Am I dreaming?
It’s amazing how much faster the mind is compared to the body. In an instant, he knows his fate but his hand is too slow in acting. The guy yanks him and falls backwards off the ledge pulling him along for the ride.
Falling isn’t peaceful - your body knows what’s coming. Your mind fully grasps the physics of the situation and sends out panicked sensory messages telling you how bad it’s going to be. While you’re still feeling wind rush past your face, your bones crack, your muscles tear, your organs compress and liquefy in anticipation. It’s fast and disorienting and completely terrifying. As Reid makes the quick twenty-two-storey trip to the street below tumbling in the grip of a serial killer, perhaps it is garden-variety terror preventing him from thinking about his life, his friends, or the work that he’ll never finish. Terror makes his last moments almost meaningless but it can’t erase the last thing that he sees. Instead of a religious hallucination or flashes from his life, the last thing that Spencer Reid sees is sky swiveling to pavement and then to sky again, over and over, until the sudden blackout converts him into nothing.
He wakes with a jolt in his own bed and has a horrible moment where he thinks that he may have wet himself. He lays still, breathing hard, and settles into his senses again. Nope, bladder sanctity remains intact. Sorta miraculous considering the verisimilitude of that nightmare… He searches his memory for a remembrance of exactly how the rooftop scenario ended, and comes up with nothing. But it was a real case, he’s sure of it. Felix Louden was cornered and threatening suicide… Reid was there trying to talk him down… How was it possible that he couldn’t remember?
He rubs his face with both hands and then turns to look at the clock beside the bed.
He rockets out of bed, blankets and forgotten bedtime reading flying in all directions, and stumbles to his closet praying for a handy selection of unwrinkled clothes. It doesn’t matter if anything matches, he tells himself, they’re all used to that anyway. He dresses in under five minutes - it’s much faster when you don’t care about what you’re wearing - and belatedly realizes that he’s put on a sweater that he’s sure he packed away because it was getting too shabby, even by his standards. Whatever. He grabs his keys, cell phone and satchel, and is out the door by 9:51 am.
Saunders at the security desk gave him an unnecessary smirk on the way in, so he must look like hell. He squints at the unpolished walls of the elevator interior (he can’t find either his contact case or his back-up glasses in his bag - so annoying) and sees a weird reflection looking back at him. What has happened to his hair? Jeez, no wonder why Saunders smirked… He needs to remember to look in a mirror before he leaves the apartment. Every time - no exceptions.
The elevator releases him and he rushes towards the bullpen. Fuzzy, coloured blobs are congregated in their normal configuration so there’s no way that he’s going to be able to sneak in unnoticed. He makes a beeline for his desk, drops everything, and roots around blindly - literally - until he finds his spare glasses in a desk drawer. The world comes into focus and he breathes a sigh of relief.
“Wow, you are so spectacularly late, Reid. Dad’s pretty mad, by the way… there was supposed to be a briefing at nine…”
“I know. I overslept. It was so wei-”
He turns and sees Elle smiling at him, arms crossed in front of her.
“Elle!” He leaps and grabs her up into a bone-crunching hug. “Oh my god… what are you doing here? You haven’t aged a day! How are you?”
“Oof!” Elle stiffens in his arms. “Reid… what the hell? I work here, remember?”
“Since when?” He leans back and gives her a grin. “I’ve missed you…”
“What? Since yesterday?”
“Yesterday? What are you talking about?”
“Hey, kid, what’s with the intense physical contact all of a sudden?” Morgan appears and gives them both a dazzling grin. He doesn’t look right. “Can I get in on the action too?”
“I’m not into threesomes, Derek.” Elle snarks but she’s looking at Reid as if he just sprouted a second head.
Reid squints at Morgan and the answer pops into his head before he really starts to analyze it: Morgan has hair. He didn’t have hair yesterday. Plus, he looks… sorta… more carefree than usual. It’s hard for him to quantify it, but he’s definitely different.
“How did you make your hair do that overnight?” He waves at Morgan’s peach fuzz.
“Hey, Reid, are you feeling okay?” Elle isn’t finding this funny anymore.
“And just where the hell have you been?”
