A/N: Wow you guys, I'm so completely excited to have finished this at long last! This is the longest multi-chap I've ever written, and I'm so proud of myself for actually finishing it. This was my first real Criminal Minds story, and I wasn't sure if I'd even get any readers. Thank you so much to everyone who's stuck with me through all of this, and everybody who's read/faved. Thank you so much for supporting me! It means so much. I'd really love to reach 100 reviews, so please let me know what you think.
I've had a few questions about a sequel, but I have no plans for one. I think I've exhausted my inspiration for this story arc. It's been a blast to write, but I really don't see myself continuing it further after this.
I'm going to shamelessly self-promote here, but my next CM story is going to be an AU JJ/Will. To give a quick summary, they were childhood best friends, but drifted apart the summer after high school. JJ reunites with him on a case, and they get to reminiscing about when they were younger, which inevitably leads to questions about JJ's main skeleton in the closet: the death of her sister. The two agree that not everything adds up, and go back to Pennsylvania to look for clues. What they find out threatens to rip JJ's family and the entire town apart. Would you be interested in reading that? Please let me know in a review, because I'm not sure whether to continue it past what I've already written. Here's a quick preview:
JJ pushed open the front doors of the NOPD, and immediately felt the cool blast of air-conditioned air envelop her body, a welcome change from the stifling New Orleans heat. "We're the FBI BAU," she told the security guard.
"I know who you are," came a familiar voice, and JJ looked up from the security guard and immediately froze.
"Hello, Will," she replied coolly, refusing to melt to his warm smile and grasping for the shards of her composure. Last time she'd checked, Will LaMontagne was working for the police in East Allegheny as a junior officer. She would never have expected to see him here, in Louisiana of all places, in charge of the homicide department. "What are you doing here?"
"Working," he replied casually, looking her up and down. "I'm the lead detective on the case."
Well, that changed everything. /end shameless self-promotion.
Anyway, thanks for reading, and as always, I hope you enjoy this chapter!
"So when's the housewarming party?" asked Rossi, coming up behind Emily and putting a fresh cup of coffee in front of her.
"What housewarming party?" asked Emily, frowning, and wondering if she and Hotch needed to have a chat about planning parties at her house without her permission.
"Oh, you're not having one? I just thought you'd be looking for a chance to show off that new place of yours," Rossi said, smiling warmly. There was a teasing twinkle in his chocolate eyes.
"I hadn't even thought about it," Emily replied honestly. "We've had practically non-stop cases since we moved in, and I guess we're all just getting used to having a family again."
"If you decided to have one, let me know. I'd be happy to help you throw a wicked party," Rossi offered, sticking his hands in his blazer pockets.
"I'll have to talk to Aar – Hotch," Emily replied, biting back her boss's first name. Even though their relationship was no secret, she prided herself on keeping it professional where the team was concerned. "But thanks, Rossi. I wouldn't know where to start." She flashed him a grateful smile, and he put an affectionate hand on her shoulder.
"Well, you two talk it over, and let me know," he grinned, turning to head back to his office. "I should get back to work."
"Hotch," Emily said, cornering him in his office.
"What's up, Emily?" he asked, looking up from his current batch of paperwork with a touch of concern.
"We need to have a housewarming party," she said, in a tone that left very little room for argument.
"Okay. I was planning on bringing that up soon, anyway," he replied, clicking his pen and shutting his folder briefly. "It's time to head out now, anyway. We'll talk about it on the way home."
Fifteen minutes later, they were pushing through the BAU's heavy front doors, and stepping out into a gorgeous early-July sunset. The light was like clear gold, and the day's heat was slowly dissipating. Waves of warmth rose from the asphalt, and the cars in the parking lot shimmered with reflected heat.
"So, what did you have in mind?" asked Hotch, as soon as he'd slid into the driver's seat and rolled down the windows.
"I was thinking a small get-together for the team," Emily returned, resting one hand gently on the windowsill and letting the balmy air ruffle her hair.
