Breathing Room

A.N. So…I'm lame. That's the best excuse I've got. Hopefully you all forgive me for the delay, and I apologize so much for forcing you guys to wait. Hopefully this chapter makes up for it.

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"Brooke, it's not that difficult."

"Easy for you to say. You're the one with the genius IQ."

Reid laughed, shaking his head. "It's just a few simple steps. A monkey could do it." At the look Brooke sent his way, he backpedaled. "Not that I am in any way comparing you to a primate. I merely meant to indicate that this is a simple, easy to learn process. And, it's a trait I believe should be learned, especially for people like you."

Brooke turned to him, arching her eyebrow. "Why? Because I'm a girl?"

Reid grinned, unable to help it because every time she looked at him like that, he honestly felt like the luckiest man alive. "You know it's not just because you're a girl. This is something that Hotch and I both feel would be a fundamental trait for you. Given your tendency to attract danger."

Brooke narrowed her gaze at him, crossing her arms over her chest. "I do NOT attract danger."

Reid pursed his lips, shoving his hands into his pant pockets, as he rocked on his heels, nodding. "Of course not. Because your attack, the near mugging on Center Street two weeks ago, the fall down the stairs between you and Morgan three days ago when you both collided, not to mention the alleged 'pigeon' incident—."

"Reid!" Brooke said, rolling her eyes as she turned back around to the counter. "Just show me how to shoot the gun."

Reid merely laughed, shaking his head as he pulled hearing protector over his ears.

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"Uncle Aaron, you do realize that me learning to handle a firearm is really not necessary, right?"

Hotch raised his eyebrows as he looked over his shoulder at his niece from his place at the kitchen stove. Brooke stood in the doorway of the kitchen, her dark hair pulled back into a ponytail on the top of her head, looking as lovely as ever despite being in an oversized hooded sweatshirt and sweatpants.

He shrugged, turning back to the steaks he was frying in the skillet. "Reid seems to agree that it is."

Brooke rolled her eyes, pushing away from the doorjamb and walking further into the kitchen. "Reid is borderline domineering."

He nodded, smirking as he looked at her again. "Especially when it comes to you." He spotted the small smile that tugged at her lips, and was reminded that an almost identical one graced Reid's every time his young niece's name came up. "Things are going well, then?"

She shrugged, in that nonchalant way that always drove him insane when she was growing up. "Well enough, I guess. And you're changing the subject. Why the sudden need for me to start packing heat?"

"I just thought you might feel better if you were capable of competently working a firearm," he said, flipping the steaks onto a plate and turning to place them on the table. He caught Brooke's arched eyebrow and smirking lips, and rolled his eyes. "Alright, so I thought I might feel better. Brooke, believe me, I know that you can take care of yourself. You've been doing it for just about as long as I can remember. But sometimes knowing that you're capable of protecting yourself makes all the difference." He looked at her as she nodded, her eyes on the tabletop. "But if you're uncomfortable with it, no one is going to force you."

Brooke smirked, the impish look that he'd always enjoyed seeing on her face peeking through. "I'm not all that uncomfortable with it. I'm an awesome shot, did you know that?"

Hotch laughed, shaking his head as he pulled out a chair and joined her at the table. "I'm not at all surprised. You always did go above and beyond."

Comfortable silence surrounded them as they ate their meal, a routine that had become so familiar in the short time Brooke had been in D.C. Hotch had nearly forgotten how much he enjoyed this: Simply sitting around, eating dinner in the company of someone else. Solidarity had become the norm for him. If he was being honest with himself, it had been borderline when he was still married to Hayley. But since the divorce, he had realized he spent more time alone than he did with other people, a fact that hadn't really bothered him until his niece came into town.

Raising his eyes, Hotch studied Brooke from across the table. He was relieved to see that the bags under her eyes were much less profound now. They were still there, evident to someone with a trained eye, but nowhere near what they were when she had first arrived. She was no longer frighteningly skinny, but was back to her slim self she had been since she hit puberty. Slowly but surely, she was transforming back into the Brooke he knew and loved.

