In a Heartbeat

In a heartbeat, life as you know it can be ripped away from you. In a heartbeat, everything can change, leaving you shaken and questioning everything you ever knew. In a heartbeat, the life you had can come crashing to an abrupt halt, irrevocably altering everything you see.

That's how fast it happened to him. Aaron Hotchner.

In a heartbeat.

Now, the only time he ever felt anything comparable to normal was with her. This dark beauty that had been slowly, steadily working him towards his recovery. She wouldn't give up. Wouldn't surrender him to the tide of his own misery. She steadfastly refused to walk away, no matter how many times he told her to go. He'd begged, pled, screamed and threatened. All to no avail. Every single day, she came back for more of his abuse. And for the life of him, he couldn't comprehend what she saw worth saving.

He brought danger to those he touched. Incomprehensible danger. He'd seen his tormenter's handy work. Hell, he'd felt it. Each time that cold steel had plunged into his body, he'd felt it. But, that wasn't even the true violation. No, not even close. That had happened when the bastard…that George Foyet…had found a path into Hotch's psyche, finding his worst fear and exploiting it to his full advantage. The idea that his son would never be safe…his only crime to be born to the wrong father…had slowly eaten away at an already decaying soul.

But she was determined not to let the feast continue. His Emily.

Sometimes he wondered if her sheer determination would kill her or him. It was a quality that up until now, he'd always admired. Now, it was the only thing keeping him from losing his mind…and he wasn't sure if he loved or hated her for that.

Glancing at the clock on the wall, he knew she'd be here soon. Today would be a good day by her standards. He'd managed to actually force himself into the shower and clean clothes before she'd arrived. It would make her happy. And, just lately, seeing her smile had become one of the very few things that gave him pleasure of any kind anymore.

As if his mind could conjure her physical presence, Hotch jerked as he heard a key scratching in the lock. Seconds later, he watched as Emily dragged herself through his door. Her normally purposeful step absent, instead she seemed to sag slightly as she trudged into the small foyer, closing the door behind her with a muffled slam.

"Emily?" he questioned as she turned and he met her weary eyes. Pushing himself off the couch slowly, his wounds still reminding him that sudden movements weren't advisable, he walked toward her, following her into the kitchen.

"What do you feel like tonight, Hotch?" she asked, dumping her bag on a kitchen chair as she turned to pull open a kitchen cabinet, not meeting his eyes.

Okay, something was off…there'd been no greeting…no smile. Nothing. Just utter weariness and desolation in her tone as she'd asked her sole question of the evening.

"Emily, what's wrong?" Hotch frowned, noting her stiff movements as she pulled spaghetti noodles from his kitchen cabinet.

"Nothing," Emily shook her head, reaching for a hanging saucepan over the stove and filling it with water at the sink. "How was your day?" she asked softly.

"My day was the same as it has been for the last three weeks. Right now, I'm more concerned about your day, Emily," Hotch said evenly, weighing his words as he watched her stiffly lower the pot to the stove's burner.

Closing her eyes as she felt Hotch's strong hand cover hers, moving the pot off the burner, she heard him reach around her to click off the stove.

"Supper will wait, Emily," Hotch said from behind her. "Tell me what's wrong."

"It was just a long day," she said shortly. There was no way she was going to burden this man with something that would seem trivial to him now. Not that death was a trivial thing, but when your child was on the line, the death of three women might pale in comparison.

"Cut it out, Emily," Hotch said deeply from behind her. Spinning her gently around to look in her dark eyes, he leaned forward. "I'm not going to drop it so you might as well save yourself some time here."

"You're on medical leave," Emily retorted. "You should be resting."

"This, coming from the woman that's spent three weeks trying to get me OFF the couch," Hotch retorted with a roll of his eyes. "Start talking, Prentiss," he ordered, his tone implacable.

From his posture, Emily didn't need any special profiling skills to easily read his intention to take root in front of her until she confided in him.

"Did you guys catch a case?" Hotch asked, trying to prod her into talking as he watched the indecision flash in her dark eyes. "Christ, Emily, I'm not gonna break if you talk to me about work," he sighed.

"Consultation gone wrong," Emily finally blurted.

"Okay," he drawled, guiding her to a kitchen chair. "Now, sit down and tell me how wrong," he urged.

"Remember the profile I gathered for that strangler on Boston University's campus?" she asked quietly, staring at her hands as she heard the central heat kick on inside the small apartment.

"Yeah, you sent it up the week before…before…," Hotch stumbled. Licking his lips, he cleared his throat and straightened his spine as he said, "Before Foyet's attack."

Hating the struggle in his eyes, Emily shook her head and started to rise. "We don't need to talk about this."

Grabbing her arm, Hotch shook his head. "Hey, I got my words out. Keep going. I did," he dared.

Blowing out a deep breath, Emily let him pull her down back into her chair. "They blew it off, Hotch. Totally disregarded it. It didn't come from you or Rossi, so…"

"They ignored your warning," Hotch stated with a resigned quietness.

"Three more dead women," Emily nodded. "They called us back today…Rossi read them the riot act, but…" Emily tried to say as her throat tightened.

"But three innocent women died because of someone else's stupidity," Hotch sighed, almost tangibly feeling her pain.

"Yes," Emily whispered. "And some days…I don't know why I keep going back for more," she said, her words echoing in the quiet kitchen.

"YOU did your job, Emily. You can't make someone else listen if they don't want to hear," Hotch consoled, reaching across the table to take her hand in his. How many times had she done just that for him over the last several weeks? Taken his hand in hers and willed the world to stop causing him pain.

"There are days when that hardly feels like enough," Emily confessed, staring down at their joined hands.

"If it was all you could do, then it was enough," Hotch told her quietly.

"You might remember those words and say them back to yourself every now and again," Emily replied, smiling gently at him as her eyes met his.

"I'll try if you will," Hotch bargained softly, tightening his fingers around her hand.

Emily nodded as Hotch opened his mouth, abruptly closing it again a scant moment later. "What were you going to say?" she asked, tilting her head as she looked at his perplexed face.

"I need to say something to you…but what I've got to say, I haven't said very often…not nearly enough, at any rate."

"Well, now you've peaked my curiosity," Emily grinned encouragingly.

Licking his lips, he nodded. "I need to thank you. For everything you've done. Everything you ARE doing," he said hoarsely, uncomfortable under her penetrating stare. "You didn't have to do any of this for me, but you did. You do. Every day, you come here and you try to make it better for me, no matter how I act. You ignore the rage and fury and keep coming. But, I have to ask. Why, Emily?"

"Because you're worth it," she said simply. "And no matter what you do or how you act, you aren't going to convince me otherwise," Emily replied, her words resolute and final.

"Really?" Hotch asked, raising one brow.

"Really," Emily returned.

"Then it seems that you and I have reached an impasse, doesn't it?" he asked evenly. "The question becomes who will fold first."

"I never fold, Hotch. I play right through the pain. You ought to have learned that about me by now," Emily said calmly, leaning forward in her seat.

"I think, I might learn to like losing to you, Prentiss," Hotch replied thoughtfully.

"And I think I'll take those words as a definite win, Agent Hotchner," Emily winked, content that if nothing else, this day had brought this man back one step closer to her. And like most life changing events, it happened in a heartbeat.