Aaron Hotchner stood at the inner window of his office, staring out at the people milling about the bullpen. He sighed and rubbed his forehead. As hard as he tried, he couldn't shake the feeling of something lurking around the corner. Perhaps he should chalk it up as a hazard of the job; this habit of always looking for something or someone to come out of the blue to disrupt the peace. It might be the peace of a small town suddenly hit with a body count unlike any it had ever seen. Or it could be the peace of a large metropolitan area after a serial killer comes out of a warped form of retirement. Or it could be the peace of a solitary man whose world is turned upside down by a single bullet. He'd seen this and more, much more. But no matter what form the disruption took, the fallout left in its wake forever changed the residents. He understood the devastating impact from personal experience – three years later and his psyche still hadn't recovered from the havoc wreaked by Foyet.
Casting a glance over his shoulder, he stared at the few photos of Jack he kept in the office. His son served as a reminder of why he did what he did every day. A reminder of why he put himself through this mental torment, of why he chased the monsters down and banished them from general society. But there were days when the monsters crept into his mind. Days when they curled up and lingered in his brain, bringing up memories he longed to forget. He wished he could banish them forever; he longed to find that inner peace he'd lost so long ago.
A splash of bright color caught his attention, and he watched Penelope Garcia walk through the bullpen. A hint of a smile curled his lips upward. That woman seemed to sprinkle joyous pixie dust everywhere she went. He watched Reid look up and the younger man's serious expression lightened as he smiled at the ray of sunshine standing by his desk. Despite her intent telephone conversation, Prentiss smiled and nodded at Penelope. Morgan leaned back in the chair he occupied and smiled at her then made a comment that elicited a laugh from the heart and soul of their team.
He envied her. No, he envied her and loved her. There were days when all he longed to do was sit near her and soak up that generous spirit she poured out on those around her. Her smile was a ray of light in his dark world. Her laughter offered solace he couldn't find elsewhere, not even with Jack. Every time she brought him a plate of baked goods to take home to share with Jack, he wanted to invite her home to share them. And every time he started to ask, he found himself tongue-tied, unable to utter the simple invitation. Not that she would accept, even if he asked her. Penelope Garcia was off-limits, involved with someone else.
Her relationship with the rumpled Kevin Lynch, who seemed to spend more time wandering around aimlessly, looking dazed and confused rather than brilliant and sharp like Penelope, boggled Aaron's mind. But he'd also heard rumors circulating that Garcia had said no to Lynch's marriage proposal, and the relationship was now defunct. He watched her as she talked with Morgan and Reid, punctuating whatever she said with animated hand gestures. She didn't strike him as a woman suffering the break-up of a long-standing relationship, but he also knew she could be hiding her pain. He'd seen her perform more than once on the stage, as well as in an official capacity, and knew her talent as an actress. If she had to, Garcia could bury her sorrow deep inside and never show it to the world, but he suspected more often than not that she chose to remain open.
Hotch rested a hand on the window pane in a futile attempt to feel the warmth of Penelope. The best way to absorb her sunshine was akin to the best way to absorb the benefits of sunshine outside – be in her presence.
"Why don't you go join them, Aaron?"
He started then turned his head to gaze at the source of the query. Rossi stood just inside his office, arms crossed and leaning against the open door. Hotch read understanding and compassion in the other man's gaze, and gratefully, no pity.
"Because the moment I step out there, the sunshine goes behind the clouds. They assume I'm about to send the team into the field and Penelope scurrying to her lair." Aaron let out a heavy sigh and closed his eyes. Even with his eyes closed, an image of Penelope Garcia danced in his mind. When he opened his eyes, he noted his friend had stepped closer.
"Perhaps it's because that seems to be the only reason you step out there. If you change that perception by joining them every now and then, you might receive a different reception." The other man stood beside him, peeking through the blinds. He chuckled at Garcia's reaction to a loud rumble of thunder. "Why am I not surprised that instead of being frightened and ducking for cover at the first hint of a storm, Garcia perks up and seems pleased to see a storm roll in?"
Hotch let out a soft chuckle. "Because Garcia is nothing if not unique."
"Aaron, I know there are rules about things like this, but if you tread carefully they might be rules worth breaking."
"I should pretend I didn't just hear that, Dave." He turned to look at the other man, his closest friend. "Am I that transparent?"
"Only here in your office, hidden behind your blinds where she can't see you." Rossi's smile elicited one from Hotch.
"If I chose to ignore the rules and decided to act on my impulses, how would I go about it?"
Dave laughed. "Aaron, are you asking me how to ask a woman out?"
"If I'm going to ask advice, I'm going to ask someone a bit more experienced than I am."
"I'm not sure if that was a compliment or a low blow, so I'm going to take that as a compliment." Rossi glanced out the window. "I'm also not sure if traditional methods would work on our less-than-traditional Penelope."
Hotch laughed softly then followed Rossi's gaze. "There are times when I watch her and wonder if the best way to get her attention would be to take her by the hand and go dance in the rain with her. Do you think she likes to dance in the rain?"
"There's only one way to find out." Rossi met his gaze. " Ask her."
He could face down a serial killer pointing a gun at his head. He could dive into a lake to rescue a victim from the clutches of an unsub. He could race into a burning building to rescue a victim. And yet, the thought of walking up to Penelope Garcia and asking her to dance in the rain left him shaken to the core. "Easier said than done, Dave." He took a deep breath then exhaled through his mouth. “Besides, there’s her rumpled boyfriend to consider.”
