Out of Africa

The Little Foxes

"The world may see my skin, but just below
Simmers what I think but never show…
When you close your eyes, do you relive
Each averted glance, aborted kiss?"
~Emilie Autumn.

March 2011. Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Bethesda, Maryland.

If pain were a color, Emily Prentiss would say that hers was currently purple. Deep, almost-black, with hints of the searing red underneath, which was slowly muting into a dull, steady throbbing. She felt like she'd been kicked in the chest by someone wearing a steel-toed boot. Breathing hurt. It felt like her throat was on fire, like her lungs were made of jello and an elephant was sitting on top of her.

She tried to swallow. A razor-sharp pain slid all the way down her throat. She grimaced, closing her eyes even tighter as she tried to regain control of her mind, whose primal urge wanted only to focus on the stinging and aching.

Answer the questions, Emily. Who, what, when, where, how, and why.

Who. I am SSA Emily Prentiss.

What. I don't know.

When. Not sure on that one, either. One for three. Not the best average so far.

Where. She listened to the sounds around her, felt the scratchy sheets beneath her fingertips, took in the smells of antiseptics. A hospital. I'm in a hospital.

How. Ah, now she was remembering. Doyle.

That explained the what, too. Though she was still uncertain of when.

She opened her eyes, searching the room for some sign. On the opposite wall, a dry-erase board contained the message: Today is March 10, 2011. Your nurses are Amanda and Joyce.

So...three days? Four?

I am Emily Prentiss. Today is March 10. I have survived a stake to the chest, from Ian Doyle. I am alone in a hospital room.

Alone. Why was she alone?

She slowly looked around the room. It was bare—no flowers, no cards, no anxious and expectant faces.

It wasn't like her team at all. What had happened? How long had she been out? Had Doyle gotten them all?

Oh, gods above, had he killed her family?

The thought sent a jolt of white-hot panic through her entire body, and Emily sat up—much too quickly, an action that sent a stab of pain shooting into her lungs again. She gasped, another action that tore at her throat, bringing more agony. Hot tears welled up in her eyes—partially due to the pain, but mostly due to the feeling of sheer helplessness that overwhelmed every fiber of her being.

The soft sound of footsteps made Emily turn slightly (but not too quickly—she'd learned that the hard way).

A nurse appeared in the doorway with a gentle smile, "You're awake. Do you know where you are?"

Emily nodded, still too afraid to speak (if simply gasping had hurt her throat like that, how awful would talking be?).

"Good," the nurse smiled again, moving forward to press the button on Emily's bed, raising the back so that she could remain in a supported sitting position. "You've been through a lot the last few days. We're gonna need you to take it easy for awhile, OK, Emily?"

She nodded again, her mind still swirling with one single, pulsing question: where is my team?

"I'll go get you some water. Your throat's going to be a little sore—"

A little? It feels like I swallowed a Brillo pad.

"—that's from the tube. The stake hit pretty low in your abdomen, but it damaged your diaphragm and that affected your lungs, so we had to help you breathe for awhile. But obviously, you're doing much better now." Another smile. "I'll be back in just a moment."

The tears came back, but it hurt too much to cry. She gingerly sank back against the pillows, turning her face to the window.

Maybe they were waiting in the lobby, or back at the office, waiting on a phone call from the hospital. Maybe she was in a restricted area (it didn't look like ICU, but who knew?), where flowers weren't allowed due to potential allergies. Maybe the doctors had asked them to stay away, until she was awake.

It didn't make sense. They would never abandon her like this.


No. They were still alive. They had to be. She'd never forgive herself if they were all gone, because of her.

She found herself doing something that she hadn't done in a very long time. She closed her eyes and prayed to a god that she no longer believed in.

Please. I know I don't have the right to ask for anything, and if you're real, I'm certain that I'm not your favorite person—but, oh, please, don't punish them for what I've done. Let them be safe. Please.

Later that afternoon, JJ stopped by, accompanied by Strauss and Hotch.

"Emily," Strauss stepped forward, hands clasped in front of her as she quietly explained the situation. "There's something we need to tell you. We...we are the only ones who know that you're still alive."

"I don't understand," Emily returned flatly, scanning the three somber faces at the end of her bed. She'd spent the morning drinking water and sucking on lozenges, and her throat wasn't nearly as painful (though this matter was too important to not ask questions, regardless of the pain).

