“Hey buddy, have you written your letter for Santa yet?” Aaron asked as he pushed the next batch of iced cookies over to Jack to add sprinkles. They had a nice system going that didn’t cause too much of a mess.
“No, but it’ll be a short list this year. I want a hippopotamus for Christmas.”
Aaron stared at Jack in surprise until the sound of a dollop of icing hitting the countertop reminded him of the task at hand.
"Do you mean a plush toy or is there a Lego building set for a hippo or something like that?"
“No. Just a real hippopotamus,” came the perfectly calm reply as Jack continued to carefully arrange sprinkles on the cookies.
Aaron didn’t know what to make of this rather peculiar wish. “Have you and aunt Jessica been listening to too much Christmas music or where is this wish suddenly coming from? I’m much more used to you begging for a dog. How do you imagine we would offer a hippo enough space and the proper care it needs?”
Jack shrugged his shoulders but still didn’t look up. “I’m growing, so I guess my wishes are growing along? And you and Uncle Spencer keep telling me that dreams and wishes don’t have to be rational.”
Still not knowing how to react to this, Aaron let the topic go for the moment and hoped that Jack would rethink his wishes and provide him with a list that included at least a few more realistic things besides the hippo. Not that Aaron didn't already have a few ideas and the first things stashed away on the top shelf of his closet, but he liked for Jack to think about which things he wanted the most and then to fulfil some of those wishes.
His hopes were destroyed when the next evening he found a nicely decorated letter on his desk, addressed to Santa. Jack had known for years that Santa wasn't real but kept addressing his wishlist to him anyway, and Aaron saw no reason to interfere. The content of the letter made him sigh.
all I want for Christmas is a hippopotamus.
Aaron knew his son well enough that it was obvious he wouldn’t let it go and that he was using the hippo to avoid voicing what he really wanted. What he didn’t have the first clue about was what Jack could be so hesitant about.
He used the time it took to change out of his suit into jeans and a sweater to figure out how to handle this.
Back downstairs he found Jack packing up the homework he’d done at the dining table.
“Can we talk about your wishlist, buddy?”
Jack just shrugged and kept avoiding his father's eyes. "I told you what I wish for, and that's what I wrote Santa as well. I know not all wishes can come true. What else is there to talk about?" He picked up his backpack and headed for the stairs.
“Jack,” Aaron caught his son softly by the arm and crouched down in front of him. He was glad that Jack didn’t fight his hold. “What’s this really about? You don’t really want a hippo.”
“They are cool,” came the weak protest.
"Yes, I know. But you can't really do anything with them. You know we'd need a special permit to have one, and we'd never get that. You are the one who always asks if the animals at the zoo have enough space and everything they need to be happy and healthy in their enclosures. Why would you suddenly want to put one into our small backyard?" Plenty of exposure to Spencer had made Jack very perceptible to logic, even if his own logic still held the roundabout ways of any child.
Aaron had to wait only a minute until Jack’s resolve cracked.
"I guess, there's one thing I want even more than a hippo. But it's no more realistic, and I don't think I can ask for it."
“No matter what it is and even if there is no chance of making your wish come true, I always want to know what you truly want.” Aaron put all his sincerity into his words. He never wanted to appear as unapproachable and uncaring to his own son as his father had been to him.
Jack fidget around a moment before finally connecting his gaze with his Aaron’s. He had no idea what he expected to come out of Jack’s mouth but what did was certainly not it.
“I want a stepdad,” Jack blurted out and tugged his arm free of Aaron’s slack fingers, then ran up the stairs.
Aaron just stayed crouched at the bottom of the stairs, blinking unseeingly, while he could hear Jack’s bedroom door close. He was still in the same position when Jessica came out of the kitchen and rested a hand on his shoulder. He looked up at her.
“What am I supposed to do with that?”
Her eyes were full of compassion.
“In a way, the answer is obvious. But I’m not sure that equals easy or how I could help you.”
