conquer frustration, one must remain intensely focused on the outcome, not the
Aaron Hotchner was frowning slightly as he entered the little breakfast café inside the hotel. Emily noted the furrow of his brow, the tight set of his shoulders—and she wondered what could have possibly happened so early in the day to upset him like this. As far as she knew, there hadn't been any huge or otherwise perplexing developments in the case overnight.
She smiled when he looked her way. He didn't smile, but the little crease in his forehead disappeared. She shifted slightly, crossing her legs as if giving him more room to join her at the table. He did, suddenly looking bashful and embarrassed.
"What?" She asked, unsure of whether to be concerned or amused.
He considered his options for a moment—his gut told him never to trust Clyde Easter, but a certain corner of his heart feared there might be truth in Clyde's seemingly off-hand remark. And the way Clyde had hinted, as if he was the one who'd left Emily's room so early in the morning—that cut deeper than he'd expected, rattled him more than it probably should. Still, he couldn't deny the fact that his chest had tightened in fear, and a single comment she'd made the day before had echoed through his mind.
We're not saints. She'd used it as a joke, as a way to lighten the mood, but now he wondered if she had been telling him something deeper—had she been hinting at the idea that she, too, had someone else waiting back in London? Was that someone Clyde Easter?
He couldn't imagine it. And yet, he couldn't stop imagining it.
Bite the bullet, he told himself. They'd already jumped several hurdles yesterday, and he knew that regardless of what the answer may be, it wouldn't change how he felt or what he wanted.
Of course, he had to ask the question first.
"Emily, you don't have to answer—it's none of my business." His tone was quick, flat, neutral, almost brusque. "But who was in your room last night?"
She felt the air leave her lungs, "Excuse me?"
Now Hotch was actually blushing—a rare and entrancing sight. He looked away, "You really don't have to answer—"
"Rossi." She spoke without hesitation—too quickly to be lying, Hotch knew.
He looked back at her, confused.
She elaborated, "He had a dream—really, a nightmare, I think. About Erin Strauss. About losing her again."
The parallel between Dave's dream and Aaron's was too eerie.
Emily looked down, gently tugged at a loose thread at the elbow of her shirt sleeve. "We've always been…closer than most people realized. He told me that he thinks of me as the daughter he never had, Aaron."
She was smiling almost-shyly at this confession, and he saw the truth behind her words—the truth and the slight shimmer of pride at the statement (I am accepted by someone, I belong somewhere, someone chose me).
He gave a small nod of understanding.
She glanced around the café, "But how did you know that someone was in my room last night?"
Her stomach fluttered at the thought—had Aaron come to her door last night, just like she'd planned to go to his?
Now it was his turn to look around, evading the question. He wasn't going to implicate Clyde Easter, like some little kid tattling on another kid on the playground. Besides, adding Easter to the mix would only muddy the waters, and the waters had already been too muddy for too long.
"It really wasn't any of my business," he repeated quietly.
Emily understood that he would never answer that question. So instead, she tried another.
"When you first came in—you seemed…were you jealous?"
He gave a shy smile at the question, and she couldn't deny the sudden irregularity of her heartbeat. But instead of giving a direct answer, he looked into her eyes and asked, "And what if I said that I was?"
A grin spilled across her face before she could stop it. "I think I wouldn't mind, too much."
He smiled too, a half-secret shared between them. Then he quietly began, "Yesterday, at the location—I think you misunderstood—"
"Did you want to kiss me?" She suddenly needed to know. She was tired of missed connections and crossed wires and small apologies.
"Yes," he answered simply.
"But you didn't."
He rose to his feet, and Emily's expression scrunched in confusion. He glanced around quickly, then offered his hand, which she gently took, still thoroughly confused by his actions but equally intrigued by this strange new game.
His hand held the embrace, though he kept her hand low, almost behind him, shielded from view. She followed him, wide eyes and pounding heart. Her fingers resisted the urged to split and melt and slip between his own, though her palm quietly rejoiced at feeling the pressure of his hand again. It was ridiculous, to be so thrilled by a simple holding of hands, but she didn't try to quell the small happiness that it provided. It was a declaration, in and of itself, and she'd take it, for whatever it was. She remembered David's words of advice—she wouldn't push Aaron, she'd let him come to her, in his own way and at his own pace. Whatever was happening, she told herself to simply be open and patient.
