Author's Note: Last chapter in this story, I think :)


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Better Days, Past & Present

After she'd taken her 'hot as she could stand it' shower in the upstairs guest bathroom, Emily got dressed and tucked her wet bathing suit into the grocery bag that she'd brought with her just for that purpose. Then she dug into the bottom of her beach bag to find her travel makeup kit.

Once she'd reapplied the basics . . . and removed the slight under eye mascara/raccoon smudges with a dab of cold cream . . . she tucked everything away again. And finally, with a slight wince, she began to comb out her snarls . . . with just her fingers.

A comb was the one thing that she'd forgotten to throw into her bag.

But fortunately Dave had some very nice . . . very expensive . . . salon conditioner in his shower, so she was able to smooth her strands out pretty well . . . and with minimal tears . . . even without a comb or brush. But with her hair again . . . or, more specifically . . . still, wet, and the AC in the house still cranked, Emily could already feel that same chill coming back again.

The benefits of the hot water were fading fast.

Oh well . . . she sighed . . . nothing to be done about that. And she was just about to throw her hair up in a ponytail and go find Hotch, when a thought popped into her head.

Perhaps it was an instinctual one . . . or perhaps it was a long buried memory from the night she'd skinned her knees and Hotch had rifled through the cabinets . . . but Emily decided to stoop down and go poking around under the bathroom sink.

She was looking for a hair dryer.

And whether it was instinct or forgotten memory, she actually found one. Though, she thought with a faint eye roll as she pulled it out, with the number of overnight 'guests' Dave probably had . . . enough to run his own Motel Six . . . that probably wasn't all that surprising.

There was probably a cedar chest full of lavender "Hers" bathrobes off in one of these extra bedrooms.

The thought of it . . . and the not so ridiculous plausibility of it . . . made Emily snicker slightly. And once she got her amusement, and the desire to go looking for the whole mythical stack of them, under control, she finally set about blow drying her wet strands.

That took another ten minutes, and it wasn't really that beautiful when she was done . . . again, she had no styling utensils . . . but she wasn't going for runway quality anyway. She just wanted it to be 'not wet.' And she got her wish on that point.

It was now, 'not wet.'

So once she'd curled the cord back around the dryer, and tucked it away, Emily set about tidying up the rest of the bathroom.

Evening out the wet towels over the warming racks, and hanging the bath mats over the edge of the tub. Then she used a piece of paper towel to wipe up the few stray brown hairs that had fallen onto the vanity and the floor while she was shaking her head out.

That would just be rude to leave those there.

So once the bathroom looked as it had when she'd arrived in it thirty plus minutes earlier . . . like nobody ever used it . . . Emily did one last check of her make-up, picked up her straw bag, and went in search of her ride home.

She found him in the library.

When she stepped through the double doors into the oak accented room, Hotch's head was down and his chin was resting on his chest. And though for a second Emily thought that maybe he was reading . . . he had a book in his lap . . . she then realized that the book was closed. Her lip quirked up slightly.

As were his eyes.

This was a first, Aaron Hotchner just 'nodding off' somewhere. But as Emily thought about how many hours he'd worked over the last week, month, year . . . thousands . . . her faint bit of amusement, faded.

And then it was gone completely.

Because she realized then that if she didn't get him to rest more, that he was going to drive himself to an early grave. And as she bit down on her lip, Emily made herself a vow that she'd not let that happen. She'd keep balancing his terrible days with laughter on their breaks, and dinners out and evenings in snuggled up on the couch.

It was a life that made her happier too.

And with this plan to make him relax as often as possible, now Emily was feeling badly about having to wake him up. But she knew that he wouldn't want to sleep at Dave's house anyway. Besides that though . . . she reminded herself with a softening of her expression . . . if he needed it, he could take a nap when they got back to her house.

And so with that happier thought, she walked over to rouse her Sleeping Beauty.

It was a bit of a surprise, when she stopped in front of him and Emily noticed that his eyes still hadn't opened. With his hearing and reflexes . . . both generally bordering on the super human level . . . she would have expected him to already be awake.

