He felt the air whoosh out of him as his son jumped on the bed. He heard laughter in the background, blearily opening his eyes. He recognized the laughter as Emily's and he tickled his son as he craned his neck to check the time.
"It's about nine," Emily offered, leaning casually against the doorframe. "He's been up for a while, I just tried to keep him occupied as long as I could."
She'd done an excellent job if it was nine. He felt surprisingly carefree, relaxed and almost happy. The knowledge that Haley was gone still lingered, but his little boy was happy, excited about Christmas and Emily was with them, watching with soft eyes. Despite what he had lost, for the first time in a long time, Hotch was focused on what he had gained.
"Daddy! Daddy stop!" Jack squealed. "Em'ly! Save me!"
She waited a few more moments before stepping forward, tickling him herself before lifting him into her arms. "Alright, Jack. Daddy's up. Know what that means?"
He almost jumped right out of her arms and Emily had to react quickly to put him down before he fell. Then he was off, racing to the tree. She turned her gaze to his and he could see some of the exhaustion in her gaze. It had been a long, late night. With the revelations and emotional upheaval of the previous night, neither of them had slept well and she'd never know how much it meant that she'd let him sleep while getting up with Jack.
"You heard the boy," she said with a smile. "Coffee's up."
He reached out and snagged her hand, his thumb stroking her wrist. She smiled at him, just for him, a smile he couldn't remember seeing any other time and his thoughts over the last couple of days came floating back. He was still grieving, unable to give her more than the shell of a broken man, but, if she was willing to stick it out, he was willing to try and give her so much more.
"Come on," she said quietly.
Hotch allowed her to pull him up out of bed, and they split so he could freshen up for the morning. Eventually, he made it to the living room where Emily was seated on the floor, Jack bouncing beside her, looking for the opportunity to open presents. He was unsurprised to find a cup of coffee already prepared for him, sitting on the coffee table and he smiled his thanks at the dark-haired woman passing his son his first gift.
All throughout the next half hour, as Jack tore through his gifts – and Hotch was only slightly surprised at the lengths to which Emily had gone for his son – he found Christmas cheer inching out the age-old melancholy. Jack was more than happy and Emily seemed to be just as content. He felt a warmth settle in the pit of his stomach he hadn't felt for a long time.
Finally, only two gifts remained. He was glad that while Emily had spoiled his son, she hadn't done the same for him. Jack had rushed off with his new toys, determined to add some of his gifts to his ever-growing collection, but not before extracting a promise for pancakes for breakfast. It left Emily and Hotch alone in the living room.
She was the one who reached for her gift first, a beautifully silver-wrapped package that was large, but thin.
"You know you didn't have to," he told her quietly.
She chuckled. They were keeping their voices down, the moment turning remarkably intimate. "I know. Open it anyway."
Hotch carefully pulled off the paper, then caught his breath as he took in the framed sketch in front of him. "Emily..."
She was chewing her lip as she watched his fingers trace over the drawing. It was a scene she'd long-ago etched in her head, so it hadn't taken her much time to sketch it out on paper. The pencil drawing was of her two boys on Jack's bed, Hotch reading to his son as she'd seen too many nights to count. Jack's eyes were sparkling and Hotch seemed so perfectly content to be simply sitting there with his son.
"I didn't know you could draw like this," he breathed. He'd seen her absent doodles in her files and on spare pieces of paper, but never had he thought that it would come to this.
Emily blushed. "It was my escape as a kid," she revealed. "The one hobby my mother approved of."
He was utterly speechless as he pushed himself up from the couch, pulling her off the floor and into his arms, wrapping her up tight. "Thank you," he said in her ear. He pulled back to look at her. "I can't find words."
"Just tell me you like it," she replied.
"Sweetheart, I love it," he answered.
Emily nodded as he pulled away and watched him pick up another box under the tree. He shifted it in his hands slightly before holding it out to her, knowing the nervousness and anxiousness showed in his eyes and in his movements. Her hands shook as she took the gift, sitting down on the couch. It was a heavy gift and she carefully removed the ribbon, then the paper. The box was non-descript and she caught her breath as she lifted the lid.
