Selfbarer

Oct. 12th, 2013 07:59 pm
dhae_knight: (Redefining Hotch)
[personal profile] dhae_knight

Title: Selfbarer
Author: Dhae Knight
Word count: 18.615
Pairing or featured character: Reid/Sean, Hotch/Reid pre-slash.
Rating: PG
Warnings and/or spoilers: Takes place from late season 2 through to the end of season 3. Individual sections may refer to, or include missing scenes from episodes. Please note that I'm not fond of Haley in this one. She ends up having some rather nasty aspects to her character.
Author's notes: One night I thought, what would happen if Sean and Reid hooked up. About the same time I watched season 3. And this thing just kept on growing...
Summary:
Sean Hotchner moves to Washington. Spencer Reid dates him. Secrets are kept, and revealed, and things change. And Hotch discovering that Reid is dating his baby brother is only the beginning.

Selfbarer

Aaron wasn't in the habit of mixing his private life with his work-life, but occasionally he'd go out with the team, bringing Haley along. Reid always wondered if he did it to prove to Haley that nothing untoward was going on, or to use Haley as a shield of sorts, helping him to not lose that last little inch of distance he maintained at all times. But that was as far as it ever went. So it was something of a surprise when Hotch invited the entire team to his house to celebrate that his brother had decided to finish training as a chef in D.C.

Of course, the team didn't profile each-other, but profiling was so ingrained in all of them that trying to stop entirely was about as effective as trying to commit suicide by holding your breath. And Reid had the added advantage of being on the outskirts of the group, so he had more time and attention to devote to the miniscule signs.

The tenseness around Hotch's eyes that matched the tenseness around Haley's lips. The way both of them smiled at Jack, but not at each-other. The way they focused on Jack, as if he was a pint-sized buffer between what had happened between them before the party started.

If Reid was any judge (and he freely admitted that his knowledge of normal family life and normal relationships was lacking), it looked like the Hotchners weren't the happy family it said on the tin.

So it was almost a relief when the center of the celebration made his way out of the cluster of backslappers and joined Reid on the deck.

"Hey. Reid, right? You work with Aaron?"

Reid wasn't innocent enough to not notice the appreciative look he received. He didn't think he deserved it, though, although he'd put on a pair of dark slacks and what Garcia had termed a 'decent' shirt. "Yeah. Spencer Reid, nice to meet you."

They shook hands, Sean holding his hand for longer than entirely appropriate, and Reid found himself blushing. He wasn't exactly a virgin, although he wasn't far removed, but he didn't handle sexual interest very well. He had to admit that he was interested, though. Sean Hotchner had the looks of a male model, and Reid already liked Hotch more than was probably healthy for him. If Sean had the same solidness of character, the same dependability and the same kindness, Reid was very interested.

"So... When this whole thing is over, you want to maybe go out? Have a drink or something?"

Oh, yes, Reid thought. Definitely interested. "I'd like that."

Sean cast an appraising look out over the lawn, where people were milling in fractal patterns, congregating and dispersing from the buffet tables. "How pissed do you think Aaron would be if I skipped out early?"

Reid choked on a laugh. "Very?"

Sean smiled with half his face. "Yeah. Aaron wasn't kidding that you're a genius, Doctor Reid. Okay, so... Meet me out front in an hour? How to you feel about motorcycles?"

Reid decided, for once, to forgo accident-statistics. "So long as you have a spare helmet, I'm fine."

This time Sean smiled, a hint of something filthy in the depths of his eyes. "Until then, I'd better go make nice with all those guests my brother arranged for me."

****

Yep. It had all been Aaron's fault. Sean had taken them to a small Irish pub, plying Reid with stout. He'd been pleasantly buzzed when he'd invited Sean over to his place, later, and although Sean had had to call Aaron to tell him that he wouldn't be needing that spare bedroom after all, they'd fallen into bed like it was the most natural thing.

Reid liked Sean. Although he'd initially hoped he'd have some of the intensity and focus of his brother, he discovered that Sean had his own merits. He laughed readily, and loved to have fun, and although much of the fun he liked was the kind of things Spencer labeled 'dangerous' or 'reckless', nothing bad ever seemed to happen to Sean.

An added bonus was Sean's age. Reid had never really had much in common with people his own age, but he was discovering the pleasure of being with someone with a youthful outlook on life. For a while there, Reid actually felt 25 years old on a daily basis, and not in a negative way, either.

He should have known it would come to an ignominious end, because Spencer Reid's private life always crashed and burned.

*****

The day Hotch discovered that his brother was in a relationship with Spencer Reid, it was a good thing neither of them were within reach. He'd been thinking that Haley might be having an affair for a while. He tried not to profile his wife, but the little oddities added up over time. He didn't want it to be true. He loved Haley, and he adored Jack, and, damnit, they were supposed to be happy! So to keep himself from looking for more circumstantial evidence of Haley's possible infidelity, he started hanging out with Sean some more. After all, they were brothers, and part of the reason Sean had moved to D.C. (aside, of course, from the amazing offer he'd gotten from one of the best chefs on the east coast) was that he wanted to be closer to Aaron and his little nephew.

But Sean seemed busy, too. Text-messages that made him smile and laugh. Cancelled outings. After a while, Aaron asked the question; "So, when am I going to meet her?" only to have Sean look up, deer-in-the-headlights look in his eyes and go; "Whu...?"

It had all spiraled into something out of Abbott and Costello after that, but eventually Sean had leaned back on the couch, covered his eyes with the heels of his hands, and asked; "What if it isn't a 'her'?"

Aaron was kind of glad Sean had covered his eyes, because not even his mask was up to the rush of emotions that suddenly threatened to drown him. After almost a minute of silence, Sean lowered his hands and looked at him, serious and worried, and Aaron had cleared his throat and said; "You could have told me you were gay, you know."

"Yeah, not really gay, though. More like... bisexual?"

The questioning inflection had made Aaron reassert his usual stranglehold on himself and stuffed down whatever it was that he was feeling about it all in favor of being supportive and there for his brother, as he so clearly needed.

It was only much later, on his way back home, that he began wondering what Sean's boyfriend was like, and although he hated himself for it, he'd seen enough things in his work life to want to know. Self-loathing foremost in his mind, he'd picked up his phone and called Garcia, and made it absolutely clear to her that she could say no, but he really needed to find out who Sean was dating.

His first clue was when she stopped the incessant chatter she usually kept up while doing whatever it was she was doing. Then she cleared her throat, and he knew it was bad.

"What is it, Garcia?"

She was silent for another half minute, then said, very, very quietly; "If I promise you he isn't a bad guy, will you let it go, Sir?"

Unfortunately Aaron was being brutally honest when he said; "I don't think I can."

Somewhere in the distance a dog howled while he waited for Garcia to answer. When she did, her voice was filled with the decisiveness that drew Morgan to her. "Okay. Today's Friday, and the only reason I'm here this late is that you gave us the weekend, and I took the opportunity to work on my servers. Take tomorrow. Think about it. If you still want to know on Sunday... come see me. Okay?"

It was going to be a long Saturday, but he could live with it, and if Garcia thought he needed to give it some more thought, he would.

****

Saying he'd been shocked, quickly followed by anger had been like calling the White House for a nice little shack.

****

It took him the rest of Sunday, Garcia physically restraining him from leaving, first, to do something entirely irrational, then a whirlwind tour of working in the garden, which involved pruning trees that didn't need pruning and cutting the hedges back half an inch, before he was even mostly rational again. Haley had been out for most of the day, at her sister's with Jack, and stood, slack-jawed by, looking at Aaron's sweaty, dirty clothes.

But it had served its purpose, and when they went to bed that evening, Aaron lay awake for only half an hour, turning the facts over and over in his head, trying to find a way to deal with it that would let him keep his sanity.

By dawn, he was ready, and as he put on his suit, he locked it down. Hid his knowledge in a thick steel-box and wrapped it in chains. And then he went to work, and got over the shock of seeing Reid and thinking; "My brother kisses those lips", and moved on. Reid seemed happier and calmer than he had since Raphael, and Sean was happy, and, really, Aaron had no business not wanting what was obviously a good thing for both of them.

Then, of course, Gideon went off the rails and disappeared, and everything got a lot more complicated, all of a sudden.

*****

The trouble was, Reid thought on the plane-ride to Milwaukee, not so much that he didn't enjoy being with Sean, so much as he was beginning to wonder what Sean saw in him. The younger Hotchner clearly found his scrawny body a turn-on, which was weird but not impossible, but he seemed to be mostly indifferent to Reid's intellect and downright impatient with the work it took to maintain his knowledge-level. It was puzzling, because Reid had always found his intelligence one of the few redeeming characteristics to his name, and although the majority of people he encountered seemed impatient or outright derogatory of it, it was what Gideon had found worthy of joining the BAU, and what Hotch had termed the BAU's greatest asset at one time, which still gave Reid a slight thrill.

But where Hotch was a closed book; inaccessible but readable, Sean seemed like an encrypted text written on the steps of Escher's room with stairs, and Reid didn't even know where to begin to unravel his motivations. And now the team was understaffed and over-supervised, and Reid thought, as he looked at Strauss listening to the briefing with a faintly supercilious look, that they needed Hotch to be not suspended, Prentiss to not have quit, and Gideon to call Reid back.

And of these things, he was surprised to realize, he mostly wanted Hotch.

He knew Morgan kept in touch with Hotch, but he also knew that the tenseness in Morgan and Strauss' decision to oversee them in the field on the day Hotch's suspension was due to end did not bode well for the future.

His relief was consequently overwhelming, when Prentiss and Hotch (blessedly cool, collected Hotch) walked into the station and got to work.

They worked through the night, and by dawn they were no closer and had another dead woman on their board, and Reid was so over-tired he almost laughed at Strauss freaking out at the crime-scene. He might have, if not for the fact that his amusement was subverted almost instantaneously by a warm, tender feeling of fondness when Hotch steered her gently away and gave her kind advice.

On a day-to-day basis, Reid was pretty content to be who he was. He knew his weaknesses and his strengths, and he was, by and large, okay with them. Sometimes, though, when he was looking around him at his fellow profilers, he listed their strengths and weaknesses, and somehow he always ended up hung up on Hotch. Oh, the man was no flawless paragon, Reid knew that, but it seemed like his strengths were legion, and the one Reid most coveted was his caring. Hotch cared about people, and there were almost no limits to what he'd do for people he cared about. Sure, he maintained a strict, professional distance that meant he'd never really be friends with anyone on the team, but that nobility of purpose did nothing to lessen his attraction.

Reid wasn't blind to his own reactions to Hotch, and where he'd craved Gideon's validation of him as a profiler, he craved Hotch's validation of him as a person. Every kind word, every supporting comment, every pat on the shoulder and half-hidden smile was filed away in Spencer's memory. The thought of losing that made Reid feel unbalanced and shaky, and he stored away everything he could, wrung out every second in Hotch's presence for its full potential.

