Summary: After Halloween, Aaron needs to talk out some of his feelings to someone who can show Jack another path to the future.
Spoilers: Season One White Collar and Season Six Criminal Minds
Warnings: very oblique references to molestation, angst
Word Count: 1800
"Hi Honey," Peter answered his ringing phone.
"Guess who stopped by for a visit?" she responded cheerfully.
Genuine cheerfulness, not faked and since Neal was at Peter's side listening in, "I have no idea." Just don't let it be Elle's mother.
"Aaron and Jack are here."
Aaron and Jack? Aaron and Jack? "Hotchner?"
"That's the ones. When will you be home?"
"We can stop by now." Peter heard a quiet rumble on her end of the phone and wasn't surprised when she said, "Aaron wants to talk to you."
"There's no hurry, Peter," Hotch told him. "Really. Jack and I needed to get out of DC. I'm sorry I didn't call first."
Hotch not planning something weeks in advance meant that he panicked. Hotch didn't panic. Hotch led one of the most stressed units of the FBI. He couldn't afford to panic. "We're not working a case," Peter cut him off. "We can be there in twenty minutes. We'll bring lunch. Indian good?"
"Indian's fine," Hotch surrendered and Peter really worried about what was going on.
Neal had been watching avidly but he said, "I know the best Indian restaurant on the way."
"Don't worry, you're coming."
"Really?" Neal perked up.
"We need a babysitter."
"What's going on?"
"I don't know," Peter admitted. "You remember the bombing scare and random shooting terrorist activity here in the City a couple years back?"
"Aaron Hotchner was the team leader during that and he caught the group. His SUV was also bombed and he was injured," Peter offered the background as he drove to the Indian restaurant. "He's one of the best FBI agents we've got. Not even a year later, a serial killer killed his wife, leaving Aaron to raise their only son."
"That's…" Words couldn't describe sort of tragedy.
"Yeah," Peter agreed. "Haley was sweet but she had a hard time with Hotch's job. He's the best and so he gets the absolute worst criminals to chase, all over the country. It's rough on any relationship."
"Not everyone is Elle," Neal commented.
"Turn left here," Neal changed the subject as he directed Peter to the restaurant. He pointed out the windshield. "See it?"
"Yeah." Peter parked the car and reached into his wallet. He pulled out a fifty, thought about it and added another twenty. "Get a nice spread for four adults. I want the change back. And the receipt."
Neal pouted just to lighten the atmosphere. "I think I can handle it." He hopped out of the car and hurried inside.
Peter took a deep breath and released it. He needed to settle his emotions. Haley had been a wonderful woman, even when she divorced Hotch. So few people could handle being married to an FBI agent, let alone that faced the worse of humankind. Peter didn't want Hotch's job; he'd quit first. He would never be able to handle it constantly.
Neal was back with white bags full of Indian carry-out. The thief kept up a constant prattle all the way home. Peter wasn't really paying attention and Neal knew it. Somehow the prattle helped Peter get his head in the game.
Elle was waiting at the door when they pulled up. She greeted Neal with a smile and Peter with a kiss. "Come in, Aaron and Jack's in the dinning room."
As they entered, Aaron stood. Jack, seeing his father standing, followed suit. They were both wearing comfortable jeans and polo shirts.
Peter pulled Aaron into a handshake and a back-slapping hug. He just hugged Jack. "Hey, Little Man."
Jack smiled at him. "Hey, Agent Peter."
Peter set the boy back onto the ground and turned to Neal. "Jack and Aaron Hotchner, I'd like you to meet Neal Caffrey, my consultant."
Aaron shook Neal's hand and Jack followed his example again.
Neal passed over the bags of food. "Let's eat!"
Jack peeked into one of the bags. "Yum."
Peter smiled at Neal. "Looks like we've got ourselves a winner."
"You want to tell me what this is about?" Peter asked Aaron after lunch. They had retreated to the kitchen under the pretense of putting all the dirty utensils into the dish washer.
Aaron took a picture out of his wallet. "Jack's Halloween costume."
Jack looked exactly like his father normally did, a serious boy in a dark suit. "Now that's cute."
Aaron smiled-almost. "He said that he didn't want to be a fake superhero anymore."
Peter could guess at his concerns. "He's a little young to be making career decisions, Aaron. You have nothing to worry about."
"Yesterday morning, at school, he found a classmate crying. He figured out that a teacher was molesting her, though he explains it as hurting her. He called my phone and said it was an emergency so that I'd walk in at just the right time to catch the Unsub in the act. I simply had to arrest him as my son comforted his classmate. The man's never even been suspected before. We're still finding his victims."
"That's impressive." Peter couldn't think of anything else to say. "He's what? Eight?"
