1. In his apartment
He drifted from black to a haze of pain: his ear, his gut and back, the fiery cuts being etched efficiently onto his chest. He felt very, very cold. His back screamed at him as Foyet tugged his jacket open. Removing his wallet. Replacing it with Morgan's.
"I know you're awake, Agent Hotchner," the voice rasped. "Tell me: are you scared?"
He opened his eyes and looked steadily into the eyes behind the black mask.
"Are you scared you won't die?" Foyet leaned over him. "You should be."
2. In the hospital
He woke too often, the morphine only muffling the pain.
A busy nurse changed bags.
A doctor shone a light in his eyes and manipulated legs that felt like lead.
Sean, who hated hospitals, stood just inside the door like a deer in headlights, then gave him a tight nod and barrelled back out.
Dave Rossi's grim expression belied his words: "You're doing good, Aaron. You're going to be back on your feet in no time."
Morgan, a bullet between thumb and finger, was tight with fury. "Hotch, that son of a bitch used my credentials to get your landlord to let him in. There's no way I'm going to let that go."
JJ took a breath and rattled through a report while a nurse hovered: Rossi and Morgan with the police, Prentiss and Reid at the scene, Garcia on the net, the press in the dark. Tomorrow Haley would bring Jack to visit. "I can call your mother, if--"
"No," he said. "She doesn't want to see me hurt."
JJ hesitated, then nodded, and the nurse bustled her back out.
Reid managed to slip in unaccompanied. He glanced nervously over his shoulder at the closed door and gnawed on the inside of his lip. "Hotch, why didn't he kill you?"
"I don't know," he lied.
Reid looked down. "I--" Looked up again: "I don't believe that's true."
He'd been at the scene, Hotch remembered dully. He must have seen the bourbon. He saw too much. Hotch held his face still and kept silent.
"It... helps you sleep. Doesn't it? Or at least that's how it started, but--"
"Aren't there more important questions you should be asking?"
Reid shifted his satchel in his arms as he came closer. "The profile says he's driven by the need to dominate, control and manipulate. Morgan was unconscious, so there would have been no satisfaction, but you were conscious. You were facing him. And you were the person who defied him and led the team to arrest him, so he had every reason to want to kill you and demonstrate his power over you. So what I want to know is, why--" He shook his head and took two last steps to stand by the bed. "No, what we need to know is this: has he decided it's more satisfying to cripple people -- or was he planning to kill you right up to the moment he saw you wanted him to?"
His chest contracted. He couldn't speak, couldn't breathe, couldn't keep the protective layers of composure and dignity from slipping away. His hand jerked out a warding gesture despite himself, and Reid saw it all exposed in plain sight.
"Hotch, I know--" Hotch turned his head away and Reid broke off, but only to shift gears. "I know it's something you have to do yourself. But that doesn't mean you have to do it alone. And I'm-- I'm still going to pour it down the sink."
"Well, I can't stop you."
Reid's grimace was almost audible. So was his intransigence. "I'm sorry," he said unrepentantly, and hurried out while Hotch felt hot tears seep inexorably through his lashes.
3. In his apartment
The doorbell rang; it would be his delivery. JJ would have phoned him if Foyet had escaped again, and Hotch doubted he would ring the doorbell -- or then again, perhaps he would. Hotch wheeled himself to the door and opened it.
In any case, Foyet had already got what he wanted from Hotch.
The men set up the exercise bike for him with barely a glance at his chair -- explained when one said, "Just tell your girlfriend when she gets back that she'll want to adjust the seat height."
"It looks okay to me," Hotch said. "May I?" They parted for his chair and he got in close to the bike. Standing was almost second nature again; hauling himself onto the bike required more care, but he thought he didn't look too awkward. He lifted his feet to the pedals, ratcheted the resistance back to zero, and turned them through two tightly-controlled rotations. "Feels fine. Thank you for setting it up. Would you mind passing me my wallet? It's just over there on the table."
The first man was doing his best to emulate a goldfish. The other said quickly, "That's okay, don't worry about it."
"Really, I insist."
"It's been taken care of. We'll just be..." He hooked a thumb at the door and clapped a hand on his partner's shoulder.