"Does that include Strauss?"
"It would be rude not to," she replied, focusing on the way the town blended into the country. "She already knows about us anyway, she just hasn't said anything."
"Yeah, well, inviting her would make Rossi happy," said Hotch meditatively, guiding the car out onto the highway. "When are you proposing having this gathering?"
"Sometime in the next few weeks. We could have it in the backyard, and maybe set up some lights and lanterns. We could put out tables for snacks and a main table for dinner. It doesn't have to be a big deal," Emily said, surveying the man next to her with a small smile. "Rossi said he could help us plan if we needed it."
"We'll need it." Hotch's lips compressed slightly. "I've never really planned a party before."
"Hey," Emily said gently, laying a hand on his arm. "We can do it together, and Rossi can give us pointers. It'll be fun. And Declan and Jack will be so excited."
"Well, say no more." He looked away from the road with a grin, and she knew she'd won.
"Declan! Can you get a chair and help me hang the lights, please?" yelled Emily, balancing precariously on her chair as she struggled to connect a string of white Christmas lights to the next one.
"Coming!" he called back, as he dragged a chair from the table next to the house, with an extra few strings of lights. He boosted himself onto the chair, and connected his lights to Emily's, and hung them over the patio. "How are we looking?"
"Perfect," she replied with a warm smile, stepping down from her chair and surveying the scene.
A long wooden table, courtesy of Rossi, had enough seats for everybody on the team and their respective significant others, with a separate table for Jack and Will. Candles shimmered in glass lights, and a few centerpieces made from wildflowers crowned the table. White Christmas lights hung over the entrance to the house, and another table held drinks.
"It is perfect," agreed Hotch, shrugging on his blazer as he stepped out into the patio. "I think we're all ready."
"I'd say we are. I'm just going to get changed. Where's Jack?" Emily asked, as she bypassed Hotch on her way upstairs.
"He's putting on his tie," called Hotch, and shut the screen door.
"I should probably go do that," said Declan, tugging his collar into place and heading upstairs as well.
Hotch took a last walk around the patio before going back inside to get the punch and the other drinks. He arranged them on the table while he waited for Emily to emerge.
She stepped down the staircase, running a hand down her waist to smooth her dress. It was a dark blue shimmery sheath dress, hitting just above the knee. She had paired it with nude pumps and a blazer overtop. "How do I look?" she asked, catching Hotch's eye.
"You look beautiful. Wow," he said softly, extending a hand to escort her down the last few stairs. Once she was on level ground, he reached down and captured her lips in a kiss.
Before she could deepen it, the crunch of wheels on gravel signaled the approach of their first guess. Looking out the farmhouse window, Hotch recognized Rossi's familiar sleek sports car.
The Italian agent stepped out of the car with Carolyn, carrying a bottle.
"Dave! Welcome to the house!" called Emily, rushing out of the house with her arms open for a hug.
"It's beautiful," he said, pulling her into his arms. "You've done a great job. I brought you a housewarming gift."
"You didn't have to do that," Emily said, but he pushed the bottle of champagne into her hands.
"Our treat," said Rossi, putting an arm gently around Carolyn.
JJ, Will, and Henry arrived next, and Jack greeted his friend with a boyish squeal and immediately showed him up to his room.
"The house looks lovely," JJ said, looking admiringly around the kitchen. "It's lovely, Em. Absolutely gorgeous."
"Thank you," said Emily, coming as close to blushing as Hotch had ever seen her. "It's been a journey."
"We're just so glad to have you back," said JJ honestly, pulling her friend into a hug. "You're back where you belong, with your family."
"I wouldn't have it any other way," Emily replied, grinning widely. "It's just so good to be home."
"It's good to have you back, sweetie," came a voice from the door, and the group in the kitchen spun around. In the doorway stood Penelope Garcia. Derek Morgan stood slightly behind her, holding another bottle of wine.
