Note 1:

This is written as a Christmas gift for AhmoseInarus. My prompts were Hotch/Reid, "O Holy Night," a roaring fireplace, a fir tree, and a big red bow. A joyous Christmas and an awesome New Year to all of you and yours, and especially to A-I!

Note 2:

Rated T for assorted adult themes. Ongoing but very mild Hotch/Reid slash relationship.

Note 3:

Thanks as always to the shy and retiring research librarian who serves as my beta and saves you from my multitudinous typos and logical errors. You rock, toots!

Traditions Flowing Like a River

Wednesday Evening, 21 December, 2011

Forty-seven minutes after he received the phone call, Dr. Spencer Reid, with two cardboard cartons jammed under his left arm, braced a third box unsteadily on his upraised right knee and rapped on the front door of Aaron Hotchner's townhouse. A large wreath of artificial holly with a huge red satin bow decorated the door. Unlike his neighbors, Hotchner did not get into the whole inflatable-Santas-and-long-strings-of-lights thing.

He knew that Hotchner could see him on his security camera; he hoped he looked pathetic enough that the Unit Chief would open his door and let him in … even though in a sense, some of this was probably his fault.

After a moment, the door opened. "This isn't a good time," Aaron announced, his voice low. He wore what passed for jammies on him: old gray sweat pants so frayed that in places they were practically transparent, and a Georgetown Law tee. No shoes, just white sweat socks. His hair was uncombed, his jaw dark with evening shadow, and he smelled faintly of bourbon. Some tell-tale pink showed around his eyes, a little swelling that confirmed that there had been tears, but otherwise his face was impassive.

Glancing past him, Reid could see a dimly lit living room. The TV was on, its sound low, a commercial for Target stores currently the only splash of light and color with a beige couch and chair, white walls, a crystal manhattan glass and a bottle of Jack Daniels Black Label.

"I'm sorry," Hotch told him. This really isn't a good time."

He gathered his courage. "It isn't a good time for what?" he asked as he pushed past the unit chief and into his living room. He eased the third box, the one that was balanced most awkwardly, down onto the chair and set his gloves down beside it. "I didn't come over here to jump your bones," he continued more calmly than he felt. "Or for you to jump mine." He removed his coat and scarf and threw them over the back of the chair.

He sensed Aaron flinching at his frankness.

Well, tough.

The one advantage his own family's dysfunctionality had over that of the Hotchner clan was that when the Reids had a problem, they called a spade a spade, and sometimes a fucking shovel. Whatever the issue was, it was out there where everybody could see it and talk about it. With Hotch, it was all about keeping your face up and your voice down, because Everything is fine, and We don't talk about that.

Eight times in the last seven months, Spencer Reid had been intimate with Aaron Hotchner, and one of the unspoken rules seemed to have been that they didn't talk about it much. Not much during it, rarely after it, and certainly not before it, which, God forbid, might indicate premeditation. And as much as Reid liked and admired his supervisor—as much as he flat-out lusted after the man, who more than lived up to all of Reid's fevered fantasies about him through the years—he'd had it up to here with being the all-but-anonymous guilty secret with whom Aaron went bump in the night. Hell, even crack whores got more validation than that!

He cleared a spot on one of the end tables and set down his other two cartons. "I'm here to decorate the tree with you," he announced firmly, hands on his hips, daring Hotch to argue with him.

Hotchner just looked at him.

A modest evergreen tree, undecorated, stood in a festive painted metal base in one corner of the living room. Four battered boxes, all originally from a Florida shipper of holiday citrus fruit, and so all the same color, shape, and size, stood stacked unobtrusively by the wall. In Aaron's tidy block printing, three bore the single word Xmas in permanent marker. The last said Lights and Tinsel in the same hand.

Hyper-organization: an indication of a frightened mind.

"This is really a bad time," Hotchner said, his face as expressionless as ever.

"You're not planning on a Christmas tree?"

