They were in Greensboro for three weeks. It was three very long weeks for David Rossi. The whole team knew something wasn’t right but Rossi insisted he was fine and the case had to come first. Four girls were missing, and later they were found dead.
They were taken from the world against their will in the prime of their lives. Dave needed to focus solely on them and find out who did it. Once a week he spoke with Claudia Hernandez. He spoke with Erin nearly everyday though they seemed to discuss everything but what was about to happen.
“Erin, are we going to talk about this?” he asked one night when he was sure he couldn’t take it anymore.
“You don’t need to be worrying about that right now.” she replied. “You're out in the field and that should be your top priority.”
“It’s hard to think about when all I can imagine is that I’ll come home and you won't be there.”
“I live here, David. Where else would I be?”
“Stop.” Erin said. “This case is important, David. They're African-American girls so you know it hasn’t gone national even though it’s clearly a serial case. The BAU and local PD are the only ones to speak for the victims. Do your job and be the best. Everything else can and will wait until you come home.”
“Do you love me?” Dave asked. He couldn’t believe he felt the tears building up in his throat. Clearing it, Dave held them back with the strength of Samson.
“Smart people shouldn’t ask silly questions.”
“Tell me you love me then.”
“I love you, David. You should stop being so demanding.”
“That’s one of the things that women say when they're making a sweeping statement and not talking about one particular moment.”
“That’s a sweeping statement.” She said.
“I love you too, Erin. I…”
“You need to go and get back to work. We’ll talk again soon.”
Dave didn’t want to end the call but someone knocked on his door. He had no choice now.
Halfway to the door, the person knocked again. Dave looked through the peephole and saw his Unit Chief. He opened the door. Hotch managed something resembling a smile as he walked across the threshold with a six-pack of beer.
“I thought this would be better than scotch or whiskey.” Hotch said.
“Maybe tomorrow but not tonight.” Dave said as he closed and locked the door.
“At least it’s not High Life. That’s a popular beer in college towns.”
Dave nodded, walking back into the room and joining his friend. He took a bottle of Rolling Rock before sitting down at the table.
“What's up?” Dave asked, already knowing what answer he would get to his question.
“That’s what I wanted to ask you. Something is wrong and I'm not saying that you can't do the job, I would never say that, but you're distracted.”
“So are you, Aaron.”
“Are you trying to say that the pot shouldn’t call the kettle black?” Hotch asked. He unscrewed the cap and drank his beer.
“No. What I'm saying is that you have enough on your mind. You don’t need to trouble yourself worrying about me. You just got back to work and I'm fine.”
“Well is there anything you need to discuss?”
“No.” Dave shook his head. “The beer is a good thing. Thanks for this.”
They were quiet for a while, breathing and drinking. The two old warriors were beaten but not defeated. Dave knew he had no right to compare his situation to Aaron’s. A psychopath hadn't stabbed him nine times and forced his family into witness protection. Crazy things were happening but they would sink in; Dave would survive. Who knew that would become of Aaron after this ordeal was over.
“Have you spoken to Sam Kassmeyer recently?” he asked.
“We talked a few days ago but shouldn’t talk too much. We both know Foyet is probably lurking in the shadows. I have to keep Haley and Jack safe even if that means I can't contact them right now. Its tough as hell but it's what I have to do.”
“And Jack is three right?”
“He’ll be four in a few months. I probably won't be able to help him celebrate. I've always been there for his birthday.”
Dave nodded, slipping into silence again. Noah was the same age as Jack. Two little boys were out there missing their fathers tonight.
“We’re going to get this guy.” Hotch said.
“I have little doubt. We can wrap victimology up in the next day or two. There's even a chance we can find Rachel Michaelson before he kills her. We definitely know he's holding them for some amount of time. There are still holes in the profile I'm not comfortable with.”
“Agreed.” Hotch nodded. “Are you sure you're going to be alright?”
