Aaron Hotchner traced his gloved index finger over the broken latch on the patio door. The unsub had used a crowbar; an inch-wide furrow had been left in the door frame where he slid it in and pulled back. They hadn't found any tools at the scene, which meant that the unsub had enough presence of mind to take it with him, afterwards.
Eight short paces had been all it had taken for the killer to cross April Mirra's tiny kitchen and reach her unawares in her own living room. Even if she'd heard him break in, she wouldn't have had time to react before he was right in front of her.
Aaron stepped out onto the small brick patio behind the house. A single lounge chair faced the wall that separated her plot from that of the next house over. A squat little table sat beside the chair, nothing on it but a sun-bleached local art catalog and a sandstone coaster. April hadn't spent much time back here. There was no barbecue grill. No potted plants. No bottle of sunscreen or empty soda cans or any of the other household detritus that accumulated innocently. Nothing that accumulated less than innocently, either--no cigarette butts or chew stains that the unsub might have left behind while he waited for her. And no footprints. Not that Aaron's eyes could see, anyway.
Not that the highly-trained eyes he was thinking of were anywhere close by; Santa Fe was hours to the northwest of the Chiricahua reservation. And the smaller homes and the gentle architecture left no doubt that he was in a different city than the overly-developed Terra Mesa. Santa Fe was larger, but it had a more intimate feel to it. Less like it was intruding on a place it didn't belong.
The air breathed the same, though. Every now and then Aaron would catch a whiff of wood smoke, and his nose would strain for burnt sage and soap scented with lilacs to complete the sense memory.
"Strangled by hand, just like the other victims," Morgan called out. "No progression on the weapons learning curve."
Aaron made sure to take ten steps back to the living room.
Morgan was squatting next to April Mirra's body. He looked up when Aaron entered the room, but his hand stayed next to her face, fingers curved protectively towards her cheek. It was a subconscious gesture, one that couldn't erase the livid marks on her pale throat.
"He's found what works for him." Aaron crossed his arms and turned so he could look out the front window. The mountains in the distance were washed featureless by the mid-morning sun. The quiet neighborhood was just as washed out, the lighter adobe of the area nearly white as it reflected the heat away from the interiors of the homes. Low adobe walls stretched along every block, tall green bushes sporadically breaking the line of scrub that crawled along the ground next to them. The lilacs were just past--no trace of purple anywhere, only the skeletal heads of the blooms left behind as a reminder of their beauty.
The local LEOs were canvasing door to door right now. Aaron was sure that they'd come up empty. It was a neighborhood that focused inward, on what went on in their own homes, or out into the distance, on the inspiring sunrises and stark beauty of the desert. He sighed and turned back towards Morgan, continuing his earlier thought. "Possibly because it fits into his fantasy. He interprets her struggle to breathe as sexual excitement."
Morgan grimaced. "There should be more here. We've got nothing concrete, Hotch."
"The jewelry isn't a coincidence." Aaron crouched down, the toes of his shoes adding one more rumple to the woven rug. The necklace the unsub had left behind this time was much more elaborate than those at previous scenes. More expensive as well, he was certain, with multiple carved animals strung between uneven chunks of red coral. It had been draped across her neck in exactly the same way as on the previous victims, the clasp unfastened and left to dangle loose in the hair below her ears. The main fetish was positioned carefully in the hollow of her throat. A wolf this time, its howling mouth darkened by the natural flecks in the greenish turquoise. "Are they about remorse, or is he wooing them?"
"Maybe it's both." Morgan turned in a circle, taking in the room. "We done here?"
"Yeah. Let the team know what we found."
Morgan was on the phone before he was through the door. A crime scene tech edged by him, evidence bags in hand. Aaron untangled the necklace from April's hair. The animals were all different, bears and owls and frogs shaped out of turquoise, jasper, and coral, but the wolf was the most striking. Aaron ran his gloved thumb across the thin line in the muzzle, then handed the necklace over to the tech.
He stood up and made the same surveying turn Morgan had made. They'd gone over the entire house before returning to the scene of the crime. Aaron knew how to do his job. Knew he was good at it. But--
He walked to the far side of the room and looked again, trying to see through Jason's eyes this time. The strings of the guitar on its stand in the corner were thick with dust, but the music book on the coffee table was glossy and new. Another gift from the unsub, or had Anna been planning to take up an old hobby? A glass of red wine still sat beside the book--one glass, not two, and no bottle. She'd come home, poured herself a glass of wine in the kitchen, then carried it with her to the sofa. To relax, or perhaps to shore up her courage before she picked up the guitar again for the first time in years?
"You coming?" Morgan asked, one hand curled around the door frame as he leaned into the room.
Aaron stood up. "Make sure to bag the stuff on the table," he told the tech. Just in case.
They made the drive back to the station in silence, Morgan with his fist pressed against his lips as he stared out the window. Aaron kept his posture open, throwing glances his way a few times, but whatever thoughts were going through Morgan's head, he wasn't ready to share them yet.
Which left Aaron with either his own thoughts as he drove, or the view. Telephone poles and pine trees dwarfed the houses in the residential neighborhoods, the only skyscrapers amongst all the adobe. A City Different, that was what Santa Fe tried so hard to be, but its art and architecture didn't make it any more impervious to evil than other places humans dwelt. Jason had once said that finding new ways to hurt each other was what people did best. For all that he wanted to believe in humanity, for all the optimism he tried to share, Jason had always had a deep well of cynicism that he had a hard time fighting. One that Frank's sadism had shoved him into head first.
Aaron should have known the only way he'd be able to save himself was to leave those black waters completely.
"This is our exit," Morgan said. Aaron swung the wheel hard, only a few seconds later than if he'd noticed on his own.
"Okay, so what do we have? There's no sign of sadism. No beating, no overkill, no posing of the bodies." Morgan shook his head. "We're looking at a guy who's caught up in a sexual fantasy rather than in any kind of retribution or torture place. But it just doesn't make sense. Power-reassurance killers aren't careful. There should be physical evidence all over the place."
"Maybe he has a partner?" Prentiss asked. "A submissive who gets off on the kill, but doesn't have the guts to do the deed? Someone organized who makes sure the scene is clean before they leave."
Dave shook his head. "That would interfere with his fantasy. Remember, power-reassurance offenders are caught up in the belief that the woman will love him once he shows her how much she likes it. He's not going to want to share that with a partner."
So he's a mixed type. Aaron could see Jason's shrug so clearly. He'd be leaning against the desk opposite the board, hands balled in the pockets of his jacket, shoulders moving more forward, then up, as he made his pronouncement. His chin would wrinkle up as he pushed his lips together with the thought; his eyes would look inward as he saw things that none of the rest of them could see. He'd pull his right hand free, point towards the board, and quote Arthur Conan Doyle. When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.
"It's not that far out of reach to suppose that he's a mixed type," Reid said, already there with his eidetic brain and, very likely, his own ghost mentor. "Albert DeSalvo, the Boston Strangler, was very aware of police procedures. He wore gloves at the scenes, but chose his victims randomly and posed them after death."
"Isn't there some controversy about that theory?" Prentiss asked.
"Not really," he said, and Aaron could see him winding up for a full lecture.
"Reid." He held Reid's gaze until he got a sheepish smile and a nod in return; no power struggles today, just Reid's overflowing mind, ready to pour forth all it had to offer. Aaron nodded at him, let him know he understood that, then took a seat at the table. "Let's set that all aside for the moment. For now, assume we're dealing with one unsub. Focus on finding a profile that fits the evidence that we have. If we get new information, we'll reevaluate, but otherwise we're going to keep chasing our tails."
"I agree," Dave said. "So what are we overlooking?"
"The necklaces," Aaron said. He drew the closest photograph towards himself with the tip of his finger. The first necklace was small and light, just a simple leather cord with a finger of pink coral carved into an owl. "There's something more to the necklaces."
Prentiss shrugged. "He could be leaving them as a sign of remorse."
"If that's the case, then he's planning the kills," Dave said. "He'd have to bring the necklaces with him, knowing that he'd have something to feel guilty about afterwards. Which could explain why no previous victims have come forward yet--if he started killing from the very beginning."
Aaron shook his head. "But why fetishes? Is there some specific significance to them? To the animals, maybe?"