And then, suddenly the case was over, and Hotch might not be leaving after all (and, really, Reid had probably never heard sweeter words than Hotch's quiet; "Why would I ever want to leave the BAU?", and Reid found himself floundering on the rocky shores of the statement that Hotch had to talk to Haley before making his decision, and for the second time in 48 hours, he wondered what he was really doing with Sean, because he was pretty sure he'd never think to ask Sean what he thought about anything related to Reid's work, and he felt pretty confident Sean wouldn't either.

So with the case closed, Reid decided to take Hotch's advice and drove out to Gideon's cabin rather than go home to Sean.

What he found made him sad and angry and strangely anxious. And that turned out to just be the beginning of his troubles.

@@@@@

Aaron didn't know how long he'd been sitting in the dark room, listening to the soft sounds of his son sleeping, when the door cracked open and let in a slice of light that bisected the bedroom, the bed, and the boy. He looked at Jack's face, at the innocence and beauty and thought his heart would crack open with all the horrible things he'd seen happen to children. He couldn't even consciously approach the possibility of any of them happening to Jack, only feel an immediate and unsettling anxiety he didn't know what to do with.

In Haley's soft whisper, calling him away from Jack, he heard echoes of the desperate mother's cries, and that in turn evoked memories of a tiny ribcage, compressing under the heel of his hand as he tried to call the girl back to life for her parents. With an ache in his stomach, he stood and turned away from Jack. Escaping the memories of the horrific evening would be easier while talking to Haley, and he was filled with a sudden need to convince her to come home. Home, where they would be safe, where he could keep an eye on them and keep them both safe.

Haley held out a mug as he entered the living-room, and Aaron took it gratefully. It had been a very long night, and reviving a little girl with asthma hadn't even been the worst part of it.

"So... We should talk, Aaron." Haley made her opening gambit without acknowledging the lateness of the hour or the case he'd just come off of.

"I want you and Jack to come home," Aaron blurted out, stupid with his fatigue, just as Haley continued with; "I want a divorce."

For a minute they just stood there, looking at each-other, trying to understand what the other had said. Then Aaron sat heavily in a recliner, and Haley sank down onto the love-seat across from it.

"It's over?" Aaron had to ask it, even though he knew Haley well, and knew that once her mind was truly made up, nothing would make her budge.

"I..." Haley looked down and away. Then took a deep breath and squared her shoulders to face Aaron again. "I deserve a husband who's there for me. I deserve someone who... Well, someone who makes me a priority in his life."

Even numbed, that stung. "Haley. You and Jack were always a priority for me."

"No, Aaron. The job always took priority for you. I understand, I do. I understand how important your job is. But never knowing if you're going to be there; always knowing that every time the phone rings, no matter the time of night or day, you might have to go... I can't live like that, anymore. And I won't."

Aaron knew that in time it would probably make sense to him, but right now it fucking hurt, because he had given it everything. Absolutely everything, to the point he sometimes wondered how he'd get through the next minute because there was nothing left inside him.

So for maybe the first time in his marriage to Haley he was absolutely honest, laying it all out there, feeling as raw and exposed as he hadn't since the last time his dad had beaten him.

"I can't quit, Haley. I can't walk away from the BAU, knowing the kind of people we stop with every case we solve. I can't. I'm good at what I do. I make the team better at what they do. And I can't quit, knowing that if I walk away, our solve-rate might drop, and more killers get to go free, threatening families. Killing children. I can't, because every killer we stop is one less threat to you and to Jack and to families like us. Do you understand that?"

"I do. Aaron, trust me, I do. I've been talking to Jessie a lot, and she helped me understand that, but... It doesn't change anything. I'm sorry."

Aaron looked at his hands, wondering why they were trembling enough to fill his coffee with concentric circles. "So there's nothing I can do?"

"There's nothing either of us can do. I can't change what I need, any more than you can change who you are." Haley leaned forward to put her mug on the coffee-table between them. When she leaned back her face was business-like, and Hotch felt the change like a slap in the face. "I want a amicable divorce. We can work this out between us, I think. Jack should stay with me, most of the time, given your work. I won't stand in the way of visitation-rights and weekends and whatever else we can work out."

Aaron listened and nodded and felt utterly drained as she outlined how the end of their marriage would happen, and when she was done talking he stood and thanked her by rote and walked out to his car.

He made it half-way home before he pulled over abruptly and spilled out of his seat to vomit into the grass. Then he drove the rest of the way home, downed two large whiskeys in a very short time and went to bed, not even remotely happy that it was already Saturday, and he wouldn't have to go into the office until Monday morning.

He woke up to an insistent pounding on his door that aggravated the headache that was in evidence from the moment he cracked his eyes open and saw that the clock spelled out 11 a.m. It turned out to be a chipper Sean with worry around his eyes, who took one look at Aaron before he made him take a shower.

By the time he got out, feeling about 50% better, Sean had cooked up a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, toast and even a small pile of the pancakes that had been Aaron's preferred comfort-food since he was old enough to articulate it.

The food went down and thankfully Sean had a knack for focusing on food when eating, that meant Aaron didn't have to contend with either conversation or concerned looks. It was a relief, and meant he could actually eat.

By the time breakfast was cleared away, and they retreated into the den with mugs of coffee (for Aaron), and some sort of aromatic herbal tea (for Sean), Aaron was about ready to face the day. But first he aimed a questioning eyebrow at Sean, who just smiled and shrugged.

"Jessica called me this morning."

Jessica, Aaron thought. Not Haley. Not Haley who thought he was indestructible. Not Haley whom he'd probably told, in word and deed, through their entire marriage, that nothing would touch him.

"Haley wants a divorce." His voice was flat. Controlled. Unlike his hands, which were trembling circles into the surface of his coffee again.

"Yeah. Jessica told me. Sucks. She's going to get custody of Jack, isn't she?"

"I don't know. Probably." Aaron leaned back in his recliner and covered his eyes with one hand. He couldn't even think, right now. He loved Sean, but his baby brother wasn't someone he could lean on, and right now Aaron wanted someone to lean on like never before. Someone to hold him and shield him and tell him that everything would be all right. He didn't have anyone like that. Sean did, though.

He raised his hand, to look out from under it at his baby brother, and pondered that thought because it was easier to think of anything else than what was actually happening to him right now. Sean had Reid, and wasn't it strange that he'd look at it that way? Reid was nobody's idea of a protector. Morgan, he could see as a protector; fierce, strong, always ready to defend his team. Gideon would, mostly, fit the bill, too, although since walking out with no goodbye other than a letter to Reid, he failed the basic qualification of being there.

But Reid? Skinny, overly smart, too-young Reid? How could anyone consider him a protector?

The memories rose up, one after another, all of them featuring Reid wading in where angels feared to tread or saving the day in some highly unlikely way. Shooting Dowd right between the eyes, with an unfamiliar gun, after failing his firearms-qualification? Yeah, that was definitely one of the more spectacular memories. Or Reid, keeping it sufficiently together during 48 hours of torture, drugs and even death at the hands of Tobias Hankel and his many personalities, to give Aaron the clue he needed to find him - and even then, effecting his own rescue.

Maybe that was why. Reid had an undeniable will of steel. The same will that had allowed him to take care of his schizophrenic mother from age 10. The same will that had him graduating high-school at age 12. Yeah. Aaron could rely on strength like that, now that he thought about it, and he felt almost unbearably envious that it was Sean who could lean on that strength.

But Aaron could do this. Would do it, just as he always had. Putt one foot in front of the other. Do what you had to do. And never, ever let them see you cry.

@@@@

Hotch had been terribly clipped when he called. "Garcia has been shot. She's in surgery now." Those had been the first words he said (and almost the last), and Reid's stomach had dropped. Sean had grumbled as he got out of bed, but Reid hadn't stopped to wake him fully, just thrown on whatever clothes he could find, and headed to the hospital.

It had been five days before he'd seen Sean again, and by then he'd made a few decisions.

Being in the hospital, interviewing a pale, washed-out Garcia had been hell. Reid didn't take to changes all that well. He needed people to be stable and, by and large, the same. He figured it had something to do with his mother - not exactly a conclusion that required his skills as a profiler. Having Morgan glaring at him as if he was a monster for interviewing his Baby-Girl hadn't helped, but Reid had been able to set that aside in favor of doing the job. He'd always been good at that.

He didn't doubt that Morgan loved Garcia. Hadn't ever doubted that, actually. But seeing how protective and supportive Morgan was of her kindled a longing Reid had carried with him since he was a child, and his father abandoned him and his mother. A deep-seated need to have someone to step in for him, as Morgan stepped in for Garcia. Not that he needed a parent, or anything; frankly the two he'd had were some pretty lousy examples of parenthood, and he neither needed nor wanted a second chance. No what he needed was someone to lean on in times of crises.

And he realized that Sean would never be that someone.

He liked Sean. A lot. But Sean was someone to have fun with. Someone to be young with, and someone to share the sunny days with. He wasn't someone with whom Reid could share his deepest fears, his worst days, or even his addiction.

The second burst of realization came when they watched the endgame in the bullpen. Even knowing how it would end, Reid watched with his heart in his throat as Hotch strolled all-too casually to Rossi’s door and knocked. The tension was almost unbearable, as the UnSub caught on, and pulled his gun on them.

The moment that sent a shiver down his spine, though, was seeing Hotch drawing his gun smoothly, and face down the UnSub without ever flinching. Reid had seen it before, of course, on quite a few occasions, but the difference was that here, it wasn't live, and he knew how it would end.

Wondering, idly, if Kevin the tech-guy, who still glanced at Garcia every few seconds, would make him a copy of those few seconds to take home with him shifted something fundamental in Reid. For the first time, he looked his attraction to Hotch straight in the face, and realized that, yes, based on what he knew about Hotch from work, he was, very much, exactly what Reid wanted in a partner.

With that realization fresh in mind, Reid went home and called Sean.

****

Their talk started with "It's not you, it's me" and went downhill from there. Sean got loud when he was angry (as opposed to Hotch, who only rarely raised his voice), and Reid wondered briefly what his neighbors would think.

"No, no, Sean, it's really not you. It's me. I'm not... It's nothing you did. I've liked being with you, but..."

"But what? I'm not good enough for you? Not smart enough?"

Reid didn't particularly want to get into Sean's insecurities, but he understood that they largely stemmed from having a conformist, highly successful older brother. He decided to try a different tack.

"You're young..."

"I'm two years older than you!"

"What I mean is... you think young. You act young. It's good. Great, in fact, but..."

"Here we go again. What?"

Reid bit his tongue for a second, before deciding to rip off the Band-Aid and air some of the things Sean had never been privy to.

"My mother is an undifferentiated schizophrenic, and I took care of her alone from I was 10. I graduated from high school when I was 12. Got recruited to the FBI when I was 22. Chronologically, I might be two years younger than you, and it's been great to be with you; to try and experience some of the things I never had time for when I was growing up, but..."

Sean's eyes were red-rimmed and wet, but his mouth was still an angry slash.