Two days later, Jack was invited to a sleepover birthday party at a friend's place, and Spencer had invited Aaron for dinner at his apartment. The meal had been lovely, and Aaron had tried to focus on it as it deserved, but his thoughts kept wandering back to Jack's Christmas wish.
He’d made himself comfortable on the couch while Spencer put the leftovers away, but rather than setting up a movie for them to watch, he was just staring ahead, lost in thought until his refilled wine glass was held out in front of him.
“Do you want to tell me what has had you so distracted for the last two days?” Spencer asked in a carefully neutral tone Aaron knew meant he was worried.
“Yes, actually. I just can’t figure out where to start.”
“More often than not, it’s best to start at the beginning in such cases.”
“Right.” Aaron took a sip of his wine to push the inevitable off a moment longer. “The only thing Jack asked for in his letter to Santa is a hippopotamus.”
“That’s unusual… and a bit out of the blue.”
“I’m pretty sure he got the idea from the song and that in a roundabout way he used this ridiculous wish to not voice the one thing he really wants.”
“And do you know what that is?”
“Yes, I eventually got it out of him.” Aaron took another sip of wine before he continued. “He wants a stepdad.”
It was Spencer’s turn to take a sip of his wine to avoid answering immediately. “I see. And what do you think about that?”
Aaron snorted. “It isn’t as if this is something I can accomplish on my own. And it seems a little rushed to go from you not even living with us straight to stepdad.” Aaron could hear the touch of bitterness in his own voice and knew it wasn’t fair. When Spencer took a while to react, he started to feel guilty for having hurt the younger man.
When the reaction came, it wasn’t what he had expected.
“Do you want me to live with you guys?”
"Yes, of course, Spencer. But I asked you before, and you said no. And I respect your choices."
"Aaron." The exasperation in Spencer's voice was palpable even though Aaron wasn't quite sure what he'd done to earn it. "Back then, we'd been together for barely five months. You got a letter that your whole apartment building would be remodelled into condos and decided you'd rather buy a house than rent another apartment. And in the midst of this spontaneous decision making, you asked me if I'd like to buy that house with you together."
“It was too much, I know. I know how important your independence is for you, Spencer. I’m not holding it against you, you have to know that.”
"I do." Spencer set his glass aside and pulled his legs onto the couch to sit cross-legged turned in Aaron's direction. "Strictly speaking it wasn't too much, it was too much too soon. You and I are different, Aaron. Once you decide to let somebody come close, you tend to commit 100% from the start. You are very careful who you invest yourself in to that degree, but once you've made up your mind, you don't hold back. And as much as I love that about you, it's not me at all. I need time to let people get close in increments. It takes me a long time to even start that process and then it's baby steps going forward. And I'm infinitely grateful that you have the patience to balance our different approaches."
“I’d never want to rush or pressure you.”
“It’s been a year and a half.”
“So, does that mean you’re no longer opposed to moving in with us? You never said anything.”
“You never asked again.”
Spencer gave Aaron a crooked smile full of amusement and understanding but didn’t say anything while the realisation fully sank in for Aaron.
“I’m an idiot, aren’t I.”
“Let’s say that you have a tendency to make things difficult for yourself by not voicing your wishes.”
“Very funny,” Aaron shot back but the smile spreading slowly over his face ruined his attempt at a pout. He reached out and gently tugged on Spencer’s arm. “Come here.”
It never ceased to give him a thrill how willingly Spencer shared his space since they'd started dating. He stretched out on the couch, and Spencer arranged himself in Aaron's arms and half on top of him. It was how they usually cuddled while watching a movie but for now they both just soaked in each other's company.
“So…” Aaron broke the silence after a few minutes. “How soon do you want to move in with us?”
Spencer snorted. “I’m pretty sure we can get the essentials done before Christmas.” Aaron noticed the slither of hesitation in Spencer’s tone.
“We don’t have to hurry this just because of Jack’s wish. You can take your time.”
“That’s not it.”
