Emily Prentiss stepped out of the restaurant and into the cool night air, followed by her five friends. She was in high spirits, but a heavy sadness lurked just underneath as she tried to forget that she would have to return to London in just a few hours. JJ and Rossi were deep in conversation behind her, Hotch and Reid were talking shop, and Garcia was walking by her side. They all wore the relaxed, unconscious smiles of a team who had just closed a case, basking in the rare and happy few hours before the shrill ring of a cell phone reminded them that their jobs would never be done.
"I'm going to miss you, E.P.," said Garcia, giving her a nudge with her shoulder.
"I'll miss you too, P.G.," she replied as they came to a stop at the kerb and she pulled Garcia into a tight hug. She couldn't remember the last time other than funerals that she had hugged so many people in one day. It felt good, for once.
"You need to come and visit more," pleaded Garcia. "Once in a blue moon when there's a killer on the loose isn't good enough."
"I know," she said. "I promise I'll be back soon."
"Uh huh," said Garcia, with a dubious raise of her eyebrow that she had clearly picked up from Morgan. Prentiss laughed,
"I'm serious. I was so caught up with work that I'd forgotten how much I'd missed you guys." As she spoke, her eyes drifted to the rest of her old team, illuminated in the glow of the streetlights, and her gaze settled on Hotch for a moment, the only member of the team who looked completely different with a smile on his face.
"Garcia, that's our cab," said JJ, coming up behind them and wrapping her arms around both of their waists. "I miss this," she said, a genuine sincerity in her blue eyes despite the six bottles of wine they had made it through during dinner.
"She'll be back," said Garcia.
"I promise," Prentiss said.
"You'd better," warned JJ. There were several more hugs as JJ and Garcia left, followed shortly after by Reid, then Rossi. Five minutes later it was only Hotch and Prentiss waiting at the kerbside for their cabs.
"Hey you," she said, with a warm smile.
"Hey," he said.
"I feel like I barely got a chance to speak to you tonight," she said. "How are you doing? How's Jack?"
"He's great," said Hotch, that unfamiliar but never unwelcome smile crossing his face again at the mention of his son. "He's been getting A plusses in his class tests, he plays soccer on the weekends, I even think he has a girlfriend."
"You're kidding," said Prentiss, trying to imagine ten-year-old Jack running around after girls. "I swear it was only yesterday he was turning three."
"Tell me about it." A silence fell between them as they watched several occupied cabs drive by. "So you and Mark," he said, casually. "How are things?"
"You're asking how serious the relationship is," said Prentiss, with a hint of a smile, seeing straight through the seemingly vague question.
"I was just making conversation," said Hotch, returning her smile almost convincingly, but Prentiss saw the intrigue in his expression.
"We've been together for about eight months," she said. "We haven't officially moved in together but he stays at my place most nights."
"Are you happy?" he asked.
"What are you really asking me, Hotch?" she asked, the intensity in his dark eyes bringing out a sudden guardedness within her that she couldn't quite explain.
"I'm asking you if you're happy," he repeated. Prentiss's cab pulled up at the side of the road, but she barely registered it.
"But why?" she pressed.
"Because…" He trailed off for a second, letting his eyes rest on the buildings across the street for a few seconds before he turned back to her. "Because sometimes I've wondered what might have happened if you'd stayed." Prentiss took a small step back.
"You mean between us?" she asked, raising her eyebrows. "Nothing, Hotch. Nothing would ever have happened. You would have carried on being all stoic and professional, keeping your distance, and I would have kept telling myself that my feelings for you were totally one-sided." Hotch looked startled but she continued. "I'd have kept going on terrible dates with boring guys who could never even begin to understand me or the job I do. Then one day I'd have met someone who wasn't as bad, I might fall for him, move in with him, maybe even start a family one day, but all the time I'd be looking at him and wishing he was you. I would look at his face every morning and feel like something was missing, like something would always be missing from my life because you weren't in it." She was almost shouting by the end, and her vision was blurred by tears that she was desperately trying to keep from falling. Hotch stared at her in silence. "That's what would have happened. Because you never said a damn thing, Hotch. You never made a move." Hotch stepped towards her, closing the gap she had put between them, finally breaching the professional distance they had kept for nearly ten years. It was the first time he had been so close to her, close enough for her to feel his breath on her lips, close enough for her to kiss him.
"Well then, for the record," he said, his voice quiet and deep, "I'm making one now." She hesitated for a second as her body seemed to fall still, the air vanished from her lungs, her heartbeat slowed almost to a stop, their eyes met for what felt like an age. Then she turned away.
"I have a life back in London," she said, but the words sounded empty and disconnected as they left her mouth. She climbed into the taxi and pulled the door closed behind her, leaving Hotch standing alone on the sidewalk under the cold lights of the restaurant.