Author's Note: Another one! Wa Hooh! And now finally, after viewing him through the prism of the women in his life, Hotch himself gets to speak on his views of their world. And now that we're more kind of 'up to speed' on their lives in general, this chapter dials down the full narrative and will start the more usual back and forth, forward momentum of the plot. You'll be able to get an idea of where things are going.

And the title of this chapter, if you don't know it, is a song from My Fair Lady. The first time I heard it, (the lyrics a cappella without any 'fuss' around them), was an episode of China Beach. A very SAD episode, when McMurphy and Dr. Richard were supposed to get married. So they always stuck in my head as a wistful song. So the tone worked.

Side note: China Beach, awesome show :)


TV Prompt Set #42 (August 2012)

Show: One Day At A Time

Title Challenge: The Nearness Of You


The Street Where You Live

Hotch lifted his fist up and rapped three times, hard, on the bright red door . . . then he paused for two beats . . . and knocked one last time.

That was their code. So Emily wouldn't get agitated about strangers . . . or friends . . . at the door. This way she always knew it was him before she'd even started down the hall.

So after he knocked, he stood there for a moment, waiting, and listening. There was music on . . . U2, In The Name Of Love . . . and then he heard the volume drop, and then Emily's voice.

"Coming, Aaron."

As he always did now when he first heard her after they'd been apart, Hotch felt a little of the tension leave his chest. A few seconds later there was a shuffling just on the other side of the door . . . then the locks being turned . . . and finally . . . her.

Emily.

His eyes crinkled ever so slightly.

"Hi."

"Hey," she whispered back as she reached out to touch his chest.

She'd started doing that when they were alone . . . it was how she said hello, by placing her hand over his heart. Then she would leave it there for a second as a faint smile touched her lips.

And he had started to feel a tug now when she pulled her hand away.

Like she had grabbed a string and it was caught on her finger.

And he knew what that meant, because when it happened, it caused a faint warmth low in his stomach and a slight humming in his brain. And those sensations were familiar . . . but it had been a long time since he had felt them.

For anyone.

And though he'd missed feeling this way, having something . . . someone . . . to look forward to seeing, still, in many ways, these emotions were unwelcome.

Or at the very least, inappropriate.

Either way . . . welcome or not, inappropriate or not . . . as Emily stepped back, he moved forward, stepping over the threshold and into her space. And he stayed just a little too close, a little too near, while he pushed the door shut behind him. And while his senses were being filled with the smell of her shampoo, her fading perfume, and that unique scent that he'd learned belonged to her alone, he turned the locks. Before he was done, her hand was running lightly along his back, and she was asking if he wanted tea . . . or whiskey.

In the first days when they got home, whenever he came over, it was always whiskey. But now . . . as today when he heard the question being posed . . . more often it was tea. A couple of weeks ago . . . when they were out walking, they walked almost every day . . . she had bought a box of fancy herbal tea at some hippie store in Dupont Circle. That was the kind that she made for him.

It relaxed him.

And he thought about buying some for his own house, but he knew that the results wouldn't be the same.

It wasn't just the tea that he came for.

He came for this . . . his gaze dropped down . . . her in her silly pajamas . . . tonight they were soft and pink with little grey toasters on them . . . and her clean, scrubbed face with scars still fading . . . and then there was that touch.

Her fingers on his chest.

That he couldn't get anywhere else. And as she looked up at him with that faint smile . . . an echo of the one that she used to wear . . . he whispered that tea sounded good. And then he slipped his other hand into his jacket pocket, and pulled out a waxy, white paper bag.

He held it out for her.

"I brought you cookies," he murmured, "peanut butter with chocolate chips. They're from that place you like."

They found the cookies one day in the city too. A different day, in a different neighborhood. In the hours that they didn't have therapy, physical and otherwise, they spent most of their free time exploring different neighborhoods around The District. They weren't quite sure how it started, but it was something to do.

And the walking was good for his leg.

And he had driven into Georgetown specifically tonight to buy these cookies for her. He bought them because he thought that they would make her happy. And making Emily happy . . . as much as she was capable now of experiencing that emotion . . . had become important to him. Not just because of that string, but because it was a tipping point against his own, somewhat degraded, mental state.

Some days his guilt over this world that he had dragged her into, was nearly overwhelming . . . enough to make him feel like he was drowning. And so making her life a little brighter . . . even it was just with a cookie . . . was a tiny teaspoon out of that well of despair.

And again, it was something to do.

When she reached over to take the bag from his hand, he focused his breaths. They were slow, even . . . in and out. Once, and again. And then his eyes closed for a moment when she leaned up to kiss his cheek.

"Thank you," she whispered against his skin, "that was very sweet."

And then she tucked her arm through his . . . her good arm, he knew the bad one still ached by the end of the day, his leg did too . . . and leaning slightly against his side, walked him down the hall to the kitchen.

After she'd put on the kettle, and slipped the half dozen cookies out of the bag and onto the plate she used whenever he brought her a treat . . . he liked seeing that plate, it was a pretty blue with gold flecks . . . she took his hand and they continued to the living room and over to the sofa.

They sat down and his eyes automatically snapped over when he noticed the TV was on . . . though it was muted.

When he saw what she had been watching . . . sound or not . . . he scowled.

"You know that's not good for you," came the gentle scold as he picked up the remote and turned it off, "it's going to feed your nightmares."

The news.

She wasn't supposed to be watching the news at all . . . doctor's orders. Though it might have seemed rather ridiculous given what she did for a living . . . run down violent serial offenders . . . their FBI therapist said that as long as Emily was on leave, and that everything that had happened was still so fresh, and causing her so much mental anguish, that she was to try to limit unnecessary exposure to "potentially upsetting content." And there was little more domestically upsetting, than the evening news.