"Ahh!" Emily cried, rushing forward to envelope her in a tight hug. "I'm so glad you made it, Pen."
"Wouldn't have missed it for the world! We're so excited to be here!" Garcia gushed, prodding Morgan forward. "We brought you a little present." She flapped a hand in the blonde's face, shushing her efforts to reply. When Emily didn't stop trying to talk over her, she pressed a finger to her lips. "No, baby girl, I insist."
"Well, when she puts it like that," Hotch said teasingly, snaking an arm around her waist and pulling her in just a tad closer. "I don't think we can refuse a gift of alcohol."
"I guess not," Emily replied, smiling. "We'll have to enjoy it later. Thank you all."
"Where's Reid?" asked JJ, looking around.
"Right here, actually. Sorry, I got a little lost," he apologized, looking sheepish. "The roads out her are quite serpentine."
"They take some getting used to," Hotch admitted, as the young genius stepped into the kitchen and scanned the place.
"I love what you've done with the place. Do we get a tour?" he asked, putting down his messenger bag down with the shoes.
"Of course!" said Emily. "This is the kitchen. Um, I repainted it. And this is the living room. This used to be an extension of the kitchen, but I turned it into a living room. There's a small oven for baking bread over here, but I use it for storing spare cutlery."
"There's a bathroom over here. Feel free to use it at anytime. Now, shall we go upstairs?" Hotch added, starting up the stairs. "This is Jack's room in here."
"Hi, Dad," the twelve-year-old said, looking up from where he was showing Henry one of his books.
"Hey," said Declan, who had been sitting just out of sight behind Jack's dresser. "I was going to come downstairs earlier, but I thought I'd give you a chance to mingle first."
"Declan! Oh my God, Em, he's so big," Penelope exclaimed, turning delightedly to the brunette. "Wasn't he like eight the last time you saw him?"
"Yeah," Emily said softly. "He was. Declan, meet the team."
He stood up, brushing invisible lint from his grey flannel pants. "Hi, I'm Declan."
"It's lovely to meet you, finally!" said JJ, pulling him into a gentle hug. "I'm JJ."
"I'm Will, JJ's husband," said Will, shaking the teen's hand.
"This is David Rossi, profiler extraordinaire," said Emily, moving down the clustered team.
"I've heard so much about you sir, it's great to finally meet you!" Declan said, shaking Rossi's hand enthusiastically.
"I'm so glad to finally meet you!" Garcia's voice was bordering on a squeal as she gave the blonde teen a bone-cracking hug. When she finally released him, he met Morgan, and Reid, and the group headed back downstairs.
Erin Strauss was hovering awkwardly in the doorway, looking a little unsure of her surroundings. She smiled widely at Emily, as she descended the stairs. "Oh good, I was beginning to think I was in the wrong house. I'm sorry I'm so late; I took a wrong turn," she said, looking around the kitchen appraisingly.
"So did I," offered Spencer, giving her a tentative smile. "The signs are not even close to legal."
"But you found the place, that's what matters," said Emily. "I'm so glad you could make it." She hugged her Section Chief, ignoring Garcia's raised eyebrow.
When the rest of the team had been introduced and the house shown, the party retired to the patio. Declan had hooked up the speakers outside so mellow jazz played softly. Overhead, the Christmas lights twinkled in the warm breeze.
Emily had pressed Jack and Declan into service to help serve the meal, which consisted of broiled salmon, asparagus, and baked potatoes. She had plated it carefully, and Jack was pretty proud to be trusted in carrying the best china out of the kitchen.
As she settled down next to Hotch, she took in the warm atmosphere, the clink of metal on china, and the smell of fresh food and good wine. Yes, it was certainly good to be back.
