Fandom: Criminal Minds
Spoilers: Up through Season 5
Characters/Pairing(s): Aaron Hotchner, David Rossi, Emily Prentiss, Derek Morgan, Dr. Spencer Reid, Jennifer Jareau/William LaMontange Jr., Penelope Garcia/Kevin Lynch, (Jack Hotchner, Henry Jareau), various OCs
Warning: Violence, language, and apocalpytic scenarios
Word Count: 37,872
Notes: This was written for the au_bigbang. Much thanks to speccygeekgrrl, redandglenda, brighteyed_jill and the very patient redhillbones for betaing, correcting, and just plain telling me how to make it better.
Summary: In 1952 the world was changed when the unexplainable Brisbane Event caused the rise of a new race, the metahumans. Sixty years later, the B.A.U. team is one of the leading experts in human/metahuman crime. But when the Brisbane Event returns with a vengence and terrible consequences, Aaron Hotchner's profiling team must team up with the metahumans to discover an unsub with a plan that has world-wide consequences for both races...
Even behind the bulk of Kara’s body, the noise in the Pit was incredible. Almost every able-bodied adult in the club was crammed down here and cheering on the two in the middle of the fighting ring. In contrast to the near-silent, almost shell-shocked atmosphere of the main floor, everything here was rowdy sound and light, a screaming outburst of the will to live, and survive.
“I need to ask her. You saw the Pit, same as me,” Morgan had said. Reid was curious, and he wasn’t the only one. Rossi and Prentiss could see the implications the same as him, and were willing to confront Lark on what had, until now, been merely rumors. Hotchner and J.J., with their kids so close, were less willing to press the issue in person. Or rather, they wanted to be between their children and any unexpected reactions. The idea that an organized fighting ring was in the basement of Lark’s club put an unexpected kink in their profile of someone they’d thought they could trust. With little to do with such limited information to profile their potential unsub on, Morgan wanted to take the time to discover a little more about their “hosts.”
Kara had been waiting for them at the top of the stairs, like she had been expecting them. A curious move, on Lark’s part, sending the one metahuman they’d worked with closely and physically for three years, instead of herself, who was more often a voice on a phone. If she’d wanted to keep secrets, she would have been there. So secrecy was suddenly no longer a concern.
Kara shoved her way through the crowd easily by virtue of her weight, bulk, and superior strength; the team easily fit into her wake, but the screaming crowd barely seemed to notice them. They were jostled and shoved more as a matter of course rather than with malicious intent. That was easy to believe, when every scrap of attention was focused on the two figures fighting in the ring, rather than anyone in the crowd.
“Lark said you’d noticed.” Kara was pale, her shell almost pink instead of its usual brick red, but she could stop them from going downstairs simply by virtue of standing in front of the door. She could bench press, not a small car, but a large one, and it was worth a dozen lacerations from her spiny carapace if you tried to get by her even passively. Even in her exhausted state, she could probably handle her self-appointed duties as a doorman with ridiculous ease.
“You know why we’re concerned,” Rossi said, his voice steely under silken persuasion.
“You know we have a hard time defending ourselves,” Kara countered, arms spread in apology, eyes downcast. “I know Lark talked to you about what it feels like to try to fight.”
It was the first long conversation they’d ever had with Lark Vincent, asking her about the inexplicable, universal metahuman suicidal aversion to killing violence. They’d needed to understand why so many metahumans became victims, even with their own communities looking out for them. And they needed to know why the few, very rare metahumans could kill. Though many professionals, from anthropologists to psychologists, had tried to explain the strange, inborn inhibition, there was no substitute to hearing it from a metahuman's own perspective.
“It's like your body is fighting you,” she'd said. “Like an anxiety attack. There's this pit in your stomach, like fear, and your muscles lock up. If you think about it, it gets even worse. It takes an incredible amount of willpower to even learn how to fight defensively, and it drains you, emotionally. I've come out of a two-minute bout with another guy and both of us were practically crying, and it wasn't because we were in pain.”
She frowned as she tried to put it into words. “I don't think humans realize this, but we don't get to be noble when we spare someone's life. If someone is threatening us, and I've never known a metahuman that hasn't been threatened before, we can't threaten them back. Or, we can, but they know it's all hot air. We don't get the choice. If we're confronted with some sicko that wants to hurt us or people we care about, the best we can do is knock them out. And sometimes that isn't enough. We have a saying, 'Kill or control.' Because you either learn to control everything you have, or you kill and take yourself out. We have a lot fewer options than you. Some sickos like that. They like having a victim that can't bite back unless they want to become a martyr.”
“Do you have any idea why you’re like this?” Gideon had asked.
“Nothing medical, if that’s what you’re asking,” Lark had shrugged. “But the prevailing philosophy is that the Man Upstairs gave us a kill circuit for a reason.”
That had been crucial in learning about how metahumans thought. There were far more metahuman victims than metahuman killers, the latter almost always in the throes of a psychotic break. But understanding how intensely frustrated and violently impotent many metahumans were, and how some damaged humans viewed that in an almost fetishized light, that let the team get into the minds of those killers and find them much more easily.
“But why didn't you tell us about the Pits?” Morgan asked, keeping his voice low. Kara's sides heaved in a huge sigh, and she settled back against the wall.
“How does that look? Really?” Kara said pointedly. “They aren't fight clubs, not really, but who's going to believe that? We need them.”
“Why the hell would you need them?” Rossi asked.
“To learn how to fight,” Kara said slowly, as if they were missing something obvious. At their irritated looks, she blinked and quickly backtracked. “Have you ever seen metahuman children have arguments? Squabbles over toys or anything?”
“They don't,” Reid said positively. “Metahuman children will argue verbally, but never physically.”
“Exactly,” Kara said. “As soon as we're about ten or so, someone will get us into the closest Pit so we can learn how to fight. Before then, most kids can't even raise a hand in anger.”