Everyone knew that it was a snapshot on the misery of the human condition.

And though he didn't think much of Dr. Jablonski in general, or her therapeutic instincts overall, on this point, Hotch did agree. He didn't want Emily watching the news either.

Not yet.

And certainly not by herself to start.

Emily shifted slightly on the couch, pulling her bare feet up under her as she leaned over to place her head on Hotch's shoulder.

"I know," she murmured back, "but I wanted to try it. See how I felt. I mean," she cleared her throat, "we are supposed to maybe start back next week. And I don't want to burst into tears the first time I open a case folder and see a carved up body. I thought this might help me figure out, objectively, where my head is."

Hotch pulled her hand over and covered it with his . . . the two rested on his thigh.

His thumb began to stroke along her outer wrist. The skin was soft.

"And did it?" he asked quietly.

"Yeah," Emily gave a humorless snort, "big shocker, I'm still a mess. I had DVR'd the six o'clock news so I could kind of fast forward around. And I was basically okay watching the segment about the woman that got beaten to death by her boyfriend in PG County, a little weepy but not too bad. But then I totally lost it because a dog died in a fire in Ballston."

Her loss of emotional control was the one thing that she was really having a problem accepting. For years . . . her entire life really . . . she'd prided herself on her little boxes. They kept everything separated and compartmentalized. They kept her, in control. And now she was enraged, or crying, or crying AND enraged, at the drop of a hat.

It was . . . in a word . . . obnoxious.

Hotch was quiet for a moment, and then he bit his lip.

"A dog died in a fire? That is sad."

Of course the woman killed in PG County was sad too, but that was a bigger sadness . . . a true tragedy. But they had absorbed too much tragedy this month. They had reached saturation for human misery. So the dog was now a fresh soft spot, a new place for a new dig.

It was likely to hit her hard.

Also though, as Hotch had learned from their talks this month, Emily loved animals. The soft, four legged variety anyway. So regardless of her overall mental state, he would still rate her reaction to the story as normal.

And now . . . he thought with a trace of bitterness . . . it would just be nice if they came to a day where he wouldn't haven't to rate her reactions at all. Perhaps that day would come by Christmas.

Or maybe the spring.

"I know," Emily's lip came out in a faint pout, "they had the little girl on, and she was crying about her doggy. His name was Buster. And I just started bawling and I couldn't stop." Then she pressed her fingertips into his leg.

"What do you think that means?" She whispered, "Do think I can go back to work?"

If she started making a fool of herself at crime scenes, going off on people, or bursting into ridiculous crying jags, that was going to be the end of her career with the BAU. For her own pride, and the reputation of the team . . . and Hotch personally . . . she'd have to transfer out to a paperwork unit. Something boring and bloodless.

Something chained to a desk waiting for that pension to kick in.

The thought was enough to make her sick.

Hotch's expression softened as he turned his head slightly to look down at the woman leaning against his side.

She was staring at the darkened TV.

"I just think it means your human Emily. And right now," He reached over to pat the soft pink cloth covering her leg. "You're not on the clock. You're in your pajamas, watching TV like a regular person. Next week, if they let us back, it will be different." He shifted his arm to slip it around her shoulders, "you'll be in your suit, and you'll have your badge, and your gun, and you'll feel like you can do anything," he leaned over to kiss her temple, "and that's because you can. I'm alive," his voice started to thicken, "because you're amazing."

Emily winced as the hot tears flooded her eyes.

"Thanks."

Her voice sounded hoarse . . . understandable perhaps given that she was trying to swallow the lump now sticking in her throat.

But fortunately she was saved from the reemergence of her omnipresent tears, by the sound of the tea kettle beginning to whistle. Before she could react though, Hotch had patted her shoulder. His touch was gentle.

He knew it still ached.

"You stay, I'll get it," he said as he pulled his arm away and stood up.

Emily turned to watch him in his jeans and his blue polo shirt as he walked down to the kitchen . . . with just the faintest, 'late in the day' drag in his step . . . to starting making their tea.

He looked so handsome.

He always did. He always had. But she'd been noticing more and more lately, and she was distracted enough staring at his arms . . . though she knew that she shouldn't be . . . that it took her a moment to notice that he had bypassed the usual herbal tea that he liked. He was steeping the regular, earl grey. Her upper lip curved faintly.

Earl grey went better with peanut butter cookies.

When he was done with the non-fat cream and the sweetener . . . he knew how she liked it . . . he picked up the plate of cookies, balanced it on one of the cups, and walked back down to the living room.

Emily's eyes crinkled slightly as she reached out to help him put everything on the table . . . the cookies were about to slide off the dish and onto the floor.

Once she'd settled her favorite fancy plate . . . she'd picked it up in Morocco . . . in between their two mugs, she immediately snatched up a cookie and began to gobble one of the chewy peanut butter treats that he'd brought her.

She was suddenly starving.

Hotch's brow wrinkled slightly at Emily's enthusiasm for the cookie, and then a thought occurred to him, and he paused in the blowing on his tea.

"When was the last time you ate anything?" He asked slowly.

She'd lost weight since they'd been home. He had too . . . but not nearly as much.

And he could afford to lose more than she could anyway.

Emily shrugged.

"Um," she mumbled around her mouthful, "that croissant we split, I guess. I was going to order Chinese, and then, well," she swallowed before looking over at him, "I figured you'd be coming over, so I decided to wait and see if you wanted anything."

