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The Stray

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“Can I keep him?”

Hotch looked down at Ashley, who was looking up at him with wide blue eyes. He looked at her and then looked at the scraggly looking gray and white cat that was no more than a kitten really. He was pretty dirty but he seemed comfortable in Ashley’s arms. It was the most the kid had said to him since she came to live with them. Hotch didn’t press, he’d been here before.

Every member of the family warmed to others in their own time and no one made a big deal about it. He felt a little strange that she seemed to actively avoid him. She’d been doing it for a while with Morgan too so Hotch thought older boys intimidated her. Ashley warmed up to Morgan though, even if she hadn't to him.

“I can't make that kind of decision.” He used his best diplomatic voice.

“But it’s scary out there for him. The bigger cats rough him up, Hotch. Look it, he’s hurt.”

Sure enough the little guy seemed to have a bum paw. There were some older wounds on him that were healing as well. Dammit, Hotch didn’t like seeing a defenseless animal. It wasn’t his fault that he had to live out there on the street and try to survive.

“I let him in sometimes at night when everyone’s asleep and feed him. He’s always waiting on the porch for me.”

“Of course he is, because you feed him Ashley.”

“I can't leave him out there!” she practically shouted. “He won't make it and it’s not fair.”

Hotch sighed, running his fingers through his hair. Damn his craving for peanut butter and jelly at 2am. What was he, pregnant? If he was in bed at this hour then he wouldn’t be dealing with this.

He really didn’t want to be dealing with this. Mostly because the idea of putting that cat back outside didn’t sit so well with him. It wasn’t about having Ashley like him; she could do whatever she needed to be comfortable. This was about knowing how hard it was to be out there, small and defenseless.

“We have to wake Jason.” He said. “He’ll know what to do.”

“I don’t wanna put him down. He was limping real bad when he came in tonight. I think he’s really hurt…he hardly ate.”

Great, Hotch thought, and he's gonna die on us too. Stupid, stupid, late night food cravings. Sighing again, he headed for the stairs. He didn’t even want to go into Jason’s room; he might not be alone tonight.

If there was one thing Hotch’s eyes never ever needed to see it was Jason and Emily naked and canoodling. It was well within their right and all but that didn’t mean he wanted to see it. So Hotch checked Emily’s room first and was happy to see her sound asleep in her bed. He walked to the master bedroom, pushed open the door, and shook his friend’s shoulder.

“Jason? Jason, wake up.”

“Huh?” he opened his eyes, confused for a moment. Then he came alive. “Hotch, what's wrong?”

“Seaver found a cat. He’s messed up.”

“A what?” Jason reached for the lamp, as if light would suddenly make him hear well. He squinted when he turned it on.

“Seaver found an injured cat. She wants to keep him.”

“Where is she?” Jason threw the sheet back and got out of the bed.

“She's downstairs in the kitchen. I don’t know how long she’s been harboring the fugitive but he’s definitely injured. He might be mortally so.”

“Damn.” Jason muttered the expletive as he bit back a yawn. “I’ll go down and check it out. Can you wake Emily?”

“Sure.”

Both boys left the room and went their separate ways. Jason went downstairs to the kitchen where Ashley was resting her back against the island. She had an old tee shirt in her lap and the cat was lying on it. Yeah, he had seen better days for sure; poor thing. Jason crouched down in front of both of them.

“I think he got into a fight tonight, Jason. He’s hurt.”

“Where did you find this cat?” Jason asked.

“He found me. Sometimes when I can't sleep I go out on the back porch to think. He came up to me about a week ago and we’re friends now. I feed him sometimes…he likes cheese. But the bigger cats attacked him. He’s really hurt.”

Jason gave him a cursory examination but he was no vet. The cat was definitely hurt and for all he knew might not make it through the night.

“We’ll take him to the hospital, OK?” Jason put his hand on top of her head.

“Can they help him at a people hospital?” she was trying to be strong but he was her friend. She had even named him.

“No we’re gonna take him to the cat hospital. You just stay here with him; I gotta get the phone book.”

As Jason went into the den to grab the phone book, Emily and Hotch were coming into the room.

“What's happening?” she asked.

“Seaver found a cat and he looks to be in a bad way. Apparently she’s been smuggling him food and such and has gotten attached. We need to get him some medical attention.”

“I’ll go and sit with her.”