Morgan started; that put an entirely different face on things. It wasn’t just that metahumans were averse to killing, but were born without the ability to even defend themselves. And in a world where you couldn’t hide your own nature from those that hated you… He was honestly surprised, in retrospect, that there weren’t more cases of human on metahuman violence than there already were.
“And you get around that by beating each other up?” Rossi asked, the sting of his words making Kara stand up straight.
“How else do you learn how to hit someone? You learn by hitting them,” she replied with equal acidity. “You can’t learn that from a book.”
“Touché,” Rossi allowed, and nodded his head at the door behind her.
“She said you’d want to see,” Kara muttered, and turned around with reluctance. Opening the door, a huge wave of sound and the stench of sweat rolled up the stairs. Shuffling slowly, she made her way down the stairs, leaving the BAU team to follow in her wake.
Kara bullied her way to the edge of the ring and turned to let the humans come right to the edge. Morgan gripped the edge of the ring with white knuckles, and turned to see Reid wincing at the sound. It had been loud before, but now, in the middle, it was even worse. There was no calm at the eye of this storm. The fight that was rattling the panels was enough make Prentiss’ eyes go wide with surprise, and even Rossi had a hard time looking unimpressed.
Lark --thin, acrobatic, fragile-seeming Lark-- was leaping from wall to wall like a spastic grasshopper, her hooves and unusual legs giving her incredible leaping power. Paul, one of the bouncers with skin like stone, was doing his level best to grab her on one of her unpredictable leaps through the air, but was too slow to catch her most of the time. But when Lark timed one of her leaps wrong, she hit Paul with a hoof, cracking one of his stony plates. Morgan winced at the sight as well as the renewed volumes of shouts that move brought, and flinched when Paul used her mistake to grab Lark around the waist and hurl her into the wall.
She reached back, seeming to absorb the impact with her freakishly long arms, and pushed off with them, sliding on the ground under Paul and grasping his ankles with her whip-like fingers. Leaping to her feet, she pulled hard, and Paul tripped, slamming into the ground with enough force to bounce. He rolled to his feet quickly, but Lark suddenly raised her arms in what looked like surrender.
Reid had been watching the fight with horrified fascination, and realized there was something deeply wrong about it. He’d been beaten up enough times as a twelve year-old high school student to have reached the breaking point more than once. Lark had been winning, but she was surrendering because she’d reached the breaking point. The repressed emotion on her face said she was seconds from bursting into tears.
Lark brought her arms down sharply, and the noise abruptly cut off as if she’d pulled a plug. The silence was so profound that it made Reid’s ears ring.
“Does that answer your questions?” she asked quietly.
The question itself was a challenge, and despite Lark’s quiet emotional desperation, Morgan felt the strong urge to take a step backward from her.
Discovering that metahumans had apparently found some ways around their psychological block against violence put an entirely new and disconcerting spin on what the BAU team thought they knew about them.
“I made sure we had ammo for you, so you could defend yourselves. You don’t have to defend us,” Lark added, vaulting the Pit wall with ease while Paul climbed out the other side. Behind her, the chitin-covered Mitch and a young man with slick, slimy orange skin took their places. Neither of them looked at the team, and both stood stiffly, awaiting their turns.
“You worry about yourself and whoever out there that’s responsible for this shitstorm. We can take care of ourselves.”
Prentiss wasn’t certain that she breathed again until she was back upstairs. The silence was more unnerving than anything else that had happened in the past two days. She wasn’t used to metahumans being that aggressive, to be forcibly reminded of how potentially dangerous they all could be, if they put their minds to it. The very, very few metahuman killers the team had ever encountered had been in the throes of a psychotic break, incapable of distinguishing fantasy from reality, and so out of it that their capture, while not easy, was often straightforward. The idea of someone with the power of a metahuman on a sane but violent bender gave her a moment of unwanted empathy with those human survivors that were now shooting at any metahumans they could see.
“Cute,” Rossi muttered, as the door shut behind them, muffling the renewed shouts from below.
“The fact that she made sure she was fighting when we were down there? Or the speech?” Morgan asked.
“More the speech. She always did have a flare for the dramatic.”
Prentiss shook her head a bit to chase away her fear and tried to focus on what they’d learned. “If we acknowledge her strength and conviction it gives anything she says to the others more weight.”
“It makes them think they’re invincible. Getting an enemy to acknowledge the strength of their opponent’s troops to bolster morale is an ancient military tactic dating back to-,” Reid started.
“Yeah, I can guess,” Morgan cut in, before Reid could wax eloquent.
“But we’re not the enemy,” Prentiss stated, and flicked her gaze over to Rossi for him to pick up the statement.
“We’re the face of the enemy. She rattled us deliberately, and she expected us to see through her. But not the rest of them. They need to think they can win, even though deep down everyone here knows they’re in trouble.” Rossi shook his head slightly. “It’s like what you told me when you first met her. You embarrassed her, and she had to take back some little bit of control before she’d help you. We’re on her turf, with her people. We’re taking front and center stage to try to save the world. No one wants to feel left out.”
“I think part of that was exactly what she said it was,” Morgan said, crossing his arms and looking back at the door. “I think she wanted us to know she has our back in more than just information.”
After telling Hotch and J.J. what they had seen and had guessed, the team spent the rest of the afternoon collecting what information they had and profiling what they could. Which was, they all quickly realized, a lot less than they were used to.
Hotchner looked down at the piles of lists they'd written down of what little information they did have. Power was still out across the city, and the technological resources they'd all grown used to were suddenly unavailable.
They had a million questions for Garcia, things that would have let them narrow their search and expand their knowledge instantly, but the minute Hotchner turned to her, she and Kevin had all but thrown up their hands in despair.
“Sir, I'm blind as long as I have no connection,” she said, frustrated nearly to the point of tears. “And even if I could get online, no one is updating any records! If I could find a power source, maybe...”
“Baby Girl, don't you start doubting yourself,” Morgan said. “We need you.”
“I know you do, that's kind of the point I'm making,” she said. Kevin, wisely, had been keeping his mouth shut. Morgan had seen them hard at work on their computers while the team had been brainstorming questions, but apparently no matter what tactics they'd tried, there just wasn't anything to link into.