“After this third beer I'm predicting a good night’s sleep and a strong day tomorrow.”
“So we drink to strength.” Hotch held up his half-full beer bottle.
“Amen to that, Aaron.”
Dave was surprised to see Erin, in full Strauss ensemble, tinkering around in the backseat of his Chevy Suburban on Tuesday afternoon. He’d been back from Greensboro since Saturday and had a lengthy discussion with Claudia Hernandez. Today was the day he was going to meet his son. They picked the neutral location of Providence Park in Fairfax, Virginia where Dave lived.
He told Erin about it the night before and she remained supportive but neutral. She didn’t ask or offer to go with him. Dave didn’t push, though it was hard to hide his disappointment. There was one thing he knew about his woman and that was Erin couldn’t change who she was. She could bend sometimes, and adapt, but Erin Strauss was Erin Strauss.
“Hey.” She looked back but only for a moment.
“Whatcha doin, baby?”
“You don’t even have a booster seat, David. I mean seriously, you're going to drive around with a toddler in an SUV the size of an apartment but no booster seat. You know better than that.”
“I honestly wasn’t thinking. I…”
“It’s fine. I'm almost finished. I don’t want you to be late.”
Dave nodded, going around to the driver’s side. He got in just as Erin finished and she climbed in beside him.
“Is it secure?” he asked.
“Yes. Where are you meeting, Miss Hernandez?”
“Providence Park; I'm supposed to be there at two.”
“Well surely traffic is a nightmare.” Erin replied. “We better get going.”
“I love you.”
She smiled, taking his hand and kissing it. “I love you too.”
“I should've remembered the booster seat. I can't forget the important things like that.”
“Well I remembered so it’s OK.”
Dave smiled. It wasn’t her saying that she was staying but it felt good to hear. If he had to do it alone, Dave would do his absolute best. He just didn’t want to. He wanted Erin by his side…he wanted a family.
He loved her and didn’t want to lose her. Dave already did that once and learned his lesson. None of this was her fault, or even his, and Dave knew he was asking a lot. He had to ask anyway. Maybe the booster seat was his answer.
They sat on the park bench together. Dave was visibly nervous but Erin ate sliced apples she brought along as a snack. Though the afternoon was overcast, there were plenty of kids playing in the playground. They were surrounded by nannies and stay at home moms. Most of the kids were Noah’s age or younger.
Erin couldn’t help but smile as she thought of her children. There definitely weren't enough playful days in the park with the Strauss children and their mother. Even with Nora, Erin’s first baby, it was maternity leave and then back to the FBI. It was always back to the FBI. Her children were hardly children anymore; living their own lives and in no need of mommy. She would call all of them tonight just to check in.
“Agent Rossi.” Claudia walked over to the bench wearing a smile. Erin also noticed that her business suit hugged every curve. It was a bear hug.
“Hello Miss Hernandez.” He stood and since they were holding hands Erin stood as well. “This is Erin Strauss, my girlfriend.”
“It’s nice to meet you.” Erin shook her hand.
“Where's Noah?” Dave asked.
“He's across the park with his aunt. Kim is quite anxious for this to be over. She has three children of her own and is struggling to care for Noah. He's a bit rambunctious.”
“When she says rambunctious what does she mean?” Erin asked. “Does he have ADHD or is he a three year old boy?”
“I'm not sure.” Claudia replied. “I've never had anything but pleasant experiences with Noah. Kim wants to know if you're taking him with you today.”
“Absolutely.” Dave nodded. “Will we get to meet Kim as well?”
“She would prefer not. I’ll go and get Noah now.”
“Your hand’s shaking.” Erin whispered as Claudia walked away.
“I'm nervous as hell.” he looked at her. “Erin, I'm petrified.”
“Everything is going to be alright.”
“How do you know that?”
“I don’t like to brag but I'm pretty smart.”
“Yeah, you are.” Sighing, Dave put his arm around her and held her close.
