Hotch turned off the ignition and clicked open his seatbelt. He glanced over at Emily, who had one hand on the edge of her seat and the other pressed to her chest. He could have sworn he saw a bead of nervous sweat trickle down her chin.
"What?" he asked, his face the picture of innocence.
She shot him a glare out of the corner of her eye and licked her lips. "I hate the way you drive."
He glanced at the time on the dashboard and said, "We're early."
"We didn't need to be!" She released her seatbelt and took a deep, steadying breath. "Just because you have a shiny gold badge in your tailored silk pocket, doesn't mean you can run red lights, Aaron."
"I did no such thing. Not one of those lights was red."
"Maybe not when you stepped on the gas, which is the exact opposite of what you're supposed to do at a yellow light. I counted at least 3 lights that were red as we went under them." Emily flipped down the visor and surveyed her reflection in the little mirror. She ran a delicate ring finger around the edge of her lips and fluffed the ends of her hair.
Hotch shrugged. "Details." He exited the car and, ever the gentleman, quickly moved to open her door for her. She was adjusting her necklace in the mirror. "Em," he asked, looking perplexed, "does your appearance really matter that much?"
Emily snapped the visor shut and took the proffered hand as she got out of the car. "Yes," she replied evenly, "because I want to pretend this is real. It won't be fun otherwise."
He shook his head with a smile and closed her car door before locking it. He reached for her hand as they began to walk down the sidewalk, and she slid her fingers into his with a grin. He kissed the top of her head and muttered, "I still can't believe we're doing this."
She was looking up at the street sign and checking her Blackberry. "I've got the hotel address," she said, "and we've only got two blocks if we go… this way. No, that becomes a different street. It's this way. Right? No. Yes. This way. Definitely."
"Are you sure, Em? I don't want to end up in Tijuana."
She thumped his arm with her Blackberry. "Take it up with Pierre L'Enfant, Aaron, I'm just the navigator."
He squeezed her hand gently. "Thank God the Bureau saw fit to shell out for GPS systems," he said with a wink.
Emily winked back at him. "Let's go, silly."
Hotch let go of her hand to wrap his arm around her shoulders. He hugged her closer against his tall, warm frame as the wind picked up, and she placed her arm around his waist with a grateful smile.
After a few minutes of walking in silence, Emily nudged her head against his shoulder. "Don't look so serious, sweetheart. You're trying to get women to like you, remember?" When he gave her a look, she amended, "Women other than me. You know I like your serious look."
"I still don't understand why we're going to a speed dating party. Forgive me if I was misinformed, but aren't those for singles?"
She nodded. "You told me if I wanted more off-the-wall dates, I had to think of them myself," she replied. "So I thought it would be funny to pretend to be single and get to know people as potential dating prospects, and then laugh about them on the car ride home."
"Funny?" he repeated.
"Especially since you know you're going to peg half the men as potential serial killers. Isn't this going to be a blast?"
He snorted. "Watching nineteen men ogle you while nineteen women try to distract me from watching you get ogled. Remind me why we're not watching the baseball game instead?"
Emily pouted. "Because the Nationals are going to lose as long as Ryan Zimmerman's out, and if he's—"
"Not playing third base, then what the hell is the point in watching?" Hotch finished for her. "Yes, I know you're crushing on him."
"You're not threatened by that at all?"
He tilted his head for a moment as if in thought, and then shook his head emphatically. "I know you only like older men," he declared. She laughed and leaned her cheek on his arm. "I could feel threatened if I chose to," he said seriously. "But I don't. I have an unhealthy amount of self-confidence. As long as you still kiss me goodnight, I'm fine with your schoolgirl crushes on Ryan Zimmerman and George Clooney and Ringo Starr and Chuck Palahniuk—"
"I hope you mean the author, not my cat."
Hotch looked up at the cloudy sky as though praying for patience. "My point is, I wouldn't have agreed to this speed dating thing if I wasn't comfortable with it."
Emily pondered this for a moment, and then asked, "So if I end up really making a connection with some attractive young man today…"
"I'll go after him like Morgan goes after a door," Hotch said without missing a beat.