"Aaron," she said on a gust of air as her fingers stroked over the cover of the book in the box.
He'd had a nightmare one night months ago, and in the effort to distract him, Emily had told him about literature, what she liked, what she didn't like... her love of Vonnegut and the sentimental value inside the covers of Little Women. She'd gone on to explain that it was a book she'd read cover to cover so many times she'd owned upwards of eight copies. But it was more than that... It was the one book she and her mother had read together when she was a little girl.
"How... You listened. You remembered."
"I pay attention, Emily. I've always paid attention to you." He ran a hand over his hair.
"I told you that story months ago."
"But it was important to you," he told her. He looked away, unable to risk seeing pity or apology in her eyes if she really did think he was too broken. "I care about you, Em. A lot. But I'm so broken. You deserve better than me, so I never knew how to act." He stopped there, feeling exposed and vulnerable enough. He didn't get a choice when Emily, who had put aside her gift and stood, rested her fingertips on his cheekbones, tilting his head until he met her eyes.
Then, she was kissing him, her warm lips pressed against his. His hands came up to her back, pulling her closer as he took advantage of the opportunity to kiss her back.
"I don't care how broken you are," she whispered when she eventually pulled back, tears glistening in her eyes. "I don't care, Aaron, because it's not about how broken you are. It's part of what makes you who you are today and I wouldn't be here with you if you were any different. It's about you and that little boy and how much you both mean to me."
"Is gone," she interrupted forcefully, one of her hands wrapping around his neck while the other stayed on his cheek. "You're not broken, you're adjusting to the fact that there is no one hunting you, no one torturing you, and no reason to be so vigilant in your protection. And you've shown me that you care."
"That's not enough," he argued.
Emily shook her head. "That's more than enough." She kissed him, and grinned. "Plus, isn't that my decision to make?"
"I'm not asking for a commitment, Aaron," she told him before he could argue with her. "I know you just lost Haley. All I'm hoping is that you'll give me the chance to show you that you can still give and receive love."
He smiled and stroked his thumb over her cheek. "I don't think you need to show me," he said. "I'm pretty sure you already have."
This concludes 2009's Christmas fic. I'm pouting and sad in my head, but kind of exciting to take it over the next six days.
There is one thing I want to make sure is clear here. Hotch and Emily aren't necessarily starting their relationship so much as saying that there is that possibility when he feels he's ready and done grieving for Haley. They've admitted that there's attraction, and Hotch, as you can see, has eluded to the fact that he knows there's more on her side. They're kind of just tentatively working through some of the kinks.
The next story (and I have no idea what I want to call it yet) should be much more fluff, though obviously there will be angsty parts. So for those of you who were unsatisfied by their kiss, there's more where that came from. And I'm thinking we'll see more of the sweeter side of Hotch in the little follow-up to this, so let me know what you think about both of those things and this story as a whole.
One last thing before I sign off for good. When I started this, I never expected to get the overwhelming response I've gotten. Each and every review has helped make this story what it is, and in many cases, touched my heart. You guys have been fantastic and I'm a little mind-boggled and humbled that there's been such a huge and positive response to this, especially as someone who has never experienced this kind of grief myself. I've been worried through this whole thing that I was portraying it unrealistically, but you guys have been awesome at essentially kicking my rear back into gear to be able write the next chapter. You guys are the driving force behind this.
I do want to give special thanks to rawpotato, i-luv-to-write-law-and-order, sarramaks, chiroho and SignedSealedWritten, who have been absolutely integral in their own ways to the way this story has turned out. You guys have... I can't even put into words what your correspondence has done to this fic. So, as best as I can say it, thank you to each of you as well as people who reviewed almost every chapter. I cannot name each one of you, just know that I appreciate everything you've said and done.
And on that note, I'm off. If you want the sequel, go check out Something More, following Em and Hotch up to New Years.
Thanks for reading!