First Obstacle

Disclaimer: Nope, still not mine.

A/N: Well, here's the next one. This one was a little harder to write than the last one, even though is almost half it's size. Still, I think it came out pretty good and I managed to nudged them a little further along, while still keeping things slow. I know he seems to backslide a little, but given everything he's going through and how the events in the show develop, I think this is very much in character and continues to build towards what we all is coming. Huh, surprisingly, I don't have much else to say except thank you to everyone that's reading and reviewing; I'm glad you're enjoying my little series. Thanks also to puppet for all her help. I have half of the next one done, the next half will be about the team - first time I'm doing that, so we'll see how it comes out. With any luck, it'll be out next Thursday!

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"Hotchner," Hotch absently answered his phone. He was so absorbed in the files in front of him, he hadn't even bothered to check the name on the screen and Emily's voice on the other end took him completely by surprise.

"Hotch?" she said. "Where are you? Are you on your way home? Dinner's ready." She sounded relaxed, friendly and casually curious. Just as she'd sounded any other night when she would call to check on him; just as he'd sounded whenever he called her when she wasn't where she was supposed to be. It didn't mean anything but that the other person cared enough about you to wonder and worry if you were late.

And on any other night, Hotch would have answered in the same relaxed, friendly, casual manner. But, for reasons he would never be able to fully articulate, this wasn't any other night and instead of accepting the concern for what it was, he was reminded of the last few months of his marriage when Hailey had constantly called to nag him about getting home on time. In the back of his mind, he knew the comparison wasn't at all fair; the two women were complete opposites of each other and, though, Hailey hadn't started nagging him until after they'd started having problems, he knew Emily would never react like Hailey had – because Emily had never once nagged him, not even when she'd had reason to. She had no problem letting him know whenever she thought he was wrong or telling him how she thought he should act but she knew him well enough and had enough confidence in both herself and him, to leave it at that and trust he'd do the right thing. And it was that confidence, that refraining from nagging him that meant he usually did what she said. But, for some reason, that night he forgot all that had come before and reacted as if Emily made it a habit to call and nag him.

"I'm at the office," he answered. "I had some paperwork I needed to get done. I'm not sure how long I'll be." He sounded distracted but there was a cool undertone to his voice that was rarely there when he talked to her – especially in the last few weeks. She either didn't hear it or chose to ignore it.

"Paperwork?" she asked, surprised. "I thought the one good thing about you stepping down was that you wouldn't have so much paperwork to do anymore. Isn't the paperwork Morgan's headache now?" she teased, the smile more than obvious in her tone.

"I'm sure he's doing his share," again the response was cooler than his usual. "I just had some old cases I needed to finish."

"Old cases?" she repeated. "I thought you'd finish all of those last week."

"Not all of them," this time the response was so curt and abrupt, he was all but snapping at her. "Did you need anything else?" This time, she couldn't help but notice and respond to the frost in his tone and the terse quality in it.

"No, no," she said, her voice soft and a little hesitant. "I just wanted to . . . I wanted to make sure everything was alright."

"Everything's fine," he said shortly. "And I have a lot to get through here so, if you don't need anything. . . I'm sure dinner will be fine once I get there," he added when she didn't say anything and if it was to appease her, it fell far short of the mark as the tone he used was the same frigid one as before. "But right now, I really need to back to work."

"I see," Emily said quietly after a moment of silence. "Well, I didn't mean to interrupt or bother you; I'll . . . I'll just let you get back to work. I hope," she hesitated for a moment, "I hope you don't work too late. I . . . ah . . . I guess, I'll see you later. Bye." Hotch flinched at the bewilderment and hurt that was clear in her voice. He opened his mouth to say something but before he could come up with anything, she had hung up.

"Damn," he cursed softly as he realized that he'd just insulted and hurt the one person that had been there for him through everything – the one person he least wanted to hurt. And he'd done it only a few days after confirming that he'd like to see what else they could have between them. "Damn it," he cursed again as he stared at the blank screen of his phone; he knew he'd screwed up and he even knew how. What he didn't know was why or how to make it right. The easiest and probably fastest way was to call her. But, after staring at his phone for a few moments debating the issue, he decided that while a call might be the easiest and fastest way, it certainly wasn't the best way. So with a heavy sigh, he put the phone down, picked up his pen again and went back to his files. Since he was already in trouble, he might as well finish what he'd started; he would apologize to Emily when he got home afterwards.