"But...?" He asked bitterly, when Reid paused.

"But I need someone older. Someone with more life-experience than you have. So, you see, it's really not you; it's me that has the problem, here."

Sean didn't hit him, although Reid would have said it was a close thing. He just snarled something Reid would never remember later, and stormed out with a promise he'd pick up the odds and ends he'd left at Reid's apartment later.

Reid locked the door behind him quietly, and went to make coffee, almost in a trance. He knew it was the right decision - hell, it had taken him breaking up with Sean to tell him about his mom, telling Sean about his drug-abuse would have been impossible. Still, even knowing it was the right thing didn't still the niggling voice telling him that he'd just broken up with the closest he'd ever get to Hotch, given that his unit chief was unashamedly straight and so utterly out of Reid's reach it wasn't even funny.

With a chill in his heart, Reid sipped at his coffee and looked out over the night-dark street, trying to be grateful that Garcia had at least survived.

@@@@

"What I want I'm not going to get." That truth had been harsh enough in the car, going to the hotel. But alone in his hotel-room, city lights drawing obscure patterns on the ceiling through the drapes? Then the truth was brutal and inescapable.

What did he want? He wanted to not have received those divorce-papers just after the horrendous case of wives killing their husbands so their sons wouldn't be tainted by their murderous rapist dads. It brought comparisons to mind Aaron wasn't comfortable with; about how much of a disappointment his joining the FBI rather than go into politics or set up a private practice had been to Haley, and how she might be divorcing him because she didn't want Jack to be tainted by his failings.

He wanted Jack in his life, as much as he could get him. He knew being a full-time dad wasn't in him, but he loved Jack in a way he'd never loved anyone else, and he wanted to spend just as much time with him as the job allowed.

He wanted his team to be happy and safe and - if he could get it - out of work.

And he wanted Reid to be happy above everyone else. He knew the case with the kidnapped girl who'd begged her dad to shoot a teenager in front of her had taken a major toll on Reid. Perceived failure hit Reid hardest of all of them; a consequence, no doubt, of Jason's emotionally stunted way of mentoring him. Aaron did his best, but he was well aware he wasn't exactly the epitome of healthy emotional responses.

Most of all, though, he realized there, in that darkened room, he wanted Reid. Wanted Reid with a visceral need that made his gut ache. Wanted Reid in his life, as a friend. Wanted him in his bed as a partner.

And of all the things he wasn't going to get, that was the one that made his chest clench and his throat hurt as he choked on emotions he refused to even name. Because they would do him no good. Reid was happy with Sean, and Reid being happy was more important than anything else.

He closed his eyes tightly and told himself it was that which produced the tears running down his temples as his litany of things he wasn't going to get turned into a repetition of the flaws and failures that was all he had to offer any potential partner. After all, it wasn't like Haley had left him in any doubt of his own shortcomings, and what few redeeming qualities he'd had through his marriage were lost through the divorce.

@@@@

It took Reid almost a week, and he blamed it on the cravings he'd had after their near-miss with Hardwick and the nightmares that unfolded in the aftermath. But he got it at last, standing in the break-room pouring sugar into his coffee, and the realization made him fumble the sugar, spilling crystals all over the formica counter.

Wiping up his spill, he ran through his realization again. Slower, this time. Making sure his conclusions were right.

Hotch had been upset already before they arrived at the prison. In fact, he'd acted like he didn't want to go on the custodial at all, and it had made Reid nervous and unsettled. The phone call from JJ hadn't helped any, and neither had the hand on his shoulder from the warden. That touch had actually made Reid twitch nervously. Hotch didn't mind touching others, but he had very solid boundaries against being touched casually.

Hardwick's small games had only served to antagonize Hotch to the point where he contained so much bottled up anger Reid could have compared him to Mount Saint Helens in terms of potential explosivity. And then Hardwick had revealed his end-game, and, really, Reid might be forgiven for assuming that that was all that was behind Hotch's unexpected aggressivity.

It was part of it, certainly, but the revelation Reid had was that it wasn't the trigger. If Hotch had been alone in that cell, it might have been, but with Reid there also, it wasn't sufficient cause.

No, the underlying cause was Hotch's need to protect. His family first and foremost. His team second. And civilians third. Hotch wasn't the kind of man who could stand aside and watch as someone else got hurt. Not when he could take the hurt on himself.

And that was what had happened in that cell. If Hotch really had been driven solely by his own aggression, he would simply have attacked. He wouldn't have wasted time antagonizing Hardwick, making sure Hardwick saw him as the greater threat, as the man he had to take down first, before he could safely move on to Reid.

And when Reid had jumped in, Hotch's little display and his own sheer terror, not for himself, but for Hotch, having given him the adrenaline-kick necessary to hook Hardwick with his monologue, Hotch had moved aside, stepped around and behind Hardwick.

If anyone had described the scene, Reid would have probably thought he'd feel abandoned to his own devices, but Hotch's eyes had never lost their intensity, his body never the tension, and consequently Reid had never lost faith that if he should falter, Hotch would do whatever he'd have to to keep Hardwick at bay until the guards returned.

And that, Reid discovered, he found disturbingly reassuring. He wasn't a brawler like Morgan, and didn't have Hotch's comfort or proficiency with weapons. In point of fact, he'd positioned his gun on his hip with great care, knowing that those who knew next to nothing about guns would note it's prominent position and back down more easily, while those who knew about guns would note it's awkward position and underestimate his hard-won proficiency with a number of firearms. Now that he thought about it, the first time he'd put his holster just so, Morgan had teased, JJ had made cautious attempts at guiding him to repositioning it, but Hotch had simply twitched his lips into the shape that Reid called a smile simply because it had been so long since he'd seen an actual one from Hotch.

He didn't have Rossi's shield of fame, or JJ's innocent and harmless demeanor, nor Prentiss' impressive 'don't mess with me'-attitude. For the most part he was okay with what he contributed to the team, but there was just no denying that they hunted sadists, and Reid was all too aware that he was both the easiest victim and the weakest individual.

So having the experience of Hotch watching out for him, ready to step between Reid and physical harm, that was seductive.

Reid wasn't sure if he liked it giving him a thrill, but the fact remained that it did.

It also didn't make him love Hotch any less.

@@@@

Seeing Jack had gone better than he could have expected. His son had compassion and an understanding that seemed to be advanced for his age. He'd understood and accepted without question why Aaron wasn't going to be around so much any more.

And still, it had been a bad trip.

Bad, because Haley had been there, and - despite stating her gratitude at his signing the papers without contesting - had taken the opportunity to complain about how she'd had to push him to sign, which led to yet another round of 'reasons why Aaron Hotchner was a lousy husband'. It all left him with a clear (if unspoken) feeling that the only reason near-unlimited visitation-rights with Jack was written into the divorce-settlement was that she was aware that was the only thing he would have fought for.

By the time he extracted himself, he was happy Sean had agreed to drive him and drop him off at the airport afterwards.

The truth was that they had never been really close when growing up. The age-difference had seen to that, more than anything else. Aaron had been a freshman in High School (albeit a young one) when Sean was born, and consequently they had ended up seeing little of one-another outside of holidays and family gatherings.

Their experiences growing up had been quite different, as well. Sean was the last hurrah of their father, who - looking back - probably already suffered from the early stages of cancer. He'd died two years later, and their mother wasted no time in marrying the man she'd been having an affair with for over a year. Consequently, Sean had escaped the violence of their biological father, and known only their decent, hardworking step dad, whom they'd both grown to admire and love. Aaron to the point of choosing to go to law-school.

The outcome was that Sean was a much happier man, not weighed down, as Aaron was, by the knowledge that violence was in his genes, and must be controlled tightly every minute of every day lest it escape and harm others.

His divorce and Sean's move to DC meant that they were closer now than at any other point in their lives. Sure, Sean still kept his relationship with Reid a secret from Aaron, but that was only to be expected. After all, they were still working towards building a closer relationship, and despite having DNA in common, that didn't just happen overnight.

So maybe it should have surprised Aaron how happy he was that he would have company on the trip to the airport, but the truth was that Aaron had never done well on his own. His team might think that solitude was his default setting, but the truth was that before he came to the BAU, teamwork wasn't a part of Gideon and Rossi's vocabularies, never mind the others. They were all lone wolves, egos prompting them to work alone and share their secrets one-on-one, if at all.

Aaron, on the other hand, worked best in a group-setting; bouncing ideas off of others in a process of give-and-take that wasn't popular at first. What Gideon realized, after Rossi made his first million and left, was that their solve-rate increased when they did it Aaron's way. He also realized that Aaron was good at team-work, at greasing the wheels and make people work together. So Gideon, as the brilliant man he was, had put Aaron in charge of team-work.

It was Aaron who'd worked to build the team they had now. Sure, Gideon had recruited the brilliant individuals he came across, but it was Aaron who forged them into a cohesive unit. Braided them together, actually, winding their lives around each-other until they would work on covering the weakness of others with their own strengths on their own accord. And, yes, one of the ways he'd done it was by being the hard-assed drill-sergeant who drove them to being better. Another was by standing aside and isolating himself, so those bonds could strengthen on their own.

Just as his bonds with Sean were doing now, he thought as he nodded at Sean before climbing into the old beat-up Ford his baby-brother had insisted on buying.

"That bad, huh?" Sean asked as soon as he'd pulled away from the curb.

"No. No, actually Jack took it surprisingly well."

"So it was Haley, then."

It wasn't a question, so Aaron didn't answer. He knew his baby-brother wasn't stupid, and that saying nothing was as condemning as denying it, but he still chose to say nothing. He still owed Haley his loyalty; God knows he hadn't been a very good husband, despite all his efforts.

"You know, I liked her when you married her?"

A rhetorical question, this time. Still not something that required Aaron's input, although the observation fell like another rock on Aaron's back.

"What the hell happened to the two of you? Huh? I mean, you still love her, but she seems to be doing nothing but complaining any more."

"We just got divorced, Sean. One might say that's reason enough."

Sean threw him a sharp glance. "'One' might. I don't. And it's not just after the divorce. This past year, at least, she's barely been able to find a single, civil thing to say about you. Even mom noticed."

Aaron didn't look out the side window although the muscles in his neck tightened. He was too well trained by years in court to display such obvious tells of his discomfort. Likewise, his voice was controlled as he answered.

"Maybe there hasn't been a lot of good to say about me."

"Bullshit!" The expletive fell between them like an axe. "Don't tell me you've actually bought into all the shit she's been talking? Aaron, I know she was your wife, and all, but really?"

Aaron lowered his brows into a scowl and aimed it at his brother. There was no call for that kind of denigration of Haley. After all, he was the one who'd been married to her; he knew, better than Sean, the extent of his own flaws. "I don't want to talk about it, and I don't want you talking about Haley like that."

Sean shot him an incredulous look, but simply said; "Okay" and allowed Aaron to change the subject.

