Disclaimer: Criminal Minds is the property of its production company and distributors. I am merely using it to exercise an idea. No profit will be made. No copyright infringement is intended.

Author's Note: I hadn't intended to write this, but I had a few requests for a follow up, and small vignettes and images bugged me, usually when I've been trying to get to sleep. I created a character who had metaphorically died and almost literally gone through hell before being rescued by the BAU. Part of what I saw in her was a match for my favorite character, Aaron Hotchner. Don't get me wrong, I love all the characters, but I have a special place in my heart for Aaron.


Chapter One

Tired, stressed to the point of tears, and holding firmly to Heimdall's lead, Amanda Mason left the Congressional hearing room. Heimdall sensed her turmoil and pressed against her leg, making his 'harurrrrrr' comforting noise. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

I am in a safe place. No one here will hurt me. Besides which, there's FBI and Secret Service all over the place, she told herself. Her reaction, she knew, was the stress of recounting what had happened to her in an effort to convince the Congressional committee of the necessity of funding a better nationwide tracking system for criminal modus operandi, signatures, and weapons use. Between that and the stress of being in a large building with crowds . . .

She took a deep breath, straightened her jacket, and when she looked up, she saw him.

"Agent Hotchner," she greeted him.

There was enough room in the hallway for them to stand and converse without having to step aside.

"Hello, Ms. Mason." He looked happy to see her.

"It's . . . it's very nice to see you again," she said. Then she looked down at her dog, who groaned in a friendly manner. "This is Heimdall. He's my service dog. Penelope was such an enormous help. Once I found that my agoraphobia wasn't going away, she suggested a service animal. Heimdall makes it possible for me to get out and about."

"I'm glad," Aaron said.

He held his hand out for Heimdall to give a brief, whiskery sniff.

"Why . . . are you here?" she finally asked.

"I testified earlier today," he answered, "before you were called. I thought I might wait until you were done and see how you were doing. I know that can't have been easy."

"It wasn't," she replied. "But it was worth it. The survivor who disappeared afterwards, Callie Hunter. Has there been any word of her?"

Aaron shook his head. "I'm afraid not. She has a history of drug use and prostitution. After the trauma she suffered, it would have been all too easy for her to disappear again. We have advisories out, so if she's picked up or arrested, the local police will know to contact us."

"Thank you, Agent Hotchner," she said. "I barely got to know her. I wanted so much to help, and then she was gone."

"I know. It happens. And Ms. Mason?"

"Yes?"

"I'd like it if you'd call me Aaron."

The smile that lit her face took even him by surprise. She'd had surgery, yes. She wore makeup to reduce the impact of the scars, yes. Still, it was a joy to see the corners of her eyes crinkle and her mouth lift in a genuine smile, unafraid and unhesitant.

"If you'll call me Amanda," she answered.

He didn't smile, not exactly. She had the feeling that it was a rare expression on his face, saved for times when other people would laugh out loud or even spin in a circle out of joy. But his eyes had a telltale crinkle at the corners, genuine and gentle.

"I'd like that even more," he said. "Would you be interested in getting some lunch? My treat, and I know where all the good restaurants are, around here."

She glanced around the hallway. "Can you find one that doesn't have a lot of politicians?"

"Absolutely."

He offered her his arm, and she took it, leading her service dog with the other hand. The dog looked up at her and then Aaron, panting as they went out into the late spring weather.

Out in the warm, open air, she held a little tighter to his arm, and then loosened her grip.

"I keep . . ." she tried to explain, giving him an apologetic smile.

"It's all right," he told her. "If you need to slow down or change scenery, just tell me. I understand it's difficult for you to be out in the open like this."

She looked away for a moment as they strolled, and then back up at him.

"I got the letters you and your team members sent," she told him. "Penelope told me that it's standard practice, but nobody's notes were routine. It meant a great deal to me."

She didn't say that she reread them almost every day, his especially. Agent Hotchner's writing was formal, but there was a tone of warmth and sincere care to it she still felt after the hundredth reading.

Hotchner glanced at her, and then went back to scanning the world around them.

"It's very important to us that the people we work with, especially the survivors, know that they aren't forgotten once the case is over. You showed an amazing amount of resourcefulness and courage," he told her. "It made an impression on all of us."

"At the time," she said softly, "I felt completely helpless, that nothing I did would matter, and that help would never come. I . . ."

And here she stopped talking, overcome. She and Hotchner continued walking down the broad avenue. Heimdall looked up and woofed softly.

When a group of tourists – mostly families with school age children – passed by, all of them noticed her. Most of them looked, realized they were staring, and looked away. A few of them just stared. Amanda shrank against him.

"It's more than just the agoraphobia, isn't it?" he asked.

She nodded.

"People see Heimdall, and I'm not obviously disabled, so they try to figure out what's wrong with me," she answered. "The makeup I use is good, but the scars have a texture to them, and they're more obvious in daylight. Most people notice, or they see my hands. It's . . . hard to deal with. If they ask, I tell them I was in an accident. I just . . ."

"Most people would be horrified at what you've gone through," Aaron said, putting a hand over hers. "And most people don't know how to respond. They want to show sympathy. They want to do something to put things right or change history so it wasn't so bad. It's perfectly normal to have difficulty responding to that."

She relaxed.

"I'll get used to it," she said. "I'll memorize answers and figure out ways to deflect them. It's just such a relief, when I get home. I can take off the makeup. I don't have to pretend that I'm normal, and I don't have to do this . . . this social dance of assurance and reassurance."

"I think you'll find," he told her, "that as you establish new social circles and people come to know you, they'll stop seeing the scars. They'll just see you."

"Is that what you do?" she asked him after a moment, looking up at him.

It took him a moment to answer.

"I see the scars, Amanda. I'm aware of them, but they don't bother me. I've seen much, much worse. If anything, I remain aware of them so I remember that you need extra help to feel safe."

She thought about this for a moment and nodded. "I wish I could tell you not to bother, Aaron. That I want to be treated like anyone else, but I'm aware – painfully aware – that I'm not."

"I know it doesn't seem like it," he told her, "but it isn't all bad. You've proven several times that you are a survivor, that given even the longest odds, you will make it through."

She exhaled sharply, not quite a laugh, and then smiled, not quite sadly. They continued walking, past more tourists and business people, government employees and travelers.

It was a pleasant walk. There were some bad neighborhoods near the Capitol, but Aaron knew how to avoid them and still keep them away from the thickest traffic. He took the outside of the sidewalk, and she was aware of him, relaxed as he appeared to be, scanning every doorway, window, alley, and person for possible threats.

"Aaron, are you armed?" she asked.

"Any time I'm on duty and or outside the house," he replied. "Because I'm a law enforcement officer, I'm expected to be able to deal with problems even when I'm not on duty. Does that bother you?"

"No," she answered honestly. "It makes me feel better. You're not a bully. You don't have anything to prove. You're not going to do anything stupid."

Heimdall made a grumbling, not quite howl of a sound.

"Should I be concerned?" Aaron asked, looking down at the dog.

Amanda smiled. "No, that just means he's happy. He likes it when I talk to people, especially when I'm not tense."

During the walk, Aaron pointed out certain places and told her about them. He sounded like he was reading from a tourist pamphlet. She laughed.

"You're not very good at this, are you?" she asked.

To her surprise, he laughed as well.

"I . . . uh . . . I very rarely show anyone the sights," he admitted. "The only times in the past have been my son's class during a field trip and my wife's family when they visited."

His face suddenly went blank, and his gait changed. She looked up at him.

"Aaron, it's all right," she said. "I looked up everything I could find about you and the others as soon as I had Internet access. I know it was your wife the Reaper killed, and I know you killed him. I'm sorry."

A muscle twitched in his cheek. After a long moment of silent walking, he managed to speak.

"It's like what you said. People notice, and they want to know. It's . . . exhausting dealing with the explanations and the concern when all I want to do just . . . carry on, even if I'm limping. Even if I'm crippled."

"You still wear your wedding ring," she noted. "You loved her very much."

He nodded. "I feel I should be honest with you, Amanda. Normally, I let people make assumptions, and I don't correct them unless I need to. I would have lost Haley anyways. We separated, and she filed for divorce. It would have been final a month after her death. As it was, I got to be the grieving husband, instead of the awkward ex-husband."

"I'm so sorry."

"So was I," he answered.

They walked in silence until they reached the restaurant, an Italian cafe with a host who recognized Aaron and instantly seated the two of them. Aaron held the chair out for Amanda, who then signaled Heimdall to lay down at her feet. He'd deliberately given her a seat against one of the walls, with a clear view of the rest of the seating area and the patio outside. Then he took the seat next to hers, which left him with his back to one other table, something he only did if he was with other members of his team.

"Thank you," Amanda said. "You really do know your stuff."

"I do," he confirmed. "And I want you to feel safe and unstressed."

She smiled. "You know, you sound like an FBI agent, even when you're not on duty. Very factual. Very direct."

"I've always been that way," he admitted.

"And did you always know you were born to be in the FBI?" she asked, teasing a little.

"Well, for a little while, I tried acting-"

Amanda laughed, and then immediately caught herself. Aaron glanced slyly at her, gauging how she responded to his self-deprecating humor.

"And when that didn't work out, I went into law school," he added.

"Really? I did not take you for a lawyer," Amanda said. "At least not the corporate kind. You strike me as more the Atticus Finch type."

"Actually," he admitted, "I was a prosecutor, but I found after a few years, that I wanted to be more directly involved in stopping crime."

Their talk ranged on, becoming more relaxed and comfortable as lunch progressed. Amanda knew more about the food on the menu than Aaron did, suggesting an antipasto and a bottle of wine that would complement the main course. The waiter attended her as if she were a duchess.

They discussed the likelihood of the database system getting funded. Aaron explained some of the intricate machinations that went on behind the scenes. Amanda pointed out tidbits of information from the murals and paintings around them. He told her about Rossi's amazing cooking skills, and she described the herb garden she was nurturing. She asked him about his son and watched as his face lit up. He had pictures in his wallet, which he showed her. She told him about museum and art programs he might take Jack to.

Then, as they dallied over a shared portion of tiramisu, his phone rang. He stopped mid-sentence and answered it.

"Hotchner."

Amanda played with her fork, rearranging the remaining crumbs on the plate, while Aaron asked a few terse questions, and then ended the call.

"Amanda, that was Garcia," he said. "I'm very sorry, but there's a case, and I'm needed."

"Of course," she said, looking up.

He signaled the waiter, who immediately brought the check.

"I'm very sorry," he repeated. "I don't like leaving this abruptly, but-"

"Aaron," Amanda interrupted him, "it's your job, right?"

"Yes."

"And it's a case, kidnapping or murder or something else, right?" she asked.

"I can't go into specifics, but yes," he answered, laying out cash for the bill and tip.

"Then don't apologize," she said. "You're doing exactly the same thing that saved my life, saved it and restored it. Don't ever say you're sorry for that."

He stopped just as he stood up, his hand on his jacket, his expression unreadable. And then, it changed to something full of longing and shaded with hope.

"Amanda, I'd like very much to see you again," he said.

She smiled so widely, the scars on her cheeks stood out, even with the makeup. Taking his offered hand, she stood.

"I'd like that very much, Aaron," she answered.

He pulled on his jacket.

"You'll be all right getting home?" he asked. "Do you need anything?"

She laughed, and then she took both his hands in hers.

"I'm fine, and I'll get home without any problem."

She stood up on her tiptoes and kissed his cheek. When she came down, she looked up at him.

"Now," she said, "there's only one thing left for me to say to you."

"What?" he asked, puzzled.

"Good hunting."

For a moment, he stared at her in amazement. Then, he smiled, a grin that changed his entire face. He touched her cheek with his fingertips, and shook his head a bare fraction of an inch, disbelieving.

"Thank you. I'll call you as soon as I'm back."

"I'll talk to you then."

He strode out of the restaurant, hailing the first passing cab.

Amanda looked down at Heimdall, who groaned and stood up.

"Well, bud," she said to him. "Why don't we head on home?"


Chapter Two

"You," Rossi said, not looking up from his report, "are seeing someone."

Hotchner did look up from his report. "What?"

"Shall I enumerate the details?" Rossi asked, now looking up with a smile on his face. "You carry an extra set of clothes in your go bag, jeans and a polo shirt. You've been shaving before you get on the plane, and you've sent more text messages this past week than the six months previously."

"I could just be picking Jack up from his aunt's," Hotchner pointed out.

"Jack doesn't care if you wear aftershave," Rossi pointed out. "Which you are. And, you got your hair cut differently."

Hotchner smiled, caught out, but not saying anything.

"It's good to see you getting back out there," Rossi said. "And since you're not the type to play the field, unlike Morgan over there, I'm guessing it's someone special."

Hotchner conceded this with a nod. "We've been out eight times. I'm going over to her place once we land. She's promised dinner and a movie."

"Anyone I know?" Rossi asked.

"You've met her," Hotchner answered, going poker-faced.

"Oh, now this Iis/I intriguing." Rossi grinned. "But I won't push. The mystery is everything."

Hotch laughed once and then looked out the window over the wing. His smile faded into thoughtfulness. Rossi watched him for several moments before prodding.

"What is it?"