"Yes, well ... I got the pine tree, but—" And since there was nothing credible Hotch could say after that, not without getting into troublesome territory, he didn't say it.

Reid glanced over at the tree in the corner. "Actually," he blurted before he could even put the brakes on his mouth, "that's a fir, and not a pine." He walked over and raised the closest bough. "See, you can tell a pine because the needles bundle together in sets, not like this—see the individuation? You find that in spruce and fir, not in pines, although spruce needles are square…."

The part of him that might have kicked himself for going off on one of his lectures held back, because Hotchner seemed to be, if not actively interested in what he was saying, at least relaxing at the sound of his voice.

Lecture mode is normal. It's expected. And obviously Aaron needs a little normal right now.

So he rattled on a little longer about round needles and flat needles, about pines and spruce and firs and even threw in a little about cedars and junipers. When he ran out of steam, Aaron cleared his throat and asked what kind of fir tree it was.

"No idea," he confessed. "I just know that it's some variety of fir, not a pine."

"I guess that's good to know," Hotch said. Did he even realize that he had sat down on the arm of the couch?

Consciously mirroring him, Reid perched on the arm of the chair that matched the sofa. During their exchange, the television commercial break had cycled through holiday-themed ads for a cell phone carrier, a jewelry store, and an auto dealership. Now the show—whatever Hotch had been watching—flickered back across the screen. It was a science/documentary program about the development of jet engines.

His life is falling apart and so he watches things being put together. Significant? Or a coincidence of channel surfing?

Reid nodded toward the screen. "If I'm interrupting something—"

Hotchner reached for the remote and clicked the TV off, leaving them in the dark save for an antique fan light beside the door. "It was just background noise." He snapped on the table lamp beside him, illuminating most of the room, and placed his hands on his thighs. "This is really a bad time to come by, Reid," he repeated, his voice heavy. "Maybe another night."

Reid reached into the third box, the one that sat beside him, on the seat of the chair. He poked around a little and produced what looked like a wadded-up piece of paper that someone had painted a dull red and dipped into gold glitterwhich was exactly what it was. He dangled it by its delicate S-hook.

"I made this in preschool when I was three," he said. "I'm not sure why my parents saved it, but it went on the tree every year, and not hidden in the back, either. In a place of honor."

Aaron looked neither at Reid nor at the ornament. He just gazed off in the distance and said nothing.

"Come on, Hotch," he urged gently. "I showed you mine; now you have to show me yours."

Finally Hotchner looked him full in the eye. "This is not a good time to visit, Reid. I'm sorry."

Reid cradled the paper ornament in the palm of one hand. "I know why Jack isn't here," he said. "I know that Mrs. Brooks is threatening to keep him from coming home to you."

Reid watched surprise, pain, embarrassment, and determination flash across the unit chief's chiseled features before the mask came down again. "My lawyer's on it," he replied, his voice steady and grim. "Margaret has no legal standing. He'll be back before Friday night." His eyes narrowed. "How did you find out about it?"

"Jess called me," Reid told him.

"And did she tell you why Mrs. Brooks has suddenly decided that I'm not a fit father?"

Reid nodded. "She did." Keeping his own tone calm and controlled, he said, "Now you have to show me an ornament."

Hotchner continued to sit silent and motionless for the better part of two minutes. Reid forced himself to do the same, to wait the chief out.

Finally Hotchner rose and stretched, then walked over beside the Christmas tree and sat down on the floor. He slid one of the citrus shipping boxes toward himself and opened it. "This isn't an ornament, per se," he said as he withdrew a cardboard rectangle from the box. "But I made it in Sunday School when I was" He checked the edge of the cardboard, where a feminine hand had block-printed by Aaron H, Christmas 1971. "When I was six. It's a fair representation of my artistic prowess."