“If we can get back to the BAU, we can definitely get something,” Kevin said finally, nodding. “But there's still the whole not-updating thing.”
“We're just going to have to do this the old-fashioned way to find out new information,” Rossi said firmly. “And it doesn’t mean we have to stop figuring out what we need. Lark said we could use anything she had. And what she has, why we’ve been consulting with her all this time, is her own networks. She knows people, and she can get metahumans to talk. When Kara recovers, we could talk to any metahumans around the country.”
“If we knew there was an epicenter, then we could begin to target specific areas of the country,” Reid said. “There might be areas where those killed outright by the storms were much higher. We need the death tolls and demographics for as many areas around the country as possible. We need to know the extent of the damage.”
“Since the storms are still continuing, the unsub must have a steady power source. Assuming most powerplants have shut down because there's no longer anyone there, the unsub may be near a hydroelectric plant. Some of those can run on automatic for weeks,” Prentiss said.
“Also, whoever is behind this has deep knowledge of both metahumans and the Brisbane Event itself. We need to know every expert in that field, and who might be capable of creating theses storms,” Hotchner said.
“Ok,” Rossi said, as the conversation ran down, “Let’s get her in here.”
Lark seemed to be many times calmer than she had when left the group the first time, and didn’t mention a single thing about her display in the Pit as the team laid out their needs. She listened attentively, shaking her head at the requests for mass demographic and powerplants, but nodding at the others slowly. With every question and request, she seemed to look a little more hopeful, a little more cheerful. Counterintuitive, maybe, but the team hadn’t shut down at what might have seemed like an impossible request. They’d risen to the occasion, and Lark was right there with them.
“I can round up some people here who might know some of the Brisbane Event scientists. A lot of us... Well, a lot of us don't end up going to college, and a lot of us don't have a lot of money, so when a scientist says he'll pay you just for the privilege of studying you, most of us don't turn down that offer.”
“Get us names. If we can get into the FBI's central database, we can at least start cross-checking criminal records and complaints. Anyone who's both an expert on Brisbane radiation and has a grudge against humans. Someone who would know how to engineer a disaster on this scale,” Rossi said.
She nodded again and jumped off the desk to go make inquiries.
“Sir, even if I can access those records, it's going to be pretty slow,” Garcia warned. “If there are a lot of servers down, I'm going to have to reroute a lot of search strings, and it could take a lot of time.”
“In a building with survivors,” Kevin added with a tentative wince. Armed survivors, he didn't add out loud.
“I know,” Hotchner said. “We'll go in together, see who survived, if there's anyone we can help. If there's no one there, we can still get what information we can.”
“And get into the weapons' vault,” Morgan added firmly. “Some of the people I've been talking to have been outside, and it's a war zone out there. We're going to need more than just nine mils if things get ugly.”
Lark returned an hour later, bearing a list of names of scientists that had requested metahumans to study. It wasn't a complete list, but those names would lead the team to other names, one of which was more than likely to be their unsub. Anyone who was capable of doing anything on this scale was not a lab assistant, he or she was probably in charge of their own lab, and had probably published many papers on Brisbane radiation. That field of study was small; they'd be able to narrow it down once they got into databases.
She’d also returned with their way to contact St. Paul.
“Agents, this is Lauren. Lauren, you know everyone, by reputation at least.” Lauren bobbed her head diffidently, in a very birdlike gesture. Not surprisingly, because Lauren was an owl. Not as much of an owl as Kara was a crab, but she had the feathered, rounded head, tufted ears, huge eyes, and sharp beak of that silent bird of prey, even if her body was mostly humanlike, though feathered.
“Lauren hears everything, anywhere,” she’d explained quickly. Rossi looked a little horrified at her bald explanation, because Lark was saying precisely, and literally what she meant. No wonder she’d been a little reluctant talking about some metahumans she knew. If the government had known there was someone living who could listen to what was going on behind closed doors, laws and morals wouldn’t have stopped them from burying the hapless metahuman somewhere far, far away from anything important. It had been Lark’s power had had made her so difficult to visit the BAU, as the thought of an empath even accidentally affecting agents was terrifying to the government. It was only Kara’s willingness to sign binding contracts of behavior with her heart’s blood that had gained her entry with her ability.
“You can hear all the way to St. Paul?” Prentiss asked, and Lauren nodded, the feathers on her face fluffing in some kind of version of a smile.
“And if one listens hard enough, then I can let them know that I hear,” she said in a low, breathy whisper. Prentiss raised an eyebrow, and Lark shrugged.
“We’re fresh out of technology, so I brought who I had.”
Reid looked fascinated, and was ready to ask a dozen questions, but managed to contain his enthusiasm as Lauren unceremoniously knelt on the floor, ear tufts twitching as she listened with an intensity that was almost palpable.
“What’s she listening for?” Morgan asked, baffled. Listening all the way to St. Paul was all well and good, but what in the world could she get from listening to a mostly-empty city?
“The coroner’s reports, they’re co-signed by the M.E.’s assistant, right?” Lark asked rhetorically.
J.J. looked at the report and nodded. “Robert Briar.”
“He’s a met. And I bet he’s the one that helped put your case on the track to get FBI attention. Taya says that diagnosing brain shock at autopsy is damn near impossible, but Bobby has an advantage. He’s a deadspeaker,” Lark explained.
“That… does exactly what it says on the box, am I right?” Prentiss asked reluctantly.
Lark grinned. “Yeah. He can get the last sensory experiences from a corpse, if it hasn’t been dead too long, and the body’s intact. The last thing the deceased saw or felt or heard…” Lark trained off when she saw Morgan looking at her very strangely. He had apparently reached his limit on strange today.
“You guys can do things like that?” he asked.
“Well, you know,” she shrugged. “There’s a met for that.”
Kevin and Garcia, listening attentively in the back, nearly choked to death trying not to laugh.
