase of flowers in her hands. Hastily, he threw open the door and took the vase from her hands, pressing it into Penelope's grasp before taking the second arrangement. "I'll need you to sign for those, sir."
"Of course," he replied as he placed the larger arrangement on the hall table. The woman held out the electronic pad to him, and he quickly placed his signature on it before reaching into his pocket and handing the woman a generous tip. Once she had left, he carried the other arrangement into the living room, setting it on the coffee table next to the arrangement Penelope had brought in. "Have you looked to see who sent those?"
"Emily, of all people. How did she know about this?"
"Her mother and Erin are acquainted, and I filled her in on what was happening. She kept pushing until I had to tell her."
"That wasn't wise."
"No, but she promised to be kind, which is all that matters." He looked over the larger arrangement for a card and pulled out the crème envelope and slipped the card from out of it. "Oh," he breathed out when he saw the writing there, and Penelope gave him an odd look. "Your best friend is one of the most thoughtful men, Penelope."
"But I wonder how he found out? I didn't tell him about what happened."
"Maybe Prentiss did. I know that they're close." She nodded as she took the card from his hand, quickly reading what Derek had written there, a sad smile curving across her lips. "I wish that we could tell everyone at the BAU about the funeral, but I don't want Aaron to know about this just yet. I need to find an appropriate time to inform him of what's been going on."
"That is going to be difficult, especially if what I've heard from Jayje is true. She said that the tension between the two of you is so thick that it rivals the London fog."
He let out a mirthless laugh as he shrugged. "I know that he's reacting out of frustration with Erin. I know that she made a huge mistake by drinking on a case and potentially endangering us all. But knowing what I know now? I can find compassion for her in the midst of being upset with her decisions. And because he's being a hypocrite, I will keep calling him out on that. He was perfectly willing to allow Reid to show up on the field off his face, and no intervention was ever done for him. Emily, well, that was one of the long discussions we've had over the years. And I agree with her, completely. Reid should never have been allowed on any cases when he was as bad as he was. I don't know what Aaron was thinking."
"He was thinking that the young doctor didn't have anything else that might help him to beat his addiction. You have to have something to live for to make rehab stick." They both turned to look at Erin, seeing that she was starting to sit up, holding the blanket close to her chest as she stared at the flowers. "Did our parents send those?" she asked, confusion lacing her voice.
"No, Lambie, these are from Emily and Derek. They're the only two who know what happened, since you know how well profilers listen to people telling them to let something go. Here, read the cards, and I'll go start lunch for us. Is there anything in particular that you'd like?"
"Something light, perhaps sandwiches? Or maybe just a fruit salad?"
"I think that I can make both, and you can choose what sounds best when it's ready. Does that sound good?" Erin nodded, and Dave watched as Penelope gave the woman one of those smiles he'd only seen her give to JJ or Emily, which told him that Erin had firmly become a part of Penelope's orbit during their time in California, and he was extremely glad for that, as he knew that Erin would need every friend she could find as she went through this ordeal.
"David? Could you zipper my dress, please? Penelope's still in the shower, and I want to finish getting ready now."
He looked over his shoulder in the mirror, seeing Erin standing in the doorway to the bathroom that he was using, holding the neckline of her dress against her chest as she looked at him. Nodding, he finished adjusting his tie and then turned to her, waving Erin over to his side. She gave him a fleeting smile as she walked over to his side before turning her back to him, showing that she had managed to get the zipper halfway up her back before giving up. "This is a lovely dress," he murmured as he gently tugged the tab up her back, the sound of the zipper closing filling the suddenly too quiet room.
"I wore it to Haley's funeral. I don't like wearing all black, it washes me out, but there are certain niceties you have to abide by when it comes to events like these." Dave rested his hands on Erin's shoulders, letting out a puff of breath when she leaned back against his chest, her head lolling against his shoulder a little. "I didn't sleep well last night. Mom means well, and I know that she charmed you and Penelope, but then you both left me alone with her, and it was just too much. I, I hope that she understands why you and Penelope will be sitting with me in the family pew today, because I don't know what I'd do if I didn't have you both by my side."
Turning in his arms, Erin leaned up and pressed a tender kiss to his cheek before turning on her heel and rushing from the room. Dave knew that she was feeling a little too out of control, and needed to be back in a safe space, and he completely understood that, having felt much the same way after Haley's murder. Shaking his head a little, he turned back to the mirror and slicked his hand over his hair, straightening it a little before taking a deep breath and making his way out of the bathroom and going down to the kitchen, knowing that they would need to eat a little bit before heading to the church.
Going to the fridge, he gathered eggs and bread, deciding to make French toast for them. As he was getting that underway, he heard feet on the tile of the kitchen, and from the scent of perfume in the air, he knew that it was Erin. "If you want to set the table for us, we have enough time to eat before we head out this morning."
"That's good," she replied listlessly, and his heart lurched a little in his chest. This was already difficult for her, and the worst was yet to come. "Penelope was just starting to put on her makeup when I came down, so she should be here in about twenty minutes. That's usually how long it takes her to apply it, at least."
"That's when I'm doing a full work face, Lambie. Today, it's not about adding sunshine and rainbows to the world, it's about honoring the lives of your family." He glanced over his shoulder to see that Penelope was just entering the kitchen, looking lovely and subdued. "And French toast sounds delicious. I can start the coffee for us, so I'm not the only one doing nothing."
Dave nodded and then gave Penelope a small wink as she hip checked him by the stove. "That would be wonderful, Kitten. Thank you." She nodded before kissing his cheek lightly and beginning the coffee. The scents of breakfast filled his lungs, and he smiled lightly as he began to hum a little as they continued to work in tandem to get their tasks accomplished. "All right, I'll be playing chauffer this morning, since I know that it will be difficult for either of you to focus right now, so it will be my pleasure to do that for you. I've already arranged with the director of the funeral home for us to have a limo to ride in for the graveside service, which will then bring us back to the church once that is over. Are there any other last minute details that you think I've missed, Erin?"
"No, I think that you and Penelope have taken care of everything, David. And I don't know where to begin thanking you for taking that from my hands. I know that Mom doesn't understand why I would allow you two to be so close to me, and why I didn't reach out to her and Daddy to get everything together. I couldn't tell her that I had made two very large mistakes in the aftermath of the news and that you were both the ones who saved me." Erin took a seat at the table and stared down at it, her lower lip trembling. "She doesn't know that the two of you are my closest friends that I have right now because my stint in rehab drove the remaining few away. So you see, you're both my lifeline right now, and it makes sense that you would be the ones who keep me here and help me plan."
Dave set a plate down in front of her before curling his hand around her shoulder, allowing his warmth to bleed into her as he struggled to think of something to say in response, finding words failing him in that moment. Penelope threw him a desperate look, too, and he shook his head a little, trying to think of a way to make it all better. "Neither of us will abandon you, Erin. I can promise you that. And even if things get tougher than this horrible day, that won't drive us from you. I promise." He leaned down and pressed a gentle kiss to her head before going back to the counter and grabbing the other two plates, handing one to Penelope before taking a seat next to Erin. He wasn't surprised when the woman scooted her chair closer to his side, resting her arm against his as she ate with the opposite hand, as if she needed the constant contact to ground her to the present.
"Did you have a chance to write out what you wanted to say at the graveside service?" Penelope asked kindly as she started to eat, giving Erin a soft, open, look.
"I did, after Mom went back to the hotel, I just have to remember to grab the paper before we leave. I don't know if I'll be able to read what I wrote without crying, though."
"I think that everyone will understand if you do, though." Penelope reached across the table and caressed Erin's hand as it hovered over her plate. "Erin, please, know that we're here for you all the way, no matter how difficult it gets. Friends who abandon you at a time like this were never true friends. Even if people are only just finding out about it, since the obituaries did not go live until the morning edition of today's paper." Penelope rubbed her hand once more before sliding it back over to her side and continuing to eat.
"I asked the Director to come today, just so you know, Erin. He has been asking after you, and wanted to pay his respects. I thought it would be a nice gesture."
"That is very kind of him, yes." Erin glanced over to give him a fleeting smile, and he returned it before they all fell quiet to finish eating. Penelope cleared the table when they were finished, and he relaxed back in his seat as he nursed his coffee, his eyes staring ahead at nothing. "I'll be right back," Erin murmured as she got up, and he nodded absently as she exited the room.
Once she was gone, Penelope came back over to his side, taking Erin's place and resting her head on his upper arm. "You should have spent the night in the master bedroom with us, Dave. I know, that floor has to be killing your back, but it was rough. I don't think she realizes just how troubled her sleep was. She pushed me out of bed at one point, and that hurt, let me tell you. If you have been there, I think she would have calmed down a little quicker. You soothe her in a way that I can't, and while I can't say that I approve of this attraction between the two of you, as it is far too soon for her to be growing attached to anyone, I can recognize when she needs to be comforted."
"I'm not trying to rush her into anything, Kitten."
"I know that, and I know that it's happening organically, but I just need you, at least, to be careful with her heart. After I lost my parents, after I went underground, my head was turned by Shane, and I allowed myself to be subsumed by his personality, because the grief was just so raw and he made it better. It took me too long to come around to the idea that I didn't need him to stand on my own. I would rather she knew that she can move forward on her own, with our support, rather than constantly looking for you to fix everything. And before you say it, I know that I'm being overbearing. You ask Derek about that, because I gave him relatively the same advice when he started seeing Tamara Barnes. I love all three of you too much to see you get hurt by something that could easily be avoided."
He nodded as he turned to look at her, seeing that she was near tears. "Oh, Kitten, I know that you care about us, that's your heart. Come here," he said holding out his arms. She leaned in and hugged him tightly, drawing in deep breaths in an effort to keep from crying. Feeling eyes watching then, he turned his head to see Erin standing in the doorway, a pensive look on her face that left him wondering just how much of their conversation she had heard, knowing that there wasn't time to get into that now, as they were already cutting time a bit too fine for his liking. "Are you all set, Erin?"
"I think so. Maybe." He nodded and gently pushed Penelope away from him so that they could get to their feet and head out to the car, knowing that this drive would be both long and tiring, his thoughts fully on Erin and her grief. "Before, before we leave though, would you both pray with me? I know that there's going to be a formal prayer with everyone before we're escorted into the sanctuary, but…"
"Of course," he said as he held his hands out to Penelope and Erin, knowing that there wasn't anything he wouldn't do for Erin at this point.
There were already a number of cars in the parking lot when Dave pulled in, and he frowned a little at the sight, wondering just who all was there. Pulling up to the door, he slid the car into park, letting the women out before parking himself. He jogged up to the sidewalk just as they were starting to head inside, and he nodded to the young man who opened the door for them. The first person that came up to their side was the funeral director, and Dave nodded to his as he casually wrapped his arm around Erin's waist, holding her steady as she weaved on her feet a little.
"Good morning, Erin, David, Penelope. It's good to see you here so soon. Erin, your parents are already in the prayer room, and I'll be directing the rest of the family that way when I see them. I thought that you might like some time with them before everyone starts to arrive, however."
"That would be nice. David, would you come with me? Penelope, would you go to my parents and tell them that we're here, and I'll be there in a little bit?"
"Whatever you want, Erin." Penelope gave them a pained smile before following after the funeral director and then Erin was stepping out of his arm to take hold of his hand and lead him to where the caskets were lined up in the narthex of the church.
"I'm not certain I can do this, David," she whispered as she looked at the closed caskets. "Do you have a tissue?"
"Here, use my handkerchief." He pulled the fresh white square of lawn to her, and she started to worry it between her fingers as she touched each casket in turn before turning and looking up at him, tears streaming down her cheeks already. "I'm here," he said simply, and she nodded, stepping close to him and letting her forehead thump against his chest as she drew in a few shuddering breaths. "What do you need?"
"For Alan to call and say there was a horrible mistake? But I know that's not true, and I have to deal with the pain of my shattered heart. And don't think I don't know that I am being clingy and allowing the barrier between us to become a bit nebulous. I know. But you and Penelope were there and didn't judge me when I tried to end it all. You just held me, and that is all that I want right now." Her words cut off abruptly as she began to cry in earnest, and he rubbed her back in slow, soft, circles as he hummed her favorite song beneath his breath. "All right, I want to see who sent flowers now. There are a number of arrangements here, more than I thought there would be."
Nodding, Dave wrapped his arm around her waist once more as they went along the line of arrangements. "Derek sent another one," he said as he pointed to the potted peace lily.
"And he sent me something living. Something that will last beyond a week and that will remind me of his kindness. What did I do to change his mind about me? Why would he be so kind?"
"Because you lost so much, Erin. Derek's a good man, who knows about tragic loss himself, what with how his father died." She nodded before letting out a small gasp. "What?"
"Agent Anderson sent a potted plant as well. Has it gone around the office, then?"
"I don't think so, Erin. He did ask after you, when he saw me in your office gathering your bonsai tree and pictures, and I told him to pray for you. From there, he might have drawn his own conclusion, but I don't know how he knew where to send something."
"Maybe he asked Derek," she whispered as they continued to look at the flowers that had been sent. "They're all so lovely, but I don't think they'll all fit in your car to bring home."
"Perhaps your parents will agree to bring some home in their rental car? And if there's still not room, perhaps Alan's parents could do so, too?"
"You think of everything, David. Thank you."
"You're welcome, Topalina."
He had to refrain from kissing her temple, since it wasn't appropriate for him to do that now, instead hugging her a little closer. "I think that we should head to the prayer room now, before people start arriving. I know, there's the visitation beforehand, but I don't want to face them yet. It will be hard enough to do that when I have to deliver my eulogy for the graveside service."
"That's fine, we'll send out the parents to do the greetings."
Erin nodded as they turned into the large prayer room, and he was slightly surprised to see that there was a small array of snacks and drinks set out for them there. "Alan's parents thought that we might want something to nosh on as we waited for the service to start," Penelope said as he guided Erin over to her side, helping her to take a seat before picking up two bottles of water and giving one to her. "We were talking just now, and wondered if it might be easier if they went out to greet the mourners, since this is already such a difficult day for Erin."
"I had the same thought, Kitten." She gave him a fleeting smile before letting her arm come to rest around Erin's shoulders, letting her rest against her chest as she whispered something in her ear. "I don't believe that we met. I'm David Rossi, and I've worked with Erin for too many years to count," he said as he held his hand out to Alan's father.
"I'm Karl Strauss, and this is my wife, Sophia. Thank you for all the strings that you pulled to make certain that our son and grandchildren were brought home with honor. And for making certain that the burden of paying for something like that did not fall on Erin's shoulders. She's been through so much in the last eighteen months, and any ease is better for her."
Dave nodded as he shook Karl and Sophia's hands. "Erin deserves to have people look out for her. Penelope and I are trying our best to make certain that she has a soft place with us."
"And we appreciate that. Come, Soph, we should get out there and see who's here." He helped his wife to her feet and left the room, Erin's parents close at their heels. Once the door was closed, leaving the three of them alone, he took a seat on the sofa across from Erin and Penelope, reaching out to grab a bottle of water and a bunch of grapes.
"It's such a beautiful day, you know."
He focused on Erin, seeing that she was staring into her lap, twisting a bit of her skirt between her fingers in an effort to self-soothe. "It is, and beautiful days are an affront when you're feeling devastated. I completely understand that, because I buried Carolyn on a beautiful day, too." A small voice whispered in his ear that Aaron had also laid Haley to rest on a gorgeous day, so he would also understand Erin's sorrow, if he could only see beyond the end of his nose. Penelope looked up at him, giving him a knowing smile, and he was almost certain that she knew what he was thinking.
"Though I think it would be worse if it was a rainy day. Because it would just bring everything down around my ears. At least with the sun shining so prettily, I can think of them enjoying Heaven and wanting me to find some measure of comfort in this awful day."
He nodded as Erin looked up at him, the hollow stare shaking him to the core. "That is a beautiful way of thinking about today, Erin." They shared a quick, sad, smile before she looked back down at her lap and then leaned over to rest her head on Penelope's upper arm. "I'm going to see if the pastor is here yet, and find out when he's going to join us here for prayer. Do you want me to do anything while I'm out there?"
"Prepare me for how many people showed up? I don't know what will be worse, having no one here or having a full sanctuary." He nodded as he got to his feet once more, eating the last few grapes before tossing the stem in the trash as he left. Striding down the hall, he heard the buzz of voices grow louder, telling him that a number of people were already there, and he suddenly knew that the church would be completely full.
"Agent Rossi!" He turned his head to see Anderson coming over to his side, a pensive look on his face. "I hope that I'm not overstepping any boundaries, but I wanted to be here, to show my support for Chief Strauss. I just can't imagine what she's going through."
Dave nodded as he shook the younger agent's hand. "I'm glad that you're here, Anderson. And other than you and the Director, I don't think anyone else from the Bureau will be here. That's what Erin wanted, after all. Come, I'll want you and the Director seated behind us, and with the amount of people here, I'm starting to wonder if that will be possible."
Anderson nodded as they started to make their way through the clumps of people, until Dave had reached the funeral director's side. "Is everything all right?" he asked, and Dave nodded.
"I was just bringing Agent Anderson over to you, because I know that you'll be seating the mourners soon, and I want to make certain that he and the Director are seated directly behind our pew."
"I can arrange that, Dave, just leave it to me. Here, before you head back into the prayer room, you should take one of the pamphlets that Penelope designed in to Erin." He nodded and accepted two from the man, wanting a copy for himself. "I'll be sending Pastor Miller to you in about fifteen minutes."
"Well, you just answered the other question I had, thank you. I'll make my way back to Erin and Penelope now, and let them know that a good number of people are here already. I don't think Erin was planning on there being quite this many people who would want to attend." The funeral director nodded a little before shaking Dave's hand once more and then Dave turned and started to make his way back to Erin and Penelope, his heart heavy in his chest to know that so many people could turn out for a tragedy like this, but were never there to support Erin when she really needed it. And he vowed that he and Penelope would be there for her, no matter what came next.
The service had gone smoothly, even as Erin had broken down sobbing the moment they had taken their spots behind the caskets, having to follow them to the front of the sanctuary. The parents had seemed to understand why Erin wanted to be ensconced between Penelope and himself, though Karl had been sweet in offering them all pieces of hard candy throughout the long service. At some point, Erin had pulled her legs up towards her chest as she leaned against him, her hand absently playing with his lapel as she listened to the pastor speak.
The hardest part for her, well, for all of them, had been when the pastor had opened the platform up for the mourners to offer remembrances of the Strauss family. Mixed in the anecdotes was a shining thread of just how fiercely Erin had loved her children and her children's friends, and he wished that Aaron was there to hear what was being said, as he knew that that might make some dent in the icy anger that had encased his heart when it came to Erin.
Erin had broken down once more when Director Shepperd had taken the microphone, recounting a story of when Erin had brought Allie to work one day, and how much she had loved being there, even if she had managed to jam one of the copiers so badly that the repair man had spent five hours repairing it. Erin chuckled a little before the sobs came, and Dave held her close as the next few people spoke. It had taken another ninety minutes for everyone to speak before the pastor had drawn everything to a close with a prayer and then they were rising to their feet, following after the caskets out to the parking lot, watching them be loaded into the back of the waiting hearses.
"Look at the amount of flags," Erin whispered as she reached out for his hand, and he nodded, a bit amazed to see just how many people were choosing to accompany them to the graveyard. "You are riding with us, yes?" she asked as she looked at her and Alan's parents. They both nodded, and she seemed to relax a little as the funeral director led them over to their limousine, helping the women in before allowing the men to get inside. This separated him from Erin, but he was glad to see that Penelope and Sophia were gathered close to her, holding her hands as she continued to cry quietly. "I just want this day to be over. Penelope, are my sunglasses in your purse? I can't remember if I asked you to put them in there or not."
Penelope nodded as she pulled out the glasses, handing them to Erin. She gave him a brief, pained, look before sliding them over her eyes, shielding her gaze from them all. He knew why she was doing that, but it still hurt his heart to physically watch her shut herself away from them all. It was so quiet in the back of the limousine as they waited for the others to proceed to their vehicles, but after a few lengthy minutes, they were finally underway. The drive to the graveyard took a while, since they drove so slowly, in order to keep the vehicles together, and he gasped a little at the size of the place, knowing that every inch of drive would be taken up by the vehicles in the procession.
Erin seemed to have the same revelation right on the heels of him, as he heard her own answering gasp, watching the way her hands tightened around Sophia's and Penelope's, as if she was ready to flee, if given the chance. As the limousine came to a stop behind the hearses, Karl was the first one out, followed by Erin's father. He went to leave after them, only for Erin to speak once more. "David, Penelope, stay with me a moment. Please."
He nodded and slipped back into his seat, watching the two older women awkwardly get out of the vehicle, leaving them relatively alone. "What's wrong, Erin?"
"I didn't think that so many people would want to be at this part of the funeral service. I am not prepared to face that many people. I hate to ask this of you, but…Penelope, would you please read the eulogy I wrote for my beloved family? With the Director and Agent Anderson here, I don't want to collapse in front of them, but I also want these words said. My beloveds deserve to have their memory honored."
"Of course I can do that for you, Lambie. You put the paper in my purse, right?" Erin nodded. "Good. I'll go out there and do you proud, even if I might cry a little, too. Let Dave take care of you while we see this to completion." Turning her head, Penelope kissed Erin's temple lightly before clambering from the limousine, leaving them alone.
As soon as the door was closed, Erin left her seat and came over to his side, curling up next to him as she let out a long sigh. "I don't know what to do anymore, David. How can I be this weak?"