"Many Native American tribes carve fetishes, but the Zuni are the most renowned for them," Reid said. "The owl is said to symbolize the essence of wisdom or true-seeing, for example, and the wolf is a guide on life's journeys. Interestingly, each artist's style is supposed to be recognizable enough that even those fetishes created for collectors are rarely signed."
"So can you tell if these are all by the same dude?" Morgan asked, wiggling his index fingers at the photographic evidence as if to say jump to it, genius boy.
"Well, no." Reid shrugged. "You'd have to ask someone who has more than book knowledge. Someone at one of the shops would most likely know."
Morgan half-snorted, then reached for his phone. "Okay. I'll have Garcia see if she can find an expert for us to talk to."
Aaron tilted the photograph so that the glare from the overhead lights no longer obscured the lines in the stone. "Try John Blackwolf." The words were out of his mouth before he could reconsider, his subconscious taking control with a vengeance.
"Blackwolf? Why? He's something like three hundred miles away." Morgan sat forward, phone in limbo in front of him. "And he's Apache, right? Reid says these are Zuni."
"Probably Zuni," Reid murmured.
Aaron set the picture down. "He's well-versed in the culture and traditions of most area tribes."
Nobody said anything. He could feel the weight of Morgan's stare as he tried to puzzle out how Blackwolf fit in with their case. Prentiss looked to Morgan, then to Reid, who was staring out the window, lost in his own thoughts. And Dave... Dave had one eyebrow quirked, as if Aaron had just made the first surprising move in his entire career.
"Call Garcia," Aaron said, conceding the point. "If she can't find anyone local soon, we'll go with who we know."
Morgan nodded and flicked his phone open, but he didn't look away from Aaron. Not until a knock sounded on the door frame behind them.
"Hotch," JJ called softly. She waited to continue until he turned around to face her. "I think we might have something. There's a woman here who owns a store downtown. She reported a necklace stolen yesterday afternoon--the same one found on April Mirra."
Aaron stood up. "Did the store have any security footage?"
"No." JJ smiled. "But she thinks she knows who took it."
The case was over. Santa Fe was finally free of its serial killer, though the BAU could take very little credit for that fact. Janice Carmichael had become increasingly uneasy about her young janitor, and once she identified the necklace, she'd pointed her finger right at him.
Prentiss was the one who'd cracked him, though. She had barely opened her mouth before Jerry Copeland started spilling his guts, confessing to everything in a way that was half-remorse, half-pride, and one-hundred percent about convincing pretty Emily to pay attention to him. She'd done a great job with the interrogation. Aaron had had his doubts about her when she first joined the BAU, mostly due to the political circumstances of her arrival, but not anymore. She just kept getting more confident in her role every day. He knew she had worries about the job--as they all did from time to time--but she was definitely an asset to the team.
A month after Jason left, Reid had come to Aaron, eyes darting and voice choked with nervous little coughs, asking if maybe, just maybe, the attempted explanation in Jason's letter had been an admonition for Reid to do the right thing. A profiler cannot do the job whose mind is unfocused. He'd kept fingering his pocket, tracing the outline of his badge, and Aaron had silently damned Jason all over again. Damned him, and ached so badly for his advice that he'd only been able to tell Reid that was a question he needed to figure out on his own.
Now, it was a question Aaron needed to figure out. He'd thought he'd gotten himself under control after the scare with Chester Hardwick. Aaron had wanted the coward to attack him that day. He'd wanted to feel his own fist smack into that smugly superior face, wanted to feel his fingers dig into the vulnerable flesh of the bastard's throat. Wanted to impress upon one of them, once and for all, that they had no right to do what they did.
It had been one hell of a wake-up call. The hypocrisy of his own violent impulses would have been enough to make him reevaluate his headspace, if the guilt and fear about what could have happened to Reid hadn't made him do it first. He'd made progress, at least when it came to tamping down the impotent rage that had led him to antagonize Hardwick, but other things--little things--kept blindsiding him. Looking up at a crime scene, ready to share an observation, and remembering that Jason wasn't there. Talking to the county sheriff in his office and spotting the framed photograph on the desk, one where husband, wife and son were all smiling with ease, and having to take a moment to clear the lump out of his throat.
This thing with Blackwolf.
He'd started thinking about John Blackwolf the moment JJ told them they were needed in New Mexico. They hadn't spoken since that night in D.C., and Aaron had been too focused on the BAU, on Haley and Jack, to spend much time on regrets or wishful thinking. But Blackwolf had always been there, in the back of Aaron's mind. Always smiling. Always peering deep into Aaron's soul.
It wasn't even that he was fantasizing about Blackwolf. Not in a sexual way, not really. But apparently Blackwolf's memory still had power over him. Enough power to cause him to make a poor suggestion in the middle of a case. The case was over now, the weekend coming up, and he had the time and opportunity to sort this thing out. To sort himself out--if he dared.
Aaron opened his phone. Scrolled through his contact list and hit the talk button. He'd had plenty of practice making tough calls in his life, both personal and professional. Putting it off, trying to rationalize excuses to wait just a little bit longer only made it that much harder to dial, so he'd learned to be as straightforward as possible.
That didn't stop his heart from skittering sideways in that gravid half-second between the final ring and the sound of a human voice.
At first, he thought he'd gotten Blackwolf's voicemail. But then he heard a small sigh, a restrained gust of impatience, and he forced himself to speak. "This is Aaron Hotchner," he said, and it was so formal, so official sounding, that he didn't know how to transition into something friendlier.
"Mr. Hotchner. What can I do for you?"
Not Captain America. Not Mr. FBI-man. Whatever teasing closeness they had built between them had weakened with time apart, and most certainly because of Aaron's obvious distancing the last time they'd spoken. "I don't mean to bother you," he said, trying to shed his business voice, but it was hard to do. "I'm in Santa Fe, finishing up a case. And I was wondering..."
"Wondering what, Mr. Hotchner?" Blackwolf asked, but his voice was warm now, amused, this time the title its own reminder of their history together. It was hard not to respond to that, but Aaron didn't want to use Blackwolf that way again.
"I didn't mean for that to sound like a proposition," he said, except that was too bald. A little cruel. He sighed. "I'm sorry. I'm handling this badly. I know that it's short notice, but I'd like to get together. To talk. If you're interested."
Blackwolf didn't answer right away. Aaron knew that he was giving off mixed messages; if he wanted to talk, he could have called at anytime. Could have called a year ago, when it still would have been awkward but not rude. But he didn't even know if Blackwolf wanted explanations at this point. Didn't know if he cared one way or the other.
"I can meet you in Albuquerque this evening."
"Okay," Aaron agreed quickly. "I still have some things to finish up here, but I should be there in time for dinner."
"Don't hurry on my account." Blackwolf sounded amused again, and Aaron remembered what he knew when he made the call: the reservation was several hundred miles away by car. "I'll call you when I get there," Blackwolf said, and then hung up without waiting for Aaron's response.
I'll call you when I get there.
Aaron needed to make arrangements for a rental car. And a hotel. He could do that later, though, once he was sure the local PD could handle Copeland without the BAU's assistance. He slid his phone back onto his belt, then left the quiet office he'd borrowed, intending to return to Interrogation. But then Morgan stepped out of the conference room down the hall, so Aaron headed his direction first.
"Hey, Hotch," Morgan said as soon as he looked Aaron's way. "JJ said to tell you wheels up at five, unless you think we need more time."
"I was just going to check on Copeland, but I think that should be fine." Aaron hesitated, but there wasn't any reason to keep it a secret. He caught Morgan's shoulder. "Tell JJ I won't be going back with the team."
"What?" Both of Morgan's eyebrows went up. "You're ditching us? You're usually the one in the most hurry to get back."
Aaron sighed. Even when they weren't trying to, they all profiled each other. "Haley's taking Jack to visit her family this weekend. For her grandmother's ninetieth birthday party," he said, giving Morgan the information that he most expected to hear. "I thought I'd take some time to see the area."
"Sightseeing?" One eyebrow stayed up, probing for the truth. "Are you sure things are okay, Hotch? You've seemed a bit distracted lately. I know it's gotta be rough..."
"I'm fine. I just need to--" not go home to an empty house tonight "--get away from it all for a bit."
"Yeah, okay. I get that." Morgan's eyebrows finally settled back down. "Go on, get Copeland squared away. I'll talk to JJ."
Aaron nodded and started up the hall.
