Author's Note: For all my Hotch/Prentiss fans, I haven't forgotten you!
The twinkling Christmas likes twining around the Douglas fir gracing his living room mocked him. This felt so wrong…celebrating Christmas after she'd been murdered. He knew he had to provide Jack with some sense of normalcy…but this just felt so gut-wrenchingly wrong. But, he knew she would have insisted that he give their son a traditional Christmas. So, he'd made the effort. He'd chosen the tree as Jack had danced around the lot. He'd bought the decorations amid a sea of shoppers. He'd handed Jack ornaments and watched at he'd carefully chosen spots for each one. And the whole time his mind had screamed at the atrocity of celebrating while she lay beneath the cold earth. Put there because of choices that he'd made.
Drawn from his depressing musings by his ringing doorbell, Hotch cast a quick look over his shoulder before hurrying toward the door. He'd finally managed to convince his son to sleep in his own bed tonight and he hoped that the noise from the door didn't wake him. God knew his son could use all the rest he could get; his nightmares had only worsened over the last few months, often waking him more than once in the night. He could sympathize; his own demons crept into his dreams at night as well.
Sparing a moment to quickly look through the peephole, he was surprised to feel an involuntary smile spring to his lips as he recognized his visitor's identity.
Quickly deactivating the alarm system, a holdover from his run-in with Foyet, he opened the door. "Prentiss. What are you doing here?" he asked, staring at his attractive brunette colleague. "It's Christmas Eve. Don't you have about a million other more entertaining places to be?" he asked, realizing too late how caustic he must have sounded to her ears as he watched her face flush.
"Actually, no," she said shaking her head. "You were my excuse to avoid another of my mother's endless cardboard dinners. By letting me in, you'd actually be doing me a favor."
"Otherwise, I'd be throwing you into the den of wolves?" Hotch asked with a raised brow.
"Something like that," Emily nodded. "Besides, a little birdie told me that you'd be here tonight struggling to put together the new bicycle Santa dropped off all alone."
"You know something about assembling metal pieces?" Hotch asked in disbelief. "Somehow I find that difficult to see."
"No, of course not, Emily snorted. "But I make a hell of a cheerleader and pour a mean glass of wine," she replied, holding up a dark bottle in front of her.
Lifting one side of his mouth in a half-smile, Hotch nodded. "Now, that offer definitely has some merit," he said, widening the door for her to slip around him. Shutting the door and following her inside, he asked, "So who was the rat? Rossi or JJ?"
"It was a bird and it was actually Morgan," Emily laughed lightly. "Evidently when Santa delivered that bike to work instead of your apartment, you said quite a few colorful words trying to fit it into the trunk of your car."
"I guess I did," Hotch muttered, taking the chilled bottle of wine from her hands and moving toward the bar. Quickly removing the cork with deft movements of his hands, moments later he handed her a stemmed glass.
Gratefully accepting the wine, Emily stole a covert glance at Aaron's dark face. "How're you doing, Hotch?" she asked quietly.
Taking a seat beside her on the sofa, Aaron shook his head silently, uncertain what to say. Settling on a simple truth, he murmured, "It's hard. Jack is…confused. And I'm…"
"Trapped in the quicksand with him?" Emily offered helpfully.
"I'd say that's an accurate description," Hotch snorted, lifting the glass to his lips and letting some of the dark sweet fluid slide down his throat.
"You know what would help with that?" Emily asked softly, casting him a sidelong glance as she lifted her own glass to her lips.
"I'm sure you'd be more than willing to tell me, since you've never shied away from offering your opinions before."
"Forgive yourself for being human, Hotch. You didn't do anything wrong," Emily said sincerely, meeting his dark eyes. "You didn't kill her."
"Emily," Hotch said huskily, shaking his head as he averted his eyes.
"Just hear me out, Aaron," Emily urged, using his given name. "You've spent so much time concentrating on what Foyet took from you…from all of you…that you're not realizing what you still have. Haley gave you one last gift, Aaron. She gave you a life with your little boy. And I'm not saying that it doesn't come with its own unique set of challenges, but its more than any of us thought you'd have. And somehow, Haley managed to give it to you. You heard her…at the end… you heard what she said to you. She wanted you to be happy, Aaron…to teach Jack about love and laughter. And she would have preferred you do it by example. Let her go, Hotch. Let the guilt go. It's what she would have wanted for both of you."
"It isn't that simple," Hotch murmured, staring at the lights of the tree. "It was my…"
"No, it wasn't," Emily said firmly, cutting him off. "It wasn't your fault. It wasn't her fault. It wasn't anyone's fault except the man that took her life. And you made sure that she got justice for it. You did everything you could do. And sooner or later, you're going to have to allow that to be enough."
Finally turning to see her earnest face beside him, he looked at her. Really looked at her. Why was she doing this? Why was she so determined to see him forgive himself? "Emily, why are you really here?" Hotch asked quietly.
"Because you need someone to lean on," Emily said truthfully. "You're killing yourself trying to hold it all inside. The longer you bury those thoughts and feelings inside, Aaron, the more there going to poison you. It'll kill everything good about you. It'll turn you into someone that you aren't…someone you don't want to be. None of us want that. Especially not me," she told him, reaching out to cover the large hand resting on his thigh.
"I don't know how to feel anymore, Emily. I've spent the last six months feeling guilty. It started even before Haley died. I'm the one that got my family into this mess," Hotch said, grimacing as regret washed over him for the choices he'd made.
"You were doing your job, Aaron. You were trying to catch a serial killer. And it got personal. Too personal, but that was because of him. Not because of any choice you made," Emily said gently.
