lysachan's creations (vesikirppu) wrote,
lysachan's creations
vesikirppu

fic: criminal minds - keeper of the winds [emily/jj] 1/3

Title: Keeper of the Winds (1/3)
Author: lysachan
Fandom: Criminal Minds
Paring: Emily/JJ
Word count: 10,470
Rating: R
Summary: In need of some time-off from the BAU, JJ ends up on a remote ranch in New Mexico and stumbles upon an unexpected adventure involving crooks and a certain cowgirl.
A/N: Wow, after a year in the making, it's finally finished! This is semi-AU, as in Emily never joined the BAU back in Season 2. Includes random spoilers for all four seasons.
A huge thank you to darandkerry for beta (all mistakes are mine and mine alone), to cactusgirluk for fangirly support along the way, as well as to racethewind10 for putting up with my ridiculously ignorant questions.


"Hello cowgirl in the sand
Is this place at your command
Can I stay here for awhile
Can I see your sweet sweet smile?"

- Indigo Girls: Cowgirl in the Sand


***



PROLOGUE

Rain fell heavily from the dark sky, the dry sand absorbing every drop of water as the vegetation desperately battled for the precious liquid of life. The night was darker than usual, a thick layer of clouds blocking even the faintest hint of moonlight there might've been.

A figure was hunched over a small hole in the ground, not noticing the wetness, or the nearly impenetrable darkness. A flashlight lit the area of a few square feet, giving just enough light for him to distinguish his immediate surroundings, but still giving adequate cover to hide from possible passers-by. With urgency, a big, black duffel bag was dropped into the quickly dug hole, and the man took one final peek at the square plastic bags inside. Satisfied by what he saw, he grabbed a shovel and quickly covered the treasure with moist earth, his breath coming out in white puffs. To finish off the job, he dragged a large stone on top of the exact spot, so that it could easily be recognized when needed.

With a final huff, the silent figure stood up straight and glanced around to make sure no one was watching. He picked up the shovel and the flashlight, and started making his way through the rain and further into the darkness, a lightness in his step now evident as the mission had been successfully completed. What he didn't know, however, was that although he had been extremely careful, creeping through the night seemingly unnoticed, someone not too far away had been watching his every step through the curtain of rain. The observer, hidden from the view by a large rock, watched the digger walk further and further into the blackness of the night, a faint smile playing on full lips when the darkness finally swallowed the unsuspecting figure completely.

***



Chapter I

The scenery flashed by rapidly, the desert sand refracting sunlight with different shades of yellow and orange, and the stunted and barely green vegetation desperately trying to survive in the dry land. But Jennifer Jareau didn't really pay attention to her surroundings. The car sped along a narrow road, raising a thick cloud of dust in its wake and, thus, alerting anyone within a two-mile radius of its whereabouts.

From the backseat, JJ glanced briefly at the middle-aged man behind the wheel, silently noting that the promised half an hour journey had already turned into 45 minutes. Not that she was in a hurry, quite the contrary; for the first time in what seemed like forever, she had all the time in the world.

Dropping her eyes at her entwined hands in her lap, JJ wondered, for the millionth time, if her decision to take a vacation had been a good idea after all. It had certainly been long overdue; she had enough vacation days to have six months off if she wanted. But being the team liaison for the BAU was a job that required dedication, and, during the last five years, JJ hadn't even thought of taking time off unless forced. Not until now.

It had all begun innocently enough, a sleepless night here and there, a bad day every now and again. It wasn't until the past few months that she'd realized how stressed out and utterly spent she was and how her lack of motivation for her work affected the entire team. And that's when she had known she needed to get away for a little while. Because when you can't do your job because of your job, it was time to consider what your priorities were.

Aaron Hotchner, their team leader, had immediately granted her the vacation time – the speed with which he'd agreed to her request told JJ that she hadn't simply imagined the graveness of the situation.

Three months. Three months to do anything but think of her job. JJ had protested at first, thinking that 90 days was a lifetime and that she'd go crazy in that time, but Hotch had remained adamant and told her to take it in such a tone that she hadn't even contemplated arguing. A quick detour to Garcia's office and a few well-placed keystrokes, and she'd booked herself a three-month vacation on a remote ranch near Santa Fe in New Mexico.

It certainly isn't Virginia, JJ thought as she glanced through the window and saw nothing but cacti and sand with rocks scattered randomly around. The change, compared to the East, was so radical that she involuntarily swallowed, once again desperately trying to convince herself that she'd made the right decision. She'd only been to New Mexico once before, when a string of ritualistic murders had peaked the BAU's interest a couple of years previously.

Suddenly, JJ's phone in her jean's pocket began vibrating, and she gingerly dug it out and peered at the flashing screen. The text spelled 'Will calling,' and a wave of exchaustion shot through her. Promptly pressing the red button, JJ ended the call before it could even begin, and at that moment, she knew she'd done the right thing by simply leaving everything and only giving time to herself for once.

Turning off her phone and pocketing it once more, JJ leaned her forehead against the window and let out a relieved sigh. She'd be just fine.

***



It was exactly thirty minutes after the promised arrival time that the driver drove through a wooden gate with a sign that read "Sunrise Valley," and the car came to a halt a few minutes later. JJ stepped out gingerly and inspected her surroundings that would be her home for the next few months.

It was your avarage ranch, all right. There was a bigger, two-storey house to her right that had to be the main building with rooms for the guests, but then there were also several smaller houses in the distance and all around her. On the far left, JJ could see the stables and other buildings that weren't meant for accommodation, and when she turned around her eyes landed on a small river—a tributary of the Rio Grande no doubt—that lined the southern border of the property.

All in all, it was extremely idyllic, and JJ could feel her spirits rise a little with every new thing her brain registered as she looked about her.

"Good day, Ma'am," a booming male voice said from her left, and the blonde turned to see a man in his fifties swaggering towards her. He was dressed like a stereotypical cowboy, everything from silver-colored spurs and black boots to a handsome Stetson cowboy hat that he politely took off when offering his hand to JJ.

"You must be Miss Jareau." His smile was blinding. JJ took his hand and shook it while smiling back politely. "My name's Noah. Noah Jackson. I'm the owner of this paradise."

"Pleased to meet you." JJ nodded once. For some reason, she was slightly taken aback by Mr. Jackson, his large form and his over-the-top conduct feeling somewhat off. Pushing the immediate thoughts of profiling aside, JJ turned back to the driver who had already unloaded her two suitcases and was carrying them towards the main house.