Hotch looked down at his report and shrugged a little. "It's just . . . I've been called away five of the eight times by work, and it doesn't bother her at all. She packs up whatever we've got, kisses me on the cheek, and says 'good hunting'."

Rossi lifted his eyebrows. "You know, that's what the CAG traditionally tells his fighter pilots before they go on patrol."

"Yes," Hotch answered firmly. "I know."

"And I've met this woman," Rossi stated, gesturing with his index finger.

"Yes."

"Does it bother you?"

"No," Hotchner said. "No. I was just thinking. Haley . . . when I was called away, Haley would reassure me that it was all right, she didn't mind, she knew it was necessary. Until Jack was born. Then she resented every call. She wanted me to take the organized crime assignment, because I'd be home every night. And it bothered her, what I did. It bothered her a lot."

"But this lady, she's not bothered?"

"Not at all. When I get back, she asks how I'm doing, but she doesn't ask for details about the case. She asks if there's anything she can do, and if I say no, she drops it, and we go on with our plans."

"She's supportive," Rossie said. "She doesn't pry. She takes you at your word. And she knows what you do for a living, and it doesn't bother her."

Hotchner nodded.

Rossi considered him for a moment. It was rare, indeed, when Hotchner shared even a little bit. This was practically the spillgates being opened.

"You know," Rossi said, judging how much he could say and deciding to take a chance. "Haley always struck me as a woman determined to play the role of Good Wife. And once Jack was born, she switched over to the role of Good Mother. It brought her into conflict with your job. A good mother makes sure the father is there every possible second. She didn't want you in any situation where your life might be at risk, because she wasn't going to raise a child alone."

"Except she decided to do just that," Hotchner said, looking up at Rossi. The divorce was a subject he mentioned even more rarely than Haley or her death.

"It's what women, what Ipeople/I, do when they can't get reality to match their imperatives," Rossi told him. "They walk away. I don't think Haley ever really got why you do what you do, why it's so important to you."

Hotchner looked away, processing that.

"This lady," Rossi continued. "From what you've told me, I'm thinking she knows Iexactly/I why you do what you do, and she completely agrees with it."

"Yeah," Hotchner said quietly. "Yeah, she does."

"You're going to marry this woman," Rossi decided.

"I-" Hotchner's head snapped back, and he stared at his fellow team leader. "What?"

"Whoever she is," Rossi said, drawing a design on the table with his fingertip, "however it is you met her, she's the one. You're going to marry her, if you can."

"It's complicated," Hotchner said.

Rossi made a face. "It always is, and it doesn't matter. These past couple of months, you've looked better, sounded better, and worked better than I've seen in years. This woman is good for you. Whatever it takes to nail her down, you better do it."

Hotchner sighed with exasperation and ignored Rossi for the rest of the flight.


"I'd like to run an idea by you," Amanda said, bringing two glasses of fresh lemonade with her.

Aaron sat in the shade of her porch, considering how best to place the rose bushes she'd purchased that morning in the garden space she'd designated.

"What's that?"

"Climbing roses go in the corners." She indicated and gave him one of the glasses.

He took a sip before swapping out the gallon pots. It was a rare confluence of events – a school day for Jack, a day off for him, and a day when Amanda had neither medical appointments or charity events scheduled. Aaron had arrived at her home before nine a.m., and she'd cheerfully dragged him to a nursery and then put him to work. It was charmingly normal.

"I've been talking with Penelope," Amanda continued, "and it's really bothering me how little recognition you and your team members get."

"That's the point, Amanda," Aaron told her. "We're in it to solve the problem, not get the glory. Local law enforcement wouldn't be half as willing to call us in if they thought we were going to hog the spotlight."

"Not that kind," Amanda said. "I mean, like the scarves and mittens I made for you and the others. Recognition and thanks from the people you've helped."

"There's only so many scarves I can wear," he said, "and I like the one you made me."

"That's sweet." She smiled at him. "But you're being too literal. Others in the support groups I attend have also talked about how they wished they could do more to communicate how grateful they are, and I know you and your team members have bad days. Hell, bad months, some of the stuff you deal with."

He paused and looked up at her. "What exactly did you have in mind?"

She squatted beside him, studying the roses. "Well, I've done all these interviews, and I keep stressing how important your work is, but there's a whole group of people who already know that."

She waited a moment for him to ask, but he only watched her face.

"People like me, Aaron," she told him. "Victims, survivors, families . . . all the people you help. The ones you're able to save, even the ones you can't save, but you still bring their killers to justice, and give their families a body to grieve over or even just an explanation of what happened."

He considered this silently.

"There are at least two other survivors the BAU helped in my group," Amanda pointed out. "And they say the same thing I do – that every day, they want to tell you how grateful they are. Not just that you saved them, but that you deal with the horrors of this stuff every damn day. I know it takes a toll on you. I read about Agent Gideon. I'm surprised you don't lose more agents like that."

"I'm actually surprised myself," Aaron said softly. "What did you have in mind?"

"I'd like to start interviewing them," she said. "Offer them a chance to put on record a statement to you and the other agents. Compile the videos and show them to your team. Make it available to them. Even if they only watch one statement a day, it'll still be over a year before they've watched them all."

He thought about it for a long moment.

"I think . . . it's an excellent idea. I'll tell Garcia to give you whatever support she can."

Amanda smiled, reached over, and squeezed his hand.

"Thanks, Aaron."

Chapter Three


They were supposed to meet at a park not far from her house, and when Aaron pulled into the parking lot and saw three police cars, an ambulance, and bystanders milling about, his skin went cold.

He left his weapon locked in his car but took his badge and strode through the crowd. It was a Saturday morning, and the park was filled with families, couples, dog owners, and other recreationalists. The parents were keeping their children away. Others walked past the scene, fascinated but showing a little decorum. The people who stayed were divided half between an idle audience and half dog owners. Most of the former looked furious, talked back and forth, and occasionally gestured.

The police were split into three groups. Two were speaking to a man – white, early thirties, six foot, two hundred twenty pounds, with short light brown hair. When he turned his head, complaining to the police, Hotchner saw a vivid bruise across his throat. Not strangulation but a blow. The man rubbed at it constantly. Those police officers had hostile body language. Whoever the man was, while he was nominally being treated like a victim, the police officers didn't like him.

The second pair were holding on to Heimdall, an extremely difficult task, since the dog was on his hind legs, struggling to reach his mistress.

The last police officer stood over Amanda, who sat on a park bench, head tucked, arms handcuffed behind her, and shaking all over.

Aaron strode over to the two officers with the dog and lifted his badge.

"SSA Aaron Hotchner. This dog is a service animal, and you cannot separate it from its owner unless it poses a threat."

Heimdall immediately dropped to all fours, but continued struggling. He whined and dug his claws into the dirt.

"Well, it is a threat," one of the officers responded. "It knocked my partner down when he handcuffed the suspect."

"Who's your lead?"

The officers indicated the woman standing over Amanda.

"Give me the dog," Aaron ordered. "I'll deal with this."

They traded glances, but the second officer handed Aaron the leash.

"Heimdall, settle," Aaron ordered.

Heimdall swung his head towards Aaron and groaned, but accepted Aaron's hand on the leash without pulling. Aaron walked him over to the bench, lifting his badge again. The officer, a sergeant, was busy arguing with the EMTs and didn't look at him.

"No, she doesn't need to be examined," the sergeant said. "She's uninjured. The rest is just a put on."

"I can assure you it's not," Aaron interrupted. "Heimdall, sit."

Heimdall immediately sat against Amanda's legs, and then put his front legs on the park bench and laid across her lap. Hyperventilating, Amanda folded nearly in half so she could put her face against Heimdall's neck. The dog groaned and started nuzzling her.

"Who the-"

"Supervisory Special Agent Aaron Hotchner with the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit," he answered.

He rarely pulled rank. When the BAU went in on a case, they remained deferential to local law enforcement, and that was on Aaron's orders.

"Take the handcuffs off her and let the EMTs examine her," he ordered.

"Look, this woman assaulted a man," the sergeant said.

"She's also wearing a medic-alert bracelet, which you should have noticed. I will personally vouch for her behavior until this is resolved," he answered. "She has severe post traumatic stress disorder, and being restrained in that manner will only make it impossible for her to cooperate."

The sergeant gazed at him for a moment, turning possibilities and probabilities over in her head. No law enforcement officer liked another power coming on to their turf. No officer liked having rank pulled on them, and no one liked having a potential career-ending mistake pointed out. But an agent of the BAU was another thing entirely. Finally, she shrugged.

"Fine. She freaks, you get her."

She stepped over to Amanda. "Miss Mason, I'm going to remove these handcuffs. You need to hold still while I do that. No sudden moves. Do you understand?"

Amanda managed to nod her head, still shaking. Her breathing was closer to sobbing.

Aaron knelt in front of her.

"Amanda, it's Aaron. I'm here. It's going to be all right," he said, very careful not to touch her.

She nodded again.

As soon as her hands were free and the officer had stepped away, Amanda wrapped her arms around Heimdall and started crying.

"Amanda, it's Aaron," he repeated. "I'm putting my hand on your shoulder."

She nodded, and he laid a hand very gently on her shoulder. She wore a long sleeve t-shirt, even in the summer heat, and it was almost soaked through with cold sweat. Her shaking lessened once he touched her, and he pressed his hand firmly around her shoulder. Her wrists – the left one still wearing a stainless steel bracelet with a red cross – were raw, bruised and bloodied from struggling against the handcuffs. He held on to his temper.

"Do you have your medication?" he asked her softly.

She nodded her head again.

"Where's her purse?" he asked, looking up.

The sergeant handed it to him. Amanda carried a small, leather backpack with her ID and essentials. In the front pocket was a pill holder with several doses of medication for panic attacks. To his knowledge, she hadn't had to take any in nearly three months. He took one out.

"Can I get some water?" he called.

One of the bystanders, a dog owner, stepped forward and handed him an unopened water bottle.

"They should be arresting that other guy," he said.

"I've got most of it on video on my camera," the man's companion called. "And we've got the dog right here. Son of a bitch got what he deserved, you ask me."

"Thank you," Aaron said, glancing up. "I'll talk to you in a minute."

He cracked the lid while the EMTs waited behind the bench.

"Amanda, you need to take this," he told her. "Just lift your head."

She did. Her face was streaked with tears and blotchy red, making the scars stand out.

"Aaron, I'm sorry," she managed, still crying. "I'm sorry. I just couldn't-"

"It's all right," he told her. "You need to take this."

He held up the pill, and when she opened her mouth, refusing to take her hands off Heimdall, he put the pill on her tongue, and then lifted the water bottle to her mouth. Once she swallowed, he set the bottle aside, checked his back pocket, and pulled out the handkerchief he habitually carried. He snapped it out, folded it over, and wiped her face.

"I'm going to talk to the officers and find out what's going on," he told her. "Whatever it is, I'll take care of it."

"No!"

She looked up at him, panicked.

"No special treatment, Aaron. No."

He put his hand back on her shoulder.

"This isn't special treatment, Amanda. I'd do this for anyone. I just happen to know you well enough I can handle it better and faster than I could with a stranger. All right?"

"You promise?" she demanded, still shivering.

"I promise." He turned to the EMTs. "She has severe post traumatic stress disorder and acute anxiety attacks. Her wrists are bleeding. I've given her a five milligram dose of diazepam. If you can keep this from turning into an ER visit, I'd appreciate it."

"Is the dog going to give us any trouble?" one of the EMTs asked.

"He shouldn't. His name is Heimdall, and he responds to basic commands from strangers, but his main purpose is to comfort her in circumstances like this, so don't try to get between them. Just work around him."

He went over to the two men who'd offered the water. They had two small dogs on a single leash, and another dog beside them. The third dog was a fifteen or twenty pound mix with long white hair. Like Amanda, it shivered and cowered. Aaron crouched down beside it, without looking at it, and held the back of his hand out. After a long moment, the dog leaned forward and sniffed at his hand, then hesitantly licked it. He slowly and gently stroked its head until it relaxed under his touch.

A quick examination told him the dog was underfed, neglected, and most likely abused.

"She had this on her neck," one of the men said, holding out a collar. "Once the lady knocked the control out of his hand, we took it off."

Aaron glanced up. It was a shock collar. It explained a lot. In fact, considering what Amanda had been through – Parkson had used shock collars on her – and the fact that she was licensed to carry a concealed weapon, it was a miracle she hadn't shott the man dead.

"You said you recorded it on your cell phone?" he asked. "May I see it?"

The other man held out his phone, the video ready to play. Aaron watched it.

It started probably a minute or so into the altercation. Amanda was in the man's face, yelling at him. He held a controller just out of her reach. Out of sight, a dog cried out in pain and whimpered every time he pushed the button.

"Stop it!" Amanda yelled, the audio tinny.

"Oh, my god, someone make him stop," an off camera person said.

The man was shocking his dog, ostensibly to discipline it, but in reality to torture it and horrify the people around him. Someone announced they were calling the police. Amanda ordered the man to drop the controller.

"Make me," the man said.

And Amanda punched him in the throat.

It was a solid hit, Aaron noted. If she'd been more on center, she might have crushed his larynx, causing him to asphyxiate. Instead, the man staggered. When he didn't drop the controller, Amanda slapped him across the face as hard as she could and then poked him in the eye. When he finally did drop the controller, she took it and threw it as far away as she could, into the grass. Heimdall got between her and the man and growled loud enough it could be heard on the recording.