"Hey, Hotch," Morgan called out. Aaron turned, waiting for it. "Have a good time, man," he said, one thumb up and a big, leering grin on his face. He was teasing, Aaron knew that, but he still had to remind himself that Morgan had no idea about his history with Blackwolf. He rolled his eyes, at himself as much as Morgan. Morgan chuckled and backed into the conference room--leaving Aaron that much closer to wrapping up things so he could get on the road.
Santa Fe to Albuquerque wasn't a long drive. Not nearly as long as the drive from the Chiricahua reservation to Albuquerque. Aaron spent half the trip pondering the reasons Blackwolf might have had for picking the city over a meeting place closer to himself. Friendly acquaintance or no, he was certain Blackwolf wouldn't want him on the reservation again, simply because of the badge he carried. They were both known in Terra Mesa, which could lead to awkward questions. The towns between were fairly small, which wouldn't do much to preserve Blackwolf's anonymity.
And Aaron really needed to stop thinking of this as a clandestine rendezvous.
He hit the city at rush hour, which was just as well. Morgan had good reason not to believe him when he said he was going sightseeing. Window shopping and gawking at pseudo-historical sites didn't interest him. He'd much rather be fixing the leaky bathroom faucet or building a shelf for the garage or any other thing from one of Haley's to-do lists. Or better still, taking Jack to the zoo or to pick out a puppy. But those options weren't open to him right now.
It was a quarter till six when he got to his hotel. He checked in and worked on paperwork for an hour before nervous energy got the better of him. He changed into casual clothes and wandered back out of his room, wondering what to do with himself. Wondering what normal people did on a solitary trip.
He found himself in the gift shop, of all places. The BAU flew all over the country, but they were rarely in the places they visited longer than they had to be for the case. Aaron had always resisted buying anything for Haley and Jack even when he'd had the opportunity. It was too easy to turn those little gifts into bribes for affection, too easy to think that those little things were enough to make up for the time away.
Not to mention it had become hard for him to think of the word 'souvenir' in benign ways after becoming a profiler.
His hand strayed to a small tan teddy bear wearing a bright blue T-shirt, 'Albuquerque' silk-screened in white script across its chest. All of his careful planning had gotten him to the exact place he hadn't wanted to end up at. He still didn't want to try to win Jack's love with bribes, but one gift wouldn't hurt. Although...maybe it would be better if he got Jack something educational. A book would be good, or maybe one of the simple puzzles shaped like a chili pepper or rattlesnake.
His cell phone rang.
"Hotchner," he said, trying--and completely failing--to not anticipate the voice on the end of the line.
"I hope you're not wanting to do the tourist thing, because it's not really my style."
Aaron smiled. "I think I can forgo it this once. For your sake."
Blackwolf chuckled. "You're a generous man, Hotch."
"Not really." Aaron ignored the lingering guilt that dragged at him, ignored the thrill of hearing Blackwolf finally use his nickname. He stared out through the doorway of the gift shop, past the dim bar backlit by the sun, at the patio beyond. A man in a burgundy hotel smock was bent over one of the clay chimeneas, loading it with small pieces of wood. "The desk clerk said the food here is good, and I'm pretty sure she wasn't lying."
"Only pretty sure?"
"Profiling's not an exact science."
Blackwolf snorted. "All right. Tell me where you are."
Aaron read the address off the tray of business cards on the counter, and got ten minutes barked at him in return. He slid the phone back onto his belt and handed a puzzle to the cashier.
After a second of hesitation, he picked up one of the Albuquerque bears and handed it over as well.
Blackwolf looked exactly the same. Green shirt buttoned over a black T-shirt, knife and badge at their usual place on his belt. Long black hair swept back in a ponytail that was unchanged in length. No more lines than there had been around his dark, challenging eyes, and his lips tilted up at the same amused angle.
It shouldn't have surprised Aaron that a little over a year's worth of time hadn't left any physical marks on Blackwolf. But it did, and after a moment he realized that was because he saw time's stamp in his own mirror every day. It wasn't just the lines that seemed to deepen daily, or the puffiness under his eyes that only disappeared on good days, but small things that he couldn't put his finger on. He looked older, he felt older--but it wasn't until he looked at Blackwolf that he understood it wasn't actually time that had aged him. His throat tightened, making it impossible to push any words out past the grieving ache that came with the revelation.
Blackwolf raised an eyebrow. "Offering a greeting to a friend is a custom that came with the white man. One I would have thought you'd have down by this point in your life."
"Sorry. You caught me off guard," Aaron said, extending his hand with a rueful smile. "It's good to see you."
His grip was strong, the skin of his palm worn dry and smooth from work. Just like Aaron remembered. But the tingle that his touch sent through Aaron's own skin was sharper than it had been before. Amplified by memory of exactly what that hand could do, he supposed.
"Likewise." Blackwolf grinned full-out. "Especially since you promised me dinner."
Aaron smiled back at him, relaxing into the gentle teasing that their early competitiveness had evolved into. If Blackwolf wasn't genuinely glad to see him, then he was one of the best liars Aaron had ever met. "This way," he said, leading the way through the bar, to the hostess. The place wasn't that busy for a Friday night, and he hoped that was because it was the off-season rather than because the receptionist had poor taste.
Blackwolf kept quiet as they were seated at a table on the patio, and Aaron didn't push to start a conversation. The sun was settling down behind the mountains, leaving the sky variegated with pink, purple, and fading orange. It was a beautiful view, a beautiful evening, and for one crazy moment he was caught up in imagining how he'd describe it to Haley.
"You said you were here on a case?" Blackwolf asked as he opened the menu. "The Santa Fe Strangler?"
Aaron nodded. They always tried to limit the amount the public romanticized the unsubs, but nicknames were inevitable. The papers had latched onto that highly original name after the third murder. "We brought him in this afternoon on a tip."
Blackwolf slouched back into his chair, letting his legs go long in front of him, and crossed his ankles just to the side of Aaron's right foot. His menu drooped against the edge of the table as he gave Aaron one of his measuring looks. "Was it a rough one?"
Aaron shrugged. "It was pretty straightforward. That's not why I called you, if that's what you were wondering."
Blackwolf started to answer, but the waiter stepped up to their table, pad and pen in hand. Aaron skimmed the menu while Blackwolf ordered--a salad again--and settled on the first thing that looked edible. The waiter collected their menus and stepped away again, leaving them staring at each other, adrift in the vacuum left behind.
"I wanted to apologize," Aaron finally offered. "For not calling you before today."
"So what stopped you?" Blackwolf asked, a small smile flitting over his lips before he hid it behind the water goblet.
Aaron raised an eyebrow, though he couldn't keep his own smile in check. "From apologizing? Or calling?"
"I'm sorry I didn't call before now," Aaron said immediately. It wasn't a hard apology to make, but guilt kept prodding him to supply excuses. Excuses that he knew Blackwolf would see through as easily as Aaron did himself. "I was afraid to."
Blackwolf set his water back down on the table, straightening as he did so, more serious now. "Apology accepted," he said quietly. "But to tell the truth, I never expected to hear from you again. We live in different worlds, Aaron Hotchner."
Aaron nodded, acknowledging the point. "I should have made an effort, though."
"It might have been nice." Blackwolf was smiling again. He fluttered the folds out of his napkin and settled it onto his lap. "So tell me. How is your family?"
"Jack is...amazing. Growing so fast." He'd called Haley earlier, and Jack had spared him a few minutes away from his cousins to babble about Grandma's cats and the cake he was going to get to eat tomorrow. "I just wish I could spend more time with him."
"And your wife?" The question had an edge of carefulness about it, belying the casual way Blackwolf reached for his water again. Aaron couldn't resist the opportunity to play into that, masochistic though the impulse might be.
"My ex-wife, you mean."
Blackwolf's eyes widened. "Ex?"
"Finalized at the end of April." Those were the words that tasted bitter. He supposed it was the lawyer in him, accepting the finality of the paperwork in a way that his heart still couldn't. He flagged down the waiter and ordered a Guinness. Better that the bitterness come from something he enjoyed.
"I don't know what to say." Blackwolf shifted in his seat, looking uncomfortable for the first time all evening. "Was it because-- Did she--"
Aaron shook his head. "She never found out. Not as far as I know, anyway." He looked off to the side, trying to see something beside the way Haley's pulse had jumped in her throat while her cell phone rang, the way she'd stared him down, daring him to accuse her of something. One of the busboys was lighting the chimineas now; Aaron focused on the tiny flames as they caught hold of the wood. The sharp smell of mesquite drifted towards him, grounding him in the present. "I don't think it would have mattered if she had. Not in the long run."