He was really that good.

And seeing how he hadn't reacted, she figured he must have really just been that particularly tired. So with a faint crinkling of her eyes, Emily leaned over to put her bag on the floor. And then she stooped down in front of his chair.

Just as she reached out to touch his cheek . . . his arm suddenly shot up and his fingers locked tightly around her wrist.

"Emily," he mumbled to himself while dropping her hand.

"Yep, it's me," she whispered back, "Are you awake?"

The question was fairly rhetorical. If he was talking he was awake. So mostly she was just trying to cover her pride that not only were his reflexes were just as sharp as she'd expected them to be, but that he could also identify her even with his eyes still shut. It was Dave's shampoo and soap, so perhaps it was just the curve of her wrist that he knew so well.

That made her happy for some reason.

"No," Hotch opened his eyes to give her a sleepy smile, "sound asleep." Then he simultaneously stretched and stifled a yawn.

"You ready?"

His voice was a bit husky, and between that and the half asleep smile, Emily had to remind herself that Hotch was Hotch, and not just some random handsome face.

Because a random handsome face, with a husky voice like that, would have gotten her a bit worked up.

And to distract herself from those rather unexpected (confusing) realizations . . . realizations that she most definitely shouldn't be having . . . Emily slowly came back to her feet.

She'd given a "yup," to his question as she rose, because that point at least was not in any state of confusion.

She was most DEFINITELY ready to go!

But then Emily noticed Hotch pausing in the act of handing over her service weapon. As she reached down to take it from his hand, his nose wrinkled . . . he was giving her a funny look.

So her brow rose in response.

"What?" She asked, while slipping her holster onto her waistband.

"Where are your other clothes?" Hotch responded slowly as he stood up, dropping the history book on the chair behind him. "I liked your other clothes."

The white blouse and mini-skirt, they were gone, replaced now by jeans and a long sleeved red t-shirt.

They must have been in her bag.

Emily's gaze immediately shifted away from Hotch's, landing somewhere off in the corner of the room. Somewhat distractedly she realized that her view now was of the droopy, old fern. It was the one that she and had Hotch kissed under last Christmas.

Such a long time ago.

"Just figured I'd be warmer in this," she murmured with what she hoped was a disinterested shrug. "That's why I brought it, for if the weather changed."

Then she pleaded silently.

'Please, don't ask any more questions Hotch. Please just leave it alone.'

Hotch's brow wrinkled.

"But the weather didn't change, Emily," he pointed out logically, "it's still hot out. And it's not even three yet, so it's not going to cool down for hours. And now that your hair's dry, and you're out of those wet clothes, you won't be cold anymore."

Though Hotch knew that this was an odd point to get hung up on . . . her choice of outfit . . . for some reason it seemed important that he find out why she had put the skirt away. And it wasn't just out of general curiosity that he wanted to know, but more because he was also getting a bit of a tickle on the back of his neck.

The belief that something was wrong.

And the tickle had come when he'd seen how visibly uncomfortable Emily was that he'd asked the question. And it was such a simple question, that he couldn't see why . . . unless there was something else going on . . . it would bother her at all.

And why . . . his brow suddenly inched up . . . was she now ignoring him? She was just looking off into the corner. And even as he was looking at her, Emily's right hand began to tap what was clearly an impatient rhythm on her leg.

Now he was getting very worried.

And when she didn't speak again, and the tapping didn't stop, Hotch finally reached over to touch her cheek.

Her eyes snapped back to his.

They were bright, and clear . . . and much too wide. Like she'd just been caught in a trap.

"Emily," he repeated softly, "please tell me why you changed your clothes."

Emily stared at Hotch for a moment longer . . . there was no place else to look really.

His gaze had her ensnared.

Then her teeth began to grind together as she felt those dark brown eyes boring into her soul. Finally she bit her lip.

There was no point in continuing to evade the question. Not only had she lost focus on even coming up with another plausible misdirection, but more importantly . . . he already knew something was wrong, and that meant that he wasn't going to let it go.

He never had before.

Her eyes fell shut for a moment, and then she opened them again.

