do not suffer as I do, it is so clear. What can I do?
Yet, I will reach you somehow with my mind, all I have. I will invade your dreams, I will not ask if it is right….I will reach beyond dimension, beyond realm, beyond memory, to touch you in some small way."
July 2011. Nîmes, France.
Alcohol was a natural depressant. She was already naturally depressed. In other words, she really shouldn't be drinking.
And yet, here she was, curled up on a piece of very unforgiving rough-hewn wooden furniture, knees to her chest as bare toes peeped out from the large, thin blanket wrapped around her body, hand firmly clasped around her first glass from her second bottle of wine.
Her head felt fizzy, as if her thoughts were bubbles, floating and popping against the sides of her mind. However, the one feeling, the one thought that she was so desperately trying to erase, simply wouldn't budge.
She was lonely. Terribly lonely and terribly alone. She had chosen this city, because it reminded her of her past—the language and cuisine reminded her of summers spent with her grandfather in the French Alps, and the Roman ruins (better, more intact than the ones in Rome, even) reminded her of the times spent in Italy. And then, that became the problem, of course—because then she remembered being sent to her grandfather's so that her mother could be free to jet around the world, and being shunned by the Church after having her abortion, that awful year in Rome. Rome reminded her of Matthew, of how she'd lost him again, in such horrible circumstances.
She should have chosen Timbuktu. At least there wouldn't be any memories there.
It didn't matter. She was haunted; wherever she went would be haunted, too. That depressing revelation needed another glass of wine.
She blindly reached out, hand fumbling along the little ceramic-topped end table that held her current bottle of wine—her fingers met the smooth surface of her cell phone. She picked it up, momentarily distracted (as the drunken are wont to be). Her lips twisted in a wry smirk—what was the point of having a phone, when she had nobody to call?
Everyone she knew and loved thought she was dead—well, with the exception of Hotch and JJ.
Hotch. She felt a wave of anger push through her chest at the thought—he was the one who decided to send her away, to figuratively kill her while she was literally fighting for her life in a bright and scary operating room.
He never even asked her. He just did it—just like that, took away her life, her family, her sense of security, her place in the world, and all without a second thought for how she might feel about it all.
"You're a bastard," she said quietly, still staring at her phone.
It didn't matter. She could rave and cry all she wanted, Aaron Hotchner couldn't hear her. Maybe that had made it easier, knowing that regardless of how she felt about his decision, he wouldn't have to face any consequences or complaints from her—after all, dead girls don't talk.
"But I'm not really dead, am I?" She arched one eyebrow in smug defiance. "Forgot that little bit, didn't you, Hotchner?"
She smiled at her own drunken cleverness. Then something flickered in her wine-soaked brain. Maybe good ol' Hotch needed to be reminded of that. Maybe he needed to remember that she wasn't dead, and he couldn't just sweep her away under some godforsaken rug like a bad mistake.
Even in her intoxicated state, she still remembered the number—that was part of her super-secret-agent training, learning to memorize and retain numbers by heart, no matter what her mental or emotional conditions.
Super-secret-agent. She snorted at the thought. Not so super now. Nor so secret, for that matter.
Not an agent anymore, either.
The last thought struck her as the phone began to ring. And suddenly her anger melted into sorrow. Sorrow and grief for an undefined loss.
"Hullo?" Aaron's voice was sleepy, befuddled.
Tears pricked in her eyes, hot and cloudy.
"Why, Hotch?" She didn't even care that her voice sounded plaintive and mewling, like a crying kitten's. She was too drunk to worry about pride.
"Em—" He made a noise, as if he were going to say her name, but stopped himself. She could sense that now he was fully awake—his voice was careful, quiet, serious, "You shouldn't be calling. This isn't—"
"Why? Why did you do this to me?" She wanted to scream, to shout to the heavens that she didn't give a damn about what she should and shouldn't be doing—but the wounded part of her soul was greater than the angry part.
"Are you alright?"