Blackwolf breathed out, long and slow. "I take it you're not okay with it."
"Not in the least." Aaron stared down at the napkin that had found its way into his hands. He rolled the hem between his fingers as he debated what to say. It wasn't his way to burden others with his problems--but he knew that he hadn't asked Blackwolf to meet him just so they could talk about the weather. "I'm angry. Angry that she took Jack away from me. Took me away from Jack. He's so young, and this is going to hurt him no matter how hard we try to make it work."
"Maybe. Or maybe he'll just be glad that his father loves him, and that he does his very best to be with him every chance he gets."
Aaron opened his mouth to argue, but he caught the tightness around Blackwolf's eyes just in time. Blackwolf didn't have a son, but he'd been a lost little boy once upon a time. Aaron wanted to ask him why that wound was still so open, so raw after thirty-some years, not healed even a little bit. But he didn't have a right to the pain, and he didn't want to face the anger. Not tonight.
"I hope you're right," he said instead. The waiter returned then, with his beer and a basket of bread. Aaron took full advantage of the interruption, keeping silent as the man settled everything on the table, so that the topic was only a faint echo around them when he left again. "How have you been? Is everything okay on the reservation?"
"Well enough." Blackwolf shrugged, seeming to mean the answer for both questions. He picked up the small loaf of bread and broke it, offering half to Aaron before setting his own on his plate and reaching for a butter pat. "The developers haven't been as hungry for our land in the last year or so. It's not the same as being able to keep them off it permanently, but at least we have a little more time to try."
Aaron nodded. "Is it because of the Cally cult, you think?"
"More that the bottom dropped out of the real estate market in Terra Mesa just like everywhere else." He raised his eyes, looking up at Aaron without moving his head. "The murders probably added to it. Some things do stick in people's memories."
"When they're directly affected by those things," Aaron said mildly, simply offering up an observation. Blackwolf shook his head, though whether it was a negation, disgusted agreement, or a comment on Aaron himself, he couldn't tell. Aaron started buttering his own bread, concentrating on it while he tried to think of what to say next. It was hard, sometimes, when he wasn't trying to pull something specific out of the person he was talking to.
"You look tired."
Aaron sighed. "It's been a long few days."
Blackwolf snorted. "Days? You look like a man who's been dropped down in the middle of the desert without any water and somehow managed to walk out again."
Aaron chuckled. "That bad, huh?"
"Maybe not quite that bad," Blackwolf said, and it was his turn to be mild, for his voice to carry knowing notes that Aaron wanted to take up and play, too. "Is that why you came here? Because you need a vacation?"
"I wanted--" a friend. But his heart jack-hammered hard, so he shook his head and smiled wryly. "I needed a little time to get my head straightened out. You're right. The divorce, the cases one after another--I'm not at one hundred percent."
Blackwolf eyed him.
"I think somebody needs to reset your meter." Before Aaron could puzzle out that one, the waiter was there, sliding plates in front of them. Blackwolf picked up his fork, but he used it to point at Aaron. "You need to get away from the city. Spend some time refreshing your spirit."
Aaron shook his head. "It's not cities. I've spent enough time tracking killers through forests and deserts and all sorts of beautiful places. Communing with nature isn't going to help."
"Have you tried it?" Blackwolf sat forward. "Take a walk with me tomorrow. Let me show you what you can't see for yourself."
"I didn't come here for some New Age feel-good trip."
Blackwolf's jaw tightened. "Are you sure? You're not looking for me to use my special wise man powers to magic all your problems away?"
"No." Aaron sighed. The flames in the chimenea had grown, the evening breeze stoking them to a pale yellow ferocity. The mountains seemed closer now, distance dampened by the dusk, and sometime while his skin woke up to the air and his shoulders relaxed into the soft woven support of the chair back, his brain had gotten lazy. Lazy, and hurtful. "No, I'm sorry. I didn't mean that. I guess, if anything..."
Blackwolf hadn't relaxed, but it was a different kind of watchfulness now. "What?"
"I guess I thought that you're the only one who wouldn't make excuses for me. You're the only one who wouldn't hesitate to tell me that it's all my fault." He rolled his eyes a little at how that came out. "Besides Haley's sister, anyway."
Blackwolf eased back in his chair. "And that means if I say it's not your fault, you're in the clear."
Aaron shrugged. "Something like that."
Blackwolf's smile grew slowly, gaining momentum as it neared his cheeks. "Oh, to think what I could do with that kind of power. Tell me, Hotch. Are you looking for absolution for all of your mistakes, or just one in particular?"
Aaron frowned and tried to ignore the tension between his shoulder blades and the burn lurking under his cheeks. "I own my decisions, mistakes or not."
Blackwolf sighed, the too-wide smile slipping away and leaving him looking almost as tired as Aaron felt. "I know," he said, and picked up the fork he'd abandoned earlier. He nudged a spinach leaf with the tines, then looked up at Aaron again. "I don't know if I can give you what you're looking for. Especially since it doesn't seem like you know what that is."
"I'm not asking for anything." Aaron swallowed hard as he stared at the meal on the plate in front of him. Cheese dripped hot over the edge of the burger, but it looked as appetizing as a ten-pound paperweight. He looked back up at Blackwolf, and reminded himself that truth always worked best between them. "Really. I called you because I wanted to see you again."
Blackwolf's smile was only in his eyes this time, but the warmth there more than made up for the earlier baiting. He nudged the outside of Aaron's ankle with the toe of his boot. "Eat your meal," he said. "I have a feeling you haven't been doing a lot of that lately."
"Restaurant food all tends to taste the same after a while." But he picked up the burger and made himself take a bite, and another. His body took over, encouraging him to keep moving food to his mouth. They ate without conversation, but the awkwardness between them faded away minute by minute, until he realized he was enjoying the meal.
Blackwolf set his fork aside when only a few dark leaves were left in the bowl. "When are you leaving?" he asked.
Aaron hesitated, ketchup dripping from a fry while he picked through several different answers. "I have to be in first thing Monday morning."
Blackwolf nodded. "So you can take a walk with me tomorrow."
Aaron smiled at his perseverance. "Yes."
"Good." Blackwolf cupped his hands behind his head, all relaxed and smug like he'd just won a high-stakes hand. "I'd hate to think I came all this way for one lousy dinner conversation."
"We could try for two, if you want," Aaron said before he could censor himself. He meant the invitation, had definitely meant the teasing, but the flirtation had snuck in without his permission.
"I'd like that."
Aaron licked his lips. "Where are you staying?"
"With friends." Blackwolf paused. The flames were dancing in his eyes again, and Aaron knew it was up to him. All he had to do was open his mouth and let the invitation out. He could; Haley wasn't going to take him back, even if he stayed chaste until he died. But he kept quiet, afraid that no matter how much he wanted to close the distance between them right now, it was only because of a need to seek comfort in a warm body that he knew, that knew him, that would welcome him back.
Blackwolf nodded once and stood up. "I'll call you in the morning." He stepped back, away from the table, and turned before Aaron could even offer a goodbye. And then the waiter was there with the bill, and the time for anything more was lost.
Blackwolf didn't take him out into the desert. Or up into the mountains. Aaron was puzzled as they drove deeper into the city--until they pulled into an asphalt-paved parking lot. There wasn't much to see around them, a bridged culvert and a low-roofed building in the distance, more brush and patches of green along the streets. But directly in front of them was the Rio Grande, the river itself hidden by a continuous line of trees.
A wide bike trail led out of the parking lot and down to the treeline. A couple in matching gear coasted by, and for a second Aaron longed for his own bike. He hadn't had time to take it out in...God, it'd been at least two years since he'd done any real riding.
Maybe Blackwolf was right about needing to get out.
Blackwolf didn't talk while they walked. Aaron tried to relax and enjoy the moment, but he was having a hard time reining in his curiosity. He had a feeling they were headed towards a specific destination; there were too many people on the path, families and couples and lone runners out enjoying the day, for it to be anything like the serene enjoyment of nature's beauty that he had envisioned when Blackwolf suggested this. But they kept walking, fifteen, twenty minutes in the sporadic company of others. Long enough that his body started to realize that they weren't racing to get somewhere, that his eyes stopped straining to find something hidden in the undergrowth. Long enough that once Blackwolf finally turned down one of the many dirt paths that branched off the main trail, Aaron simply followed, his curiosity on a slow simmer in the back of his head.