"I changed because I felt gross," she whispered while trying to will down the encroaching warmth that was climbing her cheeks. "And I didn't want any more attention from anybody at the party." She swallowed, "those guys downstairs, the way they were looking at me when we came in earlier, it just," she shuddered slightly as a faint pout touched her lips, "it didn't feel good."

It was so embarrassing to admit that, that she could be so rattled by such a tiny blip of a moment. But the reality of that moment, of that SITUATION, it actually was wearing at her. Because she knew that under different circumstances, if she was alone and a group composed of men like that . . . a half dozen well-toned, drunken forty somethings that wanted to tear off her clothes . . . ever decided to really come after her, even with her training, she wouldn't be able to fight them all off.

She'd be completely fucked.

So that's why that moment had become symbolic of something more. It was a genuinely upsetting reminder that there were limitations to even the strongest woman's abilities to protect herself in a man's world. Because that world had teeth.

And it was out to get you.

Hotch's jaw tightened as his gaze shifted up and over Emily's shoulder . . . he should have known.

God damn it! If HE had picked up on the way those asshole were looking at her, then of course she would have too!

That shit was directed at her!

And now he felt like a complete ass for having been so utterly oblivious earlier as to why she'd wanted to leave. Her reasoning at the time had seemed plausible . . . that she was cold and miserable . . . and he'd just been too wrapped up in his own anger at what he had seen, to even think that there might have been another reason.

That she might have actually been upset.

But there was nothing to be done about it now . . . he reminded himself . . . he'd just have to take it as a learning experience to make sure that he paid better attention to her in the future. So what was REALLY pissing him off now, was that he couldn't even go downstairs and take a piece out of anybody for upsetting her. Unfortunately all they'd really done was 'look' at Emily, that was it. And he couldn't take retribution for someone simply looking at her.

At least not after the fact.

And knowing that his continued anger in that moment wasn't helping anything . . . certainly not Emily . . . Hotch tried to let it go. It was difficult though, because he was angry not just for what those men had done . . . for the general sliminess of it, which was what had bothered him earlier . . . but also because they had made her change her clothes. They'd made Emily feel badly about herself. Made her feel dirty.

And that offense . . . his gaze shifted back to hers . . . that was not one that he was likely to forgive.

Still though, those were his feelings . . . ones that he was planning on sharing at a later date with Rossi, those men wouldn't be allowed around his agents again . . . and what mattered now were Emily's feelings. On getting that look out of her eyes.

Uncomfortable, and . . . his gut twisted . . . embarrassed.

He so hated to see her embarrassed. It was another shot at her self-esteem.

And her self-esteem had taken enough shots over the years already.

So he stepped forward, tentatively reaching out to run his fingers down her arm. But when he saw her shoulders slump slightly at the touch . . . she was closing in on herself . . . he again wanted to go downstairs and break a half dozen noses.

And maybe a half dozen skulls.

But again, he reminded himself, violence wasn't going to fix anything here. So he closed the last inch separating his body from Emily's. Then he wrapped his arms around her, and a second later she was tucked under his chin, and against his chest.

Her whole body was rigid in his arms.

"I'm sorry." He whispered in her ear while rubbing his palm slowly along her back. "I'm sorry it happened, and I'm sorry I didn't realize earlier that's why you wanted to leave," he kissed her temple, "is there anything I can do to make it better?"

Emily remained stiff for a moment, but then took note of how tight Hotch's embrace was, and how soft his tone, and she found her body slowly relaxing. Then he kissed her, and her eyes began to sting . . . she let them fall shut.

"You're doing it," she whispered on a sigh.

Then she slipped her arms around his waist, and buried her face in his throat. And after a few minutes of Hotch Therapy . . . breathing him in, while he held her close and rubbed her back . . . she really did start to feel better. Not all better, but . . . she tipped her head back to give him a little smile . . . at least now she didn't feel like boycotting the rest of Dave's mixed gatherings, or slinking out the back door. And that was due to Hotch alone.

She had found over the last few months, that his touch could make so many of the bad things bearable.

