Criminal Minds

In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: it goes on.
Robert Frost

Maybe there was a blessing in it. He couldn't say for sure, not yet. He couldn't completely hate the Reaper. There was a hate there, yes, but the hate wasn't solely for what he'd done to him. No, there was hate for what he'd put his team through – the worry and the fear- and for what he'd put his family through – but the pain that Aaron Hotchner had gone through, he figured, was a small price to pay for what he'd received in return.

Because what the Reaper – George Foyet, just a man – had done to him had given him more than just the scar on his chest. Scars could be covered, pain ended – but other things, they continued. Some of them were unsavory, but most of them had something underlying, the lesson that so many people missed these days in experiences.

He'd given him fear. Aaron had never considered himself invincible, like so many men and woman did. Aaron Hotchner knew that he was human. The fear had existed long before these events. The prior week had extended his fear to include the fear for all humans. He'd always known the monsters existed, but now – he could more clearly see the other side, the victim's side – if a human could instill such fear, what did that mean for mankind? Did it mean that hope was doomed? No, he couldn't believe that. It meant, undeniably, that mankind had to work harder. Could they? He couldn't speak for them, he was only one man.

George Foyet had given him death. It was not his first taste of death and it won't be his last. It is, however, the most important. For that time, when he lay dying, he was alone.

Aaron Hotchner didn't want to die alone; he didn't want to live alone.

He was left with a want. With a need.

He'd lived his life alone. He didn't want to die alone. His son, his Jack, cannot fill that hole in his heart, because it was a different sort of love that he needed.

Ironically, a man who called himself a bringer of death had given him life; given him a second chance. He could see now. He could see his mistakes. He hadn't been there. He needed to be there. He wanted to be there, for his son. He didn't want to live his life without participating in it. When he's with his son, he won't think about the next case. The Reaper had taught him how to live. He regained his son.

And, though it's not the last thing he'd been given, Hotch knew hope. Hope for himself and for his team. Maybe they're not invincible, his team, but they're strong. They're strong enough to weather what will be thrown at them in the future.

Yes, a bringer of death had brought him life. It was the ultimate irony for him – what would that man, only a human, think of that? How his intentions had been turned around?

Perhaps if he didn't have all the people that he did, the Reaper would have succeeded in bringing death – if not the physical kind, then the sort of death that had plagued Elle or Gideon, the sort that plagued victims that can't get the images out of their heads. Hotch knew that he'd be fighting the images for a long time as well, but he could see through them too. He could see through them to the other side, the side that held love and hope and life, instead of death and despair.

He couldn't have done it without them – if he had been alone, he knew he would have failed in it. But he did have them, his team, his family – though all in a different way, he had them. He had David Rossi, Emily Prentiss, Spencer Reid, Jennifer Jareau, Penelope Garcia. He had his son. He had Haley, because he knew that she wouldn't' fail his son as a mother. He had the ones that he failed – Jason Gideon and Elle Greenaway, their presents proved something to him that he hadn't known before – that maybe he hadn't failed them. Maybe their leaving was just how they'd dealt with the misery that had plagued him.

Elle had told him to smile.

He would.

Gideon had left him a book – a biography of Charlie Chaplin. In a way, he, too, was telling him that he was allowed to smile – to not forget the lesson that was taught the day that the BAU had sat and watched the silent film – to never stop smiling, to always find the peace in the day, no matter how hard it might seem.

They would be there for him, always, and this had proved that. Not only were the BAU at team, they were also a family. When divided by tragedy or heartache, they would ultimately stick together.

The BAU had gathered in Hotch's hospital room on the day or his release. Agent Spencer Reid couldn't help but see the parallel between this moment and the one of a week prior, when they had been waiting in the emergency room. Both moments had included waiting, and a certain amount of fear of the unknown. Both times, the team seemed to exist in their own separate sphere, oblivious of the world around them – a sphere that encompassed only them. This time, though, the team waited for something different. Instead of waiting for a verdict, they waited for the doctor to ender and officially release their unit chief, to put an end to this nightmare. And of course, when they'd been waiting to find news of their boss last time, this time, their boss sat before them – if not healthy, then on the way to being that.

Agent Emily Prentiss sat perched on one of the plastic chairs, a smile gracing her lips. She watched with amusement as Morgan playfully put Reid into a headlock. This team, the one that she'd been put on in such strange circumstances – she finally saw she'd been accepted into them a long time ago. They were the family that constantly moving and an overworked mother had never provided.

Agent Jennifer Jareau sat on the windowsill, her blue eyes finding the picture of Jack Hotchner still attached to the wall. She'd witnessed with her own eyes Hotch's love and devotion for his son. Finding both Jack and Hotch asleep, the latter finally able to catch a moment's peace, had urged her to call home and talk with Will. That night, they'd gone out to dinner – the three of them, a family.

After receiving high pitched squeals of protest from Reid, Derek Morgan leaned his arms against the back of Penelope Garcia's chair. He hadn't trusted many people in his life, and for awhile, that had included the team – even if he couldn't admit it to himself. But now, sitting in a hospital with smiles and laughter filling the room, he could see that he'd begun to trust them more fully than he'd trusted anyone in his life.