It's not that they had dinner together regularly. But again, she had just known that tonight he would be coming by. And usually if he came by in the evenings, it was between seven and nine. He'd stay for a few hours, they'd sit on the couch and talk . . . or not. Sometimes she just tucked herself into his side while they listened to music . . . it ran the gamut . . . or watched TV . . . anything without canned laughter, gunplay, or reality contestants . . . trying to use that time together to shore up for another night of insomnia and nightmares.

Often both.

And then at some point, Hotch would squeeze the hand he'd been holding . . . he always held her hand . . . and she knew that it was time for him to leave. So she'd walk him to the door. But just before he turned the locks, he'd kiss her on the forehead and tell her to call if she needed him.

And then he would go.

And he always would go between eleven and twelve.

Though she hated with everything good that was left in her, that moment when he walked out the door, she never asked him to stay later than he did. Because she knew that that was his time now with Jack.

The two of them in the nursery.

It had been her idea for him to try connecting with his son that way. While he was sleeping. And she would never upset that little routine that he'd been able to build.

It meant so much to him.

Though as Emily saw Hotch turn and look at her now, she was wondering what it was she'd just said to put that look on his face.

"Do you eat when I'm not with you?"

"What?" Emily eyes widened slightly in surprise at the question, "yeah, of course I do . . ." then she bit down on her lip, and tasting a crumb of peanut butter cookie there, her brow darkened slightly.

"No. No, I guess maybe I don't."

Seeing Aaron's brow pinch with worry at her response, Emily reached over and patted his arm.

"Don't freak out. I don't mean that I'm not eating anything. I know I had some popcorn last night. I just mean, I guess I didn't realize that I only eat meals, when you're around."

Honestly, she hadn't even noticed. But it must have been something that happened gradually. He picked her up in the morning, they went into the city and went somewhere for coffee. They'd people watch for a bit while they split a bagel or a muffin . . . sometimes a scone . . . and then they'd go off on their day.

Then at some point in the afternoon, they'd stop and get lunch, or at least a snack. Again though, they usually split a meal. The pain killers they'd been on for the first couple of weeks, had made them both a little nauseous. And nobody likes to eat when they're nauseous.

So after a couple weeks of tiny meals . . . and crushing depression . . . their appetites were not what they once were. Still though, food was fuel, and they needed fuel to build muscle and get back to work. So she certainly hadn't meant to start skipping meals.

But apparently she had been.

Because she'd only made the popcorn when she'd realized that he wasn't coming over. That was what she'd had for dinner . . . a hundred calorie bag of popcorn. And thinking back, she remembered eating an apple Sunday night . . . and then there was the day last week where she finished up the half empty jar of olives. She chased them down with a shot of vodka mixed in her diet coke. Her jaw twitched slightly.

Shit.

Now feeling some level of concern, her eyes snapped back over to Hotch's.

"Am I getting too skinny?" She asked worriedly.

Though she'd noticed . . . in an abstract way . . . that she'd tightened a notch on her belt, she hadn't really thought much about it. Her metabolism was such that she'd never had to think about her weight in general.

Even with her period, it never fluctuated more than a few pounds.

And remembering now that she'd had her period just last week . . . so with her feeling a little bloated anyway, she'd have been less even cognizant of any weight loss . . . this could have been going on for a while.

Again, shit.

Hotch reached over to pick up Emily's hand . . . he held it up in front of her.

"Look at your wrist," he turned it slightly. "See the little nob there, the way the bone protrudes so noticeably, it didn't used to do that."

Seeing her eyes widen in alarm, Hotch dropped Emily's fingers. Then he dropped his gaze to the coffee table.

He scrubbed his hand cross his mouth.

"You have to remember to eat Emily," he whispered, "if you keep this up, you're going to start losing muscle mass. And aside from that being the road to anorexia, you're not going to pass your physical," His eyes snapped back over to hers. "You get any thinner, you wouldn't have a shot of defending yourself in a physical matchup. You'd get snapped in two. They won't let you go back out in the field."

Actually, they wouldn't let them, go back out in the field. Them. That was the agreement . . . as long as they were both focused on getting back to their normal routine at work . . . they would go together, or not all. If she couldn't get cleared even for interviews . . . which she wouldn't if she kept up this weight loss . . . then he would be riding a desk as long as she was.

It would kill him.

But he would never say that aloud to her. Never add to her guilt. Still though, he could see from the glistening in her eyes, that she was remembering their agreement.

He didn't need to say anything.

"I'm sorry," Emily whispered, "I'll pay better attention. I promise. I won't screw things up." Then she tried to blink away the tears to give him a sad smile.

"How about we get a pizza? A big one, deep dish, with lots of fattening crap on it."

Idiot. All the areas she'd been worried about dropping the ball, her physical rehab, her rage, her crying jags, and she fucks up on the simplest thing.

Remembering to put food in her mouth.

Hotch's eyes crinkled slightly.

"We'll get a salad too. I don't want you to be a skinny heart attack." He reached over to pat her cheek, "and eat your cookies." Then his hand fell away.

"I'll order the pizza."

Emily picked up another cookie just when he reached over to grab her house phone off the coffee table.

"Um, I have some news," he said some distractedly while scrolling through her contacts. "That's why I came over. I wanted to talk to you about it."

"What kind of news?" Emily asked, her chewing slowing as she looked over at him in concern, "did something happen?"

Christ, what else COULD happen?

"No," Hotch put the phone to his ear and shook his head, "not like that. It's about Gideon."

Just then the girl answered the phone at the pizza place and he put his finger up, mouthing, 'one second,' to Emily. Then he looked away for a moment while he put in their delivery order.

After he was done, he put the phone back down on the table, took a sip of his tea, and pulled his leg up slightly so he could turn and face Emily next to him.