The video was shaky and got worse as the phone's owner raced over to the dog and comforted it. There was already a police officer in the area running over, and he immediately pulled Amanda away, upsetting Heimdall, and turning the entire event into an even worse mess.

"May I borrow this?" Aaron asked.

"Sure," they both responded.

He took the phone with him over to where the two officers stood with the man in question. The bruise at his throat was a bright red with purple starting to blossom. The spot was swollen, and his left eye was red and weepy.

"Officers," Aaron nodded, showing them his badge. "What's his name?"

"Andreas Martinelli," the younger officer answered.

"What is the hold up?" Marintelli demanded. "I want that bitch arrested."

"Shut up," Aaron ordered.

Outraged, the man turned to him.

"Keep your mouth shut," Aaron repeated. "Because you get one chance at this. Just one. The woman over there – the one in this video showing you repeatedly torturing an animal in front of witnesses – is Amanda Mason."

Martinelli didn't change expression.

"If you haven't watched or read any news in the last year, I'll enlighten you. She's the only person who survived being kidnapped and tortured by both Patrick Dyer and Silas Parkson. One of Parkson's techniques was electric shocks. Does that ring a bell?"

It clicked, and Martinelli went pale.

"Look, I was ju-"

"I said, shut up," Aaron ordered.

Martinelli shut up. The police officers looked pleased.

"You're going to do two things," Aaron told him. "First, you're going to drop any idea of pressing charges, because if you try, I can promise you the DA will pay much more attention to your behavior in this video than hers. Even if the DA's office considers filing charges against Ms. Mason – which they won't – it'll be bargained down to the most minor misdemeanor possible, and she'll do eight hours of community service. You, on the other hand, will be up on animal cruelty charges, and if the DA's office doesn't take your life apart, the media will.

"Second," Aaron continued, "you're going to surrender ownership of the dog. Immediately. And you will not, under any circumstances Iever/I buy or adopt another pet. Not even a goldfish. Do I make myself clear?"

"Who the hell are you?" Martinelli asked truculently.

"I'm the head of the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit," Aaron told him. "We track down serial killers. You just tortured an animal for fun in front of an audience of horrified onlookers and tried to punish the one person here who stopped you. You put yourself on my radar, Mr. Martinelli. From here on out, you can assume that my team will be aware of everything you do, every place you go, and everything you buy."

"You can't do that!"

Aaron gazed at him and held the phone up again. "This is probable cause to search your premises for any other animals, electric shock devices, torture devices, or pictures, books, and computer files related to torture, unlawful killing, or other illegal forms of violence. Drop the charges and surrender the animal, or I'll have a team at your home before you leave the police station."

Martinelli looked at the cops. They smiled back at him.

"We don't really like the Feds butting into our cases," one of them said. "So, we'd probably see if we could beat them to it."

"Jesus, fine," the man swore, throwing his arms up in the air. "Whatever. Let the bitch go, keep the goddamn dog. This is fucking bullshit."

"We're done here," Aaron told the police. "Get him out of here."

"With pleasure," the other replied.

On his way back to the other side of the debacle, he emailed the video to himself. He gave the sergeant his card and asked for a copy of the report with all the complainant's information. Amanda was under the care of the EMTs and starting to respond to the medication. She rocked in place, arms wrapped around herself. He gave the phone back to the witnesses and gave them a card as well.

"What's going to happen?" the taller man asked.

"He saw reason," Aaron told them. "Dropped charges and gave up the dog. He understands that he won't be getting any new pets to replace it."

"That's it?" the other asked.

"No," Aaron answered. "If you would, put the collar in this bag. Did any of you see where the controller landed?"

"Over here."

He put it in another evidence bag. There would be DNA evidence on it and possibly the collar as well. It would be interesting to see if Vi-CAP had any matches.

"What about the dog?" the first man asked.

"Hold onto her for a minute," Aaron told her. "I'll be back."

Once done, he returned to Amanda.

"Pulse and bp are high but falling. Wrists are abraded, so I bandaged them," the second EMT told him, taking the stethoscope out of her ears. "She's a little shocky, but not an emergency. Medication's working. I'd recommend she go home and rest. Maybe see the doctor about some antibiotics."

"Thank you."

He knelt beside her and put his hands on hers.

"Amanda?"

She opened her eyes and stopped rocking.

"Aaron, I'm sorry."

"Don't be," he told her. "You did the right thing. I'm just sorry it was so difficult for you."

"Am I going to go to jail?" she asked.

"No, Amanda. No. There aren't going to be any charges. You're not going to jail. I'm going to take you home."

He walked her and Heimdall to his SUV. She was clearly exhausted and, thanks to the medication, almost out on her feet. He helped her into the front passenger seat and directed Heimdall into the second seat.

"I'll be right back," he told her.

He returned to the men, and then, very gently, picked up the now abandoned dog. She cowered in his arms and shed hair all over him. At the car, he put the small dog with Heimdall. There was sniffing, and the little dog cowered some more, showing complete submission. Heimdall put his head, big as a shovel, down on the seat and sighed gustily, allowing the new dog to crawl in beside him.

Amanda was half-awake on the drive home, and he held her hand the entire time. Once there, he took her inside, helped her take her shoes off, let her curl up on the couch, and then brought the dogs in. The new dog found Heimdall's food dish and began eating desperately. He had to take it away after a few moments, so she didn't gorge herself and get sick.

Then, once Heimdall sprawled along the couch, below his mistress, and the other dog hid behind the easy chair, Aaron took a seat on the couch and gathered Amanda to him. She roused, frightened, but immediately saw it was him and relaxed. He kissed her forehead.

"Go back to sleep," he told her. "I'm right here. You're safe."

"Aaron," she whispered. "Thank you. It was awful, but I kept thinking that you would get there. I knew you would get there, and it would be all right."

The couch was wide and comfortable, allowing him to stretch out along it and Amanda to sleep against the side of his body, her head on his shoulder, her arm thrown over his chest. He held her and waited for her breathing to slow down before closing his own eyes.

He woke when she got up from the couch.

"Are you all right?" he asked, wiping his eyes.

She didn't answer immediately, but sat on the floor beside the chair. Heimdall lifted his doggie eyebrows but didn't move from his repose.

"Come on, sweetheart. Come on out. It's all right."

The little dog took several minutes to be coaxed out, but when it did, Amanda was able to get it to climb into her lap and curl up. After a few minutes of being petted, the dog relaxed and started licking her fingers.

Amanda looked up at Aaron, tears in her eyes.

"You saved the dog?"

He joined her on the floor. "I couldn't leave her there for animal services, and I wasn't about to let her previous owner keep her. Jack's been asking for a dog, so I thought . . . he can come to the vet with us. School doesn't start for another few weeks, so they'll have time to bond."

She studied him, amazed.

"What?"

"You are the most compassionate man I have ever known," she told him. "I don't know how you do it."

He sat on his hip, next to her, so his face was a little above hers, but it didn't stop her from reaching up to touch his face. Then she kissed him.

He was startled, but not so much so that he didn't immediately kiss her back and cup her cheek with his hand.

Chapter Four


"Isn't he kind of a cold fish?" Art asked her.

"What?" Amanda said, looking up.

He was a member of her weekly support group, his wife and daughter having been murdered nearly twenty years previously. They were sharing lunch after a session.

"When the case was re-opened, Hotchner was the lead investigator. That was three years ago. I mean, he was impressive as hell. You want to mobilize for Iwo Jima, he's your man. He just struck me as being kind of cold."

She managed to keep her laughter to a wry chuckle. "Uh . . . no. Cold fish is the last thing he is."

"And it's not some transference/hero complex thing? He was the one who got you out of there," Art continued.

She considered the possibility, staring off into the mid-distance with a bite of salad on her fork.

"I talked it over with my counselor," she said. "Not all transference is bad, and both Aaron and I are aware of the context. We've discussed it."

"His take?"

"We should be cautious, obviously," Amanda responded. "He worries about the baggage I've got, though he doesn't call it that. He doesn't say it, but I think he worries that his job will ruin things."

"It got his first wife killed," Art pointed out.

Amanda grimaced at her lunch.

"What?"

"I don't like to speak ill of the dead. God knows I practically was dead for two years," she said.

"So? Go on."

"Aaron's very private. He's only mentioned Haley a few times and only acknowledged the circumstances of her death, not talked about it. I looked up as much as I could about it, since it happened while I was in Parkson's hands."

"It was all over the news. Hell, even O'Reilly and Maddow did bits on it," Art told her.

"Well, I just . . ." She paused to grope for words. "They met in high school. They weren't together during college, but they started dating again during Aaron's law school days. He never made a secret of wanting to bring criminals to justice. It isn't what he does. It's who he is. How do you marry a man like that, live with him for years, bear him a child, and Ithen/I decide it's not what you want?"

"You ask Garcia?"

"What? God, no. Did I mention that he's extremely private? He and Garcia work together. He's her boss. I'd never put him in a position like that."

"Okay, so, she didn't really get him. Or what she wanted changed," Art told her. "It happens all the time. And maybe he was different before you met him. Maybe his wife dying changed him for the better."

She frowned. "Not from the way his team treats him. Not from the way Penelope talks about him."

"You realize," Art said, "you stay involved with him, his work's going to follow him home. One way or another. You're going to face the same thing his first wife did."

She nodded. "I know."

"You think you can handle that?"

"Do I really need to take you to the shooting range again?" Amanda asked him.

"I was actually speaking in a more metaphysical sense," Art protested. "You know, psychological baggage, paperwork, nightmares, more paperwork."

"So did I." Amanda smiled at him over the rim of her water glass. "Great stress relief, blowing holes in paper targets."

Art smiled and shook his head. No one else in the group could stand to hold a gun, but then, they hadn't been tutored by an FBI special agent.


"When do I get to meet her, Daddy?" Jack asked over breakfast.

"Meet who?" Aaron asked, carefully slipping a spatula under the pancake on the griddle.

"The lady."

"Which lady?" He flipped it over, silently proud of the even golden color. He was getting better at pancakes.

"The one Aunt Jessican says you're seeing," Jack replied.

"The one-" Aaron stopped and looked over at his son.

Jack sat at the breakfast table, waiting patiently, while Sugar – the dog Aaron had brought home – put its front paws on his chair. Jack absentmindedly stroked her head. Now healthy and groomed, little Sugar followed Jack everywhere and only came to Aaron if he happened to have a treat.

"Aunt Jessica told you I was seeing a lady?" Aaron asked.

"Well, she didn't tell me," Jack stressed, aware that he might be getting his beloved aunt into trouble. "She was talking on the phone when I was at her house last night. She was telling someone that she was taking care of me-"

Which meant that Jessica'd had to cancel plans when Aaron asked her to take Jack for the evening so he could see Amanda.

"- and that she was glad you were finally seeing someone. It is a lady, isn't it?"

Aaron cleared his throat and looked back down at the griddle, keeping his smile hidden. Jack was already picking up on the nuances of the adult relationships around him. Jessica, Haley's sister, was also seeing a lady, but it wasn't serious enough that the lady had been introduced to them. But since Jack had previously had a mommy and still had his daddy, as opposed to having two daddies and now being down to only one, he was pretty sure that his father would also want to see a lady and not a man.

"Yes, I am seeing a lady. I haven't decided when to introduce her to you, but I don't think it'll be much longer,"Aaron answered.

"Is she nice?" Jack asked.

"I think she's very nice."

"Is she nicer than Mommy was?"

Aaron paused. "I think your mommy would have liked her very much."

That satisfied Jack. He didn't remember his mother very well, and what memories he had were strongly augmented by the videos he watched over and over after her death. What he did know, to the core of his young soul, was that his mother had loved him more than life itself, and that his father had loved his mother. He knew this because his father told him every day.


"Agent Hotchner?" Garcia called, striding up behind him.

"Yes." He paused, letting her catch up with him.

"That guy you put me on, Martinelli?" she started. "There are a couple of possible hits in Vi-CAP."

She handed him a file folder marked with the FBI and BAU logos. He opened it and flipped through the reports. He hadn't been far off. Two unsolved kidnapping and rapes matched the DNA found on both the shock collar and the controller. They were five years old and in another state.

"Notify the jurisdiction the crimes occurred in, and give DC police a head's up. Let them know we'll provide whatever assistance they ask for."

"You got it."

Chapter Five


"Amanda Mason?" Rossi asked incredulously.

Hotchner hadn't even gotten to sit back down after seeing her to the elevator.

"I take it you saw," Hotchner replied.

"I was checking the cameras on my way into my office. Way to announce it to the world, buddy."

Hotchner smiled.

"She's the one," Rossi said. "Isn't she? The one you talked about on the way back from San Antonio?"

"She is."

"Huh."

Rossi studied him for a long moment.

"That lady has got a lot of scars, and I don't mean the physical ones."

"I know," Hotchner replied. "She's extremely aware of it and takes measures to cope. She actually does a better job handling stress than most civilians I've met. There have only been a couple of times it really showed."

"You're sure about this?" Rossi asked.

Hotchner set his files on his desk and looked up at his partner. "Yes."

"Well, your timing couldn't have been better. Everyone on the team already loves her after seeing the presentation this morning. They've been walking around dazed since. Are you going to tell them?"

