Disclaimers: None of the members of the BAU Team, current or former, or John Blackwolf, belong to me, although I wish they did. Neither does Hotch's dad, though I gave him a first name. The ER doc belongs to me, though. But I make nothing off this, only feedback and love. The title belongs to the late, great Robert Johnson, and his fantastic song.
Rating: T. Mentions of violence, injury and blood. Lots of psychic Hotch-whump.
Spoilers: BIG HUGE AWFUL ONES for the end of 4.25/26, "To Hell and Back".
Summary: After being shot by George Foyet, Hotch is hovering between life and death. To survive, he will need the help of a few old friends.
"And I went to the mountain
Lookin' as far as my eyes could see
Some other man got my woman and 'a
The lonesome blues got me…"
- If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day, Robert Johnson
Drip, drip, drip.
Aaron Hotchner is concentrating on the bottle of bourbon, rolling on its side on top of his cabinet. The remaining liquor has puddled on top of the hardwood, and is dripping on to the floor. He can't help thinking that that's going to do horrible things to his floor. Even though he's never actually cared about the condiion of this floor before.
There's a muffled noise in his ears. Hotch is sitting with his back braced against the wall. He focuses his eyes, and becomes aware that there is a man crouching in front of him, trying to get his attention.
"SSA. Hotchner, can you hear me, wake up. The EMTs are on their way upstairs, I need you to hang on for me, please."
Charlie. His name is Charlie. Charlie Corozza. His neighbor in 4D. They've met exactly once in the past year. Junior agent, white collar crime division, 5th floor… Charlie is pressing his hands to Hotch's stomach.
Why is Charlie doing that?
Hotch looks down. There is a large red patch on the front of his dress shirt. He feels…damp. He is only dimly aware of the searing ache in his gut.
His door flies open. Again. Two EMTs dash in, and Charlie turns to talk to them.
"I've been keeping pressure on the wound, he's been conscious since I found him, but he's been going in and out, I think he's going into shock…"
The bourbon bottle suddenly rolls off the cabinet, falling to the floor,
It shatters into 7 pieces.
Hotch suddenly found himself sititng on a bed. A tiny bed, not more than junior size. Covered in Baltimore Orioles sheets.
"I used to have sheets like these", he said. To no one in particular, because the room was empty. His room, at the house in Charlottesville, he realized. The rolltop desk in the corner had his coin case on top of it. The Captain Blood poster was hanging above his bed. The trunk, covered in steam-ship stickers that had belonged to his grandfather, was sitting on the floor. "These are my sheets. This is my room."
"Brilliant deduction, young man. Now, what does that mean?" A tall man, with slate grey hair, was now sitting on the trunk. The robust figure was a far cry from the man he remembered of 10 years ago. This man was not shrunken, pale, hooked up to chemo tubes. This man was full of life. Hotch rose, and moved to stand in front of the very familiar face.
"Aaron, answer my question. I taught you to think like this. Make the next leap. What's the next part of the puzzle?"
"That since you've been dead for a decade, and this room hasn't looked like this since 1975, none of this is real."
Martin Hotchner looked down, and clasped his hands together. "Yes."
"So, I'm still unconscious, bleeding to death in my apartment?" Hotch recited this fact with a hint of annoyance in his voice.
Martin smiled, somewhat impishly. It was an expression Hotch knew he had inherited from his father, though his team saw it only rarely.
"Well, technically, you're unconscious and bleeding to death in the ambulance, driving over to St. Mary's Hospital. But your main point is correct."
Hotch sat down next to his father on the trunk, and sighed. He was unable, however, to muster up any real outrage at the situation. If anything, getting shot in the gut was a depressingly appropriate coda to the two years he'd had.
Martin continued. "Though I sense that being correct, being right, in this situation…is very little consolation."
Hotch stared at Errol Flyn, swinging across the deck of his ship. "It never is, these days."
"It's not supposed to be, Aaron. I'd hoped I taught you better than that."
Hotch looked over at his dad, or more correctly, his dad-that-was. "Well, Mother had her own feelings on the subject, if you'll recall."
Martin stared back at him, and Hotch felt his gaze, up and down, pin-pointing the exact location of every scar. "I protected you as much as I could. You know that."
Hotch almost felt like laughing. "Well, since you're probably a representation of my oxygen deprived subconscious, yes, I suppose I do."
"So if being right, being just, isn't enough, what is there?"
Hotch stared at the horrifically ugly brown carpet that had once covered the floor of his room.
"I don't know."
The older man practically leaps out of the plastic ER chair as Doctor Loring approaches. She notices that a younger female agent has joined him. Blonde, and looking very pale, as she moves to stand next to Rossi.
"This is JJ, Agent Jareau. How's Hotch?"
"Well, it took a while, but we managed to stabilize him. One bullet collapsed one of his lungs, so we've got him on a ventilator, and the other did some damage to the spleen and colon. We were very, very lucky that Agent Corozza got to him when he did. We've just sent him up to surgery, and he's going to be in there for a long while. If you like, I can find you the OR number, and you can all wait upstairs."