@@@@

It wasn't the serial suicides that turned into murders that got to Reid. It was Hotch going off, somewhere, without telling the team. It was obvious he'd told Rossi, but Rossi wasn't forthcoming with information on the best of days, and he held onto whatever secret Hotch had entrusted him with like it was the location of the Holy Grail.

Reid had already admitted to himself that he didn't deal well with change. He didn't deal particularly well with uncertainty, either. And he cared way more than he was supposed to about Hotch; his boss, sometimes mentor and full-time fantasy.

Sure, things had been rough after the case in California, and having the murderous father walk away because he was a 'valuable witness' hadn't helped. And their close call with Hardwick, where Reid had picked up the responsibility for getting them out of there safely hadn't lessened his cravings, either.

But, really, without the case with the suicides he might never have thought of self-help groups as a way to go.

And still, here he was. Half an hour early, but he'd been so tense Hotch had almost kicked him out of the office ahead of everyone else.

Hotch had seemed grimmer, lately. His temper on an even shorter fuse, and yet held so tightly Reid worried about him. Worried when he was going to snap. Worried what he might do, if he did. Whatever he'd done before the suicide-case, it had been bad for his mental health, Reid could see that much. But Hotch didn't talk, so all he knew was what he'd overheard on the plane, while pretending to be absorbed in his book. So now he knew that Hotch had been to see Jack, to tell his son about the divorce.

Since it didn't sound as if Jack had done anything bad, Reid could only assume it was something Haley had done, and the thought made him angry. It was obvious that Hotch still loved Haley, and it was incomprehensible to him that any woman would throw away a man like Hotch. A man with so many good qualities, and so few flaws.

Across the street, the first people began arriving; some glancing furtively around before ducking through the door, the majority acting so normal as to be abnormal. The Beltway Clean Cops had been a find for Reid, but he still wondered if he was actually going to do it. Stand up in front of a room of strangers and tell them his greatest weakness? Ask for help? It went against everything in Reid.

Or, perhaps more accurately; it went against everything Reid had been.

Four years ago, he never would have considered asking for help. Four years ago, before Boston had happened and Hotch had taken over and decided Reid should get some field-experience in addition to working out of the office, he wouldn't have trusted anyone enough. But working with the team had changed him. They had, each in their own way, taught him that he could lean on other people and they wouldn't leave without warning. Wouldn't think him a nuisance. Would, in fact, help him, because sometimes, when people like you, they do selfless things.

Most importantly, though, the team had taught him that weakness was in all of them. Elle had cracked and broken because she wouldn't show it. Gideon had walked away, rather than lean on anyone while he had his own moment of weakness. Rossi had tried to deal with his weakness alone, but had been bullied by the team to accept their help. Morgan had fought the revelation of his weakness every step of the way, but he remained one of the strongest people Reid knew.

What the team had taught him was that having weaknesses wasn't the same as being weak.

With five minutes to go, Reid squared his shoulders, took a deep breath and got out of his car. He had a weakness to share with others.

@@@@

After the fantastically hellish trip to West Bune, Texas, complete with what might, to a non-trained stranger, have looked like Reid having a teenage rebellion in front of Sheriff and everyone, the last thing Aaron had expected was for Sean to come over.

Sean taking care of the house, watering the flowers and emptying the mailbox had been a way for Aaron to let Sean in when his marriage had failed. And it had been something of a necessity, as well. Sometimes they were gone for a week. So Aaron had taken to sending Sean a text when they were on their way home. It was something of a surprise getting a text back saying; "I'll be over at 10."

Aaron sent Reid off with a pat on the shoulder almost as soon as they touched down. He trusted his look to convey that he expected Reid to go to his meeting if it was still on, and as soon as he could, if it wasn't. Reid's nod assured him the message wasn't lost on him.

With his own appointment hanging over his head, he only got started on his report, but everybody else had already left before him, anyway. He didn't blame them. It had been a long few days, and sleep hadn't exactly been peaceful with a spree-killer on the lose. The fact that Reid had identified with the bullied kid had kept Aaron awake all on it's own, picturing all the ways a pre-teen in high school could be bullied. Picturing all the ways in which Reid might have been bullied.

Sean had let himself in, when he got there, and was watering the azaleas in the living-room. He took one look at Aaron and went into the kitchen. He came back with two cold beers, handing one to Aaron without saying a word. Aaron looked at the beer, cooling his hand. "I'd have preferred scotch."

"Yeah, well, not tonight. You can tell me about it, so you don't need the drink to fall asleep. The beer's just for companionship, 'cause I think I'm going to need it."

He sat down on the couch, and Aaron felt compelled by convention to sit down in the armchair adjacent to the couch.

"So tell me all about it. I take it it was bad?"

"Bad enough," Aaron said and continued to tell him about the entire, miserable case, excising as much of it as he needed to to keep Reid's secret. If Reid wanted Sean to know, he'd tell him himself.

Despite his skepticism, he actually did feel unburdened after telling Sean. Mostly. Reid's reactions and what might have caused them still buzzed around in his head, making it difficult to focus. Later, he would blame what happened on that fact, possibly unjustly.

Sean looked at his watch, putting his long-since empty beer bottle on the table. "Damn. It's half past twelve. Do you mind if I just crash in your guest-room tonight? I've got an early shift tomorrow."

"No. No, I think you should go home to... your boyfriend. He's... I think he's going to need you tonight."

Sean looked at him, completely nonplussed. "Aaron - what are you talking about?"

Between his exhaustion and his worry, something inside Aaron snapped. "Spencer Reid, your boyfriend? This was a very bad case for him, and you should be there, with him. Not here."

To Sean's credit, he didn't bat an eye that Aaron knew who his boyfriend was. His eyebrows, however, rose almost comically.

"Spencer's not my boyfriend any more. We broke up at least two months ago."

Aaron could feel his own jaw literally drop. "You broke up?"

Sean rubbed the back of his neck embarassedly. "Well. He broke up with me, actually."

Aaron was stumped. Why would Reid break up with Sean? About his own age, handsome (at least to Aaron's eyes), nice. Unless, of course, Reid had found someone better? It seemed impossible. Or maybe that was just Aaron's own wishful thinking. God knew, he'd never understood why Reid had so much trouble getting dates, when he was the most interesting person Aaron knew, and a good, kind and brave person to boot.

And that was, of course, when the thought hit; that if Sean wasn't with Reid any more, that meant Reid had spent the entire evening alone. That meant that Reid was alone right now, with his high school demons freshly exhumed. Obviously Sean had the same thought. At least, he fetched his keys without complaint. "C'mon. I'll drive you."

Aaron shook his head, trying to clear it. "This is crazy."

"Look. You look like this case has been hell on you. I assume, based on you careful dancing around Spencer's role in all of this, that the case was even worse for him?"

Aaron nodded his assent.

"I thought so. Then the only crazy thing would be to leave him alone, right now, right?"

Aaron swallowed and rubbed a hand across his tired face. "Maybe. I think he was going to a meeting, when we got back, but maybe there's not meeting tonight."

"A meeting? As in; AA or something?"

Sean sounded genuinely concerned and confused at the same time. "Or something," Aaron confirmed.

"Wow." Sean said. "I never even suspected. He never told me."

That, Aaron thought, for the moment uncharitable, actually said a lot about Reid and Sean's relationship. Then reason reasserted itself.

"He's never told me, either."

Sean scoffed. "Yeah, I wonder why? You're his hard-assed boss who'd fire him for something like that, aren't you?"

"If he's dealing with it, I don't see any reason to fire him." And that only because that part of the accusation was easier than to look at all of it and wonder if that was how Reid really saw him; how he'd described his boss to Sean.

"God, you look pathetic," Sean laughed. "Come on, let's get in the car and go. I do have to get up tomorrow."

Once they were on the way, Sean picked up the conversation again. "Did you ever try talking to him without being his boss?"

"I am his boss," Aaron replied, puzzled by where Sean was going with it.

"What, like you've never compartmentalized before?"

The penny dropped, and Aaron's jaw dropped with it for the second time in an hour.

"I... I..."

Sean laughed mildly. "So, you go up there; make sure Spencer knows you're there as Aaron, his friend, not as Hotch, his boss. And you take it from there."

Aaron swallowed. Hard. "I threatened to fire him tonight. You really think he's going to think of me as his friend?"

"Hotch almost fired him. Almost being the keyword. And I think you might be surprised at how good Spencer is at compartmentalizing. Worst case scenario?"

The inversion of Aaron's favorite method for making his brother see reason on his own made Aaron smile. Just a little. "He kicks me out, I'm his boss nothing changes."

"Bet case scenario?"

"He actually talks to me."

"Net gain?"

"I get a friend." The thought made Hotch's heart beat hopefully.

"Net loss?"

"Nothing."

"Made up your mind yet?"

The question was teasing, because Sean knew damned well he'd already made up his mind. "Yes."

"Good. We'll be there in five minutes."

***

Aaron sent a text ahead, given the lateness of the hour.

"In the neighborhod. Want to talk? Aaron."

Two minutes later, Reid answered. "Sure."

Sean sent Aaron on his way with a smirk that made Aaron want to punch him because it actually made his cheeks warm, just a little.

Reid opened the door and invited Aaron inside with a small frown on his face. Hard to blame him, since Aaron had never actually been there, before.

"Coffee?" Reid asked, and Aaron didn't even stop to think about it.

"Yes, please."

While Reid busied himself in the kitchenette, Aaron took the opportunity to look around curiously. The books overflowing from two gargantuan bookcases wasn't a surprise. Neither was the eclectic and tragically mismatched furniture. But somehow, it all came together and spelled 'Reid', in much the same way his clothes did. Reid had a way of pulling off the most atrocious combinations of patterns and colors. This wasn't something, Hoth had to admit, he had fully appreciated until Garcia's boyfriend began frequenting their area. He had made an excellent contrast to Reid who wore his bad taste in clothes as protective coloring.

The apartment was shabby and old, but Hotch would take it over his tastefully decorated and gapingly empty house any day. It felt lived-in and all the more homey because of it.

Reid returned, two mugs of coffee held in front of him as a shield. He squeezed one mug in between a book on medieval metallurgy and a government report on - huh; the migratory patterns of bison in Yellowstone. Aaron took the hint and sat on the couch, while Reid perched on the edge of an old recliner kitty-corner to the couch.

"So... Why are you here?" Reid asked, after the first couple of sips of coffee, only to immediately degenerate into babbling. "I mean, you didn't have to check up on me, or anything. There wasn't a... movie on tonight but..."

Aaron tuned out the remainder of Reid's ramblings, in favor of thinking about how right Sean had been to call him on his ignoring Reid's problems. To the point where Reid had adopted the euphemism as the only way he could discuss it with Aaron. No, he reminded himself. With Hotch.

"Hey," he finally said, gentling his tone and his face. "I'm not here to make sure you went to your..." he hesitated for only a fraction of a second; "... meeting. I just wanted to make sure you were okay. I know this case was tough for you."