Hotchner shook his head, smiling. "I won't have to."


They sat in front of the fireplace where she had built and lit a fire more than an hour before he'd come over. Now, it was reduced to glowing embers that heated the entire room, and the two of them had discarded sweaters, shoes, and socks in the warmth. They curled around each other, slowly kissing, coming together closer and still closer.

At a break, Amanda sighed and snuggled closer.

"Penelope knows," she told him.

He grinned. "I know. I saw her and JJ peeking when we were at the elevator yesterday."

"She didn't say anything," Amanda continued, "but she bubbled every time she looked at me. I think she approves."

"Everybody approves," Aaron added. "Why do you think I kissed you in front of the elevator? I might as well have put up a banner."

"That's good to know."

There was more kissing. Gradually, since the first time she had really kissed him, the kisses became more frequent, deeper, and brought small touches and explorations with them. He waited each time, as patiently as possible, for her to indicate she was ready for more – that she wanted to be touched on her neck and at her ribs, that she enjoyed feeling his arms around her, that he could very gently press her against him. He was always cautious, always waiting for a hint that she might experience a flashback to the violence she'd suffered, always ready to pull back or release her entirely. The most she ever did was pause for a moment, as if checking herself, before carrying on.

Just then, she was kissing and nibbling his neck just below his ear, and she rubbed the back of her fingers against the front of his shirt, just next to the top button. It was . . . difficult to stay focused.

"Is there something you want?" he asked her softly.

She paused, and he took a moment to return the kisses, his mouth lingering on the skin of her throat. He could feel the texture of the scars, but they didn't bother him. They were a part of who she was, and he loved who she was.

"Well," she breathed, her fingertips playing with the edge of his shirt.

"Mmm-hmmm."

Her fingers played with a button.

"Go ahead," he told her.

She unbuttoned the top button of his shirt and then the next and then the next, until she could slip her hand inside and press it against the warm skin of his chest.

"What I'd really like," she managed.

He cupped the back of her head, and she tilted her head back so that he could better taste the skin of her throat.

"What I'd really like," she repeated. "Is for the two of us to pull each other's clothes off, lie down together, and then I'd like to feel all of you, Aaron. Your hands on me, your tongue, your cock inside me, all of you."

He paused and looked up.

"I was . . . not expecting you to say that," he managed. Of course, as soon as she said it, it was everything he wanted as well.

She laughed, almost giggled, and it broke the tension.

"I know." She grinned. "I didn't really expect to just blurt that out, but it's true. I do. I want all of you Aaron."

She unbuttoned another button on his shirt. He kissed her cheek and then her earlobe, and she shivered.

"I don't want you to feel rushed," he told her, and focused on slowing his breathing down. "The last thing in the world I want is for something bad to happen, for you to flash back to what happened to you, to associate me in any way with what you went through."

"Well . . . that's just it," she said, and her voice lost it's dreamy quality. She sounded a little frustrated. "Everyone's all 'you poor thing, no sex for you,' but . . . what Dyer did to me wasn't sex, Aaron. It was torture. Everything he did to me hurt. Every time he touched me, it was to damage me or cause me pain. He just . . . used what should have been sex the same way he used a lighter or a knife or a pair of hedge trimmers. But I used a lighter to start the fire, and no one thinks that's strange. I use a knife almost every time I eat, and I've got two pairs of hedge trimmers in the shed. Because that's what they're for."

She paused, though he could tell she wasn't finished talking. She unbuttoned his shirt down to his belt and caressed his chest and his ribs. She leaned in and tucked her head against his neck.

"It's just . . . I miss sex, Aaron," she said, and now there was an edge of anger and sadness in her voice. "I miss it in general, and I really, really want it with you. And you smell so good, and every time you touch me, my skin starts to sing, and-"

He kissed her, deeply and passionately, and let her answer with a passion of her own. She didn't hesitate or hold back. He could feel his pulse pick up. She broke away, and he felt her swallow.

"I know that you don't keep sex separate from a relationship," she said.

"You're right," he answered.

"And I haven't got a lot of experience with relationships, even before Dyer or Parkson. I wasn't very . . . they just didn't happen for me," she admitted.

And here was an older scar, much older, than he'd seen before.

"Amanda," he said as gently as he could, brushing her cheek, "the reason I want you is because I love you. Not the other way around."

She looked up at him, eyes filled with longing and pain and hope.

"It's everything I can do not to push for more," he told her. "I'm terrified of scaring you off."

"That's not exactly going to be a problem," she said.

"Then," he started, and he kissed her again, this time, pressing his hands against her, running them over her shoulders and back, holding her against him with one hand while the other cupped a breast and squeezed it.

She moaned and held on to him.

When they broke apart, she whispered, "I want you. Tonight. Now."

"I'm yours," he answered.

She swallowed, scared but ready to risk it all.

"We have to take precautions," she said.

"I know," he answered. He'd read the medical report. He had already gotten a prescription from his doctor for the same antivirals she took to combat herpes outbreaks. It wasn't a guarantee, the doctor had said, but it should severely limit the chance of infection. "It's taken care of."

She managed a not-quite-laugh, relieved and a little horrified, but mostly relieved.

"I can't . . . I can't risk getting pregnant," she told him. "My doctor said there was too much scar tissue."

"We'll manage," he told her. "It'll be okay."

She looked into his eyes again, naked. "I love you."

"I know."

And they did just what she'd asked for, pulling clothes off and lying pressed together, breathe mingling. He made her slow down, refused to just do the act and get it over with. Instead, he took her with patience and more will than he thought he'd ever had in his life, waiting until she dug her nails into his back and begged. Even then, he went as slow as he could bear, though he dripped with sweat from the effort. Every move plotted, begun, and paused as he waited for her body to relax enough for more.

There was still some pain for her, and he waited until she breathed through it and was able to go on. She really did want all of him, and when he held back, she demanded more. She made less noise than he expected, but it was intense – deep, heavy breathing, moans that she choked off, and gasps when he moved more deeply than she expected.

She climaxed, which he hadn't expected, and tears slipped from the corners of her eyes into her hair. When her breathing steadied, and she felt him still inside her, she insisted he finish. It was difficult, relaxing enough to let it happen, and still take care not to hurt her, but it came, and she kissed him deeply as he shuddered.

Heimdall had watched everything from his living room doggie bed, eyes twitching. He was curious, but not worried. Whatever was going on between his mistress and the alpha male she'd accepted, there was no smell of fear, which was what he was trained to respond to. When the man carried her to the room she slept in, he followed and took up his post at the side of the bed and slept through everything else that went on that night.

Chapter Six


"What if I don't like her?" Jack asked, worried.

It was very clear, at this point, that his father really, really liked this lady he'd been seeing. Jack knew her name was Amanda. He knew that she'd been hurt by a bad man – two bad men, actually – and that she had helped his father, and the two bad men were dead. That part didn't surprise him at all. It wasn't so much that he thought about his father killing anybody, but bad men that hurt people and then didn't let his father arrest them . . . they died.

He'd seen a picture of her, and his father had explained that the white lines he saw on her hands and face were scars left over from when one of the bad men had hurt her, and that was also why she didn't have any pinkies. He felt really bad for her, but his father told him that she wasn't really bothered by it anymore. There were some things she could do – like go on walks or draw pictures or write stories – and there were some things she couldn't do – like spend a lot of time in a crowded and noisy room or go without a sweater when it was cold.

She sounded like a nice lady. Jack worried though. What if he liked her too much? What if he liked her more than his mommy, who he had a hard time remembering sometimes?

"You don't have to like her," his father said. "Just be honest. I've told her a lot about you. She's a little nervous too. She knows you're the most important person in my life, and she says that means you're already very important to her too. Even if you don't like her, she's still going to be nice to you."

Jack really didn't know what to think about that.


They met at Emily's house. Emily invited everyone over for an early Thanksgiving dinner, since they were always on call and almost always out of town on the day itself. The Sunday before, though, tended to be quiet.

Amanda came with Garcia and Kevin Lynch, Garcia's now publicly acknowledged boyfriend. Heimdall had been taken to the groomer only the day before but still managed to shed stiff hair on every person and piece of furniture, but no one minded. When Aaron arrived with Jack, everyone on the team took turns tossling Jack's hair and commenting on how much he'd grown. He got several presents and accounted very well for himself, saying 'please' and 'thank you' at the appropriate moments.

After fifteen minutes had passed, Aaron put his hand at his son's back.

"Jack, there's someone I'd like you to meet," he said.

He brought Jack over to the sofa where Amanda sat, talking with Dr. Spencer Reid, discussing The Fairie Queen. Heimdall lounged at her feet, occupying all the space between her and the coffee table. Emily had supplied him with a large bowl of water, and there was a promise of skinless breast of turkey when food was served.

Spencer saw them come over and excused himself, giving Jack a smile.

"This is Heimdall," Aaron introduced his boy to the dog.

He held out his hand for Heimdall to sniff and lick, and Jack followed suit, fearless.

"He's really big," Jack remarked. "I could probably ride him like a horse."

Before Aaron could correct him, Jack looked up at him.

"But I won't. Why is he wearing a vest?"

"Heimdall is a service dog," Amanda explained. When Jack looked closely, he could see the white lines on her face. The ones on her hands and arms were much more noticeable.

"Isn't that what blind people have?" Jack asked.

She smiled, and it was a very nice smile. "Some blind people have service dogs. So do some deaf people. Heimdall is my service dog, because sometimes I get really scared. He makes me feel safe."

"Because of what the bad men did?" Jack asked carefully. He was aware he might be overstepping, but his father had always told him he could ask questions.

Amanda nodded, serious, but still smiling. "Yes. I was hurt by some bad men, and sometimes, when I don't expect it, I remember things that happened, and I get really scared. Heimdall knows what to do when that happens. Do you want to see?"

Puzzled, and a little worried, Jack nodded.

"Heimdall," Amanda called, getting the dog's attention. "Hugs."

Without a pause, Heimdall sat up, putting his head at a higher level than Jack's, making the boy go wide eyed. Then the dog reached over and licked Amanda's face, nuzzled her, put his paws on the other side of her legs, and tucked his head against her shoulder. She reached around the dog's enormous chest and hugged him. The dog groaned and panted.

"Good dog," she told him. "Lie down."

Heimdall reversed himself, got to all four paws, turned in a tight circle, and laid down again, his front paws crossed in front of him.

"Wow."

"Jack," Aaron said, "this is Amanda Mason, the lady I told you about. Amanda, this is my son, Jack."

She smiled again and held out her hand for Jack to shake, which made him feel very grown up.

"Now, I have a question for you, Jack," Amanda said, leaning forward.

"What is it?" Jack asked, and then looked up at his father for confirmation. Aaron nodded.

Amanda patted the couch beside her, inviting Jack to take a seat. When he did, his feet hung out over Heimdall's head. The dog noticed, but didn't seem to care.

"I need your advice," she said. "I'm helping a school where I live put on a play, but they can't decide between doing dinosaurs or pirates. I was wondering if you had any ideas."

He thought about it for a moment.

"Can't you do both?"

She blinked in surprise. "Dinosaurs and pirates? Now, there's a thought. Do you think they would be friends or would they fight?"

"You could have bad pirates and good pirates and bad dinosaurs and good dinosaurs, and the good guys could be friends and fight the bad guys."

"That's a fantastic idea!" She smiled. "Who do you think the bad dinosaurs should be?"

Jack felt his father tossle his hair and saw Amanda look up at him. Did she wink?

The topic made it to the dinner table, and each of the guests weighed in.

"Typically," Dr. Reid said, "the carnivores are cast as the antagonists while the herbivores are the protagonists."

"This is true," Amanda said, "but I'm pretty sure there weren't any vegetarian pirates."

Jack giggled. His Aunt Jessica was a vegetarian, and the idea of her being a pirate was pretty funny.

It was the first time Jack was ever really included in a grown up conversation, and he listened, fascinated, as the grown ups he'd known his entire life chatted about dinosaurs and pirates, Caribbean islands, the British Royal Navy, movies, songs, and the Code of the Brethren. Every time he started feeling like he was just a little kid, Amanda would ask him a question or say "Well, Jack tells me," and he was included again.

He glanced at his father several times through dinner, and while he often caught his father's eye, just as often, his father was smiling and talking to someone else. At least half the time, it was Amanda.

Things got a little tense at one point, which Jack didn't understand. He was sneaking bits of turkey to Sugar, which his father had told him he could bring if they both stayed on their best behavior. Sugar was really smart and stayed under the table, out of sight, so Jack only had to flick a piece under the tablecloth every now and then. He was concentrating on looking innocent while he got another piece of turkey when the tone of voices changed.

"Amanda," Derek said, "you are looking at the worst shot in the FBI. Verified against records, I swear."

"I still qualify," Spencer said, and there was a sound to his voice that made Jack look up. "It just takes me a little longer than most."

"Derek, that's enough," his father said in a quiet voice.

It was the quiet voice he used when something made him angry.

"Spencer," Amanda said, "a man with your breadth of learning? I'm surprised."

"I have an eidetic memory," Spenser answered. "Unfortunately, that doesn't translate to the qualification test very well, since it's not multiple choice or essay."

