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She tells him over coffee that she’s leaving.

It doesn’t shock him as much as it probably should. She’s been off since she’d returned, as if there’s just too much hanging over her with Doyle and the aftermath. As if she’s never really been able to sit right in her desk chair, or find a comfortable spot on the plane. It’s not that she hasn’t slotted herself back into the team but-

It’s all different.

So he’s not surprised, not really. He doesn’t like it, and he tells her as much. She just offers him a sad smile and reaches out to squeeze her hand.

It’s not as if she’s actually leaving, she reminds him. She’s still going to be in the city and she doesn’t want to really move. She’ll babysit Jack, maybe, if he wants, and she’ll show up to every ‘team function’ they have. She’s not leaving them.

It eats at him for days. Alex Blake is phenomenal and is already starting to find her own place within their team – different from Emily, he’s glad – but it still bothers him. It still eats at him. It still grinds in the back of his mind.

So he texts her from Texas. It’s nothing big, just kind of a ‘how are you’. It’s a while before he gets a response and he knows he’s surprised her. It starts something, or maybe just pushes it, but the next thing he knows he can’t stop. He won’t stop.

Eventually, the team figures it out. The secretive smiles make him angry, just a bit, but he tries to ignore them. He misses her. They all miss her, and no one thinks twice when Derek mentions he’s going to see her, or when Reid bounces around the bullpen because she’s the only person who will go see the oldest and nerdiest movies with him.

Then texts turn to phone calls, and she’s babysitting Jack while Jessica’s at a conference and he’s away on a case. Naturally, his once-sister-in-law gets along famously with her and he’s not sure why, but it makes him uncomfortable. He’s actually nervous and sweaty when Dave says she’s coming to his massive Christmas blow-out and while he brings Beth, his eyes stray to her.

She looks better. Healthier. Happier. The BAU, he knows better than anyone, takes pieces of you and never, ever returns them. She laughs with Derek, and dances with Penelope. She and Reid have some sort of intense conversation in the corner that leaves her laughing hysterically while he grins in bemusement. She’s everywhere.

And then, when Beth’s off trading cooking secrets with Dave, she’s at his side. He actually beams at her. She beams back and laughs, a little self-consciously as she nudges his shoulder.

“Miss me?”

The question makes his stomach jolt. Of course he’s missed her, but looking at her down, the sparkle in her eyes, the glow to her skin, he’s really starting to realize just how much. Beyond a handful of nights and the brief moments he says ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ when he drops off Jack, their friendship has been reduced to phone calls and text messages. So he doesn’t think when he takes her drink and sets it down beside his, yanking her into the tightest hug he can produce. It’s not normal and he feels the surprise in the tension of her body, but then she relaxes, her body melts and she hugs him back just as tight.

Something changes that night. He’s not sure what it is, but it does. He tries to spend more time with her when he’s in the city. It causes problems, of course, because he’s got Beth and Jack and now Emily and balancing it all is walking a tightrope without a net. It doesn’t blindside him as much as it should when Beth comes to him and tells him sadly that it’s not going to work. It hurts because it feels like another failure in some ways, but he also can’t seem to tamp down a weird elation that blooms in his chest.

Emily’s suitably sympathetic when he tells her and offers to take him and Jack wherever they want to keep him distracted. He takes it, of course he does, and they goof around in a nearby park all day and he feels so light it scares him. Then days in the park turn into dinners and movie nights and morning coffees before work. It’s easy with her, he finds. It’s easy to keep up with her, and he can’t seem to make himself stop. She’s no better. She sends him stupid pictures and funny e-mails and he knows she’s trying to lighten his load. It works, it really does, and it isn’t until Dave catches him grinning at a text that he actually has to stop and think of why.

It shouldn’t take him off-guard but it does. Emily’s always been a friend, a really good friend, and he’s never let himself think of her as anything else. It’s not his fault, really. It’s not anyone’s fault, but he knows there was Haley, then the Bureau, then Beth and now that there’s nothing in the way, no blinders on, he’s staring into attraction and a deep emotional connection that’s thrilling and terrifying at the same time.

He doesn’t say anything. He knows he’s nobody’s catch and though he’ll never admit it, he’s too scared. She means so much to him, does so much for him, that he cannot lose her. It’s the stark truth of the matter and the one thing that keeps him from ever saying anything. He’s failed so many times that he’s not sure he’s willing to start again.

He’s comfortable enough until she reveals, awkwardly and shyly, that JJ and Penelope want to start setting her up. She’s not getting any younger, they say, and they just want to see her happy. It forces him to swallow around the most uncomfortable lump in his throat as he tells her that if she’s ready, if she wants to, of course she should go. And it breaks his heart a little when she goes, and leaves bruises when she returns exhausted and unhappy.

But it doesn’t sway him. Instead, he hands her some of his clothes and she curls up into the corner of the couch. He starts keeping ice cream on hand – and he has to hide it from Jack – and ends up with a drawer of clothes that smell like her. He almost can’t bring himself to launder them. The minute that thought floats through his mind he grips the edge of his dresser until his knuckles are white, scolding himself for being so pathetic.

Eventually, it’s the tears that get him. He climbs gingerly off the plane in mid-October, arm in a sling and walking with a limp to accommodate a cracked rib. She’s on the tarmac when they land at Quantico and for the first time he doesn’t as how she got there or why she’s there. He doesn’t care about the team or prying eyes, he cares about the fact that she’s wrapped around him, wary of his injuries, but there. He slides a hand through her hair, cupping her head, and asks against her forehead if she’d like to get dinner.

Her smile is breathtaking, but it’s not better than her affirmative answer. His heart soars and the team laughs, because of course they saw it. For once, he doesn’t care as he wraps an arm around her and she strokes his back along his spine.

Because ups and downs aside, he knows it’s the start of something beautiful.