Strauss sent a sideways glance to Hotch, and there was a beat of silent communication. Then Strauss continued, with an unsteady breath, "When you were rushed into the operating room, you were barely hanging on to life. We decided—"

"I decided," Hotch corrected, gently touching Strauss' elbow to signal that he would finish the statement (and she looked positively relieved at that). "You were in critical condition; Ian Doyle was—and still is—on the loose. I couldn't risk having him come after you again. He's consumed with revenge, Prentiss, you know that he won't stop until you're dead."

"This is the only way that we can save you," Strauss added, hands nervously clutching together again. Every nuance of her body language screeched to Emily that she wanted to be understood, that she wanted Emily to see that they were protecting her, not punishing her. Still, it didn't stop the feeling of abandonment rising in Emily's chest.

"Our first priority is to get you well," JJ gave a sorrowful smile, reaching forward to gently place a reassuring hand on Emily's ankle. "Once you're able to travel, we'll take you anywhere you want to go."

"Preferably outside the United States," Strauss spoke up again. "If Doyle suspects anything, the first place he'll look is US Witness Protection."

Emily nodded in agreement, her mind still spinning. Everyone was so calm, so detached—how could this possibly be happening?

She looked up at Hotch. That's when she noticed the suit and tie—all black, and much more formal than his usual office attire.

Strauss was in a black dress, with heels too impractical for the Bureau. JJ was in all black as well.

"Why are you dressed like that?" Her heart sunk, because she knew the answer before she even asked the question.

JJ bit her lip. Strauss paled and looked at the floor. Hotch took a deep breath.

"Your funeral was this morning," he informed her, his tone lined with a gentleness that she hadn't heard in a very long time.

So it was already decided. There was no going back, no chance for her to have her say. She was already dead and buried.

Her stomach turned to lead. If she was dead, how could she come back?

Hotch seemed to read her mind, because he quietly assured her, "The second that Ian Doyle is back in custody and we are certain that he has no outside connections that can reach out and hurt you, we will bring you back."

She nodded again, unable to stop the tears that welled up in her eyes (it was ridiculous, how many times she'd cried today—if this is life after death, I think I'll pass). These people didn't understand Doyle, not like she did. Hotch's promise was easier said than done—it could be decades before she could come back, or they may never catch him at all.

"We are going to catch him, Agent Prentiss," Strauss reached out, as if to comfort her, then pulled back (not even death could change the awkwardness between them, Emily thought wryly). She clasped her hands together again, looked down as she cleared her throat, "I promised—I promised your mother that I would. And we will."

"My mother thinks I'm dead?" Emily was chagrined to admit that she hadn't even thought about her mother.

Again, another silent exchange between Strauss and Hotch. Obviously a disagreement.

"I told her the truth," Strauss admitted. "We had previously—in the interest of your security, we thought it would be best to keep it to as few people as possible, but...I couldn't. She knows."

"How much does she know?"

"Enough to ease her mind," Aaron Hotchner answered softly. "But not enough to put her in danger."

Emily nodded, turning her face to the window again. She gave a heavy sigh, "Well, I guess that's it, then. You've tied up all the loose ends."

The finality in her words broke Aaron's heart. Honestly, every second of this visit had been gut-wrenching—seeing the dark circles under Emily's eyes, the lips still slightly blue from lack of oxygen, the bruised wrists, the bandage on her upper chest, under which he knew was her torn flesh, mutilated by Doyle's hand. She winced every time that she moved (and he empathized, he remembered how it felt when Foyet had stabbed him, the steady throbbing pain that made every movement a labor). Emily had been the one to save him then, the one who cared enough to go looking for him, to alert the others, to stand vigil over his bed until he regained consciousness. Now he was trying to save her—yet somehow, he felt as if she were adrift at sea and he was cutting her life line, rather than using it to pull her back to safety.

Despite his desire to save her (and to make her see that he was trying to save her, not harm her further), he still had to respect her, too—every nuance of her body language screamed that she wanted to be left alone, and he got the message loud and clear. There was nothing left to do, except to honor her unspoken request. It was the only way that he could show her that he cared—he cared enough to leave her alone when she asked (even when she asked without words, even when doing so caused him more pain).

"Just focus on getting better," he gently admonished. She still didn't turn to look at him, didn't acknowledge his words in any way. He turned to go, motioning for the two blondes to follow him. "We'll let you rest, Agent Prentiss."

"I'm not an agent anymore," Emily mournfully informed him. She kept her face turned away. "I'm just Emily now."

If any part of his heart wasn't already broken, it absolutely shattered in that instant. He turned back around, seeing the same pain in Erin and JJ's eyes.