She chuckled as they crossed the street. "Time to let go of me, my alpha-male," she said, extracting her arm from around his waist. "We have to pretend we're not together." She checked her watch. "You go in. I'll wait a minute before I come in."
He raised a dark eyebrow at her. "We're not teenagers in a bathroom, Em. This isn't some complicated sting operation."
"Laugh it up, chuckles," Emily said, glaring at him. "People won't take us seriously if they know we're dating."
Hotch leaned down and kissed her. She kept her lips firmly pressed together, defiant against the onslaught of his soft tongue. When he pulled away, a disappointed frown forming on his face, she shrugged and said, "Maybe if you don't look at too many other women, I'll give you more later." She winked and pushed him towards the door. "Go in, Aaron. One hour, and I'm yours. And we can listen to the baseball game on the radio on the way home."
"You know the baseball's what I'm looking forward too, right?" He smirked.
She shoved him playfully. "Move it!"
Hotch laughed and opened the door to the Carlyle Suites Hotel. Emily watched him go, smiling to herself. It was at moments like this that she knew without a doubt that she loved Aaron Hotchner. She loved that he put up with her impulsive exuberance, loved his unexpected willingness to step outside his comfort zone to make her happy. He was one of the most noble, kindhearted, determined, and fiercely loyal people she had ever met, and she loved that his loyalty was to her. Emily grinned roguishly at the thought of the women he'd meet over the next hour. Hotch was an undeniably attractive man; he was courteous, sophisticated, and successful, and she knew that he was a catch for any woman. Sometimes, it still surprised her that of all the women he could have had, Hotch had chosen her. She knew she was incredibly lucky, and there was a wicked part of her that couldn't wait to watch nineteen hopeful speed-daters drool over a man they couldn't have.
Emily gave a cursory glance to her Blackberry before switching it to silent mode and tucking it into the pocket of her jeans. If it wasn't an immediate emergency, she didn't want to hear about it. Today was a day for Aaron and Emily.
"Well, ladies and gentlemen," the announcer boomed through the crackling speakers of the hotel conference room, "your time to make a love connection is almost through…. But never fear, because you've got one more person to chat up—and they just might be your soulmate!"
Hotch sank into the twentieth chair and exhaled loudly, running a hand through his hair.
"Hi, I'm Emily!" sang a chipper voice from across the table.
He squeezed his eyes shut and almost groaned. "Em, please." He sneaked a glance at the clock above the announcers head. They had barely killed ten seconds. "I can't do this anymore." Emily kicked him under the table, and he winced sharply. "Fine," he conceded, leaning towards the table. He put out his hand and said, "I'm Aaron."
Emily grinned, which had an instant soothing effect on Hotch's frayed nerves, and put her hand in his. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Aaron." She tilted her head to the side and added in a conspiratorial whisper, "More than these other men, anyway."
Hotch shook his head with a smile. "Thanks, Em."
She winked. "So, Aaron," she said, fiddling with her nametag, "what do you do for a living?"
Another glance at the clock told him that they hadn't even reached one minute yet. "Well," he answered begrudgingly, "I work for the FBI."
Her eyes sparkled mischievously. "The FBI?" she repeated, sounding enthralled. "What a coincidence—I work at Quantico, too! What do you do?"
He openly groaned this time and crossed his arms over his chest, earning puzzled stares from the couples around them. This time, it was the heel of her boot that jabbed at his ankle. He sent her a patented Hotch glare, complete with appropriately furrowed brow and disapproving head tilt, but she seemed (as she did more and more often lately) to have a shield against it. Seeing that she was determined to play this out to the end, he finally said, "I work in the Behavioural Analysis Unit."
"That sounds fascinating!"
Hotch took a deep breath. If Emily could compartmentalize and put on an act, he could, too. "It can be. And it's very rewarding at times, when we're able to help. It involves a lot of traveling, though." He lifted the flimsy paper coffee cup to his lips and took a long drink.
Emily nodded. "I have to fly around a lot for my job, too. Luckily we've got a private jet." She studied her nails and then added innocently, as if an afterthought, "I have to admit, though, I've fantasized about joining the Mile High Club with my boss."