“Anyway, he never leaves the morgue, so she’s listening for him there-.”
“I hear him,” Lauren whispered, drawing everyone’s attention back to her. “Bobby? I hear you. Listen, listen…” She fell silent and her beak gaped open. From her open mouth came the very faint but distinct voice of a young man with a deep and raspy tone, utterly unlike Lauren’s voice.
“Damn, it’s good to hear from you!”
“Listen, Bobby, I’m here with Agent Hotchner’s team from the BAU. They think the case you sent them is connected to what’s going on now-,” Lark said.
“They’re sure?” Bobby interrupted.
“She’s like a human radio-,” J.J. said with wonder, and stopped herself at the faux pas.
“Indeed,” Lauren said quietly, cracking open one eye to fix J.J. with cheerful gaze. “OWLL on the air.”
“We’re trying to be sure,” Hotchner said, abandoning incredulity to get the information they so desperately needed. “We need to be certain that the people who died in the two waves of attacks were killed in the same way as the initial victims of the storms.”
“Give me a sec, I have to talk to someone.”
Lauren closed her mouth as Briar apparently busied himself elsewhere, and opened her eyes.
“You can talk to anyone?” Reid asked quickly, wanting to get in a few questions while they waited.
“Only if they can hear very quiet voices. Bobby hears the quietest of voices. Most can’t. Ah, he’s back, wait.”
A long moment of silence, and Bobby’s voice returned, sounding a little awed.
“Yes. They died the same way. Golden light, fear, panic, then darkness.”
“The first victims, the ones you sent to us, did they see anything unusual before they died? Anyone they recognized? Or someone that shouldn’t have been there?” Rossi asked, taking the possibility of questioning the dead in stride.
“Male, six feet tall or so, bald, glasses, sometimes wearing a lab coat. Those that saw him saw a silhouette, so that’s all I have.”
“Did he have any kind of equipment on him? Was he carrying a bag or anything else?” Reid asked.
“He looked at his watch. He clutched his head. He carried a clipboard. He was a stranger,” Bobby said, his detached tone of voice clear even through the filter of distance. His thoughts were elsewhere, recalling information plucked from the mind of the dead.
“Lauren, how long can you do this?” Hotchner asked quietly. Lauren’s ears twitched, and she nodded.
“Long as you need.” Lark nodded faintly in agreement, and impatiently gestured for them to get on with it.
“Robert, we want to do a full cognitive interview with you about what you experienced. Anything you might have seen or heard could be useful to us.”
“The dead want to speak. Believe me, they’re clamoring for attention.”
Over the next half hour, Hotchner had Morgan draw out every detail he could from Robert Briar’s experiences of a dozen victims. A picture began to emerge of a middle-aged professional, knowledgeable enough to easily fit into various medical situations without raising any alarms, but seemingly carrying little in the way of equipment to create the short-range storm that had killed people in St. Paul.
“Sir, I, uh-,” Kevin broke in unexpectedly, after that discouraging piece of information. He coughed and regained his courage as everyone turned to stare at him. “It might not take that much power to recreate Brisbane radiation.”
Rossi looked a little skeptical. “How would you know?”
“I’m kind of a B.E. buff and, um… Anyway, the prevailing theories are that the original Brisbane event was some kind of random cosmic event-.”
Lark snorted. “We’re not little green men, Kevin.”
He blushed and nodded. “Not like that! It’s just that Brisbane radiation is very penetrating. Nothing can stop it, so it’s not like you can contaminate something with it and just keep it in a lead box until you need to study it. If you want to study it, really study it, you have to recreate it, because the first was such a freak occurrence that it might not ever happen again. Scientists have been doing it on a small scale for years. I don’t quite get all the theories behind it, but I’ve seen pictures of the rigs they use in the labs. They’re not much bigger than a loaf of bread and don’t draw much more power than, say, a car battery. It’s how some labs do testing in the field.”
“Crap,” Lark said, standing up abruptly. “Crap, crap, crap!”
Reid was in total agreement. The tentative profile he’d been building in his head of a scientist with his own laboratory had been wiped out with that information. The person they were looking for could be a lot more mobile than they feared. St. Paul might not even be his preferred hunting ground; it might have just been a convenience, a stopping point before the grand finale of the storms.
“We’re going to have to cast a lot wider net,” Rossi said.
“Kevin, do you know if anyone was doing amplification or modification on these kinds of rigs?” Hotchner asked.
He shook his head frantically. “No idea, sir. No one had sanctioned wide-scale experiments, but it wasn’t like there was a big controversy about it. No one really wanted to recreate a full Brisbane Event-.”
“How about its effects on humans? Was anyone studying that?” Prentiss asked.
Kevin shrugged in helplessness, and Lark frowned, brow furrowing.
“If someone was asking for human volunteers for Brisbane experiments, we’d be the last ones to hear about it,” she said. “We don’t run in the same circles.”
“Who hates humans this much?” Robert asked from hundreds of miles away, sounding desperate.
“Who?” Lauren asked in her own voice. “I hear the survivors screaming at every storm.”
Lark and Lauren abruptly turned and looked over their shoulders, right before another shimmer of golden light passed through the room. Lauren shut her beak with a snap and pressed her hands over her ears with a faint cry.
“I hear them, I hear them,” she whispered faintly, voice muffled as she curled up. Lark wrapped her arms around the owl-woman, and looked up at the team with desperation. Pulling Lauren to her feet, Lark shuffled her out of the room, reappearing a moment later, eyes looking haunted.
“Did you get what you needed?” she asked.
“Listen, did anything Robert say remind you of anyone?” Morgan asked, not wanting to stop now, when they’d gotten some momentum going. “Tall bald man in his forties, glasses, probably in charge of one or more Brisbane experiments-.”
“Organized, meticulous, thorough…” Prentiss added.
“Why did you look over your shoulder?” Reid asked, looking off into the distance, bringing their profile to a screeching halt. Hotchner looked at him in concern; it wasn’t like Reid to not pay attention unless he’d been working out something of monumental proportions.
