As Hotch dialed Jessica's number, he looked around for Gideon and found that he was nowhere in sight. Sneaky bastard, he thought. Not that he really wanted to be here for this conversation, either.
Five minutes later he was wishing he'd listened to himself.
"You son of a bitch!" greeted his request.
"No! You listen to me, Aaron. Jack has just lost his mother, and if you think I'm going to help you become an absentee father into the bargain, you've lost your mind. I want to bury my sister, Aaron, not hang on for a few days until it's convenient for you to take the time!" She was hysterical by this point, and Hotch forced himself not to hang up. "She didn't mind when you did this to her – she signed on for it – but she minded for Jack's sake, and so do I. I'm his aunt, and I'm not going to let you abandon him!"
The unspoken words trumpeted through Hotch's mind, and he confronted her with them. "Like I abandoned Haley?" He cringed as all efforts to control his voice failed miserably.
"I'm sorry...I know that's not fair. I just can't help feeling..."
"That I should have been there. I should have been driving that car. Haley would still be alive...if it had been me instead." Hotch didn't need the ensuing silence to know he'd hit the bull's eye. He pressed one hand against his forehead, fishing vainly for that self-control he was so famous for. But, much like Gideon, it had fled the room. The sound of Jessica dissolving into tears was not helping.
"Aaron, I'm so sorry," she gasped miserably. "But she was my sister..."
"She was my wife!" he bellowed, finally allowing the agonizing torrent of rage and guilt to sweep away all desire to spare her feelings. "Do you think I'm just going right on with my work like nothing happened? Or am I running off to immerse myself in the bodies of other innocent victims just to escape, with no regard for my son? Tell me, Jessica. No? Ok, I'll tell you. You're right. I wasn't there when Haley needed me, and I need to make it count. It has to mean something. I need my team around me, I need to work with them and feel them relying on me, trusting me. And even one second of feeling useful to someone would be a nice bonus." He paused, breathing deeply and recovering his habitual even tones. "Jessica, Jack will be fine with you for a few days. But if I don't do this... he won't have a father for you to worry about." She said nothing; she was probably afraid to ask what that meant. "Jessica, do you honestly think I'd ignore his needs, just forget about him like that? My little boy? He's all I have."
"You can tell yourself that, Aaron." Her voice was tired, blank. "Just like you told yourself that Haley was your world. But the truth is, Agent Hotchner, there is nothing more important to you than your job. And someday, Jack will suffer for it. Of course I'll take him, since you're obviously going anyway. But I'm not my sister. Don't expect me to understand." She cut the connection, and Hotch was left staring numbly at the phone. He buried his face in his hands and prayed for Gideon to reappear from wherever the hell he had shuffled off to.
He did, finally, only visible from nose to hairline and from knees to feet around armfuls of duffel bag, and he lowered the whole pile with a relieved whoosh just as Hotch's accusing stare hit him straight between the eyes. "Did you really want me here for that?" he asked softly, cocking his head like an inquisitive bird. Hotch shrugged.
"I don't know, Jason. I'm not sure of much anymore. How do you know what I want when I can't even figure it out?"
Gideon smiled, settling himself next to his friend on the couch. "You feel guilty, and you're doubting yourself. And I'm sure Jessica didn't cheer you up. But if you expect me to join that club, you'd better think again."
Like a flash of lightning, Hotch snatched Gideon's hand up in his own and held on unyieldingly. Gideon squeezed back just as hard; if he was going to be a life raft, he was going to do the thing properly, regardless of the cost to his fingers. But Hotch wasn't finished.
"Can you guys help me?" he whispered. The hopeless sound of a lost man searching for guidance in the wilderness brought the tears burning to Gideon's eyes, but he viciously forced them back.
"We're here to try. Tonight was for you, you know."
"Yes, I know. I felt badly about Elle, though. She ran out of steam because she'd sat up half the night before with Jack."
Gideon gave him a pointed look. "If she hadn't wanted to, we'd have heard about it all evening," he joked.
Hotch smiled reflexively. "She's changed so much. Remember when it was all either of us could do to keep her from slicing the unsubs into tiny pieces instead of arresting them?"
Gideon grinned. "You've rubbed off on her."
"Really?" This idea sent flames leaping up into Hotch's weary eyes, completely transforming them, and Gideon saw it – and summarily clamped down on the thrill of victory that shot through him. Too soon, remember? he reminded himself sternly. "I don't know," Hotch mused doubtfully. "I see more of you in her."
Gideon smirked. "She treats me like a high school teacher," he said lightly, "but she likes to fight me on things, to test the boundaries. She missed out on the teenage saga of defying her father," he explained more soberly. "The direction she takes from you is much subtler. She can see how good you are at what you do, how the people around you respect you because you treat them with respect...how much you want to protect them from everything that's out there, even when you know it's impossible. She came into this job as the unstable element, and she knew it, so she tried to make a place for herself on the team that she felt she deserved. And she figured the best way to do that was to watch you, to work with you and learn from you how to become a better profiler." Gideon paused for a moment out of respect for Hotch's fraying control; the bloodless grip on his hand was trembling. "She's getting there, although she still has to watch that impulse to string the unsubs up by their earlobes." Hotch snorted, and the tension in his muscles eased.
"She told you all that?" he murmured. He obviously wanted to believe but didn't quite dare. Gideon squeezed his hand briefly.
"Parts of it," he affirmed. "As for the rest, well, I'm not such a bad profiler myself." Hotch laughed.
"No, you're not," he agreed.
"We'd better get a move on," Gideon nudged gently. "The others are probably waiting for us."
"I think I can face Jessica now," Hotch conceded gratefully.
"Good. Just remember, Haley was her sister."
Hotch grimaced. "As if she'd let me forget it."
A/N: Please review! I know you sometimes feel like you don't have anything to say, but I only got one review for the last chapter, and that makes me kinda sad :(
P.S. I've upped the rating for some language some people might not be comfortable with. Just playing it safe, even though this chapter is pretty harmless, just because I can't promise I'll remember in future.