“Yeah, I'm looking in the phone book for animal ERs or something. I would prefer not to have to drive all the way to Fairfax if we don’t have to.”

“Is there anything else I can do?” Hotch asked.

“No,” Jason put his hand on his shoulder. “You’ve been a big help already. Are you alright, though? What are you doing up at this hour?”

“Honestly, I had insomnia and I was craving peanut butter and jelly so I came down to the kitchen for a sandwich. But now I'm feeling beat.”

“Go to bed. Emily and I are going to take the cat to the Friendship Animal Hospital…its not too far from here.”

“OK.”

Hotch nodded and headed back upstairs. Jason went into the kitchen where Emily was petting the poor cat’s head while Ashley held onto him.

“We’re going to the hospital guys; the ER is in Cleveland Park.”

“Where's that?” Ashley asked.

“It’s not far. You think you'll be able to hold onto your friend till then.”

She nodded; she wasn’t letting him go until he got some help.

“I need to throw on a pair of jeans or something.” Emily got up from the floor and made a quick run upstairs.

“Can I keep him, Jason?” Ashley asked. “He doesn’t have anywhere to go.”

“We’ll talk about that after we get him some help, OK?”

“Yeah.”

Jason didn’t want to make any promises in case the cat didn’t make it. He didn’t know what the extent of his injuries was so it was best to just get him to the hospital and see what was happening.

***

Jason felt uncomfortable around all the sick animals. He was always OK if he had to go to the hospital but the animals were so helpless, it saddened him. They took the cat immediately when the trio came in and when the nurse asked for the cat’s name, Ashley told them Lucifer. The nurse gave her a strange look but took the small bundle, Ashley had wrapped him in the tee shirt, into the back.

Now they were sitting in the waiting room surrounded by bunnies, cats, dogs, and the occasional guinea pig. Emily had stepped out to have a clove so it was just Jason and Ashley. She sat next to him, her feet not touching the ground so she swung them.

“Lucifer?” he looked at her.

“Huh?”

“You named the cat Lucifer?”

“I didn’t know what else to name him. That’s the cat’s name in Cinderella…the only cat I know. He was mean and my cat isn’t but I like the name.”

“Perhaps later you can come up with a nice cat name.” Jason said.

“So I'm gonna be able to keep him?” she asked.

“I don't know.” Jason put his hand on her shoulder. “First we have to make sure he’s gonna be OK. You're a good friend, Ashley, for looking after him.”

“This might be that fate thing Dave was telling me about. I don’t have anyone; Lucifer doesn’t have anyone either. Now we have each other. He’s not gonna die, is he Jason?”

“I hope not. Do you pray?”

Ashley shook her head. She remembered having to go to church with the Gibbons, one of the foster families she lived with in Grand Forks. She got in trouble for asking too many questions in Sunday school. That place sucked; Ashley was glad to only be there a few months.

“Well you can ask God that the cat be OK, if you want to. He’ll hear you no matter where you are.”

“Do you really believe that? Isn't that a fairy story?”

“It’s complicated Ashley. You have to have faith if you believe and understand some people won't. It’s OK if you don’t believe; I won't judge you.”

“Do you believe, Jason?” she asked as Emily came back into the ER waiting room.

“Yes, I do.” he nodded.

“Do you believe, Emily?”

“Do I believe what?” she countered.

“Do you believe in God?”

“Oh, how did we get on this discussion?”

“Ashley was worried that Lucifer might pass away.” Jason said.

“Well, we’ll think good thoughts and hope that doesn’t happen.” She sat down in the hard chair beside Ashley.

The kid put her head in Emily’s lap and Emily stroked her hair. She knew Ashley had to be exhausted…it was almost three in the morning. Soon they would have to get down to the bottom of this cat mystery but for now they waited to see if the doctors here could save him. Emily hoped he wasn’t mortally wounded but it was probably tough out there for a little guy like him.

It was no wonder that Ashley bonded with him. She really didn’t want the seven year old to have to face the news of his death. Emily thought she would do almost anything to stop that from happening. She looked over at Jason and he tried to give her a hopeful smile.

“Jason Gideon.” The nurse came from behind the door.

“Yes.” He stood and Ashley jumped up as well.