"Let Juan take care of your luggage, we have a room waiting for you on the second floor," Jackson said when he saw her line of sight. "So, welcome to Sunrise Valley, Miss Jareau. Would you be interested in a little tour around our immediate surroundings before I show you to your room? So that you'd be able to explore the area more thoroughly on your own once you've settled in?"

JJ groaned inwardly, feeling the exhaustion of her long trip in every muscle of her body, but she didn't want to start off her stay at the ranch on the wrong foot and figured that a small walk wouldn't kill her.

"Sure," JJ gingerly agreed, her eyes still on the retreating form of the driver, Juan, who was now climbing the few stairs that led to the terrace and the main door. Juan had picked her up from the Santa Fe Municipal Airport—a service that was offered to all visitors—which had made JJ's life a whole lot easier. Tearing her gaze away from him, she turned fully to Mr. Jackson, smiled, and followed him as he started to make his way across the yard.

The area really was breathtakingly beautiful. With every new step, JJ mentally thanked Garcia whose idea it'd been to ship her as far away from the Virginia climate as possible. Mr. Jackson gestured animatedly at everything and explained enthusiastically the history and stories behind different buildings and other man-made structures. It amused JJ how everyone she saw and was introduced to on her makeshift tour had been dressed like they'd stepped right out of a John Wayne movie, but at the same time, she felt like she stuck out like a sore thumb in her blue jeans and white top.

"This is David," Jackson said as he introduced JJ to yet another cowboy. "He takes care of my cattle which are just over that ridge." He pointed towards a fairly large hill in the distance.

"Nice to meet ya," David said with a strong Texan-like twang as he tipped his hat in acknowledgement. He appeared to be thirty-something, blonde haired, and fairly well-built. He practically oozed confidence, a stereoptype which nearly made JJ roll her eyes.

"Likewise," JJ replied politely, and then they were walking again.

"I have about twenty-five people working for me around here," Mr. Jackson explained and tipped his hat to yet another cowboy look-a-like whose spurs made a faint clinking sound as he walked by. "I have people from riding instructors to maids, and they're all at your service as well, Miss Jareau."

JJ nodded politely and was about to ask him more about the possible pastime activities when there was excited yelling and commotion behind her, causing her to turn around. People, guests and employees alike, had gathered around a corral near the stables and were watching a figure riding a mean-looking horse in full rodeo style.

JJ craned her neck in order to see better, and, fascinated by what she saw, made her way closer to the fence. She barely noticed the slightly irritated look on Mr. Jackson's face, her eyes transfixed on the scene before her. The blonde was more than a little surprised when she got close enough to realize that the rider was actually a woman, a woman to whom this clearly wasn't the first time atop a rodeo horse.

Similarly to all the men JJ had come across since her arrival at the ranch, the woman in the center of the arena was also dressed in boots with spurs, jeans, a lapelled shirt that hugged her trimmed body, and a black cowboy hat that persistently stuck to her head even when the horse made abrupt, bucking movements.

"That's Emily, one of my stable workers," Mr. Jackson had to raise his voice in order to be heard as the crowd cheered wildly at the spectacle they were witnessing. JJ nodded absent-mindedly, strangely reluctant to tear her eyes away from the woman who seemed to be right at home and in her element as she fought against the clearly pissed-off animal.

"She's good," JJ shouted back, still not looking at the man she was speaking to.

"She's a show-off," he grumbled, and JJ had to hide an amused smile that threatened to make an appearance. Mr. Jackson was quite clearly jealous of the attention his employee was getting, and JJ could easily see why.

The black stallion bucked sharply, and the spectators gasped when it looked like the rider might finally come to the end of her road, but, like a true expert, she managed to hold on, only losing her hat in the process. It wasn't until after the animal bucked particularly violently that the woman lost her hold on the reins and fell to the ground, making a surprisingly graceful landing.

The people cheered as the rider stood up and grinned wickedly, curtsying as a joke. She picked up her hat and hit it against her thigh a few times so that the worst of the dust came off. People slapped her on the back as she made her way through the crowd, and JJ looked at her curiously, wanting to know what sort of a woman rode horses as well as what she'd just witnessed.

She was an incredibly beautiful woman, that's what JJ had noticed first. Her long, dark hair was in a braid, accentuating her delicate features and gorgeous, brown eyes that were shining with unadulterated joy. JJ suddenly felt envious of her, thinking that it must be incredible to feel so carefree – a concept the blonde wasn't even sure she'd recognize anymore.

"Emily!" Mr. Jackson called out as the crowd was starting to dissipate, and the woman JJ was so intently studying looked up. Their eyes met for the first time, and for some inexplicable reason, JJ felt her stomach do a nervous back flip. The brunette smiled and made her way over to her boss and their newest guest.

"Emily, I want you to meet Miss Jareau. She just arrived and will be spending the summer with us." Mr. Jackson said and gestured towards JJ. "Miss Jareau, this is Emily, my horse whisperer."

"Hardly, I simply enjoy working with them." Emily chuckled and offered her hand. "A pleasure to meet you, Miss Jareau."

JJ took the offered hand, not entirely sure why she felt so uneasy and beside herself in Emily's company.

"Please, call me Jennifer." It was out before she even had time to think about it. No one ever called her Jennifer, mostly because she didn't particularly like the sound of the name.

"Jennifer it is." Emily's smile widened a notch. "Well, I'd better go and take Rollo there back to his stall," she continued and gestured vaguely towards the horse that was still in the corral, scratching the ground. "He has a tendency to sulk if I leave him unattended for too long."

"It was nice to meet you," JJ said, still oddly spellbound by the brunette. She had expected to hear a deep, southern slant in Emily's voice as well, but, instead, the brunette's accent was clearly Eastern, which also set her apart from the rest of the people JJ had met today.

"Likewise. We'll probably be seeing each other quite a lot during these next few months. If there's ever anything you need, don't hesitate to ask." With one final smile and a small nod to her boss, Emily put on her hat again and sauntered to the corral. Mr. Jackson pursed his lips, his black mustache wiggling almost comically. Then he turned back to JJ who suddenly felt like she was under extreme scrutiny.

"I'll take you to your room now, Miss Jareau," Jackson stated in a sharp tone. He began striding along towards the house, and a perplexed JJ practically needed to jog in order to keep up with him as she tried to figure out why her host's mood had suddenly turned from hospitable to downright cold.