She'd been afraid and hurt – her ducklings had gone off and chased a killer once again. One was already injured – she couldn't have stood it if another was hurt by this man. She'd felt her whole world crumble when Morgan had called to tell her of Hotch – but no, Garcia's world was whole again. Her family was okay. For one more day, at the very least. As long as they were safe today, she could breathe.

Sitting on the other side of the windowsill after his run-in with Derek Morgan, Spencer Reid was smiling. He knew perhaps best of all, that it would be a long haul for Hotch – but, like they'd been for him, the team would be there. There was a hopeful light in his eyes that the end of the ordeal had renewed. He saw the book on the bedside table and smiled, knowing who it was from. When he finally got the chance to check his mail back home, he'd find a small note – just three words – 'thank you, son', and that would be enough. He didn't need the why or the how, not anymore. The simple fact of acknowledgement, of closure, was enough.

David Rossi was the only one who remained standing. The senior profiler crossed his arms against his chest and leaned against the wall next to Prentiss' plastic chair. Looking at the team around him, he realized that he'd finally begun to understand. This was more than a team – they were something that couldn't be broken. There were families that he knew that weren't this strong. They were stronger. As Reid knew, Rossi also knew that this wasn't the end of this long, painful journey for the man before him, but it was the end of one part of it. They were leaving the woods; they could see the light now that shone through the canopy of leaves.

Aaron Hotchner sat on the edge of the hospital bed. No longer did he wear hospital clothes. In true Hotch fashion, he sported a suit and tie, though the tie was worn looser. Dark eyes settled on the group before him – a group that despite his grumblings of the prior week, had stayed with him every step of the way. He'd given up a part of himself to allow that to happen – but it was a good trade.

"And if you think, Derek Morgan, that I'm going to allow that, you're mad as a hatter!"

"Luckily for him …" Rossi responded, a sly grin appearing. "He is."

"I love Alice in Wonderland as much as the next woman, but you're taking home that bear, boss-man." Penelope Garcia's expression was unrelenting.

"He merely suggested you allow Haley to take the bear for Jack." Reid suggested, but JJ shook her head.

"Spence, it's no use."

"Damn right." Garcia said, and finally got a laugh out of Hotch. "That bear is for you, Hotch."

"Don't worry, Garcia. I'll take good care of him." Hotch said, another small grin playing on his lips. He paused a moment before continuing. "I didn't make this week easy for any of you – I apologize if I was openly hostile."

"Oh, you weren't that bad." Garcia supplied, having seen the earliest days of it – once when he'd indeed been unwelcoming. She doubted he remembered it – he hadn't been truly conscious.

"Define 'that bad'." Rossi answered, setting Hotch with a look.

"He told me he wouldn't tell anyone if I left." Morgan said, but was grinning. "In your defense, you were joking. I hope."

"He wishes." Prentiss supplied.

The group laughed. It felt nice after a week where nobody had been certain if laughter would again be attainable. After a week of stress, misery, loneliness – it was comfort to be in the same room, waiting not for a case but the hospital discharge of a friend.

Strauss had ordered the whole team on a mandatory week long sick leave. On most occasions, the agents at hand would have complained – but this time, they all knew the break was needed. Hotch would be MIA for longer – though probably shorter than was normal, Rossi thought. Hopefully he'd manage to spend some time with his son before heading back to the job – Rossi was sure that he would.

"Mr. Hotchner?"

The voice – familiar now – came from the doorway and seven heads turned to see Doctor Breslin standing at the door. Nobody spoke, as if the slightest sound might cause the man before them to disappear. Their eyes trained on his face, considerably more youthful when not under tremendous stress. "How are you, Aaron?" If he was distracted by the large gathering, he didn't show it. He'd grown used to the large group of agents, even come to enjoy the atmosphere of family they'd created around his patients.

"I'm fine." Hotch answered. His answer was not evasive, but merely his personality "A twinge here or there, nothing more than expected."

Doctor Breslin smiled. "I'm glad to call your recovery so far a success, Aaron. I see no reason why I shouldn't send you home – provided you have someone to stay with you for at least two days." He looked around the room. "I don't see a problem there."

Much to Hotch's glare at him, Rossi confirmed. "It won't be, Doctor. Thank you." It had already been established that Hotch would be residing at Rossi's for two days. Rossi fully expected a list of reasons why he didn't need to stay with him while they were driving home. After those two days, he'd be going home – another step in the journey.

It would be a long journey, but it was one worth taking.

And as he took his first steps out of the hospital room as a freed man, Aaron Hotchner knew that with absolute certainty.

The End

Author's Note:

I can't believe we've landed ourselves in the final chapter. It's been a long journey, much like Hotch's – my throat is all tight writing this author's note, because I don't want this story to end. At the same time, however, it's an amazing feeling of completion.

Thank you, each and every one of you, for reading, for reviewing, for staying with me over this story. All of you are amazing. For each and every one of you that I messaged, gave suggestions – for each and every one of you that clicked this story, this story is dedicated to you.

For now,

SSW