Reid swallowed and tried to force a smile. It didn't take, but the warm pleasure in his eyes said it all, and Aaron felt like an idiot for not doing this sooner. For not making sure, years ago, that Reid knew Aaron saw him as a friend.

"I... You didn't have to, Hotch. I'll be... I'll be fine."

"I know you will. Do me a favor, though? Don't call me Hotch. I'm not here as your boss."

Reid fidgeted nervously with his hair. "Oh. O-okay," he stuttered, clearly at a loss for what to do about that request.

"I'm here as your friend, Reid. Call me Aaron."

The smile took this time, even though it grew slowly to fit the shyly pleased look that did things to Aaron's insides his insides had no business doing.

"Shouldn't you call me Spencer, then?"

Aaron found his own lips curving into an answering smile, and stopped fighting it. It felt good.

"Okay, Spencer."

"Okay, Aaron. You know, that feels really weird."

Aaron knew the feeling. It felt like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

@@@@

It wasn't that the team wasn't happy that JJ had finally come out of the closet about her relationship with Lamontagne. It was just that it had been a bad case with nothing but losers all the way around. The gay kid who'd been abused into hating his own orientation to a degree where he had internalized the hatred, and had killed men just to take over their identities in a bid to get away from himself. The dad, who wouldn't be convinced it was all his fault and still blamed his son's unnatural inclinations. The sister who had to come to terms with the fact that it was her support in getting her brother to Miami that had kick started his killing spree. And all the dead men, of course, who had done nothing wrong, but simply been gay and approachable in the wrong place, at the wrong time and to the wrong person.

As a consequence, the flight home was quiet, even though they flew home in the morning.

Reid finished his report in record time, as usual annoyed only at the speed with which his fingers could type. It slowed him down.

Finished, he looked around the office, locating his team with a practiced eye. JJ was in her office, no doubt already looking at the next case-files. Their date had prompted Reid into learning a little more about what JJ's work was, and he'd been duly impressed at the amount of files and cases she managed on a daily basis.

Morgan was chewing on the end of his pen, teeth-marks already grooved into the plastic. Reid knew he hadn't made it back to the hotel until just before they were to leave to get to the airport, but he showed no signs of missing his date. Knowing Morgan, it was unlikely he would. Morgan liked to love his ladies, but with the exception of his entirely platonic relationship with Garcia, he really didn't do relationships.

Prentiss was sweating over her own report, hair unusually mussed, and Reid remembered the idle talk suggesting maybe Prentiss was bisexual. Maybe the case had hit her harder because of that, maybe it was a reaction to seeing JJ openly happy with her boyfriend.

Rossi wasn't in his office, but chatting with one of the pretty agents who shared office-space with the team. Reid glanced back at Prentiss and caught the tail-end of the glance she'd sent Rossi. Interesting, and possibly more likely to be the reason for Prentiss's frazzled look than any of Reid's other theories.

Through the windows and the half-closed blinds he could see Hotch, head bent over his desk. He'd hung his suit-jacket on the back of the chair and rolled up his sleeves. Reid felt the slow burn of lust settle into his soft tissues, but he was getting used to the attraction. What threw him off balance was the visit from Aaron.

He'd figured they were colleagues. Good colleagues, who could spend time together after work-hours. He'd thought those times were Hotch being a kind boss and mentor, and they had been. He'd known he lusted after Hotch. Trying to make yet another box for Aaron Hotchner, to hold all the things that belonged to Aaron, Reid's friend... well, it was threatening the stability of his entire system of compartmentalization.

Maybe it had been a one-off. One of those freak things that people sometimes did for no discernible rhyme or reason. And Hotch had had reason, that night.

Reid's thoughts were interrupted by the buzzing of his cellphone.

"Would you like some company bearing pizza, tonight? Aaron."

For a few long minutes, Reid just looked at his cellphone. Even after the screen dimmed and went blank. He was knocked out of his fugue-state by Rossi passing behind him and clapping him on the shoulder.

"Done already? You're making the rest of us look bad."

Reid didn't later remember what he'd replied, which was rare for him. It prompted him to wake his phone up again, and stare at it some more. Consequently he almost threw it with a girly shriek when it buzzed in his hand, not three seconds later.

"If you're done with your report you can take an early day. Hotch."

Red looked at the phone, then felt a smile begin to take shape on his face. He replied with the greatest economy of phrasing.

"Great. I have a friend coming over with pizza tonight. Spencer."

He could hear Hotch's startled bark of laughter through the door, and the entire bullpen seemed to turn to look at his office simultaneously.

****

Not knowing what to do with himself when he got home, Red went shopping, did his dishes, checked his mail and cleaned his bathroom. Then he decided to clear the dining-table of it's overwhelming load of books.

 He was deeply engrossed in a book about Native American culture John Blackwolf had sent him, when Hotch suddenly stood in his apartment, two pizza-boxes emitting tantalizing scents under his arm, and a frown on his face.

"You don't lock your door?"

"Oh, hey. Yeah. Uh yeah, I do, actually. Usually, anyway. Did you know that it's now so common for people in urban areas to lock their doors that burglars don't even check to see if it's unlocked before breaking in?"

Hotch headed into the kitchen-area, but commented over his shoulder. "There is a reason why that's true, Reid."

Reid hadn't expected anything. Had quickly tamped down that fluttering bit of hope that had arisen with Hotch's text. He could have sworn that on a polygraph and seen nothing but truth. It was ridiculous! He'd only had Hotch come over once, so it wasn't like he'd gotten used to being called Spencer. Except... Maybe he had, because Hotch calling him Reid in his apartment had hurt unexpectedly.

He could almost hear Morgan telling him to buck up, but Reid didn't need his advice. He was already proficient at hiding what he didn't like his team to see. This would be just one more thing, and easier because it was about Hotch, and only in his own apartment.

He was glad of that little pep-talk with himself seconds later, when Hotch stuck his head around the participation separating the kitchen from the rest of the apartment and smiled.

"Sorry. Spencer. Still new, you know?" Not waiting for an answer was probably a good thing. Reid wasn't sure he could have given a coherent answer just then. "Napkins, plates and a knife? They didn't slice the pizza."

That, Reid could do, even dizzy from relief. He pointed Hotch to the cupboard where his knife-magnet resided, screwed to the inside of the door, while he got napkins and plates himself.

"Huh," Hotch said, looking appraisingly at the setup inside the cupboard. "That's clever. I want to do that, too."

Reid just shrugged and opened the fridge, peering inside. "Water, soda or juice? I don't have any beer or anything, sorry."

"Water will be fine. Where do you want to eat?"

Reid glanced into his living room and realized that his attempt at clearing the dinner table hadn’t even been marginally successful.

“Uhm. I’m not sure we have an alternative to the couch?”

Hotch chuckled, and Reid almost jumped as he realized that Hotch had joined him and was now standing right behind him.

“I think you’re right. I can’t remember the last time I ate dinner on a couch.”

Reid might have been more embarrassed if the warmth in Hotch’s voice hadn’t been so obvious. He seemed genuinely thrilled to have the opportunity to kick back and relax, and Reid wondered how much Hotch’s suits and general starchy-ness at work had bled through to his home-life since the divorce.

Then he wondered if Haley had been the kind of woman who threw worries about her carpets and couch cushions to the wind and sometimes had fudge sundaes on her couch, or the kind who insisted that everything had to happen in its proper place. Judging by some of the things Sean had had to say about his sister-in-law, Reid would guess the latter.

A nudge against the back of his shoulder shook him out of his contemplation, and he turned to discover Hotch, hands filled with plates, napkins and pizza, headed over to the couch.

“Grab the water, would you?”

Reid complied, only to find himself utterly out of breath as he turned the corner and came into full view of the couch. Hotch had placed the plates and the pizza on the coffee-table. Then he’d made himself comfortable, kicked off his shoes, shed his suit-jacket and tie, and – most devastating at all, as it had always been to Reid – rolled up his sleeves.

In sheer self-defense, he started babbling.

“Did you know that in Victorian England the fashion was such that women spent most of their lives covered up from neck to feet. And that the mere sight of a woman’s ankles was considered provocative?”

Hotch smiled, as he reached for the water Reid held out. “I did know that, actually. Makes you wonder if that was part of the reason for Jack the Ripper.”

Reid felt absolutely certain he’d imagined the brief glance Hotch had cut at his own forearm as he reached for the water. Hotch might be among the five smartest people Reid knew and occasionally in possession of some unexpected insights, but he couldn’t, mustn’t, realize just how attracted Reid was to him.

Reid swallowed and dredged up statistics about sexual crimes and sexual mores in Victorian England that kept him talking for a full five minutes until Hotch finally shook his head with a fondly exasperated look.

“Spencer, not that I don’t think that was fascinating, but we’re going to have to find some less esoteric topic if we’re going to have a conversation.”

Reid ducked his head, a reflex-action he wished he had more control over. Sure, he could fake it if needed, but he never seemed to be able to stop himself from doing it. “Uhm. Okay. What do you want to talk about?”

He glanced up at Hotch from under his hair, and was treated to the sight of Hotch taking a long drink of water, head tilted up, Adam’s apple bobbing up and down. Reid was reminded of a snippet of Snow White he’d once seen, where one of the dwarves’ eyes were glued to the bobbing Adam’s apple of a yodeling character. Reid dragged his eyes away and swallowed convulsively, trying to bring some saliva to his bone-dry mouth, telling himself to get a grip.

When the silence seemed to be stretching on, Reid risked another glance and found Hotch staring into thin air, apparently deep in thought. He tried clearing his throat softly, but of course his body didn’t do what he wanted it to, and it came out sounding like a frog with a cold. Hotch blinked a few times before turning to look at him.

“My father didn’t approve of gays.”

Reid swallowed back his automatic response of: ‘that must’ve sucked for Sean!’, and decided to listen instead.

“A couple of young men were beaten severely in the next town over, because they were, as he put it ‘fucking faggots’.” The words sounded, somehow, even uglier coming from Hotch’s mouth. Hotch who rarely swore, and who generally kept his voice low and even, no matter how angry he got.

“I was seven. I had to have my mom explain ‘faggots’ to me. A few days later, I heard in school that one of the perpetrators had been one of the boys’ own father.”

Hotch looked down, and clasped his hands around the bottle of water.

“I told my mom when I got home. My father overheard me. He made it clear that this boys’ father was a ‘proper man’ for doing what he had to, to teach his son a lesson.”

He looked up at Reid, and Reid knew he wasn’t hiding the disgust he felt for that kind of thinking. “I’m sorry,” Reid said, quietly. “I can’t imagine growing up like that. My mom wasn’t always all there, but she was always open-minded. When I asked her about falling in love when I started High School, she made pretty certain I knew it was just as okay to fall in love with a boy as a girl.”

Reid looked down at his own bottle, and didn’t fight a small smile brought on by the memory. “Of course, she also made sure I was aware that not everyone shared that opinion and that dating a girl could be done a lot more overtly than dating a boy.”

“Did you ever?”