Hotch began choking violently and dropped his coffee on the floor. He waved off the concerned-looking couple next to them and, once he had regained control of his lungs, shot an even fiercer glare at Emily. All doe-eyed innocence, she frowned slightly and placed a hand on his elbow. He let it rest there and looked up at the clock with all the enthusiasm of an inmate on death row. One minute down, two to go.
"Are you all right, Aaron?" she asked. "I hope I didn't startle you." She picked up his coffee cup and tossed it in the trash, whispering, "We'll stop at Starbucks on the way home." Returning to her normal volume, she asked, "Don't you want to know what my hobbies are?"
"I have a feeling you're going to tell me, regardless of my answer."
Emily tucked her hair behind her ear and rested her chin in her hand. "Well, I love reading—that's what gets me through those long plane rides. I'm a fan of Kurt Vonnegut and Chuck Palahniuk especially. I actually named my cat after Chuck Palahniuk—"
"Who knew?" Hotch interjected drily.
"Shut up. I also like Woody Allen movies, especially the older ones. I'm not really into sports, but I like baseball and I follow the Nationals through thick and thin. And… let's see. I like to do kickboxing, when I have the time."
Hotch tore his eyes away from the clock—they were in the home stretch—and looked at Emily with genuine curiosity. "You kickbox?" he asked.
She nodded and said, "I got into it in college, you know, and then it sort of fell by the wayside after I graduated. I found a good gym near my apartment when I moved to Washington, though, so I try to get to classes whenever I'm in town. I'm told it's great for my physique." She winked as the lines around his eyes slowly began to smooth. "All right," she continued, leaning back in her chair, "we've got less than a minute. What do you do for fun, Aaron?" He opened his mouth to answer, but she interrupted, "I'm sorry, not fun. What do you do in your free time?"
"Deal with disrespectful and inappropriate subordinates." She gave him a pointed look, and he amended, "I watch baseball and… and try to spend time with my son."
Emily's smile grew wider as her brown eyes softened. "Aaron…." She reached her hand under the table and rested it on his knee. Hotch grasped her fingertips and gave her a warm smile. "Tell you what—" she began.
"Ten, nine—" The announcer said into the microphone.
"Why don't you bring over Jack tonight—"
"—whip up some macaroni and cheese—"
"That sounds perfect," Hotch whispered, squeezing her hand under the table.
A gong sounded from up on the stage, causing them both to jump in their seats. "And your time us up!" called the announcer. "I hope you had a wonderful time today and made some connections. Now, if you can form a line over here to submit who you'd like to get in touch with…. If two of you picked each other, we'll send out your contact information!"
Emily and Hotch cut quietly to the front of the line and each slipped the announcer a blank card. They met up at the door and exited the hotel, rounding the corner quickly. Emily managed to keep silent until they were halfway down the block before she leaned against the wall and burst out laughing.
"Oh… my god…" she managed to say between giggles, "that was too funny." She dabbed at her eyes with the back of her hand. "Some of those men… oh my god. No wonder they're single. Were the women awful, too?"
Hotch snorted. "I'm glad you were amused," he said, but the corners of his eyes were crinkling with the beginnings of a smile. "Come on, there's a Starbucks by the Metro station. You can tell me all about your harrowing experience."
Emily took a deep breath and exhaled loudly. She straightened her jacket and brushed her hair out of her eyes, and Hotch offered her his arm. She wrapped her fingers around his elbow and smiled up at him, her eyes sparkling. He placed his other hand under her chin and kissed her sweetly. "I've been dying to do that for the last hour," he whispered against her lips, closing his eyes and breathing in the scent of her apple shampoo that he loved so much.
"Kissing in public," she murmured back. "Who are you and what have you done with Aaron Hotchner?"
He began leading them down the street. "Well," he replied, "maybe I got a little possessive after seeing you with all those men. From what I saw, that last one before me was pretty charming."
"So was Ted Bundy," she quipped. "You weren't worried about me, were you?"
"I have enough faith in your skills as both a profiler and a kickboxer to trust you to be able to take care of yourself." They crossed the street, and Hotch suddenly looked concerned. With uncharacteristic hesitation, he asked, "Out of curiosity, why did you just compare one of your speed dates to Ted Bundy?"