"Maybe if you had to pass an essay test to get a gun license," Rossi said, "there'd be fewer criminals with guns."

"No," Emily responded. "The black market price would just go up, and selling essays on the Internet would become a Federal offense."

"Spencer," Amanda called, "I have a name, a title, and a word for you."

"What's that?" he asked, warily.

"V. S. Ramachandran," she said, "Phantoms in the Brain, and 'blindsight'."

Spencer looked at her, puzzled. "I haven't read that."

"Well, no," Amanda agreed. "If you'd read it, you'd remember what neurology has to say about conscious thought and visual-spatial judgment, and your qualification trial wouldn't be a trial."

"Uh . . . hang on," Reid answered, pulling out his cell phone.

"Oh, this is good," JJ said.

"No reading at the dinner table, young man," Emily decreed. "This is social hour."

"Got it," Reid announced. "I'll read it later tonight."

"Let me know how you do," Amanda said, smiling.

After dinnner, while the grown ups talked in pairs and trios, Amanda sat down beside him. Sugar was sitting in his lap, stuffed on turkey and sleeping soundly.

"She looks like a very happy dog," Amanda said, rubbing the dog's ear gently.

"Amanda?" Jack asked.

"Uh huh?"

"After the bad men hurt you, did you have bad dreams?" he asked.

She paused, and he bit his lip, worried that she might get angry and tell his father.

"Yeah, Jack. Sometimes, I have bad dreams."

"Sometimes, I have bad dreams about the man who hurt my mommy," he said, without looking up at her.

"Does your father know?" she asked.

He shook his head. "He knows I used to, because I would cry, but . . . I don't want him to think I'm a baby. You won't tell him, will you?"

"No, I won't tell him, Jack," she said.

She continued to stroke Sugar's ear, and the dog sighed and snuggled in more deeply.

"But your father isn't going to think you're a baby," she told him. "Everybody has bad dreams, nightmares. When you wake up, and you're scared and sad and you feel bad inside because of what was in the dream, it helps a lot to tell someone."

"Who do you tell when you have bad dreams?" he asked.

"Usually Heimdall," she said. Heimdall had followed her over and laid down on the floor beside her. "He's a very good listener. Your dad is too, by the way."

"Sometimes, I dream that a bad man hurts my dad," Jack admitted. "Sometimes, I dream that a bad man kills my dad."

She looked sad.

"I wish I could tell you that would never happen, Jack," she said. "But your dad stops bad people all the time, and they try really hard to hurt other people or to hurt him. And, he has been hurt before. So, it's not impossible."

He listened carefully, because no one had ever talked to him like that.

"But the thing is, Jack," she continued, "that's what makes your dad so brave. It's why I love him. If he weren't stopping bad people, if he didn't help others stop bad people, I would have died. So would a lot of others. But, your dad is also a very careful and safe man, along with being brave. He's also extremely smart. Smarter than just about anyone I've ever met."

"Smarter than Spencer?" Jack asked, since Spencer was the smartest person he'd ever met, and everyone agreed with him.

She nodded. "In his own way, he's even smarter than Spencer. Have you ever noticed how much Spencer likes having your dad as a boss? There's a reason for that."

They sat for a moment, Jack thinking about what she said. She didn't say anything else, which surprised him. Usually, grown ups just kept talking whether he listened or not. After a while, she took out her phone, and started clicking through windows.

"A while back, I asked your dad to send me something," she told him.

She brought up her phone's pictures and flicked through them until she came to one, then she turned the phone and let him see. It was a picture of him, when he was little boy, and his mom. Her hair was brown in that picture, which meant it was only a little while before the bad man had hurt her.

"Your dad talks about you all the time," she told him. "I asked him about you, and he said you were one of the bravest people he knew. He said that he knew you missed your mom a lot, and that some days it really, really bothered you. And then he said that you still loved people and you still smiled and you still did all the things you should without being mean to anyone and without feeling sorry for yourself."

Jack was a little overwhelmed.

"When he told me about you," she continued, "I knew that I wanted to meet you. I love your dad so much, and he loves you more than anything in the world. I also asked him about your mom, because I know how sad he was after she died. He loved her a whole lot, and he still misses her. He's still sad, sometimes. And you know what?"

"What?"

"That's okay."

She flicked through several more pictures until another one came up. It was a young woman with light hair in a ponytail and an older woman with short gray hair. They were hugging and grinning.

"That's me and my mom," she told him.

Jack looked at the picture and then at her. It didn't look like her. Amanda was much thinner, and her hair wasn't blond but reddish brown.

"This was a long time ago," she told him. "Probably about the time you were born. My mom died a couple of years later. I still miss her every day. A lot. I think about her all the time. I wonder if she'd be proud of me. I wish I could tell her that even though some bad men hurt me, I'm okay now, and that I met a very good man."

"Was she a nice lady?" Jack asked.

"Oh, yes," Amanda said, smiling. "She taught me how to make flowers grow in a garden and how to hug without ever letting go, and she told me every day that I was brave and strong and beautiful."

They were still talking when his father returned and said it was time to go home. Jack watched as Amanda and his father hugged, and then when Amanda offered him her hand to shake again, he shyly offered her a hug, which she accepted and hugged him back.

On the way out to the car, carrying a very heavy Sugar, Jack looked up at his father.

"Can we see Amanda again?" he asked.

His father smiled. "Absolutely, Jack."

Chapter Seven


It hadn't even been that bad of a case, not in retrospect, not compared to the vast majority of other cases they'd handled over the years. The rest of his team weren't particularly bothered. They coped as they usually did. But there was something about one of the victims – a girl a little older than Jack – and how her mother was nearly catatonic with grief, that slid a silent knife between his ribs. He felt shaken, like something deep inside had shifted and cracked under the tectonic stress of the case.

He called Jessica as soon as he was off the plane.

"Can you keep Jack until tomorrow afternoon?" he asked with preamble.

"Of course. Aaron, is anything wrong? Is Amanda okay?"

"She's fine," he replied. "I just . . . I need . . ."

He found he couldn't finish the sentence.

"Aaron?" Jessican asked.

There was a long pause.

"Aaron, go over to Amanda's," Laura told him. "Now. Go see her. Don't be alone."

He slowly exhaled, and he gripped the handle of his car door. He hadn't realized that was exactly what he was going to do until Jessica said it.

"I will," he told her.

"Call me in the morning, okay?" she asked. "I need to know you're okay."

"I will," he replied. "And thank you."

He felt a little better as he started the drive, and then it began to creep in on him again. The mother's blank eyes, a pain too great for anyone to bear, a little girl lying broken and cold. When he reached Amanda's house, the lights were on. Jessica must have called her. They'd become good friends.

She met him at the door.

"Aaron." She was horrified by his haggard expression, and she pulled him inside immediately.

Without asking, she took his bag, his coat, and held out the lock box for his weapon, which he dropped in. He pulled off his jacket, and she took it without a word.

"I need . . ." he started, trying to articulate the tearing, grinding pain in his chest.

She stepped into his arms and put her hands on his face, bringing his head down to kiss him. His arms went around her. He kissed her, hard and demanding and needing.

"I need you," he finally managed, his voice breaking.

"Come on," she said, pulling him towards the bedroom.

It had never been this way – not with Haley, and certainly not with Amanda. All his gentleness and caution were lost, drowned. She was wearing only a nightgown, robe, and panties, and he pulled them off, and brought her down to the bed with him. She didn't fight him at all, only tried to get his clothes off as fast as she could. She didn't get very far.

In the dark room, halfway on the bed, he took her, and he buried himself in her, held her against him, and moved, thrust hard, and turned his face in against her neck, breathing the scent of her. He kissed her, took her hands, and held her down, and got as deep into her as he could, unaware how hard he was breathing, almost gasping.

She said his name and wrapped her legs around his waist, and when he let go of her hands to take her by the shoulders and get even deeper, she pulled his head down to hers and kissed him, took his violent passion and demanded more. He gave it, brutally mounting her, taking her knees, and pushing them up and out, pinning her to the bed with just his hips.

She called his name, arching against him, and digging her nails into his forearms, and before he knew it, he was coming, flinching, shaking, his breath coming in hard sobs. It lasted a long, unbroken moment, and unwound abruptly. Dizzy, he took his weight on his arms. Amanda held on to his arms, breathing hard herself.

Jesus, what had he d-

"Easy, Aaron," she said, sitting up as best she could, wrapping her arms around him. "It's all right."

"I didn't-"

"It's okay," she said. "I'm fine. Come on. Let me get the rest of your clothes off."

Shaking, he managed to stand, and she got to her feet in front of him. She stripped his shirt the rest of the way off, along with his tie, helped him out of his pants and underwear, and pulled his socks off, then draped them across the chair next to her bed. Then she stood against him, naked, and held him, bringing his head down to her shoulder. He wrapped his arms around her.

"Please," he whispered, "please tell me I didn't hurt you."

"You didn't," she assured him. "You couldn't. Not even if you tried, which you didn't."

She paused.

"I . . . uh . . . do need to clean you up. And me. I would have warned you that it's almost that time of the month, and there's probably a little blood. Lie down. I'll be right back."

She pulled the covers on the bed back, and took his hand, turning him and then pushing him down until he sat on the bed.

"Lie down," she said. "I'll just be a minute."

He did, exhausted and shaken. After a moment, she came back, still naked but carrying a warm, wet washcloth. She washed him down and leaned over him, caressing him and kissing him. In the darkness, he was only aware that he went from unpleasantly sticky to much better. She even dried him off and brought him a clean pair of underwear. He'd slept over often enough that he had clothes and toiletries at her place.

She returned, wearing a fresh nightgown and nothing underneath, and climbed into bed with him. She laid down next to him and began running her hands over him.

"Aaron, come here," she said.

He turned towards her, and she kissed him.

"I'm sorry," she said after kissing him, and then put a finger on his lips before he could speak. "Whatever it was, I'm so sorry. It must have been bad. I've never seen you like that. But, I'm also not sorry. Whatever it was, you came to me, and I'm not sorry about that at all."

"Amanda," he whispered, completely at a loss.

"Don't you dare second guess yourself," she said. "You needed me. You said so. You let me give myself to you. No one's ever let me do that, and I love you. That – what happened just now – was . . . I didn't think I would ever get to do that, get to be that for you. So don't say you're sorry. Just promise me that the next time it's this bad, you'll still come to me."

She pressed herself against him, and he was aware that he was shaking and stared up at the ceiling, wide eyed. His eyes were wet.

"Aaron?"

"I promise," he whispered.

He felt several tears slip down his cheeks. She kissed him, and when she tasted the salt, she wiped his cheeks and eyes.

"I love you, Aaron," she told him. "Even now. Especially now."

He didn't remember falling asleep, just lying in her arms as she whispered her love to him.

The smell of bacon woke him in the morning, and he stirred, putting pieces together. He must have slept heavily. Usually, he was awake before her. The blanket was different. She'd taken the duvet off and put a white down comforter in its place. His jacket, shirt, and tie were still draped over the chair, but his pants were gone. A glance in the bathroom showed them soaking in the bathtub.

He got up and checked. The water in the tub was cold. The fabric of his pants, especially around the zipper, had a soapy, slippery feel to it, and when he stirred the water, tiny drifts of red appeared. She was soaking the blood out. His underwear from the previous night had disappeared entirely. He checked her medicine cabinet and found her card of birth control pills. There was another full week before her period.

He found jeans and a t-shirt in her closet, pulled them on, and found her in the kitchen, cooking scrambled eggs in the bacon grease, the way he'd once told her he liked. She wore a silk kimono robe over her nightgown and looked up, smiling, when he entered.

"I hurt you," he said, stopping several feet back. "Why didn't you say anything?"

She sighed and turned the heat down on the stove.

"You did not hurt me, Aaron," she said.

"There's-"

"Stop," she ordered him.

He stopped.

"I'm in charge of me, remember? I decide if I'm hurt or not, and I make the call on who's responsible. You did not hurt me. You needed me, and I said yes."

She looked back and considered the eggs, then shrugged, turned off the heat completely, and set the pan aside. Then she went over to him and took his hands in hers. He couldn't quite look at her.

"Aaron," she said, a little sharply, "you're mine."

That got his attention. He turned to her, and she pressed herself against him.

"You're mine," she repeated. "Now, take me back to bed, and let me show you a thing or two."

Chapter Eight


"How is it possible that in one lifetime, I've encountered not one, not two, but three serial killers?" Amanda asked.

"Amanda, I could not tell you how that's possible," Derek Morgan said, as he escorted her to the Federal prosecutor's office to give a deposition. "But look at it this way – statistically, there are two other people who would have encountered a serial killer but now won't, thanks to you."

She flashed a look at him. "I don't think that's how it works, agent."

Morgan shrugged and gave her a devastating smile.

"Will Aaron be here?" she asked.

"Probably after you," Morgan answered. "The fact that you two are now engaged complicates things a little, and the defense is going to try to use that as a lever to get your statement and the evidence from the park thrown out."

She sighed, not bothering to argue that it wasn't fair, that Aaron was the last human on Earth to allow a personal attachment influence his work, or that Martinelli certainly hadn't been aware of their relationship when he started torturing his dog. She was familiar enough now with how defendants and their attorneys did their best to thwart the system.

At her side, Heimdall harrummed and hrumphed and shook his head like a horse, picking up on his mistress's tension.