"Snib the door on your way out, then," Hotch said pleasantly, and cycled some more rotations.
It wasn't as easy as it looked: without fine control over his muscles his legs moved in stops and starts. The delivery men had just closed the door when the pedal slipped from under his foot and came up to smack his calf from behind.
He sucked in his lips, let out a breath, and this time strapped his feet onto the pedals. That helped -- he could pull as well as push -- and he worked at it until he almost had a steady rhythm going.
He was getting tired of almost having the coordination of a toddler.
He gripped the handlebars and kept going, ignoring the shaking of weakened muscles. Another minute, and another. Another thirty seconds, and another. If he could make six and a half minutes, he could make seven. If he could make seven--
In the end it was the strain and the nausea that sent him, at seven minutes and forty-four seconds, to stumble off the bike and sit in his chair with his head between his knees. Except that his feet were still held in the straps and his hands locked around the handlebars. His chair broke his fall painfully before clattering out from under him as the machine came over on top of his legs.
He had never lost any pain sensation.
He breathed through it, taking inventory as he lay under the bike. Working toes was a good sign. His ankle was probably just twisted. His legs had been jelly-limp before he'd taken the fall, and everything else seemed to be just bruises.
The phone rang. He shut his eyes and let it: he wasn't going to be able to reach it in time. It was easier to lie there and wait and let the shaking subside.
In due course he heard the rap at his door, the key in the lock, and Prentiss's worried, "Hotch?"
"I'm fine," he called back dutifully. He'd been hoping for Reid. After expensive negotiations Hotch had come to an unvoiced agreement with him: Reid let him keep a bottle of bourbon on the sidebar as long as Hotch didn't open it, and they talked about Jack and Henry or, if pressed, numismatics.
Prentiss came in and hurried over. "You've been lying on your back for quarter of an hour because you're fine?"
"I didn't want you to feel like you'd come for nothing." He let her lift the bike back up but refused her hand. As he pushed himself up and reached for his chair, he added, "You're lucky you didn't get a speeding ticket."
"I put the lights on." It was meant for a joke, but she hovered as he got his legs under him -- his ankle twinged -- and as he manoeuvred himself back into the chair. "You know, sir," she began apologetically, as if he were a minefield to be crossed only with great care and tact, "you wouldn't have to worry about us acting like mother hens if you just exercised at the gym instead."
He was going to have to come up with some explanation for his ankle that wouldn't make his physical therapist sigh at him again. "I'm sure they're very good with people who just want to retire and limp their way around the supermarket."
Prentiss looked stricken. "Right," she said. Hotch braced himself as she took a breath, but she changed her mind and only nodded to the machine. "Bolt it to the floor?"
Grateful for the change in subject, he didn't point out that making the world safe for him to move around in was exactly what he was trying to avoid. "The lease agreement won't allow it. I'll be more careful."
4. At the BAU
It was just for a consult, he reminded himself, though his wheelchair made it hard to forget. So did the disorderly briefing arrangements in an aisle in the bullpen, and the team's carefully casual greetings and manoeuvring to give him room to park.
At least JJ was all business, launching straight into her presentation. "This is Heidi Stafford, shot dead in her apartment in Dallas the night before last. She was getting married this Saturday. Three weeks ago, Janet Shepherd had just come back from her honeymoon, her husband came home from work and found her dead in their living room. And back in February Shirley Dupree was shot in her house while her one-week-old baby girl lay in the next room."
Rossi continued, "All three women died of a single gunshot wound to the head, and investigators found an open Bible in the room of all three."
"I think he used Bibles from their own homes," Reid put in, shuffling between three sheets of paper. "They're all open to the same passage from Proverbs: 'to deliver thee from the strange woman' -- meaning an adultress -- 'For her house inclineth unto death, and her paths unto the dead.'"
Prentiss rolled her eyes. "Is there anything in the Bible that can't be used to justify murder?"
"'Thou shalt not kill'?" Hotch suggested. "Dave, you said there was a connection to one of our old cases."
"Apparently you've met Shirley Dupree's ex-husband," he answered as JJ put a familiar photo up on the screen and Morgan passed Hotch a file.