Fifteen minutes later, however, he threw his pen onto the desk in disgust and leaned his head back against the headrest of the chair. He closed his eyes and rubbed his hands over his face before raking his fingers through his hair. He hadn't gotten anything done since Emily's call; he'd stared at the same page ever since then and he still had no clue about what it said. He couldn't concentrate on anything but the phone call; his mind seemed determined to replay her voice and the hurt and bewilderment in it in an ever-ending loop.

He started at the paperwork strewn across his desk for a few moments more before he decided that he just wasn't going to get any more work done that night and that it would probably be better all around if he just admitted defeat and went on home. After all, the sooner he left, the sooner he would arrive home and the sooner he could apologize – and hopefully, the sooner the tight knot of guilt in his abdomen would go away. But, when he arrived home about half an hour later, he had no idea how to go about apologizing.

When he opened the door to the apartment, he found it almost completely dark with the only light coming from the lamp on the far side of the couch and the flickering flashes of the TV. Emily was sitting on the couch, watching TV, and he saw as she stiffened up and turned her head quickly towards the door before she turned back to the TV, just as quickly, when she saw him walk in. Unlike a week ago when she'd jumped up and rushed to him to ask him how it had gone, this time she stayed sitting down and the anxiety he could feel coming from her wasn't about finding out whether he was okay but rather about not knowing how to act around him.

He sighed as he sat down his keys and his briefcase on the entryway table before he continued further into the room. He halted just shy of entering the living room space and observed her for a few moments in silence. He couldn't help but flinch when he saw her right leg bounce up and down and her hands fidget with the remote control. 'Damn it,' he swore silently, 'I'm an ass.' He knew she was only that twitchy when she was feeling particularly uneasy and/or uncomfortable. He hated that it was the fact that he was in the room that had her so on edge; the last thing he'd ever wanted was to make her anxious about his presence or, worse, feel so out of place in her own home.

"Hey," he said softly. She glanced at him over her shoulder for a few seconds before she swiftly turned back to the TV.

"Hi," she answered. She paused for a moment before she tentatively said, "I . . . I thought you'd be longer." It was neither a question nor a statement; it was as if she couldn't make up her mind whether to ask or comment on it and he couldn't help but be saddened that he'd made her that insecure.

"Yes, well," he said. "I finished earlier than I thought." He tried a little smile but she just nodded stiffly and kept her gaze firmly on the TV. He folded his arms across his chest and rocked back and forth on his feet, waiting to see if she'd say anything else and when she didn't, he realized he had a few options open to him. He could act as if nothing had happened and tell her all about his day while he got himself some dinner or he could say he was tired, barricade himself in his room and wait until morning and then act as if nothing had happened. From the way she was acting, he had a feeling she might just followed his lead. Or, he could do the one thing she had ever asked of him and actually talk to her.

The first two options were, of course, the easiest and (he had to admit) the most tempting. But they reminded him too much of how he and Hailey had dealt with their problems, of how she'd given him the cold shoulder when he'd gotten home and how he'd tried to act normal until she was done being mad, of how, when it came to his job, the one thing they hadn't done was really talk about it. Whether that had been because he hadn't wanted to burden her or because she hadn't wanted to listen to it didn't really matter; the end result had been that there had been a huge part of his life he hadn't been free to share with his wife. And while that might not have been the only or even primary reason for the break up of his marriage, he wasn't willing to run the risk. He was determined that his relationship with Emily would not end like his marriage; he would not make the same mistakes. If that meant he had to open up and talk about his feelings, then that's what he would do. With that thought it mind, he straightened his shoulders and moved around the couch to sit down next to her.

"Emily, about earlier," he started to say and she looked at him out of the corner of her eye.

"What about it?" she asked still not looking directly at him.

"I wanted to apologize," he simply said; he leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. "I shouldn't have snapped at you like that," he added, shaking his head.

"Why did you?" she asked as she finally turned her head enough to look at him.

"I . . . I'm not quite sure," he answered, looking down at his hands. "I overreacted; I was in the middle of going over a case file . . ."

"But why?" she interrupted and he looked up with a frown of confusion. "Why were you working on a case file in the first place? And what case file were you working on, anyway? I know you finished working on your report for our last case; I saw you finish it on the plane. And since you've stepped down, it is now Morgan's job to deal with the case report as a whole. And, I know you, Aaron; I know there's no way you'd have left any of your old cases undone so it couldn't have been one of those . . ."