"You'll be coming to the ceremony, right?" she asked him.

"Lady," he said, smiling wide, "wild horses could not keep me away."

"Good," she said, smiling back, "because you're elected to ride herd on Jack, Heimdall, and Sugar."

Morgan laughed ruefully, and when they reached the doors to the building, held one open for her.

Walking in and seeing people glance at her and then freeze, Amanda took a deep breath. Aaron had recommended, and she'd completely agreed, tactically, that she should appear for the deposition completely without makeup or prosthetics. That meant her scars stood out, as did her lack of earlobes, and her missing fingers. Even hardened government agents did double takes and turned pale, though they all had the presence of mind not to stare.

"Feeling a little naked here," she muttered under her breath.

"I'm right here with you," Morgan answered, putting a hand at her elbow.

Heimdall looked up at her and whined softly.

"Settle, boy," she told him. "It's all right."

It worked like a charm. Aaron had already introduced her to the prosecutor – an old friend from his own legal days – and she had been briefed on Amanda's appearance and looked at pictures from the day she'd been rescued by the BAU from Parkson's captivity. The defense attorney, on the other hand, had only watched the media stories, where Amanda had always remained carefully made up. He blanched when he saw her, both from shock and from the knowledge of how much her appearance would sway the jury.

When Amanda sat, she folded her hands in front of her, making sure the flat scars where her pinkies should have been were prominent.

"She can't testify like that," the defense attorney objected before she was even sworn in.

"You're the one challenging the the state's right to submit DNA evidence from belongings abandoned by Mr. Martinelli at Montrose Park last August," the prosecutor replied.

"Her appearance is clearly prejudicial," he protested.

"Are you going to dictate to me how I may and may not dress?" Amanda asked. "Because the last man to do that died in a prison riot a year ago."

He winced at the implication.

"Don't worry," she continued. "I understand the video evidence of my encounter with your client is available. My appearance isn't nearly as . . . prejudicial in that."

It went no better for the defense through the remainder of the deposition. Two weeks later, the defendant signed a plea agreement stipulating guilt for the crimes he'd been charged with in return for a life sentence instead of the death penalty.


He stood, leaning against the wall, resting his head on his forearm, just trying to breathe. Just breathe. Jack was with Jessica in the waiting room. Thank God she'd been there. Thank God she was a nurse and recognized what was going on. Another twenty minutes, the doctor had said . . .

"Hotch," Emily called, charging through the doors.

She was followed by Reid and Rossi.

"What happened?" Rossi asked, putting a hand on Aaron's shoulder.

Shaking, Aaron made a fist with his left hand and released it, watching the two wedding bands on his third finger move – white gold for Amanda, gold for Haley. When Amanda had suggested it, it had never occurred to him that he'd come this close to losing her as well.

"We got the call from Garcia," Reid said. "Everyone else is on the way."

He managed to put all his weight on his feet again and licked his lips so he could speak.

"Amanda had an ectopic pregnancy," he said, his voice hoarse. "I was . . . out running errands when she collapsed. If Jessica hadn't been there, hadn't called 911, hadn't known Amanda's medical history, she would have bled out. They had to transfuse eight units of blood."

"Oh my god," Emily whispered.

"How's she doing?" Rossi asked.

"She's been out of surgery for nearly an hour," he replied. "She's awake, groggy, in a lot of pain, but she won't let the nurse give her anything, and she won't use the PCA. She's refusing anything narcotic, which with her blood loss means the only thing they can give her is Tylenol."

"I'll go talk to her," Spencer said.

"You should go see Jack as soon as you can," Rossi told him. "Poor guy's just about out of his mind. He thinks it's his fault."

"What?" Aaron asked, dazed.

"He ran up and hugged her," Emily explained, "and she collapsed. He thinks he hurt her."

"I'll go . . . I'll go talk to him," Aaron answered, pulling himself together.

"Hotch," Rossi called as he started to walk out. Aaron looked back at him. "She'll be okay. And whatever you need, just say the word."

Aaron nodded and continued out to the waiting room.

"Jesus," Emily breathed. "This can't be happening. Not again. Not to him."

"This is worse," Rossi agreed. "At least he could kill the Reaper."

Inside the room, Amanda lay, piled with blankets to keep warm, an IV dripping saline into her veins, a patient controlled analgesia pump connected and unused. She was awake, but stared at the far wall without expression. She was breathing very carefully, in counts of four, a pain management technique Spencer was all too familiar with.

He reached over and picked up the control from her bedside, then pressed it.

"Don't-" Amanda whispered.

"Amanda," Spencer interrupted her, "I'm not going to make Hotch watch you in pain. It's not going to happen."

The morphine began to take effect immediately. He gave her another hit, and the pinched look on her face began to relax.

"Listen," he said, setting the control aside, coming around to the other side, and pulling up a chair, "I understand why you don't want narcotics."

"You don't," she said, crying softly.

"Parkson drugged you to keep you compliant. You had to detox afterwards, and it was hell. I know. I've gone through it."

She closed her eyes, tears leaking through her lids.

"The difference is," he continued, "that I chose to use. You didn't. I was addicted. You were dependent, and once you went through detox and restarted your life, you never used to feel better. I did. That's why I can't ever use narcotic pain killers. You can, and you should. Jack needs you. Hotch needs you. Neither of them can bear to lose you. Don't make them watch you suffer when you don't have to."


Jack had been comforted. He'd been allowed to see his step-mother while she slept and kissed her on the forehead. Then he retreated to sit next to Heimdall and hold on to him for dear life. Visitors were kept to a minimum. The surgery necessary to save her life had required removing both her right ovary and fallopian tube, and they'd been very lucky to save her uterus, the doctors told Aaron.

"I don't understand," he'd said. "She takes birth control pills every day at the same time. We both understand that pregnancy is too risky for her, for just this reason."

"Your sister-in-law brought this in with her," the surgeon said, showing him a bottle of pills. "They're antibiotics."

Exhausted, Aaron looked up. "She was possibly exposed to bacterial meningitis at a pool party last month. Her immune system's often stressed, so the doctor put her on a course of rifampicin."

"Rifampicin is contra-indicated for oral contraception," the surgeon explained. "It would have interfered with the suppression of ovulation."

"Wait," Aaron said, trying to grasp the implications. "The medication she took – that's how she got pregnant? How could the doctor prescribe it knowing that was a possibility?"

"They would have asked her," the surgeon told him. "It should have been in her medical history. The pharmacist should have caught it."

Aaron took the bottle from the doctor and checked it. "This isn't the pharmacy we use. It's a different one."

"When we were notified of the possible exposure, she went to an urgent care clinic," he continued. "Not her regular doctor. She couldn't get a same day appointment, and the health official stressed that it was an immediate concern."

"That would be why," the surgeon said. "Different doctor, different pharmacist, if your wife was distracted, she might have forgotten to put all her medications on the form."

He didn't answer, just waited until the surgeon left. Then he went in to see his wife.

She woke when he took her hand, and when she saw his expression, she knew.

"Did you do it on purpose?" he asked.

"Not exactly," she said. She was still almost as pale as the sheet she lay on. It would be a long time before she was no longer anemic. "I thought, it was just a chance, and if it was just a chance, then . . . maybe it was supposed to be. I'm sorry."

"You never said," he managed. "We can try IVF. We can adopt. We'll find a surrogate. Whatever it takes."

She shook her head. "It was stupid of me. I just . . . I just wanted to be normal. I wanted to give you a child."

"You're enough," he answered. "You're all I want. We have Jack, and you're a fantastic mother to him. He loves you more than I thought possible. It's enough for me."

"I'm sorry," she whispered.

He pressed her hand to his cheek.

"Please," he whispered. "Amanda, please, God, don't Iever/I risk yourself again. I can't lose you. I can't. Neither can Jack. I lost Haley, and I lived. I survived. If I lose you, I won't."

"I'm sorry," she said. "Please, Aaron, don't cry. I'm sorry."

He took her in his arms and his chest heaved with sobs. He held her until she'd fallen asleep, sedated with pain medication, exhaustion, and loss of blood.

Chapter Nine


Two years later . . .

"Jack, you have your sister?" Amanda called.

"Uh huh," he replied, cradling the newborn like Amanda had shown him.

"I can get that," Spencer offered, reaching for the groceries Amanda was pulling out of the back.

"Nope," she answered. "You're on duty, remember?"

Spencer sighed. "Not officially."

She looked up at him. "If Aaron asked you, it's official. Have you heard from him?"

"He's supposed to be back tonight," Spencer answered. "Not that there's a lot of communication between his division and ours these days."

"Don't get me started on that," Amanda said, waiting for Spencer to lead the way into the house.

She held Jack back until Spencer had finished his initial sweep.

"Looks good," Spencer called back.

So, she sent Jack in and followed, Heimdall on her heels. Once inside, they went through the mud room into the kitchen. Jack very carefully laid his month-old sister in the cradle David Rossi had fashioned for her and gently started to rock her.

"Homework, buddy," Amanda called.

"Aw," Jack protested.

"You can work at the kitchen table," she told him, "and I'll bring you a snack. Spence, will you start the coffee?"

"Hey, Mom," Jack called, "can we have a fire tonight?"

"Certainly is the weather for it," Amanda answered, looking out the kitchen window at the ominous clouds. It had been spitting rain all day long, and the weather radar promised thunderstorms that night. "I can't promise, buddy. It'll depend on your dad's schedule, but I will put it on the list of possibilities."

Jack sat at the table and laboriously pulled his tablet and notebook out. Both his mom and dad insisted he work out the problems by hand with paper and pencil before putting it into the program his school used, even though he could use the calculator on more than half of them.

While he started, Spencer helped Amanda put groceries away. The coffee maker chugged and burped. Heimdall slowly lowered himself onto the heated bed they kept in the kitchen. At seven years old, he was now an elderly irish wolfhound mix and less a service dog than a trusted friend.

"Jack, would you give Heimdall one of his treats?" Amanda called.

"Sure. Can Sugar have one too?"

"Half of one," his mom answered.

Sugar, not much younger than Heimdall, but still spry, adored the jerky with chondroitin supplements as much as he did. As soon as they each had their piece, she curled up beside him.

"Have you heard what this is about?" Amanda asked Spencer softly. "If he had to ask you and other members of the BAU to drop by on a rotating schedule, it ought to be serious enough for his squad to handle."

Spencer shook his head, his lips pressed together. "He's getting a lot of pushback from higher up, claims that he just wants to get back to the BAU-"

"Well, he does, and so do I, but you don't ignore an order from the Assistant Director of the FBI," she commented, her voice edged with anger.

Spencer nodded in agreement. "They're saying the lack of chatter doesn't mean anything. Hotch is pretty sure with the disappearance of one of their sources, there's a very good chance the whole investigation has been blown. The first thing these guys would do is go after the agents or the agents families."

"Oh, for the love of-" Amanda cut off, sighing angrily. "Has Section Chief Strauss ever actually met a criminal, especially an Albanian mobster?"

"Georgian," Spencer corrected her, "and the current betting is five to one against."

"Please tell me the other families are getting some sort of coverage."

"Hotch mentioned that most of them are on vacation or visiting family," Spencer said.

It started pouring outside.

"Here we go," Amanda said, pouring coffee for the two of them. "Looks like you got your wish, Jack."

"Yes!"

Spencer started ladling sugar and cream into his coffee. Amanda set her cup aside and checked on her tiny daughter.

It still didn't seem real, she thought. That Aaron had been as good as his word and more had not surprised her. IVF had been difficult, painful, and fraught with stress, but the surrogate mother they'd found to carry little Iris Elizabeth to term had been wonderful, and now . . . here was this brand new human being that was both a little bit of her and a little bit of Aaron.

And a lot of Jack.

They'd asked him to decide on a name for her, and he'd chosen the names of Amanda's and Aaron's mothers. He'd been just as excited as them, and was just as ready to warm bottles and change poopy diapers as Aaron had been. In fact, he took a great deal of pride in the fact that his little sister's poop grossed him out far less than it did their father.

After brushing her daughter's cheek with a finger and seeing her lips pucker in response, Amanda picked up her coffee for a sip.

And stopped, sniffing it.

"Blech," she said, and poured it out. "Aaron must have put this batch in the freezer. I keep telling him not to, but he's sure it keeps better. Just makes it more bitter."

"Hadn't noticed," Spencer said, halfway through his.

"Well, no," she agreed. "Not with half the world's supply of sugar, you wouldn't. Why bother with the coffee? Why not just melt some coffee ice cream down and call it good?"

Spencer thought about it for a moment. "I like the ritual."

"Don't we all," she answered, and started sorting mail. "How's the math coming, Jack?"

"Ugh."

"Remember, this country was built on long division," she told him.

"Ha ha," he called.

She checked the pot of coffee, and it smelled just as bitter and off. Odd. She dumped it in the sink and rinsed out the pot. It was getting late enough she didn't want too much caffeine, but on the odd chance that Aaron would actually make it home before midnight, she wouldn't mind staying up for him.

She went to the refrigerator and opened the freezer door for the bag of coffee beans, but it wasn't in there. Aaron had left it in the refrigerator, just like she'd asked.

