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The Girl She Used To Be

Chapter One

From the instant she'd walked into his office, her normally bouncy steps now replaced with a dragging, reluctant gait, he'd known something was wrong. Hell, if he was completely honest with himself (something he'd tried desperately to avoid doing lately), he'd known something had been wrong for months.

It had been her eyes that had given her away. Windows to the soul, they all said…whoever they might be. And in her case, it was true. Normally vividly painted with an array of multiple colors, each brighter than the last and then outlined with liner and perfectly applied mascara, they were now devoid of even the most sedate hues. Her glasses seemed to magnify the lack of color, leaving her appearing bereft and wan.

He wasn't accustomed to seeing her colorless. Even in the worst of circumstances, she always managed to brighten their lives with her vibrant, devil-may-care attitude. But now, with her outer appearance dimmed beyond recognition, he was certain that her inner soul was in even far greater turmoil.

Damn Derek Morgan to hell for taking that promotion to the New York City field office, he silently cursed as he motioned her into his office when her small fist knocked against his open door. "Penelope," he said, offering her a rare smile as he stared into her dulled eyes that had once sparkled with an intensity to rival any pyrotechnics display. "Come in."

Watching as she nodded faintly and stepped inside to close the door behind her, he again wished that the brawny agent was still around. Sure, during the years Penelope had worked with the team, he'd seen her depressed in the past. But Derek had always managed to pull her back to them, their unique relationship completely platonic, but as deep as any marriage he'd ever seen. It was a connection that he'd often found himself envying almost to the point of jealousy.

Waiting until she'd seated herself in front of his desk, he noted how she avoided his eyes, her own darting around his office uneasily. She was nervous, he belatedly realized. "Garcia," he said softly as her tiny fingers fidgeted with the file she held in her hand, "Was there something I could do for you?" Seeing her lips tighten slightly, he mentally sighed. There were times, especially with her, when he wished he wasn't such an introverted person. Coaxing someone into opening up and confiding in him when he wasn't exactly able to reciprocate severely limited his ability to be helpful. And he desperately wanted to aid the younger woman...take that lost look from her eyes and replace it with the enthusiasm for life it had once held.

He yearned to see that precious light back in her beautiful eyes. He missed it. Truthfully, he was addicted to it. And like a true addict, there wasn't much he wouldn't do to gain a fix.

He watched as she shifted uncomfortably in her seat, obviously anxious. What the hell could he do? Other than his son, there was only one person left in his world that could bring every instinctive urge to shelter and protect surging to the surface…and it was her.

The long and short of it was that he loved her. Despite the rules against fraternization...the sheer impossibility that he could ever maintain a successful, healthy relationship with her or anyone else...none of it mattered.

He loved her.

And the urge to act on that compulsive love that he'd tried to deny for longer than he wanted to acknowledge gnawed at him.

Tamping down on his emotions (just another thing he was well accustomed to doing, he might add), he clasped his hands against the desk blotter in front of him, the picture of control. "Penelope," he said softly, smiling as warmly as he ever had, "Tell me how I can help you."

Inhaling deeply, Penelope bit her lip as her scrambled mind tried find a way to say what she'd come in here to say...to put into words those feelings that had been coursing through her for months. Twisting her hands around the file she held, she tried to force herself to speak.

And that was the biggest laugh of all, she thought. She, who always had a ready response to any question, couldn't find a way to open her mouth and simply talk.

Because once the words were uttered, you can't take them back, her mind taunted her mockingly. Honestly, she wished she didn't have such an overactive conscience.

Even the long distance pep talk that her handsome hunk of chocolate had given her last night hadn't boosted her confidence enough to have this challenging conversation. Derek had spent hours on the phone last night cheering her on, trying to imbue her with the courage to speak from her heart and tell this man how she felt...how she'd always felt.

Oh, she knew that everyone on the team suspected that her current suffering revolved around Morgan's new job. And that particular tidbit it was true, since there was a void within her now that had been created by his absence. But that wasn't the only problem...that wasn't the obstacle standing between her and happiness. Derek's departure had only amplified everything she'd already been feeling. When he'd been here, he'd been able to buoy her spirits and lift her out of the darkness that this job and long unrequited love had crafted inside her.

Derek was her best friend, but he wasn't the man she was in love with. He knew it. She knew it. The only person that didn't know it was the concerned man sitting across his desk from her.

And according to Morgan's sage wisdom, the only way she was going to find her way back to the carefree girl she used to be was by being honest with herself...and even more importantly, with Aaron Hotchner.

Sometimes it would be very easy to hate her best friend...and his particular no holds barred brand of honesty.

But now, she had to face the music, no matter how clattering the sound might be. Aaron Hotchner wasn't going to wait much longer.