They turned down a quiet hall, followed it until it ended—Aaron took them through a side entrance and outside the building, to a secluded little sidewalk.
Finally, he stopped, turned to her, let go of her hand. She still didn't ask any questions with her lips, but her eyes betrayed her curious uncertainty. He answered the unspoken query, "I didn't because I want to kiss you the way you were meant to be kissed."
Want. Present tense. The idea made her stomach drop and her heart stop. Still, ever the curious cat, Emily asked, her voice breathless with nerves and adrenaline, "And how am I meant to be kissed?"
This time, his answer was without words. He gently cupped her face with his hands, the light weight of his fingertips on her jawline filling her with a dizziness that somehow started in the tips of her toes and fizzed all the way to her mind.
The kiss was gentle, almost reverent at first—a mere brush of lips, chaste but deeply intended. Then his fingers slid further back, into her hair, ghosting down the curve of her neck. She shivered, her mouth opening in response, to which his tongue replied by slipping between her teeth.
It wasn't a thing of fireworks or any other explosive description. It was as gentle and assured and relieving as a slow, deep breath, slipping from her lungs into his with the lightest of sighs. It was searching and learning and knowing, not reckless devouring. It was the kiss of patient adoration, not frenzied lust.
And still, it made her skin tingle and prickle with sensations—instinctively, her hands reached out for him, settling on his hips, pulling his body closer to hers. His hands countered, tracing the lines of her neck, her collarbone, out to her shoulders. They lightly raced down her arms, back to her own hands, pulling them back up to shoulder-height so that his hands could meld with hers, fingers splitting and intertwining as palms pressed against one another, warm and slightly pulsing in this moment of quiet adrenaline.
Their mouths parted for air, but he kept his forehead against hers, noses lightly brushing against each other. Then his fingers separated themselves from hers again, taking a beat to still her hands, silently telling her to keep them where they were. She didn't move, though her dark eyes locked onto his, breathless, anxious, eager for his next move.
He held her gaze, his own breath catching at the lights flashing in her eyes, using every ounce of self-control not to devolve into a hungry flurry of hands and teeth. He'd waited long enough, behind excuses and fears—but he'd waited so long, and he'd be damned if he didn't prove to her that the waiting hadn't been entirely in vain.
His fingertips brushed against her palms, almost-ticklish but heavy enough to be sensual, trailing down her forearms again, all the way to her elbows, across flesh already singing with sparks and gooseflesh.
A tremor raced through her entire body, the air skittering from her lungs once again—and again, he kissed her, but this time was so much different from the last.
His hands were on her waist, the small of her back, slipping up her spine, pulling her further in as he reclaimed her mouth. Her arms automatically returned the embrace, her fingers weaving their way into his hair as she explored his tongue and teeth with her own.
She felt him withdrawing, slowly, almost regretfully, and she pulled back as well.
"Like that. That's how you should be kissed." He took a moment to brush a strand of wayward hair back into place, his hand staying a moment longer than necessary, caressing the side of her face.
She caught her breath, "I can't say that I disagree."
He laughed, suddenly and unexpectedly, like a dam of nerves had unleashed. Of course, Emily Prentiss would never lose that dry ability to quip about the softest of things.
She took another moment to look at him in quiet wonder, "Who the hell are you?"
"Who I've always been," he answered simply.
"You know what I mean."
He simply looked down at her hand, which was somehow back in his again.
"I have always had a deep admiration for you—perhaps not from the first moment we met, but it didn't take long for me to see your true character. And when that admiration became something more, I tried very hard to keep it away, because…because I thought that it would only ruin things. I never let myself cross certain lines, because I thought it was for the best, for both of us—I thought it was what you wanted." He took a moment to look into her eyes again, carefully observing her facial nuances as he continued, "But yesterday, you asked for recognition of whatever this is between us. And I just want to give you what you wanted."
The sentiment was touching, almost heartbreakingly-so—all of his actions, all of his inactions, had been in deference to her and his assumed idea of what she wanted and needed. He really was a martyr, though she knew better than to say so.
And her wicked, wicked mind immediately thought of telling him all the other things she wanted, just to see how beautifully he'd fulfill those desires. She kept the words between her teeth.
It didn't matter, because he seemed to read her thoughts. He grinned, almost boyishly, "One request at a time, Chief Prentiss."
She blushed, "I told you—you can always read me when I don't want you to."