At Reid’s puzzled look, Hotch clarified. “Date a boy?”

The blush came on fast and hard, and there was just no way Reid could answer that question truthfully. As far as he knew, Sean had kept his secret, so Hotch wouldn’t know Reid had done more than just date his baby brother. As for the rest of them…

“You know I didn’t really date much before I came to work for the BAU.”

He glanced back up at Hotch who was quirking his lips, eyes dancing with suppressed mirth.

“And you know an evasion is as good as an answer.”

Reid gathered his courage and threw it out with both hands. “Yes. Okay. I’ve dated a few guys. Dated a few girls, too. The truth is that I’m just… I guess I’m not really interested in casual sex, and that seems to be what most people interested in dating are going for.”

Hotch didn’t laugh. Didn’t get mad. Barely reacted, in fact.

“I’m not going to be throwing any stones, Spencer. I’m the guy who married his High School sweetheart and never looked back.”

Reid bit back the question whether Hotch had been a virgin when he met Haley. It really wasn't any of his business.

"There comes a time when you have to look back and reflect on all the things you took for granted when you were a teenager. At least, it did for me." Hotch paused, looking thoughtful. "I never questioned liking girls before I met Haley, so that was an easy path to take. Lately, though, I've been wondering if that's all there is to me."

Reid had to clear his throat before he could speak. Thankfully, this time it was quietly.

"I believe that's entirely normal when going through something as dramatic as a divorce."

"I knew divorce was a trigger, I just. I didn't expect it to trigger awareness. Not now. Not at this point in my life."

Reid shrugged when Hotch looked at him. "I don't know what you need to hear. In many ways, I've never tried being just one person. I mean, I am who I am, but I've never felt that there was something in me that couldn't change, given the right combination of stimuli. From my sexuality, to the foods I like or dislike."

A tiny quirk in the corner of Hotch's mouth was all the warning Reid got. "Chopsticks being exempt from that rule."

Reid laughed, relieved their conversation was moving to less dangerous territory. To keep it moving (and to prove a point) he got up and went into the kitchen, returning, brandishing a set of chopsticks.

"After the last time, I decided I wasn't going to accept being chopstick-handicapped for the rest of my life, so I went out and bought some to work with."

Hotch laughed, and it only enhanced Reid's sense of pride in himself for mastering the things to the point where he could at least feed himself.

"You constantly amaze me, Spencer. Every day."

Reid blushed again, and Hotch, thankfully, turned his attention to the pizza, poking at a slice doubtfully. "Well. Either we need to eat this right now, or we need to reheat it."

Reid poked at a different slice and pronounced it at best lukewarm. Then he had an idea. "Who says we can't do both?"

Hotch laughed again, abruptly and happily. "That, my good Doctor Reid, is applied genius."

Together they moved towards the kitchen, in perfect sync.

@@@@

Hotch read the reports of his team as they came in. Their case had been almost as ugly as the one he and Dave had accepted, but different. He'd already known that Morgan and Reid would be the ones to handle it best, simply because men didn't have the same visceral reaction to the threat of being stalked as women did. He'd expected Prentiss to get the job done. She, perhaps of all of them, was the one who was best at packing away whatever personal hangups she might have and do whatever it took.

As expected, JJ was the one who'd had a hard time with the case. The rest of the team was used to being on the front-line. Looking victims and families and unsubs in the eye and still press on. JJ felt too much. It wasn't a bad thing, to Hotch's way of thinking, but it could be impractical at times.

Hotch sighed and checked the clock. It was late enough that he was the last one left, and he'd hoped to head over to Reid's to talk. Drink a beer, maybe share a few glasses of red wine. Get over the nagging guilt Dave's careless words had caused. Get over the horrible feeling that maybe he could draw far more parallels between his marriage to Haley and their killer's marriage to her husband than he was at all comfortable with.

He'd found, since their first evening, that he could actually talk to Reid. For some reason, he could open up with Reid. Tell him things he'd never even mentioned to Haley. Maybe it was the confidence that Reid had seen some of the ugliest things humanity could produce and still found compassion and empathy for their unsubs. Maybe it was that Reid never judged, but rather tried to understand why things happened. Maybe, a small voice whispered all the way at the back of his mind, it's because you want more than friendship from Doctor Reid, but that voice tended to sound uncomfortably like Strauss so he ignored it with practiced ease.

He put the folders in the out-tray and turned off the desk light. Leaning back in his chair he took a moment to rub his hands over his face. It had been a long day already, and there was no indication it would be over anytime soon. His responsibility to the well being of his team didn't come second to his own preferences, and since Elle and Gideon he never left a team member in obvious distress unless he had a very good reason. So far there'd really only been one reason good enough, and Spencer had paid for his place on the team several times over.

So he wouldn't get to go to Spencer's tonight. It was okay. JJ needed him more anyway.

Hotch fumbled for his briefcase in the twilight, but eventually he got a hold of it and got up. He'd go pay JJ a visit.

***

JJ was dressed down when he got there, wearing old sweats and an even older t-shirt from her soccer-days. She was also on the phone.

"Hotch. Hey. No, no, it's just Hotch. You need anything?"

"Just wanted to talk. Nothing that can't wait, if you're busy." Hotch offered it with an honest heart. There was something different about JJ. She didn't look distressed. In fact... If he didn't know better he might even say she looked... radiant. Glowing. The way Haley had looked when she was... oh.

"No, it's okay. It's just Will. And we'll talk more tomorrow, okay Will?"

JJ hung up the phone and turned to Hotch. "Oh. Sorry. Come on in, please!"

Hotch took her offer, feeling awkward with his suspicion. JJ, thankfully oblivious headed for the kitchen. "Can I get you a drink or something?" Hotch decided to follow her, and found a nice little kitchenette with a couple of bar stools. He sat down on one of them.

"No thanks. I really didn't mean to intrude. I just wanted to touch base, make sure you were okay with the last case. I know it hit you hard."

JJ shrugged, but didn't look at him, busying herself preparing a pot of tea. "It brought up some things I needed to deal with."

Hotch considered that for a few moments, but ultimately made the decision to let her run with it. He trusted JJ to not go off the rails, and if he was right about the reason she'd have even less reason to fly off the handle.

"You'll let me know if I can do anything."

This time she looked at him, and for a moment he felt a pang of regret for the rumors that had at one point circulated, that he was having an affair with JJ. She was a beautiful, amazing woman, and in a different life, perhaps... But no. Neither of them lied a different life, and while admiring her could be the basis of a friendship it would never be enough for a relationship.

"I will, thanks."

***

45 minutes later, he found himself outside Spencer's apartment after all. Seeing JJ so happy had ripped open wounds he'd thought were scarring over.

The Spencer who opened the door was clearly a man who'd decided he was home for the night. Like JJ he'd abandoned his work-wear in favor of a ratty pair of pale jeans and a hooded sweatshirt that was washed and stretched to the point where it was impossible to determine what it's original color might have been. With his glasses on and his hair tousled and  messy, he looked like home made flesh.

Of course, Hotch reflected, as he followed Spencer inside the apartment, the bare feet didn't hurt, either; as long and skinny as the rest of him, but lending him an undeniable air of approachability.

Hotch reined himself in, hard. Spencer wasn't 'approachable'. Not to someone like Hotch. Not that Hotch wanted to approach in any way. Recognizing Spencer was attractive was something every healthy adult should do, and Hotch considered himself pretty healthy. But there was a wide gulf between appreciating and wanting, and even if  he'd had thoughts... No. He hadn't had thoughts, either, because that would be unprofessional of him, and Hotch took pride in his professionalism.

Not to mention the fact that Spencer was so young and Hotch... wasn't.

Feeling unbelievably old, Hotch let Spencer make coffee on his own in favor of making himself comfortable on the couch and trying to find a way to justify his being there. He still hadn't succeeded by the time Spencer returned with two steaming mugs.

"So..." Spencer said and sat down, entrapping the pale blue mug with his unreasonably long fingers. Hotch was so busy not thinking about those fingers in different configurations that he almost missed Spencer continuing. "Yours was bad, wasn't it?"

"Not one of the more pleasant ones, no," Hotch said and spent five minutes outlining the case he and Dave had found themselves in the middle of. From the kids who didn't even understand they'd internalized their father's abusive way of treating their mother, to the wife who'd been abused for so long she'd accepted it as something she deserved. It took fewer words than he would have expected.

Spencer nodded and sipped at his coffee when Hotch was done telling the whole sordid tale; the only highlight that she would probably not have to go to jail for longer than the trial lasted. And even that was problematic, because who would help her realize that she didn't deserve prison? That she'd, in effect, been imprisoned by her husband and children for 20 years.

"That doesn't explain why Dave was watching himself around you when you got back, though?"

Hotch felt his shoulders tense up. It had been bad enough to have Dave stumble into that minefield, he didn't want to show that kind of weakness to Spencer. Didn't want Spencer to ever feel sorry for him, and ignored the tiny voice whispering how nice it would be for Spencer to understand and show some support.

But Spencer wasn't the kind of man who'd back down from a conversation. He'd deflect, redirect and circle around only to strike later, with all the skill of a lone wolf bringing down a deer.

Hotch exhaled, forcing himself to relax. Forcing himself to trust Spencer.

"We talked about ex-wives. I might have... misunderstood... something he said."

"What?"

Hotch shook his head slowly. He didn't want to go there. Didn't want to even remember it; not without an open bottle of scotch at hand. But in a moment of clarity he realized that one of the reasons why he hadn't had very many close friends in his adult life was precisely that: he didn't open up. Didn't let people in to see that he wasn't hard and professional all the way through.

"He said if he'd had children he might have tried harder to make it work."

Spencer nodded slowly. "You heard that as criticism. And deep down, Dave is afraid of letting people down, and now he worries that he might stumble into more of your triggers."

Hotch had to nod at that. They all brought their different strengths to the table, but Spencer was one hell of a profiler.

The soft, "Hey," caught his attention, and his eyes found Spencer leaning towards him,  his look intent, but compassionate.

"You offered to leave the BAU, and this isn't just a job, for us. Your transfer had been approved. What else could you have done? What was left, Aaron?"

It wasn't as if it was a new question. Hotch had been asking himself that ever since coming home to that empty house. He'd tried asking Haley, but all he'd gotten for his troubles was yet another litany of his failures. And he'd worked on those. He'd swear he had.

He didn't know if he rubbed his hand over his face to hide, or to help wake him up some. All he knew was that it felt right.

"I could have changed. Changed more. I... I wasn't a very good husband to Haley." His throat felt raw just admitting that. As if the words had barbs.

"Why?" Spencer sounded surprised. He looked surprised, too, when Aaron looked at him. Not that Aaron could blame him. After all, he'd been careful around the team, and so had Haley on the rare occasion she'd met them. At least until the divorce. They had both worked to project the picture of a happy family to their surroundings. Maybe that had meant there wasn't enough left to actually be a happy family. But that kind of thinking was stupid and childish and pointless, and Aaron wasn't going to indulge in it.