"You are not weak, Erin. You are trying to get through this terrible day with as much composure as you can muster. Penelope and I, along with your parents, both sets, are here for you. No one will blame you for not being able to read the words that poured from your heart, because they'll hear them dropping from Penelope's mouth and hear your beautiful heart shining through them," he whispered as he wrapped his arm around her shoulders, drawing her closer to him as they waited for the mourners to return. It didn't take as long as he thought it might, but he supposed that the pastor didn't want things to run long like they had at the church, and soon enough, the family was getting into the limousine once more.
"You wrote such lovely things about your family, Erin. I'm glad that your friend was able to read them for you, because I don't think that I would have been able to get through that eulogy," her mother said as she took her seat on Erin's other side, picking up her free hand to thread their fingers together. "And I'm grateful to know that you have a good friend who is walking by your side through this."
"He and Penelope are the best friends that I could ask for in all of this, Mom. You know what I've been through, my struggles with alcohol, and that just drove so many of the people I thought were close to me away. Penny and David were the only ones to step in when everyone else stepped out, and I love them."
Those words were a shock to him and he glanced up at Penelope to see that she was also shocked, even as quick tears pooled in her eyes before spilling down her cheeks. "I love you, too, Lambie," she whispered before clearing her throat and handing the paper in her hands to Dave. "I thought you might like to read what Erin wrote, since you stayed behind with her."
"Thanks, Kitten," he said lowly as he unfolded the paper and began to read Erin's beautiful script. Her words broke his heart all over again, and he felt no shame when he started crying at what she had written. By the time they had arrived back at the church, he had finished the eulogy, and then he accepted the handkerchief Sophia handed to him, clearing his eyes of the tears that were still gathered there. "This was beautiful, Erin," he said gruffly, folding the paper small enough so that it would fit in his breast pocket, wanting to keep her words close to his heart.
"I just wrote what was true. Even if it was painful."
He nodded as they came to a stop, and then they were getting out of the limousine and heading back into the church, following the pastor down to the fellowship hall. "Why don't you all sit, and us guys will make plates for you?" he said, giving Karl and Peter a long look, until they nodded. Erin nodded, taking hold of Penelope's hand as they went to find their seats. Joining the still lengthy line, Dave tried to think of small talk to make with the others when his phone vibrated in his pocket. Pulling it out, he frowned to see Aaron calling, and he answered, trying not to sound perplexed. "Hey Hotch, what can I do for you?"
"I know that Penelope is supposed to off for God knows how long, and that we're still grounded for three weeks, but there's been a bad case, and it's in a city we've worked in before, so the sheriff is asking specifically for our help. I'll need you to track down Penelope and come back to the office so that we can head out as soon as possible."
"I said no. I'm currently at a funeral, and there is no way that I can leave. You'll just have to make do with Kevin being your technical analyst, and one member down in the field. You'll live."
"No, Hotch. Firstly, I already gave you a valid reason why I cannot attend to your beck and call. Secondly, I am still acting Section Chief, and as such, this case should have been ran by me first before you decided to go off half-cocked, expecting me to follow after you. Thirdly, Penelope is still on leave, and I will not make her go back early for all fucking tea in China. Now, before I use more choice language at this reception, I am going to hang up and be present once more. I will talk to you when you're home again. Stay safe out there." Before Aaron could reply, Dave ended the call before turning his phone off and shoving it into his pocket before picking up plates for himself, Erin, and Penelope. It would be tough to juggle all three, he knew, but he would make it work somehow, as he did not want to wait in line again, not when he could be spending that time with Erin and Penelope.
Dave had expected Aaron to come see him when the team had returned from that urgent case he had sworn he needed Dave on, but that hadn't happened. Instead, Emily had brought him the after action reports and Derek had been acting as a go between for the team as they returned to the holding pattern that they were seemingly in. He wanted to reach out to his best friend, but couldn't think of a way to do so, which distressed him more and more each day that passed.
Finally, it seemed like things were going to come to a head, no matter what he did, and Dave prepared himself to come into work on Monday with Aaron confronting him on what was going on with him and Penelope and Erin. Sighing, he reached out and turned off the alarm before throwing back the covers and getting out of bed. It was still odd to wake up in a bed that wasn't his, though he tried not to think about the fact that the room had previously belonged to Erin's dead son. If he thought about that too much, he would never grow accustomed to it, and since Erin didn't want them to leave just yet, he needed to be in a place that was good for his back.
"Good morning, David."
Looking over at the doorway, he saw that Erin was already dressed for the day, wearing a soft outfit, one that reminded him of spring and sunshine, and he smiled at her as he beckoned her into the room. "Are you and Penelope planning on going somewhere this morning?" he asked when she was at his side, leaning against the closet door and watching him.
"Yes. We've finally packed all of the girls' clothing and makeup, and we're taking what can still be useful to the local women's shelter, so that someone can have use of them."
"That is incredibly kind of you, Erin."
"Yes, well, I have issues with Goodwill, and Penelope has issues with the Salvation Army, so we both thought that this was the best compromise. It will be more difficult to clear this room out, especially since you're here. But, we'll work around that starting tomorrow. I'm going to start breakfast, pancakes or waffles today?"
"Waffles sound good for a change," he replied as he finally decided what to wear that day, pulling it out of the closet. "Which bathroom is Penelope in?"
"Mine, of course. I showered last night so that she could take one this morning, but you shouldn't have to worry about running out of hot water if you hurry into the other one."
He chuckled as he nodded, slipping past Erin with clothes in hand, not commenting on the fact that she reached out and stroked his arm as he passed her by. He didn't want to encourage anything that Penelope might comment on, though he knew that Erin was reaching out unconsciously, as she was touching Penelope with a lot more frequency than before the funeral as well. He knew that it was a coping mechanism for her, and he wouldn't take that away from her, not when she was still grieving the annihilation of her family. "I hope that you're right, Erin," he said as he slipped into the bathroom, listening to her laugh as the door closed.
It didn't take long for him to strip down and then get into the shower, starting to sing as the water sluiced over his body. As he washed, he thought about what he was going to say to Aaron that day, knowing that he had to clear the air between them before things came to a head. Surprisingly, Erin had been right, and he had enough hot water to last his entire shower, and he stepped out of the shower still humming beneath his breath as he wrapped a towel around his waist and dried off his hair and body before taking care of his grooming needs. With that finished, he dried the rest of his body and dressed, meeting Penelope at the top of the stairs. "Hey, you're looking serious and dapper this morning."
"I'm going to broach talking with Aaron today. Things have to air out between us before I say or do something that I regret." She nodded as they walked down the stairs, an uneasy quiet settling between them quickly.
Dave wasn't surprised to see that Erin was setting their plates on the table the moment they stepped into the kitchen, and he gave her a wide smile as he took his usual seat, Erin settling in next to him before they all linked hands and she said a quick blessing over the food. "Can you think of anything to add to the shopping list, David? We're going to do the weekly shop after we drop off the donations at the women's shelter."
"Not that I can think of, right off hand. I'll text Penny if I think of something once I'm at work."
Erin nodded as they began to eat. An easy conversation rose up between them all, and he found himself so wrapped up in it that he lost track of time. "You need to get going, if you plan on being in the office on time, Dave," Penelope said, and he glanced at his watch to see that she was right. "Go, we'll take care of the dishes."
Grinning, he took one last swig of juice before wiping the back of his hand across his lips and then bending down to kiss Erin and Penelope on their cheeks before grabbing his bag and keys off the counter and heading out the door.
Dave found himself distracted as he drove in to the Bureau that morning, not realizing that he was there until he pulled into his parking spot and he shook his head a little as he locked his car and hurried inside the building, clearing security in record time before heading up to the sixth floor. As he stepped out of the elevator, the first person he ran into was Derek, and he gave the man a slight smile as he went to go around him and head up to his office. "We need to talk."
"Not this morning, Derek, I need to talk to Aaron first, and clear this bad blood between us."
"That's what I want to talk to you about, man. Can we just head to your office and talk? I think everything will become clearer if we did that."
Nodding reluctantly, he led Morgan into the bullpen and up to his office, noticing that the man closed the door after them, as if to tell everyone else to stay out while he was in there. "All right, what do you want to talk about?" he asked as he began to set out the files that he needed to get through that day, needing the shuffling of paper to help distract him from what he was certain Derek was going to say.
"Is Erin the reason that there's so much tension between you and Hotch right now?"
The plainspoken question took him by surprise, and he gave a jerky nod before steepling his fingers and letting out a long breath. "I know that you know a little about what's going on."
"Yeah, Emily's kept me in the loop, since Penelope has been a bit closed off from me lately. I'm assuming that she's taking care of Erin?"
Dave nodded once more before pinching the bridge of his nose, wondering just how much he should tell Derek about what was truly occurring. He wanted to keep Erin shrouded in as much privacy as possible, but he knew that the time for that was fast coming to an end, especially if he and Aaron got into it. "We are, yes. That is why I'm currently the acting Section Chief. You know about the loss of her family, but what you don't know is that Erin has twice made choices that were not the wisest, which is what led to Penelope and I watching over her, and why we will continue to do so until she kicks us out of her house."
Derek's face fell as he started to put the few pieces that he had together. "After all that work we went through to get her help, she chose to drink again. I mean, I get it, her family died, but still…"
"No, Derek, you don't understand. When you took Erin to rehab, Allie was just finishing up chemotherapy. If Director Sheppard had granted her the leave she requested, she would have been spending time with her family in California, and they all would have died in that helicopter."
"She wasn't granted leave because she had used up too much because we forced her into rehab," Derek whispered, all color leaving his face. "She must hate me."
"There's no room in her mind and heart for hate right now. Not when she is so desperately trying to cling to life."
It took a moment for Derek to understand what he was driving at, but when he got it, his mouth fell open in shock. "I caused that reaction."
"Oh, Derek, no. You got Erin the help that she needed in that moment. She was using alcohol to cope with the potential for Allie dying, and if she hadn't been in rehab, she would be dead now." He met Derek's eye. "I trust you not to repeat this outside of this office, though. I shouldn't even really have told you this, I'm breaking her confidence in doing so. But you need to understand, this is why we're taking care of Erin right now. She needs the kindness that only Penelope can give her. Me? I'm just the tree that Erin can lean against when she needs a strong shoulder to cry on."
"And Hotch knows nothing about any of this." He nodded. "Let me guess, he thinks Erin fell off the wagon again, and has been less than forgiving in his assessment of her." Again, he nodded. "Hell, man, I never thought that it would be like this. Do, do you guys need anything?"
"A friendly face for Erin when she finally comes back to the BAU. She'll be skittish and withdrawn, but I am trusting you, Emily, and Anderson to be kind." Derek nodded as they got to their feet, and he led the younger man over to the door. "And now I am going to get myself some coffee. I have the feeling that I am going to need a good amount of caffeine to get me through this coming day." Derek chuckled a little as he patted Dave's back, following him out of the office and down into the break room.
By the time Dave started for home that evening, he still hadn't found an opportunity to talk to Aaron. Every time that he tried to catch his friend alone, it seemed as if he picked up on that intent, and was either on a call or meeting with someone, and it began to frustrate Dave to no end. At five, when he went to leave for the day, he looked into Aaron's office to find that the lights were off already. Shaking his head a little, Dave went out to the elevators and waited for it to come. Pulling out his phone, he checked to see if he had any messages, but there was nothing, and he knew that tomorrow would have to be the day that they talked.
Once he was in his car, Dave called Penelope, wanting to see how the day had gone. "Dave! I am so glad that you called. Have you left for home yet?"
"I was just pulling out of the parking lot. Why?"
"Good, I need you to pick up food for us tonight. We, well, we got to talking, and didn't make anything, and neither of us is really in the mood for soup, or sandwiches. Fish sounds really good to us both, if you would be so kind."
"Of course, I can do that. How did today go? Was she all right with dropping off the girls' belongings? I know that had to have been so difficult for her."
"It was hard, yes. But we got through it together. Being able to head to the grocery store right after helped, I think. It turned her focus away from letting go, and onto planning for the week ahead. How did your talk with Hotch go?"
He let out a deep breath as he turned onto the road leading towards home. "It hasn't gone yet, I'm afraid. He managed to avoid me every time I went to engage with him, so it will have to be tomorrow."
"I'll cross my fingers that he doesn't pull the same stunt tomorrow, then. Um…"
"Yes?" he asked as he headed towards his preferred fish joint. "What is it, Kitten?"
"We're heading in to the BAU for a little bit tomorrow. She's not ready to come back, but she also doesn't want to have Derek over to her house, as she thinks that that might send the wrong message."
"What does Derek have to do with this conversation, Penelope?"
She cleared her throat a little before speaking once more. "He sent her another flower arrangement today, Dave. It is gorgeous, but the card was what made it even more lovely. He wrote her this sweet message about how he couldn't wait to see her back in the office, that he was missing the way she commanded everyone's attention whenever she entered the bullpen. I don't know if you said anything to him, but he was just so kind that it made her heart happy. I saw the first real smile on her lips, well, other than the ones that we've teased out of her. I really hope that this means she's finding a way to start getting better."
"And she wants to head in tomorrow to show her appreciation in person?"
"Of course! Would you expect any less of our dear Lambie?" There was a noise in the background before he heard Penelope speak once more. "Yeah, I asked him to grab food for us, don't worry. Of course, here."
There was a moment of silence before he heard the familiar, comforting, sound of Erin's breathing come over the line. "I truly think that you and Penelope are miracle workers, of sorts. Did your day go well?"
"It went. Aaron is still refusing to speak to me, but I hope to change that tomorrow, even if that means I have to lock myself in his office until he breaks down and says something."
A sweet trill of laughter escaped Erin's lips, and he smiled to hear it. "I would pay good money to see that happen, David. Hopefully, it doesn't come to that, though. I know that your friendship with him means so much to you. He was just so let down by my behavior, and I really should have known better. And before you say that, I know that that does not excuse his anger towards us, but it does explain. And someday, I am going to make him see that I have changed."
"And maybe someday, he'll pull his head out of his ass. Now, let's talk about your workload a little, because my God, woman, I have no idea how you do this day in and day out." They began to talk about her job and he found the time passing easily as he drove, listening to her and chiming in when he thought he had a good point. "All right, I've arrived at the restaurant, and we both know that it's rude to be on the phone while in line, so I'll say goodbye for the moment, and see you both when I get home."
"Hurry back, dar..David."
Erin hung up before he could call her on her slip, and he smiled dazedly at the device as he turned the car off before making his way into the restaurant. It didn't take long to put their order in, and as he waited for the food to be ready, he scrolled through his email, deleting the ones that didn't need an answer, saving the rest for when he was back in the office.
While driving home, Dave ruminated on Erin's slip of the tongue. He had a feeling that Penelope would call him out on that, since she had her misgivings about how close Erin was growing to him. And that slip also concerned him a little, as well, because he knew that Erin had to heal before either of them thought about entering into a relationship. He had gotten no closer to thinking of a solution by the time he arrived home, and then Penelope was coming out into the garage to help him bring everything inside.
"The table is set, and all we need is you and the food." She pecked his cheek lightly as they went indoors, and he couldn't keep the smile off his face when he saw that someone had set out candles on the table that evening, the soft glow lending a tender feel to the room. "That didn't take too long."
"The line was shorter than expected," he said as he helped pass around what he had brought home, and then they were setting about eating. "I think that I'm going to turn in early and read for a little while," he said after finishing his meal, and he watched Erin's face fall a little before she plastered on a fake flat affect. "I'll see both of you in the morning?"
"Of course, David," Erin whispered as she looked away from him. Letting out a soft sigh, he pushed away from the table and made his way out of the room, rubbing Erin's shoulder as he left. After changing into pyjamas, he climbed into the bed and picked up the book he had lifted from the bookcase in the living room. Making himself comfortable in the bed, he began to read, quickly losing himself in the story. The next thing he knew, Dave felt the mattress dip and he blinked a few times as he tried to focus on who was in the room with him. "I wanted to check on you before I went to sleep," Erin said as she placed the bookmark where he was before setting the book on the nightstand. "You fell asleep reading, so you really must be tired."
"It was a long day," he murmured, keeping his eye on her. She gave him a small smiled as she nodded, and then he noticed that she was wearing pyjamas as well. "But you should get to bed, you look ready to sleep yourself."
A faint blush stole across her face as she looked down at the floor. "Penelope asked for an alone night, and I don't want to sleep alone. Would you mind if I spent the night in here?"
Dirty thoughts immediately came to the forefront of his mind, and he cleared his throat a little. Her son's bed was smaller than the one in the master bedroom, which meant that they would be that much closer, but from the way her face fell as the silence stretched out between them, he knew that he couldn't say no. "If you don't mind the close quarters, I suppose that there's room in here for you. Just be warned, I do snore."
"I slept through your snoring when you were sleeping on the floor in my room. I think that I'll live for another night." He chuckled as he scooted over to make room for her, trying not to stare at her body as she climbed in next to him. "I wish that I could find the strength to be alone, but after what happened in California, I can't trust myself yet. Do you know how stupid that makes me feel?"
"Oh, Erin, you're not stupid, you're just a little lost right now. I'm sorry that makes you feel stupid, but you have to know that we're supporting you through this, and that being lost isn't always a bad thing. Not when you find new friends along the way."
"I don't think that Agent Morgan is suddenly my friend."
"No, but Penelope is, and we've found a new balance in our relationship. Who knows, given time, Derek could be a friend, too. After all, Penelope is his best friend, and I have the feeling that she'll draw him into our orbit before too long."
She nodded before snuggling in a little closer to his side, reaching out to splay her hand on his chest, her fingers tapping against him as she took a few deep breaths. "That might be nice." She yawned a little before closing her eyes as she smiled at him. "Good night, David."
"Good night, Erin," he replied quietly as he pulled the covers up around them and then rested his arm around her waist as he allowed himself to fall back asleep once more, somehow more at peace now that Erin was there with him.
Dave had left for the office before Penelope and Erin were ready to leave, and he tried not to feel nervous on her behalf as he made his way into the bullpen that morning. Derek was just coming out of the break room, and Dave caught his eye, gesturing for him to return there, getting a short nod in return. "What did I do, Rossi?"
"Nothing, I just want to prepare you for what's about to happen this morning. Erin wants to thank you for the flowers you sent yesterday, in person. This will be the first time she's willingly left the house since we brought her home that first, awful, night, so I know that she'll be a little fragile."
"Fragile like a bomb," Derek replied, and he nodded at how apt that analogy was for Erin. "How's she really doing?"
Dave took a deep breath, trying not to think about the how she had felt in his arms that morning, plastered to his side as if she didn't ever want to let him go, before answering. "She's coping. I think we might be facing another month of her out of the office, though I'm hoping that she feels better enough to come back sooner, of course. I just don't want to rush her."
Derek nodded as they exited the break room, and he turned his head to look towards the doors, seeing Penelope come in first, deep in conversation with Kevin as they went up to her office. And suddenly, all those dirty thoughts he had had the previous evening about her came rushing back to the front of his mind. Shaking his head a little, he took a deep breath as he waited for Erin to appear. It only took a few seconds before she came into the bullpen, her eyes wide, her expression tight and almost feral. Then she looked to them, and she relaxed almost imperceptibly, hurrying to their sides.
"Derek, I wanted to thank you so much for the flowers you've sent me. They have been such a bright spot in these dark days. And your words have touched me much more than I can ever say." Tears started to pool in her eyes before she quickly leaned in and hugged him tightly before fleeing up the stairs and into Penelope's office, the door closing firmly behind her.
"I'm sorry, did I just see Strauss hug you?" JJ asked as she and Reid came up to their sides, disbelief written across their faces. Emily sauntered up a few moments later, a more pensive look on her face. "Derek, come on, fill us in!"
"Yes, Morgan, fill us in."
Dave stiffened to hear Aaron's voice come from the platform outside his office, knowing that the confrontation he had been avoiding so far was about to come. Derek threw him a look, and he shrugged a little as the man slowly started down the stairs, stalking over to their sides. The look on his face was pure, controlled, anger and Dave shivered a little to see that he had not lost much, if any, of the animosity that he was holding towards him and Erin. "Dave…"
"Don't ask Rossi for permission, I'm still your supervisor. Tell me what is going on."
Dave shook his head at Derek, receiving a small nod in return. The others frowned a little until they heard Penelope's door open, and they all looked up to see Erin and Penelope exit the room, Erin in tears as Penelope held her close. She didn't even acknowledge Dave as they brushed past them, and that hurt more than anything, though he tried not to let his emotions show in his face. "I'm going after them, Dave. You can handle things here."
"Thanks," he muttered as Derek left, taking a deep breath as he looked at the rest of his team, feeling a bit hopeful at the fact that, barring Hotch, there was no animosity in their expressions.
"When can we expect Erin to be led to rehab once more?"
He heard Emily suck in a shocked breath, and he nodded a little as his nostrils flared from anger. "Erin is going through one of the most difficult times in her life right now, Aaron. It would cost you nothing to spare her a little compassion."
He was surprised to hear just how firmly Emily defended Erin, and he gave her a tiny smile of thanks. Aaron didn't like that answer, though, as his face tightened before he let out a little scoff of laughter. "It must be so difficult to fall off the wagon for the third time."
"For God's sake, Aaron!" he bit out, no longer able to hold his tongue with his best friend. "You know I love you like a brother, but this anger is so misplaced, so over the top, that I don't know where it's coming from. And for the last time, she did not fall off the wagon! Her family was the one that was destroyed in that helicopter accident a few weeks ago. She lost everyone in a matter of seconds, and rather than go back to drinking, she tried to join them, not wanting to be on this planet without her family. So forgive me if I protect her at a time like this, but she needs someone to care and make certain that she doesn't do something rash."