And, as much as he hated to admit it, he was positive Reid was the reason.

"I'm fine, you know."

He blinked, raising his eyes to see Brooke smirking at him, her shoulders shrugging.

"I know that look, Uncle Aaron. Nathan and Haley gave me that very same look for weeks after the attack. I've been no stranger to it over the years." She laughed, shaking her head. "I'm fine, though…Not exactly 100% yet, but…I'm getting there."

Hotch nodded, resting his elbows on the table as he studied his niece. "I know," he said softly. "But I've worried about you every day for last 22 years. It's not exactly a habit I'm capable of stopping."

Brooke nodded, smiling. "I know…but you know what you are capable of stopping?" He raised his eyebrows in question. "Morgan from harassing Reid. For such a decorated FBI agent, he's being really immature about this whole 'boyfriend/girlfriend' thing."

Hotch laughed, grinning. "I am one man, Brooke. You are asking me to stop a hurricane."

She shrugged, sighing. "It was worth a shot," she muttered.

The ringing of Hotch's cellphone pierced through the room then, a high shrilling that was a guarantee to be heard no matter what.

Family dinner night was over.

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"It's been weeks…why would the unsub reappear now?"

Hotch looked over at JJ as they headed down the hall towards the conference room.

The body of Erin Ferris had been discovered in an alley outside a nightclub in central D.C., her stomach bearing the same violent engravings that mirrored an open case the BAU had been investigating. The trail had gone cold when the killings had stopped at three…until today.

"It's possible his need to kill had been suppressed until recently. Something must have happened to trigger his drive again."

JJ sighed, her blonde ponytail swaying from side to side with every step she took. "This is going to be a bad one, isn't it, Hotch?"

Hotch didn't meet her gaze as they neared to doors to the conference room, but his silence said everything.

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"If you think I am letting you off this phone without every SINGLE detail, you are sorely mistaken."

Brooke laughed as she took the Styrofoam cup from the barista at the coffee shop, smiling her gratitude as she repositioned the phone between her shoulder. "Garcia, really, there's nothing to tell."

She heard the other woman scoff from the other line, and a fury of typing accompanying her chuckle. "Oh, dear, dear Brooke. Do not think you can pull on over on old Garcia here. I have been at this a long, long time, and there is not a single millisecond of the day when I can tell you are lying through your teeth." Brooke could hear the wheels of her chair sliding across the floor, before the typing resumed. "You and Reid have been near inseparable for weeks. WEEKS, Brooke."

Brooke couldn't stop the slaphappy grin that spread across her face. "So?" she asked, shouldering open the door to the coffee shop and slinging her bag further up her shoulder.

Garcia scoffed. "So? What's going on?"

Brooke laughed, shaking her head. "Nothing, Garcia! We're having fun. You know? Hanging out, making out…don't you remember fun?"

"Oh, Brookie-pie," Garcia said, laughter in her voice. "Trust me when I say that the look that Spencer Reid has had plastered all over his face for the last three weeks? This is a lot more than just 'having fun' to him."

Brooke couldn't help but slow her steps after hearing Garcia's words, the smile slipping partially from her face. Yes, she knew that her relationship with Reid was more than just "fun." Especially to him. It was obvious with every smile he sent her way, every laugh he gave her for one of her horrible corny jokes, every time his hand grazed hers or his lips fluttered against her own.

She knew that, if she let herself, it could be more than fun for her as well.

But she wasn't ready for that. She wasn't sure she'd ever be ready for that. Not again.

"I'm pretty sure this is the most quiet I've ever heard you, Brooke," Garcia teased over the phone.

Brooke shook herself out of her thoughts. "Sorry, Garcia, I got distracted. Anyway…I should probably let you go. I mean, it's not like you have serial killers to help catch or anything."

Garcia laughed. "Very true, my dear, very true. So dinner this weekend? You, me, JJ?"