Lark could almost hear the record needle skipping, but shrugged and answered anyway.
“The storm was coming.”
“You knew it was coming,” Reid insisted.
“Yeah, we always know when it’s coming. We always know when storms are coming. Tornadoes, thunderstorms, or… this,” she waved her hand at the fading golden light.
“You never mentioned this before,” Rossi said sharply.
“It wasn’t going to help anythi-.”
“You looked over your shoulder,” Reid repeated more urgently. “Do you know what direction it’s coming from?”
Lark stopped in surprise, hand up as if she were going to make a point, closed her mouth, opened it again, closed it, and then turned and pointed due west.
“You know where it was coming from this entire time?” Prentiss asked.
“Fuck you, I thought you knew it too!” Lark said, more shocked than angry. She let out a surprised laugh. “I forget you’re not mets sometimes.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Rossi said. “Now, there’s not a whole lot east of D.C., so getting back to the point at hand, did you recognize anyone from Robert’s description?”
“No. No bald guys with glasses, but that doesn’t mean a whole lot,” she said with resignation.
“But we have a hell of a lot more information than we did. If we can feed this through the databases-.”
“The day after tomorrow. Taya says Kara will be ready by then,” Lark said, anticipating their next question.
“Guys, it’s going to have been four days since the generators came online in the building. If no one is tending them, they might have run out of fuel by now,” Reid pointed out.
“Do you have enough to spare here?” Morgan asked.
“Yeah, but no. Fuel and Kara’s portals don’t mix. They tend to explode,” Lark said.
“We’re not walking forty miles to Quantico,” Prentiss said, shaking her head.
“We’ll portal close, get fuel from a gas station, and walk the rest of the way. Less dangerous. I’m more worried about the people inside,” Lark said, moving to the door. She paused and gave a significant glance to the boxes of ammunition stacked against the wall. “You should be too.”
The next morning, Hotchner woke up early, brought out of sleep by another storm. Though there was no pain, and hadn’t been since Kincaid had changed him, the rush of heat had been enough to bring him out of a fitful doze. Tomorrow they’d be going back to Quantico, to continue to build a profile on a mass murderer on a scale that the world had never seen. They’d be going, not to a secure precinct, to question and correlate information in relative safety, but to a city full of the dead, and of small bands of people that would be whipped up into a frenzy every time the storms hit. He could see in his mind's eye the blood on the floor of the BAU office in pitiless clarity, and the danger that implied the world over.
Hotchner had to be certain the team was ready. They had their go bags, they had their files, their assignment, and were traveling with Kara to their home office, something they’d done dozens of times in the past three years. All of that spoke to a certain unconscious level of normal, of security, that no one could afford to have. The very obvious shocks of the past few days could make even an experienced profiler try to forget about the worst of things to focus on the few things they could affect.
Personal danger could be forgotten in the face of trying to save the world.
Morgan was slowly starting to blink awake as the storm passed, and the others were beginning to stir.
“Derek, once everyone’s awake, have them arm themselves and come downstairs.” The confusion of sleep cleared in a few seconds; Morgan got Hotchner’s meaning immediately.
“Everyone?” he asked, slowly propping himself up on one elbow. Morgan’s eyes flicked over to Garcia and Kevin questioningly, and Hotchner shook his head.
“Everyone trained,” he corrected. Yesterday he might have considered it, before he learned about the metahumans in action. Today, it wasn’t necessary to force two computer jockeys to learn how to shoot, not when there was a building full of people willing to protect them.
Putting a hand on the comforting weight of the gun in his holster, Hotchner quietly went downstairs to the Pit to use their firing range. The metahumans were doing everything in their power to make certain they could defend themselves and protect those in their care. For once, they deserved humans on their side of the fight, backing them up. One of the team, armed enough to give a frantic survivor pause, could keep that human survivor from trying to kill the same people that were ultimately trying to help save them. The team didn’t have time to try to talk down every single survivor they might encounter. The storms were steadily eroding the sanity and health of every human left alive. For once, a lethal threat might gain the team more than all the highly trained words and psychological insight in the world. Reid, Hotchner reflected, was really going to hate this.
The Pit was deserted at this time of the morning, but still held the lingering smells of sweat and blood. Unlike the exercise room at Quantico, there was an air of desperation here, that every impact-mark and chip in the walls and floor was absolutely necessary. This was not a place to practice. This was a place to survive.
There was no familiar tang of burned gunpowder at the firing range, no bullet holes in the reinforced back wall, and the only targets were pained outlines on the concrete, not a pristine paper hanging from a motorized tract. The firing range here was precisely and literally that. Like Tom Ringholme, more than one metahuman could fling fire, or other kinds of energy. The back wall was scorched and blacked, dented in places where people had flung physical projectiles: rocks, slivers of metal, even shards of shed bone and chitin.
In Lark’s scavenging for supplies, she had managed to find a rather remarkable amount of ammunition. He wasn't going to be wasting precious resources by practicing. He took a certain pride in his skill, and knew that now, of all times, he and the rest of his team had to be certain they could hit whatever they aimed at.
But when Hotchner tried to raise his weapon to point at the target on the back wall, he realized something was profoundly wrong. A terrible, gut-deep fear gripped him, guilt and shame and despair so strong it was almost a physical pain, while his hands seemed to freeze in place on his gun. Thinking about pointing the gun at the wall felt almost the same as if he were going to point it at his own temple.
It felt like an anxiety attack of crippling proportions, and Hotchner froze, breathing slowly as he tried to conquer the irrational emotion surge. Which, he realized suddenly, wasn't irrational at all. His brain had been changed, on a deep, profound, instinctual level to survive the storms, and yet not one of his trained team had been able to find anything different about themselves. They simply hadn’t been looking in the right place. They’d been testing each other’s memories, their reactions, their emotional responses, but hadn’t thought to test anything as simple and instinctual as pointing a killing instrument at anything. It was something they took for granted that they could do. Even after hearing Kincaid say that the changes were at the level of instinct, they hadn’t thought to check simple reflexes and self-defense. They’d been so worried that they could have lost their sense of self, and perhaps so worried that Kincaid was, in a small way, making them like him, that they hadn’t thought to check those fundamental differences characteristic of metahumans.