"Get some rest, Emily," he said softly. Then he turned and left.

Erin Strauss gave a heavy sigh as she followed him down the depressingly neutral-colored hall. Gods, she needed a drink.

"She's not taking it well," Erin knew that she was pointing out the obvious, but it was something to start the conversation, and that was all the mattered. Currently, she and Aaron had been playing a game of freeze-out, ever since she'd gone against the plan and informed Elizabeth Prentiss that her daughter was, in fact, still alive.

'That wasn't your call, Erin,' he'd been livid, in the quietly dangerous way that she'd never seen before.

'She wanted to see the body—she wanted to see her daughter one last time. How could I deny her that?'

Erin Strauss might not have been the world's greatest mother, but she understood a mother's heart—and perhaps she understood Elizabeth Prentiss' heart better than most (after all, they were the same, they'd both sacrificed their children's wellbeing on the altar of public service, and they'd paid for it in spades of guilt and self-loathing). She couldn't put Elizabeth Prentiss through the absolute hell of thinking that her only child was murdered, even if it was in the best interest of the Bureau. It was a moral line that she'd never even known she possessed, and yet, she couldn't cross it. She had tried, but when the Ambassador had begun crying, begging to see her child, Erin had fallen to pieces and admitted the truth (because she could very easily imagine losing one of her own children, and losing the chance to mend the rift that her dedication to career and country had caused between her and her lights, as she called them—they were the best and brightest thing she'd ever done, and the thought of being forever separated from them, left with nothing but regrets, was too earth-shattering to comprehend). Still, she had failed, yet again—a fact of which she did not like being reminded, especially by Aaron Hotchner.

'It's too late now,' she had shot back. And like the good solider that he was, he had accepted it.

Of course, his acceptance hadn't stopped him from being positively petulant.

"What did you expect?" Aaron Hotchner asked flatly. "We've turned her life upside down, with no guarantees that it will ever be put right again."

"I'm not saying that I don't understand where she's coming from," she retorted, her tone taking a harsher edge. "I'm just saying that I am concerned for her. I am expressing a genuine human emotion, Agent Hotchner—I know that's hard to reconcile with your mental image of me, but please do try to realize that I can be concerned for the welfare of my agents."

He stopped, turning to look at her. JJ, who was several paces behind them, stopped as well, on-alert and suddenly wary of whatever new dispute was brewing between her two former bosses.

Erin's eyes were still bloodshot from the funeral—the others had been crying out of grief, but Aaron knew that his section chief's tears had been born of fear (fear for Emily, fear for the team, fear for herself, for all of the agents who spent every day in harm's way, for the little boy whom Emily had almost died trying to protect). She cared, more than she'd ever dare to admit.

"You're right," he admitted softly. She had backed his play, had helped him and JJ pull all the necessary strings to ensure Emily's safety, had even lied to the director, placing her signature on documents certifying SSA Prentiss' death, and arranging all the necessary honors for her funeral. Despite the lapse in judgment when it came to Elizabeth Prentiss, Erin had been nothing but an ally during this time. "I'm sorry."

Those were not the words that she was expecting, because her green eyes widened in shock. However, she quickly recovered, "Thank you."

He nodded and they started walking again. JJ stayed behind them, though she lengthened her stride to close the gap—she wanted a front-row seat to the miraculous moment happening between Aaron Hotchner and Erin Strauss.

Aaron and Erin. She gave a snarky grin at the thought. Someone at DOD had referred to them as 'the wonder twins.' Not the most apt comparison, since they didn't seem close or even tolerable to one another most of the time. But perhaps there was something to the moniker—she watched them moving in tandem, footsteps in sync as they continued discussing the necessary measures and precautions behind their next move, both occasionally glancing around to make sure that they were not within earshot of anyone else, keeping their voices low, their heads inclined towards each other. When push came to shove, they were a well-matched team, a machine of logic and precision, balanced and checked by the other.

Right now, Jennifer Jareau was particularly grateful for the wonder twins—and yes, even for the fact that the blonde twin had thrown her into the jaws of the DOD (and all the undercover ops that such a move entailed), because it meant that JJ was in the perfectly right place at the right time to save her friend.

As they exited the hospital, Aaron looked up to the fifth floor—he wasn't sure which window was Emily's, but he knew that she was up there, somewhere, probably still brooding over his decision.

She was angry. He understood that. But she was also alive, and safer than she had been in months. Maybe one day she could see the good intent behind his imperfect actions.

September 2013. Nairobi, Kenya.

