Author's Note: Again, to those of you who have stuck with me throughout this roller-coaster ride, I cannot thank you enough. You guys are the best, and a lot of this could not have been done without your support and feedback.
WARNING: This chapter/alternate epilogue will be very sad, dark, and rife with emotion. I personally felt obligated to write this part of the story because I felt that, given the circumstances, it definitely could have happened. But do not read it if you're not prepared to cry, because I cried a hell of a lot while writing it, and that says a lot. I hold this installment very near and dear to my heart, but I promise you, if you don't read it, I won't be offended.
Disclaimer in Chapter One!
Three years later...
He knew what had happened from the moment he saw her face.
A gasp was torn from the back of her throat.
The phone fell from her rapidly loosening grasp, clattering loudly on the smooth wooden floor.
He ran over to her to grab her hand and hold her tight. But he was too late.
She sank to the floor and broke down.
One word. Just one word could destroy the carefully reformed resolve of a human being. One word, possibly worse than the word 'cancer' itself.
It was even worse now. The cancer had spread from her breast and lymph nodes, to her liver, to her pancreas, to her lungs…
And now, three years later, Emily's time had run out.
"I hate hospitals," she mumbled, seeking Hotch's gaze with a tired one of her own.
Struggling to keep his composition, Hotch ran a hand over her pallid cheek. "You're not in a hospital, sweetheart," he responded quietly, his heart breaking with every second that passed.
"I know," she sighed, "but I might as well be at one." She weakly motioned around the room. "You just had to go on and bring the hospital here, with all the equipment, and a doctor, and a nurse, and…mmm…" Emily took in a shuddery breath. "You evil, evil man," she quipped, trying for a smile.
Hotch tried returning her smile, but couldn't, not when she was like this. Not when he could do nothing to assuage her pain. He hated it; the feeling of uselessness and powerlessness, the feeling of terror that filled every single vein in his body as he saw her struggle for breath. He never thought he'd have to see the day where his one true love was taken from him…but here they were.
Avery and Jack, too, were at the foot of the bed, the former with tears streaming down her sweet, innocent face, the latter shaking with relentless sobs. They hadn't spoken a word. After all, what could they say, other than 'I love you'?
Hotch had just lain beside Emily on the bed when she mustered up every ounce of strength left in her body and tugged the IV out of her arm. His eyes went wide. "Emily!"
"I want to be able to think clearly," she said in explanation, almost…nonchalantly. She shivered soon after; not because of the trickle of blood running down her arm in result, but because of the increase in volume of Avery's cries. "I can't on morphine; you know that."
And he did. Deep down inside, he knew exactly what she was talking about. They had both had their fair share of near-death experiences. They had both been in the emergency rooms too many times to count.
But this…this was different.
"I just don't want you to have to endure the pain," Hotch choked out, immediately taking note of the expression on her face and reaching over to find something to staunch the bleeding.
Emily reached for his hand and grasped it, shaking her head in dismissal. "At least I can feel it, right? It makes me feel alive. I need that now," she argued.
His breath was coming out in strangled intervals now. "But…"
"Aaron? Can you tell me a story?"
Her question was so unexpected that at first, he didn't know if he'd heard her correctly. "A…a story?"
"Mm-hmm. Something that'll make me happy." Emily closed her eyes, swallowing thickly. "I want to be happy."
How could he turn her down?
"A story. Hmmmm." Hotch maneuvered so that she could lie against his chest. "Well...once upon a time, there was a beautiful woman; the most beautiful woman in the world." He swallowed thickly, taking in a heaving breath soon afterward. "She had just gotten back from college, and was staying at home for the summer. One day, a man came along and saw her, curled up on a couch in her living room, reading a thick, leather-bound book. Now, this man worked for the woman's mother, and even though their lives seemed worlds apart at the time, just one glance at the woman had him falling in love.
"He never forgot her smile, even after ten years of being far away from her. It was after said decade that he saw her again. This time, it was she at his door, demanding a chance to prove to the man how good an agent she was, and how she would be the perfect fit in his team. He was doubtful at first; not of her abilities, but of his ability to work objectively alongside a woman he had once had feelings for. But, of course, he said yes. She was too beautiful for him to decline," he said, caressing the side of her face with shaky fingers. "And she proved to be the best agent he had ever come across.