He gave a small hum of amusement.
She smiled up at him again, "So are you saying that now all bets are off—you're gonna just start dragging me down deserted hallways and making out with me?"
"I'm still going to give you all the professional respect and courtesy that you deserve," he assured her. That simple promise did more for her than any sultry line.
"But that's only when other people are watching, right?" She teased, leaning forward to lock lips again.
"Absolutely," he grinned.
"I like this plan," she admitted, pulling away to straighten her button-down blouse and run a tentative hand down the line of her jeans. She stepped backwards, taking his hand, "We've gotta get back."
Then she stopped again, turning to him with a suddenly serious expression.
"Aaron. Last night…I had a realization, I guess. We shouldn't worry about this. We've earned it, right?"
That last word was so uncertain, so heartbreakingly hopeful, so desperate for his approval and agreement.
"We have," he assured her, his throat suddenly tightening with some unnamed emotion. He took a moment to squeeze her hand, to let his thumb rub soft circles over the ridges of her knuckles.
She smiled again, relieved and girlish, the embers in her eyes reigniting again.
So it was as easy as that, then. She felt a warm certainty settle into her stomach. A recognition, a kiss, a question, an answer. That was all it took.
Her mind briefly wondered if it was too easy, but she pushed the thought away. It should be easy, after all the obstacles that had kept them apart for so long.
"Emily," he stopped her again. She turned back, and he pulled her into another kiss—this one quick, frustratingly full of promises that couldn't be fulfilled yet.
"We'll continue this discussion later," he informed her huskily.
She merely nodded, a star-struck highschooler all over again (who are you, you wonderful romantic man in Aaron Hotchner's body?).
He opened the side entrance again, gesturing for her to go through, "Please don't misunderstand—but I think it's best if we keep this quiet for now. You are under the microscope and I don't want—"
She stopped him with a quiet hand on his shoulder. "I understand."
She took a moment to timidly raise her hand to his face, gently tracing the line of his jaw. She bit her lip to keep from grinning like a fool.
"You're very adorable when you're being earnest," she admitted.
He didn't reply, but the look he gave her informed her of exactly how he felt about her—and those feelings stirred something deep in her belly in response.
"I'll meet you around front," he promised. She nodded and disappeared down the hall. He closed the door and headed for the front entrance.
Who the hell are you? Emily's words echoed in his head. He could hardly believe his own actions—true, he'd spent the rest of the day yesterday regretting not taking the chance to kiss Emily, but he had planned to be a little more eloquent about it all, to perhaps say something before he kissed her, to explain further.
But maybe these things didn't need explanation. If Emily had any doubts before this morning, they certainly disappeared after that first kiss—and with one look into her dark eyes, Aaron knew he didn't have to wonder about her feelings anymore, either.
He felt his heartbeat quicken again at the memory of her expression—her trembling lips, her smiling eyes, the light pulse at the base of her neck. He silently vowed to do anything it took to earn that look again.
His mind reverted back to another version of Emily's face—the pale, lifeless version from his dream the night before.
No. That was just fear—and he'd let fear reign for too long, when it came to his interactions with Emily Prentiss. He would be bold, he would embrace whatever this was, and he wouldn't worry about the future (the last part would be the hardest, he knew, but he'd gladly try, for her).
By the time he reached the front of the hotel, Emily Prentiss was already there, waiting for the van to arrive. There was a brief glance, a shared secret, but not so much as a smile.
"Good morning, Chief Prentiss," he gave a slight nod as he came to stand next to her, clasping his hands in front of himself in a contained and aloof manner.
"Good morning, Chief Hotchner," she returned, equally deadpan.
Emily glanced over at Rowena Lewis, who was still a little bleary-eyed but smiling as always. She was standing next to the hulking Jeff Masterson—the man whom Emily now knew was the object of Rowena's affection, the forever unattainable.
And again, Emily wondered if Rowena should have gone into behavioral analysis instead of forensic—because the other brunette took a beat to look Emily up and down, then turned her gaze to Aaron Hotchner.
Her hazel eyes made a little gesture towards his hand, as if to say, I notice he's not wearing a wedding ring.
Emily bit her lip and looked away. She knew that Rowena knew, but she didn't care—not truly. If anyone understood, it would be this woman. She wouldn't betray her secret. It wasn't something kindred spirits did.
