Given Rossi's recommendation, both Hotch and Garcia were surprised to find that Bella Vigna was not some ritzy five-star restaurant with waiters at every table. Rather, it was a bistro, cozy and pleasant, with alternating red, white and green tablecloths, and a lattice below the ceiling decorated with greenery and white Christmas lights. Nearly every table was taken; luckily, there was a booth open near the back.
"Bongiorno," an Italian teenager in a green vest said, giving them menus. "Welcome to Bella Vigna." He rattled off the night's specials and promised to come back with their drinks and some bread.
Aaron was relieved by the laid-back setting with its low hum of background chatter; he wasn't sure he could have gone through with this in one of those stilted upscale places where you could hear a pindrop. That would have been far too nerve-wracking. Rossi definitely knew what he was doing.
"So, what did you want to talk to me about? We didn't get around to that on the phone," Garcia prompted, wasting no time.
Luckily, he'd anticipated the question. "After I left, I thought about our conversation, and I realized that saying thank you was inadequate. I'm hoping this will put me back in good stead."
Penelope giggled. "So, you're bribing me with yummy Italian food! Nicely done. All is forgiven."
"Good." She forgives so easily, he thought warmly, involuntarily reminded of the steep price of asking too much from Haley. Neither flowers, nor dinner, nor jewelry, nor anything else he'd tried could assuage his ex-wife's anger. No gesture, no plea for forgiveness, was ever enough.
"What is it?" Garcia wondered, picking up on his melancholy vibe.
"Nothing," he replied evenly, pretending to be absorbed in reading the menu.
"Unh-unh. There is no 'nothing.' Not with this girl," she quipped. One fuschia fingernail tipped down his menu so she had an unobstructed view of his face. "And no hiding, either."
Aaron pursed his lips, trying not to be disturbed by the fact that she saw through him when others couldn't. The FBI teaches profilers how to read outer expressions and behavior, his mind reasoned, but reading someone's heart is something no one can teach. Call it women's intuition, empathy, a sixth sense – whatever it was, Garcia had it in spades. Ironic, that he had fallen for the one woman who wasn't fooled by his inscrutable veneer.
"I was just thinking about how quick you were to forgive me," he said, opting for the truth. "Others, in the past, haven't been so forbearing."
Her doe-eyes turned wistful. "Haley," she murmured, hitting the nail on the head.
He closed his eyes momentarily and nodded. "Haley."
Penelope humphed to herself and shook her head, visibly holding something back.
"What?" he asked.
"It's better if I don't say anything. You wouldn't like it," she warned him.
"Garcia, I'd rather you tell me than have to guess at what you're thinking," Hotch informed her. "Whatever it is, you can say it."
She would anyway; Penelope Garcia could do many things well, but repressing her opinions was not one of them. A few seconds later, she inevitably exploded. "I don't like Haley," she blurted. "Now, I realize I'm running the risk of making you super-mad at me, but you did ask, and – I just don't like her. I was there in the office when she called and yelled at JJ, just because she couldn't reach you. She had no right to be mean to my Jayje like that! It wasn't her fault you were in the field and couldn't pick up! And that's another thing. Why, if it wasn't an emergency, was she calling JJ and harassing her in the first place? But that's not even the big stuff, because what I don't like most of all is how she hurt you. Sir, you are – oh God, sorry, I forgot and called you Sir – but you are a hero. You go out there every day and risk your life to help people, and for her not to understand that and see in you all the wonderful things that I know are there that would have been worth staying for – I just don't like her," she concluded, exhaling loudly. "Sorry," she tacked on, although he was pretty sure she wasn't.
For a long time, Hotch was silent, processing what she'd said and the implications of it. Meanwhile, Garcia was panicking, afraid she'd really put her high-heeled foot in her mouth this time.
Way to go, Garcia! Boss-man takes you out to dinner to say sorry, and you no sooner get sat down than you're hurling verbal attacks at his ex-wife, whom he's clearly still strung out over. Not exactly considerate! she berated herself. Why couldn't I just keep my big mouth shut? He's obviously trying hard not to say anything, which probably means I pissed him off royally with that little tirade and he's just thinking of a diplomatic way to say 'up yours.' Might as well start looking for another job… wonder if any of the other units are hiring.