Aaron decided to wait Spencer out, both because he’d learned that sometimes it took his lover a moment to decide how to voice what was on his mind and because he wasn’t sure he even wanted to hear it. Thankfully, it didn’t take Spencer too long.
"I might be ruining a plan of yours, but given that you didn't even intend to ask me to move in with you, I don't think I am. So, my answer is yes."
“To what? Hadn’t we already settled on you moving in?”
“Yes, we did. I mean to that ring box that’s hidden in your sock drawer.”
Aaron had to remind himself to breathe. "What? How-?" His mind felt too stuck to formulate a sentence.
"When Jack was sick a few weeks ago, and I stayed with him because you had inescapable meetings all day and Jessica was out of town, I got cold feet and wanted a pair of the knitted socks from Garcia that you call hideous and keep around anyway. I wasn't snooping, but it was kinda hard to ignore. Sorry."
“No, it’s fine.” He forced himself to take a deep breath and relax now that the first shock was waning off. “I didn’t have any great plan. I stumbled across the rings looking for a Christmas gift for Jessica and just knew they were perfect for us. But I didn’t have the first idea how to broach that subject.”
"I didn't open the box, so you can still surprise me a little. There was just no other explanation for you to hide a ring box in your sock drawer. Glad I didn't guess wrong. That would have been awkward." Spencer crunched up his face in that way Aaron found utterly adorable. It made him laugh, and the rest of the tension bled away.
"Let's do this somewhat properly." He nudged Spencer into a position where they could easily look each other in the eyes. "Spencer Reid, I love you more than I ever thought I could love somebody and I would like to share the rest of my life with you. Would you do me the honour of becoming my husband?"
“Yes, Aaron, I’d love to.” Spencer pressed a lingering kiss against Aaron’s lips. “I love you too. I never thought I could find someone so utterly perfect for me.”
There was a fair amount of celebratory making out before they finally settled on watching an episode of Doctor Who because it was already late.
Cuddled up in bed afterwards, Aaron had one more thing that had been nagging at the back of his mind.
“About that stepdad thing… How would you like to become a proper second parent to Jack instead?”
"Really?! I mean, you know it doesn't really matter. I love Jack, and I would never walk away from him. I don't need paperwork for that."
"I know. But I want us to be a proper family, and I think that's what Jack's wish is about at its core, even if he can't put it into words. You don't have to adopt him, or you can do it at any point in the future. I just want you to know that as far as I'm concerned, you are Jack's second father either way."
“Thanks.” Spencer’s voice was quiet with emotion. “I never thought I’d be a father. But I quite like the thought.”
Aaron pressed a kiss against Spencer’s forehead. “Then that’s what we’ll do. Now, we only need to come up with an idea for the hippopotamus.”
"Leave that to me. I already have an idea." Spencer sounded excited, and Aaron trusted whatever he had in mind.
On Christmas morning, Aaron heard running feet in the hallway before his bedroom door opened but he pretended to still be asleep and kept his nose buried at Spencer’s neck.
"Merry Christmas!" The enthusiastic greeting accompanied Jack jumping onto the bed behind him, and Aaron could tell the exact moment his son discovered Spencer because he stilled completely for a moment. "Uncle Spencer? When did you get here? I thought you couldn't make it because your flight was cancelled."
Spencer turned sleepily in Aaron's arms to blink at Jack. "I managed to catch a train before the tracks were closed and got here late last night. I didn't fancy Christmas without my two favourite men." He nudged Jack on the nose, and Aaron found himself pushed back when Jack took that as an invitation to climb between them for a cuddle.
He'd been worried that their Christmas surprise might be ruined by Spencer being stuck in New York. He'd been invited to speak at the legendary Christmas meetup an NYU emeritus held every year and had planned to fly home in the late afternoon, but then a snowstorm had pulled in sooner than predicted. Aaron was relieved to have his lover safe at home.
“Okay, who wants waffles?”
Aaron shook his head. His son and fiancé were all too predictable. He wouldn’t want to have it any other way.