"Oh, just a vibe," Emily said airily. "He was charming, as you said—almost unnervingly so. And I think he might have had a foot fetish."
He raised an eyebrow and asked, "Are you sure he wasn't just trying to play footsie with you, Em?"
"He was stroking my foot with his. It was so weird." She lifted her hand to shield her eyes from the sun and peered ahead. "There's the Starbucks. Come on, I'll tell you all about my speed dating adventures when we get there."
Hotch shook his head, marveling at Emily's cavalier attitude towards (in his opinion) such a potentially dangerous man. The nudge of his backup Glock against his ankle sent a spark of reassurance through his body. He knew Emily was more than capable of holding her own, but he still felt an almost insatiable need to protect her. It was partly why he almost always sent her into the field with Morgan or himself. He knew that Emily was the property of no man, but her fidelity and love were his and no one else's, and that was more than worth protecting.
Despite being temporarily lost in his thoughts, Hotch automatically reached for the door at Starbucks and held it open for Emily. She smiled as she entered the store and quipped, "As charming as Ted Bundy." He gave her a warning look and came to stand behind her in the long line. She clasped her hands behind her back and he covered them with his, squeezing her fingers lightly.
The line moved forward slightly, and Emily craned her neck towards the counter. Frowning, she leaned back against Hotch's chest and whispered, "Can we pull the Miss Congeniality move where Sandra Bullock flashes her badge to jump the line?"
He nudged the top of her head with his chin. "Emily…"
"I know, I know… unprofessional. Sorry, sir."
The reminder of their work relationship always caused Hotch to blush uncharacteristically. He knew she was kidding, and that she even did it to annoy him on purpose sometimes, but the juxtaposition of her place on his team and her place in his love life was something he was still adjusting to.
They finally managed to reach the counter without violating any Bureau rules (fraternization policies notwithstanding). Emily brightly ordered a coffee "with plenty of room" and reached into her purse to pay, but Hotch stopped her and added, "And a grande Pike Place roast, no room." As the cashier turned to fill their orders, Emily gave Hotch a disapproving pout. He shook his head resolutely.
"Ever the obnoxiously unflappable gentleman," she complained.
"Better than the nineteen potential unsubs who were flirting with you for the last hour," he replied calmly, sliding his credit card across the counter. He tucked it back into his wallet after the cashier rang up their order, picked up his coffee, and then took Emily by the elbow and led her to a secluded booth in the corner.
"Really, Aaron," she said in a low voice, glancing about surreptitiously, "we've got to stop meeting like this."
"Cute," he said dryly. He frowned as she picked up her coffee and stood. "Where are you going?"
"Cream and sugar," she said simply, before marching off in the direction of the counter. She was back within moments, dumping yellow packets of Splenda across the table.
Hotch stared at the little pile of sweeteners as though surveying a particularly perplexing crime scene. He blinked several times and—like clockwork—his brow furrowed. "When did you graduate to five packets?"
"How perceptive of you. You should consider a career in behavioural analysis." She began stirring Splenda into her coffee. "I like my coffee sweeter when the weather's cold."
"Sweeter? Em, do you want some coffee with your sugar? Do you even like the taste of coffee?"
"On you, yes." She took a sip and, seeing his confused look over the top of her cup, explained, "You taste like coffee and dark chocolate."
"You taste like coffee and dark chocolate," Emily repeated seriously. "I'll test it later if you don't believe me, but right now I want to hear about your speed dating escapades."
Hotch shook his head and made a mental note to ask her about this 'taste' thing later. "Not until you tell me about that Bundy character."
She shrugged. "Number 19? I think his name was Jerry." She crossed her legs and continued, "I don't know, I just got a weird vibe from him. He was very charming, almost overly so. And I told you he was playing footsie with me in the most invasive way possible."
Hotch's fingers curled reflexively.
"He had some hang-ups about an ex-girlfriend. Probably killed her or something—oh, Aaron, don't look so terrified, I was kidding. I just don't want to be around when his stressor hits. Anyway," Emily concluded, "now you have to tell me about one of the women."
He reached into his pocket, sighing, and pulled out the sheet of notes that the announcer had suggested they all record. "The first few were fairly normal," he said, glancing over the paper. "Number four… oh, Candy. Her histrionic personality disorder was almost terrifyingly obvious."