***



A thick, wooden door closed with a faint click behind JJ, and she was left standing alone in a cosily decorated room. Her suitcases stood neatly next to the big bed in the middle of the room. Placing her cell phone on the small table near a door that led to the bathroom, she walked to an open window that looked out on the front yard. It was full of activity, with other guests enjoying the not-too-hot afternoon sun and the ranch employees doing their various daily tasks.

In the distance, JJ could see cattle grazing near the river and several figures on horseback keeping an eye on the herd. Further behind them, the low southern peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains reached towards the clear blue sky, and JJ made a mental note to find out if it was possible to travel to the base of the mountains and see the range up close.

With a final sigh of contentment, JJ made her way to the bed and flopped down on its mattress. Lying supine on the soft bedspread, she reached for her cell phone and turned it on. There was one text message she needed to send, after which she'd turn her phone off again to forget she ever had a life back East.

Garcia, you're the best.
This place is incredible.
I'll keep in touch.


She pressed 'send' and smiled. The whole mini-sabbatical thing? It actually might just work.

***



Chapter II

Within a few weeks, JJ had found an easy routine to her days. She liked to get up early when there weren't too many people around yet and, hence, no danger of getting into social situations before the essential first cup of coffee. After eating breakfast in peace, she headed outside for a walk that sometimes lasted for hours. The eight-thousand-acre ranch had so many places to explore and things to see that every day the blonde discovered something new and fascinating within the borders of the estate.

Once again, she walked across the main yard, said her good mornings to a few stable boys she passed, and made her way along the riverbank towards the faraway mountain tops in the horizon. It was so early in the morning that the sun hadn't risen high enough to shine scorchingly as it did during the day, and she could still see the last drops of dew that covered the vegetation.

After half an hour of trekking, JJ arrived at a small and charming boulder formation that forced the river to make a slight curve before finding its proper course again. Wiping sweat off her forehead, the blonde reached for her water bottle at the side of her backpack and took a long swig. The scenery was extraordinarily beautiful, even more so than usual. She hadn't seen this place mentioned anywhere, and it was strange that no one had brought it up with her when she'd asked around for information about the best hiking trails and destinations in the area.

Deep in thought, JJ nearly dropped her bottle when a voice sounded somewhere above her: "Two years I've spent on this ranch, and no one's ever found my secret hiding place before."

With an abrupt move, JJ turned towards the voice and saw Emily sitting leisurely on the crest of the rock. She was leaning back on her elbows, one ankle crossed over another and her dark hair shining in the sun. She was dressed in blue jeans and a flannel shirt with a white t-shirt underneath.

"I'm so sorry, I had no idea you were here," JJ automatically apologized, mortified that she'd obviously walked in on Emily's private moment of relaxation, but that only made the brunette chuckle in an amused manner.

"Don't be silly. Climb up!" Emily gestured invitingly with her hand, and, after a moment of hesitation, JJ placed her foot on a small crevice in the rock and began hoisting herself up. Emily extended her hand for JJ, and the blonde gratefully took it, allowing the other woman to pull her all the way to the top.

"Good morning." Emily's voice was chipper.

"Morning," JJ replied and noticed that the uneasiness was back with full force. There was a moment of silence when both women simply admired the view that appeared even more gorgeous from where JJ was now sitting. "So, do you come here often?" Emily grinned at the blonde's stereotypical question.

"As often as I can. I like to get up early, take care of the morning duties at the stables, and then ride up here and just admire the view for a little while if I have the time." The look on Emily's face was that of pure peacefulness, and JJ felt a pang of jealousy hit her again.

"It's beautiful up here," JJ said quietly, the serenity of the moment slowly seeping into her whole being.

"It sure is," Emily agreed, inhaling a lungful of fresh air. She was silent for a few moments and then glanced at JJ. "So, where are you from?"

"Virginia." Emily's eyebrows climbed high on her forehead at the response. "I know, I know. Quite a change." JJ smiled, shaking her head slightly.

"Sometimes change is good," Emily mused, and the blonde got the impression that she was speaking from personal experience. "Most of our visitors tend to be from the South. I guess the whole Wild West thing is beginning to get a little old for the Northerners."

"I just wanted to get away, to go somewhere completely different from what I'm used to," JJ said, surprising herself for actually saying it out loud. She quickly turned away from the brunette, feeling like, with that single confession, she'd shared far too much already. Anonymity and invisibility was what she'd come to look for in New Mexico, and that was what she was going to do. Emily seemed to sense her discomfort and let it be.

"So, what do you do, Jennifer?" Emily seemed genuinely interested, and maybe it was the exquisite way her named sounded when the brunette said it, but JJ didn't have the heart to tell her that sharing personal information with strangers was something she'd always been against. Especially when one's job was to catch serial killers – it simply came with the territory.

"I work for the government." JJ's reply was vague, and she hoped Emily wouldn't milk her for further details, because she'd have to lie. And, for some reason, she didn't want to lie to Emily.

"Mmmh, important work, I'm sure." Emily said politely and smiled in an encouraging manner.

"I'd like to think so." JJ smiled back, studying the older woman's profile. "How about you? How did you end up here? I mean, your accent kind of gives you away."

"Ah, you noticed, huh?" Emily laughed, shaking her head. "It's just one of those things, I suppose. I got fed up with my life back East and wanted to try something new. Ended up here."

"You just left everything behind?" JJ asked in awe, and for the first time, she saw the aura of happiness around Emily falter momentarily.

"Something like that. Not that there was that much to leave." The brunette stated somewhat sadly, seemingly staring to eternity for a few moments before the earlier mask slipped back on and she was smiling warmly again. "But it was the right thing to do. I haven't regretted my decision once, I love it here."

"This place is amazing," JJ concurred and sighed contently.

"The most beautiful spots are further along the river, and the mountains are absolutely breathtaking." Emily gestured towards the majestic peaks in the distance. "I could take you there sometime if you'd like. You can easily ride there and back when it's still light."

"Oh, I'd love to, but...I can't ride," JJ admitted sheepishly and stared at her hands in embarrassment. She couldn't quite recall the last time she'd felt so inadequate. But, instead of staring at her incredulously, or making some pointless 'too-bad-honey' comment, Emily looked almost excited.