JJ answers. "Yes, please. How long? His wife...his ex-wife and his son are on their way over..."
Dr. Loring sighs. "Well, it depends on how it goes, but surgery as extensive as he'll need typically lasts at least 12-13 hours."
Both of the agents visibly deflate.
"Don't worry. Agent Hotchner seems to be fairly resilient. That he's stayed alive this long is testament to that."
Jareau looks like she's about to cry, and so does Rossi, even as he jokes, "Yeah, Hotch is one tough SOB, that's true enough."
Hotch looked up, and the bed was gone. The entire room was gone, actually, which was good, because a bed covered in Orioles sheets would have looked strangely out of place in the verdant cemetery he now found himself in.
He knew this cemetery. He was certain of it. But the name that was on the tip of his tongue continued to elude him, as he slowly turned around. Trying, even now, to get his bearings, even though he knew intellectually that the grass, the graves, the trees, none of it was real.
As he turned the last of 360 degrees, something had changed. The large grey headstone he had been facing before, now had a pugnacious brunette sitting on top of it.
She smiled at him, and he knew the name immediately.
"Elle. Wait a minute. You're not dead."
The grin widened. "Nice to see you too, Hotch."
"I mean, in the real world, you're still alive."
"Well, in the real world, so are you. For now."
The qualifier stung. For a moment Hotch felt agonizing pain in his chest. It knocked to his knees, and in a moment, Elle was beside him, hands on his back.
"I can't breathe."
"It's only temporary."
And suddenly, the pain was gone. Hotch sat down hard on the grass, and Elle sat beside him.
A panic started to gnaw at the back of his mind. "This is all in my head. This is my brain attempting to cope with everything that's going on. So why does it hurt?"
Elle put his hand in hers. "Because you're hurting, and not just physically. Because reason and intellect can't solve everything. Because dealing with something like this is a messy, messy process."
Hotch looked into her eyes. "This is in my head, isn't it? This isn't…something else."
Elle looked surprised. "Aaron Hotchner, are you telling me you believe?"
"Right now, I'm saying….I don't know. But if today was the work of some higher being, it has a pretty dark sense of humor."
Elle looked off into the distance, and rose to her feet. "Walk with me." Hotch obliged.
They walked in silence into the horizon, for what seemed like forever. (It probably could have been, Hotch thought, since his suit seemed to have made here with him, but his wrist-watch was nowhere to be found.)
Hotch was the first one to speak. "I'm sorry."
His companion looked bemused. "For what?"
"Where do I start? For Garner, for the undercover, for the way you left.…for everything."
"Because, maybe I understand a little better then I did then. And because I'm being punished for my sins, apparently, and what better time to make amends? I do remember that much from Sunday school."
"Are you being punished?"
Hotch stopped, a surge of anger coursing through him for the first time. "Well, it certainly seems like it, doesn't it? Maybe the bombing was telling me something, and I just ignored it. George Foyet is just another messenger from….whoever, whatever, sent to finish the job."
"Of telling you what?"
"That I was arrogant to come here from the prosecutor's office, thinking I could stop those cases that were coming to my desk. That I could make a difference, stem the tide. I catch one killer, another one takes his place. Haley was right. It never ends. "
Elle put her hand on his shoulder, and squeezed it.
"No, it doesn't, but that's exactly why we keep going."
"Hey, Hotch. It's me, Prentiss. The doctors say that we should keep talking to you, that you can hear us, even in the coma. That we should talk as much as we can….hah. They don't know my capacity to ramble. Haley's outside, getting some sleep, and Jack's over with her sister. They're only letting one of us in here at a time, and it's my turn now. Everybody else is back at the office. We really need you, Hotch. Rossi's in charge, but I don't think he likes it very much, and he and Morgan are barely managing not to bite each other's heads off. We need you, Obi-Hotch, you're our only hope. Don't go off and become a blue ghost just yet. And anyway, something must be watching over you. They said that if Foyet had aimed an inch or two higher, you would have died instantly. Oh, man, you probably didn't need to know that, did you?"
"We are going to find that bastard, and lock him up where no one can find him, and throw away the key. I promise you that."
The world had turned upside down once again, but Hotch was getting used to that by now. The green grass had turned into cement steps, the tree-lined horizon replaced by desert cliffs.
The sun was setting. Hotch hoped that was not symbolic, but didn't have much faith in his current luck.
"Of course it's not symbolic, Captain America. It's the sun, it's eternal, it goes on with or without you."
Even without the use of one of his least favorite nicknames, Hotch would have known that voice anywhere. He patted the steps beside him, and John Blackwolf took a seat.
"So, how are things with you, Agent Hotchner?" Hotch grimaced at that, and John smirked. "Yeah, I figured."
Hotch stared out into the sunset, and the gathering darkness. "The sun goes on with or without me. So will the job. Wasn't that Dave's point? If I die, he'll take over, and someone else will join the team. Elle left, Emily came in. Jason left, Dave came back. This job will go on, because people will keep on doing horrible things to each other. My job will always have job security, whoever's in it."
