Aaron sat shivering in the plastic chair beside the bed in his hospital room and gazed absently at the handful of hibiscus flowers Haley had left him in a bedside vase. He had so much on his mind, he could hardly see the colorful petals.
It was hard to face the fact that the abuse was truly over. Aaron was used to finding only temporary solace while knowing in the back of his mind that he would always return to his violent household. This time, could it be true that he was really free?
He had said goodbye to his mother, something he never thought he would do. He now had to decide whether or not to press charges against her. He wondered how she would benefit by spending the rest of her miserable years in prison. Better that than let her raise Sean alone with her unpredictable temper.
And Charles... Aaron shuddered every time he remembered the sound of the gunshot and the force of the gun kicking back into his hand. Now that was an impossible ending. He kept expecting Charles to storm into his room and drag him back home. How could the monster be gone so suddenly?
The Brooks had just been by to see him. They all commended his fast action and thanked him for saving their lives. When he saw their faces, he knew why he pulled the trigger. This new family of his was clearly worth fighting for.
Mrs. Brooks had taken a knife to the shoulder in Aaron’s defense, but she only needed a couple stitches and seemed to be recovering very well. Aaron actually felt that she had done more to save him than he had done to save her family.
Now with the Brooks waiting outside, a doctor gave Aaron a quick update on his health. Due to Aaron’s combined injuries and illness, he had developed an internal temperature imbalance condition which would make him feel extra cold all the time. The doctor recommended regularly wearing longsleeves.
“Just think,” she said encouragingly. “If you ever take a job where you have to wear a suit, you’ll be comfortable even on hot days while everybody else is sweltering.”
Aaron frowned, not wanting to see himself taking a job that required such permanent formality outdoors. But he shrugged it off and asked, “Is there anything else I should know about?”
“Your ribs needed to be realigned, but they should heal quickly. We found some previously untreated broken bones, but most of them seem to have healed themselves quite well. Some of your cuts still stand a risk of infection, but with regular check-ups, we can avoid that.”
“Is that all?”
“That’s all.” The doctor paused. “Mr. Hotchner, I think you’ll be alright. You are a very strong young man.”
He looked down briefly. “So can I have my clothes back?”
“Very soon. Now, unless you need anything else, there are a couple gentlemen here to see you.”
Aaron didn’t want anybody else seeing him in hospital garb, but he agreed to let the visitors in. When the doctor left, the two familiar FBI agents entered.
Aaron sat straight up. “Agent Gideon.” He shook each man’s hand. “Agent Rossi.”
Rossi smiled pleasantly. “Good to see you in one piece, Hotch.”
“It’s Hotchner, sir.”
Rossi waved him off. “That’s too long. I’ve got a lot to say and I like shortcuts.”
Aaron didn’t really mind.
Rossi cleared his throat and his tone became solemn. “I’m sorry for all you’ve been through,” he said.
“Hamakom yenachem,” added Gideon softly.
Aaron accepted their condolences and glanced questioningly at Gideon. Though they didn’t seem upset at him, he was feeling nervous about the purpose of their visit. Figuring the agents wanted to get down to business, he quickly explained, “Honestly, I can’t believe I shot my stepfather. I didn’t mean to kill him. It was the gun, it just...”
Gideon held up a hand. “Calm down. You don’t need to carry a gun to kill someone. Your stepfather killed himself long before you pulled the trigger.”
Aaron fell silently, thinking over what the agent said. “What do you mean?”
“I can guarantee you, Aaron, you will not be charged with killing your stepfather. We were there, and we can easily tell everybody you did it in defense of life.”
“Good shot, by the way,” added Rossi.
“Aside from the shooting, which you will be cleared for, I understand you’ve gotten yourself a small criminal record.” Gideon had on a sly grin.
“I beg your pardon?” Aaron said, feeling a little trapped.
“Trespassing on a crime scene?” Gideon’s smirk grew. “Didn’t think you could hide that from a couple FBI agents, now did you?”
Rossi started to laugh. “Good one, kid, but I already beat you to it. I probably hold the record for crime scene trespasses.”
As Aaron watched the agent laugh, he was tempted to smile along. He didn’t quite understand the jovial mood of his visitors, but at least it put him more at ease.
Gideon picked up the conversation again. “Since a criminal record, however small, could hamper your chances of someday working with us, we’ve agreed to have your record expunged.”
Aaron stared. “What?”
“Well, it’s not like you were killing people or stealing things,” said Rossi, just getting over his chuckles. “What you did was relatively tame. And I know that with a clean record, Hotch, you will really make something of yourself.”