The ride back to the hotel was quiet, but comfortably so. After spending most of the past twelve hours crammed in a room together, everyone had developed a sense of familiarity with one another—being crammed into a fifteen passenger van wasn't exactly fun, but it was much less awkward.

This time, Emily was on the row behind Aaron. He kept his face turned to the window, and she simply watched the street lamps play across his profile as they wove through the city streets.

He looked older (well, he was older, but he'd never seemed to look like it, not until now). Tired, worn from too many nights like tonight, too many days spent embattled against the never-ending tide. There was a line at the corner of his mouth that she didn't remember being there before, a faint thing that vanished and reappeared in the shifting shadows. She suddenly wanted to kiss it, just that spot, that little badge of worry and sadness, kiss it until it disappeared into his laugh lines, until it melted into that rare smile that spread across his face like the dawn.

It was a lovely thought—one that would never be birthed into action, but still a lovely thought. She smiled slightly. Poor Hotch would probably die of a heart attack if she pulled something like that.

She mentally chided herself for getting so worked up over this reunion. Why had she thought that Aaron Hotchner would be anything less than his usual stone-faced professional self? What made her think that one odd moment between them would somehow crack the flawless veneer that he'd created over the years?

Of course, that wasn't the first thing that he'd ignored between them. For years, they worked together in perfect harmony—no sideways glances or soft smiles or untoward behavior of any kind.

Then Doyle happened. Doyle and near-death and exile.

In was during her exile that Emily Prentiss first felt the shift—subtle things at first, a gentle missing of this odd quirk or the calmness of his presence or the reassuring control of his voice. Of course, she missed the others, too, missed all their quirks and personalities, missed all the colors and depths that they had brought to her life—but somehow that was different.

Perhaps because when she missed the others, she could still smile at warm memories of times spent together, of all the things they did get to do, all the experiences that went unmissed (that time she and Reid went to that awful horror movie festival, and they'd laughed all the way through, laughing until their stomachs hurt and tears were running down their cheeks, the countless times that she and Penelope had warded off ridiculous suitors on ladies' night, sharing secrets and giggling like teenagers, the times she'd put on paint-spattered trousers and helped Derek work on his latest house to flip, occasionally sorting out life's problems in-between coats of paint, the hours spent on Rossi's big back deck, talking and drinking into the night). However, when she missed Aaron Hotchner, she only thought of all the things never done between them, all the things left unsaid, all the moments left unexperienced.

Regret was a powerful thing, a creature of night that muted and shifted with a thousand coulda-woulda-shouldas, ever surprising its victim with some new possibility, some new dream that would never die, but rather take up another corner of the tossed and turning mind. It was sly, despite its heaviness, slipping into the unnoticed parts of the mind and birthing more little foxes of longing and sorrow, little foxes that gnawed on the vines of the good things left behind, insatiable little creatures that fed on her old feelings of never belonging, whispering how she'd done it again—thrown away a chance to put down some kind of roots, distanced herself from something more.

She had tried to kill those little foxes, once she returned to the BAU—but she'd let them live inside her head for too long, and they'd grown stronger than she'd realized. It hadn't helped that Hotch was so kind and concerned during the weeks after her return, or that his tone suddenly seemed gentler, or that she'd known exactly what he meant when he confessed that he'd missed her. She knew that her newfound feelings had colored every interaction between them, and she knew that he was not a dull or blind man. Sometimes he'd even seemed to return those feelings, with the rare smile or the occasional word that seemed to mean something more, but it never went beyond a certain point, never became definite or tangible. She thought that she knew why—because the moment she came back to Quantico, she also came back to the place of untouchable in Aaron Hotchner's mind. She had become his subordinate again, and whatever she'd sensed or imagined in his tone and actions was simply swept under the rug.

Still, she had remembered the crushing regret from her time away, and she had pushed herself to be more open, to have more conversations with him, to connect in all the ways that she had regretted missing before. Her efforts weren't exactly rewarded, but she did not regret at least trying—when she left again (this time for good), she hadn't felt that same sense of longing. She had tried. They had become closer, but he had made it clear that he didn't want to pursue anything further. For whatever reason, they simply hadn't worked.

But had she really tried? She bit her lip as she quietly considered the question. Could one say that they really tried to make a relationship work, when in fact, they hadn't even had a relationship?

She gave a slight shake of her head. Regardless of whether or not they'd really tried, the fact remained that currently, conditions were not conducive to any kind of romantic pursuit.