"That's easily fixed. You can take riding lessons at the ranch." Emily's explained enthusiastically. "I'd love to teach you."

"You teach riding?" JJ didn't know why it should make a difference, but it did.

"Yeah, among other things. C'mon, it'll be fun," Emily coaxed, and, irresistibly, JJ found herself becoming more and more excited about the prospect of learning to ride horses – something she'd never even thought of trying.

"I might take a few lessons, see how it feels." The blonde nodded, still slightly embarrassed at the whole ordeal.

"Excellent! I'll sign you up when I get back." Emily's smile was blinding, and JJ couldn't help feeling somewhat exhilarated.

They made polite small talk for a while, before Emily glanced at her wrist-watch and informed the blonde that it was time for her to head back. Oddly disappointed at the prospect of continuing her journey alone, JJ climbed down to the ground and watched as Emily produced her horse from around the other side of the boulder—the shadowy side so that the now nearly scorching sun hand't exhausted the poor animal—and gracefully hoisted herself up into the saddle. Then she turned back to JJ, still sporting that irresistibly contagious smile.

"I was serious about the riding lessons. I'll book you a few sessions, okay?"

"Looking forward to it already," JJ confessed, readjusting her backpack. "I'll explore a little further before heading back." She gestured behind her and saw Emily nod.

"There are some gorgeous rock formations a mile or so ahead, but be careful if you decide to climb any of them, you can easily slip on the uneven surfaces," Emily warned, tightening her hold on the reins in her hands as the horse was clearly eager to start the journey back.

"Thanks, I will." JJ nodded and had already taken a few steps to embark on her hike when Emily's voice stopped her.

"Hey, Jennifer!" The blonde turned back to the woman on horseback. "Thanks for the company." With one final smile, Emily pulled the reins, gave the horse a gentle nudge with the heels of her boots, and rode off. JJ could feel her cheeks redden slightly with pleasure.

***



The sun was high in the sky when JJ finally decided to head back for the ranch. She'd walked much further than she'd planned, but the exotic scenery had simply been too beautiful to resist. Instead of going back on the same trail, she decided to make a loop around the big rock formations which, she remembered, lined one side of the vast riding grounds right next to the stables. Digging out the last bit of a sandwich she'd packed for lunch, JJ walked towards the rocks that glowed with colours of orange and red as the sunlight bathed them in its bright rays.

The distance seemed much shorter than it actually was, but JJ finally reached her goal after half an hour of sweating and an occasional curse word or two. With great relief, she stepped out of the sun and into the wonderfully cool shadow formed by the first of many enormous rocks. Once she reached the other side, she was greeted by a sight of a big herd of cattle that munched whatever nutrition they could get from the dry earth. It was probably Mr. Jackson's cattle, JJ remembered him mentioning the pasture when she'd first arrived.

Carefully stepping over loose rocks and small bushes, JJ made her way slowly, but surely, forwards, every now and then leaning on the hard rock for support. She was about to round yet another rock the size of an SUV when she heard voices coming not far from where she was standing. Her first instinct was to simply keep going, to make her presence known to whoever was on the other side, but a strange feeling in her gut caused her to halt. Swallowing nervously, she put her hand against the rock for support and listened.

There were two male voices, and it soon became clear that it wasn't just a pleasant conversation between friends. There was a certain sharpness to the voices, indicating the exchange was business rather than pleasure.

"You sure about this?" the first voice asked, a tad of nervousness seeping through.

"It's all taken care of," the second one replied, and suddenly JJ recognised Noel Jackson's booming voice.

"It'd better be. We don't need any cock-ups at this point."

"Trust me, they're all on board, so stop worrying!"

"I probably don't need to remind you that this is our biggest undertaking yet, so I can worry all I want." The first voice was irritated now, causing JJ to take a small step backwards.

"Just do your part, Stenton, and be there on time when the bigwigs show up. I'll take care of my half," Jackson said in a way that indicated the conversation had come to an end.

JJ heard shuffling of feet and then the neighing of a horse; the two men were obviously parting ways.

"This is it, Noah. Don't fuck it up," Stenton stated menacingly and then rode off. JJ could hear Jackson mumbling in an annoyed manner before a second set of hoofbeats echoed off the rocks, indicating the departure of the ranch owner.

JJ stood still for a long while, not sure what to make of the bit of conversation she had just overheard. She wasn't sure why, but she couldn't quite shake the feeling of discomfort the odd dialogue had caused. For all she knew, it had simply been a chat about cattle purchases, but, deep down, she knew there was more to it - she'd been around profilers way too long.

"This is so damn typical," JJ murmured to herself as she finally continued her walk. She should've known she couldn't possibly take a vacation without stumbling into something shady. Not that it was any of her business if there was something going on, because she certainly wasn't in New Mexico as an FBI agent. She'd just let it be, let someone else deal with, well, whatever 'it' was.

But, just in case, she'd keep an eye on Noel Jackson from now on.

***



Chapter III

The dining hall was surprisingly crowded when JJ stepped through the door. The hall was the socializing place of the ranch, the place where the meals were served, and every night after dinner, it was turned into a small-scale bar. It was the first time the blonde had bothered to come and see the nightlife side of it herself, not really having been in the mood for it before. But, although she could've done just as well without pointless chitchat with strangers, she figured that becoming a hermit would do her no good.

So, there she was, standing at the door, her eyes scanning the room before her. Most people there she recognized: some were employees and the rest were guests just like she was. Feeling slightly out of place, JJ walked to the bar, exchanging 'hellos' and 'good evenings' with a few people along the way, and hopped up on one of the stools.

"What can I get you, Miss Jareau?" the man behind the bar asked, and JJ instantly recognized him as one of the kitchen workers who'd served her dinner on several occasions.

"Jack and Coke, please." The bartender nodded and soon JJ was sipping the cool liquid from an old-fashioned glass.

"Nice to see you finally found your way here," a smooth voice said from her left, and JJ turned to find a man in a cowboy hat casually leaning against the counter, his back to the bar.

"David, was it?" JJ remembered being introduced to him, but after that she hadn't had any contact with the man.

"David, indeed." He tipped his hat in greeting, clearly pleased that the blonde remembered his name, and studied her intently. His eyes travelled along the side of JJ's face knowingly before dipping lower, much lower, and JJ took another sip from her drink, cheeks burning with annoyance. Finally, David turned fully to her, and she cursed inwardly.

