Chapter Twelve: Burden

The slight breeze that hits her ankles makes her aware that they aren't alone. She's afraid to pull away—to open her eyes from the dream she's had the good fortune of living. She can feel his thumbs retract from their grip on her waist, becoming surprised at the sudden sense of safety she feels wrapping around her. But she knows. Emily knows his protectiveness is out of fear—of losing her again—and though she's assured him countless times of her permanency in his life, the aftermath of what he's endured still plagues him with doubt. Her hips burn from the warmth of his touch, feeling his fingers tap against her and in an attempt to distract herself, she focuses on the creaking door.

"I'd tell you two to get a room, but it's kind of my fault that I saw this." His free hand tries to swing the door to a close as faces them, leaning heavily on one side of his body.

"Kind of?" She sees Spencer's brows rise in amusement. "Your logic is very flawed, Derek." She knows his use of his friend's name is a rarity, a sign that he's vulnerable, that he's afraid. Emily catches sight of dark eyes dropping down to Spencer's possessiveness, of his arm securely yet casually wrapped around her body. For a moment his grip tightens, but when his eyes meet Derek's and both heads nod in some sort of understanding, she feels it loosen completely from her hip.

"Hey." Her eyes dart to the small streak of fluorescent light next to his feet, and it's then Emily realizes that the door is still open, and in fear of being heard, she nods. She can feel her frame shrink, her chest tighten and her mouth shut with anxiety. Only the people she loves have the privilege of knowing she was still alive—if there had been anything she'd learned from the past year, it was the great value of her life.

Derek catches her cause of paranoia and begins to shut the door. Just as he lets go of the knob, it twists and a flood of light runs up to Emily's feet. She feels smaller than before, and she wonders how the thin fabric of her shirt is suddenly able to contain so much heat.

"Hotch," Derek begins, aware of the sudden stillness in his friend. Before he can continue he's cut off with a flat tone.

"I believe I'm already acquainted." He nods in Emily's direction, his stare maintained regardless of the effort he's made to come inside. Aaron Hotchner has never made her feel guilty. He's made her feel a spectrum of emotions, but guilt? Even when his word seeped through JJ that she fake her death, no such emotion ever emerged.

Emily was protecting herself, and now, coming out of hiding, she can see the damage her secret has done to him. That perhaps, it was her who's made him feel guilt the entire time.

There's a softness on his face she hadn't seen before. She can see by the way his tie is loosened and from the wrinkle in his cuffs that he's worked longer nights, and something about the way his brows rest heavier on those tired eyes make her feel frail. Emily finally breaks away from his gaze, taking cautious steps towards the man she once served. "Prentiss." He nods again, and his left hand branches out for an expected greeting.

Then she sees it. Emily sees the nakedness of his hand—of one finger in particular. She sees the faint band of light skin moving towards her, stopping at a safe distance, and she becomes uncertain of what to do. She can see the defeat sag across his frame, the padding in his blazer not enough to cover the slump his shoulders make. Emily sees the stiff limb attempting to present strength, when she knows what Hotch has left of it is nothing more than a thread; she can see him hold onto it, tightly. She promises, right then and there, that if she ever finds the woman who shattered that glass heart of his, she would get the worst of the Prentiss Wrath.

Moments pass by with his persistence and her uncertainty, neither failing to retreat, and when she sees the slightest hint of his retraction, she does it. Emily rocks forward, arms wrapping around him for an embrace. She knows that his arms are only familiar to the embrace of his son, so it surprises her when the affection is returned. He holds her with a sense security she hasn't felt before; his arms shelter her—they cage the frailty of her soul regardless of how broken he is inside, and his willingness to protect her nearly causes her knees to give in.

"You're here." She hears the words slip, the tone questioning, and the feel in his embrace turns tense. She can feel the apology in his touch, in the way his hands clench over her back. Emily pulls away entirely and faces him.

"You did the right thing, Hotch. Five years ago you gave me the chance to do what I loved. Last year you gave me the chance to live. I'm here because of that." She sees the disbelief in his eyes emerge from the apologetic look. "I'm here because of you, Aaron." When the words roll off her tongue she sees a flash of relief on his face. Only when she continues does it fade and she realizes that something is wrong. "I'm here because you and JJ took the—" All he has to do is nod, to give her that look of understanding, but he doesn't. What he does—what he says places many things onto her shoulders, making her feel confusion, worry, and guilt at the unraveling story.

"JJ's in Paris."

To Be Continued
Sorry for the wait (though it isn't months this time, so there's an improvement) on this chapter. It's been collecting virtual dust on my laptop for a while, because I couldn't for the sake of me pinpoint what felt so off about this chapter. Perhaps my characterization of Hotch isn't well suited/justified enough. I will most likely edit this chapter, but for now, I hope anyone who reads this is satisfied with it. I must also thank those who favourited and subscribed to this story! I am ecstatic and very, very honoured. Stayed tuned for more!