"You hate me, don't you?" she surmised, no longer able to take the tension between them. "I'm sorry. Truly, I did not mean to go off like that. I shouldn't have done it. It's none of my business, and… I don't know what I was thinking. I wasn't thinking," she corrected herself aloud.
"Did you mean it?"
There was no inflection to his voice, his poker-face hadn't shown a crack, and as upset as she was, Penelope couldn't get her own feelings straight, let alone try to guess at his. Her face fell as she surrendered to whatever judgment he would dole out. "Every word," she confirmed quietly, hanging her head.
Across the table, Aaron was nearly coming apart at the seams, but not for the reason she thought. With no encouragement, the woman had just praised him through the roof, calling him wonderful, a hero. Coming from Haley's mouth, the word 'hero' had always sounded like an accusation. As to why he hadn't spoken – what words could follow such a shining, impassioned defense of him, in spite of what he'd seen as evidence to the contrary? If it was possible, he loved her now more than ever.
"Then I'm in the same predicament I was in when we got here," Hotch related in a low voice. "Saying thank you just isn't enough."
Penelope's head jerked upright. "You mean, you're not mad at me?"
"Why would I be angry?" He shook his head gently, giving her a look that let her know it was okay. "If I was still a prosecutor and heard such a glowing testimony in someone's favor, I might have moved to dismiss all charges on the spot." She looked mystified, so he spoke plainer. "You couldn't pay me a higher compliment than you just did. I'm touched."
"I just said what I thought," she shrugged demurely, a hint of a blush creeping up her porcelain cheeks. His subsequent smile was enough to bring it all the way out.
"I'm glad you did." More soberly, he continued, "Haley did hurt me. For a long time, I've put all the blame on myself, because I was convinced that was where it belonged. And, after I demanded too much of you with this last case, I fully expected you to be resentful and hold a grudge, because that's what Haley would have done. But you surprised me. You forgave me earlier today, and you defended me just now. And, other than Jack, you're the only person I know who thinks of me as a hero. He's five years old and I'm his father; his bias, I can understand. Yours… I don't."
Before things could get off-the-charts awkward, the waiter came back with the promised bread and two glasses of wine. Somehow, the two managed to place their orders, although both their hearts and heads were racing. Bread and wine sat untouched as they stared at each other, minutes after the waiter had gone.
At length, Penelope spoke. "I may not be in the field, but I know what you see out there, and how much danger you're in every time you go. I've been on the wrong side of an unsub's gun, and I've got the scar to prove it," she began, trying unsuccessfully to keep her voice from trembling. "I would be way too scared to ever go after one of those people. But you keep doing it, every day. You could work a million safer places and still get a great paycheck, but you choose to be here, with us, because you know at the end of the day, you might save someone's life. I think that's pretty heroic."
"Thank you. But heroic or not, it still cost me my family," he self-deprecated, unable to hide his shame.
"You still have a family," Garcia passionately denied. "The BAU is your family. And just for the record, family doesn't walk away when you need them. When something goes wrong, they help you fix it. And when you're hurting, they hold you and tell you everything's going to be all right. Because that's what a family does. They take care of each other. And no matter how bad things get, you never have to feel alone, because you're not. There are people out there who love you and will always, always be there."
Despite SSA Hotchner's unchallenged reputation of remaining calm under pressure, this was the second time today he'd wanted to bolt before this woman had him bursting into tears. She seemed to have an uncanny knack for finding his deepest wounds and bringing them to the surface so she could apply her healing balm. Gratitude overwhelmed him. Had he known her true feelings and intentions, he would have let the tears flow, stepped around the booth and forced his tongue down her throat. But the question of Garcia's current relationship still hung over his head, effectively killing any such desirable notions. Honor demanded he know the answer before he crossed that line.
"I seem to be racking up a massive debt of thank-you dinners tonight," Hotch remarked in an attempt to lighten the mood. He succeeded; Penelope smiled. "But I do appreciate the thought. It is comforting to know that there are people I can depend on." Seeing an opportunity to find out what he needed to know, he struck while the iron was hot. "You know, someday, maybe not too far in the future, you'll have a family of your own. Assuming you and Kevin continue your relationship, there might come a day when you would have to choose between your family and the BAU."