On the front side, the cardboard was painted with brown tempera to suggest a frame for the drawing that was mounted on it, a drawing of two stick figures, one in blue and one in brown, arranged in an attitude of anatomically improbable adoration of a blob that lay on top of two X's with a line drawn across their tops. All three human participants in the scene wore halos that resembled the helmets of astronauts. Three animals appeared in the nativity scene: a camel, an elephant, and something that might have been a moose. Atop the stable's peaked roof, something closer to a tic-tac-toe board than to a star radiated wavy bright yellow lines down on the holy family.

"A moose?"

Hotchner turned the picture and studied it. "I think I had a reindeer in mind," he said, almost to himself. "I remember that the elephant started out as a donkey but his head turned out all wrong, so I made him fatter and gave him a trunk."

"Not a political statement, then?"

A faint smile. "No."

"And where was it displayed at Christmas?"

Hotchner sighed. "On the mantel. Dead center, from Thanksgiving until Epiphany."

Reid looked around. "No mantel here," he observed. "But that's a nice buffet." He reached down and extended a hand and after a brief hesitation, Hotchner let go of the picture.

Spencer got to his feet and crossed the room to the heavy carved mahogany buffet. He slid aside a pair of art deco candlesticks (he vividly recalled David Rossi giving them to Haley and Hotch for their tenth anniversary) and propped the drawing upright against the front of an antique clock with tiny carved marble pillars flanking its face.

"The clock's from your family, right?"

"My grandmother's family, yes."

"Has it ever worked?"

"It stopped before I was born."

Reid replaced the candlesticks as though they were standing guard over the drawing. "Amazing what families keep holding on to, isn't it?"

"Sometimes." Aaron picked up the wadded-paper ornament that Reid had left on the floor when he got up to display the nativity drawing. He held it up against the branches of his fir tree experimentally and finally hung it on a central bough. "Good enough?"

"Good enough." Reid seated himself on the floor near where Hotchner sat. "My turn," he said. He dragged the smallest box down from the seat of the chair and poked through its contents again. After a moment he brought out three battered cone shapes of heavy foil decorated with lace and paste gems and intended to resemble the Three Wise Men. "These date back to my father's family," he said. "Kaspar, Balthasar, and Melchior, except that my father called them Kaspar and Halite and Polly-Evelyn."

"Halite, like rock salt?"

Reid nodded. "He liked it better. And the long hair on Balthasar, he thought it was a girl. He misheard his parents talking about polyethylene, thought it was a girl's name."

Hotchner held out his hands for the Wise Men. Polly-Evelyn had lost her S-hook. Reid dug around at the bottom of the box until he located one and handed her over last. "This one is Halite?" Aaron asked, holding up the blue foil figure.

"No, that's Kaspar. Halite has the red gems in his crown."

"Ah, I see." Hotch turned them around. "How old are these?"

Reid did a rapid calculation. "Probably early Fifties."

"Wow." Treating them respectfully, Aaron arranged them on low-hanging branches of the tree. "And I have something around here that dates from further back than that." He opened another box and looked at the labels on the white tissue paper that the Hotchner family ornaments were wrapped in. "Here we go," he said, holding up an angry-looking little wooden figure that was wrapped in fur. "Look at this one."

"A Pelz-Nicholas!" Reid exclaimed with delight. "I've read about them, but I've never actually seen one outside a museum."

Hotchner seemed pleased. "Exactly. 'St. Nicholas in Furs.' Of course, we always called it a 'Belsnickel.' It dates from my paternal grandmother's childhood."

"How much of the tradition did your grandmother's family follow?"

"None of it. Even for Gram, it was always been more of an empty threat, Be good or when Belsnickel comes he'll give you nothing but coal and he'll beat you with a switch." Hotch examined the figure closely. "He's really showing his age. Whatever this is—for all I know it's mouse fur—it's starting to peel off."

"How did you explain it to Jack?"

At the mention of his son, another quick stab of pain crossed Hotchner's features, then the Family Wall came down again. "The same way my parents did. He's Belsnickel. He visits naughty children the week before Christmas. He asked me what Belsnickel did to naughty children and I said I didn't know. I'd never met any naughty children. That's all my parents said and it's all I said. I got the rest of the Pelz-Nicholas tradition from the Schirmer side of the family and German class."