She laughed at that, an ugly, painful laugh that stuck in her throat like shards of glass, "Am I alright?"
There was a pause. He didn't say anything.
"You killed me, Hotch. You sold me out. You watched me bleed out on an operating table—you watched me fight for my life, and you decided that I wasn't worth fighting for. You walked out there, and you told them—what did you tell them?"
She knew the answer by the silence. The realization dawned on her, sharp and sudden. "You didn't, did you? Who did? I can't imagine Strauss would—she couldn't even handle lying to my mother. Was it JJ? Did you send in the former PR girl to do your dirty work?"
Again, no answer. She shook her head, "You know, Hotch, I've thought of you as many things over the years, but I never knew you were such a coward."
Still, he did not respond. He was being noble and silently suffering while she wailed and whined like a toddler, and it was unnerving. She wanted fire, she wanted bite, she wanted him to fight back, to defend himself, to give her a reason that made sense, to give her something to help her understand, and he was giving her nothing, nothing at all.
She felt her anger building, along with her confusion and frustration. "I don't understand. I need to understand. Why? Why didn't you…why didn't you…if you didn't care about me, why didn't you at least think of them?"
The faces of her team flashed before her—faces she'd seen a thousand times, faces she'd imagined filling with grief and shock, faces she'd wondered if she would ever see again.
"You have every right to be angry," he said quietly, in his usual calm tone (though it was lined with compassion). "But you know that I wouldn't put them through something like this if it wasn't absolutely necessary. I wouldn't put you through this, if I had—"
"They are my family," she confessed, pushing through a sudden sob. "You took them from me."
Her voice was raw now, filled with a desolate anger, and she felt the joints in her fingers stiffening and aching as she tightened her grip around her legs, her broken fingernails cutting into her skin as she physically tried to hold herself together. She hadn't expected to fall to pieces like this, but gods, she wouldn't hold back a single ounce of this, she'd drain every drop of poison from this wound, and she'd pour it on the man who had given it to her.
"And now I can't come home until he's in custody," her grief was gone, replaced by hot and hardened anger. "How long will that take, Hotch?"
"I don't know," he admitted softly, and those three words broke her heart again. She took a long breath, unsteady with the tremor of unshed tears and quivering fears. Then he gently spoke again, "Nothing I say can make this any easier. But I promise you: I will find this man, and I will bring you back home again."
"But when?" She asked, those two words hanging in the air like the knoll of a funeral bell. She wanted to say Isn't that what you promised Haley, when the Reaper was at your back?, but she was still sober enough to realize that it crossed way too many lines. Still, it didn't stop her from thinking that, in the pits of her raw and aching heart.
"I don't know if I can trust you anymore," she informed him.
There was a beat of silence.
"I understand," he said simply. There was another beat, then, "It's good to hear your voice."
"Fuck you," she spat. She couldn't help herself from sullenly adding, "You made a promise."
"And I intend to keep it."
"You know what they say about good intentions."
"I am sorry." He stopped himself from saying her name again—but she heard the pause, the beat in which he wanted to say it.
"It isn't that you sent me away," she informed him. "It's the way you did it, the way you sold me out…that's the part that's unforgiveable."
"I understand." Still, he added again, "And I'm sorry for that, too."
He didn't offer excuses, didn't give reasons, and that upset Emily more than it should have. Still, she knew that she'd get nothing more from him—the infamously tight-lipped Agent Hotchner refused to play the game, refused to ease his conscience or her confused suffering.
"I didn't call for an apology," she said flatly. "I didn't call for your promises, either. I called to remind you that I'm not dead. And I'm not gonna be a ghost forever. You remember that, Aaron Hotchner. You remember it well."
September 2013. Nairobi, Kenya.
Aaron Hotchner gave a heavy sigh as he pulled the comm set from his ear. He didn't need to hear the chatter anymore—they'd hit another dead end.
