"You're joking," Supervisory Special Agent, and BAU unit chief, Aaron Hotchner, AKA Hotch, said, trying to keep his voice even as he spoke to his superior.
"I am not joking, Agent Hotchner," Unit Chief Director Erin Strauss said calmly. She held out the pamphlet again, forcing Hotch to take it. "You just lost your wife. You are a law enforcement officer. You need support and these people know what you are going through."
"I don't need a support group," Hotch growled, trying his hardest to not throw the pamphlet down. "Jack needs me. All this is going to do is interfere with the time I have with him."
"Special Agent Hotchner, I have already informed them that you will be coming." Strauss' voice softened some as she added. "Just once, and then we'll talk again. Agreed?"
Seeing no way out, the dark haired man nodded. "Will that be all, ma'am?"
"Yes, that will be all, Agent Hotchner."
"Where are we, daddy?" Jack was asking from his seat in the back of Hotch's sedan.
"Daddy has to go to a meeting," Hotch answered, parking in the building's parking lot. The support group for Widows and Widowers, an off shoot from the C.O.P.S. organization, was held in a community center not far from the Hoover building. According to the pamphlet Strauss had forced on him, it was recommended that if any children were involved they be brought along. Another children's group met, mainly in a babysitting capacity but also to help the children make some sense of their parent's death, at the same time as the Widows and Widowers meeting.
Hotch had decided he wanted to get this mandatory meeting over with so he could move on with his life.
Jack was nervous at first when Hotch brought him into the playroom but as soon as he saw the pile of toys, he was off like a shot. Three other children were in the room, two twin boys of about seven and a little girl that looked about Jack's age, four or five. The little girl was building a tower of blocks and Jack moved nearer her than the other two.
"Can I play too?" Jack asked.
The little girl, a redhead with baby blue eyes, nodded, causing her twin pigtails to shake. The two children settled down together and began playing quietly.
The worker, a young woman in her early twenties smiled. "Hello," she offered a hand.
Hotch shook her hand. "Aaron Hotchner."
"Emily Thomas," she smiled. "I run the children's program. The Widows and Widowers meeting is just down the hall but first," she produced a sign in sheet. "If you could just sign your son in."
Hotch gave his and his son's names to the worker and she pointed him down the hall again.
Dreading what as to come, Hotch took his time to head down the hall. Half way there he heard crying. Turning his head, he saw a woman hiding in the shadows down a hallway. She was shaking and staring at a piece of paper in her hands. Something was clearly wrong. Part of him felt he should let her calm down but another part felt like she might need a shoulder. Debating, he moved down the hall towards her.
"Ma'am," he said in his best 'I am a law enforcement officer and your friend' voice. "Are you alright?"
Suddenly, and surprisingly, Hotch found himself staring in the most brilliant silver-gray eyes he'd ever seen. The woman, who he noticed shared the same strawberry blonde hair color as the little girl Jack had been playing with, made to stand up.
Without thinking, Hotch held out his hand, which she took. Her fingers were freezing and clammy. "I'm sorry," she wiped her face.
"You have nothing to be sorry for."
She tossed her arm holding the paper about. "I just got some news," she offered.
Surprising himself, Hotch asked, "Do you want to talk about it?"
Both just stared at each other and Hotch quickly back tracked. "You don't have to, obviously. I just thought you might like someone to talk to."
Sticking out her hand, the woman offered a teary smile. "Autumn McNeal."
"Aaron Hotchner," Hotch took her hand, shaking it.
"You're here for the meeting?" She asked.
Autumn nodded, glancing at her watch. "We should get in there." She turned and led the way.
Hotch found himself watching the sway of her hair, which reached her mid-back, as he followed her. She led him into the main multipurpose room and over to a man in his mid-to-late fifties. The man smiled, seeing her. "Autumn, it's good to see you."
"Greg White, Aaron Hotchner,"
"Ah," Greg said with a smile. "Our newest member from the FBI; Autumn was our only one."
Glancing at Autumn, Hotch repeated, "FBI?"
"My husband," Autumn paused to swallow, "was FBI…he died two months ago."
"I'm very sorry for your loss," Hotch offered.
Greg smiled at them. "Why don't you both pull up some chairs and we'll get started."
The group was small, only about twelve members, each of them looking tired and worn.
"Well, since, Aaron is our newest member," Greg looked over at him. "Why don't you start by just telling us who you are and why you're here."