Reid watched Aaron's hands and his eyes as he continued to study Belsnickel. "How did Margaret find out about me?" he asked quietly.

Hotch looked up, startled. "About you? About us? She didn't."

Spencer felt a rush of pleasure at the words about us. Did that mean that he was really more than an erotic bump in the night? "But then how—"

Aaron straightened the S-hook on the wooden Belsnickel and hung it from the branch next to that of Halite the Wise Man. "No, it was—it was awkward. Jess confided in my Aunt Pat—she's a lesbian, and she only just came out last year so it's still a frightening experience for her. I gave Jess permission to talk about me, about us, to Aunt Pat.

"Apparently over the Thanksgiving holidays Aunt Pat let something drop, probably something innocent—people always underestimate the extent of the Brooks women's intuition. They're pretty sharp. When Margaret came to spend time with Jack and Jess while the team—we were still in Arizona—she searched the house. She found—" He coughed nervously. "She found my porn stash. Not all of it was … straight." His eyes met Reid's, then flickered away and stayed away, staring at the legs of the end table. "Most of it wasn't."

God. His ex-mother-in-law searching his house. That was so wrong.

And Hotch, having a porn stash. Spencer wondered why that surprised him. Of course he had a porn stash. Most adult males had a porn stash. He had a porn stash, for God's sake. Why should it surprise him that Aaron might have one? He was a man of passion, after all. Surprising passions, he reminded himself, as images of Aaron—by candlelight and by starlight, naked and groaning as he nuzzled Spencer's face with a sandpapery jaw; as the recollection of his hands, first so tentative, and later on, so confident, so sweet; and of his mouth, dear God—threatened to overwhelm him.

Regretfully, he shook off the images, the sense memories. He avoided looking at Aaron's face. At his hands. At anything about him.

And again with that "about us."

"I miss having a fireplace," Aaron said. He reached for the remote. Reid was grateful for the change of topic. Hotch turned on his TV, clicked his way through some menus, and came up with a screen saver of a roaring fire in an ornate fireplace on his five-foot screen. It was a little unnerving to see a fireplace suspended on the wall four feet off the floor, but the dancing flames were almost as hypnotic as the real thing, even to the warm colors that played across the room—and Aaron's face.

Stop it.

Reid reached over to the end table and carefully pulled down both of the two boxes he had set there when he arrived. "It's pretty," he said, referring to the screen saver. "I can almost feel the heat." He opened one carton and produced a box slightly larger than a standard jewelry box, its top elaborately carved from dark wood. He displayed it to Aaron, indicating the holly, the candles, the boughs of fir, the broad strand of ribbon that tied all of the images together.

Hotch ran his hand along the side of the box. "Is this an antique?" he asked as one of his fingers (on purpose? accidentally?) brushed one of Reid's. "Is that hand-carving?"

Reid shook his head and tried to ignore the tangle of emotions that hit him with that brief contact. "My Uncle James, my mother's brother, brought it back from this theologians' conference in Augsburg when I was thirteen, and gave it to Mom. It is carved by hand, though. I think the key is inside this, but you never know…"

He slid a small drawer out, and in a velvet-lined square depression there was a bright silvery key. He took it out, flourishing it with a magician's flair, and then inserted it into a hole in the back of the box. It made a distinct ratcheting sound as he turned it, winding up the mechanism within. "It winds forever," he commented, "but it plays forever, too—well, for twelve minutes, longer than your average music box. And you still have to avoid over-winding.

"Here we go," he said finally, and raised the lid to reveal twelve tiny ceramic angels on velvet pedestals of varying sizes. He tripped the switch and the sparkling little gilded figures began twirling, moving in circles, moving up and down as though on tiny carousels, in what seemed like almost random patterns.