"Emily," he said when she trailed off. Though he was happy that she no longer seemed unsure or hesitant, he wasn't sure what to tell her. "I . . ." when he just shrugged and looked at her almost helplessly, she frowned and shifted on the couch until her whole body was facing him.

"Were you working on Foyet's case?" she asked him and he gave a tight nod. "Aaron, tell me the truth," she pressed, leaning forward and looking at him intently. "Did you step down so that you would have more time to work on Foyet's case?"

"No," the answer was fast and firm and, after searching his face for a few moments, she saw that it was sincere enough. Though she nodded, both relieved and satisfied at his answer, he went on. "I stepped down because it was the best way, the only way I knew to keep the team together. And because . . ."

"Because you wanted him to think you were falling apart," she finished for him. He'd told her about his secondary motive after dinner the night of his talk with Morgan.

"Yes. I did think," he admitted, "about the fact I'd have more free time to work on the case if I didn't have to worry about keeping up with all the administrative tasks; but that was low on the list of reasons of why I did it. My primary goal was to keep the team together."

"Good, that's good," she said. "But, you do know that you probably know everything there is to know about Foyet by now, don't you? And that whatever you don't know, those files aren't likely to tell you? I mean, how many times have you read them by now? There's nothing new there – nothing else you can learn."

"There's always something new to learn," he argued.

"Not always," she disagreed. "There comes a time when even the most complex of books would have yielded all its secrets and you've already gotten there with Foyet's files."

"I can't just stop looking for him, Emily," he told her, frowning.

"Of course not," she agreed. "And I'm not saying that you should. Heck, if I thought it'd help, I'd look through them with you but it's not helping, is it? You . . .we need to find something that would help and yield answers because you going over the same files again and again, by yourself is not getting you anywhere. But more than that, it's not healthy. You know this, Hotch; we've talked about it."

"I know," he nodded and turned his head to stare at his hands once more; they had talked about it before. "I know we have and I know you're right."

"Then what happened?" she inquired. "I know you've been thinking about it and worrying about it all this time and that you've been flipping through the files every once in a while. And I'm not pretending that you could or should stop that," she added. "Foyet is never very far from my mind and it's not my family that's been targeted. But you haven't gotten lost in the files in weeks now and more importantly, you've never snapped at me, or at any of the team, because we happen to call you when you were in the middle of it."

"I know and I'm so sorry, Emily," he apologized once more. "I feel terrible about it; I shouldn't have talked to you like that. I promise it won't happen again."

"Don't worry about it," she waved the apology and whole incident away. Yes, it had confused her and had hurt her but the fact was he had come home almost immediately after to apologize and to talk to her about it. She understood everyone could have a night off and she wasn't so naïve to think he would never hurt her again so the fact that he'd snapped at her didn't bother her – not when an apology had swiftly followed. What did bother her was that she didn't understand why he'd snapped at her and until she did, she didn't know if she could put it behind her. "It's not important . . ."

"Of course it is," he insisted. He straightened and the look he turned on her was almost a glare but she knew that the frown wasn't directed at her; rather it was sign of how serious he was. "Snapping at you is never acceptable – much less when there's not even a reason. You have every right to . . ."

"Hotch," she interrupted him before he could really get started. "It's fine; don't worry about it. I'm not," she added when he opened his mouth to protest. "But I do want to know why. I want to understand what happened that sent you back to those files and put you in such a foul mood. You seemed to be doing okay on the plane; what happened between then and now?"

"I'm not sure," he said slowly; he really wasn't sure what had happened.

"Was it seeing Morgan do a good job?" She probed. "I mean, it couldn't have felt too good to see someone else do your job – and do it so well." She had been thinking about it and she wasn't quite sure how she would react if she'd been in Hotch's shoes. But she was pretty sure she wouldn't have liked it too much.

"I knew he'd do a good job," Hotch replied carefully. "I wouldn't have stepped down and promoted him if I hadn't been sure of that."

"Knowing he'd do a good job and seeing him do it are two very different things though," she pointed out. "Seeing someone else do your job, a job you've worked hard for and sacrificed so much for is never easy. No one is so self-sacrificing as to not feel a twinge or two of something."