"That's assuming a lot," Penelope mumbled, taking a hurried drink of her wine.
"I wouldn't think so. You've been seeing each other over a year. That implies a serious commitment," Hotch pointed out.
"Not necessarily." Uncomfortable beneath her superior's stern stare, she reached for the bread and started cutting slices. It gave her hands something to do other than shake, and her eyes somewhere to look that wouldn't make her feel like passing out from the intensity. "Let's just say, I wouldn't go out and look for a 'congratulations' card just yet."
He allowed himself a look of genuine concern. "Has something happened?"
Sighing sharply, Penelope scraped some butter across a slice, failing any effort to be nonchalant. "Funny you should ask. Right before you called, I was trying to figure out the best way to break up with him."
Aaron's eyes widened considerably. Unbeknownst to Garcia, bells, whistles and fireworks were going off in his head. His heart, however, was more solemn, knowing from experience just how much this had to hurt. "That's why you sounded so strange on the phone. I'm sorry. I didn't know." He paused thoughtfully. "Is there anything I can do?"
"There is," she murmured, forcing a smile for his sake, "and you're doing it right now. Just being here, talking, listening. Actually interacting with another human being in a way that doesn't involve a keyboard. Being alone all the time gets really old after a while."
Hotch arched his brows. "I thought you said having a family meant you'd never have to feel alone."
"I did say that," Garcia admitted, nodding sheepishly. "And I was right. Here we are."
"Here we are," he echoed fondly. On a whim, he raised his glass. "To family."
"To family," she toasted with him, clinking glasses and sipping. It didn't escape her notice that he was giving her an odd look over the rim of his glass, but Penelope didn't know what to make of it. If she hadn't known better, she would have labeled it 'relieved' or even – dare she suggest it? – 'happy.'
She was right, of course; he did feel those things, along with countless others, excitement and anticipation heading up the list. Could the timing have been more serendipitous? What were the odds of it being coincidental that the very night Rossi pushed him to call her was the exact same night Penelope meant to end things with Kevin? It amusingly crossed his mind that Reid could probably give him statistics on such a chance, and say that it was 'highly unlikely, but not enough to rule out.' In any case, he'd gotten what he came for. In just a few minutes, he'd learned two very important pieces of information: that Kevin was no longer an impediment, and that Garcia truly loved him; if not the way he loved her, then at least as the dearest of friends. And that, he could build on.
But there was still one lingering doubt in his mind. Best to get it out of the way now, he thought. "Have you told Morgan?"
Penelope shook her head, blonde hair swinging. "I haven't even told JJ. You're the first to know."
"You should tell him tonight," Aaron advised with falsified mirth. "Now's his chance to swoop in and carry you off into the sunset."
"That sounds like something a seagull would do to a fish," she chuckled at his analogy. "And as lovely a fairytale ending as that would be, we both know it's never gonna happen."
"Why not?" he asked, sincerely curious.
"Don't get me wrong. I love my beautiful chocolate Adonis, and I know he loves me – but it's the same way he loves his sisters and his mom. Sure, he and I talk a good game and pump each other up with some seriously questionable flirting, but Derek would never think of me that way, not really."
"Are you certain of that?" Because he wasn't.
"Um, have you seen the women he dates?" she scoffed. "Look at them, and then look at me. It's like in grade school, when they told you to 'circle the one that does not belong.' I'm the one who gets the circle."
Hotch cringed. Had Kevin left her self-esteem that low, or had it always been that way and he'd simply not noticed, taking her sunny smiles and bright colors at face value to ease his own suffering? He had a sinking suspicion it was the latter, and if so, he'd beat himself up for it thoroughly later.
"You do stand out," Aaron declared, "but it's not because you don't compare to others. It's because you outshine them."
Penelope's mouth fell open; she was glad she hadn't been chewing, or she might have choked. "I think you just paid all your thank-you debts in full," she said faintly. To her knowledge, neither Kevin nor Morgan had ever given her such a jaw-dropping compliment. She was no longer on earth, but shooting up through the stratosphere.