They had walked about another half mile when the path started to double back towards the main trail. Blackwolf stopped. He looked slowly from left to right, as if he'd forgotten exactly where he'd put something. Before Aaron could question him, however, he stepped off the path and pushed aside the straggling branches of a spreading bush, revealing the faint line of what couldn't be more than a well-traveled rabbit run.
"Aren't we supposed to stay on the marked trails?"
Blackwolf looked over his shoulder, eyebrow raised. "You going to arrest me, Captain America?"
Aaron raised an eyebrow back at him. "Would it do any good if I did?"
Blackwolf chuckled, then let the branch he was holding snap back behind him. Aaron waited until it lost some of its momentum, then pushed it aside. They didn't have far to go. The trees opened up after a few feet, and just like that they were on the reedy bank of the Rio Grande. The river bent ever so slightly in front of them, leaving a thin swath of ground empty of both trees and reeds. Blackwolf picked his way through the mire until he reached a large rock at the locus of the bend. Aaron followed, surprised when he found the ground firmer than he'd assumed. The hiking boots helped, though he was so used to slick leather soles that good traction felt odd. He was glad for it as he climbed up the rock to sit beside Blackwolf.
The view was beautiful. The river stretched before them, shimmering under the mid-morning sun, its edges guarded from the city by the march of the cottonwood bosque. A forking branch of deadwood projected out of the water some fifteen feet down, and several black-feathered birds were using it as a perch. One of them stretched, wings splaying wide and feathers ruffling up as it performed a full-body shudder before settling back into quiet watchfulness. Aaron took a deep breath, pulling in the pervasive smell of of river mud; the mixed scents of the vegetative cycle of life, green-sharp, decay-sweet; and closer and more subtle, Blackwolf beside him, sun-warmed and constant in the mild breeze.
"Why did you bring me out here?" Aaron asked. The walk had been nice, the spot one he never would have found on his own--but neither erased the evil in the world. Nature's beauty didn't change the fact that Haley had left him, or that maybe Jack really was better off because she had.
"I thought I'd take a page out of your book." Blackwolf had his arms spread behind him to support himself, hands flat against the surface of the rock, the underside of his elbow only an inch away from Aaron's back. Not really an easy position for a shrug, but his one-sided smirk carried the intent well enough. "That is how you profilers do it, right? Change up the environment to influence a suspect's state of mind?"
"So I'm a suspect now?"
Blackwolf rolled his eyes. "I thought you might find it easier to talk somewhere private, and I didn't know how you'd react if I invited myself back to your room."
Aaron smiled ruefully. "I guess I have been acting a little..."
"Skittish?" Blackwolf shook his head. "No. Spooked. Like you don't trust yourself."
Aaron sighed and looked back out to the river. "Maybe. I don't know anymore. Maybe I shouldn't trust myself."
"Who are you and what have you done with Aaron Hotchner?" Blackwolf sat forward, bringing one knee up and crossing his arms over it. He cocked his head towards Aaron. "This is all because your wife left you?"
"It's not exactly a little thing," he said, not hiding his irritation.
Blackwolf didn't bite back. "No, but nothing in your life is, is it? Unless I've read you completely wrong."
"You haven't," Aaron said quietly.
"Hurt, I get. Anger, I get. But what I don't get is why this has you locked up tight, like you're afraid to make any move at all." Blackwolf shook his head. "I think I heard you apologize more in one three-minute phone call yesterday than I have in the entire time I've known you."
An urge to apologize for that made him snort. "It's just... I don't know what I'm doing anymore. With anything. With Haley...I fucked up so badly with Haley. I couldn't see how anyone wouldn't want me out there, doing whatever I can to help people. I knew she wanted me home more, but I didn't really get it. Didn't try to get it."
Blackwolf nodded. "You turned a blind eye so you wouldn't have to choose between the most important things in your life."
Aaron shook his head. "Maybe. But it's more than that. People say to me, over and over, 'don't profile me'. And I tried so hard with Haley to just be a husband, to just listen like she wanted me to, that I missed how serious she was about me leaving the BAU." He'd made the same mistake with Jason. And with Elle, and Reid, and even Morgan; they'd all needed him to see, but he'd missed their desperation. "I don't know how to walk that line."
Blackwolf eyed him for several seconds, mouth pursed, and then he slipped off the rock, walked closer to the water, and squatted down facing Aaron. He pressed his fingers to the sandy soil, next to a faint, blurred mark. An animal track of some kind.
"Sometime in the last day, most likely at dusk or dawn, a muskrat swam to shore, right here. But before it could even fully emerge from the water, something frightened it, and it slid back in. Probably to check the security of its lodge up there." Blackwolf pointed, and Aaron turned to look. It took him a minute, but he finally picked out a stick- and grass-covered lump in the middle of the reeds.
"Something startled it. A predator?"
Blackwolf nodded. "Most likely the couple who left these tracks," he said, pointing to faint scuffing at the foot of the boulder. "They probably didn't even notice what they'd come to see."
"But you do." Aaron wasn't sure where Blackwolf was trying to lead him, but he knew there was a point. There was always a point.
Blackwolf smiled. "I spent many years learning how to track and to hunt, first from my father, then my grandfathers and their brothers. It's a part of who I am now, even when I don't consciously look at the ground. I can't turn it off. I wouldn't dream of trying to do so."
Aaron frowned. "It's not the same. There are lines that shouldn't be crossed. People have a right to their own thoughts, and I should respect that."
Blackwolf straightened, brushing the tips of his fingers against his jeans. "Maybe you should spend less time worrying about what you should be doing, and just do it."
"Easier said than done when my entire job is thinking about what I should do."
"Is it?" Blackwolf's voice went extra deep, like it did sometimes when he was angry, or passionate. He didn't look angry now. "I've seen you in action, remember. What I saw was a man who knew his job so well he didn't have to think. Who was acting on instincts much more powerful than any careful planning could be."
Aaron shook his head, ignoring the compliment. "And so we're back to me profiling people all the time."
"You're just not going to let me win this one, are you?"
Aaron tried to smile, but it wouldn't come. His life was all about winning and losing these days, and it wasn't measured by points earned on a basketball court or runs on a field. The losses kept coming in, piling up so fast that some days he couldn't see the wins at all, even though he knew they were there, once upon a time.
"How do you do it?" he asked. "Keep fighting for what you believe is right, when the odds are stacked against you."
Blackwolf stepped closer, leaning one hip against the rock so that he was half turned towards Aaron, half towards the river. "You say that like I have a choice."
Activism is a choice, he might have said, but he knew it wasn't, not for Blackwolf. Even less of a choice than his own need to fight for those who couldn't. And a philosophical argument wasn't what he was after, anyway.
"I get angry a lot," Blackwolf said at last. "I'm pretty sure you haven't missed that."
"But you don't let it eat you up."
Blackwolf nodded. "Because every day I see who I'm fighting for. I know that no matter how many fights I lose, the ones I win will make a difference to those kids. So I keep going, one step at a time. And when it's too much, well, I find a place like this. Or a good friend. Or both."
So easy. Aaron spent so much time analyzing abnormal behavior that Blackwolf's recipe sounded laughably simple. Foreign, even though it wasn't that long ago that his own solace was as uncomplicated as Jack's baby giggles or a real smile from Jason.
Or Haley's arms around him.
A flock of birds rose up from the distant bank in a flurry of wings, startled from their roost by something Aaron hadn't noticed. He wondered if Blackwolf had. He didn't ask, though, simply watched as the birds wheeled one way and then another like a Chinese dragon in a New Year parade, each one a dark scale against the blue sky, before turning a final time to wing their way up river. Their calls faded away, leaving only the burble of flowing water and the soft buzz of insects to defend against silence.
"Jason would have loved this--" Aaron grimaced at the slip. Jason wasn't dead, no matter how unreachable he was. "Would love this place."
"Jason. He's your Agent College Professor, right?"
Aaron snorted. "Jason Gideon, yes."
Blackwolf nodded slowly. He was fully facing the river now, eyes never flicking to the side, but Aaron could feel his attention like a weight. "Something happen to him?"