Somewhere, in the back of her head, a tiny reptilian nerve woke up and started hissing a warning. She went over to the coffee brewer and pulled out the grounds basket. It had brewed six cups. There were enough grounds in there to brew twelve, and Aaron didn't waste coffee.

That nerve began to twist and writhe and wake its neighbors. Nonchalantly, she sniffed the grounds. There was a smell that wasn't coffee, but she couldn't put a finger on it. Not almonds, thank God. Her breathing had gone shallow and started to speed up, and just outside, the storm was really cranking up.

"Guess I'll be getting new coffee," she announced.

A flash of lightning lit the kitchen.

"One one thousand, two one thousand," Jack started counting, "three one thousand."

"And I think I'll go check the weather online," Amanda said.

The thunder started when Jack reached seven one thousand – more than a mile away. Heimdall groaned and shifted on his bed. Sugar whined.

On the way to the office just off the kitchen where she and Aaron did the day to day business of running a family, separate from his work at the Bureau and her work as a writer and sometime speaker, she pulled out her cell phone, again keeping her movements small and undistracting. As she reached the computer and brought it back from hibernation, she checked her cell phone reception.

There was none, and the hair on the back of her neck rose.

It could be the storm, she thought. But there was a tower not a quarter of a mile away, and their reception, even in storms, had always been reliable.

What was it Rossi had once said? Once was happenstance, twice was coincidence, three times was enemy action. She pulled up the web browser, and leaned over the keyboard so her body blocked the monitor from view from almost every angle. They had a wickedly fast connection, and while the weather radar loaded, she pulled up a separate window for email and thought for a second.

Penelope.

She was always linked in, and there were pre-arranged signals Aaron had her memorize that Penelope would know. Radar showed that the storm was moving directly towards them, and they'd be caught in it for at least an hour of heavy rain. Just as she started typing the email, addressed to every address and phone number she had for Penelope and the main addresses and phone numbers for the members of the BAU, the lights went out.

A scald of adrenaline poured into her veins. Taking a chance, she lifted the blinds and peeked out. Most of the view was of the garden to the side of the garage, but there was a glimpse of another house. It still had lights on.

"Oh, fuck," she whispered.

Stay calm, she thought. If they wanted to, they could have wired the house or the car to explode, and they'd already be dead. This was personal, which meant face to face, which meant they had time.

She added text to the email and sent it, then turned the monitor and speakers off. Then, from the bookshelves next to the desk, she pulled the first aid kit, the LED flashlight, and the gun box Aaron kept there. She keyed in the code, opened the box, and pulled out the weapon she'd purchased more than three years previously. She double checked it – magazine was loaded, and there was a round in the chamber. She kept the safety on. On the way out, she grabbed the letter opener from the desk.

When she returned to the kitchen, Spencer stood at the sink, gripping the counter.

"How much did you drink?" she asked.

"More than half the cup," he answered. "My pulse is hammering, and my mouth is dry."

"Keep your voice down," she whispered. "I think we're probably under surveillance. Right now, everything's fine. We've just got a power outage."

Lightning flashed again, and Spencer recoiled from the intense white light.

"One one thousand, two one thousand," Jack started counting, not worried about his homework now the power was off.

"Let me see your eyes," she told Spencer and pulled his face around.

A glance, even in the dim light remaining, showed that his pupils were widely dilated.

"Whatever was in the coffee," she murmured to him, "it was a stimulant."

"Digoxin, belladona," Spencer managed, putting a hand to his temple, "probably anticholinergic."

"What's the treatment?" she asked pulling out the first aid kit.

"Only drugs are available at the hospital," he said.

She reached across to the landline, but it was dead. Enemy action, then.

"There isn't going to be any hospital visit until it's too late, Spencer," she whispered to him. "What else?"

He was already taking measures, putting his finger down his throat until he retched. He kept it as quiet as possible, but Jack still looked over from watching the rain.

"Uncle Spencer?"

"Hang on a second, Jack," Amanda called. "Just need to do something."

She flipped open the first aid kit and found the bottle of activated charcoal capsules. She took a water glass, emptied six capsules into it and then filled it halfway with water.

"Drink this," she told him. "Now."

He drank it as fast as he could.

"I think Aaron was right about those Georgian mobsters," she told him.

"If we're under surveillance, then either the power loss has stopped their cameras, or they're transmitting wirelessly."

"There's no reception for cell phones," she told him.

"Then that cuts out their cameras as well," he told her.

"Jack?" she called. "Do you know how to light the gaslogs in the fireplace?"

"I sure do!"

"Take this flashlight and go do just that," she told him. "We're going to play Zombie Apocalypse, so make it really obvious."

The next flash of lightning showed how pale Jack had gotten. That was the code phrase they had worked out a long time ago.

"It's okay," she told him. "I'll be right behind you."

She put the gun in her waistband, reached into the bassinet and picked up her daughter, and tucked the letter opener into her sleeve. Spencer was sipping water and taking as many of the charcoal capsules as he could. He had half the bottle down by the time she returned.

"Hotch is going to kill me for not spotting this," he said, shaking.

"Let's wait til we get that far, okay?" she said. "Can you walk?"

"I think so."

But he needed her help to stay on his feet, so she had a sleeping infant in one arm, and Spencer's arm over her shoulder, held with her free hand. She grabbed her raincoat off the rack next to the mudroom door.

"Heimdall, Sugar, come."

Both dogs got up and trotted behind her. Jack joined them at the foot of the stairs.

"I put the pillows together like a couple of people sitting on the couch," he whispered, "and then I wrapped a blanket around them."

"That's great thinking, baby," Amanda told him. "Take your sister."

She handed the infant off to him, and he cradled his sister against his chest. She swung her raincoat over Jack, suddenly aware that he was only a few inches shorter than she was.

"Is it pretty bad?" he asked.

"I think so," she answered. "They waited for bad weather. They've disrupted communications. They're going to want to hurt your dad through us."

Then she leaned in to him a little bit.

"But that's not going to happen, right?"

"Right," Jack answered.

"No matter what happens, you do not let them find you or your little sister," she told him.

He nodded, scared and grim.

"Okay," she whispered. "Upstairs as quietly as we can go."

"They're probably waiting long enough for the coffee to incapacitate whoever drank it," Spencer whispered to her, slurring his words slightly. He grimaced in pain.

"How long?"

"Probably twenty minutes from when we brewed the coffee," he managed.

That left them with not quite five minutes.

"Let's go."

The dogs led the way up the stairs, collars jangling.

"Can you take rear guard?" she asked Spencer. "Do you have your weapon?"

"Yes, and yes, and hold out weapon as well."

"Boy, am I glad I told you about that book," she muttered.

"Me too."

"Jack, get into your room and pull out your paintball marker," she told him. "I'll be right there."

The linen closet was at the top of the stairs, and as Jack hurried off, she pulled the door open and helped Spencer down to the floor.

"It'll be a tight fit," she told him, "but they probably won't see you unless they remove the boxes."

He crawled under the bottom shelf, which had eighteen inches clearance, but nearly three feet of space to the back.

"I'll take as many as I can while they're on the stairs," she told him. "Do not come out unless they figure out where Jack's gone."

He nodded.

"Amanda," he said, grabbing her wrist tightly.

"Yeah."

"Don't die," he said. "Hotch won't make it."

"Aaron will if our children need him, which they will. But I promise that me dying is the second to last option, okay?"

She pulled his hand off her wrist and began placing boxes along the floor, in front of him. Then she moved piles of sheets and towels around to cover for the change. She closed the door, knowing that when they came, they'd open every single one to search.

In Jack's room, her step-son waited breathlessly. He'd found his paintball marker – not a gun, he'd insisted when he'd talked Aaron into letting him try out for the junior leagues, for all that it could fire faster than any automatic weapon, and at close quarters could maim and possibly kill – and had it clipped to a strap across his chest. He'd brought his backpack with him and was carefully wrapping little Iris in swaddling cloths and his old favorite blanket before tucking her in.

"Good job," Amanda told him. She checked to make sure her now fussy daughter had plenty of breathing room and wouldn't shift into a position that blocked her airway. "When you get to the spot behind the chimney, move her around to your front so you can keep an eye on her. Do whatever you need to to keep her from crying, even if that means covering her mouth. Just don't cover her nose, okay?"

He nodded, breathing hard.

"Shoes off," she ordered.

The roof had a steep pitch, but at least the tiles were asphalt and had some texture.

"Stay on all fours," she told him. "Spread your weight out and go slowly. Do not move unless you hear me, Spencer, Morgan, or your dad. Not even for someone saying they're a police officer, understand?"

He nodded again. "Yeah, Mom."

"Okay."

They were in luck. The rain was coming from the west, and his bedroom window looked east. When she opened the window, none of the rain fell directly into the room, giving them a little more time to keep from being discovered.

"Here's my phone," she said, handing it to him. "Check the reception. As soon as there is any, call your father. He'll know what's going on by then. Tell him I love him."

"Mom-"

"Yeah, baby."

"I love you," Jack whispered.

"I love you, too," she answered, and kissed his forehead. "Now you take care of your sister, okay?"

He nodded and climbed out through the window onto the roof and into the rain. She closed the window after him, wiped down the sill, and strode back into the hallway. She closed the door to his bedroom and every other room in the upstairs hallway except the last one – the master bedroom.

There was a noise downstairs, of stealthy footsteps and doors closing. If Penelope had somehow managed to get the police or any of the BAU here, there would have been yelling and slamming of doors. The enemy was at the gate, then.

"Heimdall, Sugar," she whispered, pointing at the master closet. "In. Stay."

She closed the door most of the way once they were in, and then she crept back into the hallway, low down and out of sight of the downstairs. When she reached the stair railing, she positioned herself to where she had a full view of the upper half of the stairs, where the people on it would most likely be facing away from her.

She crouched down on the floor to make her own target size as small as possible, wondering at herself that she'd remembered so much of what she'd heard while listening to her husband and his colleagues talk shop.

Aaron, please . . . she thought, not sure where to go with that idea.

They were in the house. Penelope would have received the email almost instantly on her phone and email accounts, but be pessimistic and figure she was in the bathroom or getting busy with Kevin. It would take at least two or three minutes for her to get to the devices when the emergency alert sounded. Another five minutes for her to mobilize forces. Anywhere from five to ten minutes for them to get here.

So, help was, at best, more than ten minutes away. There was a very good chance that by then, it would be all over. At least for her.

And Aaron. He was still in the air, flying back from the Los Angeles office after liberally shredding a handful of supervisory agents down there for being stupid and risking their people unnecessarily.

Please, she thought again.

She was interrupted by the sound of guns firing with silencers - Thwap! Thwap! - and she marveled that Jack's ploy had worked. Of course, that only meant they'd be really ticked when they got upstairs.

Good, she thought, flipping the safety off.

From the cursing and the movements below, there were . . . four, no five, at least five people. She swallowed hard, her mouth dry. Was this what they felt like, going into danger? Was it what Aaron had felt like when he'd woken up in the little hell Parkson had built for her? How in God's name did they do it?

They circled the first floor, making sure no one was down there. Then, knowing their exits were covered, they swarmed up the stairs.

She waited until all five were on the stairs and the first four were in view, and then she flipped on the laser aim, put it between the shoulder blades of the bottom most man, and fired.

In less than two seconds, she had killed or injured the four in her sights. Her ears rang and pounded with pain from the magnitude of the gunshots. She'd never fired a gun without ear protection. The last one came running up the stairs almost backwards, firing towards her, and she ducked to the other side of the hallway, where she'd have some cover from the office door.

Three more pairs of feet ran after him. Fuck. He'd had more goons than she'd heard. They must have been waiting just outside.

As he rounded the corner, she placed him by sound and fired through the wall. The floor was oak joists, plywood, and parquet flooring, ensuring she wouldn't be shot from below. The walls, though were studs and drywall, and she'd helped Aaron re-sheet them after the roof had leaked. The first man into the hall fell with a meaty thud, cursing.

She ran for the master bedroom, and behind her, there was another thwap!, and the man's high pitched cursing cut off. Shit.

She had her hand on the door to slam it shut when a red hot hammer hit her right shoulder and knocked her to the floor. She noticed the thwap! at the same time, abstractly wondering if it should have come first or second, depending on the distance.

For a second, her shoulder and arm were numb. No information from them reached her brain. Then a wave of nausea rolled her over just as she got her left arm under her. She couldn't pick up her gun. Her t-shirt was now soaking wet down to her bra, and as she got her left hand on the gun and started to get to her feet, a hand grabbed her by the right-

The slap barely registered compared to the supernova of her entire upper right chest, and she fell to her knees, only to be hauled up again. Two hands held her up. A goon behind her, a goon to the side, and the boss in front of her.

He stared at her flatly, like a man presented with a dish he didn't order and didn't like. He slapped her again. It still didn't hurt as much as her right shoulder.

"Call back to Vasilly," the boss ordered, "and tell him to kill the miserable dog who gave us the information."

He spoke in English with an Eastern European accent. If he'd wanted to make it a private order, he'd have spoken in Russian. So, he wanted Amanda to hear it.

His voice, his expression, and the fact that he was probably going to kill her in a moment were surprisingly remote. The pain in her arm occupied most of her attention, and she realized she was going into shock.

"Do you know what your husband will find when he returns?" the man asked, unscrewing the silencer from his gun.