"That's too bad. I was looking forward to those other dinners," he frowned.
"So was I," she revealed, her voice little more than a peep. "Do you think we can maybe still have them?"
"I'd like that," Hotch affirmed, "if you don't mind spending time with your boring, demanding old boss."
"You are neither boring nor old, my heroic Hotchner," Garcia assured him, smiling; they both knew she'd purposefully left out 'demanding.' "And I promise, next time we do this, I won't be Debbie Downer."
"You're fine," he comforted. "Family takes care of each other, remember? You take prodigious care of your family. It's okay to let them take care of you once in a while."
Deeply touched, Penelope put a hand to her heart and fought back tears. "I think I need to amend my previous statement," she quaked, overcome with feeling, "to say that not only do I dislike Haley, I think she's a raving idiot. I mean, a girl would have to have a screw loose to…" She stopped herself short, realizing exactly what she was implying. "To let go of someone as good as you," she finished gravely, hoping she hadn't screwed up by blurting out her feelings, again.
Their food arrived, and when the waiter was gone, neither of them touched their plates.
"Penelope…" Hotch struggled for the right words. 'Marry me' was rushing it to the extreme, 'Sleep with me' was far too presumptuous, and 'I love you' could be misconstrued as the love of a friend, and probably would be, as Morgan seemed to use that statement often.
She took his silence as evidence that she'd just committed a colossal faux pas. Why had she done it, anyway? Why had she been so quick to denounce Haley in front of him, multiple times? What exactly was she trying to prove?
And then it hit her. Like the Rock of Gibraltar falling on Daffy Duck, it hit her. "Kevin was right," she whispered.
"I'm sorry?" Did I hear that right? Did she just mention Kevin? Why are we back to him? Aaron tilted his chin up and to the side, an affectation he didn't realize he used when he was feeling unsure.
"Kevin was right," she repeated, looking into Hotch's face with horror. "Your card; he threw it away, because he thought – oh my God – but you didn't mean – and I didn't know –"
"Slow down. What card?" Aaron interrupted, almost sounding harsh in his worry. "This time, in sentences."
"The card that came with the flowers you sent me in the hospital," Garcia replied, doing her best to spout complete phrases. "Kevin tried to get rid of it so I couldn't read it. I found it behind the garbage can. Morgan's card was the flirty one, but he didn't throw his away."
Hotch blinked several times. He remembered the card, all right, and how extremely vulnerable he'd felt when he penned the message, frightened by the fact that he almost lost her forever. He was starting to piece together her train of thought, but just to be on the safe side, he let her steer it to its intended destination.
"He was more scared of you than he was of Morgan," she went on out of pure shock, unable to stop. "He even asked me how well I knew you. Back then, I didn't know why, but he must have seen something I didn't. Not until now."
Aaron's brows jumped to his hairline. "Are you saying what I think you're saying?"
"Oh, Hotch… I am so sorry!" Penelope covered her mouth in shame as tears welled up beneath her glasses. "I never meant for this to happen! I didn't even know it had until a few seconds ago, and… oh, this has got to be so unbelievably awkward and yucky for you right now! But I promise, if you let me stay, my performance on the team will not go down even one iota; I will pull it together and be 100 percent professional and rational, and you will never have to hear about this again – "
And she did, right in midstream. Hotch's commands always had that effect, instantly demanding her compliance.
He didn't say another word, but flagged down the waiter. "Would you box these for us, please?" he asked, indicating their fully-loaded plates. "Thanks. And bring me the bill."
Penelope's stomach twisted itself in knots. He couldn't even bear to finish a meal with her. This was it, then. The end. There could be no going back to the way things were, to a respectful working relationship and a loving, trusting friendship. She'd ruined it, by realizing at the worst possible moment that she wanted something far more precious and unattainable. Gideon's reproof from years earlier echoed in her ears now, "How could you be so stupid?" She felt then almost as guilty and deficient as she did now, only this was much worse. Her breathing was shallow and she was shaking so hard, she was surprised the whole booth wasn't jittering along with her.
