They say avoid loud noises. Stay away from construction sites, loud music, gunshots and explosions. Unfortunately, for Hotch, those all have the potential to be present on any given day in the field.
What they don't say is this. They don't tell you what to do when the sound in your ears keeps you up at night. They don't tell you that it isn't just a harmless buzzing, that it physically hurts. That if, by chance, he sleeps on the wong side of his head, with his good ear to the pillow, he won't hear Jack calling for him in the middle of the night. That if the fire alarm in his building goes off, he'll be in agony and unable to move.
They don't say you'll have this forever. But it's been two years, and it comes and goes. The high-pitched whine of clashing noise when a sound is too intense. The subtle dissonance of music he can hear even if there is none playing.
He has been through worse. He has been garroted, beaten and stabbed. The only difference is that as a child, Hotch had no one. He had only been Aaron then, a kid protecting his little brother, trying to protect a mother who was too scared to do anything. He actually preferred now. Now, at least, when something happened, he had his team. Now, at least, somebody would come.
He had been through all those things, and lost Haley, and still, for some reason, his ear bothered him the most. Probably because he couldn't control it. Because, in and of itself, it was a loss of control. It meant he had to be more vigilant, and felt more vulnerable, not knowing what was coming.
That, and nothing made the noises stop.
"Daddy?" Jack said, pulling Hotch's hand to get his attention.
"Yeah, buddy?" Hotch asked, shaking his head.
"Do you need my help?"
Hotch got down on Jack's level and stared into his son's somber face. Just like that, the noise in his head was Haley's voice. Her last request of him. His last promise to her.
Promise me that you will tell him how we met, and how you used to make me laugh. He needs to know you weren't always so serious...
"I'm fine," he said, and smiled. "Hey. Do you want to hear a story?"
"Is it a Mommy one?" Jack asked, climbing onto Hotch's lap.
"It's a Mommy and Daddy one. Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, when I was in school-"
"You walked into play practice by mistake and saw Mommy!" Jack filled in, excited.
"You knew you were gonna get married! So you joined the club and were Pirate Number 4, with a pirate hat! You didn't do a very good job in the play but she married you anyway. And then I came and it was happily ever after! Right?"
"Right," Hotch nodded, kissing the top of Jack's head.
He sat back, and breathed a sigh of relief, enjoying the silence that fell around him.