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Standing Upon the Threshold of a House Divided

Chapter One

Standing on the darkened porch of Aaron Hotchner's townhouse was not exactly where Jennifer Jareau had anticipated being when her day had began.

It had been her plan to settle in on her worn couch with a good glass of wine and an even better book. It wasn't often that she was allowed any sort of down time, but this was Will's weekend with their son and she, remarkably, had caught up on all the little household chores that needed doing during the week.

It should have been a happy day followed by a relaxed evening in. Of course, she knew what the saying was about the best laid plans and all that drivel.

Staring at the small buzzer, she inhaled deeply. She knew this really wasn't her place to interfere, but she felt at least partially responsible for Hotch's current predicament. Not that the honorable man was allowing her to share in the burden of blame the team was intent to place on his broad shoulders for the deception regarding Emily Prentiss' alleged death.

No, he was wholeheartedly determined to keep her out of it, especially after witnessing the team's collective reaction to her "resurrection". In fact, she'd been ordered to keep her mouth shut in no uncertain terms. Noble, yes. But infinitely stupid.

Stubborn, thy name is Aaron Hotchner.

And after two weeks of watching Morgan give their Unit Chief the cold shoulder, watching Reid's betrayed eyes virtually skewering the solemn man every time they were in the same vicinity and enduring David Rossi's disappointed head shakes, she'd had enough. The only people even willing to give Aaron Hotchner the time of day were the woman he'd been protecting and their technical analyst, who had, in her typical amazing style, chosen to look at the glass as half full. After all, Emily Prentiss was alive and well, amidst them again. Penelope Garcia was Pollyanna incarnate, and they all knew that she was bound and determined to see the sunny side of life even if it sent the rest of them to an early grace.

And then, finally, there was her. The one person that had been a party to the entire truth. The person that knew just exactly how much living a lie had cost Aaron Hotchner. The one person that couldn't bear to watch someone as decent and honest as Hotch be persecuted for something far beyond his control.

Lifting her hand, she jabbed the doorbell decisively, waiting impatiently as the cool fall breeze whipped around her legs. "C'mon," she muttered to herself, willing Hotch to appear as a brisk wind sent a chill through her. "I know you're here," she murmured to herself, glancing at his parked sedan in the driveway.

Raising her hand to ring the bell again, she paused as the door opened. Meeting Aaron Hotchner's tired eyes, she couldn't help but notice how the lines of strain around his mouth seemed somehow harsher in the darkened foyer.

"JJ?" Aaron frowned, widening the door and motioning her inside. "Do we have a case? My phone didn't ring," he said in confusion, glancing toward the cell phone resting on the mahogany entrance table.

"No," JJ denied quickly, shaking her head as she stepped across the threshold into the much warmer hallway. "Nothing like that," she added as she smiled. "Will has Henry this weekend and I wanted to check on you."

"Check on me?" Hotch echoed softly, gesturing her into the living room. "Why would you think you needed to do that?" he asked evenly, not quite meeting her eyes.

"Wanting to test my profiling skills already?" JJ teased lightly as she sat down on the black leather couch and stared at him across the room. "You know I'm a novice still."

"Very funny," Hotch said with a small rueful grin, his head tilting ever so slightly to the right. "The rules didn't change while you were away. No profiling each other."

"Okay," she agreed, watching as he sat down on the other end of the sofa. "I guess I wanted to make sure that you were okay. It's been a pretty rough couple of weeks."

"I'm fine, JJ," Hotch forced himself to say, ignoring the objections that formed so quickly in his mind. "We both knew that the team would need someone to blame and I always knew that person was going to be me. I was prepared for the fallout."

"You weren't the only one responsible for the decisions that got made, Hotch," JJ reminded him softly. "If you recall, I shared in the duplicity, too."

"And there's absolutely no reason the rest of the team needs to know that," Hotch said stiffly, his hands fisting on his knees as he stared into the cold fireplace on the opposite side of the room.

Watching his face, illuminated by the single lamp burning in the living room, JJ sighed. Aristocratically handsome, Aaron Hotchner was the vision of what every girl dreamed of finding. Honest, steadfast, loyal...they were all adjectives that could be used to define the man she stared at. Of course, headstrong, defensive, and infuriating to the point of madness were fair descriptors, too. And currently they were the qualities driving her to the brink of insanity. "This is nuts, Hotch," JJ sighed. "The team deserves to know that you weren't the one behind the decision to keep our team in the dark. I was. Or, more specifically, the state department was. You were only doing your job. We both were. If you'd just let me talk..."

"Absolutely not," Hotch said, his denial immediate and forceful, his dark eyes narrowing as he leaned forward.

"Hotch...Aaron," JJ began, scooting closer to him on the couch as she reached a tentative hand out to rest on his wrist, "You are not responsible for the choice Emily made. And I'm not saying that we should let the team blame her, but you could at least let me share in the..."

"The what, JJ? The frigid stares...the icy silences? There's no point in both of us enduring it. Let them believe what they need to believe. Eventually they'll accept the choice I made."

"And allow them to make your life hell in the interim?" JJ questioned, frustration leaking into her tone as she shook her head. "Jesus, Aaron, you were doing what you had to do...what you were ordered to do to protect Emily! They need to know that."

"No, they don't," Hotch said softly, shaking his dark head decisively. "I'm Unit Chief, JJ. The buck begins and ends with me. Success or failure, it's on my head. I accepted that when I stepped into Gideon's shoes all those years ago."

"You didn't sign on to be the team's resident scapegoat," JJ objected, her fingers tightening around the warm flesh of Aaron's wrist, silently willing him to accept what comfort she could offer. "It isn't fair," she muttered.

Turning his head, Aaron smiled grimly. "Life isn't fair, JJ. You know that as well as I do."

"You don't need to protect me," JJ whispered, her eyes boring into his. "I'm as culpable as you were in cultivating the charade of Emily's so-called death. Let me bear some of the burden."

"No."

Hearing the finality in that single word, JJ grimaced. God, she knew that tone well...that deep timbre that resonated in his voice when he decided to doggedly dig in his heels about something. Usually she admired that strong willed resolution. Of course, conversely, it usually wasn't directed at her.

"Please, Aaron," JJ pled, needing to make one last ditch effort.

"Why would I do that?" Hotch asked, meeting her eyes. "I worked for months with Rossi concocting a way to bring you back to us. Do you think I want to watch them look at you the way they see me? What possible purpose could telling them about what you knew serve? So they could have two people to blame rather than one? No. Absolutely not. I won't allow you to put yourself through that."


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