Metahumans didn't kill. How could they, if it felt like this? This feeling, the wave of crippling anxiety, was exactly how Lark Vincent had tried to describe the metahuman aversion to killing. Like there was a deep instinct not to kill. Hotchner wasn't even pointing his weapon at a person, and he could suddenly, profoundly understand why metahumans would let themselves die rather than strike back fatally. The fear was so strong that one would do anything to not feel it.
It scared him, not being in control of himself, but more than that, it made him angry. He didn't enjoy killing, but that had always been an option to take down an enemy quickly. Having that taken away from him by no choice of his own... No, the choice had been his. It had been either this, or watch his son die screaming before submitting to the madness of the storms himself. Hotchner deliberately loosened his grip on his gun and then firmed it again decisively.
Gritting his teeth, it still took him ten minutes before he could hold steel on target without his hands shaking, and he was sweat-soaked and exhausted. Firing off a shot sent a bolt of agony through his head, a surge of terror so strong he had to holster his weapon and stop to recover.
“Hotch?” Morgan asked from behind him. Hotchner had been concentrating so hard, he hadn’t even heard Morgan come downstairs.
“Try firing,” Hotchner said, not turning around.
“Try firing,” he repeated, more forcefully.
Morgan moved up next to him, looking at him sideways as if trying to figure out what he was thinking. Shrugging, he unholstered his gun and tried to take aim. Tried. He froze halfway up, muscles shaking.
“I-,” Morgan started, and dropped his stance. He tried several more times, getting closer each time, but it took tremendous effort. “Hotch, I can't.”
“That's what Kincaid did,” Hotchner said positively. That was the price. The price of life and sanity was the inability to deal death. Somewhere karma was laughing at them.
“Agents, I thought firearms practice was supposed to be, you know, loud.” Lark's voice rang out from the stairs, the smile on her face suddenly dying when she caught sight of Morgan and Hotchner. “What happened?” she asked suddenly.
She looked at them, their guns, and the strain on the faces. Full comprehension bloomed without needing a single word exchanged, and Lark's face twisted into an almost animalistic snarl.
“God damn it!” she whispered fiercely. That seemed to vent her rage, and she leapt down the rest of the stairs, the anger on her face being quickly replaced with calculation. “Agent Hotchner, I heard you fire.”
He nodded reluctantly.
“How long did it take you to…?”
“Ten minutes,” he said.
“Jesus,” Lark said, looking astonished.
“Can we get Kincaid to reverse what he did to us?” Morgan asked.
Lark didn’t even seem to hear Morgan’s question. “Guys, when we first start learning how to defend ourselves, it takes us days and sometimes weeks to be able to strike at another person. We can learn to defend ourselves. You can re-learn it. Christ, Agent Hotchner, if you could pull the trigger after ten minutes, I bet the rest of you could be at least able to hold a gun on target after a couple of hours.”
“Lark,” Morgan said, getting her attention. “Can Kincaid reverse what he did? We can’t go to Quantico if we can’t even protect ourselves.” Hotchner could hear repressed fear in Morgan’s voice, and if he could hear it, it was certain Lark could see it. And he had every right to be afraid. After seeing outside, and hearing the stories from those metahumans who had been scavenging supplies, you would be have to be insane not to want to be able to protect yourself.
Lark opened her mouth to respond, when Emily and the others began coming down the stairs behind her. She turned and smiled tightly at them before turning back to Hotchner.
“Do your best. I’m going to go talk to him. You might have to make do with what you have,” she said. The smile left her face as she went back upstairs, and she didn’t have to see the quickly-covered shocked expression on Morgan’s face.
Lark paused at the top of the stairs and pressed her face into her hands, biting into her lip until she felt the tang of blood. Behind her, she could hear the fainting rising and falling cadence of Hotchner trying to explain exactly what was going on. He kept his voice calm and reasonable, not even wavering in the face of sharp-sounding questions from everyone.
Whatever he was telling them was quickly eroding their skepticism, and after several long moments of silence (in her mind’s eye Lark could see the team lined up at the firing range, guns drawn and hands shaking as their found their bodies rebelling against them) an almost palpable feeling of reluctant belief came rolling up the stairs. Hard on the heels of that, she heard Will’s slow Southern drawl speak in a determined voice. He’d been a cop, she remembered, and had given up a lot for the sake of his and J.J.’s son. Like Hotchner, he had a lot to fight for. A moment after that, a shot rang out. A few long moments later, she heard others joining it in ragged, reluctant chorus.
At the bottom of the stairs, she could see the emotional fires of red, orange, and yellow darken into the iron gray of determination and the deep blue of stubbornness.
She released her abused lip in an explosive sigh of relief. They were going to be all right.
Hotchner and Morgan were taking a break from the most emotionally-draining firearms practice they’d ever had, when Lark finally reappeared downstairs. She watched the rest of the team in their slow, deliberate trials for a few seconds before speaking, her shoulders hunched defensively.
“Taya says you’re stuck,” she said quietly. “He was working with Penelope and Kevin and said there’s no way of…” Lark trailed off and waved one hand in a circle, searching for words.
“It’s ok,” Hotchner said, and saw Lark slump a little in relief.
“Hotch-,” Morgan started angrily, and cut himself off when Hotchner caught his eye and looked over at Lark. She had her arms wrapped around herself, her shoulder tight and her neck bowed, all her body language showing diffidence and even shame. It’s my fault, I got you into this, she was all but screaming. You should hate me. I expect you to.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know,” she said. She brought her head up, stiffening her spine a little, looking from Morgan to Hotchner as if she had expected a much harsher response. She’d been handling this crisis with aplomb, coming up with answers for almost every problem they’d had thus far. Failing to anticipate something as fundamental as this… “I thought you’d be angrier.”