Still unsure, Aaron asked, “What do you mean, I might someday work with you?”
The agents exchanged a glance, a little more serious now.
“Do you know why we were looking for you the other day?” asked Rossi.
Aaron shook his head.
“We wanted to thank you for your insight on the Archer case,” said Rossi. “On your suggestion, we re-interviewed Gerald Archer, and we confirmed that he was abused by his parents, just like you said. A further investigation found his ties to the man who broke out of jail, and from him we got a confession that the two young men worked together to kill Mr. and Mrs. Archer.”
Gideon added, “With that case solved, we realized we needed to check back on you. You told us you were a victim, and we simply can’t overlook that.”
Aaron just stared at them, absorbing the information with a bit of surprise.
Rossi spoke, “You’ve got a keen mind, Hotch, and a lot of potential. Would you consider working in criminal investigations someday?”
“Well, yes, sir. I want to be a criminal prosecutor.”
“What about going higher? Law enforcement, FBI?”
Aaron shook his head. “I don’t know. It’ll be difficult enough getting into law school. I can’t imagine how to then work my way into a top-level agency.”
In truth, he still felt small and incapable, flattened into the underachieving mold his mother had built for him. He didn’t really believe he would ever make it to law school, much less to the FBI.
“I’ve seen what you’re capable of,” said Gideon. “And I firmly believe you have the potential to work your way up to a significant career where you can finally fight the evil forces that have plagued you. Don’t listen to the people that tear you down. If you have a calling, son, you can and you will see it through. I’m sure of that.”
Aaron gazed, humbled, at the young agent’s sincere brown eyes. “Really?” he whispered.
Aaron had never before been encouraged to make the most of his life. Now these agents, who hardly knew him, had inspired him to reach higher than ever before. He kept wondering if they were right, or if he was still dreaming too big.
“Well, if you really want to be a prosecutor, I encourage you to do that,” said Gideon. “I just hope you stay in touch with us feds.”
“And if you ever change your mind and want to try out the FBI, I would love to have you come work with me in the Seattle office,” said Rossi. “I wouldn’t mind mentoring you.”
“Thank you both,” said Aaron.
“You’ve survived a lot,” said Gideon. “Don’t give up now.”
Aaron looked away and bit his lip. Something still bothered him. “No one can ever know about what happened to me,” he said quietly.
Rossi bent down to meet his eye. “Don’t be ashamed about it. It wasn’t your fault.”
“It’s not that, it’s just... I don’t want anyone to know. That’s all.”
“Don’t worry about that,” said Gideon. “Your past won’t define you.”
Rossi looked at his watch. “I’m sorry, but we have to get going now or we’ll be late for a meeting. Don’t hesitate to call if you need anything.”
“Thank you,” said Aaron. “You’ll never know what this means to me.”
Gideon reached out to shake his hand. He had a firm but comforting grip. “Bye for now, Aaron. We’ll give you a call now and then if you’d like.”
Rossi then came up to shake his hand. “It was a pleasure meeting you. I’ll see you around, Hotchner.”
Aaron smiled. “I like ‘Hotch.’”
Rossi smiled back and gave him a light pat on the shoulder.
With that, the two agents left the room. Aaron stared after them amazed that they saw something worthwhile in his weak and wounded self.
Later, Haley came to see him while he was holding Sean. He had been telling Sean stories about Mr. Hotchner and encouraging him not to worry about what would happen to them. The future was filled with uncertainties. Aaron didn’t know if he and his brother would be sent to foster care now, and if they were, he didn’t know if they could stay together. He felt anxious about the idea of being placed in a separate home from his brother and leaving the baby with no familial ties to grow up with. He even considered running off and raising Sean on his own, but he still had no means of support.
Haley came in and sat on a chair beside the boys. She didn’t say anything, and he welcomed her peaceful presence. They sat in silence, reflecting on their lives since they met onstage so many months ago, and quietly thanking God for the chance to look after each other. They did not know how much they would see each other from now on or what kind of future they might eventually have together, but they felt content in the knowledge that their love was unshakeable.
Aaron kept glancing out toward the windows at the front of the ER where he had last seen those two agents walk away. He thought about all they had said and he pondered the multiple unknowns of his future. Could he really take up the fight against people like his stepfather and make a difference for other victims? Did he have that potential?
Him, Aaron Hotchner, in the FBI? Interesting idea for the worst fourth pirate in history.