"I'm Aaron Hotchner," Hotch began. "I'm a FBI unit chief with the BAU." This was where he had to pause. His throat constricted some as he continued, "My wife...my ex-wife, Haley, was killed a month and half ago. She was…she was killed because I was working a case…against George Foyet, more commonly known as The Reaper." Tears filled his eyes as his throat constricted more.
"We're here to help you with your loss," Greg offered, gently.
The meeting moved on then. Each person talked some. Whatever was bothering Autumn, she didn't tell the group, Aaron noticed, as this meeting came to close.
"Remember you're not alone," Greg reminded everyone as they dispersed.
Hotch and Autumn walked down the hall to their children. Autumn was noticed first.
"MOMMY!"the redhead, who had been digging in the toy bin, came running.
Autumn scooped up her daughter, giving the girl a squeeze. "Sydney, say hello to Mr. Hotchner."
"He's Jack's daddy," Sydney said, wrapping her arms around her mother's neck.
Jack came running then, hugging his father's legs as tight as he could. "Daddy, I'm hungry."
"We're gonna go home," Hotch said, as he leaned over to sign out on the sheet.
"Mommy, I'm hungry too!" Sydney said, "Can we get McDonalds! Pretty please."
"I want McDonalds!" Jack cried, tugging on Hotch's suit jacket.
Autumn and Hotch exchanged a look and did the only thing they could; they laughed. "Well," Autumn began, leaning around Hotch and Jack for the sign out sheet. "My cars kinda in the shop right now. I was going to hitch a ride with Greg."
Hotch grabbed the sheet and held it out so Autumn could sign, with her free arm that wasn't holding her daughter. "I don't have plans if you don't."
Smiling, Autumn nodded, "Alright." She set Sydney down. "Get your seat."
The pigtailed girl ran behind the counter and came back carrying a booster seat. Autumn took it from her and steered the girl out of the room. She and Jack took off at a run, chasing each other down the hall, while the two parents walked slower.
Moving towards his sedan, Hotch buckled both kids in easily, amusing Autumn as she leaned against the passenger side door. He slid in, starting the car as she climbed into the passenger seat. The drive was quiet except for the two in the back who chatter on, sounding much like white noise to the two adults.
Hotch pulled the car into the drive-thru. "Do you mind if we eat in the car?"
Autumn shook her head. "Not at all," she turned around, to look at Sydney. "Happy Meal?"
"NUGGETS!" exclaimed both kids.
Both adults exchanged a look as Hotch said, flatly, "Such a surprise."
Autumn laughed, brushing her hand over his shoulder, drawing a smirk from him as he pulled them up to the window. He ordered two kids meals; one with white milk (for Sydney who didn't like chocolate) and one with chocolate. For himself and Autumn, he order a large fry and a two coffees. Autumn requested two creams and three sugars, while Hotch took his black.
Much to Autumn's protests, Hotch paid at the first window. She tried to hand him money but he just ignored her outstretched hand as he drove to the next window. At the second window, he accepted their order and handed it to Autumn so he could pull them into a parking spot.
Throwing the car into the park, he turned to watch her.
Unbuckling, she turned in her seat, passing each child a kid's meal. They both laughed excitedly as they ripped into their bags, while she grabbed the milks, passing each to the correct child.
Both children were sidetracked by the toys, only to have Autumn correct them both, with a single word. "After."
Jack pouted, looking at his father in the rear-view mirror. Hotch, meeting his son's gaze, shook his head.
Both kids began munching and Autumn turned back around.
Hotch held the bag of fries in his lap while Autumn tried to sort which coffee was which. She smelled each a few time, trying to detect a difference.
"Need some help?" He offered, fighting the smirk that desperately wanted to show.
Sticking her tongue out at him, she took a tentative sip from one of the cups. By the look on her face, she'd made a bad choice. "My god," she gasped, handing him the cup she'd just sipped. "How can you drink that?"
Hotch offered a shrug. "It's coffee."
As quickly as she could, she took a few quick gulps of her own coffee.
Silence followed for a short time. Finally, he asked, "Do you want to talk?"
Autumn swallowed. "Not here. Not with them."
First of all, this chapter is really long. Don't expect them to all be this long or you will disappointed in me. Second, this is my first Criminal Minds fic so give me time and leeway. Third, while I have 25 pages of writing on this story already, I must admit I'm not entirely sure where it's going so I'm gonna take it slow so I don't screw up majorly. I promise to try and keep updating. PLEASE REVIEW; any and all *real* feedback is helpful.