She'd finished her second cookie, a quarter of her hot beverage . . . and now her brow was furrowed with confusion.

"So what about Gideon?" She asked, "Did he take off again?"

Though she'd seen him in Louisiana, she hadn't actually had any contact with him since she'd been home.

He was the one person that had not called.

But of course they'd never really been friends. Still though . . . her jaw twitched slightly . . . it was still a dick move on his part not to call. Not that she WANTED to talk to him . . . she didn't want to talk to anyone . . . but still, a close colleague is nearly raped and BUTCHERED, and then is out on five weeks of medical leave, you could at least leave that person ONE frigging voicemail to check on how he or she is doing.

It was only polite.

Again though, Jason Gideon had never shown any interest in learning the definition of that word.

And realizing she was letting her general irritation with Gideon's bad manners, feed into her overall general disgust with the world, Emily took a breath. Then she refocused on Hotch.

He was talking.

"Uh," Hotch tipped his head, "not yet. He's still going into the office every day, and you know he's taken the team off on a couple of cases since we've been out. But he called me last night and said that once I'm cleared to come back, he's turning in his papers. He doesn't . . . well," Hotch sighed, "he said he can't do it anymore. And honestly, after what they saw down in the shafts, the mess they cleaned up for us, I'm surprised he's the only call I've gotten."

The difference between him and the others probably was, that Jason had been on the edge before that nightmare fell out of the sky. He'd already gone AWOL once before, and only came back so quickly because they'd been abducted.

He'd been forced to step up.

But now Hotch knew that with him coming back (hopefully soon) that Jason, again, wanted to step down.

And then apparently just step away all together.

Emily's fist clenched as her mouth opened . . . and then closed.

Her first reaction . . . the first words on the tip of her tongue . . . were fueled by her rage. But she was trying to get a handle again on thinking before she spoke. And the words that she wanted to speak, were to say what a selfish prick Jason Gideon was. That how DARE he cut and run now! Now, when Hotch wasn't even cleared yet to go back. And even if he was cleared next week, it was unlikely to be for more than light duty initially.

Perhaps even part-time.

So Gideon KNEW that he going to need help with the unit! And STILL he was leaving!

What a DICK!

But then she stopped . . . because she suddenly remembered his girlfriend. And Boston. And she realized that she was being cruel. Because Jason had already paid his pound of flesh to this job . . . and he'd paid it in other people's blood. People that he cared about.

People that he loved.

So who was she to say that he owed more? That he wasn't done.

Nobody could decide that for another human being. You had to make your own limits, and you had to accept when you'd reached them. When it was time to walk away.

Apparently that time had come for him.

She was just praying that time hadn't come for her . . . or for Aaron. And with her concerns about him in mind . . . she knew that he was neither physically nor mentally anywhere NEAR ready to start running that boiler room again . . . she reached over and put her hand on his knee.

"What are you going to do?" She asked worriedly, "because you know you can't take on all that stress yet. Not by yourself. It'll set you back," her jaw tightened as her fingertips pressed into his leg, "it might even set you back for good."

It could break him completely.

"I know," Hotch nodded slowly as his hand came down to cover Emily's . . . he laced their fingers together, "believe me, I know. I'm not ready. But that's why I'm here." He cleared his throat somewhat awkwardly before he took another sip of tea . . . he was a little nervous about this part.

About her reaction.

But after he put down his mug, his eyes tracked back over to Emily.

"Uh," he started slowly, "after therapy tomorrow, I want you to take a ride with me. We need to see someone. His name is Rossi. Dave Rossi. He was my chief when I first started."

"Sorry, wait," Emily cut in with a furrowed brow and a hand up, "you mean the book guy. That Dave Rossi?"

The man was a legend around the BAU . . . but he was also a retired legend. He'd been gone for years. So what the hell was he going to do to help now?

"Yeah," Hotch nodded, "that Dave Rossi. He called me a few weeks back, you know after we got home. He'd seen me on the news and wanted to see how I was doing. And we talked a little and uh," Hotch tipped his head, "he mentioned that he might be coming back to the Bureau. Granted he didn't say that he'd actually filed his papers or anything, but it didn't sound like a casual remark either. I think he was serious, and that's why I want you to meet him. I think he'd be perfect for us."

If she liked him . . . only, if she liked him. Otherwise it was all moot.

"For us?" Emily's nose wrinkled in confusion, "like, you and me?"

"Yes," Hotch blinked and shook his head, "no, well, yes, but I mean ALL of us. The team. I think he'd be a perfect fit with the team. He and Jason never really uh, well . . ." he rolled his eyes slightly, "you know how Jason can be. And Dave's a no bullshit kind of guy so he tended to call Gideon out whenever he pissed him off." Hotch's expression softened slightly. "That's why I think you'd like him. And that's why I want you to meet him. Because I'm not going to ask him to come help us out, if you're not on board. I . . . well," his voice started to thicken, "I'm not going to cause you any additional stress Emily. And a new person that rubs you the wrong way, isn't going to help your recovery."

Emily stared at Hotch for a moment, then her teeth sunk into her lower lip.

It still tasted like peanut butter.

"Oh," she cleared her throat. "Thanks, that's very thoughtful of you." she whispered.

Hotch shook his head, a sad smile touching his lips.

"No, it's actually very selfish of me. I need you. I'm going to need you more than I'm going to need him. So I want to make sure you're that you're okay with this. Because if you're not, then this isn't happening," he sighed, "we'll just figure something else out. Maybe," he shrugged, "I don't know, maybe Morgan could step in."

"Oh Aaron," Emily immediately shook her head, "you know I love Derek, and he's certainly got the alpha thing, but I don't know if that's such a good idea. You know he's got a tendency to . . ."