“Lynch?” Rossi shook his head. “Don’t give him another thought. He’s history.” The other man rested a hand on his shoulder. "The most worthwhile things in life usually are the ones that require the most courage. So, that leaves you with one question. Is Penelope Garcia worth it? I can't answer that question for you." Dave smiled at him. "I know what my answer would be, but only you can answer for yourself."
Aaron replied with a nod and stayed rooted in place long after the other man left. Unsure how long he stood at the window, he returned to his desk only after Penelope had left the bullpen. Every attempt to focus on the report before him failed. He kept turning his head to gaze outside, to stare at the overcast sky. The thunder had moved out but the rain stayed. He rose and moved to stand by the outer window, staring down at the wet pavement.
"Hey, bossman, Rossi said you wanted to see me?"
At the sound of Penelope's voice, Hotch spun around and stared at her. Damn it, Dave. "Um, yes, I, uh, why don't you shut the door and come have a seat?" He slipped behind his desk and settled in his chair.
Garcia shut the door and sat in the chair directly across from him, a worried expression on her face. "Sir, did I do something wrong?"
Hotch shook his head and cleared his throat. "No, Garcia." He took a deep breath. "I just wanted to thank you for all that you do for us when we're in the field. I don't think I say it enough and didn't want you to feel taken for granted."
She blinked a few times then smiled. "Sir, it's my job. I love looking after all my dears when you're in the field. I do what I'm expected to do."
He shook his head again. "I think you do more than that, Penelope. In many ways, I think you're the heart and soul of this team."
Her cheeks turned pink and her blush spread to her neck. She dropped her gaze and stared at her hands in her lap.
"I appreciate all you do for us, Penelope," he said in a hushed tone.
"Thank you, sir." She looked up. "Can I go now?"
Hotch nodded. "I'm sorry, Garcia. I, I didn't mean to make you feel uncomfortable."
She rose from the chair, brushed her skirt down. "It's not that, but..." She broke off with a sigh. "Nothing, sir."
He watched her leave then slumped in his chair. Why did he clam up when it came to Penelope Garcia? He knew the answer, even if he'd never admit it to anyone, not even David Rossi. In a nutshell, he didn't feel he was worthy of her, and that he'd somehow taint her if their relationship changed. Loving her from afar seemed safer for her, even if it drove him slightly mad.
He attempted again to focus his attention on the report in front of him to no avail. When his phone vibrated about half an hour later, he felt grateful he could break away from the charade of looking busy to actually paying attention to something.
The text from Rossi read: She’s leaving for the weekend. Now’s your chance to ask her. Do it!
Not wishing to lose this gift-wrapped opportunity to remember how to enjoy the simpler things in life, Aaron shoved his chair back and rose, crossing to his inner window again. Peeking through the blinds, he saw Garcia standing in the door, talking to the others. Then she was walking toward the elevator bank.
As if possessed by some unknown demon, Hotch tore out of his office and dashed down the steps, taking the last two in a single leap. He heard Morgan call his name but kept striding for the door. The elevator doors closed and he saw her look up just as he got there. Determined, he ran for the stairs and clattered down them in a rush. He came out of the stairwell and saw her half-running half-walking toward the parking lot, getting soaked with every step due to the torrential downpour.
He chased after her, ignoring the rain drenching his skin through his shirt. A bit breathless, he called out her name, still trying to catch up to her.
She stopped then turned to face him. “Hotch?” Even bedraggled and standing in the rain on an overcast day, she looked beautiful to him. Beautiful, warm, and alive.
Aaron crossed the distance between them. In his mind he heard the words he wanted to ask her – Dance with me. He took two deep breaths then said, “Let me walk you to your car.” He took her bags then turned her back toward the parking lot. After a few steps, he rested his hand in the small of her back. The slight falter to her step when he touched her made his heart skip a beat.
They stopped at her car, the behemoth she called Esther. She unlocked the door, took her bags from him then turned to face him. “Sir, with all due respect, a man doesn’t typically run outside when it’s raining cats and dogs just to walk a woman to her car. What did you really wish to say?”
He blinked a few times before dropping his gaze to stare at his feet. “Garcia,” he murmured. He paused then started to speak again. “Penelope, please join Jack and me for dinner.”
“Hotch?” She furrowed her brows.
“Please.” He felt grateful for the rain cooling his flushed skin. He knew his cheeks must be crimson.
She nodded. “Okay. Do you want me to bring anything?”
“If you have any homemade treats hanging around, I’m sure Jack would like those.” He offered her a smile.
She returned his smile. “I think that can be arranged. What time?”
“Seven should be fine.” He held her door while she slipped behind the wheel of her car. “See you then.”
Penelope smiled then waggled her fingers at him before pulling out of the parking spot.
He watched her pull away before making his way back to the building. Pausing midway, he tilted his head back and let the raindrops gently pelt his face. His eyes closed, Hotch savored the sensation of the cool water against his skin.
A sudden clap of thunder jolted him from his reverie. He opened his eyes and stared at the far wall of his office. Damn! He whipped his head about and stared out the window. The overcast sky, littered with dark clouds, taunted him with the wall of rain it dropped.
His cell phone vibrated at the same time as a female voice asked, “Hey, bossman, Rossi said you wanted to see me?”
He tapped the screen and read the following text: She’s leaving for the weekend. Now’s your chance to ask her. Do it!