"However perfect the woman was, this man was not. He was broken, flawed, emotionally jaded. He had a son; a handsome, beautiful son who brought him joy at the end of each day, no matter how awful the things he'd seen that day were. But one such day, because of his job, his wife was taken away from him. The man didn't know if he'd ever be the same. People were reluctant to approach him during this time; they wanted to comfort him, but no one knew what to say.
"Except for that one woman. She was the one who helped him out of that dark place, and brought him into a new world of love, and happiness, and beauty. This woman…she was exceptional. Not only was she stunning on the outside - and she was, with her dark hair, dark eyes, pale complexion, and heart-stopping smile - but she was the kindest soul he had ever met. She had a dry sense of humor that never failed to make him laugh when he needed it most. And most of all, she understood him, and accepted him, with all his flaws, too."
Hotch's voice shook as Emily burrowed her face further into the crook of his neck. "It was then that his once boyish-crush turned into what he learned was love. He finally worked up the courage to take her to dinner, and it was then that he knew she was the one he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. Months later, he gave her a ring; months later, he asked her to marry him. And she said yes. She didn't know it then, but that moment was the most glorious moment of his life. She would proceed to make him the happiest man in the world. She helped him raise his son with effortless ease and care. She blessed him with a beautiful baby girl. She stood by his side through the bad times, and the good ones. And she loved him, just as he loved her." Hotch didn't realize he was crying until Emily reached out with a trembling hand to dry his tears. "And they lived happily ever after."
Emily pressed her lips to his cheek. "That's not how our story ends," she whispered sadly, yearning for the chance to make it so.
"I never said it was our story," Hotch countered, wishing for a way to make everything better. But he couldn't.
And God, it hurt so much.
The room was cloaked in a heavy silence then, the only sound the sporadic sobs of the children and the ragged breathing of Emily. No one spoke for the longest of minutes, until...
"Jack," Emily murmured wearily. "Avery…come closer." The two teary children did just that, moving over to cling desperately to their mother.
Emily looked to Jack first. "Sweetheart," she whispered, cupping his dampened cheek. "Do you have any idea how proud of you I am? You're the smartest boy in your grade, the varsity soccer goalie, the…the most handsome young man in the entire world."
"Mom," the teenager whimpered.
"Shhhh…" She shook her head. "When I was younger, I'd always imagined I'd have a daughter. Never once did I expect to be blessed with the most perfect son," she managed, furiously wiping at her eyes. "I hate that I'm hurting you right now," she flat-out moaned. "Ever since you were a four year old, I'd always known that I never wanted to leave your side; I always dreamed of being here for you, seeing you grow up and graduate and become a successful young man. After your mother died, I…I always wanted to protect you from anything that could come your way. The day you accepted me into your life was one of the – if not the most – happiest days of my life. I hoped that you'd know I wasn't trying to take your birth mother's place…"
"…but you didn't. You made sure I never forgot her," Jack cried. "And that means so much more than anything in the world."
Emily muffled her sobs into his chest as she held him close. "God, Jack. I love you so much," she ground out.
Jack's face contorted into a visage of sheer pain. "I love you more," he whispered. "Mom…"
"I never wanted to do this to you. I never wanted you to have to go through any other loss, but…but here I am."
"Stop," Jack protested. "This is not your fault," he told her adamantly.
"I'm sorry," she said nonetheless. "If…if I could just ask you one thing?" she said almost inaudibly, suddenly appearing so starkly weak that it shook Hotch to his core.
"Anything," Jack swore, his red-rimmed eyes meeting hers.
Her hand came to cover his heart. "Don't forget me," she begged.
Jack's eyes fell closed at her near-silent entreaty. "How could I?" he returned, gasping for air between sobs. "After everything you've done for me…for Dad…"
"Promise me you'll keep me here." She patted his heart. "Please, Jack."
The boy took her hand in a tight grip. "I promise."
Emily just gazed at him for the longest of minutes, burning his sweet face into her memory before pressing a lingering kiss to his cheek. "You're the best son I could ever have asked for, Jack. You've treated me so well. You've made me feel worthy of love and affection…"
"So have you, Mom." He returned her kiss. "So have you."