"So, what brings you to this neck of the woods?" he asked, clearly enjoying the blonde's discomfort and trying to use it to his advantage. JJ hated him instantly.

"Just wanted a change of scenery, I suppose," she replied, her voice laden with irritation, which didn't seem to bother David in the least.

"Ah, I thought maybe you were here to find out what real men are made of." He smiled smugly.

"Oh, please, David, don't flatter yourself," a familiar voice said from the other side of him, causing him to quickly push off the counter and turn around.

JJ leaned slightly forward, her eyes landing on Emily who was sitting at the bar and nursing her beer.

"Real funny, Em. You should start touring with that material," David said humourlessly, earning an amused smirk from the brunette.

"Just making an honest observation," Emily's teased lightly before leaning towards him. "And if I didn't just completely misread the situation, I don't think Miss Jareau's interested." JJ could see David's jaw muscles tighten.

"Well, you're the expert. We all know what way you swing, Emily. Don't we?" he retorted with a scoff. Readjusting his hat, he grabbed his beer from the counter and made a hasty exit.

"Bastard," JJ heard Emily whisper under her breath. Then the other woman's demeanour changed and she turned to look at the blonde sitting next to her.

"Thank you so much," JJ said and breathed a sigh a relief. "I'd no idea how to get rid of him, tactfully anyway."

"My pleasure. He can be a real asshole sometimes, you have no idea." Emily rolled her eyes, and JJ stiffled a laugh.

"No love lost between you two then?" JJ asked, still a little puzzled by the malice she'd heard in David's voice.

"You could say that." Emily snorted, drowning the last of her beer and signalling to the bartender for another one. "He tends to think of himself as God's gift to women. And when someone doesn't fall for his cheesy lines and over-the-top innuendoes, he takes it as a personal insult."

"Ah." JJ knew the type all too well. "Talking from personal experience?" Emily's eyebrows rose expressively, making the other woman laugh.

"Yes, sorry to disappoint, but you aren't his only one." Emily shook her head, feigning sadness.

"Well, I have to say, I'm not that surprised he made his move on you," JJ said and then blushed, realizing how it had sounded. Emily stared at her for a few moments, surprised, and the blonde could feel her cheeks burn.

"Thanks," Emily finally said and smiled almost shyly, easing JJ's embarrassment a little.

They sat in comfortable silence for a few moments, both concentrating on the drinks in front of them. For some reason, the brunette fascinated JJ. Whenever Emily was in the vicinity, JJ was completely captivated by her, her mannerisms, the way she spoke, how her eyes sparkled when she smiled. She couldn't quite wrap her head around it, but no one's presence had ever affected JJ quite the same way.

"So, you ready for your first riding lesson tomorrow?" Emily's voice brought the blonde back to reality.

"Huh? Oh, yeah. Definitely!" JJ couldn't believe how excited she was about the lessons.

"Great! You'll love it, I'm sure. Just come by the stables at nine and we'll take it from there, okay?"

"Sounds good. Aren't there any other people learning to ride?" JJ asked, not wanting to acknowledge just how much she wanted Emily to say 'no'.

"No, surprisingly many of our guests never even come within a hundred feet of the stables. And those who do usually know how to ride already," Emily explained. "It's a shame, really. The setting for riding is excellent here."

"Oh." JJ nodded and tried to hide the pleasure she felt when she thought about her, apparently private, lesson the following day.

Yes, JJ liked Emily. Tremendously. She felt like the brunette somehow understood her better than most of the people she'd ever met, and knowing that she'd get to spend more time with Emily filled her with nothing but giddiness.

"But don't worry, you'll learn much faster since you'll have me all to yourself." Emily grinned mischievously, and JJ could've sworn the other woman was flirting, but she quickly perished the thought. Feeling her cheeks redden again, JJ gestured to the bartender for another Jack and Coke.

Actually, she thought, better make it a double.

***



JJ knew she was early, but she headed for the stables anyway. The weather was excellent, with no clouds in sight and a faint wind cooling the air. As JJ got closer to the wooden buildings, she spied someone riding in the field, and, instead of going in, she leaned her forearms against the fence, her eyes glued to the figure on horseback. Captivated by the smooth movements she was seeing, JJ chastised herself for not taking up riding sooner.

It took the blonde a few moments to realise that it was Emily she was watching, and she involuntarily leaned closer. The older woman took off the cowboy hat she was again sporting and wiped her forehead on her shirt sleeve, the glittering beads of sweat evidence of her morning riding exercise. Placing her hat back on her head and grabbing the reins tightly, the beautiful golden horse under her was soon galloping fast through the field again, leaving a small dust cloud in its wake.

Emily seemed so happy and content, her hair blowing in the wind, that JJ found herself smiling simply at the sight of it. A cheerful "Woo-hoo!" could be heard as the horse made a sharp turn, flawlessly following Emily's subtle signals to a 'T'. The act of freedom JJ was witnessing brought back the familiar feeling of jealousy; it must've been the greatest feeling in the world to ride through an open field without a worry in the world.

"Jennifer!" Emily finally noticed her standing at the fence, forcing the blonde to push all the depressing thoughts aside. She waved, uncertainly, and a grinning Emily raised her hand in return.

"That looked like fun," JJ commented once Emily was closer, feeling the first butterflies of nervousness flying in the pit of her stomach. Whether it was because of the approaching riding lesson or the woman before her, she wasn't entirely sure.

"Oh, Thorton here is an excellent riding partner." Emily jumped off the saddle and tenderly stroked the gentle-looking horse that was now curiously eyeing JJ. Slowly, the blonde reached out and stroked Thorton's muzzle.

"You ready to take the reins yourself?" Emily asked, grinning, and the younger woman swallowed hard. The brunette reached for the reins again, the movement causing the lapel of her shirt to move sideways, and JJ realized that Emily was wearing an extremely flattering white wife-beater underneath it.

"As ready as I'll ever be," she replied with a thin voice, sensing that a herd of butterflies had now taken up residence in her stomach.

"Oh, don't be nervous." Emily momentarily put her hand on top of the other woman's, and JJ felt her skin tingle. "Horses are gentle animals, you'll love them."

Yep, but it's not really the horses I'm worried about, a small voice at the back of her head said, but JJ quickly silenced it and followed Emily inside the building.