Reid explained for the benefit of Rossi and Prentiss, "Harry Anderson was one of several people on a train in Dallas taken hostage when Doctor Theodore Bryar suffered a psychotic break. While we were negotiating, Doctor Bryar became agitated and Mr Anderson shot him with a gun he, uh, happened to have in his briefcase."
Hotch glanced up from a copy of Anderson's divorce proceedings in time to catch that rueful pursing of his lips: Reid always blamed himself for not being able to reason with the delusional. "Anderson took that train two days after his wife left him for John Dupree of Dallas. You think he was already planning to kill her?"
"Shooting Bryar frightened him," Morgan shrugged. "But after three years, it doesn't seem so bad. He finds out she's had a baby with his replacement and figures he'll try again."
Prentiss shook her head in disbelief. "And then when he gets away with that he kills two more women for the lols? But if he's the unsub, what do they need us down in Dallas for?"
JJ said, "He had an alibi in El Paso when his ex-wife was killed so the police don't consider him a suspect. But Garcia's done some digging and apparently he hasn't been to work for three days."
Rossi was looking at Hotch. "What do you think?"
"I think even if his alibi holds up he can still tell us more about his ex-wife."
Rossi nodded. "I thought we could fly down and you can work it from here?"
"Of course." He'd known that would be the deal: he couldn't fly at the moment, let alone work in the field. But it was still disconcerting to hang back watching the team snatch up their go-bags and head out for the plane without him.
Eleven hours later, after the adrenaline rush of 'hurry up' had collapsed into the drudge of 'wait', he ordered Chinese and took it to knock on Garcia's open door.
"Oh, honey, you brought food: my favourite!" She cleared a space on the very end of her desk. "Come on in, pull up your chair. You can eat here, and the garbage can is right there."
Hotch obediently manoeuvred into his assigned dining space and scanned the screens around the room: two were still looping through old footage from the train, while others displayed the chaotic mix of phone records, personal ads, and maps that had got them this far. "No word?"
"They're still outside her house and her cellphone's still off." Something flashed on a screen and she added, "But her credit card's not: she just used it at the Mercy Wine Bar. Cheap bastard can't even pay for one lousy dinner before he shoots her?"
Hotch was already dialling. "Dave, they're just leaving the Mercy Wine Bar at--"
"5100 Belt Line Road," Garcia supplied.
Rossi said, "By the time we got there we'd have missed them. I know it'll be touch and go, but we'll have to--"
Hotch shook his head. "They're not coming back to--"
"Her husband's out of town."
"She's too discreet and he won't intrude on the sanctity--"
"Aaron, we've been over this."
"We didn't have any other leads then. You brought me in on this, so trust me."
Rossi made an exasperated noise and the line went dead. On Garcia's screen, a red dot peeled away from the star marking Carla Lyndon's house. Moments later the other moved too, taking a different route. Hotch watched tensely as they spent eight minutes inching their way to the restaurant, and stopped, and didn't move again.
"You were right," Garcia said. She sounded gratified, though apprehension still laced her voice.
He looked up at the old train footage where Anderson sat hunched in his seat, clutching his Bible on his briefcase. Rossi was right, too. In the field you picked up things someone sitting in an office a thousand miles away would never know. Watching a hostage situation unfold with no sound was bad enough; trying to take control of an investigation remotely was sheer hubris.
What was happening out there? Don't corner him, he wanted to tell them: he's got nothing left to live for. But they were there and he wasn't.
Minutes passed. He stood to pace, but he'd paced too much earlier in the day; his knees trembled and he had to sit down again. He picked at his food instead.
At last Garcia's phone rang. "We've got Anderson," Rossi said in a tone that warned Hotch to close his eyes. "He shot her in the parking lot a couple of minutes before we got here."
Hotch steadied his voice. "There was no way to get there in time."
"Yeah, well. We got there in time to stop him killing himself." A beat later he said more firmly, "We're going to be a while; you two should go on home."
Hotch nodded while Garcia said, "Okay, sweetpeas, nighty-night." She began methodically closing down windows and turning off monitors in a silence that reminded him of filing onto the plane for the journey home.