"I guess . . . maybe it was a little harder than I thought it'd be," he admitted slowly. "I thought I knew what it was going to feel like and I was pretty close but . . . well, I guess there would have been no way to know exactly how I'd feel until I lived through it. And no, it wasn't a particularly good feeling but it wasn't completely horrible, either. It was an adjustment more than anything – not having to give assignments or have to come up with the answers and, perhaps harder than all, not telling Morgan how to conduct the investigation. But, except for suggesting that he take Strauss' call, I think I did a pretty good job of keeping my mouth shut. That wasn't easy; I'm so used to telling him what to do that I had to consciously remind myself not to say anything. It was a struggle," he added thoughtfully.

"Really?" she asked, surprised. "Well, you did a great job hiding that, then, because no one could tell you were struggling at all."

"I guess that's where having a great poker face comes in very handy," he told her with a wry smile.

"I guess," she returned his smile before turning serious once more. "So, you're okay with Morgan being team leader?"

"Okay with it?" he repeated. "I have to be okay with it, Emily; I'm the one that promoted him, remember? I did it because it was the only way I could see to keep the team together and since I still want to keep the team together, I have no option but to be okay with it. Is it easy? No, it's not. Do I feel a twinge or two when I see him do it so well? Yes, I do because you're right – I'm not that self-sacrificing, no one could be. Having irrefutable proof that you're not indispensable or irreplaceable is a blow to the ego and does give you a pause or two. But this is how things need to be," he repeated. "This is how things have to be so I'll deal with it because there's nothing else I can do."

"The fact that it's Morgan that's taken your place," she began curiously, "does that make it easier or harder?"

"You know, I've been going back and forth on that one," he answered honestly. "I think, at the end of the day, it makes it a little easier - because I know him. I know he's honest, loyal, trustworthy and hardworking and I know he'll always have the best interest of the team and the victims at heart. And I know that, even if I don't agree with his calls, he'll have a good reason for them because I know that he knows what he's doing and that he's good at it."

"Of course he is," she agreed. "You did train him after all. He's the agent he is in large part because of you – it's okay to feel a little proud of that."

"Derek is the agent he is because of the man he is," he disagreed. "I have very little to do with that – if anything."

"I don't agree," she shook her head. "But I doubt I can convince you otherwise, so I won't argue."

"That'll be a first," he teased and she made a face at him. He chuckled lightly for a moment before sobering up and returning to the first topic. "I don't know why I was in such a foul mood," he reiterated. He frowned and looked down at the floor but she could tell he wasn't seeing the carpet and that instead, he was remembering the events of earlier that night. "I don't think it's because I somehow resent Morgan for doing a good job. Yes, it's not the best feeling but I'd hope I'm not that petty."

"You're a lot of things, Aaron Hotchner," Emily told him. "But petty is not one of them."

"I hope so," he said softly. "But it might have something to do with Morgan, after all."

"What do you mean?" she wanted to know.

"Did you know that Morgan didn't leave the police station last night?" He asked instead.

"No," she answered slowly; she wasn't sure where he was going with the question but she knew him well enough to know he must have a good reason. "But I'm not surprised. It was his first case, after all, and since we didn't have much information he knew there was a very good chance that there would be more victims before we caught the Unsub. It's not really that unexpected."

"No, it wasn't," he agreed. "We all have cases that grab a hold of us and that we can't let go of; those are the cases that can become our obsessions," he observed, thinking again of Foyet and of the case that had plagued Rossi for twenty years. "When I saw the evidence of his restless night, I hoped that that wasn't the case that would haunt Morgan. I'm glad that it wasn't but that reminded me of . . ."

"The case that haunts you: Foyet," she finished for him.

"Yes," he nodded. "I guess, maybe," he continued slowly, "that thought stayed in the back of my mind and when we returned to the BAU, I . . ."

"You couldn't help but go back to study the files," she once again finished for him.

"Yes," he said again. "I didn't realize that was why I suddenly couldn't stop thinking about him."

"That . . . makes some sense," she allowed.

"I suppose," he said and then hesitated as if he wasn't sure whether to continue or not.

"What?" she asked. "What is it?"

"I . . ." Hotch started to say only to hesitate. He then sighed in exasperation before he placed his hands on his knees and pushed himself up from the sofa. "I think I might have also felt guilty."

"Guilty?" she asked, surprised. "Why would you feel guilty?"

"Because for a few moments when I was tackling the Unsub and saving the girl," he answered as he stopped in front of the windows, crossed his arms and stared out into the night. "I managed to forget all about Foyet and his vendetta. Actually physically stopping the Unsub before he hurt anyone else felt really good – so good that I forgot that Jack was gone, I forgot that I was no longer Unit Chief and that Foyet was still out there, a threat to everything I care about."