Emily could have prolonged their conversation for hours on end…but sadly, she knew she didn't have that time. Her hand still clutching Jack's almost desperately, Emily beckoned Avery as close as possible, her lips quivering with the thought of leaving her sweet daughter behind.
"Mommy," the nine year old gasped, biting her lip hard as she wrapped her arms around her mother's waist.
"Hi, baby," Emily trembled, holding the young girl to her as tightly as possible. "Don't cry," she crooned weakly, rocking Avery back and forth just as she had done when Avery had just been born. "Don't cry…you're too beautiful to cry."
"No, Mom…" Avery keened, clutching the bed sheets in clenched fists.
"Have I ever told you that even after thirteen hours of labor, I immediately felt whole the moment I laid eyes on you? It was as if I'd just been waiting for you to come along and complete me. You were the most precious sight…with a little mess of dark hair, my eyes, my lips, your father's nose and ears…and the most gorgeous little dimples. Whenever you smiled, my heart was immediately filled with joy." She paused, sniffling, then rested her forehead against Avery's. "It was hard for me; getting pregnant," she eventually explained. "I wasn't sure if I'd ever be able to. But then, one day…you came along. Avery, you were a miracle. You're the best thing that's ever happened to me. Every single day, you make me proud to be your mother, proud to have such a talented, intelligent, beautiful daughter. Of course, I'd…I'd hoped to see you grow into an independent young lady, to see you get married and have children of your own. But…now I…I won't…"
Avery shook her head violently, fat tears rolling down her reddened cheeks. "I don't want you to die," she practically screamed.
Emily's sobs only increased in volume. "I don't want to die either," she said quietly. "But I can't dwell on that right now, sweetheart. Not when there's so much more to tell you."
"But Mom…" the girl whimpered desperately.
Emily brought her lips to Avery's crown. "Don't. I hate that this – that I – am hurting you right now," she said, repeating what she had previously told Jack. "I never wanted you to be subject to something like this; if I had it my way, I'd shelter you until you were much, much older. Only…you'll always be my precious baby girl, no matter what age you are. And that's what I want you to remember. I don't want you to think of me like this; think of the better days, when we laid outside in the snow catching snowflakes on our tongues, or when we went on vacation to Hawaii and we went shell searching together on the warm, white-sand beaches. Remember those times, Avery. And above all, remember how much I love you. I will always love you, baby," Emily cried, unable to say anything else for fear of surely going insane.
"I love you, too," Avery murmured into the crook of Emily's neck. "So much, Mommy. I love you so much."
One hand on her cheek, and the other now on Jack's, Emily looked at them both carefully. "No one, save for your father, can love you as much I love you both. You've shaped me into the woman I had always hoped to be; a mother, with the two most brilliant, perfect children in the world. Thank you…so much…for the moments we've shared; the bad and the good. Jack, look out for your sister for me." The boy nodded somberly. "And both of you…" she tried to crack a smile, "look out for your father for me. Make sure to give him a hug and kiss each day for me." She hadn't wanted to, because she knew it would break down her last wall of resolve, but her gaze was eventually drawn to that of Hotch.
The shattered look on his face felt like a blow to her chest, momentarily preventing her from taking in any air.
After an endless number of tearful hugs and kisses, Emily knew that she had to stop if she wanted a lost minute with Hotch. "Now go, both of you," she reluctantly dismissed. "I don't want you to see me like this any longer," she whispered, her lips barely moving.
They both seemed about to protest, but with one final, lingering, painfully affectionate glance, they stumbled out of the door, holding onto each other for any semblance of strength.
The room was plunged into silence.
"Well…" The lovers' gazes met. "I guess this is it."
Hotch curled closer to her. "I wish it wasn't," he whispered against her neck, his warm tears hitting her skin.
Emily maneuvered so that she could see him fully. "You promised me you wouldn't cry," she gasped, kissing away his tears with only some difficulty.
At that, he only cried harder, burying his face into her chest like a little boy would do. "I love you so fucking much," he moaned, gripping her arms tightly. "What will I do without you?" he asked, not wanting to think about life without Emily. Emily, who had been with him in the good times, and the bad. Emily, who he loved with all his heart, and who loved him with an equal, irrevocable passion.
Emily, his best friend.
"You'll live," she answered simply, hugging him close and wishing she never had to let go. "You'll live, and you'll love our children with every fiber of your being."