They all turn to see Gideon standing, arms crossed, at the railing above their desks, glaring down on his feudal subjects. At least that’s how it looks to Reid for a split second, before the resentment and fear take hold of him.
“We had a briefing scheduled for 9 am. If I had known that you were incapable of acting like an adult, I wouldn’t have bent over backwards to get you into this unit.”
It has been a long time since anyone has gotten away with speaking to Reid like that, and he isn’t going to set a backsliding precedent here.
“I am an adult, Jason, and I have earned my place on this team just like everyone else. Don’t delude yourself into thinking that you created me. I overslept - that’s all - and considering your track record with sudden absenteeism and this team, you may wish to reconsider your superior tone.”
“Reid,” Morgan warns under his breath. “What are you doing, man?”
“Pardon?” Gideon arches an eyebrow.
“What are you even doing here?” Reid gestures wildly while Elle tries to get him to sit down. “We’re all still standing even without your benevolent wisdom raining down on us day after day…”
“Doctor Reid.” All heads swivel and see Hotch in his office doorway. He hooks a finger in Reid’s direction. “A moment please…”
He’s stunned by how different Hotch looks. He’s taller somehow, lighter… and his hair seems almost comically shaggy compared to what Reid’s used to. The perma-scowl is missing; there’s a sort of shocked confusion on his face instead. Reid begins to take in the wrongness of his surroundings in deep, cold gulps - it’s all so familiar and yet it isn’t correct at all. It is happening now but it feels like a memory. Except that he’s positive that none of this ever happened to him.
Am I dreaming?
He crosses the bullpen, now stunned into silence, and climbs the stairs to Hotch’s office. Although he closes the door behind him, every agent is watching them through the blinds that Hotch never closes. He stands in front of Hotch’s desk and stares at the doppelganger of his boss, and suddenly it all falls into place. He’s having a hard time reconciling the science, but when all logical explanations are exhausted, whatever remains, no matter how improbable…
“What’s today’s date?” Reid asks quietly.
“March 17th.” Clearly, Hotch doesn’t think this is a weird question.
This question gives Hotch reason to scowl. “2006. What’s going on, Reid?”
He has to sit down because he suddenly can’t feel his legs. And he may throw up. God, please don’t let him throw up… He drops his head into his hands and just breathes through his mouth.
“Reid, talk to me.”
A dry, hysterical laugh bubbles out of his chest without his permission. “Well… I have a theory… but if I tell you, you’ll be obliged to question my mental stability, and I’m not sure I’m up for that.”
“Today is 2006, but yesterday was 2014. I woke up this morning with eight years of memories and experiences that none of you have.”
Hotch sighs and then offers him a quick smile that temporarily stuns Reid due to its rarified existence. A lot can change in eight years; apparently, Hotch used to smile more easily.
“You’re right - that sounds crazy. But I was half way to leaning in the ‘crazy’ direction based on the way you spoke to Gideon.”
“He’s an adult - he can handle it.” Reid mumbles. “And it’s no less than what he deserves. He enjoys power inequality in his relationships a little too much - Rossi always said so even though it took me a while to see it for myself…”
“Ummm, yeah. He came back to the unit after Gideon disa-… resigned. You know what? I don’t think that I should be talking about this. Temporal paradoxes… that’s a rookie time-travel mistake…”
“Time-travel? Listen, Reid,” Hotch leans forward and gives Reid such an earnest ‘please start making sense’ look that it’s almost painful to witness. “Whatever this is, the joke is lost on me. And I’m certain that Gideon isn’t amused. While I’d have to agree about your power dynamic assessment, insubordination isn’t something that I’ll support. We are a team: Gideon is your superior and there is a hierarchy that has to be respected. If you are having problems and can’t work it out directly with him, then tell me so that I can deal with it.”
“Gideon and I have moved on - there’s nothing for you to resolve. Although I suppose that hasn’t come to pass yet…”
“Spencer.” Hotch is quiet but firm, and the silence that falls over his office afterwards is more articulate than any demand could be.
