Author's Note - First, a little explanation of this story...

Please join us as we meet Joe the Bartender, probably the only person to have an unfettered view into the lives of each member of the BAU at the moments they are most likely to let their guard down. Each chapter will focus on a different member of the team as seen through Joe's surprisingly insightful eyes. This will contain some pairings. This was written in response to Kavi Leighanna's Television Prompt Challenge for February - Cheers "The Bartender's Tale".

The Bartender's Tale

"Hotch"

Looking up from the scarred counter he stood wiping, he smiled faintly as he watched them straggle in. Led by Aaron Hotchner, or the Hammer, as Joe often thought of him, the others drifted through the door after him. Their steps seemed slower tonight, weighted as they shuffled behind their leader.

Reaching for the components to prepare Hotch's drink automatically, he mixed the vodka and red wine in equal parts, adding one last stir before he wiped the glass. The drink suited him. The Brutal Hammer. Smooth enough to suit Aaron Hotchner's obvious diplomatic demeanor, yet providing the ruthless kick the man apparently needed to dull his senses from the brutality he witnessed daily.

"Hotch," Joe nodded, sliding his drink in front of him, like he had countless times in the past. "You all just getting in?"

Nodding, Aaron reached for the glass. "Do me a favor, Joe. Just start a tab for us."

"No problem," Joe murmured, looking toward the group slowly making their way toward the old bar. "Musta been a bad one, huh?"

"It definitely had its ugly moments," Hotch replied evenly, his fingers tightening around the heavy glass. "See you later, Joe," he continued, making his way wearily toward their regular booth at the back, his slow movement telling Joe everything he needed to know about the day these folks had seen.

He'd been watching this particular group for years, ever since he'd taken over ownership of The Watering Hole. Sure, he served lots of g-men. Occupational hazard when you owned a bar this close to the Federal Building. But in a sea of suits, this mismatched group of misfits was special.

And he couldn't deny, he had a soft spot for each one of them. Including the man they called Hotch.

He'd met Aaron Hotchner years ago, when he was young, idealistic and his eyes hadn't held that deep sorrow. No, back then, he'd still smiled. Often. It had been Jason Gideon and David Rossi that had introduced him to their young protégé, each one obviously proud that they'd found the perfect agent to mold. But even way back then, Hotch had been his own man, unwilling to be clay in the elder profilers' hands.

The years had obviously eroded the young man's soul, the job costing him his wife, and very nearly his young son. But, slowly, inch by painstaking inch, his team was dragging this Hotch back into the world. Especially that Emily Prentiss, the newest addition to their little group. When Aaron looked at her, he could see the spark of interest flickering in the Unit Chief's dark eyes. And Joe suspected the rest of the team could, too. Even if they chose to ignore it.

Acknowledgement would mean admittance that their leader was breaking a rule. And anybody that knew anything about Aaron Hotchner knew that rules defined him....a G-man to his core. But if there was one thing he knew about these folks...they knew how to keep each other's secrets. Another occupational hazard that he recognized immediately. A bartender knew more about people than those files that ol' J. Edgar was supposed to have kept. But these people, they'd sure as hell been doing it long enough to make it an art form.

Watching as Hotch slipped into the booth, facing the wall, Joe shook his head. Hotch was a good kid that had gotten several lousy breaks. He knew the younger man had married his high school sweetheart straight out of college, but the pretty woman that he remembered hadn't been cut out for the bureaucratic lifestyle. They'd divorced and she'd taken his son away from him. He thought the stoic man might break then, eyes duller than Joe'd ever seen before. God knew, the lonely man spent many a night sitting on the stool in front of him, downing shot after shot in an effort to dull the pain.

Unfortunately, that hadn't been the worst though. Far from it.

The worst had come just last year. When Hailey Hotchner had been murdered in cold blood. He could still remember that night like it was yesterday, Aaron Hotchner's shattered face burned forever in his mind as he'd stumbled into the bar. He hadn't needed to be a rocket scientist to know to reach for a fresh bottle of whiskey. He'd simply placed the full bottle and empty glass on the counter in front of him and then he'd watched the young man steadily drink his way to the bottom of it, gaining the tragic tale from his lips firsthand.

He'd hear many tales over the years, but that one…now that one had made him want to give up the business and close the doors. If the world was coming to this, what good was he?

But that night, as Aaron Hotchner had sipped the last of the Jack Daniels from his glass, the bar door had opened. And Emily Prentiss had walked in. Smiling faintly when he'd nodded at her, she'd made her way to Hotch, sliding casually on the stool next to him. And after several minutes of soft discussion, Hotch had allowed her to wrap her arm around his waist and guide him out of the bar.

Not a man known for particularly generous gestures, Joe had gladly comped that bottle of whiskey, hoping that it had slowed the younger man's pain, if only for a little while. And in a way, his own faith in humanity had been restored just a bit, watching the taller man lean heavily on that her thin shoulders. Somehow, Joe just knew that she could bear the weight.

Lately, things seemed a little easier for the young leader, his step a little lighter, despite tonight's weariness. And Joe strongly suspected it had a lot to do with the woman currently approaching his bar. At least, he hoped it did. Because in his opinion, if ever there was a woman that deserved a measure of happiness, it was her.