Rowena Lewis couldn't deny the bubbly feeling growing in her chest. She started laughing quietly as she turned back to face the traffic rolling past the hotel.
"What?" Jeff shifted slightly, looking over his shoulder at her.
"Oh, life," she just grinned, giving a slight shake of her head. "It's just wonderful sometimes."
"What the heck is that supposed to mean?"
"I'm having a moment—just shut up and don't ruin it, OK?"
He took a moment to simply study her down the length of his nose, then with a shrug and longsuffering sigh (crazy woman), he turned to watch the traffic as well.
Roe still couldn't stop the grin on her face. She leaned over and lightly bumped his shoulder with her own. He smiled slightly in response.
Yes. Life really was just wonderful sometimes.
CID Forensic Lab. Nairobi, Kenya.
What a way to begin the morning. Ahoo Shir-Del braced herself by taking one last deep breath before entering the morgue. This line of work had certainly given her many ring-side seats to the sights and smells of death, but she had never quite gotten used to it.
Of course, in her relatively short time as an agent, nothing had been as catastrophic as this—partial bodies lain out on cold metal tables as the lab assistants tried to match various dismembered pieces back to their original form, all charred and disintegrating.
George Whitting was behind her, close enough to touch her but polite enough not to. "Steady on, Lion-Heart."
She gave a wobbly smile in response—George had an odd quirk about needing to know the meaning of people's names, and it hadn't taken him long to realize that her entire name, when translated, meant Deer with a Lion Heart. The nickname had stuck. She didn't mind. She'd certainly been called worse. Besides, there was a certain level of respect in the moniker.
"It's just like going to a barbeque," he informed her, in his usual deadpan tone. "Except, you know—it's people."
She had to laugh at the absurd comparison, at the sheer impropriety of it. Only George.
He smiled as well—he'd gotten her to forget about the horror of it all, so his job was done. "C'mon. The sooner we get this over with, the sooner we can go back upstairs."
She nodded in agreement.
The lab supervisor gave a perfunctory, tired smiled when he saw them, "What can I help you with today?"
"We came to check the status of the facial reconstructions," Ahoo informed him. George merely stood behind her, allowing her to take the lead.
"That would be me," a smooth voice called. It belonged to a woman whose back was turned to them. She was leaned over a body, taking measurements with a caliper that resembled some kind of medieval torture device. On the stainless steel counter next to her sat a laptop, into which she would input each measurement.
"Constance Connelly," the woman spoke again, waving them over. "I would shake your hand but my gloves are covered in the most unpleasant things."
Ahoo and George came closer. Constance Connelly moved to the other side of the body, allowing them a glimpse at her face. She looked every bit the part of the forensic analyst—the neatly pinned hair, the glasses, the distracted air as she concentrated on her task.
"I'm Agent Shir-Del and this is Agent Whitting," Ahoo informed her.
The redhead looked up, revealing the deepest blue eyes that Ahoo had ever seen. She flicked her gaze from one agent to the next, "And to what do I owe the honor of your presence?"
Her tone was flat, but not hostile—judging by her accent, she was British (or something close to it, Ahoo was never good with placing accents), so Ahoo deduced that this must be part of the infamously dry British humor.
"We wanted to check on the status of the reconstructions," Ahoo said simply.
This earned her a slight grin from the older woman, who continued taking measurements of the skull, "Yes, so I heard you telling Dr. Moro. Is there something in particular for which you are looking?"
Such proper grammar. This made George give a slight chuckle as he looked away. This techie couldn't get more Type A.
Ahoo took a breath and asked the question a different way, "How far have you gotten?"
Another feline smile—but this one was content, less feral. "This is my second so far—only one more to go."
George gave a low whistle of surprise, "You've gotta be the world's fastest reconstructionist."
"Well, I have been working at it for the past ten hours straight," Constance admitted, nodding towards the counter, where several cups of coffee where lined up. Then she shrugged, "And nowadays we use computer programs."
She moved back to the laptop, picking up a pen and using it to tap in a few more numbers (therefore sparing her keyboard from those aforementioned unpleasant things) as she explained, "It won't look quite as pretty as the old wax museum floating head, but this way is much faster. I measure facial features, such as the diameter of the skull, the width of the forehead, length of the nose—or at least what's left of it—and points between the eye sockets and cheekbones, and the nose and lips, and the lips and chin. We can simply input these measurements into our computer program, which also has algorithms for factors such as age, physical health, sun exposure, whether the subject smoked or drank heavily—really brilliant, I must say. I will warn you that it might not be an exact identical recreation—the explosion really did a number on them, and facial features can be distorted or even destroyed completely from trauma like that. We also have to do a little guess work when it comes to life factors. I think it's safe to assume that if our boys were all religious, they refrained from drugs and alcohol, but one can never know for sure."
