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The Best For Last

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Jack’s plastic snow shovel bowed every time he hit an ice patch on the driveway. Hotch listened to his son huff and scrape until he walked over and chopped the persistent ice into chunks with a few downward strokes of his own metal shovel. Jack always looked a little deflated, which is why Hotch waited to see if the boy could clear it on his own first. Now living in a ‘three-man’ household (though one was considerably more indoors-y than the other two), Jack was struggling to assert his personality in the group. Hotch watched Jack and wished that he knew what the boy thought about the new circumstances of their lives. He considered asking Jack, but knew that his son was a people-pleaser and might just say what he knew would make his father happy. Plus, there’s only so much a seven year old can articulate about having his mother replaced by a man

Hotch leaned against his shovel and took in the bright, cold day. They still had almost half of the driveway left to do. He really ought to invest in a snow blower.

“Hey buddy, have you thought about what you’d like to ask Santa for this year?”

Hotch had no idea if Jack still believed in Santa. He hoped he did. Jack mimicked his father’s stance against his own plastic shovel as his lips quirked in concentration.

“Dunno. Maybe some new Lego?”

“Lego? I thought that you didn’t play with that anymore?”

“Well… Spencer likes building things. I thought maybe if I had some new sets, he’d help me build them.”

People-pleaser. Hotch was always amazed by this quality in his son and wondered if it had been Haley’s influence. Had it been a priority for her that he embrace selflessness from an early age? At the same time, Hotch worried that Jack was hesitant to ask for what he wanted. He was too young to always put other people before him - childhood was the time for selfishness, after all.

“I’m sure that he’d help you if you asked him. But what do you want for Christmas, Jack?”

Jack looked down at his boots. “Dad, do you think Spencer likes me?”

“Of course he does, buddy. Why do you think he wouldn’t?”

“I know that he likes me because I’m your son and he likes you. But… I don’t know if he likes me… like a friend… like Abby does. Or Aunt Jessica.”

Hotch kneeled next to Jack and pulled him in for a hug. “He does - trust me. He’s just not used to kids, you know? Friendship takes time. Remember that kid who pushed you around at school? He didn’t like you at first, but now you’re friends, aren’t you?”

“Louie. Yeah, Louie’s cool.”

“Well, it’s gonna be like that with Spencer. You two just need to get to know each other.”

Hotch’s eyes found the window to the study. He could see Reid bent before his laptop hammering out his thesis with a look of perpetual concern on his face. He stopped occasionally to reread a passage or resettle his glasses across the bridge of his nose, but he never looked out the window. He was lost in his own interior world. Hotch sighed; maybe this had been a mistake.

“Dad,” Jack curled into his father’s chest and played with a tassel from his hood. “I wanna get Spencer something good for Christmas. It’s his first Christmas here… with us… it’s gotta be good.”

“I’m pretty sure that he’d be happy with anything you came up with…” Especially since he hadn’t had many memorable holidays at all, Hotch reminded himself.

“No, Dad, it’s gotta be special. Like something he always wanted and never got.”

Hotch was taken a little aback by Jack’s insistence. “I don’t know what that would be.”

“Maybe his Mom and Dad know. Can you ask them?”

Oh wow - out of the frying pan and into the fire. “I don’t think that they can help, Jack. Spencer’s mom… well, she’s sick and his dad isn’t around anymore.”

“Isn’t around like Mommy ‘isn’t around’?” Jack blinked and went very still.

“No. He’s not around the way that Abby’s daddy isn’t around anymore.”

“He left Spencer and his mom.”

“Yes. Spencer hasn’t talked with him for years.”

Jack nodded solemnly. “That’s sad.”

“Yes it is.” Hotch pulled Jack closer. He couldn’t imagine giving up his son - not for any reason - and he hated William Reid for giving up his.

“What’s she got?” Hotch looked at Jack in confusion so the boy reframed his question. “Spencer’s mom - what’s she sick with?”

Hotch took a deep breath. It felt wrong to explain this to Jack - not that the boy shouldn’t know, but that Reid wasn’t the one explaining it. Reid held his mother’s schizophrenia so close that it felt as if Hotch was telling a secret that he swore he’d die before revealing. But he couldn’t - wouldn’t - lie to Jack.

“Her mind is sick, buddy. She lives in a hospital in Nevada. Sometimes she sees and hears things that aren’t there. Sometimes, she’s just like the rest of us, so it can get very confusing for her.”

“Was she always sick? Even when Spencer was little?”