***



The ground was surprisingly far beneath her when JJ sat in the saddle, gripping the reins as if her life depended on it. Her entire body tensed, and all she could think about was how to prevent herself from falling. The headgear she wore slipped over her eyes, and she raised a trembling hand to straighten it. She was absolutely terrified.

"Relax, Jennifer," Emily's voice finally penetrated the blonde's panicky thoughts, and she looked at the brunette who was standing next to the horse's head, facing her.

"I'm trying," JJ said with a small voice, swallowing as the animal beneath her moved.

"Horses are wise animals. Just like dogs, they can sense people's moods. Tara, here, knows you're nervous, she won't do anything radical," Emily explained, maintaining eye contact with JJ the entire time. Releasing a deep breath, JJ was finally able to relax her muscles a little. "That's better." Emily nodded her approval.

"Okay," Emily continued. "Riding may look physically unchallenging, but, in reality, you need to use pretty much every muscle in your body. Do you have good stomach muscles?"

"Yeah," JJ replied, her voice tilting in a questioning manner.

"Good, because you're going to need them." Emily winked and started slowly leading Tara forwards to begin the lesson.

It didn't take long for JJ to get used to being on horseback, and she actually enjoyed the feeling immensely. Emily taught her how to hold the reins properly and how to keep herself in the saddle, which was what concerned JJ the most. By the end of the lesson, she was already revelling in the experience, rather than fearing it, and to her surprise, she was disappointed when Emily glanced at her watch and congratulated her for surviving the first lesson.

"Same time on Thursday?" JJ asked when they were taking Tara back to the stalls, her voice hopeful. Emily chuckled.

"See? I knew you'd be hooked." The brunette lifted the saddle onto a wooden rack next to various reins and currycombs. "Just come by on Thursday morning, whenever you're ready. I'll be here."

"Great!" JJ realized, for the first time during her vacation, she felt like she was truly enjoying it. She followed Emily out of the stables and watched as the other woman began to sort out a pile of ropes that lay on the ground.

"Thank you so much for this. I can't believe you'd take the time to teach a complete novice," JJ said, suddenly feeling nervous again.

"Are you kidding me? I love teaching, and you're an extremely fast learner, so my job was pretty easy." Emily smiled encouragingly, wrapping a rope around her hand and elbow to wound it into a coil. They looked at each other, smiling.

"I should...," JJ began, gesturing behind her, but, for some reason, was unable to tear herself away from the other woman just yet.

"Yeah...no problem." Emily nodded, but didn't break the eye contact either. She was about to say something else when someone called for JJ, and the blonde was forced to turn around. Her eyes landed on Noah Jackson, and suddenly, she felt highly annoyed.

"I'll see you on Thursday then," JJ said apologetically, though she wasn't entirely sure why she should feel that way.

"Definitely." Emily nodded, and with a final smile, JJ made her way to Jackson who was patiently standing in the middle of the yard.

"How are you today, Miss Jareau?" he asked in his typically pompous way, but JJ was in too good a mood to let it bother her.

"I'm good, thank you." She nodded politely, burying her hands in the back pockets of her jeans.

"Excellent. I take it you're enjoying your stay here? I haven't been able to catch up with you during the past few weeks. I've been rather busy. Lots of work to be done." The self-satisfaction in his voice made JJ want to cringe.

"Oh, I'm very much liking it here. I just had my first riding lesson, actually." She couldn't help the grin that spread on her face.

"Is that so?" Jackson asked, and it didn't go unnoticed by JJ that his eyes flickered to Emily on regular intervals.

"Yes. Emily's a wonderful teacher," she genuinely complimented the other woman.

"Good, good," he said, but JJ could hear the resentment behind his words. "Right, well, I must get going. I'm glad your stay has been successful so far, Miss Jareau. Again, if there's anything you need, don't hesitate to ask." With that, he brushed past JJ and made his way towards the small warehouses to the right of the stables.

JJ turned to watch him go, but her eyes involuntarily turned back to Emily. The brunette's gaze was nailed to Jackson's retreating back, the look on her face unreadable, but completely void of the previous joy and blithe JJ had witnessed earlier.

Frowning, the blonde turned around, her thoughts again on the bit of conversation she'd heard only some days previously. Maybe there was something to it after all.

***



Chapter IV

The rays of the sun lit up the room when JJ drew back the curtains and peered out of the window. She couldn't believe a month had passed since she'd arrived at the ranch, but a small pocket calendar on her desk informed her that it was already the 30th of June. It had been the right decision to take time off and come here; there was no doubt about it. She'd actually been able to spend her nights sleeping soundly without nightmares or pagers interrupting her. It was something she could easily get used to.

Turning away from the window, JJ plopped down on the bed and grabbed her cell phone that lay on the nightstand next to the newest Kay Scarpetta mystery she'd brought with her from home. She'd made sure the phone was turned off whenever she didn't need it, because the last thing she wanted was her real life back home interrupting the current bliss when she still had a chance to ignore it.

Once the phone was on again, she quickly scrolled down her contacts list and chose the one that said 'Garcia'. Penelope Garcia, the computer guru of the BAU and her best friend, was the only person she'd stayed in contact with during her stay in New Mexico. She wasn't terribly close to her "real" family anyway – the team at the BAU had taken the number one spot in her mind a long time ago. And she knew that Garcia would let the others know that everything was well with her.

The phone rang a few times before it was picked up, and a wide smile spread on JJ's face the moment she heard her friend's voice.

"Well, if it isn't the BAU press liaison extraordinaire," Garcia said in her typically chipper way.

"Morning, Garcia. How's life back East?" The blonde leaned back on the bed, propping herself up with pillows.

"Oh, you know, same old, same old." Clicking of keys could be heard in the background. "The team's in Ohio, a particularly weird case. Jordan said-." Garcia's voice sobered momentarily before the cheerful tone made a comeback: "But you so don't need to hear about that!"

"Yeah, I prefer a serial killer-less vacation, thank you very much." JJ chuckled.

"What's new over there? Still literally trying to stay in the saddle?" Garcia asked innocently, and JJ blushed, although the computer whiz couldn't see her.

"Garcia, that only happened once! Besides, I was dismounting anyway, so, technically, I didn't fall," JJ explained for the millionth time, which only made Garcia giggle even more.

"Still, the visual is priceless, Jay-J."

"Emily said the same thing has happened to her more than once," JJ explained, but it didn't ease the embarrassment she felt in the slightest. Her face flushed as she remembered how the brunette had quickly wrapped her arm around her midsection and helped her back on her feet.