She tapped a few more keys, then shifted the computer so that George and Ahoo could look at the screen, "This is what our current boy looks like, so far."
"He really was just a boy," George Whitting declared sadly. Ahoo was shocked by the sympathy in his tone.
"Obviously, I can't make a definitive statement," Constance gestured to the badly-burned body. "But he looks malnourished—that affects our ability to genetically conclude his exact age, but I'd guess that he wasn't more than twenty-two, perhaps as young as seventeen."
"Seventeen," Ahoo murmured. She had been a junior in high school; her greatest concern had been choosing her senior ring and begging her father to buy her a car for her next birthday.
"Seventeen," the other woman repeated tiredly, taking a moment to study the body lying before her. "Such a horrible, horrible waste."
She stood up straight again, moving back to the body as she delicately readjusted her glasses with the back of her hand, "Speaking of waste, time happens to be a precious commodity around here, so unless you have any other questions or concerns—"
"None whatsoever," George replied, taking his hands out of his pockets as he moved to the door.
"Um, actually," Ahoo stopped, almost flustered by the unflappably longsuffering look that the lab tech gave her. "The composite—the one you've finished—"
"Reconstruction," Constance corrected, enunciating each syllable in a clipped tone that did not belie her irritation at the comparison (a composite, a damn artist's sketch, a thing of emotion and art and absolutely no science or precision).
"Oh, yes, of course," Ahoo actually blushed at the unvoiced reprimand, and this helped soften the harsh set of the older woman's mouth. "What I meant was—could we—could you possible send us the complete reconstruction?"
"Of course," Constance replied, easily and with no trace of her former ire. She bent over the burned corpse again, calipers in hand. "I shall forward the 3D rendering to Agent Kimathi."
Ahoo waited another beat. Constance didn't stop her measurements.
The older woman's voice was wry, laced with amusement, "I understand that you feel your request is of the utmost importance, Agent Shir-Del—and while I can certainly appreciate your fervor and dedication to your work, you can see that at this particular moment, I am a bit preoccupied."
Now Constance lifted her head, her expression impossibly deadpan, "And regardless of whom our deceased person is, he isn't going anywhere."
Ahoo did not respond. She simply turned on her heel and left the lab.
George was behind her, and she didn't have to look at him to know that he was grinning.
"Is there a particular reason that you look like a Cheshire cat right now?" She asked, never slacking pace.
"Your peripheral vision's gotten better," he commented.
"No. I just know you well enough to know that you found this funny. I'm just not sure why you found it funny."
"I'm a strange guy, Lion-Heart." He answered nonchalantly. They continued down the hall. "You got schooled by a techie."
"Yes, thank you for reminding me." Ahoo gave an irritated shake of her head.
"She's got a thing for you."
"What?" Ahoo stopped, turning to stare at her partner in wide-eyed shock.
"Yup," George replied breezily, brushing past her without skipping a beat.
"George," she hissed, doubling her pace to catch up. She wanted to tell George to explain, but her pride wouldn't let her.
Luckily, the older man spared her ego, "When we first walked up, it was in the way she looked at you."
Ahoo expression scrunched into confusion, "She looked at me the way a cat looks at a mouse."
"Cats like mice."
"You're bored, aren't you?" She asked as they stepped onto the elevator. "You're just making things up, to pass the time."
George shrugged laconically. That was her only answer—no answer at all, a mere shrug that said maybe, maybe not.
She gave an irritated sigh, but a smile still tugged persistently at the corner of her mouth. Typical George.
The elevator started upwards. George quietly spoke, "I'm many things, Lion-Heart. And one of those things is a damn fine read of human behavior."
"I just don't see it," she persisted.
"People can surprise you," he replied cryptically. "But if you really pay attention to all the things they say without speaking, then you realize it's not surprising at all."
"i use to deny what i truly
felt you would say.
i didn't believe you but
over time and many bukowski
books later i realized
we are all in denial
of our own denial
and for heaven's sake,
i am mad for you."