“I think we can manage all three.”
He'd prepped the batter the night before, and the coffee maker was on a timer so in no time at all, they were all sitting around the tree with breakfast and stacks of colourfully wrapped presents.
Jack was delighted with everything he unwrapped, from the books and chemistry set, over a gift card for new soccer shoes once the new season began, to the Lego castle with knights and a dragon. He didn’t say a thing about the lack of a hippopotamus.
Aaron got up to pull one more gift down from behind the books on one of the higher shelves. It came from the merchandise collection of one of the local animal shelters.
“Here buddy, I’ve got one more for you, though we can only get it for real sometime in January.”
Jack tore away the paper and frowned a moment at the little plush dog until he read the logo printed onto the bandana around the dog’s neck. “We’re getting a dog? Really?! Thank you, thank you, thank you!” Jack threw himself at his dad and Aaron was prepared to catch him and held him close.
“We all gonna go together with Jessica and find a dog that we all like and that likes us, okay?”
“Yes! This is the best gift ever!”
“I believe Spencer has something else for you that might be even better.”
Spencer pulled another present out of hiding and handed it to Jack who stayed in Aaron's lap and unwrapped it carefully as if this one might bite him. Aaron was excited to see what exactly Spencer had done, as he'd never actually seen what was hidden under the wrapping paper.
What Jack eventually pulled free was another plush animal, but this one larger, more floppy and unsurprisingly a hippo. Jack laughed and held it up.
“You got me a hippopotamus after all! Thank you!”
“It’s a special hippopotamus,” Spencer explained. “Can you guess what it is made of?”
Jack inspected the animal more closely, and Aaron followed suit, They figured it out at the same time.
“That’s your cuddly sweater that got ripped when we were in the woods,” Jack said in awe.
“Yes, I found a seamstress who used the material to make this especially for you. But there’s more. Hippos have really big mouths as you know and you can use this one to hide secrets and very special things. Have a look.”
Jack quickly found the zipper pull to open up the zipper that held the hippo’s mouth closed. Inside were rolled up papers that Aaron had photocopied and given Spencer for this exact purpose. Jack unrolled them and read a little but soon looked up in confusion.
“What is this?”
“These are adoption papers so Spencer can be your second dad for real,” Aaron explained.
“If that’s alright with you,” Spencer offered, a little uncertainty showing through.
Instead of an answer, he found himself with an armful of crying Jack. It took Jack a few minutes to calm down his overwhelmed emotions again.
“Can I call you papa?” Jack asked looking up through his lashes.
It was Spencer’s turn to tear up. “I’d be honoured, Jack. I love you, you know that.”
“Love you too. Hold on,” he sat up and looked back and forth between the two adults. “Don’t you two have to be married for us to be a proper family?”
“It makes things easier,” Aaron agreed. “Which is why we have an appointment with a Justice of the Peace in three days to do just that. I hope you don’t have any other plans for that day.”
Jack just blinked at him like he couldn’t believe his father’s words. “We’re gonna be a family before New Year’s?”
"The adoption will take a little longer, but yes, we'll be a proper family."
Jack threw himself back at Aaron but pulled Spencer along, so they all ended cuddled up in a semi-comfortable heap on the couch.
“Now we just have to get all your stuff over here.” Jack poked Spencer in the shoulder. “You can’t be family with us and still live at your apartment.”
“I’m not living at the apartment anymore,” Spencer answered with a smug grin. “We snuck most of my clothes and some other things into the house over the last weeks and the rest is all packed up and just waiting for the movers. I’m not spending another night back there. This is home now.” Spencer sounded so very pleased saying it, that it warmed Aaron’s heart and brushed away his last doubts about Spencer being ready for this.
“You two were right, you know,” Jack said after a short while.
"Dreams don't have to be rational, and sometimes they come true anyway."
Aaron smiled at that.
“Yeah. I’m still limiting your exposure to Christmas songs, just to be safe.”