So. Nothing left but the harsh truth.

"I put the job first. Left Haley to raise Jack on her own too much. I'm sentimental about stupid things, and don't smile enough. I'm unemotional and too unforgiving."

"Aaron..."

"I don't involve myself in Jack's life enough, and I don't care enough about Haley's needs."

"Aaron."

"I'm a terrible with tools, can't put a shelf up straight to save my life, and..."

"Aaron!"

"And I'm... I'm not. I'm not very good in bed."

"Hotch!"

The snap in Spencer's voice made him stop. The realization of what he'd just revealed made his face heat up, and he wanted to run and hide. But too many years worth of conditioning had him sitting there, stiff as a board, waiting for his punishment, be it verbal of physical.

He'd prefer the physical, and was almost relieved when the couch dipped to his right. Spencer wasn't much of a fighter, but Hotch wouldn't fight back. That should even up the difference sufficiently.

Still, he flinched at the touch on the left side of his jaw, because it was gentle, turning his head with the force of that gentleness.

Spencer was sitting close, close enough that now Aaron no longer held himself quite so rigidly, he realized he could feel the warmth of a human body all along his right side. It had been so long. Too long, because he longed to lean into Spencer's side; fold himself into him and be held like a child.

"Aaron. That wasn't a list of your worst qualities," Spencer said, quietly.

"Yes it is. I told you. I'm not a very good husband."

Hazel eyes were so full of compassion and so close, so close that Aaron felt himself sway closer before he could catch it and stop.

"No. It's a list of some of your less good qualities mixed in with a whole lot of bullshit."

The expletive coming from Spencer yanked Hotch out of his conviction and forced him to stop and think for a second.

"What do you mean?"

"You're thinking you're such a miserable husband, aren't you? You're thinking Haley was some kind of saint to put up with you for as long as she did. And after today you're thinking that maybe you kind of abused Haley in some way, aren't you?"

Suddenly reminded why being friends with profilers was at once the easiest and most annoying friendships, Aaron was stumped. Had the thought crossed his mind? Of course it had. And of course his instant dismissal of it as impossible had been followed by the question whether he would necessarily have known. He hadn't had an instantaneous answer for that one.

"Hotch. Aaron... You didn't. You didn't abuse her. You didn't cut off her contact to the outside world. You didn't belittle her, or impose impossible requirements on her daily life. You always treated her with respect."

He didn't want to, but he had to ask. "How do you know, Spencer? We pretended when we were out. When there were other people around. It was all a facade."

Incongruously, Spencer smiled. Just a little. Just a quirking of his lips that made Aaron want to... To listen what he had to say, he reminded himself firmly.

"Because I know you. You're a gentleman. You try to treat women equally, but there's still a trace of it you can't shake. Because you respect women so much, you are incapable of mistreating a woman to the extent of it ever being called abuse."

"I could be a psychopath. Or a sociopath. Would you know?"

The quirked lips turned up into a full-blown smile, and it made the fear inside Aaron unclench. "Of course I would. So would the rest of the team. We're good at the job, Aaron, or you wouldn't keep us around."

The relief and realization that Spencer was right had Aaron's lips doing some quirking of their own.

"I guess you're right."

Spencer laughed, briefly and happily, and Aaron wanted to hear more. He was thwarted, when Spencer sobered again almost instantly and turned those earnest hazel eyes on him.

"Not to sound conceited or anything, but I'm very good at the job. So believe me when I tell you that that list of your failings you had, ready to go? That's pretty typical of someone who's been emotionally abused."

The emotional gut-punch stole Hotch's breath for a minute, and he had to pant softly, through his mouth, to even try to reclaim his calm. When he finally pulled himself together enough to talk, his first response was defensiveness, although he knew it was straight out of the manual.

"Haley didn't abuse me."

"You have no close friends outside of work."

"Do you?"

Spencer shook his head, a determined look on his face Hotch had seen enough times in interrogation and on cases that he knew the younger man would be like a wolf with a bone. He wasn't going to let it go until he was satisfied with the outcome. Hotch realized that that recognition was probably the beginning of the end of his defenses, but that didn't mean he was just going to let go.

"I'm not the Unit Chief. I have a closer working relationship with the team. You distance yourself from us."

"I'm here, am I not?"

"You are. Would you have been if you'd still been married to Haley?"

Hotch surrendered the battlement with ill grace. "I suppose not. But it's different when you're married, when you have a child. With the job being what it is, I didn't spend enough time with them anyway."

"Maybe. And I bet Haley was the one with the disapproving glances and barbed comments back when you did have friends outside the BAU, until it was just easier to let the friendships go."

It had been, but Hotch hadn't seen it at the time. He'd thought Haley was justified in being disappointed in him. The scenes piled up, all of a sudden. All the words she'd said. All the disapproving looks and glances. The put-upon sighs. The times she'd endured sex with ill grace. They stacked up until they tottered and toppled, burying him in an avalanche of frigid revelation.

"She never hit me." That seemed important to say. "She never threatened me or tried to control me physically."

"I believe you," Spencer said, his voice almost unbearably gentle. "She just chipped away at your self-esteem, inserting enough barbs that you began controlling yourself."

Hotch almost missed the lecture on emotional abuse that didn't follow. He could have used the distraction.

"Dave said she reached her breaking-point."

"Maybe she did," Reid allowed. “Maybe she thought she had you under perfect control, and then you go to Milwaukee to help us. So she plays her last ace by leaving, but somehow, for some reason you don't react as expected."

"Maybe I reached my breaking-point."

Spencer looked thoughtful, and Hotch was almost glad for the distraction of watching the younger man's brain work. He was less than thrilled with his body's reaction to Spencer sneaking his tongue out to wet those lush lips.

"Wait. You asked her to come back, didn't you?"

"Of course."

"So why didn't she? I mean, from her point of view, she'd won."

"Not really." Hotch could suddenly see it, laid out almost clinically. It was disturbing doing victimology on himself. "I asked her to come home, yes, but I also asked her to think about it, and to accept that I gave her 100% when I was home, but that the job was important, too. Not just to me, but to the victims."

"You were challenging her. You were already breaking part of the conditioning, and she knew that you'd break the rest, it was just a matter of time."

"So she turned hostile. Turned it on me and my inflexibility. The divorce wasn't my fault."

Spencer was smiling mildly, looking almost beatific. "No. It wasn't. It was her choice."

"It was her choice." Hotch almost smiled, giddy with the realization. Then the next layer hit him, and he rubbed both hands over his face, hard. "It was her decision, because she couldn't control me any longer."

"Would you rather have stayed?"

Spencer's question was soft and honest. Aaron's reply wasn't that easy, though. How did you weigh the importance of your son growing up with both his parents against it being a fully happy and realized marriage?

"I would give my life for Jack." That, at least, was the unmitigated truth.

"Would you have stayed? Let Jack grow up to become like the kids you met yesterday?"

That answer was easy. Mostly. Because... "It wouldn't have gone that far."

Spencer leaned against him, their shoulders touching, and Aaron momentarily lost track of where he was and what they were talking about.

"Wouldn't it? Where would it have stopped? You didn't even realize what was happening."

To escape - from the conversation or his body's reaction to Spencer's closeness, Aaron let himself fall backwards, his back hitting the backrest of the couch hard.

"Stop. Please. Just... stop."

A hand on his shoulder, then, gentle as the touch of a feather.

"Okay. I'll be here when you need to talk more about this, though."

Aaron opened his eyes, and saw compassion and determination and a hint of something warm and fierce in Spencer's face. In the face of that, he nodded.

"Please. Can we turn on the TV or talk sports or something?"

Spencer laughed briefly, and just like that the heavy conversation was packed away. Not forgotten, no. It would never be forgotten. But for tonight, at least, he could hide out on Spencer's couch and let statistics and anecdotes wash over him and drown out that horrible realization.

For now, he could lay his head down and pretend, for just a few hours, that he'd come home.

***

It wasn't exactly clear to Spencer why Aaron had chosen him to accompany him to the case in Roanoke. He could speculate though, and did, during the too long nights in the hotel room.

It could be because it had been the first case where Spencer had joined them in the field, on Aaron's request. It was unlikely, because if it was about the case, Morgan would be a better choice, and a better agent to have as backup if they should need a second testimony.

A better alternative was that Aaron and Dave had both decided it was time he began learning about testifying in court. That was one that actually made some professional sense. Aaron did take the time to explain some of the things they did, but he always did that. Aaron had taken his self-appointed position as Spencer's mentor seriously from the first time he'd taken him into the field.

Of course, at night, with the only illumination the streetlights flooding through his uncovered windows, Spencer favored a different fantasy. That Aaron had brought him with him to Roanoke because he wanted to spend more time with him.

They hadn't talked about Haley since that fateful night, when Spencer had accused her of emotionally abusing Aaron. On the other hand Aaron hadn't shown any signs of withdrawing from the friendship, either. Quite the contrary, actually. He seemed to spend more evenings on Spencer's couch, and even if their conversation never again got quite so personal or emotional, they talked a lot.

It wasn't like they did spend much time together in Roanoke, though. Aaron was busy preparing the case with Hillenbrand, broken only by eating take-out in her office, or driving back to the hotel late for a quick night's sleep. And Spencer kept himself busy, reviewing the case, preparing for another Ph.D., and generally acting as Aaron's extended memory. Not that Aaron needed that much. And watching Aaron with Hillenbrand and thinking that there was a definite interest there.

Not that Spencer could blame Hillenbrand for being attracted to Aaron. That would be hypocritical in the extreme. Spencer had acknowledged his own attraction and put it aside for wistful, lonely nights when he'd dream of things that would never be. And Hillenbrand was a beautiful blonde, successful, driven and with a background that allowed her and Aaron some common ground in a relationship.

So, all in all, it came as something of a surprise that Aaron turned down her offer of a celebratory drink while they were packing up. When she'd left, Spencer gathered his courage to speak.

"You know, we could stay another night. We won't be back in D.C. until 2 a.m. anyway."

Aaron paused in his packing briefly to look up, looking faintly puzzled. "I know."

Spencer swallowed. "And I'd just have one drink and then take a cab back to the hotel and get some sleep." 

Aaron's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Spencer. Are you trying to set me up on a date?"

Spencer weighed his options, and decided on clueless honesty. "Yes...?"

Aaron blinked. Then he smiled, slowly. "Well, stop it," he scolded mildly. "I'm not interested in Cece."

Conversation ceased until they were both done packing the last of the files into boxes, and were taking them down to the SUV. In the elevator, suddenly Aaron said quietly: "I'm not really interested in women, at the moment. One of the surprises of getting divorced."

Spencer didn't know how to respond to that, so he kept quiet. Once they'd loaded the boxes, he remembered something he'd been intending to do. "Would you mind if we stopped by Corbett's house on the way out of town?"

"No. Why?"

"I want to get Darci's watch out of evidence, and get it back to him."