He walked out the back door of the empty building, looking out at the abandoned lot behind the row of houses. A movement caught his eye, and he turned to see Emily Prentiss standing in the doorway of another building, wearing an expression of weary frustration as well.
"Mika says we're close," she announced, raising her voice a little so that it carried to him. "Someone was here, less than ten minutes ago. Could be our guy."
"Could be anyone," he returned, moving closer to her.
She gave a light sigh of agreement, squinting up at the afternoon sky.
"I'm sorry," she said quietly.
"For what?" He looked up at her in confusion.
"I wanted to get you home in time for soccer tryouts," she admitted with a small smile.
Of course. Emily always thought of Jack—she'd never said so, but Hotch imagined that his son reminded her of her own childhood, with a parent who was always jetting off to serve the greater good. He prayed that his son would look more favorably upon him that Emily did her own mother.
"Clyde Easter's flying in," she changed the subject with another sigh.
If Aaron Hotchner was surprised by that news, he hid it well. Still, he didn't look exactly thrilled.
"You don't like him, do you?" She mused, slipping her hands into the back pockets of her jeans.
"He helped us find Doyle and Chloe Donaghy," Hotch replied diplomatically. "He helped make it possible for us to bring you back."
"He also took me away again," she pointed out.
He looked up at her again, giving a slight shake of his head, "You were gone long before he offered you the job at Interpol."
She looked down at her feet, almost sheepishly, "You always could read me like a book, huh?"
"Not always," he admitted softly.
She glanced up again, slightly surprised by this statement. She gave a soft, small smile, the kind that made her eyes widen and shine.
It was the same way she'd smiled at him, the night of JJ's wedding. The fearful, timid thing that had told him everything he'd never wanted to know—that she was leaving, that she'd tried and fought and lost and now she needed absolution and release.
This smile meant something different, he was sure of it, but it still pricked his memory.
"I never thought you'd blame Easter for your departure," he kept his tone low, neutral, unassuming. She gave a quizzical look and he added, "I thought you blamed me."
"You?" The surprise on her face was evident. "Why would I blame you?"
"I'm the one who sent you away in the first place," his answer was simple, but the emotions rolling behind his dark eyes were not.
"Hotch," she stepped out of the doorway, closer to him. "I left before that. I went dark for days, remember? That wasn't because of anything you did—that was because of what I'd done, years before. Doyle brought my past back to me, and I was the one who chose to fight him alone. That was my choice. Not yours."
"That's not what you said, that night on the phone." He couldn't stop himself. He'd kept the memory of that night and the guilt that accompanied it for so long now—and for so long, he'd kept to himself all the things he'd wanted to say to her afterward, all the ways that he wanted to acknowledge his faults and failings, all the things that had been too heavy and awkward to discuss whenever she first came back to the Bureau, all the things that he'd regretted not saying after she left.
Hotch didn't specify which night or what she'd said, but he didn't have to. Emily knew.
"I…I was drunk," she offered feebly, unsure of how else to explain. "I was drunk and I was homesick and—"
"And you were right," he added, his voice gentle but edged with that particular brand of moral certitude that could only be described as Aaron Hotchner. He looked down at the dirt, "You said what I did was unforgiveable. And, in a way, I understand. I made a choice, a choice which changed your life forever, without asking or even thinking about what you would want."
The smallness of his tone struck Emily's heart. She found herself stepping closer, her own voice etched with compassion, "Hotch, I—"
"The problem is that if I had to do it all over again, I'd do it exactly the same," he looked up, looked away, still not making eye contact with the brunette. He took a deep breath as he admitted, "I couldn't—my only concern was for your safety. You were upset with me, and you had every right to be, but at least you were still alive—hearing your angry words were better than the silence that would have been left behind if you had died."
Emily felt her stomach and lungs contract as if she'd been sucker-punched. Her mouth opened, but no words came out—in truth, she wasn't even sure what words she wanted to say, because she was so floored by this moment of tender vulnerability on Aaron's part.