The night passed quickly, as they talked under the stars. Emily surveyed her friends. David was engaging Strauss, even eliciting a smile and laughter from the usually straight-laced blonde. Declan was floating easily from the adults table to Henry and Jack, who clearly adored him. Reid was talking architecture to JJ and Will, and Morgan and Garcia were flirting comfortably. All in all, it made her glow from the inside out. She'd never really done the hostess thing well – at least, not nearly as well as her mother, but now, she felt as though she'd done something right. It wasn't a polished DC dinner party. It was a rustic country gathering of friends, but it was perfect. It suited all of them, and the conversation and drinks flowed more easily than if it had been a fancy cocktail party. Scanning the scene, she knew they had managed to include everyone.
JJ and Will took off first, having to wake up Henry from where he'd fallen asleep on Jack's bed. She and Hotch waved from the window as their taillights faded into the distance, then returned to the remaining group.
"I should probably get Jack to bed," said Hotch, standing up from his place at the table. Jack was sitting in between Morgan and Garcia, but he was visibly drooping, resting his head against Morgan's arm.
"Come on, Jack," he said gently, shaking his son's shoulder to rouse him. "I think it's time to get to bed, okay, buddy?"
"Okay," Jack replied, blinking owlishly and rubbing his eyes. "Good night, everybody. Have a good night." He waved as he headed inside and upstairs.
"He's so adorable," Garcia stage-whispered to Emily. "I am so incredibly jealous that you get to spend all this time with him."
"I know, I'm so lucky," Emily said, sipping the last of her wine. "He and Declan are great kids. I'm so glad I have both of them in my life."
"You are. You'll have to bring them both around more often," agreed Rossi, who was returning to the table with a drink in either hand. He slid one to Strauss, and took a pull from his own.
"I can probably arrange that," she smiled. "They love you guys."
Spencer yawned, and checked his watch. "It's past midnight. I should probably head out. It's going to be a long drive back."
"Goodnight, Spencer. Thanks for coming. We'll see you tomorrow!" Emily said, as she walked him to the door, hugging him goodbye. She watched as his car headed down the winding driveway, and faded into the distance.
"Yeah, we should probably hit the road as well," Morgan said, standing up. "It's been great to see you guys, and the place looks great."
"I'm so glad you could make it," Emily said, hugging them both tonight. "It's been great to see you both!"
"'Night, Em," said Penelope, kissing her on the cheek. "Thanks for the invite, darling. We will see you tomorrow."
"Bye, Pen," Emily said, waving, as Morgan and Garcia drove away.
Rossi and Strauss were helping to load the dishwasher in the kitchen, as Hotch and Emily entered the room.
"Stop it, Dave!" Emily said, swatting his hand gently away from the china. "We'll do it later."
"It's no problem," said Strauss, smiling. "Oh, and I have something for you both. David, would you mind giving us a minute?"
"Sure," he said, and disappeared out to the patio.
"I have something for you," she said, and pulled an envelope out of her purse. She slid it across the counter to them, expectancy lighting up her eyes. "Go on, open it."
Emily pushed it to Hotch, but he handed it back to her, hand on top of hers. She gingerly slit the envelope with her fingernail, and pulled out an official-looking letter, stamped with the FBI logo. She flipped it open, and scanned the first few lines. "Aaron, it's an exception to fraternization. Thank you so much, Erin! We really appreciate it." She reached out, but Strauss closed the gap between them and pulled her into a hug.
"It was the least I could do. You've been through so much. This should make it a little easier," Strauss explained, with a surprisingly human smile.
"Thank you so much, Erin," said Hotch. "Just, thank you so much."
"Well, I think it's time for me to go," she said lightly. "I'll see you all tomorrow. Keep it professional, alright?"
"Of course," Emily agreed, nestling closer to Hotch.
And with that, Erin Strauss left their house, leaving hope and surprise behind her.
There, standing in the kitchen with Hotch's arm around her, she felt something she hadn't felt in years: safe. JJ had been right. She was back where she belonged, back with her family, and she was going to keep it that way. She had conquered her demons, and the past was still the past. Stretching ahead of her was her future, and it was bright. With glowing eyes, Emily reached out and grabbed it with both hands.