"And how is the wonder woman named Emily?" Garcia asked.

"What's that supposed to mean?" JJ wasn't quite able to sound as oblivious as she wanted.

"C'mon, girlfriend. She must be something special, the way you keep talking about her." A silence. "Are you sure it's Emily and not, say, Edward?" the woman on the other end asked knowingly.

"What are you on about, Garcia?" JJ asked incredulously. "Emily, she's...nice. We're good friends." She suddenly felt uncomfortable.

"Uh-huh." Garcia's voice was teasing. "Well, it's good that you have a friend there. Quantico and the brilliant presence of yours truly are so far away."

"Yeah, and I'm really enjoying myself. Truly," JJ said truthfully.

"Perfect-O."

JJ shook her head, amused; it was wonderful to hear her friend's voice again.

"You could always come and visit," JJ noted jokingly and heard her friend gasp audibly.

"JJ, me and all that countryside stuff? Match made in hell," Garcia said, making the blonde laugh.

"It was worth a shot." JJ shrugged. "We have a Fourth of July party coming up as well."

"What, you'll sing songs around a campfire and compete as to who can milk a cow the fastest?"

"Very funny," JJ said sarcastically. "No, there's supposed to be a big bonfire and fireworks. Jackson, the owner of this place I told you about at some point, he invited me a few days ago."

"Sounds...exotic."

"And you sound so enthusiastic, Garcia," JJ teased back. Her daily doses of Penelope Garcia were the only thing she truly missed from home.

"I think I'll just keep on enjoying fireworks as my screensaver. You can keep the real things." Garcia sighed. "Unfortunately, kitten, I need to go. Hotch is calling, undoubtedly wanting to feed me more lovely images from the crime scenes."

"Urgh." JJ wrinkled her nose. She definitely didn't miss her job, which still surprised her. She was the epitome of a workaholic after all. "I'll talk to you soon."

"Call me anytime, Jay-J." The line went dead, and JJ sighed contently. Yes, she'd pick bonfires and fireworks over mutilated bodies any day.

***



Clang!

"Score!"

Clang!

"Another one!"

Clang!

"Perfect!"

Clang!

"One more!"

Clang!

"Five out of five in six seconds!"

Colin, another cowboy look-a-like and a ranch employee, turned to his audience and raised his hat, while smiling charmingly. An enthusiastic round of applause sounded, and some people cheered as he slipped his revolver back into its holster, accompanied, of course, by a stereotypical spin. JJ politely clapped along, even if the snobby mannerisms she'd witnessed made her want to throw something at the man. The blonde glanced at the five empty tin cans on the ground, cans that now had a small, round hole in them, thanks to Colin's fairly good aim. Despite her aversion towards the guy, JJ had to admit that his shooting had been impressive.

"Anyone care to challenge me?" Colin looked around him, noting most of the people fervently shaking their heads, not even daring to look at him. "Anyone?" he urged, his eyes finally landing on someone standing somewhere to JJ's left. The resulting smile was smug. "Emily?"

JJ's head whipped around, and she saw Emily, her arms casually crossed, not too far from her. The older woman was eyeing Colin, her eyes narrowing slightly under the rim of her hat. There was a moment of silence when everyone simply looked at Emily, waiting for her response to Colin's challenge.

"You always try to trick me into doing that." Emily's lips quirked into a small smile of amusement.

"Every cowgirl needs to know how to shoot." Colin shrugged, and the brunette canted her head to the side in contemplation. "What? You scared you won't hit any?"

"If you're trying to push my buttons, you're failing miserably." Emily stepped forward and stretched out her hand towards him. "I need to borrow your gun."

"Certainly."

The tin cans were placed back on bases of various heights, and an atmosphere of anticipation filled the area. JJ could feel her heart hammering in her chest as she watched Emily load the old-fashioned revolver and then click the chamber shut. The faint murmuring among the spectators finally faded into complete silence as the brunette raised the gun and took aim. A man with a stopwatch cleared his throat and peered down at the small timer in his hand.

"Ready...set...go!"

It was beautiful. It was flawless. In awe, JJ watched as Emily gracefully cleared one can after another from its perch, until there was only the last one left. The blonde had been practically ready to cheer out loud when she suddenly noticed Emily unnecessarily shifting her aim slightly to the right—a movement so insignificant that the majority of the onlookers probably missed it entirely—and the last shot missed the can by a mere couple of inches. Gaping incredulously, JJ heard the crowd gasp in disappointment and saw Colin's jaw muscles visibly relax.

"Oh, too bad!" Colin jeered, but the blonde hadn't missed his nervous swallow.

"Better luck next time, eh?" Emily stated and handed the gun back to its owner, all the while smiling calmly. She received several 'better luck next time' pats on the back as she made her way through the crowd. Now sufficiently recovered from his near heart attack, Colin proceeded to show other gun tricks to those interested, but JJ didn't stick around. Instead, she hurried after Emily, still feeling strongly about the injustice she'd just witnessed.

"What was that about?" she asked, her brows still in a frown when she reached the other woman.

"What was what about?"

"That last shot! You could've easily hit it!"

"Yeah?" Emily picked at an invisible piece of lint on the sleeve of her shirt.

"Yeah." JJ reached for the brunette's arm, urging her to stop. Their eyes locked. "You missed on purpose."

"I..." Emily struggled for words and finally just shrugged, smiling solemnly. "Yes, I did."

"Why the hell for?"

"Jennifer, look around you. I'm the only woman working at this ranch who isn't a maid," Emily explained. "Can you imagine the hell I'd be put through if I beat them at something so disgustingly manly as shooting? It's quite enough that I can ride better than any of them."

"That's so annoying!" JJ exclaimed angrily, making Emily laugh.

"Believe me, I know." They began walking again, the blonde secretly studying the woman next to her, suddenly feeling elated. They both knew what it felt like to live in a highly male dominated world, and through this new side of Emily, JJ felt like she bonded with the other woman on yet another level.

"Where did you learn to shoot like that?" she suddenly asked, remembering Emily's precise and unfaltering aim.

"Ah, I've picked it up along the way." The answer was ambiguous to say the least, but JJ reminded herself that she hadn't been very forthcoming about her own life either.

"Well, you definitely were the better shot back there," the blonde stated proudly. Emily couldn't stop the wide grin that spread on her face as she leaned closer to JJ.