Hotch got up from the booth with a face that would have frozen steel, although it was clear that just under the surface, his emotions were roiling. He stalked towards her, never breaking eye contact, and slid into the seat beside her. His hands clutched the sides of her face, giving her no quarter, no room for escape.
And then he kissed her.
If kissing Kevin was like a bike ride through the park; light, fun, and genial, then kissing Hotch was like bungee jumping off a high bridge. It was gripping, terrifying, exhilirating, and she really did feel like she was falling. His mouth crushed into hers and commanded her attention, and once he had it, his tongue took the lead, ruthlessly invading her mouth and taking charge of every inch of its territory. After a minute he pulled away, leaving them both gasping for breath, and several onlookers at the nearby tables openly gawking.
The waiter came back with the boxes and the ticket, indicating that they could pay up front. Aaron got out of the booth and waited for her to collect her purse – and her jaw, as she seemed to have dropped it. On jelly-legs, she followed him to the front, her head reeling as though she'd been suckerpunched. Once he'd paid, Hotch took her hand and walked her to where Esther was parked.
"Before anything else happens, you need to explain things to Kevin," he said grittily, brushing a hand over her hair.
"I know." She nodded, slowly regaining her ability to think. "Then what?"
"Then, call me." His hand traced down her face. "But don't make me wait too long."
"Or what? You'll come busting down doors, Supervisory Studly Agent?" Garcia teased.
"Actually, I was going to have Morgan do it," he deadpanned, before he allowed a smirk to twist his lips. Bending his neck, he brushed a lighter kiss across her lips, a gentle reminder of whose they were now. "Get going."
"All right, Bossy-man," she grinned, changing his nickname to jab him. "I'll call you in the next three hours."
His raised eyebrow told her this was unacceptable. "Make it two."
One Week Later
Garcia sighed contentedly. Lying side by side with Aaron, their hands clasped beneath the sheets, their bodies sated, she knew she could never be happier than she was at that moment. Releasing his hand, she rolled onto her side to face him and laid an arm across his stomach, enjoying the warmth of his skin as it rose and fell with his breath.
"What are you thinking about?" Hotch mumbled tiredly, eyes closed.
"How do you know I'm thinking about anything?" she wondered.
His lips curled into a smirk. "Because you're quiet."
Scoffing in protest, she lifted her arm to smack his shoulder, earning a laugh from her lover. "You're lucky I love making you laugh," she teased. "And that you're so darn sexy."
"I am, huh?" In a move too swift for her to predict or stop, he rolled over and took her with him, pinning her down. He chuckled at her shocked face.
"Foul! Flag on the play! No fair using FBI maneuvers on a non-field agent!" Garcia chastised, but she couldn't hide her own grin as he leaned down to kiss her. "Mmm. Again? Already?"
"Not yet," he admitted, "but we might as well have fun while we wait." And for the next fifteen minutes, he showed her that yes, indeed, reputedly stodgy SSA Hotchner really did how to have fun - before getting down to business.
"Tell me what you were thinking earlier," he said after their second round, spooned behind her with a protective arm around her waist.
"I was just wondering why it happened to me," she confessed quietly. "Getting shot, I mean. In the grand scheme of things, I don't think it makes any sense."
"Unsubs don't follow any rules of logic that would make sense to most people," Aaron reminded her.
"That's not what I meant. I've always believed that everything happens for a reason. But I can't find any good reason for what happened to me. I used to think it was fate's way of bringing me and Kevin together, but that wasn't it. Obviously," she added with a smile, bringing his hand up to her lips for a kiss.
Hotch kept holding her hand, but was quiet for a long time. "That was the day I knew," he finally murmured.
"Knew what, honey?" she asked, glad she could call him 'honey' now without being reproved.
"That I loved you," Aaron confided. "I tried to imagine the BAU without you, and I couldn't. Not just because the team needed you, but… because I did."
Overwhelmed with feeling, Penelope turned to face him and held him deliberately close. Hotch's arms clasped her as though he was still afraid she might vanish if he didn't hold her tightly. "Then it was worth it," she whispered lovingly. "Because I can't imagine a life without you."