His voice never raised beyond than his normal tone, but he could see that maybe his words had gotten through to his friend. Reid and JJ were both staring at him in shock, and he felt his eyes well up at the fact that Erin's secret was now out in the open. Aaron shook his head a little before turning on his heel and making his way back towards his office. "Hotch, wait! You don't have anything to say?" Reid called out, incredulity filling every syllable that he spoke.
"You need to remember the quality of mercy, Aaron!" His best friend stiffened a little as he climbed the stairs, and he knew that his words had made their mark before he turned his attention back to the rest of his team. "She never wanted you all to know. She wanted to go through this alone, because she thought that you wouldn't understand her sorrow, that you would pity her."
"This isn't pity that I feel, Dave, it's overwhelming sadness. Is this why Penelope hasn't been in the office? Is this why you're the acting section chief?" JJ asked, reaching out to touch his arm lightly.
"Yes, and yes. We both rallied around her that night, when we found her on the roof. If we hadn't returned from the case when we did, we would be facing a much different outcome. And now, we're trying to do everything that we can to fix her and help her feel strong enough to return. All I ask of you is that you treat her kindly. She needs to know that people won't judge her for her grief and her mistakes."
"That wasn't a mistake, that was a heart broken in a moment, and only being able to see one way out. Just like Roz," JJ whispered, her eyes finally letting go of the tears she had been struggling to keep in as she reflexively reached for a necklace that wasn't around her neck. "If you'll excuse me," she whispered before turning and hurrying over to her office.
Dave watched her go before looking at Reid and Emily. "I know, this is a shock, but I think that we can pull together as a team to support her, we just have to win Aaron over to our way of thinking about her. I know, she's never been the nicest to our team, but this is her crucible, and I know, deep in my heart, that she will not come out on the other side of this unchanged. Now, I need to make certain that she's all right. We'll touch base when I'm back in my office?"
"Of course, sir," Reid replied, giving him a tight smile as he turned and went over to his desk, Emily following him closely, though she did pat his arm as she walked past him. Dave spared one last look at Hotch's office before he left the bullpen and went to Erin's office, knowing that would afford Erin the privacy that she needed in that moment.
"Did Agent Hotchner set Erin off, sir?" Helen asked as she looked up at him from her computer.
"No, she was just feeling a little overwhelmed by being back here so soon. You know, you're always welcome to come over and join us for supper. Just call or text Penelope or me. Erin needs other people to start reaching out and including her once more, if she's ever to truly start moving forward. She'll never get past what happened, but she can find a new normal. We just have to provide that for her."
"I might take you up on that, sir. As long as I can bring Grant with me. He's been so kind to ask after Erin, and I know that he's a good egg."
"Of course, he's welcome, too." He gave Helen a small wink before heading into Erin's office, looking around to find where they were. An easy smile spread across his face to see that they were gathered around her table, Erin's head resting on Penelope's arm as a quiet conversation flowed between them all. "Can I join in?"
"David! Of course you can!" Erin smiled quickly as she sat up a little straighter. "Is Aaron still upset?"
"Yes, but not as much as he was, I hope. I think I may have finally gotten through to him. Now, Derek and I can't be here too long, we still have to get some work done today, after all. And what would you say to having company for supper tonight? I think that Helen misses seeing you, and would like to come over."
"I think that I'd like that. We'll just have to make another grocery run today, after we leave here. You don't mind, do you, Penny?"
"That will be fine," she replied, giving Dave a warm smile before starting the conversation back up once more, and he settled right in, knowing that this just might be the start of Erin's return back to her new normal, and he would do anything to facilitate that recovery.
Dave looked up from desk to see Kevin standing nervously in his doorway, and he beckoned the man into his office. There was an air of hesitancy as he closed the door and made his way over to the desk, taking a seat and giving Dave a sheepish smile as an awkward silence seemed to crash down around them. Finally, he could take the quiet no longer, and he pushed the file he was working on away from him to focus fully on Kevin. "Did you need something? Or did you just want to see my gorgeous face?"
Kevin let out a nervous laugh as he shook his head. "No, I was just…I want to be selfish?"
"In what way?"
Kevin released a deep breath as he looked down at his hands in his lap. "Seeing Penelope here the other day made me realise just how much I miss spending time with her. I know that she's taking care of Chief Strauss right now, and I am trying so hard to understand that, but we've also worked really hard on our relationship and making certain that it would work, after the rough patch that we went through. And I really miss her right now, which makes me feel about an inch tall, given what Chief Strauss is going through."
"It's okay to miss the one you love. So, what is it that you would like me to do about that?" he asked kindly, giving the man a warm smile.
"I was hoping that you could tell her that it would be all right to go out with me for one night? I know that she doesn't want to be away for too long, but a movie or supper or something shouldn't take too much time. I could pick her up and bring her back before Erin fell asleep."
Dave nodded as he looked at the calendar in front of him. "I suppose that we might be able to make something work tonight, Kevin. Let me make two calls, and we'll see what happens form there?" He nodded and Dave gave him a small wink before picking up his mobile and first calling Erin, hoping that she would pick up quickly.
"David! Why are you calling so early in the morning?"
"I was hoping that I could ask something of you," he said as he leaned back in his chair, glancing up at the ceiling as he thought of how to broach the request in front of him. "Kevin wonders if he might be able to steal Penelope away from our side for one evening. He misses spending time with his girlfriend, but didn't want to seem selfish by trying to intrude on our time together."
"I was wondering when that might get to him. You and Penelope have sacrificed so much of your personal lives to mollycoddle me through my issues, so I will do anything to return her to some small bit of normalcy. Do you want to talk to her? She's in the kitchen, finishing up lunch preparation."
"I thought I'd call…"
"Nonsense! We're on the phone already, and it will only take me two seconds to get into the kitchen." He knew that he wouldn't be able to get her to agree, and so he listened as she got up from the sofa and traipse into the kitchen. Soon enough, he could hear Penelope singing lowly before Erin handed the phone over. "David wants to talk to you."
"Hey, my Italian Stallion! What can I do for you?"
"You can go out with your boyfriend on a date tonight. I think that Erin and I can handle things pretty well on our own, at least for a few hours, and you need to have fun with Kevin. He looks positively morose, Kitten."
"He could have supper with us! It wouldn't be that hard to make an extra serving, you know."
"No, it wouldn't, but you need a night on the town. Really, Erin and I can handle things on our own for one night, and it would be nice for you to have a little break from us. We've been getting a little tense, Penny, and I want to keep us all happy and healthy. Please, for both our sake, go out with Kevin tonight, let your hair down, and don't do anything I wouldn't do."
He heard her let out a breathy giggle, which told him that he had gotten through to her. "You drive such a hard bargain, Dave. I suppose that I can take a night away from the best friends that I've had the pleasure of taking care of in a while, if it will make both you and Erin happy."
"Thank you, truly. Self care is very important right now, especially if we want to stay healthy for Erin. I probably won't see you tonight, so I will tell you this now. I love you and the care you show for Erin, and we'll see each other in the morning."
"Aw, thanks, Dave, I love you, too. See you tomorrow!"
They hung up, and he gave Kevin a warm smile as he set the phone down on his desk. "Well, I suppose that I gave good news for you. You're going out on a date tonight. And I mean this, do not bring her home tonight. Take her back to her apartment or your place, because she needs to unwind physically, as well as mentally."
"All right, I will file that away in the things I never thought I'd hear a supervisor say to me folder. But I will take that advice. What will you and Strauss do without Penelope tonight?"
He paused, not having considered that. "I suppose that we'll have supper before curling up on the sofa and watching an old movie. Erin likes the classics, so if Casablanca is on, I know what we'll see."
"That sounds good, actually. Though Penelope and I would be watching classic Doctor Who. Oh, that gives me a wonderful idea! Thank you, Agent Rossi!" He reached across the desk and shook his hand heartily, a wide grin on his lips as he turned and hurried from the office. "Oh, excuse me, Agent Hotchner," he heard Kevin say as he closed the door, and Dave frowned a little when the door did not reopen. They still hadn't really talked since the outburst in the bullpen the other morning, and he wished that he knew exactly how to make things better between them.
Letting out a long breath, Dave pulled forward the file he had been working on and began to look it over, finding the small mistakes that Derek had made and correcting them before setting the file aside and picking up the next one, reading through what Emily had written. There were fewer mistakes in it, and he added the corrections to the file before setting it aside and working through Reid's and then JJ's. Hotch's report was perfunctory, and he welcomed that from him. With that out of the way, he began to work through the Red Cell team's latest case.
It was a slog of paperwork, and Dave was glad when it was time for lunch. Grabbing his phone, he shoved it into his pocket before heading out to the elevators. Glancing up at Hotch's office, he saw that the man was already gone, and it was only then that he remembered the team was all out teaching that day. Shaking his head a little, he pressed the button to call for the elevator and waited for it to arrive. His phone buzzed against his leg, and he pulled it out of his pocket to see who was trying to get ahold of him.
"Erin!" he said as he answered, stepping into the elevator. "I didn't expect to hear from you again."
"Yes, well, I was thinking about tonight, sine it will be just us. Is there something in particular that you'd like me to make for supper? Kevin's already called, and he's picking up Penny shortly after five, so that they can spend the most time together as possible, and, well, since it's just the two of us, we can go full on carnivore."
He chuckled a little as he nodded. "You have a point there. I suppose that a good steak sounds nice tonight. With asparagus and scalloped potatoes. And something chocolatey for dessert?"
"You are a slave driver, David James Rossi! Though I suppose that I could make that happen, for you. How do you like your steak?"
"Medium rare. And I'll try to be home by half past, though I make no promises, sine I don't know how the rest of the day will go. I was thinking, though…"
"We could pull out Casablanca to watch? I was joking with Kevin about how you would probably want to watch it, if it were on television, but I know that you have a copy of it."
"I will look forward to that immensely, David. Until tonight?"
"Yes," he replied quickly, the smile on his lips spreading throughout his entire body as he thought about the night ahead.
The kitchen lights were on in the house when Dave pulled into the driveway, and he smiled as he parked in the drive, knowing that Erin was still cooking. Beginning to whistle, he made his way inside, listening for Erin's voice as he continued to whistle. "I'm in here, David!" she called out as he stepped into the kitchen. The table was already set, and a pair of candles were waiting to be lit, lending a more classy, romantic, tone to their dinner than what he normally experienced coming home to her and Penelope. A vague unease tugged at a corner of his mind, though he tried to push that aside as he came up to her side and kissed her cheek softly. "We're almost ready to eat, so if you want to light the candles and then turn off the lights here, I'll plate everything up."
"Sounds good, Erin," he replied as he went over to the table and picked up the box of matches, quickly lighting the candles before blowing out the match, bringing the match over to the sink and running it under water before throwing it away. As he passed by Erin to reach the light switch, she reached out and caressed his arm, a trill of pleasure spilling from her throat as she took hold of his hand and squeezed it firmly. "Anything else I can do, Erin?"
"Pour water into our glasses? I'll bring the plates to the table."
He nodded as he turned the lights off and then filled their glasses before taking a seat. A few moments later, the food that he had asked for was placed in front of him. "This looks delicious, Erin."
"Yes, well, I wanted to do something special for us. Not that Penelope isn't special, I love her like she was my sister, but we're different."
Again, that little feeling of unease tugged at his mind, and he swatted it away once more as he smiled easily at her. "I understand what you're driving at, Erin. Sometimes it's nice to just not have all that frenetic energy around. I love Kitten, dearly, but she can be a bit much at times. It will be nice to just sit and talk with you for the evening, and watch a movie."
Erin nodded as she took a seat next to him, reaching out for his hand as they said a prayer over the food. "I already put the DVD in the player, so all we have to do is put the dishes in the washer before we head into the living room." He nodded as he squeezed her hand before letting go and digging into the meal she had prepared. The food was so delicious, and he groaned a little at the taste. "That good?"
"Yes. I didn't realise just how much I missed meat until I was preparing this, and while I know that Penelope wouldn't mind if we had meat in our meals, it's just that much easier to just make one thing. And really, it has been healthier for me, and you."
"Probably, but a good, juicy, steak never hurt us in the long run. Life is meant to be enjoyed, Topalina, and we have to find pleasure where we can." Erin nodded as she brought her fork to her lips and closed her mouth around a bite of steak. He couldn't help but watch her, feeling a tightness in his groin that he knew he shouldn't be feeling in response to her gesture. Still, a knowing smile curved across her lips quickly and he knew that she was also feeling the weird mood in the air. "All right, I have a heavy question for you. When do you think that you're coming back to work? I know that Helen misses you a lot, and so does Agent Anderson. Plus, I think that it might help out my relationship with Hotch if we could get back out in the field and doing what we trained to do."
She hummed a little beneath her breath as she looked at him steadily. "It's already Wednesday, so I think that it would be weird to start back on a Thursday. But maybe Friday? That way I can have an easy day to help me get my bearings back. As long as you spend the morning with me, going over what I've missed in my absence?"
"Of course, Erin." He gave her a tender smile before clearing his throat. "And I think that it will be good for you to return to some sense of normalcy. And if you find being in the office too much, I'm certain that the Director will allow you to work from here. It wouldn't be that hard to have Penelope set up a mobile office here. And Helen could act as your liaison, I'm certain she'd be willing to do that for you. I'll ask her that tomorrow, in fact."
Erin nodded, a pleased look on her face as they finished up their meal. "All right, let's go watch our movie," she said lowly as she closed the dishwasher. He nodded and turned on his heel, unsurprised when Erin took hold of his hand and threaded their fingers together as they went along. Erin pulled him down onto the sofa as she picked up the remote and started the movie before almost plastering herself against his body, her head coming to rest on his chest as they began to watch the movie. The next hundred minutes passed by quite quickly, and he went to move Erin so that he could get to his feet, only for her to turn to him, cupping his face with her hands before leaning in and kissing him soundly.
"Erin?" he asked as he pulled away, looking at her in confusion. "What was that?"
"I have been struggling, David, and I need to feel something other than this deep sorrow that is still just bubbling below the surface. I know that you are kind, and that you would be gentle and understanding of me if I froze up. Just, please, indulge me tonight?"
Before he could say anything, Erin kissed him once more before getting up and holding her hand out to him. Hesitantly, against his better judgement, he clasped it, getting to his feet and allowing her to guide him over to the stairs and then up to the master bedroom. Dave knew that he should be putting a stop to this, that he should be telling her that they didn't need to take this step in order for her to feel something other than sadness, but those words wouldn't come to his tongue. She stopped next to the bed and gently pushed him down onto the mattress before lifting her hands to the buttons on her blouse, slowly undoing the buttons before shrugging out of it, letting it fall to the floor before she unzipped her skirt. Stepping out of the pool of fabric, Erin bit her lip as she reached behind her back and unclipped her bra, the thin scrap of fabric fluttering to the ground as she stared into his eyes, a tremulous smile on her lips.
"It has been so long since I've slept with another man, David. It has been so long since I knew I was cared for. Please?" Erin hooked her thumbs into the waistband of her underwear, and he gently reached out and stopped her movements before getting to his feet and pulling her into a tight embrace, trying not to stare at her nudity, not wanting to do something that they would regret come the morning. "David?"
"I care for you too much to take advantage like this. You are still in a tender place, and you would hate me if I took the liberties that you say you want. And that I know I want to take with you. It would be very easy to sleep with you tonight, but I don't know where our hearts would be in the morning."
"So, you're just going to leave me alone tonight, like this?" she asked bitterly, and he shook his head. "Then what?"
"I'm going to strip down to my boxers and then we are going to crawl into bed and cuddle until you fall asleep. And then we'll wake up in the morning and try to make sense of what is happening between us. Or, we could sleep in and I could be late to work, and Penelope will give me that look."
"I have received that look, too, David. She wants to protect me from more hurt. She thinks that what's happening between us is too fast, but you both have saved me, and though what I feel for you is so much different than her, I know that it's true and needs to be explored. There were cracks in the foundation before Allie got sick, David."
He nodded as he pulled away from her a little in order to start undressing, his movements quick and assured. "Be that as it may, I do not want to take advantage of you. I love you too much to do that." The moment those words left his mouth, Dave knew that he could never call them back, but he didn't want to. He did love her, and while he didn't know if he was in love with her yet, he knew that it could very easily turn into that, if things continued down the same path.
"You love me?" She reached up to caress his face once more, before pulling him down onto the mattress. He nodded, and the smile that Erin gave him in return seemed to fill his heart with a warmth that was indescribable. "Oh, David, kiss me?" Knowing that he couldn't deny that sweet request, he leaned in and covered her lips with his, giving her a tender kiss that only stoked the flames of desire that he felt for Erin. It was a struggle to keep his carnal side under control, but somehow, he managed to do so as they continued to exchange slow, lazy, kisses until they fell asleep.
Dave woke up to the morning sun shining in his face. Frowning a little, he went to shade his face with his arm, only to feel a heavy weight across his torso preventing him from moving. Turning his head, he saw that Erin was splayed out on his chest, one arm curled tightly around his torso, which was why he couldn't move his arm. "Topalina, wake up," he whispered before leaning in and kissing her eyelids in turn. He could feel them flutter against his lips, and he chuckled a little before placing those same butterfly kisses along her face.
"Umm, David, why are you waking me up so early?"
Looking over her shoulder, he saw that it was almost seven, that the alarm would have gone off in fifteen minutes anyway, but for the sun waking him up. "Because we didn't close the curtain last night, and now the sun is telling me that it's time to be awake."
"I did not open the curtains yesterday."
He frowned a little, knowing that that meant Penelope had walked into a situation she had no idea the whole truth of. "Kitten probably thinks the worst of me right now. That I've taken advantage of you in your grief."
"I'll talk to her today about that, and about us returning to work tomorrow." Reaching up, she ran her fingers through his hair, giving him a soft smile. "And I hate to say that you're right, but I am so grateful that we didn't have sex last night. It would have soured the direction our relationship is taking, and I really want to hold on to this sweetness for as long as I possibly can. Even if there is a part of me that wants to salute little mister Rossi there."
To his surprise, he blushed as he cleared his throat, scooting away from Erin a little as she giggled sweetly. "It is evident now that Kitten has had an impact on you, Erin. I'm not certain that I like that."
"Aw, can't handle a little teasing, lover?" She winked at him before leaning in and kissing him deeply. "All right, since I'm going to have to shower tonight, I suppose that we could cuddle and talk for a little bit before you have to get ready for your last day doing my job."
"That sounds like heaven to me, Topalina," he murmured in reply as they cuddled together once more, and he started to drag his fingers through her hair as she took a deep breath. "What do you want to talk about?"
"There are times when I regret most bitterly what happened between Alex and myself. I haven't been able to tell that part of my story to Penelope yet, because I can't find words to let her know what an utter bitch I was. She would judge me, as is her right, but I need her as my friend right now. And I know that makes me selfish, but after all the losses I've suffered recently, I need her in my life just a little longer."
"It's not selfish to want to protect your heart from further hurt, Erin. And I know that you'll tell her about that time when you've reached the place where your hurt doesn't hurt quite so much. I know that what happened devastated both of you, Gideon told me that you were different from that day forward."
"I fell right into that stereotypical ice queen leader role. Everyone thought that I had gotten the position by undercutting Alex and John, by getting them both demoted when they were rising stars in the Bureau. What they didn't know is that I tried to convince them to change the profile, that their linguistical analysis was off, but John convinced Alex that I was just jealous, since I didn't have that same background. I went to our SAC after the arrest was made, and he agreed with me. He wanted to fire them, to make examples out of their mistake, but I fought that decision with everything in my heart, and got the Director to step in, making it demotions for them both, though I forbade him from letting anyone else know what I had done. I thought I would be judged harder if that was widely known. Maybe I just should have allowed him to tell her, maybe then my best friend wouldn't still hate me. I deserve it, I know that, but it still hurts my soul."
Erin took a deep breath before starting to cry. Dave sighed a little as he chucked her chin, leaning in to kiss her sweetly before wiping away some of those tears. "She still won't talk to you?"
"No. And I wrote her a letter while I was in the awful rehab center that Aaron chose for me, knowing that I needed to make amends with her at some point. It would have been better if she had never answered me, because then I could have just assumed that the letter got lost in the mail. Instead, it was returned to sender, and I had to stare at her elegant handwriting mockingly telling me that she had refused delivery of the letter."
"Oh, Erin," he whispered before kissing her forehead lightly.
"It's all right, I have to be okay with people refusing my attempts at amends. Because I've done all that I can on my end, I've learned from my mistakes, and I am trying to be a better person. It will be up to her if she ever wants to reach out and rekindle our friendship."
He bundled Erin close, nuzzling his nose in her hair as they breathed in tandem. He was about to say something, to commiserate with her, when Penelope heavily knocked on the door. Hastily, he pulled the sheets up around their bodies, knowing that the woman would be entering shortly after her knock. Sure enough, the door opened seconds later and Penelope bustled inside. "I have breakfast waiting on the table, you need to be heading to work in about twenty minutes, as there was a rather bad accident that's backed things up, Rossi." She threw him a withering glance before turning on her heel and marching from the room, leaving the door open so that they could hear her thud down the stairs.
"See, I told you she'd be furious with me, Erin."
She nodded as she laughed, throwing off the covers and climbing out of bed. "I'll try to explain to her what happened last night while you're at work, David. Now, hurry over to your room and get ready. I'll see you downstairs in a few minutes?"