And Hotch cut her off with a weary sigh.

"I know," his voice faded as eyes dropped to the carpet, "believe me, I know. It wouldn't be ideal. I'm just . . ."

And then his jaw clenched and he stopped talking . . . completely. And Emily was just about to prompt him, when his eyes snapped back up to hers.

There was a faint . . . unexpected . . . sheen there.

It made her heart hurt.

"I don't know what to do Emily," Hotch whispered as he tried to blink away the moisture forming, "I have a unit to run, cases to solve, people depending on me, and I don't know what to do. I don't even know if they're going to let me walk in the door next week. And even if they do," his jaw tightened as he shook his head, "I'm not going to be near close to a hundred percent. Physically or mentally. I'm going to need help. And no offense, but obviously you're not going to be able to shoulder any of that load."

He swallowed, hard . . . then his eyes fell shut again.

"Christ," he hissed, "I just don't know what the FUCK to do."

Six weeks ago, that was an admission that he would never have been able to utter aloud. Not to anyone, and certainly not to Emily. She was just one of his agents then.

Now she was something else entirely.

And also of course . . . he reminded himself bitterly . . . a month ago, he actually had his SHIT together! He could do his fucking JOB without a nanny helping him! But back then, even if he'd had problems, he still would never have leaned on anyone. That wasn't how he operated.

He would have just sucked it up.

He used to think that he could do anything . . . that he just needed the will to make it happen.

But now he knew differently.

Because now he was living in a different world. He'd reached his capacity on sucking it up . . . and he'd reached his breaking point. He KNEW, knew it in his bones, that he was right on the edge. His will was no longer an unbendable force.

He was on the verge of falling apart.

And Emily was the only person that he trusted to keep him together. To get him out of this, this . . . existence.

But he knew that that wasn't right.

That at the very least Emily shouldn't be the only name on that list. There should be two names . . . and she shouldn't be the first. The first should be Haley.

But it wasn't.

And he was starting to accept that it never would be.

Because as he looked over at Emily, with her pretty face, and the sympathetic tears in her eyes, he had no desire to go home and see the woman that was still technically his wife.

Good Christ . . . his chest started to clench . . . when the hell did things become so complicated? Oh right . . . he thought with another faint wave of bitterness . . . six weeks ago. His whole world had been spun on a top. And now nothing was the same.

And as he felt Emily reach out to touch his hand, he knew that it never would be again.

"Oh Aaron," Emily blinked back the tears that had begun burning at the pain in his voice, "it'll be okay." She shifted slightly on the cushion, leaning over with a slight wince to wrap her arms around his neck. And when his arm slipped around her back, she pulled him close.

Squeezed him tight.

"We'll figure something out," she continued fervently with a soft whisper in his ear, "I promise. Maybe this idea with Rossi, you know maybe it'll work out fine. And then you won't have to worry anymore. But even if that doesn't pan out," she patted his shoulder, "we'll find a way. I don't know," she gave a half shrug, "maybe we could all pitch in and help with different things." Then she tried to lighten the mood by leaning back to give him a watery smile.

"I can be designated bitchy person. I'll go to your Strauss meetings for you and make her cry."

Though she'd been leaving them alone since they'd come home . . . she seemed to be wary of the attention they'd received . . . they still hadn't taken any action over the threats that she'd made. But the threats didn't matter. Emily was no longer afraid of her. Erin Strauss no longer held any power over her at all. And her joke was not an idle one. Because if she came within an INCH of Aaron now, now after all that he'd been through, Emily would destroy her.

Even if she had to call in her father to do it.

And seeing the faint twitch of Aaron's lips as his hand slid along her side, Emily was pleased that she had made him feel a little better. But then suddenly she had an overwhelming urge to lean in just a tiny bit closer. To press her lips to his . . . to see if that would make him feel better still.

To see if that would make her, feel better still.

But she knew the urge was wrong . . . very wrong . . . so she pushed it down, instead taking one of her hands from his chest, and pressing it to his cheek.

"Aaron," she continued softly, "seriously, we crawled out of a hellhole together and then down a mountain and into a ditch. That was a situation that we had no business surviving. So we're not going to get taken down now by," she rolled her eyes, "paperwork. It's just a blip. We'll get through it. Agreed?"

These were the moments where Emily knew that their newfound 'codependence,' or whatever you wanted to call it, would ultimately be what saved them. Because they were tied together now. These obstacles, things that could break them if they were handled alone, could only strengthen them if handled together. She would keep his head above water . . . and he would help her to stop screaming in the dark. They would be even.

And they would be sane.

"Yeah," Hotch swallowed over the lump in his throat, "agreed."

For a moment, they stared at each other, both of them still with watery eyes . . . and then, though he knew that he shouldn't . . . that he was crossing a new line . . . Hotch found himself sliding his other arm around Emily's waist.

And then he was tugging her over, and off the cushion . . . he had never done this before.

They, had never done this before.

"Please," he begged softly as he looked down at Emily now sitting in his lap . . . her eyes were wide with surprise. "Please, just for a minute."

He wanted to see if it would help . . . and he wanted to see if she would let him.

And he wasn't sure which he wanted more.

"Okay," Emily's expression began to soften in sympathy as she nodded slowly. "It's okay with me, if it's okay with you," then she leaned her head against his chest and added quietly, "after all, you're the one who's ma. . ."

And she trailed off, leaving a giant pink . . . Haley shaped . . . elephant in the room.

Shit.

And though she herself froze up . . . Hotch did not.

Almost like he didn't care.