Hotch wasn't speaking, either. He was simply looking away, quietly waiting for her response. If Rossi had already tipped his hand (a discussion he would certainly have to have with the older man), then what was the risk in simply laying all the cards on the table?
Finally, Emily found her voice again, slowly asking, "Why the hell didn't you say all that before?"
He caught himself smiling at her usual dry tone (there she was, Emily, taking the solemn and somehow making it humorous again).
"Because you needed someone to blame. And I'd rather it be me than you."
She gave a wry shake of her head, though her tone was gentle, "You really are the true-blue hero, you know that? Always putting everyone else ahead of yourself."
She'd meant it as a compliment, but her words only served as pinpricks to Hotch's conscience.
"Don't paint me as a saint," he warned.
Rossi's words came back to her, He's not just some robo-cop, gattina.
"I'm not," she assured him, taking a beat to study his profile. The rest of Rossi's words filtered through her mind as well—the things he told her on the walk back to the CID, the things he'd said about how Hotch viewed her. "And I'm not one, either."
He looked up at her, slightly confused. She wasn't acting like her usual self—normally, after something like this, her adrenaline levels would plummet down again, and she'd be tired, mellow, calmer. Right now, she was still tense, every muscle ready to bolt, nervous and uncertain. But despite her anxious energy, there was an electric light in her eyes that made her seem almost-happy.
She noticed his scrutiny, giving a sheepish smile, "For someone who claims to not always be able to read me, you have an awful habit of reading me whenever I don't want you to."
"Seeing something and reading it are two different things," he corrected. He watched her, waiting for her next move, for some kind of explanation, for a sign to tell him what was happening and how to proceed.
There was a beat as her dark eyes latched onto his, searching for something. She began slowly, her words picking up speed with her nervousness, "I don't know how—I guess…I'm sure you've figured out by now that Rossi and I….we talked. About, um—well, about you and me."
Now he showed his surprise. So there it was—after years of dancing around the subject, they were finally going to have a discussion (still in an odd, roundabout way, but more of a discussion than they'd ever had before).
"We're in the middle of a case," he reminded her. What he was really asking was Do you really think this is an appropriate time to discuss this?
"We're always in the middle of a case," she replied. There will never be a right time for this discussion.
He gave a slight shrug of acquiescence. If they were going to have it all out, then might as well jump in with both feet, "Aside from our work obligations, there's Beth."
"Oh." Beth. She hadn't thought about Hotch's girlfriend in this equation at all. As usual, Emily tried to deal with awkwardness by using humor, "Well, we've both already admitted that we're not saints."
And Aaron hated himself for laughing at the quip—hated because it was true, hated because he never wanted either of them to be the people that it would make them.
And Emily read his expression—his hesitation, his self-loathing, all the complications rolling across his face. Her own mask softened in turn as she quietly spoke, "We don't have to do anything about it, Aaron. I just…let's just not pretend that it's not there. There are good reasons to have reservations. It's—"
"Chief," Mika called out, moving back through the building towards her. Emily turned quickly, shaken from the quietness of her moment with Hotch. Mika took a second to look from his boss to her former boss (and Emily cringed at his sharpness), before continuing, "The bomb squad's here."
In keeping with George Whitting's prediction that the actual location would probably be rigged, Emily had ordered a secondary explosives unit to roll out approximately fifteen minutes after the primary tactical teams—this would give them time to search the other buildings first before bringing the chaos of bomb-sniffing dogs and search teams to inspect the original address given by Wasaki on his intake form.
"Good," Emily gave a curt nod. "Tell them to let the dogs out. Let me know if there's a hit."
Mika nodded and disappeared. Whatever small and soft moment had been growing between Emily and Aaron disappeared as well—it was time to return to reality, to the case and the jobs that had been their excuses for so many years. With a heavy sigh, Emily began to follow her new partner back inside.