"Of course," he replied as he got up, looking around for his clothes, only to find them gone. "Oh, god, I wonder what she did with my suit?"
"Probably hung it up in the closet, since that's where my skirt and blouse ended up," Erin replied off-handedly, and Dave nodded as he made his way from the room and across the hall to his room. Just like Erin had thought, his clothes were neatly hung up in the closet, his tie hanging around the neck of his shirt.
"Well played, Kitten," he muttered as he shucked off his boxers and hurriedly dressed in fresh clothing before popping into the bathroom and taking care of his morning needs before heading down to the kitchen. Erin was talking to Penelope and he smiled to hear their voices as he entered the room. "Good morning, Penelope," he said as he took a seat across from the women, digging into the plate of pancakes in front of him. "These are delicious."
"Yes, well, I need to do something with my hands so that I wouldn't do anything rash that I would regret. Erin said that she slept well last night. Did you?"
"It was the best sleep that I've had in ages. Sometimes, you just need to share a bed with someone you care for, and not worry about being any more intimate than that." Penelope arched an eyebrow upwards, and he nodded, watching as she relaxed a little in her seat. "Now, I would get prepared for the day ahead. Somehow, I have the feeling that it's going to be one full of unexpected twists. And wish me luck that Hotch and I can finally start to find some common ground again."
Penelope nodded, giving him a small smile as they finished up their meal. "Is there anything in particular that you'd like for supper, then?"
"Surprise me. I know that you and Erin will be able to come up with something delicious for us." Finishing up his meal, he gathered together his phone and briefcase, kissing the cheeks of Penelope and Erin in turn before heading out to the garage and getting behind the wheel of his car. As he pulled out onto the road, he took one last look at the house, seeing that Erin was looking out the kitchen window at him, waving. Smiling widely, he waved back at her before turning his focus on the drive ahead, thinking about how he would not only mend fences with Aaron, but also reach out to Alex Blake and see if he could work a minor miracle there for Erin.
Stepping off the elevator at five minutes to nine, Dave felt a wave of relief wash over him to know that he had made it on time, despite the accident that had backed everything up. Glancing into the bullpen, he saw that everyone was already in there, working hard at their desks, and he smile a little as he went in, heading over to Derek's side. "Hey, do you think that you could get everyone assembled in the conference room while I put my stuff in my office? I have some news that I think will be quite welcome for everyone here."
The man nodded a little as he got to his feet. "Let me guess, you're tired of all the paperwork and finally wore Erin down, getting her to agree to come back to us already."
"Something like that, yes." He patted Derek's shoulder before making his way up to his office, trying not to pause outside Hotch's office, knowing that there might be time to talk to him after the briefing, if he was lucky. Setting out the files he had taken home, but not looked at, Dave took a deep breath before picking up his phone and heading into the conference room to wait for everyone to gather.
JJ was the first in the door, and she gave him a warm smile as she took a seat at the table next to him. "How are things going at home?"
"They're going, better than the day before, and that's all that we can ask for."
She nodded and reached out to pat his hand as the others filed in, taking their seats. Hotch was the last one in the door, and he closed it behind him with a firm thud. "All right, Rossi, why have you gathered us here today?" Derek drawled as he looked at him.
"I have good news for us all. Erin has graciously agreed to come back to work on Monday, which means this is our last day of enforced grounding. I don't know what our first case will be, but we won't be cooped up here any longer."
"That is the best news I've heard all week! After a month of being stuck here, except for that one case, I am looking forward to being out in the field again!" Emily gave him a wide grin as she got to her feet. "Though that means I have to finish up that paperwork before Strauss gets back. You're a little easier on us than she is," she teased as she and Derek headed for the door. The others nodded in agreement, following after Emily, except for Hotch, who remained seated.
"Well, I imagine that you're glad to have Penelope back come Monday, too," he said as he stared at his friend.
"It will be nice to have her back. Will she be holding Erin's hand through the cravings?"
There was a snide undertone to Aaron's words, and Dave frowned as he shook his head. "That's not her responsibility, Aaron. She's Erin's friend, and she might spend a little more time in her office for the first few weeks back, but it won't be excessive. Knowing Erin, she'll most likely chafe at the hovering before too long, and then everything will be back to normal. Right?"
"Sure." Again, the dismissive, snide, undertone cut at Dave's heart, and he let out a deep breath. "Now, I suppose that I should get my paperwork finished, too." Pushing away from the table, he stalked from the room, and Dave stared after him, knowing that it would take more time to get their friendship back to a good place. Leaving the conference room, he went down the stairs and exited the bullpen to head over to Erin's office. Helen was working away at her computer, and he smiled as he came to a stop in front of her desk, clearing his throat to get her attention.
"Oh! Agent Rossi, what can I do for you?"
"I'm actually here to give you some happy news, Helen. Erin and I were talking last night, and she told me that she was ready to return to work. Now, I know that she'll want to jump in head first and come back at full speed, but I don't think that will be best for her mental health."
"And you want me to watch over her while you're out on cases. Because I know that you're planning on keeping her close to you when you're here."
He frowned a little, wondering how transparent he had been for Helen to pick up on the state of things. "I trust that what you suppose will go no further than the two of us? Because neither of us are ready to think about a relationship, and I need her to be healthy, mentally and physically, before either of us takes that next step. And given how Aaron is not that happy with me right now, I need to also make certain that the team can come together again."
"Of course, sir, your secret is safe with me. And Alan, well, he was a jackass, and things would have come to a head eventually. They were only staying together for Allie's sake."
"That's right, Erin named her daughter after Alex," he murmured, watching Helen frown. "Sorry, it's just a thought for the next thing on my list that I need to do. Between the three of us, I think that we should be able to make certain that Erin is going to be okay. Because that's all I want."
"That's all I want, too, sir. Is there anything else I can do for you?"
He nodded, remembering that she would have access to the personnel records. "Yes. I need the current phone number for Doctor Alexandra Blake. The last I knew, she was located in Boston, teaching at Harvard. I'm assuming that the Bureau have kept her records up to date?"
"Give me two minutes," Helen replied, the soft smile never leaving her lips as she turned back to her computer and began to tap away at her keyboard. "You know, Penelope could probably find you this information much quicker than I am."
"Yes, but then she would want to know why, and the fewer people who know that I'm in contact with Alex, the better for the time being. Because sometimes, miracles don't work out, and I don't want to get anyone's hopes up."
"This is very true. And I will say a prayer that you're successful in your endeavors," she said as she wrote something down on a sticky note. "I've included her home, mobile, and office numbers. According to her schedule, she should be headed into office hours in ten minutes. Good luck."
He nodded, taking the sticky note from Helen's hand. "Thanks, I hope that I can make some headway with her. And thank you for all that you've done for me in this last month. I really appreciate it."
"It was my pleasure to help you, sir, because you were so willing to help Erin when she needed it."
They nodded to each other before he went back to his office and took a seat behind his desk, watching the clock until it finally turned 9:16, and with a shaky hand, he picked up the receiver before dialing the office number that Helen had given him for Alex Blake. He listened to it ring three times before a somewhat familiar voice answered. "Hello, Doctor Blake speaking. Who is this?"
"Alex, this is actually someone from your past."
"David Rossi, you are the last person I ever expected to hear from on a Thursday morning. What can I do for you?"
"I have something to discuss with you, and I would like to ask that you listen to me before you hang up or tell me to fuck off."
"That does sound rather serious. Let me put a note on my door that I've cancelled office hours for today, and then we can talk." He listened to her rummage around on her desk, humming beneath her breath a little before he heard her chair squeak. "All right, I'm back. What do you want to discuss that you think will anger me?"
"I don't know if you heard in the news, but there was a helicopter crash in California about a month ago, where an entire family was killed?"
"Yeah, I did hear about that, it was a blip on the local news the day it happened. Why?"
"That was Erin's family." He heard her exhale forcefully, before she started to mutter some lyrics beneath her breath. "This happened after she was released from rehab, and so, she couldn't be with her children on that celebratory vacation."
There was a long pause, and he knew enough to not prod her, to let her reply organically. "What, what were they celebrating?"
"Allie being declared cancer free. That was what caused Erin to spiral for the second time, because she was uncertain if her daughter would survive cancer. It turns out fate had something much crueler in mind for her, something I would never wish on my worst enemy. And full disclosure here, Alex, but we've been growing closer since that incident, and I know that she reached out to you while she was in rehab, to ask about making amends…"
"Did she ask you to call me?" There was a hard edge to Alex's voice, and he let out a deep sigh, knowing that he may have just muffed up this entire endeavor. "Well?"
"No, she has no idea that I'm calling you, and she would probably harangue me for interfering in her private affairs. But you were Allie's namesake, and I know that it might help Erin to heal, just a tiny bit, if you were to reach out in a letter. Maybe. I don't know, I could be making everything worse by doing this, but she tried to follow after them twice, and I find myself wanting to do anything that might pull her out of that depth of despair. And I know, it sounds like I'm trying to guilt you into this, and you can't be guilted into a personal decision, but I just don't know what else to do."
"Are you taking care of her, then?"
"Yes, along with our technical analyst, Penelope Garcia. We were the ones who pulled her away from the edge of the roof the night of the accident. I've never heard someone cry like that before."
"I think I can hear that sound in my mind, Dave. Listen, I can't make you any promises, you know what happened between us and how deeply it hurt me. But thank you for letting me know about Erin's family. No one deserves to lose everyone all in one go like that. At least I still had James when we lost Ethan. I have to go, I'm sorry. I need to make certain that I look presentable for my class in an hour."
Before he could another word, Alex had hung up, and he was left holding a dead line to his ear. Exhaling forcefully, Dave could only hope that something he had done that day would change things for him and Erin, because she needed a good thing to happen to her, to show her that the world wasn't completely against her. And maybe that would mean Alex might just reach out to her in time.
Dave was still a bit preoccupied when he arrived home that evening, and it took him a moment to get out of his car and into the house. "Is everything all right?" Penelope asked as he came inside, dropping his briefcase onto the counter and putting his phone on the charger before looking at her. "Dave?"
"I'll be fine in time, it was just a long day. Where's Erin?"
"She's resting in the living room. Her mother called this afternoon, and it was not the smoothest call in the world. Somehow, she found out that Erin had tried to take her own life, and…I really liked her mother when I met her at the funeral, but I also want to smack her now?" He nodded as he poured himself a glass of water, taking a seat at the table and watching her, somehow knowing that she wanted to say more. "And I should be angry with you, but she's already told me that she's not spending the night in the master bedroom."
"Oh." Penelope gave him a wry smile as she began to plate their food. "I didn't ask for this to happen between us, Kitten, I swear. And I know that her heart is tender right now, which is why I'm trying to hold on as gently as I possibly can. I was hoping that some of her friends from church or her meetings would appear to help her out, but I guess it's true what they say about grief."
"That it shows you who your true friends are?" Again, he nodded. "I guess that means we're her true friends now. And I rather think that this will have been the best decision I've ever made. Now, how about you go get her from the living room while I finish up in here."
"All right," he replied as he got to his feet and made his way into the other room. Erin was curled up in a corner of the sofa, a blanket covering her body, and he smiled sadly as he crouched down in front of her before reaching out and stroking her hair lightly. "Wake up, Erin. Penny is finished with supper, and all we need to do is sit down and eat."
Slowly, her eyes blinked open, and she gave him a small smile as she pushed the blanket off her body and swung her legs out to rest on the floor. Leaning forward, she pressed her lips against his in a tender kiss. "I am so glad that you're home. I'm spending the night in your bed. No hanky panky, but I need to cling to someone tonight."
"Penelope already told me that was the plan," he said as he helped her to her feet, squeezing her hand as they made their way into the kitchen. "I've awakened our sweet Topalina, Kitten."
"Good. Because heaven only knows how she'll get to sleep tonight after that long a nap."
"Given the way I'm feeling? That won't be an issue. Though I am really glad that we're going to work tomorrow. I need something like that to look forward to." He nodded as they took their seats. The casserole that Penelope had made smelled delicious, and he dug in with gusto, putting away two helpings before Erin had finished her first. "This is so good, Penny. Exactly what I needed tonight."
"Do you want to tell us a little about your phone call?"
"Mom was just being Mom. I told Daddy that she wouldn't understand what I did, that she would fuss and make me feel like I had failed God, and that is exactly what happened when we talked. I just, I am so tired of feeling like I did fail."
Dave took a drink of water before reaching out and covering Erin's hand with his own, patting it lightly before he spoke. "You did not fail anyone, Erin. Your pain was just so great that you tried to find a way to end that pain. But you allowed us to help you, and I hope that you're finding things to be a little easier with each passing day."
"Sort of, yes. But then something like this happens, and I feel so small. Tell me something good that happened today?"
"Helen managed to get me completely caught up on all the paperwork, so you won't be going into a complete shitshow tomorrow. And she's promised to help us both out as I turn the reins back over to you. Remember, we'll be out in the field come Monday, so I won't be coming home with you every night."
"Oh, that's right."
"Don't worry, Lambie! You won't be alone, not if you don't want to be. You still have me!" Penelope gave her a soft, loving, smile, and Dave winked at the woman, trying to let her know that he was grateful for her kind offer. "I mean, I have sort of gotten used to having the voices of other people around. I thought that I was a homebody up until now, and maybe I just might be able to tell Kevin that I'm ready to have him move in."
"I'm sure that he'd like that, Penelope. And you're free to have him over some nights, when David is out in the field. He is a nice man."
"He is, isn't he?" Penelope let out a little sigh of happiness as she gathered up their plates. "Now, if you don't mind, I'm going to shoo you from the kitchen and call my boyfriend while I do some baking. I want to get ahead of tomorrow."
Dave nodded as he and Erin left the room. He wanted to head into the living room, but Erin took firm hold of his hand and guided him over to the stairs. "Erin?"
"I want to cuddle now. Give me fifteen minutes to shower and change for bed, and then I'll join you in your room?"
He gave her a small nod as they climbed upwards, and then he watched her head over to the master bedroom, disappearing behind the door. Once that was closed, he went into his own room, hurriedly shucking off his clothes before pulling on a clean set of pyjamas and climbing into bed. He wasn't remotely tired, but he also didn't want to get out of bed once Erin had fallen asleep, since that would most likely disturb her. Picking up his tablet, Dave began to read through his emails, answering the ones that needed quick answers before catching up on the news he had missed during the day.
Erin cleared her throat a little, finally catching his attention, and he looked up at her to smile and pat the side of the bed that she had claimed as hers the other night. "Anything interesting?"
"No, but I still like to keep abreast of current events. I'm sorry that your mother so deeply upset you today."
She shrugged as she got into bed next to him, turning onto her side and wrapping an arm around his waist as she curved her body around his, letting her head come to rest on his chest. "She means well, but it still hurts. That, coupled with our discussion of Alex this morning, well, my heart just felt really bruised by the end of the call."
He nodded before setting aside the tablet and contorting his head so that he could press a kiss to the top of her head. "Still, I wish that you weren't hurt. I understand the sorrow, the pain, a miniscule amount. I just wish that there was a way for me to take this pain away from you."
"Would that you were that sort of miracle worker, David. But having you here, along with Penelope, is helping to make things easier to bear. And really, that's all I could ask for?"
He nodded as they adjusted how they were lying in the bed before reaching down to pull up the covers around their shoulders. "I hope that Helen will be able to get us sorted right away. She's such a godsend."
"Isn't she, though? Seriously, when I hired her, I never thought that I would come to rely on her quite as much as I have. I'm glad that she's been able to help you, as well. I hope that your first case isn't a very long one, David."
"Alan's birthday would have been next Saturday, and while I wasn't planning on celebrating it, now that he's gone, it feels like I should do something to commemorate it?"
"You should call his parents. I'm certain that they'd love to connect with you."
"That does sound like a good idea. And I have missed talking with them. As Alan and I grew apart, I also grew apart from them, even though they had nothing to do with our issues. I just…there are so many things that I would go back and change, if I could. But then, if I could, I don't think that I would have found these relationships with you and Penny. Oh, god, David, why does everything seem so muddled still?"
"Because you're still working through your grief, and that is totally okay." He pressed another kiss to her forehead. She nodded and yawned, rubbing her face against his chest before tightening her hold on his waist. "You need to sleep, Erin."
"But I want to talk more. We won't have times like these soon, because you'll be out in the field, so I have to take advantage of them when I can."
"Tomorrow will be a long day, we need to rest up for what's ahead. And I promise, you are free to call me whenever things get to be a little much, and I'm not here." She nodded before yawning once more, her breaths slowly evening out as she drifted off to sleep.
"I can't believe that I forgot to set the alarm last night, Erin. I am so sorry!"
She shrugged a little as they stepped out of the elevator, and Dave found himself itching to take hold of her hand and squeeze it firmly when he noticed her stiffen as she was about to exit into the hallway. "It happens, now I just have to work a little harder to play catchup." Giving Dave a small smile, she stepped away from them, heading towards her office.
"Go with her, you know that you want to," Penelope said as she looked at him. "Even though the optics might not look the best, I know that you care for her deeply, and she needs someone to support her through this new phase of things. I would, but I have to go and switch around my office, resetting it back to my standards. Kevin always manages to make a complete cockup of things when I take an extended break." Penelope patted his shoulder before gently pushing him in Erin's direction.
Nodding absently, he picked up his pace until he had caught up with her, giving her a small smile when she glanced up at him. "I guess that I'm going your way first, Erin," he said lowly as they went into the outer office. Helen looked up from her computer and gave them a happy grin before getting to her feet and coming over to their side.
"Ma'am, I am so glad to see you back here! I've been trying to keep Agent Rossi in line during your absence, and while he's done a good job at trying to keep up with your workload, it just hasn't been the same without you." She went over to the other door and opened it for Erin, leading them inside. "Do you want me to make coffee or head to your usual café?"
"I think that it would be easier if you just brewed a pot here, because there is so much that I'll need to catch up on. David, do you have the latest cases that you finished looking over?"
He nodded as he held up his briefcase. "Everything is in here, Erin," he replied as they went over to the table, taking a seat while Helen started the coffee brewing. As the delicious scent filled the room, he let out a deep sigh and pulled out the files that Erin would need to look over before she filed them with the appropriate people. They worked in tandem to get her caught up on where she should be, and he could feel Helen watching the way they worked, a knowing little smirk on her lips.
About forty minutes into their conference, his phone buzzed on the table, and he glanced at it with a frown, seeing Penelope's name on the screen. "I'm sorry, I need to look at this," he murmured as he picked up the device and opened up his text messages.
SOS! SOS! Hotch is on the warpath because you are MIA. Well, I mean, I know that you're with Erin, but he didn't need to know that. So, I gave him a cover story that you were running late this morning, and while he seemed to buy it, it also pissed him off more. If you're almost finished with your business with Erin, I would get into the bullpen, before he decides to go hunting you down. Give Erin my love!
"What is it, David?" Erin asked, sounding concerned, which told him that his face was not hiding his emotions.
"It's nothing that you did, Hotch just seems to have a bee in his bonnet this morning. Probably because I haven't gone into the bullpen yet today, so he assumes that I'm just off doing nothing. I should probably go and see if I can calm him down. Do you want me to stop by your office before we head home tonight?"
"No, I'll be at the car around half past five. I assume that I'll have quite a bit to bring home and work on, so if we could order in, I'd be a lot more comfortable with that."
He nodded as he rose to his feet, giving Helen and Erin a small smile. "I would be fine with that, and I'll let Penelope know that's the plan for the evening." Erin gave him a tiny smile before turning back to her work, Helen taking notes when asked. Drawing in a short breath, he turned on his heel and made his way from the office, making certain to grab his briefcase as he went.
The bullpen was abuzz with activity, and he breathed in the busyness, finding that it energized him to know that he was about to return to this life, rather than sitting behind and doing all the paperwork. His month filling in for Erin had really opened his eyes into what she did, and he knew that he hadn't even truly scratched the surface of her job. Derek looked up as he passed by his desk, giving him a look that told him he, too, had felt the wrath of Hotch that morning. "Tread carefully, old man. I think that Hotch is ready to bite the head off everyone here."
"That's what Penelope texted me. I just had to run over some last minute things with Erin before she took the reins up once more. It's hard to catch up on a month of missed work, and for her to understand some of the decisions that I made along the way, even if we were grounded due to Penelope's care of her."
Hotch's office door opened suddenly, catching both their attentions, and Dave tightened his hand around the handle of his briefcase as he warily watched the man stalk out of the room and fix his hard gaze on them. "Dave, I need to see you in my office," he bit out, and Dave nodded as he went towards the stairs, fully intending to meet with Hotch alone, only to hear Derek following after him. "He doesn't need an audience, Morgan."
"And yet, I still think I'm going to be joining you in this meeting, Hotch. Garcia would have my head if I let her Italian Stallion be flogged without a witness."
Dave tried valiantly to hold in his chuckle, noting the tight look that passed across his best friend's face as he nodded sharply before stalking back into his office. "You don't have to do this, Derek."
"Yes, I do, man. You all have been through hell these last few weeks, and you've always had our backs. It's time that at least one of us steps up to support you now. I don't know what is wrong with Hotch, besides his contempt for Strauss, but he needs to know that we're not happy with his treatment of her, and you." Derek reached out and slapped his shoulder in solidarity.
"Thanks. I know that Erin truly loved the flowers you sent her, she's needed that spot of beauty in her life."
Derek nodded as they turned into Hotch's office. The man was already seated behind his desk, writing furiously on a pad of paper in front of him. "Sit down. You were late today."