Aaron scraped his thumbnail over a smudge of mud on his knee. Something didn't even encompass what had happened to Jason. The years of tragedies that piled up around him, the weight of the horrors that couldn't be unseen. The final, personal attack that had been so perfectly aimed at his psyche. Aaron didn't know how he could possibly explain that to anyone. Not anyone who hadn't worked the job. But then again, he was here to spill his own secrets, not Jason's.
"He left. About the same time as Haley." Aaron shook his head. "Actually, pretty much the exact same time as Haley."
"Left?" Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Blackwolf turn his head, but Aaron couldn't face him. "You mean he left the FBI?"
"The FBI, his home, the city, the entire mid-Atlantic region as far as I can tell." Aaron had told Garcia to stop searching her databases two days after Erin Strauss announced his formal resignation; Jason had earned that much privacy, no matter how much it hurt to know he wanted it. Whether Garcia continued looking or not, Aaron didn't know, but she'd stopped giving him reports. After a while, he'd stopped wanting to ask for them. Mostly.
"Without saying goodbye," he added, giving in to the bitterness. "Just like Haley did."
But Haley, at least, still talked to him. Even if it was only for the sake of their son.
Blackwolf sighed. "And you've been mourning them both, but no one's noticed."
"They've noticed, I'm sure." Aaron shrugged. "I work with some very perceptive people, after all."
"Perceptive enough to figure out you were in love with both of them?"
Aaron closed his eyes.
"I wasn't in love with Jason. Not like that." He swallowed, then forced himself to open his eyes and push the truth out. "I thought maybe I was, for a while when we first worked together. What was between us was so strong, at times even stronger than--" Even now, he couldn't make himself say it. Couldn't hardly think it, even when neither of them were around to care. "But there wasn't a sexual component. I tried to fantasize, to make it work in my head, but it just wasn't there." He looked over at Blackwolf then, a slight smile coming unbidden. "I know that for sure now."
Blackwolf smiled back at him, gently knowing. "So, not in love. But does that really matter?"
"No." No, it didn't, and he still wasn't sure whether to feel guilty about that, or angry. "I can't untangle it. Them. I just keep thinking that if Jason hadn't left, then I would have figured out what to do to convince Haley to come back. And if Haley hadn't left, then I would have been able to stop Jason. But both of them... I wasn't enough for both of them."
Blackwolf let out a long, slow sigh. Aaron wished he could breathe like that, could let go of everything with one simple, summary motion. But the pain sat too tight under his sternum, tucked up tight against his lungs. So solid and heavy he couldn't remember what it felt like for it not to be there.
"You know why I agreed to meet you?" Blackwolf asked out of nowhere.
"Not with any certainty, no."
"There are a whole lot of reasons why I could have told myself not to." Aaron braced himself--literally, one hand finding the solid rock beneath him--for a litany of failures on his part, but Blackwolf smiled instead, cheek pulling up on one side like the ripples in the river. "But they wouldn't matter. I like you, Hotch. You're a good man, and I don't think you could be anything but a good man if you tried."
Aaron flushed. He went hot like a flash, deep down in his gut, and then cold again so fast he wasn't sure if color made it to his skin. An autonomic reaction, nothing more than that, but he was surprised by the strength of it. Surprised by how much he'd needed to hear those words.
Still, he couldn't take them at face value. It wasn't hard to see that Blackwolf had more to say. "But?"
"But not everything's about you. Maybe you fucked up with Haley." Blackwolf shrugged. "Probably did. But she's her own person. So's your Jason. You can't control what they do, or live their lives for them."
"I didn't want to--" He cut himself off, because that was a lie. "I didn't try to control them."
"You could have, though," Blackwolf said in a low voice. He turned, stepping in close as he peered up at Aaron. "You could have, couldn't you? You said you tried hard not to profile Haley, but don't tell me you didn't know what she was thinking. Don't tell me you couldn't have turned her around, inside out, made her feel so guilty she never would have left."
Aaron shook his head, but it was too late. He could see Blackwolf's scenario in his head. Refuting every one of Haley's arguments, talking her down just like he did a suspect. Except it wouldn't be real, because it'd be all about him winning. They'd never get to the heart of the problem, and Haley would have hated him for it. Even more than she already did. And if she couldn't take her anger out on him...
Maybe the divorce was the best solution. If only he was able to be someone else, the someone that she wanted, but those two weeks of suspension had proven to him that he had no choice. He couldn't not work to save people, not when he knew he had the power to do so.
"You know what your real problem is?" Blackwolf asked, breaking into his thoughts. "You're too stubborn to ask for help."
"I'm here now, aren't I?"
Blackwolf leaned forward until the open lapel of his shirt brushed against Aaron's hand. "And what are you going to do the next time you're unsure of something? Are you going to bottle it all up for another year and then dump it out on me again?"
Aaron sighed. "I'd apologize again, but I'm guessing that'd only get me another lecture."
Blackwolf snorted. "I guess you're almost as smart as you act, then."
Aaron chuckled and shook his head. Blackwolf grinned, then pivoted around and leaned back against the boulder, so that he was tucked up next to Aaron's side but still not touching. He didn't say anything else, and Aaron let his attention drift, back to the river and Blackwolf's words.
"Maybe I'll only bottle half of it up." Aaron shifted slightly, dropping his leg and angling to the side so he could see Blackwolf's lips quirk.
"And call in half a year?" Blackwolf shook his head. "I thought it was lawyers that got kept on retainer, Hotch."
"I'd like it if we could be friends," Aaron said, the request coming easily this time. "I promise I'll try to be only half a bastard."
Blackwolf snorted. "That could work."
Aaron raised an eyebrow. "You don't sound convinced."
"No, that's not what I meant." He shook his head. "Of course we can be friends."
Blackwolf's smile was slow and wide. Wolfish, to go for the obvious metaphor. He turned into Aaron, pressing in close at last so that their thighs met warmly. "Do you really want to know?"
Aaron sucked in a breath. The desire he'd been holding back for the last day hit him all at once, hot in his groin and his hands, at the base of his spine. But his chest was tight again, muscles clenching with the fear of making another mistake.
He couldn't hide, though. Not in front of Blackwolf's eyes. "Of course."
Blackwolf's gaze slid to the side, off of Aaron's face. A small sign of nervousness in the middle of his boldness, just enough that Aaron knew that whatever he said next, it would be deep truth.
"I would really like to take you back to your hotel right now. Take you up to your room and show you exactly how good I can make you feel."
Aaron swallowed hard. He should say no--but that wasn't even an option. "Let's go," he said. He slid off the rock and started walking back towards the path, not daring to look over his shoulder. Whatever was on Blackwolf's face, it could wait until they got back to the hotel.
He kept his thoughts light as he led the way back to his room, watching the people they passed and letting himself read their reactions. The desk attendant smiled at them, professional and friendly. The gift shop cashier glanced up briefly, just long enough to determine that they weren't going to enter her radius of responsibility before she looked back down at her magazine. They passed a maid as she emerged from one of the rooms, and the glower aimed their way said she understood their intent clearly enough. Aaron made a mental note to both put out the 'do not disturb' sign and flip the inner bolt.
Then they were in his room, with nothing to look at but the furniture and each other. The closet cordoned off a small space next to the door for a sink and mini-fridge, with the bathroom beyond it. A king-sized bed took up most of the floor space, barely leaving enough room for the narrow desk and chair squeezed in beside the air conditioning unit. He hadn't even hesitated at check-in when the desk attendant asked him if he preferred a king or two doubles. Apparently, his motives hadn't been as noble as he'd fooled himself into thinking.
He moved to the foot of the bed, Blackwolf half a pace behind him. The burgundy spread was too dark to his eyes, the color of old blood on concrete rather than spilled wine. The lights were on, but they weren't any match for the sunlight that had dazzled their eyes for hours. The hum of the air conditioner was loud and artificial, and the air too chill. He felt a little shaky.
Blackwolf stepped up close, his chest an inch away from Aaron's arm. "Did you change your mind?"
Aaron turned to face him. "No." He knew why he was shaky. He wanted to let go of it all. To just drop everything at Blackwolf's feet, to collapse into his strength like a child. He couldn't let himself do that, though. He wasn't a child, and this wasn't a childish thing. So he didn't wrap his arms around Blackwolf's strong body and bury his face in Blackwolf's neck. Instead, he curled his right hand around the base of Blackwolf's skull, threading his fingers into Blackwolf's hair, right under the bind of the ponytail band. Blackwolf let him have that control. Let Aaron tip his head back for their first kiss in over a year.