Hotch nodded and Jack paused, staring at his boots once again.

“Did Spencer live in the hospital too?”

Hotch blinked. He probably should have explained Diana’s condition more thoroughly. “No, they lived in a house like us. She didn’t go to the hospital until Spencer went to college.”

“And she was normal sometimes, right?”

“Yes, but-”

“Then she would know what Spencer wanted for Christmas. We can ask her - we’ll just have to be careful, right? ‘Cause she’s sick.”

“Jack, I don’t think we can. She can’t leave the hospital and she doesn’t like using the phone…” Hotch rubbed his forehead.

“We can write her a letter!” Jack bounced against his father. “I’ve seen Spencer writing… he writes to her! We can write her too, Dad!”

Jack was determined and Hotch didn’t know how he could steer him away from this idea. Reid wrote his mother everyday. He collected the letters into a weekly care package that he posted without fail every Thursday. He never discussed it with Hotch; in fact, Reid never spoke of Diana at all unless it was something urgent. Hotch had to admit to himself that he was a bit of a coward about the subject and was afraid to provoke Reid on one of his few inviolable topics. He had no clue how to ask Reid to include a letter from a curious seven year old in his next care package. Luckily, he wouldn’t have to figure it out at just that moment…

“What are you two doing?”

Hotch looked up at the sound of Reid’s voice. The bespeckled face was peering through the front door, brow wrinkled in confusion.

“Shoveling the driveway.” Hotch called back.

Reid looked at them, then the half-cleared driveway, and then back to them.

“Looks like huddling to me. And you can do that inside with considerably less effort.” Reid jerked his chin towards the house. “Come on, I’ll make some hot chocolate.”

Jack was off like a shot at the mention of hot chocolate and Hotch grudgingly followed after collecting up the snow shovels. Reid smirked at him as he stamped his feet on the stoop before entering.

“Have you considered buying a snow blower, Aaron?”

Smart ass, indoors-y, hot chocolate concocter…

---

Jack would not be dissuaded from writing Diana and he further complicated the plan by insisting that Hotch not tell Reid about it. Jack wanted the gift to come as a complete surprise. The boy was obsessed by it. Hotch realized that his son saw it as the best way to make a connection to the new man in his life, the man that he desperately wanted to befriend. The motivation was so pure and single-minded that Hotch was simultaneously overjoyed and afraid of it. Jack had hung all of his hopes on the outcome of this idea. How could Hotch refuse? On the other hand, he was deliberately deceiving the man he loved and violating his privacy. These things would not be easily forgiven, especially if Reid perceived that Hotch had done them lightly, for the sake of a seven year old’s fancy.

Hotch contacted the director of Bennington and asked if Diana Reid was in suitable condition to correspond with Jack. The director didn’t see the harm but was hesitant when Hotch proposed that the director be the conduit through which the letters flowed in order to avoid Reid’s notice. Hotch briefly explained the situation and the need for secrecy, and the director agreed so long as it didn’t become a permanent deception. He wasn’t breaking any client agreements by keeping Reid out of the loop, but Reid did pay the bills and the ethics of the arrangement seemed murky at best.

Jack worked on his letter for a week. In the end it was long and strangely autobiographical, and fully illustrated. Hotch read it carefully and suggested a few changes but then made a great show of placing it in a plain envelope and sealing it up in front of Jack. A response came twelve days later, without a return address but in the director’s messy handwriting, and Jack was nearly leaping out of his skin to open it. Inside were two letters: one from the director apologizing for the delay and explaining that Diana wanted to get her letter just right before sending it, and the second was the much-anticipated missive itself.

Diana mimicked Jack’s tone with her own long, rambling, personal anecdotes. Hotch was impressed at how cogent and humorous her stories were. Jack asked that Hotch re-read the letter to him several times, but always when Spencer was out of the house. In the end, the answer that Jack sought was less obvious than he had hoped. Diana ended her letter by saying that she had enclosed Spencer’s deepest wish from childhood: it was a bit of torn newsprint from a catalogue of some kind. It had been carefully folded and refolded, and had yellowed with age. Hotch could imagine Reid’s long fingers gently smoothing the paper before and after he stared at it. Jack seemed confused - one side of the paper had a picture of a bicycle on it. It was a typical boy’s bike - a blue BMX model that was common in the late 1980s. Jack pointed out that Reid already had a bike.