Soon Claudia walked toward them again. She held the hand of a little boy. Dave immediately saw himself in his son. He wouldn’t say Noah looked exactly like him but they had the same eyes.
Lanie was half-Japanese, half-Irish; at least that’s what she told Dave. She told him a few funny stories about growing up in San Francisco. That made Noah one-quarter Japanese, one-quarter Irish, and half Italian. What kind of temperament would that create?
“Hey Noah.” Dave got down on his haunches as they approached.
“Hi Daddy.” He smiled and Dave saw his mother in his smile.
“How does he…?” he looked up at Claudia.
“Mommy told me.” Noah said. “She said when she went to heaven that Daddy would take care of me.”
“Did Mommy tell you about me?”
“She said you're a superhero in the FBI.”
“Not exactly.” Dave smiled. “Can Daddy have a hug?”
It was the first time he'd ever called himself daddy and it did something to Dave. When his son threw his arms around him it was impossible to hold in all the emotions. He stood, still holding Noah, and looked at Erin. She had tears in her eyes as well. Almost instinctually, she joined the hug. There would never be a time when Dave was happy that she couldn’t be happy too. Noah looked at her.
“Noah, this is Daddy’s friends Erin. Isn’t she a knockout?”
“David, stop it.” Erin hit his shoulder.
“She's a knockout.” Noah smiled.
“He's a Rossi alright.” Dave beamed. “He knows a beautiful woman when he sees one.” He put Noah down and asked him to sit on the bench with Erin. After watching them walk away Dave turned back to Claudia. “What's next?”
“We still need to discuss the trust.” She said. “Control would be relinquished to you until Noah’s 25th birthday. His mother provided very well for him. There’s still paperwork to sign and issues to work out.”
“And none of her family wanted Noah?” Dave asked.
“Alexandra’s family is scattered and estranged. It was her express wish that only you have Noah. She was very concerned that her family members would only want the trust and not the little boy. If you were unable to fulfill the obligation for whatever reason then her best friend Anna would raise him. Let me be frank and say that I'm glad it's you, Agent Rossi. Alexandra liked you a lot and knew you'd be a good father.”
“Then why did she keep me in the dark about Noah?”
It was a question that Dave desperately wanted the answer to. Even if Lanie was alive she couldn’t give him one that satisfied, and Lanie wasn’t alive. He sighed, taking the pull suitcase and the Buzz Lightyear backpack from Claudia.
“I’ll be in your office first thing in the morning.”
“Will Erin be joining you?” Claudia asked. She glanced over at the older woman sitting on the bench with Noah. The toddler looked content to share apple slices with her.
“I'm not entirely sure. Will that be a problem if she did?”
“No.” she shook her head. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”
They shook hands and he went back to Erin and Noah.
“It's time to go home.”
She stood and Noah jumped down from the bench. He took Erin’s hand as they started walking to the Suburban. Dave just watched them, unable to wipe the smile from his face. When Erin looked at him he tried to look neutral. She rolled her eyes at him. At the SUV, she helped Noah up and into the booster seat.
“Are you hungry, Noah?” Dave asked.
“I already ate.” He said.
“What do you usually do after lunch?” Erin asked, buckling him in.
“After lunch comes naptime.”
“Do you want to go home and take a nap?” Erin asked.
“Yes ma'am.” He nodded.
Erin smiled. She made sure Noah was secure and then closed the back door. Then she got into the front seat with Dave.
“What usually comes after lunch?” Dave asked.
“TV and toys until dinnertime.” Noah said.
“That sounds good to me.” Erin said. “I think its going to be a good day. Don’t you, Noah?”
“You don’t have to call me ma'am.” She turned and looked at him in the backseat. “You can call me Erin, OK?”
“OK ma'am.” He nodded.
Dave laughed and Erin just looked at him. She gave him a soft punch in the arm.
“You shut up and drive.” She mumbled.