Surely she wasn't going to leave it like this. Aaron's heart nearly stopped at the thought. In a mere matter of minutes, they'd taken leaps and bounds into strange new territory, and despite all his reservations, he couldn't let this new-found land go unexplored. He couldn't play the martyr or the saint anymore—for once, he had to give her an explanation, to make her understand the reason for the silence and the distance over so many years.
He moved forward quickly, grabbing Emily's arm and pulling her back outside. She whirled around to face him, thrown off-guard by his sudden movement.
He spoke quickly, in his usual no-nonsense manner, "My reservations aren't about me or any part of my life. My only concern is for you."
He took a beat to simply look into her eyes, to show that he meant every word of it. She understood the meaning (I'd burn my own world, but I'd never forgive myself for setting fire to yours).
Emily's heart was in her throat, but she pushed it down as she quietly said, "I'm not as fragile as you think I am."
Some things are worth the burning.
His gaze flickered to her mouth, and her own pulse quickened (he's thinking about kissing me, right now).
Then he simply looked up again, gave a small nod, and released his grasp on her arm.
"We've got work to do," was the only explanation he gave.
There was a dull ache where her lungs were supposed to be—a hollowness, a dread sense of finality.
You gave him the chance, you opened every door, and he chose not to walk through. You made your choice; he made his. Now let it go.
Spencer Reid was on high behavioral alert as Hotch and Emily walked back into the room. Hotch looked almost embarrassed, as if there were suddenly something else he needed to say to Emily, but couldn't now that there were other people in the room (Spencer had already noted that they had been alone, away from the others for several minutes).
There was a beep from their comm sets, alerting everyone that someone was trying to relay a message. Emily slipped her ear piece into place again, answering back, "Go ahead."
Spencer mimicked her movements, listening as Mika's voice came over the waves.
"The dogs are giving a positive reading. The CID team is starting a scan now to see if they can figure out how to disable the explosives so that we can enter."
"What kind of time frame are we looking at?" Emily asked.
"On the scan? Maybe twenty minutes, forty-five tops, depending on how many explosives and how he rigged it. The process of disabling the devices could take hours, though."
Emily gave a heavy sigh, rubbing her forehead. She turned back to Hotch, "There's no sense in all of us staying here and waiting for the chance to enter the house. I'll stay here to oversee operations with Mika, but I'd like the rest of you to head back and continue following other leads."
Hotch gave a nod of agreement, "That sounds like the best option."
Yes, by all means, let's always do what's best—not what we want, not what feels right, just what's best and proper. Luckily, Emily was able to keep that thought to herself, though she was surprised by the ferocity of her own reaction.
However Hotch seemed to read her mind, because he gave her a strange look. But like Emily, he knew better than to voice this aloud—as he walked away, he gently reached out and touched her elbow (we'll talk about this later).
Her shoulders stiffened in response, and she avoided making eye contact. He was certain that she'd misunderstood his actions, earlier.
I'm not as fragile as you think I am. She'd looked him in the eye, straight into his soul. Hotch had wanted to counter her words, to tell her that he didn't think she was fragile at all—she was fire and steel and unwavering strength mixed with humor and vulnerable courage, he knew that.
He had wanted to show her that he knew—he'd wanted to kiss her, to let his hands and his tongue say all the things that his mouth had never spoken, but he'd stopped himself.
Based on Emily's current actions, it was obvious that she'd misread his hesitancy. It wasn't that he didn't want to—it was that he wouldn't be able to truly kiss her, to show her exactly how he felt, not in the way that he wanted, not in the way that she deserved. There were too many eyes watching, too many people who could walk back there and see them. Aaron Hotchner was by no means an ignorant man—he knew that the double standard was alive and well. Emily was leading this entire investigation, she needed to look strong and intelligent. Getting caught making out with her former boss in the backyard while the rest of the team was busy looking for clues certainly wouldn't have a positive effect on that image.
He wanted to take her aside again, to explain, but he knew this was neither the time nor the place. He hoped that Emily would be patient enough to let him explain later on—a concept that was both thrilling and frightening.