"Yes, I was. We slept in, since we all forgot to set our alarms, and then I needed to discuss with Erin how we were going to do the handoff. There's a lot more to this than I imagined, and I know that you understand that, since you did her job recently as well. She needs to be brought back into the fold, and it made sense to do some of that work this morning, rather than just throwing her into the deep end when we go out in the field come Monday."
"He has a point, Hotch. Especially after what happened to her family. It would be better if we were at least somewhat kind."
"You're taking Erin's side in all this?" Hotch bit out, and Derek nodded. "Why?"
"I still feel guilty about the way we frog marched her to that rehab facility, actually. There were a number of others that we could have chosen, ones that might have allowed her to spend time with her children, now that we know what ended up happening to them. And I know that it bothers you, to see us defend our boss after tearing her down so often. I get the feeling that she's truly changed, and I would like to get to know the person that Strauss is becoming. Or should we just judge her wholesale on who she was, rather than who she could be?"
Aaron's shoulders slumped a little as he looked between the two of them. "Does everyone on the team feel the way that you do?"
"I can only speak for Emily and myself, but we both feel that way. And I think it's clear that Penelope is tender towards Strauss. So that does make four of us that are rooting for her to succeed." Hotch shook his head a little before fixing his gaze on Dave. It was a colder look, and he struggled not to return it, knowing that his bad mood would pass, and that he would want to make amends at some point. "So, are you going to back off a little, man? For all our sakes?"
"As long as she stays out of my way and doesn't meddle with our team, I see no reason to interact with her at all, which I suppose would mean that I would back off. But don't push your luck, Dave. There's only so much leeway that I'm willing to give the pair of you."
He nodded sharply before getting out of his chair and leaving the office, Derek close at his heels. "That went better than I thought it would," he said as they went into Dave's office. He lifted an eyebrow as he took his seat, letting out a huff of frustration. "You don't think so?"
"No, I think that Aaron is biding his time, and if Erin makes one little step out of line, he's going to go in for the kill. Which makes my job even more difficult because…"
"You're falling in love with her." Dave stared at Derek, trying to find the words to tell him that he was mistaken, but they wouldn't come to his lips. "Man, I do not envy you right now, because that is a difficult place to be in. I know that you don't need me to tell you this, but tread carefully, old man. You don't want to end up hurting her now, not when she's still so fragile." Dave gave him a small nod, knowing that he and Penelope were right, but also knowing that there was not an easy way to extricate his heart from hers now, not when they were so close.
Though he and Erin had talked almost every night when he was out on their new case, Dave still found himself missing the woman. And it was something that Derek teased him about mercilessly, though only when it was the two of them, as if he knew that it wasn't wise to do so in front of Hotch. Thankfully, the case didn't take them too long to solve, even though it had been very gruesome, and he found himself looking forward to going home to Erin. Especially since they were returning so late that there was no way she would have stayed behind to wait for them.
A wide yawn tore from his mouth as they stepped into the bullpen, and he shook his head a little as he climbed the stairs up to his office. He took care to leave some distance between Aaron and himself, since things were still cool between them. As soon as he was closed behind his office door, Dave picked up his pace, only for Penelope to pop out of her office and beckon him to her side with a crook of her finger. "What can I do for you, Kitten?" he asked as he leaned against the wall outside her door, giving her an easy smile.
"I wanted to prepare you for what you'll find in your office tonight, Dave. Erin didn't want to go home until you were back, which is why I'm still here. We drove in together today, since it just made more sense to only take one vehicle this week. And she's been a bit fragile this week, with you gone. I didn't realise that it would affect her quite so much, honestly. So, go, check in on her, and then we'll head home, and you can join us an appropriate length of time later." She leaned in and hugged him quickly, pressing her lips against his cheek before she pushed him away. "I'm still not entirely comfortable with things, but I know that she needs you, and that makes this a little more palatable."
"I know," he said, giving her a fleeting smile before turning and making his way down to his office. The door was unlocked, so he shoved his keys back into his pocket before heading inside, turning on the lights. He didn't see Erin right away, and so he made his way over to his desk and let his bag thump down on it heavily. Almost on cue, Erin groaned a little, and he turned his head to see her shifting on his sofa, turning her face into the cushions as she tugged the blanket a little higher over her shoulders.
A soft smile spread across Dave's lips as he drifted over to her side, crouching down before he reached out and caressed her arm lightly, not wanting to startle her into wakefulness. "I'm home, Topalina," he whispered in her ear, and her face eased into a relaxed, open, expression before her eyes blinked open, focusing on his face. "Penelope told me that you were waiting here for me. You didn't have to do that, I would have seen you at home."
"I know, but I don't know how much longer I'll have that, David. You can't stay with me forever, so I'll have to steal whatever moments I can. I thought that I might as well start to get used to sleeping on your sofa first, even though mine is much more comfortable. Leather squeaks too much, you need to get a suede one."
He laughed as he shook his head, tugging the blanket off her body before getting to his feet and folding it neatly, storing it underneath the coffee table before holding out his hand. Erin clasped it as she pulled herself to her feet before she wrapped her arms around his waist and hugged him tightly. "Suede, huh?"
"It's softer, and if I sleep here often, well, you want me to be comfortable, don't you?"
He sighed a little, realizing in that moment that Penelope was entirely correct, Erin was coming to rely on him more than he had thought. "I do want you to be comfortable, but you probably shouldn't lurk here. There are some people who wouldn't understand, and I don't want you to get hurt, darling."
The endearment slipped from his lips before he could catch himself and use her pet name, and Erin blushed a little as she looked away from him. Tears started to roll down her cheeks, and he frowned before pulling her close to his chest once more, stroking her back gently as she cried for a moment. "And I don't want to lose you, too. Or Penelope. I know, I'm being stupid, and clingy, but you're the only two who cared to stay, and I guess I've rebuilt my world around you. And I don't know where we'll go from here."
"Oh, Erin," he murmured before bending his head and kissing her temple. "We'll be okay, and though I can't speak for Penelope, you can be assured that I won't leave you, no matter how clingy you think you're becoming. Because first and foremost, I am your friend, and friends don't abandon each other in times like these."
She took a few deep breaths before stepping away from him and looking up into his face. "You are a godsend, David Rossi. You and Penelope both. I'm going to go home now. We'll see you there shortly?"
"Of course, Erin." He led her over to the door, and they stepped out onto the catwalk together. Penelope was just locking her door and she gave them a wide smile as she waved to Erin. "See, Kitten's waiting for you to join her."
"I see that." Erin again gave him that sad sweet smile before she hugged him tightly once more. "Hurry back."
Dumbly, he nodded, watching her make her way over to Penelope's side and take hold of her hand, allowing the younger woman to lead her down the stairs. Dave felt like a small piece of his heart was leaving with her, and he shook his head when Derek looked up at him, giving him a knowing smirk. Turning to go back into his office, he caught sight of Aaron, who had a dark look on his face which only grew when their eyes met. "I don't know what game you're playing at, Dave, but it's just going to end up with you hurting," he huffed out before going back into his own office, shutting the door firmly behind him.
Dave knew that he was right, but he still wondered what Hotch might say to other people. While his reputation could take the hit, Erin's might be irreparably damaged. Breathing out through his nose, he took a seat behind his desk before booting up his computer and calling up his email client, looking it over to see if there was anything he needed to take care of before heading home. There was an email from Alex Blake there, and he clicked on it quickly before leaning forward to read what she had written. A small smile whipped across his face when he saw that she was asking a few questions about who Erin was now, and he quickly answered them, hoping that what he was telling her would help smooth the waters between her and Erin, because God knew that she needed another friend to turn to as she dealt with the aftermath of the annihilation of her family.
Once the email was sent, Dave picked his bag back up and made his way down to the elevators, unsurprised when Derek got up and followed him. "That was a little tense," he said as they waited for the elevator to arrive.
"Well, Aaron needs to know that the status quo might be changing soon. We are muddling our way through a new phase of Erin's life, and she seems to only have us for support right now."
"I get it, but I'm not certain if Hotch will. But we'll have your back in this."
"Thanks," he replied as he stepped into the elevator, turning to press the button for the ground floor. Looking up, he saw that Aaron had come down to the doorway, giving him a long look. Drawing in a deep breath, he raised his hand and waved to his friend, trying to let him know that he, at least, was trying to salvage the pieces of their friendship before it was too badly damaged. There was a faint whisper of a smile on his friend's lips before he turned sharply on his heel and went off in the direction of Reid's desk. "I know that things are going to be rocky from here on out, especially since there are things developing between Erin and myself that Penelope is not happy with."
"You're in love with her, and it appears that she's falling in love with you. I get it. And I'll tell you again, you need to tread carefully. Not just because of her tenderness right now, but because I know you haven't gone to the Director yet about this. If he gets wind of this quasi-relationship before you get the courage up to tell him, the results could be disastrous, for both of you."
"I know, but there's just not anything to tell him right now. We aren't in a serious relationship, not yet, and the love we share might not be lasting. I don't want to upset the applecart, so to speak." Derek scoffed a little. "What?"
"The way that you look at her? Tells me that this is not some flash in the pan thing. So, I guess I'll echo Baby Girl's advice here. Tread lightly with her heart, and take care with when you tell the Director about things. You don't want someone else doing it." Dave nodded, knowing that he was receiving sage advice, and he just needed to figure out how to navigate this new turn of events.
When he arrived home, Dave was still mulling over the advice that Derek had given him. There would be problems facing them in the future if they didn't have a long talk, and he didn't want to end up hurting Erin inadvertently if they decided to take things to the next level. After staring at his steering wheel for a solid minute, he finally climbed out of the vehicle and made his way inside to the kitchen, setting his go bag in the laundry room before he joined the women there.
"You took longer than I expected," Penelope said as she looked up at him, a sweet smile on her lips. "We made a pot of tea, just in case you wanted something to drink before you headed up to bed. I'll see you in the morning, Erin?"
"Probably. If we don't end up talking late again. I enjoy…talking with David." The soft look that Erin was giving him caused his heart to skip a beat or two, and he nodded as he took a seat at the table and picked up the cup that Erin pushed towards him, taking a long sip as he watched Penelope give them both a wry look before she left the room. "I know that this is forward of me, but you're spending the night in my bedroom. I've been sleeping alone this whole week, trying to find the strength to just be a me, rather than a we, and while that was nice, I missed being held while I slept."
"It is so easy to grow accustomed to a new way of living very quickly. Though I was happy to talk with you as much as I did while I was in the field. It helped me to transition back to into my regular work. And let me tell you, I do not envy what you do, Erin." She smiled shyly as he drank from his cup once more, leaning back in his chair to study her. "I hope that Penelope was able to keep your mind off your troubles, too."
"Yes, and Agent Anderson was being especially kind as well. I never knew just how much he respected me. I always thought that everyone in the BAU assumed I was a dragon and avoided me as a result. I'm not certain that I want to suddenly have a completely new countenance at work, but I think that I am ready to start thawing a little."
"Slow changes are probably for the best, yes. You want people to see you for who you are." She nodded before finishing off her tea and setting the cup aside. "Are you ready to head up now?"
"I think so. You'll probably want to shower, so I'll change for bed while you do that?"
"You read my mind," he replied as he drained the rest of his mug and got to his feet, placing the used cup in the sink before making his way upstairs. He was surprised a little to not hear Erin's feet on the steps behind him, but he trusted her to be there when he finished washing the day's grime and travel off his skin. Stepping into the bedroom he had claimed as his own, Dave grabbed out a fresh set of pyjamas before slipping into Allie's room, knowing that Penelope would probably have claimed that room on Erin's insistence.
Sure enough, she was in there on her laptop, skyping with Kevin, and he cleared his throat to get their attention. "Hey, Dave. What do you need?" she asked as she muted the call with her partner before turning her full attention on him.
"I just wanted to check in with you before I get ready for bed. I reached out to Alex Blake on Erin's behalf, and it appears like she might be willing to start making amends with Erin. I don't know how well the initial reach out will go, so I wanted to prepare you for more tears."
"That's good to know. I've heard a little about what happened between them, and I know that Erin is still saddened by her inability to reconnect with her former friend. I'm just going to hope that this is the best course of action."
"I think that it will be. Erin needs as many friends as possible at a time like this. And she'll have us, and Derek, and Grant, to fall back on should things not go well. And thank you for going to my house and grabbing more clothes for me while I was out. I was starting to wonder when people would comment on the fact that I was rotating through the same three ties."
"I needed a wardrobe refresher, too. Even though I think that this will be my last two weeks here. She's going to need some privacy, after all." His brow furrowed in confusion as she chuckled airily. "For how smart you are, sometimes you are so clueless. I'm not going to intrude on the start of your physical relationship with Erin. There are some things that friends just shouldn't know about each other, much though I love you and her. This does not mean that I approve of you sleeping with her right away, but I understand a little more fully now. Hold her heart delicately, David."
"I fully intend to, Kitten," he replied as he went to her side and pressed his lips to her temple before making his way out to the master bathroom. Stripping off his clothes, he placed them in a neat pile before stepping into the shower and turning the water on, allowing it to sluice over his body. As he washed himself, Dave thought about Penelope's gentle admonishment, knowing that she was right, he would have to tread lightly with Erin's heart. They were both treading on thin glass, and he didn't want to do anything that might cause that glass to shatter and hurt them both.
Finally, he was clean, and then he was turning the water off, wrapping a towel around his hips before stepping out of the shower and padding over to the sink, grooming his goatee and brushing his teeth before tugging on his pyjamas and then heading into the master bedroom. Erin was leaning back against the headboard, her nose buried in a book, and he smiled as he crossed over to the bed, climbing in next to her and slipping his feet beneath the covers. "Just let me finish this chapter, darling, and then we can talk," she murmured as she scooted closer to his side, allowing her body to mold to his as their heads touched.
He nodded a little as he let his hand rest on her thigh, the warmth of her skin filling his senses as he listened to her hum a little as she continued to read. Soon enough, she was done with her reading and had placed a marker where she had left off before setting the book on the nightstand along with her reading glasses. "What do you want to talk about?" he asked lowly as she stretched out long his body a little more, burrowing close to him as she rested her head on his chest.
"Penelope told me that she's going to go home in two weeks, though she'll be only a phone call away. I knew that that would have to happen, eventually, but I don't know if I feel ready to have an empty house again. It's already so quiet when it was just the two of us."
"You can't get rid of me that easily, Topalina. Unless you want me to leave, too?"
"No, I'd rather you stay. If you don't mind. I know that Mudgie must miss you something fierce, and I wouldn't mind of you brought him here. And he would be a companion for me, when you're out on a case."
"I suppose that we could do that for a little while. At least until you feel ready to be on your own once more."
There was a small pause before Erin contorted her body once more, straddling him so that she could look down into his face, studying his features intently, pinning him to the spot. "And if I decide that I want something different?"
"Then we'll talk about that, too. Everything will be on your timetable, Erin, because your health and recovery matter the most here. How are the cravings?"
She gave him a sad smile before leaning down and kissing him tenderly. "You would think to ask about that," she finally said after breaking the kiss. Letting out a deep sigh, she draped her body on his, her left hand curling around his shoulder as she rested her head on his other shoulder. "They're still here, but with Penelope's help, and my new group, I've found a way to stave them off. My sponsor didn't want to agree with me, that my overdose attempt should reset my clock, but I rather think that I have to look at it that way, since it was a deliberate act, even if it wasn't my getting blindingly drunk."
"I agree with your sponsor, but I know that you have to do what's most appropriate for you, so I'll support you no matter what." Erin let out a little sigh as she snuggled a little closer to him, her hips unconsciously grinding against his erection, and he slid his hands down to her waist in an effort to still her movements. "I only have so much control, Erin, and I don't think that tonight is the right time to take this to its natural conclusion."
"I hate when you're right," she muttered before pressing her lips against his jaw. "All right, tell me about your case. I heard a little about it from the updates that Aaron sent my office, but I'd rather hear more from you."
"All right," he replied, spreading one hand out on her back as he used the other to finagle the covers up around their waists. "It was an easier case than I thought it would be, but it was still a bit difficult to get back in the swing of things. Though Hotch and I seemed to find a better spot to be in, as we found our working rhythm once more." As he spoke about the case, he felt Erin's body start to grow heavy in his arms, and he smiled as he reached out to turn off the bedside lamp and allowed the peace of the room to settle over his mind as he drifted off to sleep himself.
The next morning, Dave woke up before Erin, smiling down at her still form that was highlighted by the early morning sun. She looked peaceful, lovely, and that just seemed to cement the feeling that he had gone to sleep with, that he was ready to start thinking about entering a relationship with Erin, to finding their way in life together. Groaning a little, Erin twisted in his embrace, turning so that her back was against his torso as seemed to fight to fall back asleep. "It's a losing battle, Topalina. The morning as come, and we need to get ready for work. It's Friday, after all, and I have a report to finish before Hotch turns them in to you."
"Oh, but I was having the most wonderful dream. We were in a boat, in the middle of your lake, and you were rowing while I was reclining in it, watching you. I, I felt so loved in that dream, and I wanted to hold on to that ephemeral feeling for as long as I could. You know, I've tried to tell you this so many times, but it never felt quite right. Alan and I were planning on separating, after Allie got her clean bill of health. We just wanted to keep things even for her, since we both knew that stress could exacerbate the cancer, and I was already too much of a stressor with my drinking problem. We hadn't truly been married in every sense of the word for more than year when he died. So I don't think that you would be a rebound relationship for me. And I know that the Program prefers us to wait a year before we enter into a serious relationship, but with everything that I've been through, I need something good to hold onto right now."
He nodded, feeling a sweet sense of hope fill his chest as he tugged on Erin's shoulder, wanting to look into her face. She flipped around to face him, a smile on her lips and tears sparkling in her eyes. "I want to be the good that you hold onto, Erin, darling."
"I like it better when you call me Topalina. That feels like it's something just for me, and I love that feeling." He nodded as she leaned in to kiss him deeply, one hand holding the back of his head in place so that he couldn't pull his lips away, not that he wanted to. If they weren't required to be at work, he would have preferred that they greet the morning by consummating this new phase of their relationship. Still, he was grateful for this small moment in the morning, and he snaked one hand down her back before cupping her bottom and tugging her even closer.
Through the haze of his desire, he heard his phone begin to ring, and he reluctantly pulled away from Erin to slip out of bed and grab the device off the dresser, answering it with a slightly out of breath, "Hello?"
"David, this is Director Shepherd. I think that we have something to discuss. But first I have to ask an obvious, though distasteful, question. Did I just pull you from Erin Strauss's arms?"
He glanced over at Erin, seeing the question on her face, and he shook his head a little before answering their boss. "I suppose that I could lie and say that I was not just there, but I know that lies have no place between all of us. Yes, that is exactly where I was this morning. We fell asleep talking last night."
"I see. And has this been a regular occurrence as you helped her grieve the loss of her family?"
"No, it's only happened twice, so far. But we're fast reaching the point where we want to make things official, which we both know will require a fine balancing act while we're at work. Now I have a question for you. Was Aaron the one that brought this to your attention?"
Director Shepherd paused for a moment, which told Dave everything that he needed to know. "He did come to me with concerns, and when you both didn't show up for work this morning, it felt like his concerns were justified."
"What do you mean, didn't come to work? It's only…" He glanced at the clock on Erin's nightstand and gasped a little. "Oh."
"Yes. I take it that you forgot to set your alarm before you fell asleep last night?" he asked with a chuckle, and Dave felt a blush heat his cheeks as he nodded. "So, here's where we go from here. I don't want to disrupt any progress that Erin's made, because I can only begin to fathom the depths of sorrow that she's had to pull herself out of. And honestly, we need her in the Bureau, as she is an excellent asset. I want you both to lay low while at work, no more nights where Erin falls asleep in your office and then you end up in her bed. All right?"
"I suppose that we can do that, sir. Anything else?"
"Yes. To remove any hint of impropriety, I'd like Erin to consider overseeing another of the teams with the BAU. However, once again, I understand her friendship with Ms Garcia might make that difficult for her, as the woman is permanently attached to your team. Just inform her that that might be a viable option if Agent Hotchner continues to raise a fuss about any relationship that you might form with Erin. Now, enjoy the day together, and we'll see you both back in the office come Monday."
"Yes, sir. Thank you for being so understanding."
"I must admit, it would have been better if you had come to me with this yourself, but given the delicateness of the situation, I understand the reticence. And if Agent Hotchner should choose to give you more grief, do not hesitate to bring your concerns to me."
"I will keep that in mind, Sir." They ended the call and Dave made his way back over to the bed and took a seat next to Erin, smiling when she curled up against him and rested her head on his chest. "Well, we have a surprise day off, Topalina."
"Yes. The Director thought that it would be best if we laid low today, though I have the feeling that Aaron won't be the happiest with that decision."
"I heard a little of that conversation, David. I just hadn't realized that things were that fraught between the two of you, still. I understand him being upset with me, but to take it out on you? I'm so sorry."
"There's nothing to be sorry for. Now, I'm going to dress and make us breakfast, if you want to shower. I was thinking that, since we have nowhere to be today, we could either head out to a park or to my cabin and while away the rest of the afternoon?"
"If I could have my way, I'd choose your cabin. I just don't know if we'll have time to get back, and well, I'm certain that Penelope will want to ask about what happened to us."
"We'll stay the weekend at the cabin, and you can invite her over, too. I don't think she's ever been out to the cabin, so you'll have to send her the address after we get there."