"What do I do, Emily?" Hotch asked, his words catching in his throat.
"You love your son. You make him the center of your world. You be the best father you can be to him. And you let us…let me…help you. We all want to. We need to. I need to," Emily confessed.
"Why?" Hotch asked on a whisper, meeting her dark eyes in the shadowed room, the reds and blues of the Christmas lights casting odd shadows against the walls.
"Because you're important to me," Emily confided. "Really, really important."
Nodding, Hotch turned his hand, lacing his fingers with hers and squeezing gently. "I needed to hear that."
"Then I'll say it as many times as you want whenever you want to hear it," Emily offered, more than willing to offer this man any solace her words or actions could bring him.
"Thank you, Emily," Hotch said, his voice slightly raspy with emotion. "I know I don't say that often enough, but…"
"Aaron, stop. Let's focus on giving your son the best Christmas we possibly can. And I think Santa whispered that would begin with putting together a bright shiny red bike. Am I right?"
Grateful that she'd allowed him to focus on something else, he nodded. "Yeah, it does," he said, pushing off the sofa to walk to the hallway closet. "Haley chose it for him before she died. She had it delivered to me at the office when she and Jack had to leave," he explained, pulling the large box from the closet. Gazing across the room at her soft eyes, he asked, "You sure you're up for this?"
"Bring it on. I told you, I'm an expert at pouring wine and reciting instructions," she smiled.
Nodding, he fished his pocket knife from the deep recesses of his slacks. "I hope you know what you're in for Prentiss.
By five in the morning, Emily and Hotch had drained the bottle of wine and a pot of coffee. All of Jack's presents had been wrapped, compliments of Emily and his new bike was perched beneath the tree. Glancing at the clock on the wall, Hotch grinned. "Good thing we know a thing or two about sleep deprivation, huh? He'll be up any minute."
"That's my cue to leave," Emily smiled, pushing herself out of the floor beside the tree.
"What? Why?" Hotch asked, shocked. Surely she wanted to see Jack's face after their hard work.
"I sort of figured you'd want him all to yourself this morning," Emily shrugged uncomfortably.
"And deprive you of seeing his excited little face," Hotch replied, shaking his head. "I don't think so. Stay, Emily," he said softly. Adding with a small frown, "Unless there's someplace else…"
"All I needed was an invitation, Aaron," Emily said, dropping to the couch. "I just didn't want to intrude."
"You aren't," Hotch replied with a negative shake of his head. "You couldn't," he added faintly, staring at the tree.
Following his eyes, Emily smiled. "Now, it looks like Christmas in here."
"Yeah," Hotch murmured, feeling a smile tug at his lips. "It does."
Both adults stared down the hallway as they heard a little pair of feet running down the hall, yelling, "It's Christmas! Did he come! Did Santa find us, Daddy?" Bright eyed, Jack Hotchner skidded to a stop in the living room, his eyes wide and round as he stared underneath the tree. Bouncing up and down, he happily yelled, "He came, Daddy!"
"Yeah, Buddy, he did. And from the look of it, you were a really good boy this year! Look, Jack, we've got a guest," Hotch said, gesturing toward the couch.
"Aunt Emily!" Jack shouted, running to give her a tight hug. "Did Santa bring you a present, too?"
"He sure did," Emily replied, tickling Jack's belly inside his Transformers pajamas, "He said I could spend Christmas morning with you."
Crinkling his nose, Jack narrowed eyes so much like his fathers and asked, "That's all you wanted?"
"That's all I wanted," Emily nodded.
"Why don't we check out what the big guy dropped off, Jack?" Hotch urged from his position beside the tree.
"'Kay!" Jack nodded, running back to his father's side and coming to an abrupt, silent halt beside him.
Seeing his son pale as he stared at the bicycle underneath the tree, Hotch knelt beside him. "Son, what's the matter?" Hotch asked worriedly.
Tears springing to Jack's eyes, he whispered, "I only told mommy, Daddy! I only told mommy! How did he know?"
Confused, Hotch whispered, "Know what, Buddy?"
"That I wanted a bike! I only told mommy," Jack whispered, wiping his eyes.
Lifting surprised eyes to Emily, Hotch silently pleaded for her help as he floundered, "Well, I don't…I'm not sure…"
Moving quickly to sit on the floor beside Jack, Emily pulled the crying little boy into her arms as he buried his face in her neck, his fingers clenching her shirt tightly in his hands. "Jack," Emily said softly, "You know how we all explained that Mommy was an angel in heaven now…always watching after you?" Feeling the bright little boy nod against her neck, Emily met Aaron's dark eyes. Seeing his slight nod, she continued, "Well an angel has a special hotline directly to the North Pole. And it was really important to your Mommy that you got exactly the right gift. So, after she got to heaven, she sent a special telegram straight to Santa's office. That's how good you were. She wanted to make sure you got rewarded even if she couldn't be here to celebrate with you."
"Really?" Jack asked, lifting watery, wide eyes to hers, staring at her with absolute trust.
Throat thickening, Emily nodded. "Really, baby. And she and Santa would both want you to enjoy your bike and all your other gifts, okay?"
"Okay, Aunt Emily," Jack nodded. Turning to look at his father, Jack asked, "Can I open some presents, daddy?"
Clearing his throat, Hotch nodded as he wiped his eyes. "Of course you can. Why don't you pick one out?" Hotch suggested, his voice husky. Watching Jack climb out of Emily's lap and begin rooting through the presents, he offered her his hand, pulling her up in front of him. Meeting her tearful eyes with his own, he whispered, "Thank you, Emily."
Shaking her head, Emily pressed a kiss to his cheek, whispering, "Merry Christmas, Aaron."