"Damn it, Emily…" he sobbed. "I can't do this without you. I can't do anything without you."
"You know that's not true," she chided gently, her tears wetting and staining his shirt. A whole minute passed before she asked, "You remember your promise to me, three years ago?"
Of course he did. How could he forget?
"If I die, I want to do it in your arms. I want you to be the last person I see before I close my eyes that final time. I want the last thing I feel to be your lips against mine, your arms around me, keeping me safe. And I don't want you to cry. I want you to smile. For me. Can you do that, Aaron?"
"I remember," he croaked. "Emily…"
He was silenced by the feel of her lips against his, moving together in a dance so tender and affectionate that it tore them both to pieces, reducing them even farther into tears. They both tasted of salt but neither cared; all they cared about was each other, and proving their undying love, and the kiss…
Emily was the one to break it, pulling back to take in a wheezing breath, but before she could process what was happening, Hotch's lips were back on hers. This time, the kiss wasn't so much coaxing or slow as it was desperate, and needy, and yearning.
When black stars began flooding her vision, Emily reluctantly stole away, her lips tingling with the feel of him. He tasted just as she'd always remember; a unique mixture of citrus and spice coupled withAaron.
Hotch cupped her face in his hands, a tear of his hitting her cheek as he rested his forehead against hers. His heart wrenched as she suddenly winced. "Emily, I wish you would let me put the IV back in," he said, the plea clear in the intonation of his voice.
"But I can see you, Aaron," she repeated. "And I…oh…" He bit his lip hard as he watched her struggle for breath. She just shook her head at the expression she saw written in his features. "I love you so much, Aaron. So much more than anything in the world. Every single day we've been together, you've made me realize how truly lucky I am," she wheezed, gasping for air now. "You gave me Jack. You blessed me with Avery. You've given me everything I have ever wanted in life, in a marriage, in love." She weakly brought a hand up to tangle in his hair, memorizing how soft, how perfect the thick strands felt under her fingers. "You've completed me," she finally sighed, managing, with some difficulty, to take off both her engagement and wedding rings.
Immediately, Hotch let out a roar. "No!" he exclaimed, stopping her. "Don't you ever take them off!" he cried. "They are yours, and yours only, do you understand me? I could never love anyone the way I love you, Emily," he revealed whole-heartedly. "You are my heart. You complete me. You have blessed me, made me the luckiest man to walk the earth. You've restored my faith in the world, and my faith in myself. You helped me through the worst times of my life." He squeezed her hand tightly. "Those rings are yours," he repeated, quieter this time, but just as emotionally.
"But I want Avery to have them," she protested. Deep down inside, however, she knew that once he had his mind set on something…nothing could sway him.
It was one of the many things that had caused her to fall in love with him, all those years ago.
"Please, Emily," he shivered, "please. Don't take them off."
Tears shining in her eyes, she allowed him to put the two silver and gold bands back on her slender finger. "I won't have many opportunities to take them off after this," she pointed out, smiling slightly in a vain attempt to lift his spirits.
Hotch's heart fell at her simple statement. "No…" he murmured, closing his eyes. This can't be happening, he kept repeating, the melancholy mantra continuing despite everything else at the forefront of his mind. This can't be happening, this can't be happening, this can't be happening.
She can't be dying.
But she was.
Her sweet, near-silent voice drew him out of his thoughts. "Aaron?"
"Yes, my love?" he whispered, his gaze seeking hers.
"Do you think I could…have one…more kiss?"
Despite the nature of the situation they were in, Hotch found himself managing to give her a smile. "How about two more?"
Emily let her lips curve at the corners, her fingers playing along the smooth skin of his cheeks. "I'll take that. Gladly."
Leaning down to capture her lips with his once more, Hotch tried his hardest to communicate in just one embrace just how much Emily meant to him. Most would consider it a vain task, trying to encompass twelve beautiful years of love and friendship in only one kiss. But based on Emily's breathy response, he had succeeded.
A beat of silence passed. Then…
"Aaron? My entire body is numb."
Hotch's eyes fell closed. "I wish I could do something to help you. I wish you didn't have to suffer. You don't deserve this," he rambled, tears openly streaming down his face.
"I'm not suffering," Emily said for the final time, although her breathing was coming in short pants now. "For the first time in years, my mind is free. I wouldn't trade that for anything in the world. Except…except just one more day to be with you."