It was wrong, and it was right. Blackwolf's mouth wasn't Haley's. Was so different from Haley's, and he missed her so much. But his blood was already racing, his cock hardening. He pressed deeper into Blackwolf's mouth, and Blackwolf welcomed him in. Took everything he had and gave it back--and it was strong between them again. Like all the pain they had ricocheted between their bodies until it came out the other end as molten steel for them to shape with their desire. He brought his other hand up, cradling Blackwolf's head. Aaron couldn't stop kissing him. Little kisses, pulling back just enough for lips to tug on lips, for tongues to flick out before he dove back in again for the deep, searching kisses, ones where he tried to bury himself in Blackwolf's mouth.
Finally Aaron dropped his hands, his desperation sated enough that he was a little embarrassed. Blackwolf chuckled, and Aaron smiled ruefully. "Sorry," he said, but Blackwolf rolled his eyes.
"I understand having to stay in control," he said, resting his right hand at the base of Aaron's throat. "But not in this. You think I'm offended that you want me?"
Aaron sighed. He stepped back, moving toward the nightstand as he removed the gun in its holster from his hip. He set it next to the alarm clock, then bent down to do the same with his ankle piece. "I think that it'd be too easy for this to become all about what I want," he finally confessed.
"Why don't we just agree that it's about what we both want," Blackwolf said. "That usually works for me."
"I think I can handle that." He smiled, then sat down on the edge of the bed to take off his shoes and socks. The bed shifted as Blackwolf sat down a foot away to do the same thing. It felt awkward, stripping naked and then pushing back the covers in the middle of the day, with no pretense, no seduction. Aaron settled uneasily onto his side of the bed, leaning back into the double layer of fat pillows stacked against the headboard. Blackwolf met him in the middle, one hand propping up his head and the other coming to rest comfortably--and comfortingly--on Aaron's thigh.
"You seem nervous," Blackwolf said. "You weren't last time. Not that I noticed."
"I was terrified last time. But only because of what I was doing to my life." Aaron scooted down and rolled onto his side, mirroring Blackwolf's posture. Blackwolf's hand skimmed low across his belly, sending his skin into a quick flutter that was echoed in his pulse. "I knew what I wanted, though."
"You don't now?" Blackwolf was running his hand slowly over Aaron's skin, on no discernible path but clearly with a purpose: that of turning him on.
"Hmm." He reached out to return the favor. Last time they'd started out touching this way, soft and exploring, but then it had been over so fast, hardly with any time for him to truly appreciate the experience. "I haven't really thought about it."
"Maybe you should try less thinking, more doing."
Aaron snorted. "Still with the lessons?"
"It's all," Blackwolf groaned as Aaron lightly gripped his cock. His eyes had gone distant, and he took a long few seconds to breathe with the motion of Aaron's hand. "All for your benefit."
"So you're saying I should be grateful."
"I'm saying I've given you countless--" Whatever countless things those were, Blackwolf wasn't saying as Aaron moved down the bed and pressed his face into Blackwolf's belly. The idea of doing this, something he had absolutely no experience with, something he'd undoubtedly be bad at the first time around, sent his pulse racing in a way that had little to do with arousal. But he was doing, not thinking, and the way Blackwolf grunted at the first breath from his mouth made it easy to keep going.
"Hotch," Blackwolf said, breathy and almost reverent, his hand coming to rest lightly on Aaron's head. His fingers curled around Aaron's ear, stroking into his hair, while Aaron tried to figure out exactly what he was doing. He finally found a slow, teasing rhythm that was easy enough to maintain and had Blackwolf's fingers tense on his skin. The taste, the sensation of having a cock in his mouth was completely different than going down on Haley, but the feeling was the same. Intimate. Connected. Powerful and subservient all at the same time, and the most exciting part was the way Blackwolf wound tighter beneath him, the heaviness of his breath and the small thrusts from his hips betraying the approaching loss of control.
"Aaron." The sound of his given name, here, in this context, used without entreaty and without apology, was a jolt that had him pressing his own hips into the bed beneath him. But then Blackwolf's--John's--hand was cupping his face, pulling him away. "Aaron, wait."
He sat back on his heels, wiping his palm across his mouth. He raised an eyebrow, waiting for the explanation he knew would come.
"I don't want to come until you're fucking me."
Aaron dropped his face to John's thigh, breathing in the scent of him open-mouthed, his fingers clenched into thick muscle. John's fingers skated across the back of his neck, stroking up into his hair in a possessive way that made the quivering in his quads that much worse. A deep breath, then two, and he had it together enough to push himself up onto all fours. John was smirking back at him, corners of his eyes drawn up with mirth, but his pupils were the blackest Aaron had ever seen them.
"In my backpack. Side pocket."
"Awfully sure of yourself, weren't you?" Aaron asked, even as he slipped off the bed and walked over to the chair where John had dumped the pack.
"Well." John chuckled. "I figured today would either go really well, or really badly, and I definitely wanted to be prepared if it went well."
"Smart." Aaron tossed the condom at him--John caught it right before it smacked into his belly--and crawled back onto the bed. Kneeling between John's legs, lube warming on his fingers, it occurred to him that he was taking a much more active role this time around. He was sure that wasn't a coincidence. John's eyes were closed, though, making him harder to read, and right now it wasn't really all that important to Aaron whether or not he was being gently coaxed through this whole encounter.
Maybe it wouldn't matter later, either.
"Yeah, that's good," John said, passing the opened condom down to him. Aaron didn't think about how unfamiliar it felt in his hands, or on his cock, just rolled it on and pushed forward. John's slow breath out matched Aaron's pace in. Aaron waited through the first overwhelming shock of pleasure, waited until John opened his eyes and gave him a tiny nod.
John inhaled sharply with the first thrust. Aaron's own breath was tight in his upper chest. There was something in John's gaze that scared him, something that threatened to unlock that tightness and leave him a crumpled mess, but before he had to look away, John closed his eyes again. What was left on his face were simply signs of his physical pleasure, the harsh pants coming from his mouth and the sweat springing up at his temples. Aaron focused on those signs, letting John guide him into the moment where he knew to wrap his hand around John's cock to take him over the edge.
"Hotch." John's eyes snapped open, and in that instant before John came all over his hand, Aaron was caught. He closed his own eyes and let go, let his own orgasm wash away hope and regret both, leaving nothing but relief behind.
"Stay the night," he said, later, as they both lay catching their breath.
"Mmm." John rolled onto his side, propping his head on his hand, and grinned. "As long as you follow through on that dinner you promised me."
Aaron snorted. "I can even throw in breakfast."
"Then how can I say no?" John dipped forward and kissed him, open-mouthed and slow. Then he winked and rolled out of the bed. Aaron watched him until he disappeared into the bathroom.
There was a puddle of sunshine beneath the drapes. Late afternoon, and he didn't have anything to do but be here in the room with John. Aaron took a deep breath and rubbed his hand over his face, trying to fight off the tension that was creeping back into his shoulders.
He pushed himself up, not nearly as gracefully as John had done, and followed his path to the bathroom. "Do you want to go out? Or get room service?" he asked, and let himself get lost in John's answering smile.
"You're thinking too much again."
"I'm not, really." There were thoughts, lots of them, but only the constant murmuring in the back of his head that never went away. A long walk, a good meal, and two rounds of sex had left him relaxed despite all of his mind's efforts otherwise. John had opened the drapes earlier, to watch the last lingering colors of the sunset after they'd returned from dinner, and right now, Aaron found himself hypnotized by the twinkling of the city lights.
"So my penny would be worthless, then?"
Aaron smiled, shaking his head as he watched John move away from the window and back to the bed. His feet were silent over the carpet--or at least as silent as Aaron could perceive, he supposed--toes spread wide and each foot balanced, rolling from one step to the next as beautifully as any dancer. When they'd first met, John had been angry--and Aaron had been angry back at him, ego pricked by John's self-righteousness in a way that rarely happened anymore. It'd been easy to see that he wasn't involved in the killings in any way, but the show he put on at the crime scene had only made Aaron push back harder, testing the limits of that confidence.