“I swear to you that I’m being one hundred percent serious about this, Hotch. Yesterday was 2014… for me, at least…”
“I’m sorry, Reid, but I need a lot more than that.” Hotch crosses his arms over his chest in a classic ‘convince me’ gesture. Reid suddenly recognizes the tremendous faith his boss has for him; even with less than a year’s experience together and spouting a fabulous story, Hotch is willing to wait for an explanation. Reid thinks back and tries to remember his personal timeline from eight years ago.
“Haley’s having a boy.” Reid blurts.
“Everyone knows that. I told you all last month when we got confirmation.”
“But you’re arguing over names. Haley likes ‘Jack’ but you don’t want any serial killer connotations to go along with the name - it hits too close to work for you. Unfortunately, many male names have unsavory associations, and anything else you’ve come up with doesn’t please her as much as ‘Jack’ does. You want her to be happy… you always try to make her happy.”
Hotch drops his arms as animation drains from his face.
“You haven’t told anyone about that, have you?” Reid sighs and wonders about the future from here. What if he’s stuck here? The burden of knowing so many things that everyone else doesn’t feels as though it might flatten him into the floor. “You needn’t worry - Jack suits him.”
“How do you know that?” Hotch seems to be having some trouble breathing.
“Because I know Jack, and I can’t imagine him being called anything else.”
“You know… my unborn son…”
Reid just nods because he’s treading in what he’s sure is unsafe territory. It’s one thing to talk about Jack, but if they start discussing Haley…
“I-I don’t know…”
Reid worries his forehead for an instant and then raises a finger to point at Hotch. “Today is March 17th 2006. This morning’s briefing was supposed to be about an Angel of Death case in a hospital in Salt Lake City. Twelve unexplained deaths in four months, no obvious manner of death but the local M.E. is suspicious, and the deaths come from all wards of the hospital - no preferred victim type, which is unusual.”
“Am I right?”
“Yes. Only Gideon and I know the details… we put off the briefing because you were late…”
Hotch slouches back into his chair and stares at some point just above Reid’s right shoulder. Reid has sympathy for him - a time traveling, genius subordinate could probably throw anyone’s day for a loop. In the moments that stretch out as Hotch realigns what he thinks he knows about the universe, Reid’s new reality settles over him: he can’t remain here. Whether this anomaly somehow rights itself, or he remains trapped in his past with a dangerous Cassandra Complex, he has to leave the B.A.U. He’s going to have to leave the team that helps define the man he is to become - he has to leave his family. Invariably, something in this timeline will have to change because of his sudden appearance, and his life seems the obvious choice.
“If it’s any comfort, the case works out just fine. I can’t tell you how, but… everything’s fine.” Reid finishes the thought weakly, trying to delay his exit into the unknown.
“Well, I suppose we could…” Hotch begins but Reid cuts him off as he bolts from his chair and finds himself standing in front of Hotch’s windows looking out over the bullpen.
“I can’t stay.”
“What do you mean?”
“I have knowledge of everything - every case - that this Unit does for the next eight years, Hotch. And I have a perfect memory. It would be irresistible for me to try and alter some events. But if I change something, it’ll have a rippling, consequential effect on the timeline.” He turns back to Hotch and gives him a sad smile. “That temporal paradox thing I mentioned. You need to watch more science fiction movies.”
“I understand that, in theory. But if the changes were just to prevent-”
“No.” Reid feels his whole body harden in defense of his intent. Hotch doesn’t get it - the temptation would be too much. Elle, Prentiss, Carolyn Rossi, Strauss, Maeve, his own addiction, all of the victims they couldn’t get to in time… Haley… “I’d be trying to do good but it might make things worse. There’s no way to anticipate the results.”
“How bad could it get?”
Reid stared at his reflection in Hotch’s window: eight years younger but with experience lining his face in a way it never has in his memories. “Bad things happen to us, Hotch - bad things happen to all of us… I would try to change that. I know I would and I can’t let that occur. Please believe me…”
“I believe that you’re a good man, Reid, despite torturing my notions of reality this morning.”
Reid chuckles and turns back towards Hotch again. There was that Hotch smile that didn’t seem to fit his friend in the future. Something must have changed in Reid’s face because Hotch leans forward in his chair as he pulls the expression apart with his detail-obsessed brain.
“You are different today somehow. I can’t quite put my finger on it though… I’m still getting used to you.”