Morgan pressed his lips together and looked around the Pit as Rossi, probably on his last reserve of patience, tried to get Reid to hit his own target instead of Prentiss’. Reid had done unexpectedly well. He’d been firing faster than all of them, which would have been encouraging if he’d been a better shot. But if there was anyone on the team that could handle nigh-constant anxiety attacks around weapons, it was Reid. He’d worked through more emotional crises on his own than most of the team combined. And if he could handle it, than the rest of them could learn.
“Why didn’t you ever tell us about places like this? I asked Kara about it once and she stonewalled me,” Morgan asked with a bit of heat.
Lark smiled very slightly, standing up straighter to fix Morgan with an ironic glance. “Because I wanted you guys to respect us. And the last thing you do on a first date is show someone what’s in your bottom dresser drawer.”
Morgan barely managed to repress cracking a smile.
“And it’s hard. Harder than you realize. We don’t like talking about it, because some people can’t keep their mouths shut, and it wouldn’t take much for some people to take one look at metahumans training to fight and get the wrong idea.” Lark took a deep breath as she watched J.J. and Will carefully, slowly, managing to get off shot after shot. “This is the first time we realize we aren’t human.”
Hotchner raised an eyebrow in interest and Lark continued.
“We first come to places like this when we’re ten or so. And before that, we think we’re human. You hear all those radio spots, and see the articles in newspapers and magazines, and I know they have the same things on TV too. ‘Metahumans are human too,’ ‘Just a different kind of us,’ ‘We’re all the same on the inside.’ And we believe it too. At school, you haven’t watched any of the TV shows other kids have, but that just makes you a little weird. Some other kids don’t watch TV either. And yeah, you might be purple or have hooves, but so what? You’re just a different kind of human.
“Sure, you get beat up on the playground, but you’re not the only kid that’s ever happened to. You want to defend yourself, but you know it’s wrong because you get all scared when you think about it. Your dad says it’s wrong to fight, the teachers say it’s wrong to fight, and you believe them, no matter how angry you get, and you never think to strike back. And then you turn ten, and Dad takes you to a Pit, and he says, ‘It’s wrong to fight, but it’s not wrong to defend yourself.’ And then you realize exactly how different you are, because you can’t even hit a punching bag without feeling that you want to die.”
“It’s that bad?” Morgan asked, looking troubled.
“Try to hit me,” Lark said, stepping in front of him.
“No-,” Morgan started.
“Can you aim at me?” she asked suddenly, turning to Hotchner. “Hitting a target is one thing. Hitting a person is a lot harder.” She stepped towards him until there was less than three feet between them.
“Try to draw on me. Aim at me,” she commanded.
Hotchner’s body was rebelling at the mere thought of that, and he had to put at extraordinary effort into just staving off another surge of irrational fear. “It’s not safe,” he temporized, as he tried to win control of his limbs back.
“I know it’s not. Forget safety for a minute.” Lark reached out with blinding speed and wrapped her fingers around Hotchner’s neck. Morgan started at her fast movements, and tried to grab her arm. Tried. Couldn’t grab at her any more than he could bring his weapon to bear on the wall when he came down here. “It took me three years to be able to do this,” she said. She wasn’t squeezing or hurting him in any way, but Hotchner could feel her tremble as she kept her hand in a potentially killing grip. “You don’t have three years. You need to go to Quantico tomorrow. Point your gun at me.”
Hotchner tried to control his breathing, the air feeling like fire as he fought to bring his gun up. Lark watched him struggle, her face showing no expression other than faint sympathy as he tried to bring a lethal weapon to bear on a living person. Morgan was trying, but not even getting as far as Hotchner.
“Put your finger outside the trigger guard,” Lark said after a few moments. “And AIM AT ME!” Her advice and sudden, shockingly loud scream seemed to cut through Hotchner’s unwanted resistance like a knife. He brought his weapon up as easily as he had dozens of other times, finger outside the trigger guard for safety’s sake, and aimed squarely at her forehead. Everyone else turned around at her scream, shocked or beginning to shout in anger, and hesitated, caught by the same trap they’d been fighting against for hours.
Hotchner was soaked with sweat, but held his position without wavering for a full ten seconds before both he and Lark had to step away. Lark didn’t look much better than Hotchner as she turned to face the rest of the team.
“It’s all right,” Hotchner said, his voice steady.
“That is not all right,” Morgan said, teeth clenched.
“How the hell else are we going to practice, Morgan?” Rossi demanded. “I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not by shot dead in my own office because I couldn’t even duck.”
“Your turn,” Lark said, gesturing to Morgan.
“No way,” he said flatly.
“If you don’t want to risk a gun, then just fight. You saw me down here already. I can hold my own.”
Morgan took a long, appraising look at her. He had over a half foot of height on her, easily, and probably outweighed her by half. She was thin, and looked almost fragile, though the scars he’d seen told him as much of a story as the things she’d let drop over the years. And yes, he had seen her fight. Lark was fast, far tougher than she looked, and her unusually long arms probably gave her more of a reach advantage than him.
“You’re the guy that usually kicks down doors, Agent Morgan. Kara told me that. You’re more inhibited that you even realize right now.” Lark reached out and slapped Morgan in a fast, contemptuous gesture. He ducked too late, face stinging with the force, and moved to block another attempt as she tried to circle him.
“You’re too smart for me to use cheap tricks,” she said tonelessly, long arm whipping down to try to trip him. He jumped back, keeping his anger under control, seeing the rest of the team watching him out of the corner of his eye. Hotchner made a restraining gesture with one hand, and they all backed up to give him room.
“What are you doing?” Morgan demanded of them both.
“Trying to make you mad. Probably not going to work. I could make you angry, if I wanted to. I’m an empath, I can do that, but I don’t need to, because I can see you’re trying really hard not to lose your temper,” Lark said. She took a short run and jumped, leaping right over Morgan, her whip-like fingers lashing his back, leaving a burning welt. He jerked back again, jaw clenched, trying to get his back to a wall to cut off her superior mobility.