The other side of the paper had a stock image of several children laughing and hanging out in a park together. One held a soccer ball with his grass-stained friends, a few stood next to bikes, a couple were throwing a Frisbee in the background. Jack’s forehead furrowed in confusion and disappointment.

“I don’t get it. Did he want a soccer ball?” He looked away from his father and the torn piece of paper. “Why couldn’t she just tell us what he wanted?”

Hotch’s guts knotted at his son’s anxiety - this had meant so much to him. Though the paper was old, there was no way of knowing if it had meant anything to Reid at all, or if it was just some phantom from Diana’s mind. He looked back down at the image of the smiling children and that’s when he saw it. Off in the corner, half obscured by the careless tear marks, and it was so obvious… so terribly Reid

“I think I know what this means.” Hotch murmured.

----

“Well, it looks like that’s it.” Reid sat on the floor with Jack, his back against the couch and surrounded by an ocean of coloured paper. “Did you get everything that you wanted, Jack? It looks like a pretty good haul…”

Jack looked up at Hotch and Hotch nodded back. “It’s not quite over yet, Spencer. Jack wanted to save his gift for last.”

Hotch got up and disappeared for a few minutes. When he returned Jack was bouncing up and down with a maniacal grin on his face. Reid looked half intrigued and half terrified.

“What’s going on?”

Hotch placed a large box gently on the floor in front of Reid and Jack. “Open it quickly. It won’t keep.”

Reid lifted the lid of the box and was greeted with a high-pitched squeal. He dropped the lid immediately and lifted a tiny, wriggling, spotted puppy from the box. He stared in wonder at the dog and then quickly curled it into his chest and rocked. He wasn’t smiling; he was holding on with grim determination. Hotch saw Jack’s smile fade and felt his own stomach drop.

“Don’t you like him?” Jack asked.

Reid looked up at Jack suddenly and reached out, pulling him into his chest next to the puppy. The pup began to lick both Reid and Jack in alternating swipes. Reid continued rocking them both.

“He’s perfect - just perfect. Thank you, Jack.” Reid looked up to Hotch with tears in his eyes. “How did you know?”

“It was Jack’s idea.” Hotch breathed and crawled over the armrest to sit on the couch above them. “He wanted to get you something really special for this year - your first Christmas with us.”

The puppy was squirming eager to get free and cause havoc in the paper. Reid held him close for a second longer and then put him on the floor where he immediately bent low on his front legs and barked at Jack trying to get him to play. Jack giggled and jumped from side to side which only provoked more barking.

“Here.” Hotch tossed a soft toy to Jack. “Try getting him interested in this.”

Jack waved the toy in front of the puppy who launched himself at it repeatedly until he got a good grip and began to growl and shake it. Jack almost dropped the toy but Reid leaned forward and curled his hand around Jack’s and shook the toy even harder.

“He’s a terrier. They really love to tug at things. He’s not angry with you… he’s growling to encourage you to play with him. He thinks that you are one of his littermates - dogs need to form packs. When a puppy leaves his litter, the people in his new home become his pack members. When you play with him, you’re bonding with him. If you treat him well, he’ll be loyal to you for life.”

Reid grinned at Jack and the boy smiled back shyly. This is what he wanted, Hotch thought, a shared interest, something to learn from one another… Hotch felt the tension ease from him. He just wanted everyone he loved to be happy together. Perhaps Jack got his people-pleasing skills from his father.

Reid showed Jack a few more moves and then turned to Hotch.

“So, tell me… how did you know?”

Hotch sighed and pulled the worn piece of newsprint from the pocket of his robe. Reid held the paper in his hands as if it would dissolve if he shifted it the wrong way. His smile fell and he stared at it, keeping his thoughts to himself. In one corner was the image of a boy with glasses and a striped shirt, smiling and holding his arm around a panting, spotted dog. The boy wasn’t in a group like the soccer players or the Frisbee throwers, but he looked happy nonetheless with the dog whose doppelganger was currently rolling around the living room floor.

“You have no idea how many puppies I’ve seen in the last four weeks.” Hotch said under his breath.

“That explains the vague hint of ammonia that’s been following you around recently…”

“Jack wanted me to get just the right one.”

“Where did you get this?” Reid’s eyes and tone were suddenly serious as he waved the paper at Hotch.

“I told you - Jack wanted to get you something special. He thought that your parents would know. I had to explain about Diana to him, and then he wanted to write her a letter, like you do. I couldn’t talk him out of it.” Reid looked away and Hotch leaned closer and sighed. “Don’t be angry. He wants to know you… he wants it so much that it hurts to see it, Spence.”