Instead he shifted her closer, and folded himself down, his arms wrapping around her like a glove. His head was now resting against hers, his cheek resting against hers, and she could feel the warmth of his breath . . . it was mingling with hers.

And then after a moment, their breaths synchronized . . . and they became one.

He didn't say anything, even as his hand slid around and began to rub a gentle circle on her stomach. It took all of her self-control to bite back the words on her tongue. The questions now forming.

Why had he decided to hold her this way? Did he understand what it meant?

The intimacy of it.

And if he was doing this tonight, did that mean that he was ready to make a decision about what he was doing with his life? That he didn't want to be married anymore? And if so, did that mean that maybe he might like to change their relationship too? Did he want to do this all the time? She bit her lip.

Did he want to be with her, as badly as she wanted to be with him?

All those questions . . . and all those answers. All those answers she was terrified of hearing. Because what if this, right now, didn't mean anything to him?

Or at least, anything like it meant to her.

And her fear of that pain, or being told that it . . . she . . . really meant nothing, nothing more than the comfort of a friend, was what kept her mouth shut when she wanted to speak.

And then his hand pressed against her stomach, and she realized that she was wasting the moment. And whatever it was, or wasn't, it was moment that she might never get back. So she inhaled deeply . . . taking that breath that they shared, and making it hers. And with the exhale, she felt the tension . . . the questions . . . leaving her body.

They were for later.

And they were ruining the now.

So for just those few minutes . . . as long as they were to last . . . she decided to pretend that this was all okay. That the ring was gone, that he really was hers.

And that what they were doing wasn't wrong.

It was another lie . . . another whopper. But again the whoppers . . . she rubbed her cheek on his jaw, feeling the stubble . . . those were the ones you told yourself. And she was very curious what whoppers Aaron was speaking to his conscience right then.

But she didn't ask.

It wasn't her business.

Then she shifted slightly, her arms sliding around his torso so she could press her cheek into the curve of his neck. He tucked her closer, tighter . . . and after a minute, she sighed.

She was beginning to feel something . . . not true happiness, not quite . . . but there was something there. Something that she'd been missing.

Something that had been lost down in the dark.

And she wondered if this was what Aaron felt when he was with his son. If this is what was keeping him going. Keeping him steady.

Was this why his self-control . . . his rage . . . seemed to be better repressed than hers?

Suddenly she was terribly jealous of that little baby boy. And she was terribly sad for herself. Because this thing that she'd just found again, this . . . feeling, it was about to be taken away from her.

And she didn't know if she would ever get it back.

Finally . . . as her eyes began to sting . . . his grip on her began to loosen. At least ten minutes had passed since he'd pulled her into his lap. And then he lifted his head . . . and that breath was taken away.

Her chest clenched.

"Thank you," he murmured, "thank you for that."

And then his hands . . . and his arms . . . and that feeling, they were all falling away. She was falling back into the dark.

And she wanted to weep.

But crying wasn't going to fix it. It wasn't going to make that little gold band disappear. So she pushed back her tears . . . or tried to anyway . . . to put her hand on the back of the sofa. And with Aaron's help . . . his hand on her back . . . she pushed herself to her feet.

He looked up at her, and she looked down at him. His eyes were sad . . . they matched the faint smile touching her lips.

"We can't do that again. Not until you . . ."

She swallowed the next word, realizing she was stepping into that bed that wasn't hers to step into.

So she started again, her breath hitching slightly.

"We just can't do that again, okay?"

Her voice cracked on the last word . . . she was amazed that she got that far. No matter how much he was hurting, she couldn't let him think that they could start doing that so that he would feel better. That he could have both worlds. One with the ring.

And one without it.

Because she was hurting too.

And to have him hold her that way . . . like she was all there was, and all he wanted . . . he couldn't do that unless he meant it. Really, meant it. Because otherwise it was all a lie. And she would take the lie from herself.

But not from him.

From him it was a cruelty too bitter to bear.

When she saw then that his eyes had begun to water just as hers were, a tear slipped down her cheek. She could see the remorse on his face, the way his mouth was twisted with regret. But just when he went to say the words, she put her finger over his lips.

"Don't be sorry," another tear spilled over, "just be sure. And until you are," she shook her head, her words firm . . . and hard, "don't do it again."

Then she waited until he had nodded, before finally pulling her hand away.

"I'm going to go wash my face," she managed to pull out another faint smile. It was small and watery . . . but it was for him. So she was able to hold it for a moment.

"And I'm not angry," she added softly, "I promise. I would tell you if I was. You know that I would."

And with that . . . she walked away.

The smile had fallen before she turned.

Hotch twisted to watch Emily head down towards the little bathroom off the front hall. When the door clicked shut, he turned back around and scrubbed his hands down his face.

GOD! What the FUCK was he doing?!

He hadn't meant to hurt her with what he'd done . . . it hadn't even occurred to him that he would. It was something he did with Jack . . . something that made him feel grounded.

Connected.

Better.

And he'd just wanted to see if he would feel the same if he held Emily that way. Of course he'd known it was wrong. The act might have been simple, but without any familial connection . . . she wasn't a child . . . the innocence of it was lost.

Then it had begun to attain a true intimacy that he hadn't expected . . . but that hadn't bothered him either. Even once he'd realized that the exercise was one perhaps better tried with a wife, and not . . . his breath hitched . . . well, whatever Emily was.

And his eyes started to water again as he pondered his relationships with these two very different women. He hadn't wanted to try that with Haley, because he hadn't wanted that connection with her. He'd wanted that connection with Emily. And he'd wanted to see, if she wanted that connection with him.

She had.