Reid suddenly wants to tell Hotch everything. This man has never let him down, always had a plan… but then he remembers that this Hotch isn’t that guy yet. In 2006, Reid was quietly terrified of all of his co-workers to one degree or another and Hotch wasn’t exempt from that. Considering who they both are, here, at the beginning of their careers together, it is miraculous that Hotch hasn’t ordered a psychiatric hold for Reid by now.
“I hardly recognize my reflection - it’s difficult to believe that I was ever like this.” Reid gestures to himself, especially the really bad hair. “Why do you let me get away with looking like this?”
“Well, it’s who you are, isn’t it?” Hotch grins and for a second, Reid sees a flash of the friend that he’ll come to depend on.
“You know, I don’t think it messes up the future too much to say that we eventually become good friends, Hotch.”
He watches as Hotch gets serious on him. Young, shaggy-haired, father-to-be Hotch is trying his scowl on for size and Reid knows that he has to let it happen. It does happen, after all.
“So, what are you going to do?”
“I have to find something else for my whole life to be about, I guess.” Reid sighs. “For the next eight years anyway.”
“Reid, surely there’s another way to handle this.” Hotch seems upset. Maybe this is the moment, Reid thinks, the moment when he realizes that he’s actually going to miss me.
“Listen,” Reid walks forward and stops just in front of Hotch’s desk, laying a long finger on its surface as if he’s going to trace out an intricate plan. “I’m going to go home and hope that this is some sort of improbable dream or something. If I come in tomorrow and act like nothing’s happened… just forget about today, okay? Don’t mention it to anyone, ever - not even me. If I don’t come in, well, I guess that I’ll see you in eight years.”
“I’m not likely to forget this, Reid.”
Silence swallows them up again and suddenly Reid can hear the high-pitched squeal that could only belong to Penelope Garcia. He looks out into the bullpen and sees her and Elle laughing at Morgan as he pantomimes one of his notorious stories. What sort of person will he become without them?
“What’s your last memory, Reid? Before you woke up here, I mean…”
“I fell off a building.” Reid is distracted by Garcia’s smile.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I was on a case. I was trying to talk an UnSub off a ledge.” Hotch gives Reid a dubious look and Reid just shrugs. “That sorta becomes my thing: talking to crazy people. Anyway, I got too close and before he jumped, he grabbed me. Then, we fell.”
“So… you could be dead.”
“I don’t know, alright.” Reid snaps a little because being the guy who knows way too much and not knowing this is feeling a little cosmically unfair at the moment. “I’m really not certain about much… I’m not even sure that I’m here with you right now.”
“You’re really here.” Hotch stands up slowly and gives him a good, hard look. “When did that happen? What was the date?”
“March 16th 2014.”
His friend holds out his hand and they shake because that’s what you do when you’re saying goodbye no matter how weird you are about personal contact.
“I won’t forget.” Hotch says quietly.
A lump is forming in Reid’s throat and he chokes a little as he gives Hotch one of his awkward waves and mumbles ‘See you around’ before walking out of the office, then the Unit, and then the F.B.I.
He’s falling again and the sensations are exactly the same. His body is vivified by panic but also violently aches with his impending destruction. Some last minute synaptic spasm makes him think Why should I have to experience this twice? and maybe that’s enough to make him focus because it’s then that he realizes that this isn’t the same. There is someone leaning over the ledge as he falls, long arms reaching out to grab him, someone who has no business being on that rooftop. This time, the last thing that Reid sees before everything goes black is the look on that someone’s face: Hotch is really pissed off at him.
He wakes in the dark with a gasp harsh enough to make him think he might have just shredded some epidermis in the attempt to breathe. Was it all just a dream? Please, God, let it just be that… His cell phone is the only light in the room and it is doing a little dance across his bedside table as it rings. He grabs it and hesitates just long enough to recognize the number before he flips it open.
“Hotch? What is the date? Today’s date?!”
There’s a pause that takes forever, and then a sharp intake of breath followed by a long, stuttered exhale on the other end of the line.
“I know that I was never supposed to mention it – ever – but… we need to talk, Reid.”
Boy, was that ever the understatement of the last eight years…