"Oh, we're having a conversation," she managed, a laugh rattling her chest. It hurt. "Tell your boy to let go of my arms, or I'm going to faint before you can kill me."

Two more men joined them. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes for a moment. Fuck. Still, Jack and Iris were safe. That was enough. Her whole side, all the way up to her ear, throbbed in pain – a familiar, nightmarish pain.

The boss glared at her and then jerked his head. The hands holding her up let go, and she almost fell over. She caught herself and managed to stand upright, though her right arm wouldn't work at all. She wiped her mouth with her left hand, and found blood on her chin from a split lip. Oh, well, what was a few more scars?

"You like playing with your dinner?" she asked. "I tell you what, you ask a question, and I'll answer it. But then I get to ask a question, and you have to answer it."

Keep them talking. That's what every single one of Aaron's people had said. Keep them talking. The longer you could, the greater your chance of living.

"I think I'll kill you now, bitch," he said, pointing the gun at her face.

"But that's not as fun, is it?," she asked back.

Yet another man joined them, and he reported something in Russian to his leader. The leader lowered his gun.

"Can't find the kids, can you?" she asked. "Hard to destroy a man's family when all you can get your hands on is his second wife. Miss the son and daughter, and it practically doesn't even count. Or is it two sons, no daughter? Or triplets? You didn't do your research, did you?"

"Children or not," he said, "you are going to die today."

She laughed again. It was calculated, but it became something more. It turned into a genuine, bubbling laugh. His eyes narrowed as he watched her.

"You know, you're Russian," she said. "I'd think you of all people would get it. I already died six years ago."

He slapped her, almost knocking her down, and then he spat at her.

"Russians are shitty apes. I am Georgian."

"Oh, right," she agreed. Her heart was beating nearly out of her chest, and under the sound of the storm around them, she could hear Heimdall's curious threat growl; it was like the whine of a jet engine. The men either didn't hear it or didn't understand what it was.

How long had it been? A minute? Two minutes? Adrenaline caused a distorted sense of time. It might have been ten seconds or three hours for all she knew.

He smiled at her, which was good. He decided he had enough time to play.

"I will tell them to rape you and cut you," he said. "You'll give the brats up."

She laughed again. Aaron was right. Most criminals really were stupid.

"My name, moron, is Amanda Mason Hotchner. Before Agent Hotchner rescued me, I was raped and cut by the best in the business, a sociopath by the name of Patrick Dyer. Ring a bell?"

He glared at her.

"Have you seen a picture of me without my makeup?" she asked, and she pulled down the collar of her t-shirt to show the scars on her chest.

He took a flashlight from one of his men and turned it on her, then swore. He took her chin in his hand, and forced her face one way and then another.

"What is this?" he spat.

"They're knife scars from a man who killed more than thirty-five women," she told him. "Oh, and he raped me repeatedly. All your men will get out of raping me is a screaming case of herpes."

He stared at her.

"Outbreaks tend to occur when the body's under physical stress," she told him. "And no, a condom's not going to protect you. I shed virus where condoms don't help."

Her breathing was shallow, and she was having a hard time staying on her feet. It was time to cash in her chips.

"You know what my husband's going to find when he gets home?" she asked. "He's going to find that we really need to replace the carpet in here."

The boss raised his arm again to strike her.

"HEIMDALL, SIC!"

Heimdall crossed the distance in one bound, and arthritic joints or not, he brought a man down, clamping his jaws on the underling's throat as he landed. There was a horrific crunch as the wolfhound broke the man's neck in one bite.

The boss turned and brought up his gun, but Amanda let the letter opener in her sleeve drop into her hand and stabbed it as hard as she could into his neck. He gagged and stumbled back, pulling the letter opener with him. One of the other men fired his gun at Heimdall just as the dog tore at another of his companion's neck. Either he missed, or Heimdall didn't feel the bullet. The next one hit the dog, though, right through the chest. Heimdall staggered, growling, blood dripping from his mouth, and one of the three men standing shot him again, knocking him down.

This man, the lieutenant Amanda guessed, looked down at his boss, gurgling and clawing at the letter opener in his throat. Then he raised his gun and shot the man dead.

"Where are the children?" the lieutenant – well, boss now – asked.

"Gone," she answered.

He shot her in the leg, and she collapsed to the floor.

"I will shoot you an inch at a time until you tell me," he explained.

"Okay" she agreed.

"Where are they?"

The bullet had passed through her calf muscle without hitting bone. It still hurt like someone had run her through with a red hot poker, and just then, it even hurt more than her shoulder did.

"No," she said, gritting her teeth, "I meant, 'okay, shoot me.'"

"Fine."

He lifted his gun.

"Do you know what a UPS is?" she asked him, looking up from the floor. It was getting hard to talk.

He paused but didn't answer.

"It stands . . . for 'Uninterrupted . . . Power Supply'," she managed. "It's what computer . . . geeks use to keep . . . their computers running . . . when the power is out."

He stopped this time.

"Did you know . . ." she continued, feeling the effort to push words out increase with each breath, "Internet cable doesn't . . . depend . . . on home elec . . . tricity. Plug . . . the cable modem . . . into . . . the UP . . . S and . . . it all still . . . works."

He stared at her.

"All my friends have email," she whispered.

His jaw tightened, and he swore. "Kill the bitch," he told one of the other men. "Set fire to the house. Wherever the brats are, they'll die fine that way. I want u-"

His forehead exploded into a fine mist the same time another gunshot pounded her ears.

"Get down," Spencer ordered, slurring his words and shambling along the length of the hall, "drop your weapons, get down on your knees, and put your hands on your head."

He'd made it around the corner of the hallway at last.

One of the two remaining men tried to shoot him, and Spencer changed his aim incrementally and shot him dead center in the chest. The other man pointed his gun at Amanda, who lay still, breathing hard.

"I kill her."

Spencer shot him, just in front of his left ear, leaving an exit wound the size of a fist behind his right ear. The man collapsed.

He holstered his weapon.

"Any others?" he managed.

Amanda took a deep breath. "No. Get this . . . thing . . . off me."

It took him a long moment to shift the last man and pull him off of Amanda.

"I'm, uh, having some hallucinations," Spencer explained. "Probably the poison. Decided I couldn't wait for the charcoal to kick in any further. Took me a while, though, to figure out who was real and who was a talking walrus. Sorry about that."

"You hate walruses," Amanda managed.

"I really fucking hate walruses," he agreed. "Is your shoulder bleeding? I'm having a hard time telling."

"Yeah," she said. "I think I was shot. By the way . . . I think I'm going to faint now."

It didn't last long. When Spencer started applying pressure, she came to, teeth clenched against screaming.

"Oh, look," Spencer said, glancing out one of the windows. "Lights. It is lights, isn't it?"

She looked at the splashes of red and blue on the ceiling.

"Yeah, it's lights. Yay, Penelope," she cheered and then fainted again.

Chapter Ten


"Jesus God," Morgan swore, looking around. "They're going to need to re-carpet the whole damn place."

"Amanda?" Emily called her, leaning over her on the stretcher. "Where's Jack? Honey, where's Jack? Where's Iris?"

"Morgan," she whispered. "Tell Morgan."

And she was gone again.

"We have to go," the EMT told her.

Spencer had already been carried off to the hospital for the antidote to whatever he'd been poisoned with, so there wasn't any asking him. The rain had slacked off, but the brigades of SWAT, FBI, BAU, and every on duty police officer in a ten mile radius had destroyed the floors.

"Tell you what, Morgan?" Emily demanded.

"Hang on."

The tall muscular man strode through the hallway, throwing open doors.

"Jack? JACK! ANSWER ME, JACK!" he yelled. "COME ON, JACK! TALK TO ME!"

When the rooms were found empty and no one replied, Morgan started opening windows.

"JACK!"

"I'm here!" a voice called out from the darkness.

"Get me some light!" Morgan yelled.

Emily handed him her flashlight, and Morgan put it on the source. From the upstairs office window, he could see Jack crouched in the lee of the chimney, wearing a large raincoat, a backpack secured to his chest, and a dangerous looking paintball gun in his hands.

"Stay there," Morgan answered. "Do not move. I'll be right there!"

"Morgan!" Emily protested.

"Get the firefighters to bring ladders to this side of the house," he ordered, climbing out the window. "I'll help him down from there."

When he was out on the roof, crossing slowly and carefully, Jack called to him.

"Is Mom okay? Did she die?"

"No, man. She's hurt, but she's going to be okay. Where's your sister?"

"I've got her right here," Jack called, holding tight to the backpack. "Mom said not to move until you or Spencer or Dad called for me."

"Well, I'm right here, and we're going to get you down and back inside, okay?"

Iris Elizabeth Hotchner chose that moment to start wailing all her unhappiness to the sky.


JJ and William LaFontaine knelt next to the dog that had been constantly at Amanda's side the entire time they'd known her.

"Can we risk moving him?" she asked.

"We can get one of the EMTs to bring a stretcher or use a blanket, yeah," her husband answered. "There's an emergency vet's about eight miles from here. They handle police dogs all the time. I'll call ahead."

When JJ went to stroke Heimdall's head, a small white dog charged out of the closet, snarling and snapping at her.

"Sugar!" JJ gasped. "Down, girl. Down. It's okay."

But Sugar got between her and Heimdall and would not be moved until Jack got her.


"I don't believe this," Rossi commented to no one in particular. "We've got a body count of, what, ten goons? One of them is definitely the boss Aaron's team has been putting the squeeze on. What, nobody up on high thought a protection detail would be necessary?"

The injured had been removed, CSI had taken over the house, and everywhere he looked, there was either a body, a bullet casing marked with a little numbered yellow marker, a spray of blood, or some other debris.

"Who's got Hotch?" he called.

"Emily's meeting him at the airport," Morgan replied. "I'm taking Jack there as soon as Jessica arrives to take Iris."

Epilogue


There was a dim light and hushed noises that didn't fit.

Wake up. Please, wake up, someone whispered to her. It's safe. Don't leave me here alone. Just wake up. Please, God, wake up.

But I died, she wanted to say. The words wouldn't form.

She was cold. She was always cold in there. She could pace to warm herself when it was dark, but if the lights were on, that meant he was watching, and pacing always got her shocked. She had died, and she was in hell, and her head was stuffed with sawdust and bad tasting rags, which meant that he had drugged her again.

Don't leave me alone, Amanda, someone pleaded. For God's sake, wake up.

Her hand, her left hand, strangely enough, was warm.

I need you, the person continued. Jack needs you. Iris needs you. Please, wake up. Just for a little bit.

He knew her name. More than that, he knew other names. Important names. Jack. Jack was important. So was Iris. She might be dead, but she had to wake up for them, even if it was just to die again.

"Come on, Amanda," he repeated. "You can do it. Wake up for me."

A hand smoothed her hair away from her face, rubbing a thumb over the skin. She knew that voice. It was the best voice in the world. If she could hear that voice, she wasn't dead. It took a long time, like swimming up from the bottom of the ocean, but she managed to pull her eyelids open. It took another long time for the shapes in front of her to focus.

Aaron.

He sat next to her, a three day beard on his face, holding her hand and touching her face. When he saw her eyes focus on him, his mouth trembled.

"Is it safe?" she managed. Her voice wasn't working very well. "Did you get him?"

He nodded. "It's safe. I promise you, it's safe. They're all gone – dead or arrested."

It didn't add up. She meant Parkson. No, wait, Parkson was dead. How did she know that? There were others, the bad men Jack worried about.

"Spencer?" she managed, trying to lift her head.

"He's fine," Aaron told her. "They had the medications to reverse the remainder of the poison he ingested. He had a bad night, and then he was fine."

Spencer was fine. She reached for Aaron, trying to remember who else she was suppo-

"Jack!"

Aaron caught her. "He's safe, Amanda. He's at Jessica's. You saved him. You saved Iris."

She held tight to his arm, trying to get around the fuzziness in her head. She'd been drugged . . .

"You're on pain killers," Aaron told her. "You were shot twice, and they had to operate on your right shoulder."

"Well, hell," she muttered. "What'd I go and get shot for?"

He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, as if saying a prayer in thanks. When he opened his eyes, she was starting to drift off to sleep.

"Heimdall made it out of surgery," he told her, which didn't make any sense. Why would a Norse god have needed surgery? "He'll probably limp for the rest of his life, but he'll be fine."

"Really doesn't make any sense," she mumbled.

He smiled at her, his eyes red. "It will. Don't worry."

A thought occurred to her.

"'ey," she managed.

"Yes?"

"Did you marry me?" she asked.

"Almost three years ago," he answered. "Best decision I ever made."

She grunted. "Good. 'Cause I liked you ever since I saw you. Worried he broke your head when he dropped you into my room."

Aaron laughed until it caught in a sob. He had no right to be so lucky. Three other FBI agents on his team had lost one or more family members that night. It had been Amanda's email to Penelope that had triggered alarms across the nation – that their source had indeed been compromised, that an undercover agent had been tortured into revealing information, which had then been used to put his own and several other families under surveillance.

He'd gotten the call in midair and spent the next half hour, terrified out of his mind. Until Jack had called him.

So he sat, holding her slack hand, no longer seeing the scars or the missing fingers or anything other than his wife's beauty. He sat and waited for her to wake up again, so he could tell her how much he loved her.

Finis.