He poked at his fried rice for a moment, then tossed the whole carton in the appointed garbage bin. "I'm going to take a cab," he said: his legs were far too unsteady tonight to be driving. "I'll pick up my car tomorrow."
"Okay," she repeated absently, but he had barely reached the door when she added, "Sir, do you ever wonder if-- We spend all our time catching people after they've done these terrible things. Doesn't it make you wonder if something could have been done to prevent it all in the first place?"
All the time. The nightmares -- the living nightmares -- the desperate lump in his throat and the furious blood rushing through his ears: more and more it frightened him how much he thought about it. He manoeuvred his chair back a quarter turn and said, "If something had prevented him taking that gun onto the train four years ago, Doctor Bryar might have killed five more people."
"Yeah, but that doesn't make me feel any better."
He should have a reply for that. He should be able to answer that almost pleading look in her eyes. One word of comfort: wasn't talking what he was good at?
In the face of his silence she forced a laugh. "I'm sorry, it's late and I'm getting all maudlin. You should go and get your taxi."
"Good night, Penelope," he said, and tried not to think how tremulous her smile was.
5. In his apartment
"I want to play tag," Jack announced, for possibly the tenth time since Haley had dropped him off that morning. Hotch wished he'd just taken him to the park in the first place: tripping over his own feet a half dozen times and ending up covered in mud would have been a small price to pay to burn off some of Jack's energy.
He subdued his exasperation and said, "Mommy's going to come and take you home soon, so we need to pack up your things and get you ready."
"But I want to play tag."
"When you finish packing up your lego, then we can play hide and seek."
Sensing his fatigue, Jack pushed the issue. "I don't want to play hide and seek. Hide and seek's stupid. I want to play tag."
"That's enough, Jack. Please come here and pick up your lego."
"We'll play tag and then I'll pick up my lego."
"Come here now."
Jack shook his head obstinately. Hotch stood and he darted away, a cunning light in his eye.
Hotch stood still for a moment, not intending to give him the chase he wanted. Then, deliberately, he walked a slow zigzag that backed him into a corner by the sidebar.
Jack scowled. "I don't want to."
"I know," Hotch said, "but you're going to pick it up anyway, do you understand?"
Jack tried to duck around him but he blocked him. Jack tried on the other side, and when Hotch blocked him again he seized the bottle from the sidebar and hurled it to the floor.
Glass shattered. Bourbon pooled among it; he could smell the splashes on his face as his ears rang and red hazed his vision.
Jack was trying to get away again. Hotch caught his wrist at the last moment and wrenched him back. Ignoring his shriek, he propelled him across the room and down onto the rug, then wrapped his fingers around the nearest yellow brick to hand.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'll pick it up, Daddy--"
All his breath left him. He let go of Jack and stumbled back in horror. Freed, Jack clutched at his own shoulder and his face crumpled. "I'm sorry!" he repeated through a burst of tears and hiccups.
"I know," Hotch said, trying desperately to think of a way to make it better. "It's okay. It's--" It wasn't okay. He took two gasping breaths. "I shouldn't have hurt you. I'm sorry."
"It's okay," Jack snuffled miserably.
"I shouldn't have hurt you. Jack, I love you, and I should never hurt you." His stomach churned. "Jack, can you please turn your arms in a circle so I can see if-- how much I hurt your shoulder?"
Jack obeyed with a sickening haste. He winced as he moved his arms over his head, but it moved almost as freely as the other. His wrist flamed scarlet: it was going to come up in bruises.
"Thank you," Hotch managed to say, and, "I need you to stay on the rug while I clean up the glass so it doesn't cut you, okay?"
"Okay," Jack said in a small voice. "And I'll pick up the lego."
His legs buckled under him twice, but he made it to the bathroom in time to be sick. Afterwards he leaned all his weight on the counter and washed his face under the tap. His skin felt like something cold and dead, and he didn't dare look at himself in the mirror.
Was he scared that Haley would take Jack away from him, or that she wouldn't?