Reid was quiet for a while and just stared at the paper in his hands.

“So, she wrote him back.” He said eventually.

“It was a good letter, Spence. Really lovely - full of stories. She included that piece of paper…”

“I can’t believe she kept it. Why would she keep it?” Reid’s voice was far away.

“She knew what it meant to you, and she knew that she could never give it to you either.”

Hotch reached for the back of Reid’s neck and squeezed it gently. He didn’t look up.

“She knew that you were a lonely kid. Every little boy needs a friend and what better friend could a lonely boy ask for than a dog whose loyalty and love are unconditional? A dog wouldn’t care if you were a genius or good at sports… he’d be happy to do whatever you wanted to do, he’d defend you and love you…”

Reid’s hand brushed something from his face and Hotch squeezed his neck a little harder.

“But she couldn’t handle having an animal around, could she? And you knew it, so you never asked her for a pet.”

“Stop profiling me.” Reid’s voice hitched.

“I’m not. Little Boy Spencer wasn’t all that different from Little Boy Aaron, as it turns out.” Hotch smiled as Reid looked up at him finally. “And neither were you that different from Young Jack over there.”

Hotch pointed at Jack who was now growling, rolling around and aping the puppy’s every move.

“This was his idea but it’s really for both of you. He’s been through a lot already - he needs friends too.”

“Aaron… it’s hard. I was never really a kid myself…”

“Neither was I. I was too busy trying to save Mom and Sean from Dad.” Hotch leaned in so that his lips brushed Reid’s ear. He didn’t want Jack to overhear this. “Becoming a father terrified me. But you just decide to do it and make the best out of it. He’s afraid that you only tolerate him for my sake…”

Reid turned and Hotch was relieved to see a look of disbelief on his face.

“I know that you care about him, Spencer, but children need recognizable gestures… like the perfect gift on Christmas morning…”

Reid stared at Hotch for a long time. Hotch saw the moment that Reid committed himself to his new course as the muscles in his jaw tightened and his lips thinned in determination. He’d seen that look dozens of times over the years and he’d never known Reid to fail once he’d set his sights on something. He removed the extra inch between them and kissed him for the unspoken promise he’d just made.

“I love you, Aaron.” Reid whispered. “So much so that I’m going to overlook the fact that you contacted Mom behind my back.”

“I am sorry about that. But it turned out to be a good experience for both of them. And, Jack wants to keep writing to her.” Hotch shrugged and brushed a thumb down Reid’s cheek. “I told him that it was up to you and that he’d have to ask permission.”

“I-I… I don’t…”

“Think about it.”

Reid looked at Jack who was now running around the living room with the puppy chasing after him. Hotch didn’t think that the boy’s grin could get any wider.

“Okay, I’ll think about it.” Reid smiled as he watched Jack.

“Dad!” Jack ran over and crashed into his father’s knees with the puppy following at his heels. “He’s awesome!”

He is going to pee, bark, and chew his way through my middle class suburban bliss.”

“Absolutely.” Reid smirked and grabbed the puppy up in both hands. “What should we call him?”

“Crasher!” Jack yelled.

“Hellraiser.” Hotch mumbled.

“I dunno.” Reid raised an eyebrow at them. “Those aren’t very positive or flattering.”

“If you’d gotten him as a kid, Spencer, what would you have called him?” Jack asked.

Reid seemed to think for a moment. “I’ve always heard that dogs sorta choose their own names… but when I was little I read a story about a boy lost in the woods and his only companion was a dog with a great sense of direction. His name was Arrow. Arrow saved the boy and they were friends forever.”

The puppy started to yip and growl, wiggling his fat bottom in Reid’s hands furiously.

“Arrow it is then.” Hotch smiled.

“Wow. Does he really know his name?” Jack whispered in wonder.

“Probably not.” Reid laughed. “But if we start using it when we make eye contact and when we are doing things that involve him, he’ll start to associate it with himself and how we react to him. We must always try to make the association positive.”

Reid put Arrow on the floor again and bounced up, pulling Jack to him as he did so.

“Let’s call him towards the back door. That way we can show him where the yard is.”

Reid and Jack took off towards the back door, calling for the puppy that happily followed because it seemed like the thing to do. Hotch laid his head against the sofa and let the parade continue without him. Now it was a ‘four-man’ household, three of whom were considerably more exuberant than he was. He closed his eyes and enjoyed the moment. It was a good day when everyone you loved got exactly what they wanted.