Aaron actually smiled his approval. "That's a good idea. If you get that, I'll go back to the hotel and check us out. Or... are you all packed up?"

Spencer nodded. It had become habit to pack his bag every morning, because sometimes they needed to relocate in the middle of a case. Mostly, though, it was in recognition of the usual post-case stupor and the fact that they mostly just wanted to get home as soon as possible after a case.

"See you in half an hour, then," Aaron promised, and Spencer headed for the evidence locker.

***

Mr. Corbett had taken the watch well, and Spencer hoped that it would help him move on, at least a little.

"That was a kind thing to do," Aaron said after they'd driven for a few minutes.

Spencer shrugged in the night-dark car. "It was the only thing I could think of."

"That doesn't mean that it wasn't thoughtful."

Spencer didn't know how to respond to that, so for a few dozen miles they just drove on in silence.

After a while, though, Spencer couldn't help but address what Aaron had said in the elevator. It preyed on his minds, and his mind was busy enough to not need something like that whirling around like a motorcycle in a globe of death.

"So... You're looking for a boyfriend, rather than a girlfriend?"

Aaron spared him a brief, searching glance before he answered. "'Looking' isn't really the right term, but... yeah. If I was going to... it would be a man."

Spencer chewed that over for a minute, before deciding to go the safest route he could think of.

"Any particular type?"

This time the threat in Aaron's voice was clear. "Spencer. You will *not* try to set me up with anyone."

He would. If he found someone he thought Aaron could be happy with, because that was what Aaron deserved. Even if it broke Spencer's heart to think of all the reasons why he was so terribly wrong for Aaron that he wasn't even in the running. Aaron even knew he was bisexual, so that wasn't a reason.

Seeing all his dreams and idle fantasies shot down in glorious Technicolor really brought it home to Spencer that he had hoped. Despite telling himself not to. Despite his best efforts at keeping his fantasies realistic, hope had still slipped in under the radar. Desperate, and perhaps a little masochistic, considering he was trapped in a car with Aaron for another four hours or so, he decided to keep the conversation going.

"I won't. I promise. I'm just... curious."

Curious as to what kind of man could hope to get Aaron Hotchner to fall in love with him. Probably someone like Morgan. Alpha males got the alpha females, after all, and the thought of Aaron with someone only a fraction less alpha than himself, someone kept under Aaron's control only by virtue of Aaron being the most alpha man Spencer had ever met... It cut his heart to ribbons and aroused him at the same time, and he hated himself a little for it.

Silence reigned in the car for a while, and Spencer was giving up on getting his curiosity sated until Aaron turned up with a boyfriend. Then Aaron started talking. Low and distant, as if picturing this paragon of a man.

"He'd be smart. Smarter than me, probably. Understand the job, and how important it is to me. To us. He wouldn't mind going out with the team, or inviting them home. Haley hated that."

Reid almost held his breath, not wanting to interrupt.

"He'd care about people. Probably be younger than me. He'd have a gentle soul, but he'd be courageous when necessary. He'd never chose violence as his first response, but not shy away from it when needed. Someone I could trust to have my back when I need it."

Every point up to the courage checked off on Spencer's internal list of 'things I can be'. But courageous? He could work under intense terror - in fact he worked very well while being terrified out of his skin. But courageous? That wasn't a word Spencer would ever use about himself. He wasn't like Morgan or Aaron. He blinked in the face of danger, and now he blinked again, against the tears that suddenly insisted on appearing in his eyes.

Aaron talked on, oblivious.

"He wouldn't be physically stronger than me, but aside from that I wouldn't mind if he was taller. He'd have kind eyes. He'd make me laugh and smile, and he would get my sense of humor."

Spencer had lost all interest in the game. Why, when he was so close to Aaron's ideal man, was he not there? Why wasn't Aaron interested in him? Of course, he understood that emotions weren't so easily reasoned out, but it still hurt.

"I would feel at home with him. Relax with him. Reveal things to him I wouldn't tell anyone else."

'But that's me!' Spencer wanted to shout. Aaron had fallen asleep on his couch the night they'd talked about Haley and the divorce. And Spencer felt absolutely convinced that Aaron had never told anyone else the list of failings Haley had convinced him he suffered from.

Swallowing the words and clearing his voice to get rid of the roughness of unshed tears, Spencer tried to redirect the conversation out of the minefield he hadn't seen coming.

"Does that mean you won't be telling me things anymore?" He'd meant for it to come out light and teasing, but it sounded weak and pleading.

It took Aaron a minute to answer. Plenty of time for Spencer's brain to run through all the permutations possible of Aaron letting him down gently, bowing out of their unexpected friendship.

"Spencer," Aaron eventually said, just as gently as Spencer had imagined. "You're my friend. I wouldn't walk away from you. Especially not for some figment of my imagination."

Hope flared brutally and Reid stuffed it down again ruthlessly.

"It didn't sound like he only existed in your imagination," Spencer said quietly, determined to at least find out if Aaron had his eye on someone. Get something, at least, out of his broken heart.

Aaron snorted softly. "Even if he was real, I'm not what he wants."

Spencer was speechless. Rationally, he understood that some people wouldn't want Aaron. Emotionally he couldn't look at him and not see someone so utterly desirable the whole world should want him. A few seconds later he was glad of his own inability to talk as Aaron muttered, so quietly he probably didn't intend for Spencer to hear it: "He wants someone like Sean. Remember that."

The whole world seemed to recede as Spencer's brain did what it usually only did when they were on a case, and he was puzzling out clues. Everything, every clue Aaron had given him tonight, every touch and gesture and look slotted into place, creating a picture he hadn't expected, but couldn't ignore.

"You think I'm courageous?" was the first words out of his mouth, once he regained voluntary control over his lips and tongue.

Aaron shot him a sideways glance, puzzled at the apparent non-sequiteur. "You're probably the bravest person on the team, Spencer."

"I'm scared all the time," Spencer said, caught up in the discussion while feeling so giddy he could barely sit still.

"That's why you're brave. 'Courage is doing what you're afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you're scared'."

The quote brought Spencer up short, halted by his unlimited curiosity. "I don't know that quote?"

"Edward Rickenbacker. But it's something that's been said again and again through the years by different people."

"Hunh." Spencer made a mental note to look him up later. That done, he focused back on the important part. And with Aaron's definition of courage and belief that he was brave, he could do no less. 

But how to do it? He could jump right in, and a year ago he might have just blurted it out. Tonight, however, that wouldn't do. Not least because it sounded like Aaron believed Spencer wanted someone like Sean. The irony of that didn't escape Spencer, considering the reason he'd eventually broken up with Sean. So maybe the best option would be to talk a little about what he wanted in a boyfriend?

Vector chosen, he waded right in.

"I dated Sean for about six months."

Aaron's face went stony in an instant, and Spencer took that as a pretty good indication that he wasn't wrong.

"I know," he bit out.

That was something of a surprise. "Sean told you?"

"Eventually. After you'd broken up."

There was a story there, and Spencer would have bet his last sweater-vest that Sean telling him probably hadn't been the first knowledge Aaron had had about their relationship. Aaron would agonize over invading people's privacy, but he'd do it without question if he was worried about their safety. And Spencer could only imagine the reaction once he'd discovered that Sean had a boyfriend and wouldn't reveal who it was.

But that wasn't what he was intending to talk about. Still. He could use it.

"Did he tell you why I broke up with him?"

A startled inhalation was all the clue Spencer needed to infer that, no, Sean hadn't revealed why, or even that he was the one who'd broken up with Sean.

"I like Sean. He's a nice guy. But he's too young."

Aaron swallowing was audible.

"I need someone older. I might be in my 20's, but, essentially, I've been on my own since I was 10."

Aaron shook his head slightly, as if to clear it. His voice was raspy, but calm. Understanding. "You're more mature than your contemporaries. In some ways."

"Exactly. Which was why I had to break up with Sean. You see... I need someone older. Someone solid. Someone who won't mind me rambling on about everything and anything. Someone who likes the fact that I'm smarter than him, although not by as much as he likes to make it seem."

Spencer took a deep breath and continued. "I need someone who will laugh at my jokes and make me laugh in return. I need someone who doesn't mind being silly on occasion, but who'll reign me in when I need that."

Spencer shivered slightly but kept going. This was going to be embarrassing if he was wrong. Everything else could be laughed off, but this... this was the risky bit. "I want someone who is stronger than me, physically. I want someone with black hair and kind eyes. I want someone who can scare people with a glare, but who'll touch victims gently. A man even women who've just been raped aren't afraid to be around."

The silence stretched and lengthened between them, as if it was a living thing.

Then Aaron checked his rear-view mirror. The tick-tick of the turn signal seemed as loud as gunshots. Neither of them said anything until Aaron brought the car to a halt in a deserted parking-lot.

For a second they just sat there, the car's engine clicking softly after having been turned off. Then Aaron unbuckled his seat belt and turned in his seat to face Spencer more directly.

"Spencer," Aaron said, soft as a butterfly wing. "Are you sure?"

Spencer nodded, projecting more confidence than he actually felt. "Very sure. I've been sure for years, but you were married. And straight. And so out of my league we didn't even play the same game."

Aaron's hand, calloused and gentle, landed on Spencer's cheek, and Spencer closed his eyes and leaned into the touch. It felt electrical. It felt unlike anything he'd ever felt before.

"I was so sure you wanted someone more like Sean. Someone you could be young with."

"Mmm. I was young with Sean. And I learned that it’s fun, but I really need some stability more." Spencer opened his eyes and caught Aaron's. "And I've wanted you pretty much from the moment I saw you the first time, anyway. All uptight and buttoned up. Also, you should probably know that you're very, very hot when you're intimidating suspects. Or lawyers."

Aaron laughed happily and it made Spencer melt inside. "You liked that?"

"Aaron. I don't think there was a single person in that courtroom who didn't like that."

Aaron rubbed his thumb over Spencer's right cheekbone, sobering fast. "I want to do this right, Spencer."

Gathering up his courage had never seemed so easy before. "I'm all for the wining and dining, but right now I just want to lie in a bed with you and sleep for about 12 hours."

Aaron nodded, turned in his seat and started the car again. As they rolled back onto the highway he asked, just a little playfully: "Just sleep?"

Now it was Spencer's turn to laugh. "Just sleep. Tonight. We'll see what comes up tomorrow."

***

Aaron would remember, much later, that their relationship had started with laughter. And that, in the end, it had all been Sean's fault. He made sure to properly thank Sean every Valentine's day, to his little brother's eternal frustration. Mostly because the form of the thanks was all Spencer's doing, and Aaron was more than happy to point that devious mind in his brother's direction.

And when Sean occasionally looked at the two of them together, and told Aaron how much better he liked Spencer than Haley, Aaron just smiled slightly and said: "I know you do, but he's mine now."

Then Sean would pout slightly and put his arm around whatever sweetheart he had at the time, and Spencer would put his arm around Aaron, and they would all agree, silently, that Spencer meeting Sean had probably been the best thing to happen to all of them.

The End


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