Well, that wasn't entirely true. Conditions were conducive to a lovely fling or a great one-night stand. Neither of which seemed to be Aaron Hotchner's speed—he was a man of gentle overtures and slow pursuits, a man of commitment...wasn't he? She knew what kind of man he was, when it came to his character, his work ethic, his personality—but when it came to his nuances and preferences as a lover, she didn't know anything at all. Though lord knows, she wouldn't mind learning.

Stop it, her inner voice chided. You're devolving into a ridiculous love-starved idiot with a one-track mind, and this is neither the time nor the place.

Perhaps that was the reason that she'd feared this reunion—not because she feared Hotch's reaction, but because subconsciously she knew what her own reaction would be.

Not that her appreciation for the man was solely based on his physical aspects—all day, she'd been reminded of all the things she'd missed about him, things that she hadn't even realized that she had missed until she saw them again (the quirk of his eyebrow, the quiet set of his mouth that informed her of his opinion long before he actually spoke, his funny little laugh whenever he was truly amused, the easy humor that laced his tone, his directness, his objectiveness, his solid sense of calm that always filled her with the deepest sense of reassurance—she and Morgan used to joke that if Hotch lost his shit, then it must be a very dire situation, at which point everyone should panic). She'd stared at his hands as they sat quietly on the conference room table, and her body had remembered the weight of them on her hips, on the small of her back as they'd danced together at JJ's wedding, between her shoulder-blades when they'd said goodbye. The palm of her right hand had quietly remembered the warmth of his left hand, feeling like a bird wanting to return to its happy cage.

She doubted that there would be any reason for them to hold hands during this case.

She was certain that there was no reason for them to pursue anything beyond a professional relationship during this case.

She realized that she didn't like reason and logic as much as she used to.

"We have arrived," the driver interrupted her thoughts, turning the van into the driveway of the hotel. They parked under the well-lit alcove at the main entrance, and within seconds, everyone was out of the van, grabbing various bags and traveling cases.

"What time are we reconvening?" Aaron turned to Emily, and she felt a jolt of surprise at the realization that he was deferring to her as the superior officer in this situation.

"Oh, um," she glanced down at her watch again. "I was planning to be back at CID at seven."

He gave a curt nod, "Seven it is."

"Can't you let an old man get his sleep?" David Rossi groaned in feigned exasperation.

"Suck it up, Rossi," she playfully bumped his shoulder with her own.

"You've turned into quite the slave-driver," he kept his expression serious. "Power doesn't sit well with you, gattina."

"If I were a slave-driver, I wouldn't let you sleep at all," she retorted. He grinned at the statement, merely shaking his head as he moved to the back of the van to grab their luggage.

Aaron was smiling, too—he looked younger again, and that made Emily happy.

"Well, I'll see you all in the morning," she offered another small smile. Spencer quickly wrapped her into another hug, which only made her smile deepen as she quietly commented, "Man, you must've really missed me."

"Of course I did," he returned simply, pulling away for a moment. "You're my best friend."

That artless confession made Emily's heart catch in her throat.

"And you're mine," she whispered back, blinking at the realization that her statement was utterly true. Of all the friends she'd lost and made over the years, was there one who was truly her deepest and best? And if so, were any of them truer than this man standing in front of her?

He was smiling softly at her now, and she gave his arm a gentle squeeze of assurance (I mean it). With one last smile at her other two former team mates, she headed inside.

By now, David Rossi had returned with their luggage. He tossed Reid's bag at his feet—the younger man half-expected some smart-ass remark (what, I help you with Maeve and give you my best cigars, and I'm still not your best friend?), but when he looked up, he saw that Rossi was giving one of his rare, soft smiles.

Hotch, however, was his usual brusque self. "Reid, you get the room keys—the front desk is aware of the situation and held our rooms. We'll meet you at the elevators."

The young doctor nodded, tossing his bag onto the hotel luggage cart, which George Whitting had procured for everyone.

After adding their bags to the cart, Aaron and David headed to the elevators.

Now, David Rossi had been very quiet and very good almost all day. However, there was only so much temptation that a man could resist. So he nonchalantly tucked his hands in his pockets as he quietly asked, "So, does it bother you that you aren't Emily's best friend?"

"That's an odd question," Aaron turned and looked at him.

"Which you still haven't answered," Dave pointed out.

"Why should it bother me?"

"Ah," the Italian rocked back on his heels with a small smirk. "Now that is the ultimate question."

Hotch looked at him as if he'd grown a second head. In his usual no-nonsense tone, he asked, "Dave, are you alright?"