"Really?" She sounded fascinated. "What made you think that?"
Hotch looked uncomfortable. "It's… not really fair to talk about her behind her back." Seeing Emily's face, he quickly added, "Besides, I'm not qualified to diagnose these things."
"Please, Aaron." Her brown eyes pleaded with him. "For me?"
Unfair as it was, he had to give in. "Her shirt was far too low-cut, and she kept leaning forward—her intentions were pretty obvious. And she almost cried when I said I didn't see the appeal of the film noir genre. She said something about her parents being separated—I'd guess that the ordeal of their divorce had an effect on the development of the disorder, if she has it. She certainly had all the signs." He swirled the coffee around in his cup and took a sip before proceeding. "Although I have to say, there were several women who seemed to be making inappropriate advances."
Emily snorted, but there was a glint of jealousy in her eye. "I expected as much," she said. "As Garcia says, you're a supreme specimen of man candy."
For the second time in as many hours, Hotch found himself choking on coffee. This time, however, he managed to keep things under control and prevent anything from being spilled. "Why do you always do this to me?" he asked once he had recovered his breath. "I should just stop drinking around you." He pursed his lips. "So, who else do I have to kill?"
She grinned over her coffee and pulled her own sheet of notes from her purse, scanning it quickly. "Hmm… Normal, normal, normal… Oh, you'd have liked Dominic. I think he might be Rossi's long-lost twin."
Hotch raised an eyebrow. "Do I want to know?"
Emily tucked her hair behind her ear. "Older Italian man, triple divorcee," she listed. "He even looked like Rossi, but a little skinnier. He was very flattering; he said he couldn't believe I was single."
"I think he was flirting with you, Em. That's the point of speed dating, you know."
"Nonsense. If he was flirting with me, then half the things Rossi says to me on a daily basis would qualify as sexual harassment."
"Half the things Dave says do qualify as sexual harassment. This Dominic character is probably going to follow you home and watch you through your window and hide in your closet until you're asleep and—"
"Aaron, sweetheart, he's not a serial killer. Lie down before you hurt yourself." Seeing the look he gave her, she blew him a kiss and added, "You know I appreciate your concern. I love my big strong caveman." She glanced back at the paper in her hand. "Oh," she said suddenly, "I meant to ask you about number 9—the woman you were talking to when I was talking to Dominic? With the red hair?"
Hotch frowned. "Why did you… Oh. That woman." He cleared his throat awkwardly. "Right. She was… interesting."
"Interesting?" Emily laughed incredulously. "She was squealing your name! Did you not notice the entire room staring at you two for half a minute?" She rested her chin on the heel of her hand and raised her eyebrows. "Well?" she asked. "Who was she?"
He groaned and ran his hand over his face. "Her name's Elaine. I knew her back in college."
"Knew her?" Emily repeated cheekily.
"We had one class together freshman year. We had to do something together one time, a project or a study group or something."
"And 'study group' is a euphemism for…?"
Hotch glared at her over the rim of his coffee cup and replied, "Study group, Emily. Do you want to hear this story or not?"
He sighed and leaned back in the booth, looking towards the ceiling. "Elaine liked me. I didn't particularly care, because I was seeing another girl at the time—" he sneaked a look at Emily to check for signs of jealousy, "—and Elaine didn't handle it very well. She was shocked that I didn't immediately dump my girlfriend for her. She made things very… uncomfortable when we were studying." A slight blush tinged Hotch's cheeks as he fell silent.
Emily nudged him with her foot under the table.
Grudgingly, Hotch continued, "She would do inappropriate things, like put her hand on my leg while we were working. And I started seeing her around campus all the time, like she was following me. She would show up everywhere I ate lunch, everywhere I studied…. Sometimes she wouldn't even say hello; she'd just sit there and watch me when she thought I wasn't looking. It was—"
"Creepy? Stalkerish? The kind of thing you think of years later when the police officer says, 'Did you ever suspect she could do something like this?'" Emily sipped her coffee.
"Who's pegging speed dates as potential unsubs now?" Hotch countered with a wink.