“Morgan, take her down,” Hotchner said. Morgan looked over at him incredulously. He was not going to go “Fight Club” on one of the only people who was trying to help them stop this nightmare!
Lark slapped him again, this time so close he could have grabbed her, and tried… and almost froze, moving too slow for someone of her speed.
“Do it,” Hotchner ordered.
“Hit me, I know you can, I saw you fire, I know you got past the worst of it, hit me, hit me!” Lark chanted over and over, dancing in and out of Morgan’s range, lashing out for more of those stinging, contemptuous strikes, calculated to wear down every sense of chivalry he possessed. Even as his temper mounted, Morgan could see what she was doing, desperately trying to break him out this unwanted compulsion, so he could help save the world.
Even so, it was only when she leapt for him, screaming bloody murder, that he was able to strike. He caught her in a fast, hard backhand across the face that tossed her into a wall, leaving her in a heap on the ground. Fear and anxiety almost as bad as firing his first shot a few hours ago tried to claim him as she laid there, and mostly fled when she finally stirred.
It was hard to see the purple of the bruise that had to be there under her purple skin, but Lark didn’t even seem to acknowledge it. She just stood and rolled her shoulders, nodding slightly.
“Let’s go again.”
Morgan cursed under his breath and held out his hand for her to wait.
“I didn’t mean to do that.”
“You did, and that’s exactly what you needed to do. I’m fine,” she insisted.
“Sound helps?” Reid asked from the sidelines. “You screamed at both Hotch and Morgan.”
“Yeah,” Lark said slowly, and shook her head. “That’s why I have the music so loud in the club. Why we always have a screaming crowd in the Pit. It helps get us past the worst of it. After that, you just have to be careful how hard you hit someone.”
“Lark, how human are we?” Prentiss asked suddenly. There was an immediate chill in the already charged atmosphere of the room as Lark sagged against the wall, shaking her head.
“You’ve talked to Kincaid?” she asked.
“He’s been rather remarkably good about being anywhere other than where we can get at him,” Rossi said. He’d tried to quietly corner the healer yesterday to ask a few questions and had gotten nowhere fast.
“He used to having all the answers. And a lot of people have been getting hurt…” Lark sighed. “No, he doesn’t know. We don’t exactly have any TVs here to test you on that but, Penelope and Kevin can look at their computer screens without puking, so I think you’re ok there. You don’t know when the storms are coming either. You’re still much more human than me, if it’s any comfort.”
It wasn’t, but that didn’t change anything. They still had a mission, and needed to be ready in any way they could. Lark took a few deep breaths, and gestured to Morgan.
“Let’s go again.”
By the time Lark was at her limits, anyone who had been willing to try anything physical were also at theirs. Like she had mentioned years before, it was the emotional stress, rather than the physical, that put a cap on how long someone could fight. Lark stayed behind when everyone else left, draped over the makeshift bleachers alongside the fighting ring, and was still there when Hotchner came back down a few minutes later. He didn’t even get a chance to ask a question before Lark started talking.
“Kara never forgave herself,” Lark said, not even looking up. “When your family was attacked.”
“It wasn’t her fault. Foyet fooled all of us,” Hotchner said, crossing the floor to sit down next to her.
“She wanted to make a difference.” Lark sat up and stared straight at the ceiling, fingers twisting around each other like restless snakes as she struggled to put something in words. “When you finally realize how not human you are, you realizes you have to make a choice some day. You don’t get to make the choice of knocking someone out to protect your family or save some people, because some criminals are so evil that nothing short of death will stop them.”
In his mind’s eye, Hotchner could see Foyet’s battered, bloody, grinning face looking up at him and offering his surrender. He’d pounded that lying face into an unrecognizable pulp, because nothing else would have stopped him. Hotchner let out a short, shuddering breath of visceral understanding.
“But we can make a choice to sacrifice ourselves to make that difference. We have to decide if something worth living for is also something worth dying for. All of us know that’s the only real difference we might ever get to make. Kara thought that saving your family was worth dying for. And she never forgave herself for choosing life over death.”
“She gets to stand in line behind me for feeling guilty,” Hotchner said tightly.
“That’s what I told her. But she would have made that choice, because she thought it was that important.”
There was a long, uncomfortable silence between them before Hotchner finally asked his question.
“Does Kincaid think that if we have to shoot someone, we’re going to die?” he asked.
“Make sure it’s worth dying for,” was all Lark said.
It was the first time any of the team had seen daylight for close to a week. But what it revealed was far from uplifting. The smell of smoke still hung in the air from dozens of burnt-out buildings, overlying an inevitable stench of decay from the countless number of dead that had been struck down by the storms or their aftermath. Cars blocked most of the streets, some of them virtually pristine, others burnt-out hulks. Garbage and personal possessions choked the sidewalks, along with the occasional corpse. Flies were everywhere, and stray animals and birds seemed to be the only living things moving in the deserted city.
Simply facing the wreck of Quantico took as much willpower as pointing a gun did now. Three of the metahumans had agreed to come with them: Kincaid stared at the carnage, stone-faced, Lark was pale and grim, she'd already braved the city to scavenge supplies before and had some armor against the carnage, and Kara was simply very still, giving nothing away.
The team had taken one of Kara’s portals from the club to a gas station as close to the BAU as they could get. It was Lauren who’d supplied the last piece of vital information for this dangerous raid. She helped them plan a route that had the “least hearts.” The least survivors. That’s how she’d been keeping track of people in D.C. and elsewhere, by listening to their heartbeats. The BAU building had less than ten hearts. Ten, out of the hundreds that had worked there. Hopefully they could avoid ten.
“Let's go,” Lark said into the silence. She didn't even ask them if they were all right. Hotchner thought it had less to do with her empathic power than the simple fact that it didn't particularly matter if they were feeling up for this; they were going to do it anyway.
Hotchner nodded, and they set out along the car-choked street.
Part 1, Part 2, Part 4