“Lucifer took a beating, the poor thing. She has a sprained paw, a sprained foot, old wounds trying to heal, and some internal injuries but she’s gonna survive. We’re gonna keep her for a few days to keep an eye on her. She needs nutrients and is dehydrated as well.”

“Did you say she?” Jason asked.

“She’s definitely a girl. How long have you had her…she’s a bit young to be outside.”

“She’s a stray that Ashley adopted.”

“I feed her cheese and give her milk.” She said.

“I'm sure that kept her from starving to death. She was on her last leg.”

“But she won't die now?” Ashley asked.

“No,” the nurse shook her head. “She’s going to live. We just have to keep a watch over her to make sure she recovers like she’s supposed to.”

“For how long?” Jason asked.

“She should be good to go by Wednesday but will need rest and relaxation at home while her paws heal. If you don’t want to adopt her then we can keep her here until she’s healed and then take her to the no-kill animal shelter that we work with.”

Ashley looked up at Jason with big, blue eyes. She couldn’t lose Lucifer; she was her friend.

“No, we’ll be taking her home come Wednesday. I just have to double check that no one at home has animal allergies. I’ll have the answers I need by then.”

“Alright.” The nurse smiled. “Ashley, what you did was a good thing. You probably saved Lucifer’s life.”

She smiled as the nurse walked away. Overcome with joy, Ashley launched herself into Jason’s arms.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you. I promise I’ll take such good care of her and I’ll make sure she doesn’t bother anyone. Thank you so much Jason.”

“Well, we still have to check that no one is allergic to pets.” He said. “I don’t think they are but we have to check.”

“We’re also gonna have to give her a new name.” Emily said. “I don’t think Lucifer is quite fitting for a girl.”

Emily took Ashley’s hand and they headed for the exit.

“What should I name her?” she asked.

“You get to make that choice.” Emily replied. “She's your cat now.”

“OK. I'm gonna think real hard about it. If I can't think of nothing will you guys help?”

“Anything.” Jason gently corrected.

“Huh?” Ashley looked at him as he unlocked the car door.

“If I can't think of anything…you said nothing.”

“Oh,” she still didn’t get it. “OK.”

Ashley climbed into the backseat and buckled up and then Jason and Emily got into the car. It was going to be a quick drive back home, which was good since Jason was exhausted. They didn’t talk much during the ride. Jason parked the car in front of the house and they went inside.

“Bedtime for you kiddo.” Emily said. “You want me to tuck you in?”

“Nope, I'm OK. Jason?”

“Yeah?”

“Thanks for taking the kitty to the hospital and stuff. That was nice of you.”

“It’s not a problem. Sweet dreams, Ashley.”

“Goodnight.” She gave Emily a hug and then went upstairs.

The two teenagers looked at each other for a moment, unsure what to do next. Jason wanted to fall facedown into the nearest pillow but he almost seemed too tired to sleep.

“Do you want some tea?” he asked.

“All I want to do is pass out.” Emily replied. “When Hotch came and woke me up I freaked out a little…I thought someone was hurt or worse. I'm coming down off a major adrenaline rush. I'm crashing as we speak.”

“Wanna crash together tonight?”

Emily couldn’t help but smile when he took her hand and held it to his lips. They were being good since the big night; she was proud of them. Even though they hadn't made love since that first time, Jason opened up in other ways and Emily was happier than ever. Sharing his bed tonight, after spending their early morning hours in an animal ER with a stray cat and the newest member of their family, was just what they both needed. Her hand still in his, Jason started the walk up the stairs.

“Two rats and a cat?” Emily asked, halfway there. She was thinking of Penelope’s beloved pets, Alexander the Great and his brother Tito.

“We’ll have to keep them separated of course but I think this house is big enough for just one more member. It might be really helpful in bringing Ashley out of her shell.”

“She showed amazing strength tonight.”

“Yes she did. We’ll put it up to a family vote before Wednesday and see how it goes. Now,” Jason wrapped his arms around Emily. “No more conversation.”

“In the movies, this is the scene where it usually goes from PG-13 to R.” she smiled.

“If R has two people snoring under a sheet, we’re all the way there Katya.”

Laughing, Emily slipped out of her jeans and bra and between the sheets. Jason was right on her heels. He held her and they fell asleep together. It had been a long night but there was a happy ending. It couldn’t always be that way but it was tonight. Jason and Emily could have peaceful dreams and even more importantly, so could Ashley.

***