Blackwolf was silent for a moment. "Oh, very nice, very profound. And of course, completely full of crap."
Hotch raised an eyebrow. "This is my subconscious trying to give me a pep talk? It leaves something to be desired."
"So evil will always be there, so there will be killers and rapists and thieves long after you and I are dead. But there were killers and rapists and thieves long before us, as well, and the world hasn't destroyed itself yet, has it?"
Hotch looked around. "Apparently not."
"You think you're the first warrior to look around and realize, 'Hey, I'm not going to make the world perfect within my lifetime'? Of course not. What were you saying, you think you're being punished for your arrogance? Well, you are. But not for thinking you could make a difference, that you, Aaron Hotchner could push the needle towards good."
"Then how, wise John Blackwolf, am I arrogant?"
John raised a finger at that, and Hotch nodded an unspoken apology for his snark. John continued.
"For thinking, that it wouldn't be worse for everybody else without you, if you didn't even try. You don't get to make that judgment. If you want to stop fighting, stop fighting, but don't mask it it as some great and valid philosophical choice."
Hotch bowed his head, but Blackwolf wasn't done.
"Believe in something higher, or don't believe, but do believe in this: just because evil has the numerical advantage, it doesn't make your actions, or mine, or that of your teammates, any less important. In fact, it's exactly the opposite."
Hotch had no answer for that. However, the stabbing pain in his side would have stopped him from speaking anyway, as John disappeared, and the world again dissolved.
"Hotch, Hotch it's me, it's Reid….oh and Morgan's here too. We have to make this quick, because visiting hours are technically over, and that charge nurse is going to try to kick us out again. But we got him, we found him, we got Foyet and he's locked up under 24-hour surveillance. We got him, Hotch."
"He may be good, but my Baby Girl is better. She found him, we tracked him, and we got him."
"Oh, that reminds me, I have to put this by your bed. Garcia sent you her stuffed panda. Said it was her good luck charm when she was recovering."
"So, now you have no excuse, man, you have to wake up. Or face the almighty wrath of Garcia."
"Excuse me, agents, but I told you before, you can't be in here right now, visiting hours are over."
"We got him, Hotch. We got him. It's time to wake up now. Please."
As the pain subsided, Hotch managed to uncurl from the fetal position. Into the comfort of…his office chair. Because it was his office, down to the last detail.
Except for one thing. The coffee mug on his desk had a picture of a red bird on it. He knew that mug. And that bird, too, if it came to it. "Hmm. The Northern Cardinal?" Hotch asked himself, offhandedly.
The coffee mug was now in the hands of its rightful owner. "It's a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, actually. But nice to see some of my ornithology rubbed off on you."
"Among other things. So is this it? Am I doomed to spend eternity in my office with Jason Gideon?"
" That would be poetic, wouldn't it? But no, not eternity. Doomed for the next five minutes, certainly. Although I would call myself pretty good company to spend eternity with."
"Better you than Dave, I guess."
"I'll tell him you said that, and he'll probably be very hurt."
Hotch had been struggling for a while now, to remember that this wasn't real. He finally decided to just throw caution to the wind. "What do you care? You two never got along. You fought constantly, and I was always left to hold down the fort."
"True enough. But you thrived, and trained several fine agents in the process. You fought and lived to tell the tale; you always do."
"Well, maybe I've just outlasted my chances."
"You think your time is done? Pah. The Aaron Hotchner I knew, he wouldn't even unknot his tie after being strangled by a psychopathic hit man. Not one cufflink out of place. You've survived your mother, a car bombing, and 15 years of me and David Rossi. You will survive this."
Hotch looked around at the familiar beige walls. They started to blur, a bit, but he tried to focus. "So, I take it you're telling me I'm not done yet?"
"That is the point, yes."
"Answer me one more thing?"
"What are you? Is this all in my head, or…"
"Anything except that. Goodbye, Hotch."
Hotch opens his eyes. He attempts to raise his head, but is rewarded by feeling as if a Mack truck has run over his temples. He lays back down on the pillow.
"Hotch…Hotch, is that you in there? Are you awake?"
David Rossi comes into Hotch's field of vision, and Hotch can't help but grin widely. This seems to unnerve Rossi, which makes Hotch smile all the wider. Dave glances at the morphine drip, and joins Hotch in smiling.
" You certainly took your sweet time. Though, I guess if anyone deserved to take 4 days off to sleep, it's you."
A knock sounds on the door of Hotch's room. Hotch looks over as far as he can. And gathered outside the window, there is Spencer Reid. Emily Prentiss. JJ Jareau. Derek Morgan. And Penelope Garcia.
"Everyone's been here pretty much since we got Foyet. I think Reid actually got the phone number of the girl who delivers the hospital's Jello, And Garcia's developed a bond with one of the candy-stripers. But you gave us all a big scare there, my friend. "
Hotch looks over once more, and finds the strength to wave with a few of his fingers. Dave smiles again, as everybody waves back in unison. "And the crowd goes wild."
Hotch whispers something that Rossi can't hear. Dave leans over, "I couldn't hear you, Hotch, what do you need?"