"Seven. Look. Haley wanted me out of the BAU. She liked the idea of White Collar. I was offered a White Collar team."
Peter knew that he had turned it down because he was needed in the BAU. "You want me to play up the glamour a bit."
"Just get him to look at other options. I can't do anything else; Haley would hate for him to end up hunting monsters."
"Neal's got flash. He'll distract Jack," Peter promised.
But when Peter and Aaron peeked around the corner Jack was staring at Neal with the most distrustful look on his face. "You're a criminal," Jack told Neal. He wasn't taken in by Neal's style or card tricks.
Neal smiled as if it was a compliment. "But I help catch other criminals."
"Thieves," Jack said.
"That's not as important as stopping people who hurt other people."
Neal shook his head. He didn't know why it was important to win this argument, but he knew it was necessary. "If I stole your house from you, would that hurt?"
"Steal a house?" Jack was disbelieving.
"It's a lot paperwork basically saying that the person who owns the house doesn't own it anymore. The White Collar division does a lot of it." Neal despised the paperwork of mortgage fraud jobs, but the crimes touched many people and were common. "We make sure that people keep their houses."
"That's important," Jack agreed reluctantly. "But it's not as important as Dad's job."
"He's focused," Peter said softly.
"Now do you understand?" Hotch replied. He stepped into the room. "Hey
"Dad," Jack's face lit up as if Aaron had been gone had been a week, not five minutes.
"Has he taught you any physics magic?" Hotch asked.
"Nope. It's all slight of hand that Spencer's been showing me since I was a baby."
"Tough crowd," Peter muttered to Neal.
"You're telling me."
"Dr. Reid, one of my team, grew up in Las Vegas," Hotch explained to Neal.
"Vegas, huh?" Neal studied the boy in front of him. "How about some poker?"
Jack grinned, dropping his serious imitation of his father for a chance for fun. "Can we, Dad? Do we have pennies or candy?"
Hotch looked hopefully at Peter's wife. "Elizabeth? I don't suppose?"
"I have just the thing," Elle hurried out of the room with a smile. She soon returned with a crystal bowl filled with candy mints that her clients used for cleansing the palate. Jack had Neal's number and insisted on being the one to count out the thief's candies. Elle, Peter and Hotch all counted out their own shares.
Peter had played poker with Hotch before –or more correctly- he had lost to Hotch before. Hotch could worm his way into anybody's head and predict tells. He had also lost to Neal more often than not. Neal knew all of his tells. Elle was designated the dealer. Everyone trusted her to deal fairly. Peter thought that it would be entertaining to watch the two experts face-off and then little Jack bluffed them all out of the first hand. A quick glance at Hotch indicated that the man was not surprised and even a little proud of his son's acting abilities.
"Are you so that you want to be a Fed?" Neal asked him. "'Cause I could teach you to be a thief. And you would be an excellent thief."
"No, thank you, sir." The boy was extremely polite. "I don't want to be in jail. I like picking out my own clothes."
"I pick out my clothes," Neal protested. He was, as usual, wearing the Rat Pack rags. He was so proud of those clothes.
Jack made a sly glance at the convict's ankle. "Even the accessories?"
"What do you know of accessories?" Elle had to ask.
"Aunt Penelope takes me shopping and she has to buy stuff for herself and for me. She's the one who helped me buy all my ties. So I know all about accessories… and tracking bracelets."
"Heaven help us all," Peter muttered. "He had your sense of humor."
"Thank you," Jack chirped. "Spencer says that Daddy's humor is like a ninja, you don't know it's there until it strikes."
Elle flat out laughed at that. Hotch cracked a smile. The poker game got serious. Peter had expected to be a spectator to the showdown but Jack surprised them twice and Elle even had a few good hands. Even so, before the hour was left, Peter, Elle and Jack were all out of candies. Hotch and Neal competed. Peter wasn't sure whether or not Hotch wanted to win. Did he want Neal to appear better in front of his son? Did he want to glorify someone with such grey morals?
Hotch had profiled his son; that was why they had come to visit. Hotch would want to succeed in his true mission. This poker game would only be one arm of Hotch's plan, whatever that was.
Finally, Hotch pushed so that Neal was all in.
Hotch had a full house and Neal had a straight.
He was rewarded with a gleeful hug from his son.
"I knew you could do it, Daddy."
Peter was a little sad to know that Jack had his future all planned out and it was to follow his father's hurting footsteps.
The only thing Peter could think of was that they needed to find Jack's 'Elle,' the one woman who would stand by his side as he chased monsters in the dark.
Elle kissed his cheek –just 'cause- and Peter hoped that that special woman was out there, growing up and waiting for her real life hero.