It was a gift.

"Thanks," she whispered with a gentle pat to his cheek, "you're a pal."

"Ditto," Hotch responded with a wink. And when the blush started to form on her cheeks, he leaned forward to kiss her forehead. Then he murmured against her skin.

"Next time please tell me when you're upset, okay?" He leaned back, "Even if you think it's a little thing, or I can't do anything about it anyway, I still want to know." Then he squeezed her close before adding softly.

"You don't have to deal with things alone anymore," he added while kissing her temple. "We'll deal with them together."

That was the lesson he had learned from his own time with Emily. That sharing things, big things, little things . . . stupid things, getting all of it off his chest, it made them better. Not all better, but he didn't live in a world where things would ever be 'all better.'

He lived in the real one.

But sometimes you just needed to share a bit of those burdens, and that could be enough to make them bearable. Enough to get you through the day. And so much of life was just getting through the day.

At least a life like his.

Feeling her eyes start to water, Emily turned her head slightly to rub her cheek in the curve of Hotch's neck.

"You're going to make me cry," she sniffled.

He was too sweet, and MUCH too good to her.

"Sorry," Hotch leaned back to give her a little smile, "but I just want you to remember that I'm here. Always. And now," he raised an eyebrow, "do you want me to go downstairs and be as you say," he gave her a cold smile, "'me,' or should we just go back to your place?"

Emily had sent him off to 'be himself' in the past when someone needed to have his head taken out of his ass. But he'd only do it here, now, if that's what she wanted.

Emily's expression softened at Hotch's offer to go make grown men wet their pants. Before him, she'd never had her own personal Terminator before. Well, except for her dad of course. But he traveled so much that she'd had to fend for herself most of the time.

Hence making some colossally bad judgment calls in her fifteenth year on the planet.

But having Hotch in her life now, Emily sometimes wondered. . . usually in moments like this, when he could literally hug the pain away . . . just what her life would have been like if she'd known him back when she was a girl.

Better.

That was always the word that came to her. Things would have been better. But that was the past, she reminded herself, and the past couldn't be changed. Nor really could the present.

At least not this one.

Which was why a faint smile touched her lips as she wiped the corner of her eye.

"Thanks," she huffed, "but it's not worth it. And I'd rather just get out of here. The sooner we leave, the sooner we get home. And the sooner we get home," her lips twitched, "the sooner you'll have the pleasure of seeing me in my Donald Duck pajamas."

Time to lighten the mood . . . and Donald Duck would do the trick.

Hotch's mouth quivered.

"That's funny, because you know a viewing of adult sized Donald Duck pajamas was actually on my bucket list."

He was just happy to see tension had left her body, and that shadow had left her eyes.

Now the knot could leave his stomach.

Emily's faint smile morphed to a full on grin.

"Well, then," she chuckled softly, "isn't this just your lucky day?" And as Hotch's eyes crinkled, she leaned up to kiss his cheek. Then she pressed her lips to his ear.

"You are totally Super Chief," she whispered while giving him a final squeeze. "And now," she took a breath and leaned back, "let's get this show on the road."

"Yes, ma'am," Hotch responded with a little smile. Then he let go of Emily to turn and pick up his bag, and then the book he was borrowing from Dave.

Once he and Emily had both gathered their few possessions, Hotch slipped his arm back around her shoulders.

"Donald Duck, Chinese, and Cary Grant, right?"

Though the movie for the evening hadn't yet been picked, Hotch knew that Cary Grant was Emily's favorite actor. So it stood to reason . . . given her unfortunate run-in downstairs . . . that he would be her choice tonight.

"Yep," Emily nodded as she rolled her head against his chest, "that's the plan." Then she shifted her eyes up.

"S'okay?"

Hotch's eyes crinkled as he started them towards the door.

"Just fine with me."


A/N 2: And now, we're done. Like I said last time, if I get an idea for the time at her apartment, I'll follow up. But otherwise, we'll just consider it wrapped.

Trying to get up the conclusion to Aaron & Emily next. Not tonight next, just this week, next.

Thanks as always for the feedback!