"That sounds like Heaven, David," she breathed out before twisting her body around to kiss him passionately. "And if you don't mind, I'd rather you pack our bags for the weekend while I shower. We can grab a bite to eat while we drive. It will be more economical that way."
"Your practicality never ceases to amaze me, Topalina," he murmured as she slipped off the bed and gave him a broad wink. "Don't take too long, otherwise I might have to drop you in the lake when we get to the cabin."
He shrugged as she rummaged through the drawers to get fresh clothes. "There's only one way to find out," he teased as he got to his feet and went to the door, pausing to give Erin a playful grin. "After all, we can always lay out on the grass to dry off, if you were to somehow experience the lake."
"And if you were to do that, I would never allow you back into my bed."
"Touché, Topalina." He winked at her before leaving the bedroom and crossing the hall to his room. It didn't take long for him to undress, and then pull on clean clothes, making certain to wear an older pair of jeans, just in case they did end up horsing around once at the cabin. Dave hummed beneath his breath as he packed up a bag that would last him through Sunday, since they would have to be back for work that Monday.
With his bag taken care of, he carried it back into Erin's room and made quick work of a bag for her. There was something almost a little naughty about digging through her underwear, even though they had slept together almost nude already, and he kept a small frown on his lips in an effort to not think about how he would know exactly what she was wearing beneath her clothes. Not knowing exactly what she would want to wear, he overpacked a little, hoping that he had at least picked something she might like. "Are you still packing?" Erin asked as she entered the room, her hair pulled back with a wide black headband.
"I just finished, thank you very much. Here, for that remark, you can carry your own bag," he said with a wink before making his way to her side and handing it to her as he shouldered his own bag, making certain his phone was in his pocket before starting for the stairs, Erin close at his heels.
They had made good time getting out to his cabin, and Dave had brought their bags up to the master bedroom while directing Erin out to the dock, knowing that would be the best place for her to relax in that moment. Mudgie was already running around the property, happy to be home and free, and he chuckled a little as he made his way over to Erin's side, taking a seat next to her on the worn wood of his dock.
"This is a beautiful view, David," she murmured as she scooted closer to him, resting her head against his arm as she continued to stare out at the water. "Perhaps, next time, I'll be ready for swimming in the lake and being your little mermaid."
"Will you wear a seashell bra for me, too?" he asked, trying to sound as lecherous as possible, loving the sound of her light laugh as she shook her head. "Why not?"
"One, it would be very uncomfortable. And two, I don't really think there are seashells that are appropriately large enough to cover my breasts. However, if you can source something like that, I will gladly wear it for you."
"A better challenge I have yet to hear," he teased as he turned his head and pressed his lips against her temple. Erin let out a deep sigh, and he frowned a little as he pulled away to look at her, wondering what was going through her mind. "Erin?"
"I was just thinking about the last time Alan and I joked like that. It was long before Allie fell sick, and I realise just how much I missed that aspect of life. While my heart is still grieving the loss of my children horribly, I've found that your affection, and Penelope's love, have helped me to start moving forward from the loss of Alan. Don't get me wrong, I'll probably always have a tender place in my heart for him, since he gave me my babies, but it's like a door has firmly closed over that part of my life now that you're in it. And this will sound incredibly selfish, but I want you to make love to me. Here, in a place where I have no memories, where there are no ghosts to haunt my desires."
"I had a feeling that we might build up to this, Topalina. Are you certain that you wish to start something physical with me?"
"I would never have slipped into your bed if I wasn't certain of where things were heading between us. And before you even begin to profile me, David, I'll have you know that I have considered things from all angles, and I know that you will be tender with me now, even if we decide that we don't want to pursue a more permanent relationship between us. I need to have a physical release. Please, make me yours."
Though she might have wanted to impart upon him this idea of impermanence between them, those last words told him that she felt just as deeply as he did about where things were going between them, and he gave her a small nod as he struggled to get to his feet, not wanting to admit that he wasn't as young as he felt in his heart. Holding out his hand, he helped Erin to her feet before wrapping his arms around her waist and hugging her tightly, burying his nose in her hair and breathing in the by now familiar scent of her shampoo. "If I make you mine, Erin, I might not ever want to let you go. Penelope and Derek have both warned me not to hurt you, and I don't want to, but I know that we both have strong emotions which might make things rough between us at times."
"Oh, but after we fight, it will be ever so sweet to make up. And sometimes, angry sex can be the best."
Her frank words made him cough on the gasp of air he drew in, and he shook his head as he led her up to the house. "You might just be the death of me yet, Topalina."
"Hopefully not for decades to come, darling," she purred in return, wrapping her arm around his waist as they went inside. "Will you show me to your bedroom now?"
"Yes, Erin." He paused them in front of the staircase and lifted her chin gently with his hand, lowering his head to kiss her gently. "Come with me."
"That would be the plan," was her quick reply, and again, he choked on air, giving Erin an askance look. "When Penelope asked me to talk dirty to her during that case in Milwaukee, she had no idea who she was talking to. You remember my quick tongue."
"I do, but it's still a bit of a shock to hear some things come from your mouth." She giggled a little as they climbed the stairs and he took hold of his hand to guide her into the master bedroom. "Welcome to my home away from home," he said lowly as he led her over to the bed.
"It is very much you, David," she murmured as she turned to him, looking up into his eyes and smiling softly. "I do wish that you had worn a button down shirt, as it is a good deal harder to feel sexy when you're tugging a sweater over your lover's head."
"You should have mentioned that, Erin. I would have changed."
"And that would have put us behind. No, I'll just have to wait for another time to slowly push the buttons from their holes before slowly slipping the shirt off your shoulders in order to tug and pull on your chest hair." Dave felt himself stir a little at the husky tone of her words, and he nodded silently as he allowed Erin to pull his thin sweater over his head and toss it to the ground before she made short work of his undershirt as well. Splaying her hands out on his chest, she arched upwards to capture his lips in a scorching kiss as his fingers began to undo the buttons on her cardigan, letting it join the growing pile of clothes at their feet.
As the kiss lingered on, their hands lazily brushed against each other as they divested themselves of their clothing until the only barrier that separated them was the thin cotton of Erin's underwear. "I have to ask, one more time, are you certain, Erin?" His hands settled on her hips as he stared into her eyes, seeing what her answer would be before she voiced it.
"Yes. This cold heart in my breast needs to turn towards the sun once more, and right now? You are my sun, David." She covered his hands with hers, guiding them to the waistband of her underwear and pushing downwards in clear invitation. "Please, David."
"Yes," he breathed out as she stepped out of the underwear, giving her a roguish grin before gently pushing her down onto the mattress, covering her body with his as he leaned in for another kiss. Dave could feel the way that her hips moved restlessly, and he grinned against her lips as he fitted his body between her, skimming one hand down her torso to cover her vulva, stroking it gently.
"Davie, I need to feel you in me, there will be time for slow and sweet later," she panted out, lifting her hips up against his hand in open invitation.
"Oh, Erin, no. I am going to take my time and enjoy this. You need to be worshipped, Topalina, not some quick fuck. Trust me?"
Her body relaxed a little with those words, and she nodded before pursing her lips for another kiss. He obliged her unspoken request before placing short, delicate, kisses along the planes of her face and then down her neck, nipping gently at the tendon that connected her neck to her shoulder. A low whimper escaped her mouth, telling him that she was enjoying what he was doing, and he continued to trail his lips down her body, taking care to worship her breasts in turn, sucking her nipples into tight peaks before pressing large, open-mouthed kisses on her torso, using his tongue to draw abstract patterns along her skin, chuckling to feel the way her body twitched and jumped against the onslaught. The sweet little coos that had first dropped from her lips turned into low, guttural moans by the time he started to eat her out, and this only encouraged him to drive her on to further heights of pleasure. "David!" she keened out in a loud wail, her orgasm finally overtaking her control, and he gripped her hips lightly as he continued to eat her out through the orgasm.
Finally, though, he couldn't hold out any longer, and he moved his body upwards, fitting himself inside her willing body and starting to thrust roughly, needing to find his own completion in her arms. Erin tightened her hands around his shoulders, her nails digging sharply into his skin as the start of a second orgasm began to overwhelm her body, taking him with her this time. Panting, he carefully dropped his body atop hers, their ragged breathing sharp in his ears. "I have you," he finally managed to pant out as Erin clung to him, and she nodded a little.
"Stay with me, David. Please," she murmured in return, nuzzling her cheek against his chest as she struggled to keep from crying.
"As if I could ever think about letting you go after this, Erin." He pressed his lips to her forehead and pulled her tightly to his chest as they sighed in unison, a sweet lethargy stealing over the room as they clung to each other, somehow knowing that this moment needed to be held onto for all it was worth, and David wondered if this idyll would be the future that he could look forward to with her.
"…knocking at the door."
"What, Erin?" he mumbled as he sat up, trying to clear the sleep from his mind.
"There's someone knocking at the door. I think that Penelope has arrived."
That caught his attention, and he sat up with a start, looking at the clock to see that it was close to six, the time they had agreed on to meet, and his eyes widened as he slipped out of bed and hunted for his boxers, hurriedly stepping into them and his jeans before tugging on his sweater as he left the bedroom and practically flew down the stairs. Whoever was on the porch was still knocking every few seconds, and he rolled his eyes a little as he finally yanked the door open, only to see more people there than just Penelope.
"It took you long enough, Dave," Penelope said as she craned her neck inside the cabin, obviously looking for Erin. "Were you two napping, or something?"
"I think the answer to that is or something, Baby Girl," Derek replied drolly, and Dave frowned a little, only to feel Erin's body press up against his.
"I didn't realise that we had other guests," she managed to squeak out in his ear, and he nodded absently, wondering why she had so suddenly turned shy. "I need to go back upstairs and change."
Again, he nodded as he felt her step away from him and then he listened to her feet slapping against the floor as she hurried back up the stairs. "Please, come in," he said as he stepped away from the door, his mind still on Erin and her sudden shyness.
"I guess I should have called rather than texted to let you know that there were going to be more people than just me coming. I think that you know Alex Blake?"
He felt his face slacken in surprise as the woman stepped out from behind Derek's back, giving him a small wave. "I know that you weren't expecting me, but after we talked on the phone, I did some digging on what happened, and I knew that I couldn't stay away. I promise, on Ethan's life, that I'll be good." Dave nodded a little as he beckoned them inside, allowing Kevin to close the door as he was the last to enter, and without looking back, he led them into the living room.
"All right, I'm going to go upstairs and check on Erin. I'll be right back," he said before turning on his heel and making his way upstairs. He didn't bother to knock on the bedroom door, barreling right in and looking around for her. "Topalina, why did you leave me hanging like that?"
"I thought it was only Penelope, and so I just threw on one of your button down shirts, since she's seen me in less clothing. And then, I saw Derek."
"It's not just Derek that came with her. Kevin is also here, along with…"
She gasped a little, turning to look at him with hopeful eyes. "Really?" He nodded. "Did she say why or how she knew to come here?"
"No, but I have been in contact with her recently, so maybe that helped to thaw the ice that's built up between the two of you?"
"Oh, I pray to God that you're right, darling." Erin stepped over to him and threw her arms around his waist as she leaned up to kiss him passionately. "Well, let's go downstairs and greet our guests."
"Of course, Erin," he replied before he kissed her once more. Somehow, he knew that they couldn't kiss again until after everyone had left, but that waiting would just make their next kiss all the sweeter. He was unsurprised when Erin took hold of his hand as they went down to the living room, her fingers tightening around his hand as she set eyes on her former friend.
"Well, I thought that it was just going to be Penelope here, so seeing other, friendly, faces is quite the surprise. I hope that you'll be all right with foraging for yourself in the kitchen for food, soon, because I don't think that we have enough here for a proper meal."
"Ever the hostess, Erin," Alex quipped lightly, and he watched Erin shrug a little. "Well, Penelope thought of that, and there's food in the kitchen for us all. It might be nice to talk while we eat?" Alex got to her feet and approached them, reaching out to run the tips of her fingers down Erin's arm before looking into her eyes. "If you don't mind, I'd like to get the table set with just Erin. I promise, Dave, you can throw me out if I make her cry on purpose."
"I will hold you to that promise, Alex." They shared a sharp nod before Erin let go of his hand and followed Alex into the kitchen. Feeling the weight of their eyes on him, Dave looked around the room before letting out a long breath. "We should probably give them fifteen minutes. I know that won't be long enough for them to discuss everything, but it is a good amount of time for a first talk."
"Yeah, that's not why I'm staring at you, old man. Are you really sleeping with her? So soon after the death of her family?" Derek was giving him a disappointed look, and he felt his shoulders pull up defensively as he tried not to react in anger.
"Erin has been the one to lead this entire time, and I have done my best to assure her that we didn't need to make things physical between us, as I don't want her to make rash decisions. I find myself falling in love with her, and while I know that this is a less than ideal situation for us to be starting a relationship, I will not begrudge her whatever happiness she finds. Caring for her has made love a joy, something I never thought I'd find myself saying at this point in my life."
Penelope let out a romantic sigh as she popped to her feet and came up to him, hugging him tightly as she kissed his cheek. "You are so sweet, my Italian Stallion. And I know that I haven't been the happiest with this, but even I can see that she's so much more relaxed right now. Though this added wrinkle of Alex Blake might throw that off. You're the only one who really knows anything about her. Is she nice?"
"She's fiercely intelligent which has lent her an air of coolness, just like Erin was. From what Erin has told me of her, however? I think that she is nice, but fair. They're going to need time to work out what happened between them, but the fact that Alex would even think about dropping everything to come here so quickly? Tells me that she's willing to work on getting back to where their friendship used to be, and that makes my heart incredibly light. For Erin to fully heal and move on from the annihilation of her family, she needs to have all other rooms of her house in order. Which means that I need you all to help me wear Hotch down and get him to treat her with a little more respect. Because that is going to be our final stumbling block, I fear."
"I can definitely help with that, Rossi," Derek said as he gave him a quick smile. "You just need to assure me that you won't hurt Erin."
"That is the plan, Derek. I care for her, and I will do everything in my power to see that she's never hurt like this ever again. And if I do something stupid, Penelope is allowed free reign on my credit and you can do your worst." The other man nodded as he settled back in his seat, smiling a little easier at him. "Well, I haven't heard any shouting, so I am going to take that as a good sign."
"The very best, darling," Erin said as she came back into the room, her eyes red rimmed, but a gentle smile on her lips which told him that everything was going to be all right. "We have the table set and the food is out, so if you'd like to join us in the kitchen, we're ready for you." She took firm hold of his hand and began to tug him along with her as they went to the kitchen. "I thought that you might like to ask him, Alex, since this was planned to be just the two of us."
"Ask me what?" he replied as he took the seat Erin pointed to, listening to the others approach. "Alex?"
"Erin was telling me that you two were going to spend the weekend here, and since I don't have classes until Tuesday, I was wondering if I could stay as well. I don't mean to intrude on whatever is growing between the two of you, but from the little that we've talked here, I know that I need more time to find the right words to say. If that's all right with you."
From the look that Erin gave him, he knew that he couldn't say no, and so he nodded before speaking. "If you don't mind borrowing some of Erin's clothing, I don't see why that would be a problem. As long as you don't mind us acting a bit mushy."
"I'm certain that I'll muddle through that, Dave. Thank you." The sincerity in those two words told him he had made the right decision, and he nodded in response as the rest of the group filed in and took their spots around the table. There was an air of camaraderie in the air, and Dave felt his heart lighten a little as they began to pass the food around the table, an easy conversation beginning to grow between them as they ate.
"You would not believe how competitive Erin was," Alex said, answering the question Penelope had posed of them. "We always tried to see who was the better shot, and I hate to admit it, but Erin always won. I used to tease her that she could try out for the Olympics, but she never took me up on that bet. I still think that she would have brought home gold."
"I'm not that good, Alex," she demurred, curling up closer to Dave as she rested her head on his chest.
"Well, we could always test out your skills, Ma'am. JJ is a crack shot as well, and I'm certain that she wouldn't mind having some competition. I'm man enough to say that she's a better shot than I am."
"If you can get her to agree to that, I suppose that I might be willing to go head to head with her. Though if I hear about anyone wagering on us, David, I might have to take appropriate measures."
"Hey! Why do you think that I would be the one to do something like that?" he teased as he checked her with his shoulder.
"I just know you, David."
The others laughed as they fell into a comfortable conversation, lasting late into the night. "Well, we should probably be heading back to Quantico. I made plans with Jayje for the morning, and I know that Henry will be disappointed if I don't show up," Penelope said as she got to her feet, looking around the room at the others. "Alex? You're staying here, right?"
"Yeah, I'm going to catch a ride home with Erin and Dave at the end of the weekend. Thank you for allowing me to ride up here with you, I really appreciate it."
"Anytime, Alex." Penelope went to the woman's side and hugged her, and Dave tried to hold in the chuckle that threatened to burst from his mouth when he saw the shocked look on Alex's face. Then Penelope went to Erin's side and leaned down to hug her tightly. "I love you, Erin, and I really want details, when you feel ready to give them to me. Don't do anything that I wouldn't do, since I can't tell you not to sleep with our Italian Stallion."
Erin giggled a little as she nodded. "I will keep that in mind, Penny. Drive safe, and let me know when you get back, okay?"
"Of course," Penelope replied before kissing their cheeks in turn and taking hold of Kevin's arm as they left the room. The air of silence that seemed to come over the room with her parting was immediate, and he knew that Erin felt a bit bereft, too, as she sighed and curved her arm around his waist.
"Penelope seems a bit intense," Alex quipped when the door of the cabin closed, and Dave nodded. "But I can tell that she means well, even if she does put her foot in her mouth quite often."
"She just has this heart that is ten times too large for her body," Erin said quietly. Drawing in a deep breath, she curled her fingers into the fabric of Dave's shirt before speaking once more. "I'm going to tell you something, Alex, something that might help you see Penelope like I see her, because I know that she is a bit ebullient for your tastes. When I first received the news that my family had perished in that awful accident, I was determined to join them. Somehow, God knew that that was a wrong decision, as He had Penelope and David see me and grow concerned over my actions. If they hadn't cared, if my hard heart and cruel actions had deadened any tenderness in their hearts, I wouldn't be here, able to make amends with you. And despite how much they try to keep me here, there are quiet moments in my soul when I feel like it would be easier if I had joined them."
"No, I need to get this out, please?" Alex nodded. "I know that Penelope thinks I'm being rash in falling into a physical relationship with David already, given that it's only been a month since the news. As I told David, though, we had been in the process of separating, and so my heart was free to become entangled with his that much more easily. I know that you can see things more objectively, since you're on the outside right now. No matter how much I want you in my inner circle right away. Am I making a mistake? Have I fallen into love too soon?"
There was a brief moment when Alex paused, looking at them intently, scrutinizing him more closely than she did Erin. "I think that you deserve to find happiness and love after the incredibly cruel hand that fate dealt you so recently. From what I've read of Dave's work, I can infer that he is a compassionate, fiery, man who will treat you as you deserve to be treated. You're recovering from something no person should ever have to experience in their life, and I want you to grab onto whatever bit of happiness that you can find. At least I had James by my side when we lost Ethan. You felt like you had no one, and I can only imagine the depths of sorrow you felt that would lead you to such extreme measures. You've changed, you're more like the girl I met in the Academy, and I am more than willing to start our friendship anew because of that change. Yes, I accept your amends, and I give you my seal of approval for falling in love with Rossi, for all that that's worth."
"It's worth quite a lot, Alex. Darling, would you mind if we went out for a walk? Alone? I really want to talk to Alex alone. I hope you don't mind."
"That would be fine, Topalina. I have things to take care of in here while you're doing that." Erin nodded and leaned over to kiss his cheek softly before getting to her feet and holding her hand out to Alex. For a brief moment, Dave was certain that Alex would rebuff her, but then she was taking hold of it and letting Erin pull her to her feet before they left the room.
He listened to the back door open and close before he got up, picking up the used coffee cups and bringing them into the kitchen, rinsing them out before setting the cups upside down on the drying mat. Mudgie whined at his feet, and he crouched down to pet his dog, scratching his head before opening the front door and letting him out to do his business. When that was taken care of, Dave put Mudgie in his crate and then headed upstairs and changed into pyjamas and a dressing gown before settling down in the wingback chair that overlooked the lake and watched as Erin and Alex talked on the dock. He smiled as he watched Alex tug Erin down onto the dock, their feet soon bare and dangling in the cool water as they talked animatedly. It was a beautiful sight, watching the two friends come back together, and his lower lip trembled a little with emotion as he sighed and picked up the book he was currently reading, losing himself in the words on the page.
A loud, girlish, shriek pierced the quiet of the evening, and he closed the book on his thumb as he quickly looked out the window again to see that Alex and Erin were splashing each other with water, none of it truly getting on them, but still there was something sweet about the way they were playing, and he hoped that this meant there truly was hope for reconciliation that would last beyond this weekend for the friends. Erin suddenly glanced up at his window, grinning with a freedom that he hadn't seen on her face in far too long, and he nodded as he grinned in return, only to watch Alex manage to thoroughly soak Erin's torso. He wondered what would happen next, since he knew how cold the water tended to be this early in the summer, and felt his mouth run dry when his lover stripped off her shirt as she shivered a little. Then he guffawed when Erin rolled the shirt up into a tube and whump Alex with it before taking off in the direction of the cabin.