But he hadn't realized how much. And how much he had taken by what he had done. But she was the one that he wanted to be with right now. Because his wife . . . his poor Haley . . . he just couldn't stand to see her anymore. She was the constant reminder of a world . . . a life . . . that was now lost to him.

She lived on another planet.

And it was a terrible thing to admit to himself, but he hated now to even be in the house when she was there. It was like she was a stranger. And the ONE time that his guilt over his rejection of her had overwhelmed him, he had tried to push beyond that sensation. He tried to remember what she used to be.

The love of his life.

So he decided to try one last time to get back into that old world, that old life . . . to make love to the woman still sharing his bed. He wanted to see if he would feel anything. And he had.

Regret . . . and disgust . . . and anger.

It had been a COLOSSAL mistake. It was nearly as bad as if he hadn't been able to perform.

His teeth ground together as he remembered back.

She'd . . . violated, his space. And he knew that was a terribly harsh way of judging what she had done. After all she was his wife, and the act that they were engaged in couldn't have been more physically intimate . . . he was inside of her . . . but when she'd pressed her lips to that scar, she'd taken more of him than he'd been ready to offer to anyone.

And she'd taken it without asking.

She should have known better. He didn't even like her touching his old scars. For almost twenty years she had kept her hands . . . and her lips . . . from wandering to places that made him uncomfortable.

And then she'd broken that unspoken covenant.

And though he had finished what they started simply so he wouldn't have to go finish by himself in the bathroom, there was no turning back from that moment.

A moment when he'd hated her just a little bit.

And that was a new sensation for him . . . the hatred that is. Because he had felt a lot of things for Haley Brooks Hotchner over the years, and hatred had never one of them. There was a time . . . long ago . . . when he adored her. But over time, that level of attachment had changed. Morphed into something else. Something less . . . intense.

But that was normal.

Or at least that's what he told himself.

Marriages had an ebb and a flow . . . you could keep loving someone, but it was impossible to ADORE one person for your whole life.

Wasn't it?

It seemed to be. Or at least it seemed to be for him, and he had nothing to compare his life too but that of his own experiences.

Still though, up until six months ago, his love for his wife . . . if not his adorement . . . had not been in question.

At least it hadn't been questioned by him.

But then they'd begun to fight . . . and then they'd begun to fight all the time. And part of him had known that things were slipping away . . . that his marriage was starting to crumble around the edges . . . but still, he loved her.

He did.

He was almost sure that he did.

Almost.

But then he went on that trip, that terrible trip, and now he wasn't sure of anything. Everything . . . his life . . . was falling down around him. It wasn't just the edges of his marriage that were crumbling, it was the entire foundation.

It had fallen out from beneath him.

And though he didn't see how it was possible to fall completely out of love with the person that had been his whole world for half his life, he could see that that was what was happening.

And that terrified him.

Because mostly what he really felt now for her was indifference. And that wasn't even an emotion! Not really. He still cared for her, in an abstract way. And he would still die for her, because she was still the mother of his child . . . but was she really anything else?

They were no longer lovers, they were no longer friends . . . they weren't anything.

They were just roommates.

And how the hell do you sustain a marriage, when you don't even have MEASURABLE level of affection left for the woman that you're supposed to adore?

You can't.

Or at least he didn't think that you could. And even if you could . . . he didn't think that you should. Sometimes things ended whether you wanted them to or not. And sometimes you just had to accept that.

Accept it and let it go.

And it seemed unkind . . . cruel . . . to keep Haley bound to him, when he wanted nothing to do with her. She deserved better.

Hell, ANYONE, would deserve better!

But he couldn't quite walk away. Not yet. He wasn't ready. Because it seemed . . . reckless. He'd not only be ending a marriage . . . but destroying his family. Leaving Jack in a broken home.

And he'd be doing that within weeks of suffering a terrible trauma.

Perhaps what was happening now . . . this distance . . . it would pass. Maybe things would get better.

'Or maybe they wouldn't . . . maybe it was already too late to fix it before you went away,' his conscience whispered, 'and maybe now you've already moved on.'

And though Hotch winced at the thought . . . that he could be that man . . . he couldn't deny that there was more than a shred of truth to that conclusion. Because Emily . . . this new Emily that she had become, and the old one that he could still catch glimmers of now and then . . . they were both seeping into his bones.

He was falling in love.

That was the tug when she pulled her hand away . . . he wanted to pull it back. But that was wrong. So, wrong. But he felt more connected . . . happier . . . with her, than he had with his wife even before he'd stepped on that plane. And it wasn't just what had happened up on that mountain either.

It was more than that.

But his emotions were all mixed up, upside down. And he was trying to keep some lines drawn. A kiss on the forehead . . . versus a kiss on the lips. The fact that he slept on her bedroom floor . . . and not in her bed. Her snuggling into his side on the couch was okay . . . cuddling in his lap . . . as they had done tonight, was not.

Those differences mattered.

Except they didn't.

Because even if he no longer felt the emotion . . . he could remember it. And he remembered what it was like to adore Haley. And he knew back then . . . back when he FELT, married . . . that all of it would have been wrong.

And now it was all a grey area.

Except again, he thought bitterly, it wasn't. It was only grey because he said it was. Because he'd DECIDED that these things were okay.

When they really weren't.

Not if his vows still meant anything to him. And now he could see that not only was he trapping Haley in a life that he no longer wanted, or could see himself going back to, but he was also capable of hurting Emily in a way that he had never intended.

By letting her think that he was ready for something that he wasn't.

Not yet.

And she'd said that he had to be sure . . . that he wasn't to touch her like that again until he was. But he didn't know when he WOULD be sure! Everything was still so raw, their scars were, quite literally, still healing. So how was he supposed to know if it was time . . . if it was RIGHT . . . to walk away from the only, grown-up life, he had ever known?