"I totally was, wasn't I?"

***



The cool evening air washed over JJ as she stepped out on the porch. The bar had been rather crowded again, and the blonde had ended up playing darts with some of the other guests while drowning several bottles of beer. Her aim had significantly suffered as the evening had progressed, but she'd still easily beaten her competition. Her smile faltered slightly when she remembered that the last time she'd actually played had been just before the Hankel case – a case that would be forever burned in her memory. Those dogs had caused her nightmares for months, and they still visited her subconsciousness more times than her shrink, or JJ, would like. It had taken the team hours to get her to talk again after Morgan and the cavalry had found her in the barn.

Shaking her head to rid the unpleasant thoughts, JJ refused to go down that road again and, instead, she inhaled the fresh desert air and concentrated on the present. Her mind was still pleasantly buzzing because of the alcohol she'd consumed, and, content simply to enjoy the feel of cool wind on her skin, she leaned against the wall. Her thoughts turned to Emily, which didn't really surprise the blonde that much anymore, and she could feel a tiny sting of disappointment that the brunette hadn't been at the bar earlier.

JJ felt...different when she was with Emily, that much she did know. She didn't feel the need to pretend or impress, nor did she feel in any way threatened by the other woman. Somehow, Emily allowed her to just be herself, which both thrilled and scared her at the same time. Maybe it was the thick cloud of anonymity that still hung around them after all this time—JJ realized that she didn't even know Emily’s last name—but the blonde had never felt as free as she felt with the other woman.

Deep in thought, JJ almost missed the small movement in her peripheral vision. Focusing her eyes to the far end of the yard, she could make out the outline of someone walking slowly across it. Instinctively, JJ pressed her body closer to the wall and into the shadows of the porch, her agent training automatically taking over her movements. The uncertain steps of the figure told the blonde that they probably didn't want to be noticed, which encouraged her to become as invisible as possible.

When the mysterious person was midway through the yard, JJ recognized the unmistakable form of Noel Jackson. A rush of adrenaline coursed through her, and she could feel her heart beating rapidly in her chest as she followed Jackson's every step. She probably should've ignored her instincts—how was any of this her business anyway?—but the Supervisory Special Agent side of her silenced the rational part of her brain, and quietly slipping off the porch, JJ carefully followed the ranch owner.

JJ made sure her boots didn't make a sound when she walked and stayed within a long enough distance from her mark to avoid notice. Part of her recognized how ridiculous all this was, but she still wasn't able to just ignore it. Something was off when it came to Noel Jackson, and JJ couldn't deny the ominous feeling she got everytime she saw him.

After a few minutes of trailing, JJ realized that Jackson was headed for the group of lodge houses at the brink of the river. He disappeared between two of them and, after a brief moment of hesitation, JJ followed suit. She rounded the first corner, but Jackson was nowhere to be seen. A small clicking noise drew JJ's attention to a building a good distance to her left—it looked like a garden shed—and in the faint light of the moon she could distinguish Jackson stepping through the door and glancing suspiciously behind him before silently closing it.

Unsure of what to do, JJ pondered her options when, suddenly, she sensed a presence behind her.

"Hey, what are you doing?" The blonde rapidly turned around and came face to face with a frowning Emily. JJ's mouth opened, but nothing came out. She felt like she had just been caught red-handed, but doing what exactly, she wasn't entirely sure.

"Just looking around," was the first thing that came to mind, and it was so lame that JJ visibly cringed.

"In the middle of the night?" Emily's crooked her eyebrow, and JJ got the unsurprising confirmation that she had failed to convince the brunette.

"I just needed some fresh air, the bar was getting really warm and loud," JJ tried to explain.

"Ah, okay," Emily said in a non-committed way. JJ noticed that she peered at the building behind her, the one Jackson had disappeared into, but the expression on her face remained the same and gave nothing away.

"What are you doing here?" JJ asked, desperate to change the subject and shift the attention away from her and her odd nightly ventures.

"I live here." Emily's voice was amused. She tapped the wooden wall next to her. "My humble home."

"Oh." JJ had known that many of the lodge houses served as accommodation for the employees, but she'd never actually seen them up close.

"You seem a little...flushed," Emily noted, the corner of her mouth twitching, and JJ blinked nervously. "Just how long were you at the bar?"

"I...a while." JJ finally confessed and rubbed the bridge of her nose.

"I think it's time to get you home," Emily suggested, and the blonde didn't protest when she felt Emily's hand slide up her back, leading her forwards and away from the mysterious garden shed where she'd followed Noel Jackson to. JJ glanced behind her one last time, a faint hint of light in the darkness the only indication that someone was inside.

The walk to the main building was made in silence, but instead of it being uncomfortable and suffocating, the blonde only felt peaceful. Much to JJ's wonder, Emily hadn't withdrawn her hand, she'd only moved it on her shoulder, and the younger woman could feel the warmth of it through her thin blouse.

All the feelings and sensations coursing through her entire being baffled her. Mostly because she'd never felt them before, nor could she even name them all. The only thing she was certain of was that the woman walking confidently next to her was the cause of the state of uncertainty in which she'd lately found herself. Too often, JJ caught herself wondering when she'd see Emily again, or purposefully searching for her with her eyes when she walked past the stables. It was disconcerting, and the blonde was way too scared to contemplate what it all actually meant.

"Let me get the door," Emily said and hurried to open the door to the main building for her charge.

JJ smiled shyly, incredibly flattered by Emily's chivalrous act and stepped inside. She climbed the stairs to the second floor, conscious of the footsteps following her, and fished the key from her pocket.

"Right, this is me." She hoped the nervousness she felt wasn't as evident as she feared.

"Will you be okay?" Emily's voice was genuinely concerned, and JJ's heart skipped a beat.

"I will." She smiled. "Thank you for seeing me home."

"My pleasure," the brunette murmured. She leaned forward, kissing JJ's cheek softly. "Good night, Jennifer."

JJ watched as Emily disappeared down the stairs, her heart hammering in her chest and her face flushed. What the hell just happened? She hated how easily Emily could make her blush. The skin on her cheek tingled where Emily had pressed her lips, and she raised her hand to the spot. A faint trace of Emily's perfume still lingered in the air, and, for some strange reason, JJ was unable to stop the shy grin that spread on her face.

This is so not good, she thought, finally slipping the key into the lock and unlocking the door.

***


>> Part 2 <<
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