"And you are helping me. Just being here, by my side, you've kept me strong. Sometimes being the winner of a fight means knowing when to let go, and stop fighting. That's now," she said. Her voice was but a whisper now. "You've helped me live, Aaron. You've helped me win."
"I love you," he breathed against her skin.
"I love you, too," she replied simply.
"No," he sighed. "I haven't said it enough. Emily, I really love you. I'd never even come close to knowing the true meaning of love until I met you. You changed me into a better person. I haven't said it enough," he repeated regretfully.
"You have," she assured. "You've shown me. Every second of our relationship, you've shown me. I…" Emily suddenly didn't know how to do this, suddenly didn't know what to say.
Her time had come.
"Aaron…I'm ready." Her body was suddenly wracked with intense waves of pain. She gripped his hand tightly, never more thankful for his timeless support.
Never before had three simple words had such a strong effect on him. But Hotch felt all the oxygen whoosh out of his lungs at her statement. His heart contracted painfully, his head began to spin, his vision began to blur with yet another onslaught of tears…
"Tell…tell Jack and Avery that I'll never stop loving them," she pleaded finally. "Tell my father that he blessed me with the best possible foundation in life, and that the days I spent in his office, listening to his stories, were the best moments of my childhood. I couldn't have asked for a better role model growing up. And tell…tell my mother…that I forgive her for everything. I want her to be free of any guilt she may have. Tell her to remember the good times." Emily practically doubled over as white-hot pain rocketed through her body. "I didn't want them to be here to see me like this, but tell them…oh…tell my mom and my dad that I love them. So much."
"I will," Hotch vowed, smoothing his thumbs over the skin of her hands. It was then that her eyes closed in pain.
She just couldn't take it anymore.
"Hey," he whispered softly, kissing her lips to wake his sleeping beauty. "Open your eyes, beautiful. Emmy…"
Emily mustered up her last bit of strength to look at her husband. His age-old nickname for her falling from his lips seemed to be the last thing she could take. But suddenly, she remembered the last part of their promise, three years previous.
"I want the last thing I see to be your smile, Aaron," she reminded, her words almost unintelligible because of how raspy her voice had become.
And even though he felt everything but happy at the moment, Hotch knew he couldn't rob her of her dying wish. It took all the strength and composure he had, but finally, he managed one single, handsome smile for his wife.
Her shaking fingers rose to outline his lips, then cup his face in her palm. One single tear slid down her cheek as she took him in for the final time.
Slowly, her hand on his cheek dropped in an arc to the surface of the bed.
Slowly, the hand that had been clutching his began to loosen.
Slowly, her eyes fluttered closed.
Emily. Look at me.
"No," Hotch moaned loudly, trying in vain to block out the sound of the machine as Emily flatlined. He didn't even notice as Doctor Haynes, flanked by two nurses, entered the room. "No, no, no, no, no…"
"Mr. Hotchner," the oncologist said softly, placing a hand on his shoulder. Tears of his own were shining in his eyes…for Emily had truly been special. "Mr. Hotchner, please move aside."
But Hotch only clutched Emily's lifeless body tighter to his, and sobbed against her chest. "No! Don't take her away from me," he cried, her skin still wonderfully warm under his hands.
She could simply be sleeping.
Hotch shook his head violently. "No, Emily…"
Sadly, Haynes glanced at the nurse nearest to him, running a hand over his face. "Time of death?" he mouthed, shaking as the background of Hotch's sobs only increased in volume.
The nurse couldn't meet his gaze. "Eleven-fifteen pm," she answered meekly, the image of the broken down, dark-haired man holding his wife to him forever ingrained in her memory.
Amidst all the heart ache, Hotch was somehow able to remember what Emily had told him, all those years ago.
"Every three minutes, a woman in the United States is diagnosed with breast cancer."
Every three minutes.
At eleven-eighteen, who would be next?
Author's Note: Words cannot describe how wonderful a time I've had writing this story, and I can only hope that you've enjoyed reading it. Thank you sincerely for taking the time to do so. If you can, please leave me a review, even if you haven't before. Reviewer #220 will get a oneshot written for the prompt of their choice! Signed or anonymous, short or long, your reviews mean the world to me, and I treasure them like the finest gold.