The internal works of the music box played "Angels We Have Heard On High." The arrangement was not the simple, tinny one typical of music boxes; rather, it resembled a player piano's arrangement in the density of its harmonies and the constant background arpeggios. They listened in silence. When the mechanism reached the "Gloria in excelsis Deo" part of the carol, Hotch breathed, "That's beautiful."

"Always one of my favorite carols," Spencer confided. "I sang it in freshman choir."

Hotchner scootched over beside him and leaned back against the front of the couch only an inch or so away from Reid. "I didn't know you were in the choir in high school."

This is what "too close for comfort" means.

"Just the one year," he replied, finding Aaron's closeness a fierce distraction. "One year of sports or drama or music was a requirement, and I had nothing to offer in sports or drama. I couldn't—and wouldn't—play an instrument, so choir was my only option."

Hotchner looked over at him. "I think you would have done well in drama."

Reid considered that. "With what I know now, yeah. Probably. But not then. I didn't get my height until puberty, and puberty was still a couple years away." He drew a deep breath and offered his full confession. "I sang with the sopranos because my voice hadn't changed yet."

"And that embarrassed you."

"Hell, yes. More on a day-to-day basis than officially. They decided early on that for yearbook pictures and when there was an official program for a concert or a recital, I would be listed among the tenors. But just a few weeks into the school year, somebody started calling the soprano section 'sixteen babes and Beaker.' And it stuck."

"Being called 'Beaker'?"

"Yeah. In retrospect, there were a lot more things I could and would be called later on, things a lot more offensive, more hurtful. But then—in that place—I really hated it. And now I look back, and—it's almost kind of cute—

"—wait, wait, I love this one!" he interrupted himself as the music box began an elegantly arranged version of "Joy to the World." "Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing—"

"You aren't a soprano anymore," Hotchner said with a chuckle, but he joined in with him for the last "—and heaven and nature sing."

Reid shook his head. "Mm-mm. Baritone. I can sometimes squeak out a tenor, but not often."

"When I was a senior I sang in the chorus of 'Pirates of Penzance,'" Hotch confessed with an embarrassed chuckle. "I was terrible. But I was tall, and they needed tall pirates. I was fine in the first act, but in the second act the pirates sing the tenor line and the police sing the baritone line. The chorus leader said it was pitched low enough that most baritones would have no trouble reaching it, but sometimes for me, it was—iffy."

Spencer stared at him, astonished. He could not for the life of him envision the reserved and tightly-wrapped unit chief prancing around onstage in a pirate costume. Even though he knew the man was capable of loosening up, it was always in private, in the safety of his family and sometimes his team, that he let his guard down. Never in public. Never on a stage.

"What?" Hotch said, sensing his look of surprise. "Hey, Haley was in it; she was one of the sisters, she was Kate. The sisters wind up with the pirates, you see. Never underestimate the power of hormones," he finished with a grin.

"So you did it for love," Reid said.

"Yes. Well—at that stage it was more lust than love, but, yeah. In the end, I did it because she was awesome and I wanted her, and if that was what it took, then that was what I would do."

The music box finished "Joy to the World" with a big flourish and tinkled the introduction to "Adeste Fideles."

"I would do it for you," Aaron murmured so low Reid could hardly hear it, and when he did, it took him completely by surprise. For an instant he was not sure what Hotchner was talking about.

When he made the connection, all he could think of to say was, "You would?"

Hotch's right hand closed over his left on the carpet. "Whatever it takes, Reid," he said. "I want you."

Reid found himself momentarily speechless. Then he ventured timidly, "Is it—wise—to talk this way when Mrs. Brooks is, you know, being a jerk? When Jack is in the middle of this?"

Aaron's hand squeezed his tightly. "It's the best, the wisest time," he sighed. "I can't get into lying and denying, saying that I don't—swing both ways." He met Spencer's eyes. "I always did. And Haley knew it. And I don't want to fight this battle twice, once now, denying everything, just to get Jack back, and then a little later on down the line, when—when maybe we're taking this to the next level, you know—I don't want to fight it out all over again. So, yes. This is exactly the best time to talk this way.