He just didn't know what to do.

And unlike the cluster that was work, he had nobody to talk to about this one. Emily . . . obviously . . . couldn't help. Not when she was part of the equation.

And he had no one else.

Aaron's thoughts stuttered to a halt as he heard the bathroom door open again. He quickly stood, turning to catch Emily's eyes as she started back down the hall. And he wanted to say the words that she didn't want to hear . . . that he was sorry. And he wanted to say the thing that she'd asked for before, that he promised not to do it again.

But those words . . . said and unsaid . . . had already been covered. So instead he started fresh.

"Are you all right?" he whispered, as he walked towards her. And she gave him a little smile, stopping in the middle of the hall to fold her hands tightly together.

"I am."

Her voice was soft, and their eyes were locked together. Hotch was listening to the album that had continued to play . . . her Best of U2, 80s to 90s. They'd listened to it many times before. And the song had changed close to a half dozen times since he'd been there that night. And it had just changed again. The new song made his chest hurt.

With Or Without You

That was the question.

"Would it be all right," he asked softly, though still holding his ground, "if I gave you a hug?"

Though he had accepted that he had already gone too far tonight, he couldn't let it go until he was sure that things were okay again. Next to his son, his relationship with Emily . . . regardless of how it was defined, and regardless of the state of his marriage . . . was presently the most important in his life.

This needed to be fixed.

"Yes," Emily nodded, her eyes crinkling slightly, "that would be all right."

She stepped forward then and the clasp on her fingers loosened . . . she opened her arms.

He walked into them.

Though he pulled her to his chest, his hold was loose, gentle . . . he wasn't taking anything more than he'd already taken. Not without asking.

And not until he was sure he knew what . . . who . . . he wanted.

Still though, he let the embrace go on . . . let it go until she decided it was time to stop. And she only stopped because of the knock on the door.

Her head tipped back, and she gave him another faint smile.

"Pizza's here."

Aaron nodded slowly.

"It is." And then his arm came up, he cupped her jaw.

"You have to eat your salad first," he said with a faint dimple, "no skinny heart attacks."

And then he let her go.

One hand slipped into his pocket to pull out his wallet, the other reached up to pat her good shoulder as he walked by.

Emily's eyes dropped to the floor . . . the smile had fallen away. Her stomach hurt.

He was going to break her heart.


A/N 2: So you can see, Hotch is aware of the mess he's in with the two of them. Not just that his marriage is limping to the finish line, but that his romantic affection, and physical attraction, is shifting from Haley to Emily. Though note he didn't really ponder much on the pain he's causing his wife, because he's somewhat oblivious on that point. He's so used to cutting Haley out of his work life anyway, which led to their divorce in canon, that this version of him now would be AS oblivious on that point. He just doesn't want to see her, and knows he's being a jerk, but not really seeing that it's bigger than that.

Here again, trying to stay away from previous incarnations of them, this isn't like Girl proper where either of them are oblivious about their feelings. They know it, they're dancing around them, trying to step back from them, but they are AWARE they exist, and they're both aware that they want to act on them, but they can't. It was a new way of doing this. Because here, with them bonded so intimately and intensely (and quickly) by what had happened, you see this version of them don't experience 'happiness' the same way anymore anyway. Not right now. Even toddler Jack isn't enough to reach Hotch that way. But he knows that Emily is a person he can connect with, the only adult person, so every time he feels lost, he seeks her out. And now we're stepping into their lives at this point where he begins to push that boundary a little too far. And then he does to Emily, the same thing he's doing to Haley. So, obviously, Hotch needs to get his head/heart straight or there will be continued romantic angst all around. There will be general angst to come anyway, their mental states will be ongoing, but obviously if I drag the triangle thing out too long as is now, Hotch will just come off as a complete dick :) He's not leaving Haley immediately though, because that is a huge decision to end your marriage and break up your family. Or at least it should be a huge decision, though for some people it seems to be one taken quite casually. So though Hotch might be making a bigger mess of things, he still isn't THAT guy.

And fortunately for Hotch who has no other friends, Dave's about to ride in on a big black stallion! Yay, Rossi! If you're new to my stuff, I'm huge fan of Rossi. As I say, couldn't love him more if he came with a free beer. And I'd mentioned season 3 would be re-envisioned by what had happened to them. So though obviously we're out of canon, some events from canon will be worked into this world. But in new ways. Like Gideon leaving and Rossi replacing him. Because really, even if Mandy Patinkin hadn't just stopped going to work, they had burned Gideon out. So I let him leave here with a bit more class than on the show, because he did at least stick around for Hotch to get better. And Rossi still gets to come back for the same reasons, that case, but he won't be swaggering in all cocky like they had him do in canon before they got a handle on his character and realized easy going was better for the team. I think right now, regular, easy going Rossi, is the right mix to step in and help them out.

Unless I get an idea for something in between, the planned next chapter will be them visiting Dave at the McMansion. Either way, though I was fighting it because I do have other stories to update :) I figured I'd just let the muse keep cranking these out as long as she was so focused and doing them so quickly (2 in less than a week!) But the second I start hitting a drag point on any upcoming chapters, which is normal, I'm going to start juggling this one like I do the others. Which is, the best I can :) But for now, we'll just keep bulking up the chapters, and you can keep your fingers crossed that maybe we'll get a couple of more listings in the dropdown.

I am getting through my reviews, thanks everyone, and I had a few notes on PTSD/ASD, diagnoses from people who actually knew what they were talking about (unlike me!) and thank you so much for those! I have definitely made note of what you shared, and will be writing back to you, I promise :)