"You bet," Brooke said, smiling into the phone again. They bid their farewells, Brooke shaking her head at the constant silliness that was her new friend.

Life certainly had taken an interesting turn.

Run off to Uncle Aaron's to escape her nightmare in Tree Hill, and now here she was, happy.

Happier than she had been in a long time, she was scared to say.

It hadn't really been much of a secret, that she wasn't feeling very fulfilled back home. She was the only odd duck out. Haley had Nathan, and Jamie. Mouth had Millicent in Omaha. Peyton had Lucas. Hell, Skills even had DEB, as creepy as that was for her wrap her mind around. And before, none of that had really bothered her. She'd had her company to keep her busy.

But now…

She sighed, lifting her coffee cup to her lips and gingerly taking a sip of the scalding liquid. She wasn't going to dwell on that. She certainly wasn't going to admit that every time she was near Spencer Reid, her heart did a little flip flop, something it hadn't done since her time with Lucas. Whom she had loved. And she certainly didn't love Reid…

Did she?

"No," Brooke scolded under her breath, shaking her head. "You barely know the guy. You are just having FUN."

She sighed, closing her eyes against the thoughts racing through her head, and barely had time to gasp when she felt her foot catch against an uneven patch of concrete. Limbs flailing, she felt herself pitching forward, her coffee flying while her bag flew down to the crook of her elbow, and she braced herself for the impact she knew was coming, Reid's words of her being a danger magnet echoing through her head.

But the impact never came.

She opened her eyes when she realized a pair of arms were wrapped around her, holding her up. She lifted her head, peering up at the man in question.

Dark eyes were looking down at her, and a small, almost mocking smile was on his face. She couldn't help the slight chill that went down her spine as she righted herself on her feet.

Swiping a hand through her hair, she smiled up at him hesitantly, pulling the strap of her bag up. "Thank you."

The man smirked, nodding. "It's no problem," he said, his voice so soft that Brooke had to strain to hear him. "You know, you should be more careful. Pretty things tend to break. I'd have hated for it to be you on the sidewalk just now."

Brooke shifted on her feet, suddenly even more uncomfortable than she was a moment ago, as her mind tried to place why this stranger seemed so familiar to her. Nothing about him was really outstanding. He was quite plain, actually. Not exceptionally tall or good-looking. His clothes weren't designer or out of the ordinary. The whole black-on-black thing was totally last year, but not everyone could get the memo, she guessed. His face wasn't anything to gawk at,

His stare was creepy as hell, but then again, she'd been stared at before.

So why did his stare chill her to the bone.

The hairs on the back of her neck stood up as she smiled at him again. "Yeah," she said, crossing her arms over her chest when she was his eyes rake her up and down. "Anyway, thanks again. That would have been a bad trip." She turned on her booted heel, her fingernails digging into the skin under her arms as she made to walk off.

"Can I replace your coffee?"

She kept walking as she looked over her shoulder at him. "No, thank you," she said, quickening her steps until she rounded the corner. She couldn't help looking back once more before she disappeared around the building, audibly sighing with relief when she saw the man still standing in the exact same spot and position, his creepy stalker eyes still boring straight into her back.

"Creeper," she muttered under her breath, trying to shake off the disgust she felt at the way his eyes had looked her over. She sighed, shaking her head as she hailed one of the many cabs racing up the street.

Sliding into the backseat, she rambled off her address to the disinterest driver and settled back into her seat with a sigh, suddenly wishing for her spilt coffee.

Never even noticing the man had rounded the corner slowly, and was watching as the cab pulled away from the curb.

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Okay, so I know there wasn't a lot of Reid/Brooke action in this chapter, but I wanted to get an update out fast. So hopefully the cute little shot of them in the beginning kind of makes up for it, and as you all know, I do love the Hotch/Brooke moments, as well.

Once again, I cannot apologize enough for the delay in this update. I promise, promise, PROMISE to not make you all wait so long again, and I hope none of you have lost interest in this story. I'm hoping to have another update by next week. Let me know what you think, as always!