You only regret the things you didn't do. Rossi's words had rung true. He should have just kissed her, softly and gently, with just enough pressure to silently promise that there was more to come. He should have done it quickly, without thought, before anyone could see. It would have flustered her, but at least she wouldn't be upset right now.
Coulda woulda shoulda. This hand had already been played, there was no going back now. But next hand, next quiet moment, he wouldn't waste the opportunity again. Next time, he'd let rules and protocols be damned.
He'd meant what he said, earlier—his reservations weren't in regards to his own life. He'd told himself for so long that he didn't make a move because he didn't want to upset whatever balance that Emily had found in her life. But today, she'd shattered those excuses.
I'm not as fragile as you think I am.
Then why was she acting so hurt right now?
Aaron headed back to the tac van, trying to push that last question out of his head by pushing his legs to move faster. He couldn't fix the situation right now—but he could and he would, later.
Damn his mind for wondering if he'd actually get the chance to do so.
You only regret the things you didn't do.
Perhaps Emily had been right, that night she'd called from wherever she'd been hiding—perhaps he was a coward.
Spencer watched the strained exchange between Hotch and Emily, squinting slightly as he tried to read the nonverbal cues bouncing back and forth. However, his reading was cut short as Hotch turned and walked away.
The look on Emily's face pushed Spencer into action—she looked as if she might cry, and that wasn't an expression that he was used to seeing on his friend's face. Emily Prentiss was one of the best compartmentalizers that Spencer knew.
"Y'okay?" He kept his tone light, conversational, as he walked up to her.
"What? Oh, yeah," she tucked her hair behind her ear with a heavy sigh. They both knew that she was lying, but Spencer graciously allowed her lie to stand.
"It's been a long day," Spencer pointed out gently. That was his way of kindly informing her that he thought she needed to slow down and get some rest.
Despite his kindness, Emily felt a wave of irritation—why the hell did everyone suddenly think that they needed to dictate her life's choices?
"And it's going to be longer still," she informed him. She turned curtly on her heel. "We all have jobs to do—and the sooner we do them, the sooner we can go home."
Spencer understood the implication behind her words—The sooner I can go home. Away from you.
Still, he had to persist—he remembered all the times that he'd pushed Emily away, that he'd pushed everyone away, and she'd always been the one who kept coming back, who kept refusing to let him sink into whatever dilemma he'd been in at the time.
He wanted to call after her, to shout You don't have to do this!, but he knew better. Instead, he decided to go to the root of the problem.
He turned around and went straight to David Rossi.
The target of his irritation was standing next to the other building, simply watching the bomb techs set up their equipment.
He wasted no time with preambles, his voice quickening in the way that it always did when he was nervous or agitated, "Look, I don't know exactly what's going on here—this thing with Hotch and Emily—but whatever it is, it needs to stop."
"Excuse me?" Rossi looked absolutely dumbstruck.
"I don't know why, in addition to profiling and tracking down an international war criminal, you have suddenly decided to play matchmaker as well," Spencer crossed his arms over his chest. "But Emily and Hotch don't need a relationship counselor—they need to be undistracted when they're in the field. And they need a teammate who's more concerned with having their back instead of their heart."
As much as the older man wanted to protest, he knew that his partner had a point.
It didn't matter, because Spencer wasn't waiting for a response. He simply turned around and went back to the tactical van without another word.
Rossi watched the younger man walk away—that's when he spotted Aaron standing near the van as well.
Aaron's expression did not bode glad tidings either.
Despite the right royal ass-chewing that was certainly headed his way, Dave couldn't help but smile. If everyone was freaking out, it meant that Emily had made some kind of move.
That's my girl. Brava, gattina.
He'd certainly take Spencer's advice—his work here was done. The rest was up to those two stubborn idiots.
I am here with you. See my eyes as you have so many times before. See the way I
look at you. See what you have always, but never dared to show."