Now it was Rossi's turn to look at his partner in slight surprise. "Of course I am."

"Then what's with this line of questioning?"

"Just trying to make conversation." He shrugged nonchalantly.

"About Prentiss."

"About Emily."

"Same person."

"Not really." David turned his attention back to the elevator, to the little light above the door that signaled which floor it was on.

"Dave, you know how much I hate riddles. What are you getting at?" There was no mistaking the frustrated edge to Aaron Hotchner's tone.

"Emily is the person, the personality. Prentiss is the role she plays, a small piece of the greater whole. When you talk about her, you're talking about Agent Prentiss—or at least, that's what you see in your mind. A role which technically doesn't exist anymore." David still didn't make eye contact as he quietly added, "She's not Agent Prentiss to you anymore. She's just Emily."

"Is that supposed to change something?"

"You tell me," Dave turned back to his friend, his dark eyes filled with startling intensity.

There was a beat of silence as Aaron Hotchner tried to figure out how to respond (of course, David Rossi was watching him like a hawk, taking in every nuance).

Finally, the younger man answered, every word carefully chosen as he declared, "I don't see why it should change anything. It doesn't, in fact. She is still fellow law enforcement, and I will still treat her with the respect and courtesy that she deserves. If you are worried that I will continue to act as if she's my subordinate—or if I've already done so—then please come out and tell me."

David fought the urge to lay his head in his hands at the last part—typical Aaron, turning it into a work-related subject.

Of course, Aaron Hotchner was much brighter than that. He knew exactly what his friend was getting at—and he also knew that he was not having that conversation, not now, not ever. Because there was truth behind his last statement—Emily Prentiss, regardless of what she was no longer, was still a fellow member of this task force. Their roles had shifted slightly, but the rules were still the same.

Still, the fact that they were even discussing this subject gave Aaron a wave of apprehension—Dave wouldn't have said anything if he hadn't seen something to make him think that there was something behind all of today's interactions. Had Aaron made it too obvious, had his feelings inadvertently shown through? If Dave noticed, had Emily?

Oh, god. The mere thought made him ill. There had always been something there, from the first little zap he felt whenever Emily Prentiss first bustled into his office (but he was married then, and wasn't that marriage, saying I'll find other people attractive, but I'll always be faithful, I'll always only truly love you?). Even after everything, after losing Haley, after finally reaching a point where he could look at another woman without feeling as if he were betraying her memory, he had still tried to keep a respectful distance. Because despite Dave's implication of the opposite, Aaron had seen the Emily behind the Agent Prentiss—she deserved someone who knew five different languages and liked foreign films and Vonnegut, someone who could make her laugh every day, regardless of the darkness that she'd faced at work, someone who could match her fire and her intellect and who could complement all of her best and brightest qualities, someone who could bring out only the good in her. He didn't think he could be that guy. More importantly, he didn't think that she wanted him to be that guy (at least not for her). So he'd tried to keep his feelings under wraps, tried not to push too hard or upset the balance of their working relationship.

But now Dave was bringing it up. It had been so long since he'd been around Emily Prentiss, had he forgotten how to keep up the walls of professionalism and decorum?

He would have to be more careful tomorrow. He wouldn't do anything to jeopardize their working relationship, or to make Emily feel uncomfortable in any way.

Emily. He'd referred to her as Emily. And as Dave had pointed out, whenever he thought Emily, it wasn't the untouchable subordinate agent who came to mind. It was a woman with eyes like night and a smile like the first rays of dawn.

Prentiss. He would have to call her Prentiss from now on. He'd find a way to put her back into that box, and he'd keep her there for the duration of this case.

Chief Prentiss. Even more decorum, even more distance. Better.

Chief Prentiss and SSA Hotchner. That was who they were, who they had to be.

The acceptance of this ultimatum settled like a stone in Aaron's stomach. God, he'd change it, if he could. It was simply another sacrifice to be made, for the greater good.

He suddenly realized that sacrifice, as its name implied, was not as easy as it used to be. He was tired of compromise, of losing, of giving more than he'd ever receive. It was his lot in life, the path he'd chosen decades ago, and he'd shoulder the burden because it was his to shoulder.

Still, it didn't stop the little tug of righteous indignation in his heart, the little voice that cried it's not fair.

It wasn't fair. But neither was life.

"So I end back where I had begun
Nothing but the present fills your head
Forgetting more than half the things I've said
Shadows of a sacrifice you made
Knowing you could dream but live instead."
~Emilie Autumn.

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