"You thought maybe you haven't been doing enough to look for him?" she asked him and he gave a tight nod in answer. She looked at him for a few moments in silence as she thought about that before finally deciding to ask, "Did you also think that maybe by deciding to explore a relationship with me you were betraying Jack and Hailey?" Another tight nod was his answer. "I see," she said slowly. She exhaled loudly before she stood up and walked towards him. After studying him in silence for a few moments, she said, "I don't know what to tell you, Hotch. I could tell you that you haven't, by any means, stopped looking for Foyet, I could tell you that not obsessing about it every minute of every day doesn't mean that you're not thinking about it and working on it, I could also tell you that trying to have some sort of a normal life while all of this is going on is not a betrayal, that it is, in fact, healthy and might even make the search easier in some ways. And I could even tell you that I doubt very much Jack or Hailey would want you to be miserable while they're gone and that being miserable and stopping living your life only means Foyet is winning – I could tell you all that, and I'd be right but until you believe it, I'd only be telling you a bunch of empty words."

"I know," he nodded. "I know."

"There's really nothing to feel guilty about," she told him and walked up to him and laid a hand on his back. "There's nothing wrong with trying to find some measure of happiness or at least peace in the middle of all this insanity. It doesn't mean you're forgetting about them or putting them to the side; it only means that you're human and you need something to keep you going besides anger and pain."

"You're right," he agreed some time later. He turned around slowly and looked her in the eyes. "You are right and I know you are. Intellectually I know you are."

"But sometimes," she finished his thought, "emotions get the better of you; sometimes they get the better of everyone, Hotch. The trick is to be self-aware enough to be able to put things in perspective soon after."

"It's hard," he said in a low voice, leaning a shoulder against the window and keeping his arms crossed. "Not knowing where Jack is, not knowing where Foyet is but knowing he's looking for them is hard and can be paralyzing so I try not to dwell too much on it. But then if I don't think about it, if I'm not working on the case as much as I can, I feel like . . . I'm abandoning my son. And I just . . ." he trailed off and turned his head back towards the window.

"You're not abandoning your son, Hotch," she told him firmly. She placed her hand on his cheek and turned his face towards hers. "You can't think about this 24/7 – you'd go mad if you did. You need breaks and you need something to keep your spirits up; there's nothing wrong with that," she repeated. "There's also nothing wrong in deciding to see if we could have something else but I understand that this is not the best time and if you wanted to forgot all about it . . ."

"No," he shook his head. "No, I don't. I don't think I'm going to stop feeling guilty until Jack and Hailey are back and Foyet is brought down – I might not stop feeling guilty even then because I brought him into their lives in the first place. But you're right; I can't stop living because of it. I can't put my life on hold until they're back, as much as I might want to. That's no way to live and it would be letting him win. I am not about to do that. And I am not about to let go of the one thing that makes getting up in the morning half way bearable."

"I'm glad," she smiled softly. "I'm glad that I'm helping you get up in the mornings and I'm glad that you don't want to forget all about it. I . . . I'm really happy with how things are going."

"Me too," he said just as softly. He smiled and, reaching out, he brought her close and hugged her. They stayed there, locked in a tight embrace, staring out at the city for a long time; they were both happy and relieved to feel that they were in synch once more. When they broke apart, Emily offered to heat up his dinner and as he accepted, they realized that they had successfully navigated the first serious obstacle in the new path they had begun to travel.

"So," he said as they walked towards the kitchen. "Did Dave get you home okay?" He might have been distracted but her safety was never far from his mind and knowing Dave would see her home had been part of the reason he'd been able to lose himself in the files.

"Yeah," she nodded as she started to fix his plate. "It was obvious he was curious but he didn't ask me why I needed the escort."

"I told you he could be discreet," he told her. She nodded and then started to tell him the anecdote that Dave had told her on the way over; she wanted to know if it was true. When he laughed and said it was, she shook her head in amusement and mumbled that she should have known. He could tell she was amused and felt the last of the tight knot in his stomach dissolved. He hadn't ruined it after all; despite his rudeness and . . . idiocy, things seemed back to normal. And despite how he might torture himself about how good he felt while he son was in hiding, this was just what he needed. He could only hope that they would be able to navigate around every obstacle they find in this new path as successfully as they'd done this one.