Alex was hot on her heels when they disappeared from view, and Dave relaxed back in his chair as he shook his head. He had never truly known their social dynamic back then, so seeing Erin as she might have been, had life not conspired against her and Alex, was a bit melancholy, and he tried to shrug that feeling off, knowing that there wouldn't be a proper place for that emotion once Erin joined him in the bedroom. Only a few moments later, the door thumped open and Erin was sprinting inside, curling up in his lap as she breathed heavily, her breasts heaving enticingly in her bra. "Alex is out for blood tonight, honey."
"I saw what you two were doing, you gave as good as she did, Topalina."
"Yeah, Rin, listen to Dave. You were the one that started the water fight, and I wanted to end it." Alex leaned against the doorway and smiled gently at them both. "Though since you've claimed sanctuary in Dave's arms, I suppose that I can let it go for the evening. We'll have to see what tomorrow brings. Sleep well, you two." From the broad wink Alex threw his way, he knew that she knew exactly what they would be up to as soon as the bedroom door closed, and he blushed a little as he waggled the fingers of his free hand at her, only relaxing when Alex closed the door and left them alone. And in that moment, he knew that it was going to be a very interesting evening.
Dave woke up the next morning feeling a heavy weight on his chest, and he opened his eyes to see that Erin had sprawled atop him at some point during her sleep, and he carded his fingers through her tousled hair before leaning upwards and capturing her lips in a warm kiss. Slowly, her eyes fluttered open, and the free expression on her face stole his breath away. "Good morning, my bella Erin."
"Good morning, David. What time is it? I feel so well rested."
He glanced over at the clock to see that it was nearing ten in the morning, and he chuckled as he turned his head back to her and pressed another kiss to her lips. "We've definitely slept through breakfast," he replied as he gently pushed Erin off him so that he could slip from the bed. Picking up his dressing gown, he wrapped it around his body before jerking his head towards the master bathroom. "I'll be right back."
"Take your time, darling. I'll still be here when you get back."
Grinning, he padded over to the bathroom and quickly took care of his needs before brushing his teeth and dragging a comb through his goatee and hair, making himself look somewhat presentable before he went back into the bedroom. Erin was now dressed in one of his sweatshirts as she rummaged through her bag, grabbing at fresh clothes as she hummed beneath her breath. "That's a pretty song."
"It's the one that's in my heart this morning. I'm going to take a quick shower. Please, make certain that Alex has gotten something to eat while I do that? I feel like I'm being a bad host, and this isn't even my home."
"Not yet, but I hope that it might be someday." Erin nodded as she rose to her feet and went to his side, kissing his cheek before patting his bum as she moved past him to head into the bathroom. While he dressed, Dave listened to her in the shower. The song she had been humming had blossomed into a full-fledged singalong, and he smiled as he zipped his jeans and then started downstairs. As he went, he began to smell the scent of food being cooked, and he frowned a little, knowing that Alex must have started fending for herself. And just like Erin, he started to feel like a bad host as he went into the kitchen to see Alex standing in front of the stove, dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt, her hair pulled back in a high ponytail. "You should have woken us, I would have made breakfast."
"I know, but since you opened your cabin to me, I thought that this was the least that I could do for you and Erin. I take it that she's in the shower?" He nodded. "That doesn't surprise me. She loved her morning showers when we were in the Academy. Though I had forgotten what she sounds like…"
Alex's voice trailed off as a deep bluish colored her face. Turning her face to look down at the waffle maker, she moved her shoulders lightly as she struggled to get her composure back. "I think she forgot that you were here, or didn't know that the walls here aren't very soundproof. I've never had a partner up here, usually it's my hunting buddies, and sex is the last thing on our minds when we're after ducks."
Her entire body relaxed as she nodded, opening the waffle maker and placing them finished ones on the platter at her side. "It doesn't matter if it's sex or masturbation with Erin, I know that now. She makes the same sweet sounds. Her freedom in that aspect of her life allowed me to be that free when I finally found James."
"That's good to know, Lexie," Erin said as she came up to his side, wrapping her arm around his waist as she laid her head on his chest. "I'm sorry if we disturbed your sleep, though."
"You were fine, Erin. I'm the guest here."
"Still, I feel bad for imposing our sex life on you. I'm not an exhibitionist by trade."
Alex stepped away from the waffle maker, giving Erin a warm smile as she held out her hand to the woman. Erin came forward and clasped Alex's hand, holding on tightly as they looked at each other. "You said the same thing when I mentioned it during our Academy days. And I'll reply in the same way. Sex, even with just your own hand, is to be enjoyed and reveled in. The fact that you've found a partner who makes you feel good enough to react like that tells me that you're in a good place, maybe even a better one than Penelope realizes. Okay?"
Erin seemed to fold in on herself as she nodded, and Alex tugged her into a tight hug. Dave watched Erin's shoulders start to shake a little as she began to cry, and he knew that this release of emotion was exactly what she needed that morning. "I wish that you were back with us, Alex. I need another friend in the BAU, even if the others are starting to warm to me."
"There's not a place for me, and I'm assuming that whatever size your current team is, you're still facing budget issues. That is one thing that never changes."
"That is very true," Eri replied as they drifted over to the table. Dave brought the platter of waffles to the table and set it in the middle as he took a seat across from them, knowing that they needed this time to grow back together again. "David, I'm sorry that I keep forgetting you with Alex here. I promise, it's not on purpose."
"I know that, Topalina."
"I didn't say anything last night, but it is so sweet that you call Erin your little mouse. I have the feeling you had no idea how vocal she can be when encountering the right stimuli."
Erin's face was beet red by the time Alex finished speaking, and he chuckled a little as he speared two waffles, placing them on his plate before drowning them in strawberry syrup. "Oh, but you haven't heard the most darling little squeaks she makes when you catch her unawares with a tender kiss," he teasingly said, seeing Erin swallow thickly, a smile tugging at the corners of her lips. "I tease because I want to see you smile more, Erin. I know that it's been a rough road, getting you from there to here, and I just want you to know that you have me, and Penelope, and now Alex, to help guide you along this road."
"I know, it just feels weird at times, to catch myself being happy so soon after losing my children. And with having no hope of more in my future. I always assumed that I was going to be a grandmother," she said quietly before digging into her own waffles. He knew that she would need a moment to catch her emotions, and he sent Alex a grateful look when she reached out and closed her hand around her forearm in order to offer her support as they quietly ate.
"I had the hope of grandchildren, too, once. I wanted to try for another child, when we received Ethan's terminal diagnosis, but James was the voice of reason. He said that it wasn't fair to bring another child into this world when we weren't certain they wouldn't inherit what our genes had given to Ethan. And if they were, for lack of a more precise word, normal, it wouldn't be fair on them, since we would expect so much more out of them while not giving them the time they needed to grow and thrive, since all of our free time would be devoted to Ethan and his needs. But it is a hope that does not fade away quietly."
Dave felt his heart clench a little at the sorrow that permeated those words, and he nodded to Erin when she gave him a questioning look. Smiling sweetly, Erin turned her face so that she could look at Alex and then she was leaning over to kiss the other woman's cheek quickly. "We're all a part of this awful club, and I wish that I could make things better, but I am so glad that we get to be together now. Even if it took unimaginable tragedy for us to reconcile, maybe God knew that I would need my best friend back to help me deal with this. I've lost so much, but I've gained as well."
"We can't fill the niches in your heart that your children once occupied."
"I know that, Lexie. But you've already taken up residence once more in your niche." Erin blinked rapidly, trying to clear her eyes of tears, and he nodded to her as he continued to eat. "The hallways of my heart feel full of life once more, something that I never expected to happen so soon after their passing. Please, after you return to Boston, don't be a stranger. I am going to need my best friend just as much as I will need my new friend and my lover."
"That is a promise I will gladly keep." Alex knocked her shoulder against Erin's as they finished their meal, and Dave smiled as he watched Erin and Alex interact without words, the familiar nonverbal rhythms of their former closeness seeming to fall back into place as the minutes passed them all by.
"This has been a dream weekend, David," Erin said as they packed their bags into the back of his car. Alex was taking Mudgie on one last walk before the drive home, and he smiled to see the woman bend down and scratch the dog's ears before she popped back up and pulled out her mobile, answering a call. He could tell by the smile on her face that it was her husband, and Dave chuckled a little as he leaned in and kissed Erin gently as they waited for Alex to come over to them.
"Sorry, I always try to take James's calls when I can. Since he's overseas for most of the year, we have to make every moment we can steal for each other count. I sometimes wish that he would take a job with a hospital over here, but given that we've now lived for more than half our marriage apart, it would be a lot to grow accustomed to living together once more." Erin nodded a little as she reached her hand out to Alex. The woman took hold of it, squeezing a little as they sighed in tandem. "I really wish that you didn't have to leave for Boston as soon as we get you back to Quantico."
"I have to get back to my classes, and since I am teaching an introduction to linguistics class this semester, I have to be ready to teach early in the morning."
"I would have thought that you would be teaching all graduate level courses," Dave said as they climbed into the car.
"The department and I like to pass around the duty of leading a large seminar like that, so I'm only leading it every five semesters or so. And while they do rely heavily on their grad students to do most of the teaching and grading, I would rather set these students off right, and get them interested in our field of study. Linguistics is fascinating, and there are so many real life applications for it. I wish that I could work with the Bureau to develop that skill for use in all their departments, or that I could be back with the BAU. While the private sector is nice, there are times I miss studying the language an unsub uses and putting them away with it."
Erin cleared her throat as she fastened her seatbelt. "I wish that we had room for you on the team. I know that you'd be a good fit with the group of amazing people we have right now. And I know that Doctor Reid counts you amongst his mentors, since I've seen his reports where he mentions attending your lectures and even teaching with you. If you're serious about coming back to us, I'll keep you on the shortlist for when agents retire and we need to replace them."
"I would like that very much, Erin." The woman's hand snaked up into the front of the car, and Erin took hold of it, threading their fingers together as Dave began to drive home. A soft conversation flowed between Erin and Alex as he went, but he found that he didn't really mind been excluded from it, since he was able to learn more about his partner and Alex than he would have, if he had also gotten in on things. "Oh! I was going to grab a cab here from your place, Dave," she said as he pulled into the parking lot for the train station.
"I wouldn't let you waste good money when it was just as easy to bring you here and then head home. Besides, this way we can all have lunch together before you catch your train. I know that Erin would enjoy spending more time with you, and so would I."
The happy sigh that slipped from Erin's lips told him that he had made the right decision to do this. Once more, he wasn't surprised when Erin and Alex drifted off together in front of him, and he locked the car before jogging over to them, taking hold of Erin's free hand as they made their way into the station and over to the restaurant inside. They were seated right away, and he perused the menu while Erin and Alex continued to chat away.
Soon, the meal was over, and they had walked Alex to the terminal. Once more, Dave was surprised by Alex, watching the woman hug Erin tightly before pressing a fleeting kiss to her cheek and then scurrying over to her train and boarding, as if she had been too open for too long, and needed to escape before she broke down. "Did you get her contact information?" he asked before kissing Erin gently, leading her back to the car.
"Yeah, we exchanged those details this morning, while you were making us breakfast. Thank you."
"For reaching out to her and asking her to think about forgiving me. We had a really good chat out by the lake, and while I know that things won't be perfect right away, it really felt like her heart was less cold towards me just now. I don't know what I'd do without you and Penelope in my life. You've saved me and created something beautiful from the pieces of my shattered self. I love you. I know, I know, it is so soon to tell you that, but that's my heart, and I refuse to keep my feelings locked up inside any longer. I've lost so much time because I couldn't be honest. I hope that I don't push you away, but I want you to know how I feel."
He pressed her against the door of his car softly as he looked into her eyes, trying to let her know just how deeply he cared for her already. "I think that I am falling in love with you, too, but I've been holding back a little, because I don't want to hurt you. I just want you to find your happiness once more, and to not break your heart as you do so."
"Oh, David, I don't think that you could ever break my heart like their deaths did." Leaning forward, she curled one arm around his neck as she pulled him closer to kiss him deeply. "I freely give you my heart, darling. For all that it might be worth to you. And even if you can never fully love me, I will love you enough to make up for that."
"Erin Strauss, you are going to break my heart even more if you talk like that. I feel the first stirrings of love for you, I just need a little time to reconcile these feelings with the guilt I feel over starting a relationship with you so soon after what happened. I know what you've told me, I know what I feel. And I know that you've gotten beneath my skin and into the heart of me." He kissed her once more. "Now, let's head home."
"To your home?" she asked somewhat hopefully, and he chuckled as he nodded. "Good. Mudgie deserves to be home, not in a place that he can't run around in the yard." Opening the door, Erin sat in her seat and made herself comfortable, smiling up at him as he closed the door for her. The drive back to his house was quiet, though he did welcome the feel of her hand on his arm as she fell back asleep, her fingers tightening around the fabric of his shirt and holding firm while he drove. As he pulled into the garage, Mudgie began to whine a little, as if he knew that they were home, and he hurriedly parked the car and then slipped out of the vehicle to let his dog out into the backyard so that he could run around.
By the time he got back to the car, Erin was just waking up, and she gave him a sleepy smile as she stretched and blinked. "We've arrived."
"So I figured," she murmured before clearing her throats and holding her hand out to him. Dave clasped it tightly before tugging her to her feet and pulling her into a warm embrace. "I wish that we didn't have to worry about work, David. I still don't know what I'm going to do. I know that I should do the right thing and oversee another team, but then I wouldn't get to read your reports. Or interact with you on occasion."
"But you'll get to interact with me at home, and get all of my attention." He waggled his eyebrows at her, making her giggle, and she shook her head a little as they headed inside. "Though if you still wanted to deal with the members of Alpha, I suppose that I could always look into a lateral transfer. Perhaps switch places with someone?"
"No, darling, you all work so well together, and it would be difficult to replicate that sort of synergy. I suppose that I just have to resign myself to making the hard decision and not overseeing you any longer. As long as…"
"As long as we agree to spend time together. I know, I shouldn't be falling this deeply this quickly, but my heart has decided on you."
He nodded as he embraced her once more. "I think that we can spend as much time together as you want, Topalina. My Topalina." She sighed as she nodded, letting her head rest against his chest as a tender silence filled the room. In that moment, he knew that their future had fully started together, and he was so glad that they were now a we.
Erin had already left for work the next morning when Dave had stepped out of the shower, and he smiled to find that she had left him a fresh pot of coffee and set out one of the muffins she had baked after supper the previous evening. After filling up his travel mug, he drank what remained of the pot while scrolling through his messages and emails. He groaned a little at how many there were, knowing that it was the direct result of ignoring them all weekend, instead focusing on Erin and Alex, but he still shuddered to see that he had twenty texts and fifty emails to get through.
Once that was done, he glanced at the clock on the stove and saw that he had to get moving, otherwise he would be extremely late, and he shoved his phone in his pocket before picking up his briefcase, fresh go bag, and coffee, jogging out to the garage and backing out of his spot. He wondered if Erin had gotten a ride with Penelope, or if she had called a taxi, since there her car was still at her home, but knew that he wouldn't have an answer until he had a chance to talk with her. After parking, he hurried over to the entrance of their building, knowing that he only had a few minutes to get up to the bullpen and still be considered on time. Thankfully, his usual guard was on duty and waved him through while giving a wry look at his watch as Dave shrugged and fairly jogged over to the elevators, managing to squeeze onto one that was headed up.
His phone started to vibrate against his leg as the car rose, and he frowned a little as he transferred his bags to his left hand and pulled the device out. Still frowning, he saw that a number of texts from his team had started to roll in, and most of them said the same thing – Did you know about this? – with no other indication of what that enigmatic this was. He tapped his foot rapidly as he waited for the elevator to reach the sixth floor, and then he was tumbling out with a few of the others, heading into the bullpen and looking around for his team. They were nowhere to be found, and his pensive frown deepened as he went up to his office and put his things away before grabbing his work tablet and heading for the conference room, hoping that the others were already there.
"Did you have a good weekend?"
Turning his head, he saw Agent Anderson there, an open smile on his face, and Dave nodded. "We did. Erin really needed that time away. But where is the rest of my team?"
"They're holed up in Penelope's office, well, except for Agent Hotchner. He hasn't come out of his office yet this morning, even though there's a briefing that needs to be conducted."
Dave narrowed his eyes as he looked at younger man, watching him blanch. "Erin didn't mention anything about a briefing."
"Head into Penelope's office, and you'll find out why."
Those cryptic words further piqued his interest, and he nodded as he walked the last few feet to that door, letting himself in. Everyone was already gathered around her desk, talking animatedly, but that conversation soon fell quiet when they realized that he had now joined them. "Don't let me stop you from talking."
"Did Erin tell you what she was doing this morning?" Penelope asked as she popped to her feet, taking hold of his hand and dragging him over to her sofa and pushing him to sit down.
"Tell me what? All I know is that I have a bunch of cryptic texts from you and the brief conversation that I had with Anderson. Care to fill an old man in?"
Penelope's eyes widened as she nodded, looking at Derek, seemingly for support. "It's your story to tell, Baby Girl. You were the first one to know, after all."
"That's only because I arrived here first, and saw the memo in my email. Really, Rossi, you need to keep up with that!"
"I read them this morning, before I left!" he protested, listening to her chuckle a little. "Now, I take it that this memo was about Erin?"
She nodded and then rubbed her lips together a few times. "As of this morning, Erin is no longer our acting Section Chief. She is taking over that role with the International and Red Cell teams, whilst their Section Chief will be taking over her role. I don't know much about this Matteo Cruz, but JJ says that he's a fair man. We're going to be meeting him in thirty minutes, as he'll be leading our briefing and introducing himself at the same time."
Dave opened his mouth to reply when her office door opened once more, and all heads turned to look at who was joining them. Hotch sheepishly stuck his head in the door and gave them a tight nod before turning his focus onto Dave. "I take it that you're hearing the news, Dave. A head's up might have been nice."
"For me, too, Hotch. This is the first I'm hearing of it." His friend nodded, and Dave took a deep breath. "How about we talk in your office before the briefing begins? Since I have just as many answers as the rest of our team."
Aaron nodded again, and Dave reached out and squeezed Penelope's hand before getting to his feet once more and going over to the door, following Aaron to his office. "Erin didn't let you know that this was her plan?" he asked as soon as Dave had closed the door, and he shook his head as he took a seat in front of Aaron's desk, folding his hands across his stomach as he looked at the man he considered his best friend.
"We talked last night about it happening soon, but I had no idea that this was her timetable. I know that she wanted to remove any hint of impropriety with our relationship and her overseeing our team. I know that she genuinely cares for every one of us, but she was willing to sacrifice that comfort to make things look better. And she really wants to make certain that things between us are good, especially now that she and Alex have reconciled. She doesn't like there being such anger between us."
"I don't like there being this anger between us. I know that you've been trying to help her get better, but it…"
Aaron broke off, and Dave frowned sadly as he waited for a few beats. When it looked like he wouldn't finish his thought, Dave decided to prod him a little. "But what, Hotch?"
"It seemed like you were going to forget about us all when you and Penelope turned your focus on her. I wish that I could take back the harsh things that I said, because I was unnecessarily cruel to her and you. Do you think that she'll forgive me?"
"There's only one way to find out. Care to join me in her office?"
"Of course." Hotch's face relaxed a little, almost smiling as they rose to their feet and headed out of the bullpen. He nodded to Chief Cruz as they passed each other, and the man gave them a questioning smile in return. "We'll be back in a few minutes, Sir, and then we can go through introductions and the briefing." He nodded and then they were continuing on to Erin's office. Helen was behind her desk, typing away at her keyboard.
"Is she on a call?" Dave asked as she looked up at them, an apprehensive look on her face.
"No, she's free. Is everything all right?"
"It will be, Hotch just has something to say that should have been said weeks ago. Hopefully, I'll see you tonight when I pick Erin up to head home." She grinned as she nodded, gesturing towards the door. He crossed in a few long strides and entered the room, smiling softly when he saw that Erin was reading through a file, her reading glasses having slid to the end of her nose. "You look delicious, Topalina," he said before remembering that Aaron was at his side. She giggled and blushed as she sat up, pulling the glasses off her face as she looked at them both. "I'm just the page boy here, Aaron is the one that has something to say."
Erin nodded as she twirled her glasses around with her hand, her expression closing off as she focused her gaze on him. "Yes, Agent Hotchner?"
"I have a few apologies to make, Erin. I treated you quite badly when you were going through the worst time of your life, and even though I have experience with grief like that, I still treated you like you were scum. There's no excuse for my behavior, other than I was a jackass and unable to look past my own nose. The incident with Reid has colored my perception of those who deal with addiction, and I lashed out from a mistaken belief that you were struggling once more. And you were, just not in the way that I assumed. I'm sorry that I hurt you so deeply, and I'm sorry that I tried to ruin your reputation once more, after you fought so hard to rebuild it. I know that you won't be able to look at me the same way for a while, but I hope, for Dave's sake, that we can get back to some level of friendliness in the near future."
"That's all that I wanted to hear, Aaron. I know that it has weighed heavily on David's heart that you've been so angry with him. I'm tough, I can handle a little misplaced ire thrown my way, but you're David's best friend. For his sake, I am more than willing to rebuild this bridge between us that's fallen into disrepair. And I believe that having a new Section Chief for your team will help with that endeavor." Erin's smile wobbled a little as she rose to her feet and stretched her hand out across the desk. Aaron hesitantly clasped it before they shook firmly, and Dave couldn't keep the grin off his face as he patted his friend on the back. "Now, if you want to wait for David for a moment, I need to speak with him in private."
"Of course, Erin."
There was a small twinkle in Aaron's eye as he moved past Dave and out into the outer office, leaving him alone with Erin. "Well?"