"Deum de Deo," he sang in a soft voice, "Lumen de lumine, cantet nunc aula—no, dammit, that's the next verse." His baritone was both deeper and darker than Reid's. "Gloria, gloria! Soli Deo gloria—" apparently deciding to stay with the third verse. Reid joined him for the familiar "Venite, adoremus," chorus, but his voice was unsteady because his thoughts were racing.

Afterward he wondered whether Hotch had begun singing because he wanted to stop talking about—them. Them, as an item. As—something other than a guilty secret. But he still held Spencer's hand firmly, pressing it against the side of his thigh.

His body started doing all that cliché crap—heart fluttering, head swimming—as the potential reality of it set in and he wondered: Do I even want to be Aaron Hotchner's official—there's no other word for it—boyfriend? Yes, he loved the unit chief, and the sex was terrific, but—was he ready to take that kind of leap? Times had changed, but not that much, not yet. His mother would be cool with it, but he had no idea how his father would manage it, were he to come out of the closet. And then there were those pesky non-fraternization rules (thanks a bunch, Rossi!) as a hurdle yet to clear.

Going from an occasional-hot-and-sweaty to official-main-squeeze in the space of just a few minutes, so casually, and while the Jack thing was still up in the air … holy shit.

"What about Margaret?" he said.

"We have to see where she's coming from," Hotch said softly. "This is all tangled up with that new church she's going to, the one that promises the faith healings. She's looking for a cure, a miracle for Gerry, and she thinks that the tighter she gets with this bunch, the more she goes along with their theology, the more likely it is that she'll get that miracle. Right now the only critical thing on her radar is her husband's cancer. So I can't go head to head with her and force her to choose between her husband and her grandson. The only way I can deal with it is through a lawyer, and he'll concentrate on the legalities."

As he spoke, some of the pain seemed to drain away, because, as the folk wisdom goes, a joy shared is a joy doubled, and a trouble shared is a trouble halved. There he was, the essential Aaron Hotchner: intelligent, compassionate, and decisive. Everything that Spencer loved in the man was right there on the table.

"I love this," Aaron said as the music box changed songs. "I think it's my favorite Christmas carol."

Spencer listened to the first strains of "O Holy Night" and nodded. "It's beautiful," he agreed. "It's the last one; the box only plays those four."

He leaned back against the couch and tilted his head to the side so his temple rested against Hotch's. "A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices," he sang softly.

"For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn," Hotch sang along with him, adding hurriedly between lines, "—and I'm never gonna get the high notes in this, just a warning—Fall on your knees, Oh hear the angel voices, O night divine—"

"I love this verse," Spencer said a minute later. "It sums up so much..." and they sang together:

Truly he taught us to love one another;

His law is love and his gospel is peace

Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother

And in his name all oppression shall cease—

His eyes drifted to the Christmas tree, still mostly bare, but on its branches the traditions of two families met and melded, Belsnickel and Polly-Evelyn, in the same way that his parents' families' traditions had melded in years past. Christmas from here on would include a moose and an elephant and a camel, and his wadded-up Christmas ball would still hang in a place of honor on the tree. And who knew? Maybe someday Jack would explain the back stories of the ugly little ornament and the angry little bearded guy to his own children the way this evening Reid had learned that Aaron had played a pirate and Aaron had learned that Spence had been nicknamed Beaker; that Aaron had a lesbian Aunt Pat, and Spence had an Uncle James who was a theologian.

And that sense of being part of the flow of history gave him the surest glimpse of immortality that he had ever felt. It was intoxicating, and it felt so right that it all but drowned him.

"His power," they sang, still hand in hand, "and glory—" and Aaron, sure enough, missed the high notes, "—evermore proclaim!"

"Hey," he said as the music tinkled to a stop. He turned so their foreheads and noses pressed together. "Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas," Hotch whispered back, "and God bless us, every one."