She pushed his elbow playfully. "So, she was excited to see you, I take it?"
He groaned. "You heard her, Em. She couldn't believe 'how lucky it was that fate had brought us together', if you can believe that. She said she'd been waiting her whole life for me to come back to her." He gave a shudder and looked at her imploringly.
"Poor baby," Emily said, rubbing his shoulder. "I would have tried to save you, but I was too busy laughing."
Hotch glared at her, knowing it was futile, and rolled his eyes. "You can be so ridiculous sometimes, Em."
"'Sometimes' is a bit of an understatement," she quipped brightly, glancing at her watch. "Are you ready to head out? We could probably catch the last couple of innings on the radio."
"Sounds like a plan." He secured the lid on his coffee and buttoned his jacket, waiting for her to do the same. When they were both ready, he laced his fingers through hers and led them through the crowd of customers in line towards the door. They braced themselves against the wind and stepped outside.
"Aaron! Hey, Aaron!"
The couple turned around. A redheaded woman was waving her arm frantically from a few yards away. Emily and Hotch recognized her instantly and exchanged twin looks of terror. Hotch itched to grab Emily and run as far as they could in the opposite direction. Instead, he put on a brave, tight-lipped smile and said, "Hello, Elaine."
The woman hurried towards them, but stopped short when she saw their clasped hands. She shot Emily an incredulous look. "You?" she said acidly.
Emily looked around, as if there might be someone else that Elaine was talking to. "Uh, yeah," she said. "Me." She glanced at Hotch out of the corner of her eye.
Elaine crossed her arms over her chest and stared at Hotch as though he'd done something to personally offend her. Ignoring Emily, she said, "She was at the dating thing."
Hotch felt Emily squeeze his hand. "Yes, she was," he replied. Had Elaine seen through their secret?
"Unbelievable, Aaron," she huffed. "Unbelievable."
"Elaine, please don't do this in public—"
"You led me on, Aaron. You said we were brought together by fate!"
"Actually," Emily put in, "that's what he told me you said."
Elaine stared at Emily, and for a moment, it seemed as though she might bite her head off. She took a deep breath, tossed her curls over her shoulder, and fixed Hotch with a guilt-inducing stare that reminded him of Rossi. "Aaron," she finally said, "you mean to tell me that you met this—this—"
"Emily," the brunette supplied helpfully, earning a scowl.
"—You met this Emily less than an hour ago, and you're already canoodling in Starbucks?"
Hotch let out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. She didn't know they'd already been dating. Actually, now that he considered it, would it have been so bad if Elaine had discovered the truth? He opened his mouth to explain how he really came by the right to 'canoodle' with Emily, but was interrupted by a loud, smacking kiss on his cheek.
Emily pulled away, dabbing at her lipstick, and smiled at Elaine with a sweetness as false as her beloved Splenda. "Well, I mean, just look at him," she simpered. "He's gorgeous. A… a supreme specimen of man candy. When he sat down across from me at the table…" She winked.
Well, it wouldn't be polite to say what I wanted to do to him right then. But I just had to get him home!"
Elaine's eyes flashed between the two and finally settled on Hotch, who was battling a fierce blush and the uncontrollable urge to laugh. "Aaron?" she demanded. "Do you have anything to say for yourself?"
Hotch gathered himself and wrapped an arm around Emily's waist. "Well, Elaine," he said, "I mean… just look at her."
Elaine stamped her foot and let out a cry like a strangled cat. She threw an icy glare at Emily and, with a toss of her hair, pushed past them to continue down the street. When she was a safe distance away, Hotch rounded on his subordinate. "What the hell was that, Prentiss?"
Emily pressed a finger to his lips to silence him. "I can tell that you're upset, so I'll forgive you for calling me Prentiss on a date. But come on, sir," she grinned, "tell me that wasn't fun."
He kissed the top of her head and began steering them towards the car. "You're giving me grey hair, Emily," he grumbled, his was of acknowledging that he'd had fun.
"Me? Sweetheart, you're getting grey hair all on your own." Emily winked at him.
He winked back. "Come on, Em. Let's go home."
They climbed into the car and began the drive back towards home, Jack, and three bowls of macaroni and cheese.