"I know I should have told you that this was the plan, but everything snowballed after I emailed Director Shepherd last night. I don't think I'll be seeing you tonight, as I took a look at the case you'll be working on, but I am looking forward to you being home. So, before I send you off to that briefing, lean in." He did as told, and then Erin closed the distance between them, brushing her lips against his as they sighed in unison. "I love you, and I will pray for your safety while you're out in the field. Give my love to Penelope."
"I will, Erin," he murmured in reply before kissing her once more and then leaving the office to join his best friend, looking forward to the briefing and then to the time when he could be home with Erin once more.
"Did you want to head out for a late supper with us, Rossi?" Derek asked as they dropped their go bags off in the bullpen. He shook his head, and the other man chuckled as he raised an eyebrow. "That eager to return home?"
"Yes. I am exhausted from this case, as I didn't sleep well the past few days. Though I will take a raincheck on that offer. Perhaps next time, we both can join the team for supper."
"I would like that," Derek replied as he patted Dave's shoulder. Dave smiled at him as he went out into the hallway, deciding to eschew the elevator in favor of the stairs, knowing that they would get him to his car faster. While he was walking across the parking lot, he pulled out his phone to see if Erin had sent him any messages, but there was nothing new there. It didn't really surprise him, since they had been texting back and forth up until it was her normal bedtime, but he had still hoped for one last message before she had fallen asleep.
Dave made certain to put on light jazz as he drove home, knowing that the music would help him unwind after the case. It hadn't been nearly as bad as some of the ones they covered, but it was still enough to cause his skin to crawl a little. Along the way, he began to hum along to a familiar tune, thinking about crawling into bed and falling asleep. He was weary from the time change, and knew that it might be a miracle if he came into work on time the next morning. And since was the first time that they had worked under Cruz, he didn't know how lenient the man would be with tardiness. Still, he had the feeling that if everyone was dragging ass the next morning, there wouldn't be too much fuss.
Finally, he pulled into his driveway and opened the garage door. A wide grin slowly bloomed across his lips when he saw a very familiar car parked in the now cleaned spot. Though they had only been gone three days, it seemed like Erin had worked some magic in preparing a place for herself in his life, and he wondered who she had strong-armed into helping her. Still, he knew that was a story that could wait until morning, and he stumbled into the house, dropping his go bag off in the laundry room before stepping out of his shoes and then making his way upstairs. There was no need to turn any lights on, since he knew that would only disorient him and wake him up. Sighing a little, Dave pulled his shirt from his pants and began to undo the buttons as he climbed the stairs, ready to just collapse on the bed and pass out.
When he entered his bedroom, however, he found himself staring at the sight awaiting him on his bed. Erin was curled up on his usual side, wearing one of his pyjama shirts that was about two sizes too large for her slender frame, with Mudgie nestled at her feet. "You're gonna have to get down, boy. That's my spot," he said lowly as he tugged on his dog's collar. He slowly opened his eyes and let out a small woof of complaint as he jumped onto the floor. Dave chuckled as he crouched down to rub his head. "You did a good job watching over her for me, though." Another quiet woof came, and he smiled as he stood up and finished undressing, hanging up his trousers and shirt before dressing in a fresh set of silk pyjamas and joining Erin in the bed.
He had hoped that he wouldn't wake her, but from the groan that tumbled from her lips, he knew that she was coming to wakefulness. "You're finally home," she murmured as she sat up a little, wrapping her arms around his waist as she nuzzled her face into his neck. "I tried to wait up for you, but I fell asleep."
"I figured that when you didn't answer my last text."
"It's tough to grow accustomed to these new hours, David. The international team checks in at the oddest times, and I find myself having to be more on the ball than I was with your team. At least I knew that you went rogue only every once in a while. The Red Cell team practically reinvents the word rogue every time they go out on a new case. And I don't sleep as well when you're not here."
"Is that why you made room for your car in the garage?"
She nodded. "And we moved over the bulk of my clothes and makeup." She let out a long yawn as she stretched against his body. "But enough talk. You're home now, and I want to go back to sleep." He smiled as he nodded, leaning in to kiss her tenderly before pulling the covers up around their shoulders as he snuggled down into the mattress, finding his eyes closing heavily as they cocooned themselves together, shutting out the night and the problems of the day that they had faced.
The next thing he was aware of was the feel of Erin's lips brushing against his as their alarm went off in the background. Smiling against her mouth, Dave reached out and turned off the alarm before deepening their kiss, not minding the slight hint of morning breath on her, since he knew that she was probably tasting the same thing. "Good morning, Topalina. I hope that you were able to sleep better after I came home."
"I did," she said as she climbed from the bed. "I took my shower last night, so if you want to hop in, I'll just brush my teeth and get ready before fixing breakfast for us."
"That sounds like a small bit of heaven," he replied as he also got out of bed, following her into the bathroom and shucking off his pyjamas before stepping into the shower and turning the water on. He watched Erin wash her face and brush her teeth before putting on her makeup, finding something soothing about the deliberate, delicate, motions that went into her toilette. Erin turned and gave him a small wave before scooping up his pyjamas and leaving the room.
With her gone, it was a little easier to focus on getting clean, though he had hoped that he might be able to watch her dress as well. After a few minutes, he turned the water off and shook off the water that was still pearled on his body before stepping onto the bath mat and wrapping a towel around his waist as he went through his morning grooming ritual. With that taken care of, Dave padded back into the bedroom, grinning to see that Erin had laid out a fresh suit for him. He assumed that the tie and pocket square coordinated with what Erin was wearing, and he hummed a jaunty tune as he hurriedly dressed and then made his way downstairs. "I started a fresh load of laundry for us, David, and put clean clothes in your go bag. I think that you zoned out a little in the shower, but that's okay. We still have a lot of time before we have to leave, as I set the alarm a little early. It's selfish, but I wanted to spend as much time as possible with you before you go galivanting off once more."
Dave chuckled as he took a seat at the table. "And here I thought that I'd have trouble waking up and making it into work on time. Trust you to keep your punctuality." She shrugged a little before bending down and kissing his cheek lightly. "I'm not complaining, though, since you're right, we need to steal as many moments as possible for us."
Digging into his breakfast, Dave kept up a light conversation with his lover as they ate, and he found another sense of peace rolling over his soul, watching the play of emotion over Erin's face as she talked about how Penelope and Anderson had been so gracious to lend their time to helping her move her things over and cleaning out the garage. "They are such sweet souls, David. I am so glad that I have their friendships to keep me company when you're gone."
"I'm glad that there are people to watch over you while I'm gone. And if you need anything while I'm away, I'll give you the numbers of my agent and my manager. They can help you out with almost anything, as well."
"So I'm going to be a well kept woman, huh?" she teased, and he nodded. "You know, that's exactly what I need right now. Someone to watch over me and keep me safe. I love you, David."
He set aside his fork and relaxed his face as he reached across the table and picked up her hand, squeezing it lightly as he nodded. "And I love you, Erin. I don't know where this relationship of ours might lead, but I do know that I want to be by your side for as long as you want me in your life." Tears began to make her eyes sparkle, and she held onto his hand a little tighter as she nodded. "Now, I suppose that we have to head out to work."
"If we must. I wish that we could drive in together, but since I have no idea where you're going any longer, I can't afford to leave you stranded, even if Aaron or Derek might offer to drop you off here at the end of cases." She brought his hand to her lips, kissing the palm lightly before getting to her feet and putting their dishes in the washer before grabbing her purse and briefcase. "Make certain you come see me before you head out. I'll want a goodbye kiss."
"As if I could ever forget that," he said, watching her laugh a little as she left the house, and he let out a long breath as he rose to his feet and gathered his things, thinking about the day ahead of them, a happy song on his lips.
A soft knock on Dave's office door caught his attention, and he looked up from the file he was working on to see Penelope standing in the doorway, a shy expression on her face. "Come in, Kitten."
Nodding, she crossed the threshold into his office, closing the door behind her before taking a seat in front of his desk. "I am so glad that you've had a few days to be home, Dave. I know that Erin has been missing you something fierce, given all the cases that you've been working on lately."
"Yes, well, losing Emily to Interpol and then bringing Alex onto the team has played with her emotions as well. It's been a rough four months, but we're starting to get our bearings back once more."
Penelope smiled as she rested her chin on her hand, watching him intently. There was still that shy, nervous, air about her, and he wondered what she was thinking about that would cause that reaction in her. Finally, she took a deep breath and leaned forward a little. "So, I don't know if you saw the rota for next week, but Alex and I are taking a long weekend and heading up to New York City."
"That's nice, but why are you telling me that?"
"Because we're stealing your partner for the weekend as well. I thought that, since the six month anniversary of losing her family is coming up, we'd do something to take her mind off that. I know that she's worked so hard to find her footing once more, and I love her so much for that. Her friendship has been such a godsend to me. I mean, sure, I have Jayje and Emmy, but their friendships fill quite a different need in my life than Erin's does. And if I'm honest, I really like Alex, too. I thought I'd be more resentful with her coming on board, since she took over Emily's spot, but Erin's helped me to see the best parts of her."
"That does surprise me a little, Penelope, since Alex is so different from you."
She shrugged as she scratched her forehead a little, a wry smile on her lips. "You didn't like me very much when you first started with the BAU, because I was so different from you."
Dave chuckled as he nodded, running his hand along his goatee as he looked at her. "I probably could have been a little more diplomatic about our introduction, yes."
"Oh, you mean besides getting in my face about why I was shot?" she teased, a trill of laughter escaping her lips as she scooted the chair closer to his desk and rested her hands on top of it. "Though I know that it did look really bad for me during that case. There are definitely things that I would do differently, if I could go back in time."
"We all have at least one moment like that in our life. Now, thinking about your brief holiday in New York, where are you staying?"
"I rented a nice apartment in Chelsea for us. I wanted a quiet neighborhood, just in case emotions do start to run high and she wants to be away from the overwhelming crush of people. And I already bought tickets for a show on Saturday evening, even got some great seats for how late I was in ordering them. Other than that, our days are free, though I was thinking of spending a morning in Central Park."
"If you need anything, use this." He pulled his wallet out of his pocket and handed over his AmEx card, watching her eyes grow large at the sight. "I trust you three to be responsible, though if a small shopping spree does happen to land on that, I won't be too angry. Just try not to go too overboard?"
"Uh huh," she breathed out as she cradled the credit card close to her chest, staring at him. "You're certain that it's okay to use this?"
"Penelope, if I didn't trust you, I wouldn't have handed that over. Enjoy yourselves, and if you need an in at a restaurant, text me, and I can namedrop and hopefully finagle you a good table."
"That I might take you up on, Dave. Thank you!" She popped to her feet and rushed around to his side and threw her arms around his neck in a tight hug. "I know that she loves you so much, and I kind of love you, too. Not in the same way, of course, but there is a lot of love in my heart for you."
"I feel the same way, Kitten." He turned his face and pressed a gentle kiss to her cheek before pushing her away and getting to his feet as well. "Now, I am going to head over to Erin's office and have a nice little chat with her, since you'll be heading out tomorrow. How are you getting to the city?"
"I used a lot of my banked miles and got us business class tickets on an early morning flight, so that we could spend as much time as possible in the city."
He nodded, making a note of that so that he could contact his manager and see about getting their tickets upgraded and Penelope's miles returned to her account, wanting to pick up the tab for that at least. "You thought of everything," he said as they exited his office, and she nodded a little before heading into her office while he jogged down the stairs, giving Alex a small wave as he passed by her desk. She grinned and waved back in return before bending back over her work.
Whistling a cheery tune, Dave made his way over to Erin's office, nodding to Helen before slipping into his partner's office and taking a seat in front of her desk as he waited for her to end her call. She gave him a gentle smile as she held up her finger and thumb, holding them close together to let him know that she was almost done. "Of course, sir. Thank you for agreeing to letting me have this time off, I truly need this to keep me from dwelling on this first big milestone date. I'll make certain to let him know. Goodbye."
She hung up the phone, and let out a deep sigh. "Was that the Director?"
"Yes, he was just calling to let me know that my time off has been approved. Did, did Penelope tell you where we're going?"
"Yes, she informed me that you and Alex and she are going to New York to play for a long weekend." She smiled a little wider as she nodded, getting up from her desk and taking the chair next to him as she reached out for his hands. He freely handed them over, letting her clasp them as they took a few deep breaths in tandem. "I already handed over my AmEx card, just in case the rest of us are out on a case by the time next Friday rolls around. And much though this pains me to say," he said as he gave her a broad wink, "I think that you should invite Penelope and Alex to spend the night before at our house, that way you can all be certain of getting to the airport on time."
Erin leaned in and brushed her lips against his cheek before hugging him tightly. "I love you," she murmured in his ear before getting to her feet and starting to pack up her belongings. "Are you ready to head home for the day?"
"That was why I came here. I'm not bringing any work home tonight, since I want the focus to be all on you. I know that I've been missing you, what with all these cases we've been on lately." A soft blush blossomed on her face as she tucked her chin against her chest. "Or do you want to do something different?"
"You're not supposed to tease me while I'm at work, David. We have to at least keep up the pretense of respectability."
"Ah, where's the fun in that, Topalina?" He got to his feet and crossed the small distance between them, wrapping his arms around her waist and pulling her back against his chest. "After all, teasing a blush from you in one of the things that I'm best at." He made certain to trace the shell of her ear with his tongue, feeling her shiver and squirm a little as he dragged his lips down the column of her neck and nuzzling his chin between the collar of her blouse and her skin so that he could nip at the tendon there, knowing that Erin always went crazy when he did that. Almost right on cue, she let out a muffled moan, and he could see that she had pressed one hand firmly against her mouth in order to keep quiet.
Squirming a little more, she managed to turn in his arms and stare up into his face, frowning a little. "What did we agree upon when we were setting our boundaries for this relationship?"
"That I wouldn't tease you too much?"
She smiled and gave a small nod. "Also, that you're not supposed to take liberties at work. There are too many people that might walk in and catch us, and I'd rather keep this part of our relationship as private as possible. Even if you would love nothing more than to bend me over this desk right now and make me yours."
"Well, then, we need to get home sooner rather than later, because now I have a craving that I can't fill here." She chuckled a little as she danced away from him, finishing up with her task before taking hold of his hand and letting him lead her over to the elevators, a knowing smile on her lips as they anxiously waited for the elevator to arrive and take them home.
Dave smiled to himself when he saw that another text had come in from Erin, knowing that she had just been somewhere that she had loved, and he let out a little sigh as he shoved the phone back into his pocket, trying to focus on the interrogation that Hotch was leading. "Let me guess, old man, Erin sent you another message?" Derek teased, and he nodded sheepishly. "You two are that saccharine sweet couple that everyone else both loves and loves to hate. But seeing the light come back to her eyes after what she's gone through has been the best thing. And having her oversee different teams has allowed me to see her in a different light, too."
"She does seem to be under a different sort of stress these days, which is good to see. Though I am dreading to see my charge card bill this next cycle. The first place Penelope dragged Alex and Erin to, after they'd dropped their bags off, was Henri Bendel, and while I love the dress that Erin bought, I know that that is most definitely a high-end boutique."
"Let me guess, you approved light spending, didn't you?" He nodded. "Penelope is great at hearing some words better than others. But I say, if it puts a smile on Erin's face, and helps the three of them grow closer, it's a small price to pay. Right?"
Dave nodded as he turned his focus back to what was going on in the room, seeing that Reid had taken over the questioning while Hotch was sternly glaring that the suspect. He could just tell by the set of the woman's jaw that she wasn't going to give them anything useful, at least not on surface level, so he began to study her mannerisms, seeing that every time Reid asked a new question, she would flinch a little, and he made a note to tell Hotch about that when they had finished their questioning. He knew that there had to be something about that reaction, though he didn't know what. "I wish that Kitten was in the office, though. I know that she could find out the information that I keep circling around without my having to go into depth about things I'm not certain about."
"It's like she has a sixth sense for what we can't put into words." He nodded. "I think that's because we've worked together for so long. We've developed a rhythm to the way we work, even Blake. It's surprising at how well she slipped into Emily's place. Even if I miss Em like crazy, having a cool head like Blake on the team has been good for us all."
"She has added a different air to the team, yes." Hotch glanced up at the window, and he thought that his best friend could actually see through the mirrored glass and knew that they weren't entirely focused on the case. Shaking off his thoughts of Erin and Alex, Dave buckled down and focused on the ongoing interrogation, trying to glean some small speck of a clue that would lead them to the closure that the families needed.
Finally, there was a break for lunch, and while he was eating, Dave looked through the messages that he had been sent. It appeared that Penelope had managed to finagle her way backstage of the play they had seen, as there were a few pictures of them all with the cast. The wide smile on Erin's lips told him just how much happiness she had gleaned from that moment in time. The next few pictures were of them around the city, and then he felt his mouth go dry as all blood rushed to his groin. Hastily, he looked up to see if anyone was around, and he let out a low breath of relief to see that everyone else was also occupied before looking back down at the picture on his screen.
Erin had obviously taken the snapshot in a dressing room, as it came after a shot of her wearing a new blouse, and it was one of the most artfully sinful things he had ever seen. The blouse was hanging on a hook behind her while she was looking into the mirror, her free thumb tugging at her bra strap as her other hand took the picture. Hurriedly, he saved the picture to his camera roll before scrolling through the other pictures, finding no other suggestive pictures of his beloved. That was a very beautiful blouse, Topalina. I do hope that you bought it, as I cannot wait to see you in it. Give Penelope and Alex my regards, I think we're about to solve this case, and maybe we'll be home around the same time Monday. Love you.
After sending the text, he got up and went over to where Derek and Aaron were sitting, sliding his chair close to the table as he listened to what their conversation was about. "I still think that woman is the key to this whole case. Did she give any signs of cracking to you?"
"No, which is why I was hoping that you or Dave noticed something about her behavior that might clue us in to her mental state and if there are any chinks in her defenses."
"Actually, I did notice something odd. Every question that Reid asked, she would flinch. It was so momentary that I'm not surprised you missed it, but she definitely was unnerved in some way by the kid asking questions. I wonder what would happen if we sent him and Jen in after lunch to question her? They're the youngest, and that might have something to do with her reactions."
Hotch nodded thoughtfully, and then reached out to pat him on the shoulder. "That is a very good idea. I'll go tell them that's the plan for after lunch. How is Erin getting along in New York? I was going to let them know that Beth would have been available for a meetup, but it seemed like Penelope was intent on keeping it just a trio. Or perhaps I haven't earned her trust back yet, which makes sense. I behaved like a jackass, and I need to prove that I've changed. At least it hasn't affected our working relationship too badly."
"Kitten always tries to keep things professional. And honestly, I don't think they would have had time, since the only rest they have is when they get back to the apartment. I think Penelope is trying to cram as much into weekend as she possibly can, because she knows that arranging any amount of time off is a hassle at the best of times, and with Matteo watching us carefully, well, she's making the most of whatever time she can take. Especially since our annual leave will be filled with Erin and I going away alone."
"Oh, do you have plans, already, then, old man?" Derek asked as he smirked at them.
"I do, and we're headed for two weeks at the cabin. Erin loved being there, and I love seeing her happy. And that's just banking on the Director giving her the same time off, since we work separately now. I'll have to talk to Jen about how to schmooze Matteo a little more, since she seems to have a rapport with him that none of us have."
"And here I thought you didn't like playing the politics game."
He shrugged a little as a quick smile flashed across his face. "Neither Erin nor I like playing politics, but we're each good at it in different ways. She toes the line, while I prefer to redraw the line to my advantage. Together, we might just be unstoppable."
Derek let out a hearty chuckle as he shook his head. "I know, that should frighten me, but the idea of you and Erin as benevolent leaders of a new dictatorship is actually intriguing. You would totally be the carrot, and she'd be the stick. And with Penelope and Alex by your sides, I don't think it would take long before you ruled the world with an iron fist."
"I don't want to rule the world, and neither does she. We just want to be happy, and with each other, we are. I don't think that there's anything else that could possibly make this life better. Though I'm happy to hear that you and Beth are going strong, you need some happiness in your life, too."
Hotch dipped his head a little in acknowledgement of Dave's kind words before he pushed away from the table and got to his feet, heading over to the table where Reid and JJ were quietly talking between themselves. Dave knew that it would be a lot to ask of them, since their suspect was so unpredictable, but he knew that the two of them were good agents and would get the job asked of them done. "So, how is Erin, really? I hear the bits and pieces of conversations that Penelope and Alex have, but I know that's not the whole picture."
"I didn't tell Aaron the complete truth about this holiday. Penelope thought it would be best to get Erin away from here for the six-month anniversary of their deaths. It's hard watching the woman you love slowly start to fold in on herself and not quite realise that she's doing it, that she's putting on a patently false smile and going through the motions of things that she loves. It will be worse when it comes up on a year, and that's why we're going to the cabin for two weeks, why it's so important that I figure out how to schmooze Cruz enough so that he'll lead her teams for two weeks. I won't leave her alone at this time. Penelope and Alex get her half year, I get her year."
Derek's smile was sad and tight, and Dave cleared his throat a few times to chase away the tears that threatened to fall from his eyes. "That is a worthy endeavor, Rossi. And I know that you'll succeed. Though I'll make certain to keep my ears open for anything that might help us figure out Cruz a little better. After all, the more ears, the better, right?"
"Right." Dave smiled as he finished up his lunch before texting Erin back, asking her to model that new outfit for him when they arrived home. Within seconds, he received an answer from her, chuckling to himself to see that the only thing on his screen was a winking emoticon, which told him everything he needed to know about what would happen when they were finally together again.