Only it wasn't a show. As John himself had said earlier, it was part of who he was, down to the muscles in the soles of his feet. This was what Aaron missed when he was busy trying to see all of the individual pieces.
The mattress shifted behind him, John settling into place. Aaron rolled over, away from the lights of the city, and propped his head on his hand. "Are you happy?" he asked, the words flowing out without much thought behind them at all.
John raised an eyebrow. "Are you fishing for a compliment?"
Aaron snorted. "You know I'm not."
John sighed and rolled onto his back, forearm resting above his head as he stared up at the ceiling. "Mostly, yes."
"You, you're always working all the time, trying your best to control every little thing that comes along. And you have to, because it's life or death." John waved his hand in the air. "It's the same for me, except there are no bad guys I get to put in jail. No big rescues to say I've accomplished something."
"You feel like it's going to swallow you up."
"I feel like it already has." He shook his head. "But what am I going to do? Roll over and die? I won't give them the satisfaction."
Aaron smiled. "No, I can't see you ever doing that." Even as sated as he was, he couldn't resist the urge to reach out and stroke his free hand across John's chest. He was starved for this, intimacy rather than sex, and John seemed to welcome it, curling his hand around Aaron's wrist, not stopping the motion but rather resting his hand there, forming another connection between them. "I think, somewhere along the way, I got so caught up in trying to protect everybody in my life, that I forgot how important it was just to have their companionship. That that was what kept me from rolling over."
"Or wanting to, anyway?" John gave him a one-sided smile. "I still think you're selling that rod in your spine short."
Aaron snorted. "Maybe. But I think I get to invoke the pot and kettle now."
John full-out laughed. "And that is why I like you so much." His smile faded away, though not the warmth. He let go of Aaron's wrist and pushed himself up on his elbows. "It's not just the companionship, though. Is it? Your Jason. He was your touchstone. The star you steered by."
It felt like John had just ripped an almost invisible sheet of plastic film away from the window of his eyes. It wasn't that he hadn't been able to see before, but now everything was so much clearer.
"Yeah," he said, unable to say more than that for the moment. Haley and Jason had been his closest confidants, but Jason... There weren't enough words to sum up what Jason was to him. Above all else, he was the person whose Aaron's opinion trusted most--about the job, yes, but just about everything else in his life, too. "It's like an empty spot in my brain. I keep thinking, what would Jason notice about this case? What would he say to the team?"
"WWJD," John murmured, surprising a laugh out of Aaron.
"Well," Aaron said dryly, "he has been accused of having a god-like ego a time or two."
"That, I can't imagine," John said, even drier. He tapped a finger against Aaron's sternum. "You know you can't be both the star and the ship, right? You're only one person, no matter how hard you try."
Aaron nodded slowly. "I know that. But. I can't just will another Jason into existence, either."
John arched an eyebrow. "Maybe you should stop looking for Jason, and open your eyes to the rest of the sky out there."
Aaron couldn't help smiling at the way their metaphor was being stretched ridiculously thin, but he took John's point. He stared sightlessly down at the narrow strip of sheet between their bodies, thinking. If he was truthful with himself, he knew he'd never really allowed himself to lean fully on either Jason or Haley. He'd been too worried about protecting Haley from the horrors of his job. Jason...Jason knew too well the horrors. Aaron hadn't wanted-- No, he hadn't been able to add to that. Not after Bale.
Maybe Jason hadn't been the one true star in his night, after all.
"I have a good team," he finally said. Dave had been a friend as long as Jason had, and Aaron trusted his insights almost as much. The others, with the exception of Emily, he had handpicked, and all of them were more than worth their weight. Sometimes he just forgot that fact. "Maybe it's just a matter of not putting everything all on one person, like I did with Jason."
"Or like he did with you, I'm guessing." John reached out, rubbing his thumb across the hollow of Aaron's throat before withdrawing again. "I think you psychology types have a word for that."
Aaron arched an eyebrow. "Haley always accused us of being codependent."
"You don't sound like you believed her."
Aaron shook his head. "Joking aside, Jason isn't a narcissist. And I've never seen myself as passive."
John nodded slowly. "I don't know that much about it."
"You know enough." Aaron sighed, letting himself voice the truth. It didn't matter anymore if he kept it inside, not to Jason. "You're both right, to some extent. I spent a long time trying to hold Jason together. Not just for his sake, but for mine, too. Because I couldn't imagine doing the job without him."
"You are, though." John shook his head. "WWJD or not."
Aaron snorted. "Some days better than others."
"That's all we can ask for, isn't it?" John stared into his eyes for a long moment. Aaron held his gaze, letting him see, despite the way his pulse sped at being this emotionally open. "I hope you find what you need from your team. But I meant what I said earlier. With or without this," he said, motioning between their naked chests, "you have a friend here. For whatever that's worth to you."
"A lot," he said, swallowing hard. He caught John's hand and twined their fingers together, hoping that would get across the emotions stuck in his throat, all his gratitude and the surge of hope that tugged at the ever-present knot in his chest. "It's worth more than a lot."
Aaron scratched his name across the signature line and then closed the river-brown cover over Reid's report. That was all of them for the Copeland case. All except for--
Shave-and-a-haircut rapped out on his door frame. Aaron looked up as Morgan stepped through, holding up a folder. "Looking for this?"
"You're not actually required to be psychic, you know," he said wryly.
Morgan snorted. "Yeah, don't tell me you weren't about to come looking for it, wondering what my issue was."
"I don't micro-manage that much, do I?" He'd spent most of the flight back from Albuquerque thinking over John's words, considering the ways he kept himself closed off from his team, even professionally. Maybe he just nitpicked them to death.
Morgan tossed the folder onto the desk. "You really want me to answer that?" He winked, then relaxed down into the chair in front of Aaron. "Mostly it's just that you're good at knowing your people."
Aaron raised an eyebrow. He wasn't sure that was the truth, but for the moment, he'd take it. "So what's up?"
Morgan shrugged. "I was just wondering how your weekend went."
Aaron didn't give into the smile that was pushing to get out. Or to the slightly sheepish defensiveness that urged him to snap at Morgan's probing. Instead, he folded his hands in front of him and responded like an adult. "It was good. I spent some time talking with John Blackwolf." He shook his head. "Spent some time getting my head straightened out."
"Good." Morgan looked at him, studying him in a way that wasn't unlike John's probing gaze, then eased back into the chair, hands folded in his lap. "You know, if you're looking for someone to talk to, you got a whole group of people who are good at listening, sitting right outside that door."
Aaron almost laughed. If he didn't know exactly how good of a profiler Morgan was, he'd think Morgan really was psychic. He kept his smiles inside, though. "Are you trying to tell me to keep it within the team?"
Morgan rolled his eyes. "No. I'm saying that if you want to talk, you don't have to go a thousand miles to find somebody." He took a deep breath, like he was preparing himself for a battle, and the rest of Aaron's latent amusement faded away. "I know you think you have to hold yourself apart to do what you need to do for us. And I'm not saying we need to be buddy-buddy, man. But you've got to know that there isn't one person on this team who wouldn't do anything for you. Me, Reid, JJ... Hell, even Rossi."
"I know that," he said softly. For all the time he'd spent thinking the same thing this weekend, hearing Morgan say the words made it feel real. "And I appreciate it."
Morgan nodded. "Okay, then. Just wanted to say my piece." He stood up, rapped his fist against Aaron's desk, and then headed for the door.
Aaron called out before he reached the threshold. "Derek. Thank you." Morgan turned around to meet his gaze. "And I hope you know that the same goes for me. For all of you."
Morgan grinned. "Yeah, Hotch. We know."
Aaron snorted; apparently that was one of the things he sold himself short on. He waited until Morgan was out of sight for a full minute before sliding open the middle drawer of his desk. Only a few inches, just far enough to see the river-polished stone sitting in the slot next to the paperclips. Because it's easier to get my hands on this than a star, John had said. Aaron stroked his index finger across the slick surface, then closed the drawer again.
He picked up his pen and opened Morgan's report. The work never ended, no, and neither did the darkness that they fought against. But they'd won in Santa Fe, and that mattered--to the women who had one less reason to be fearful at night, to the loved ones who had been left behind. They were more than enough reason to keep fighting.
It didn't hurt to know that he wasn't as alone in the fight as he'd once thought.
"...what you feel is every bit as important as what you think...I forgot that, you reminded me, and thanks." - Aaron Hotchner, The Tribe.