6. At the bar
The team at the BAU were in Wisconsin. He'd long since drifted away from the friends he'd shared with Haley. And, though he could call in favours in any of the contiguous states, those were the kind of friends who could help him get a place in the Office of the Commonwealth's Attorney, not be called upon on a Friday night to celebrate it.
He went out and ate alone instead. The steak was overdone, the beer indifferent, and the television in desperate need of tuning, but it still beat staying home; and the bar was too busy for anyone to pay attention to him or his awkward gait.
He let the clamour wash over him. One more weekend and one more week and he'd be of some use to society again. It wasn't the BAU -- nothing was the BAU -- but it was better than moping after the impossible. He could carry on taking Jack to parks and museums and other public places, and drinking ginger beer to make Reid proud.
The smack of a glass on the floor turned his head even through the roaring chatter. It had slipped from the hand of a drunken blonde being supported by her short-haired boyfriend; she looked like she was apologising.
Only a glass, Hotch told his pulse, but didn't look away. She was trying to stand under her own power while casting her eyes about the room in search of someone. The one attempt suffered from the other: dizzily she stumbled again and her boyfriend caught her, laughing. She raised a hand to her temple then abruptly clapped it over her mouth instead; he tightened his grip around her waist and drew her through the crowd to the door.
There was nothing unusual in it, Hotch told himself: except that she didn't like the man, and he wasn't worried about her, and the way he held her set Hotch's teeth on edge.
He stood and followed them outside. He'd half hoped to see the man pouring her into a cab, but instead they were disappearing into a narrow alley. Hotch followed, slowing to a cautious stop at the corner of the building.
The man had her backed against the opposite wall. She was trying to duck away, but he pulled her back easily. "Come back here. I said, come back here, you slut! You've been teasing me all evening, you think you can just walk away now?"
"Shut up. And stay put or I'll really give you something to feel sick about." The knife froze her.
"Put it down," Hotch said, taking a step out from the corner.
The man turned with a start, but relaxed when he saw Hotch was unarmed. "Do you mind? Me and my girlfriend are having some fun here."
"Girlfriend?" Hotch repeated, looking her up and down. "You can do better than that. I bet you have."
"So what? It's none of your business what I do, so just fuck off, okay?" With bitter emphasis he repeated, "Just turn around and walk on by."
"I'm not going to do that," Hotch stated. The man took two angry steps towards him and he continued, "I'm going to take out my phone," which he did, "and in a moment I'm going to call 9-1-1. So if you want, you can stay here and explain to the cops what you're doing with that knife. Or you can go and find another bar to cruise." The man hesitated, torn between prudence and ego. Hotch added, "It's your choice. But honestly, she's really not worth it."
It might have worked if the woman hadn't chosen that moment to make a run for it. The man grabbed her and brought the knife to her throat as she shut her eyes in terror. As Hotch flipped open his phone he snapped, "Call and I slit her throat."
And now he'd do whatever he had to to stay in control. "Okay," Hotch said, and closed it again. "I'll just walk on by, like you said."
"No. You stay. Drop the phone and come over here."
He hesitated, then tossed the phone to the ground and raised his hands placatingly. "I'm not looking for any trouble. I'll just--"
"Of course you're not. You're a regular white knight, as long as you don't have to do anything. Unless you want to see her dead you're going to come over here and stand there by the wall where I can see you. And you're going to watch, and you're not going to do a thing to stop me."
His tone was veering from instruction to prediction -- or memory. Hotch gave a subdued nod and obeyed. His legs were rested from an afternoon spent sitting and filling out forms, but he managed a totter. At the man's look he said defensively, "Car accident. It was the other driver's fault."
The man snorted in disbelief and disgust, but when Hotch was in position he turned all his attention back to the shaking woman. She was the one he saw as a threat to be controlled; Hotch was only a sideline. He rested the knife at her neck as he slid his other hand up under her top; when she jerked away he pulled it out and slapped her.
"Don't," Hotch begged. "Please."
"You stay out of this."
Hotch looked away.
"No," he said fiercely, "I told you to watch. I want you to see what's happening." This time he kept half an eye on Hotch as he lifted her skirt.
Hotch sagged against the wall. He looked up at the woman: her eyes were open again, but she wasn't there anymore. He said pleadingly, "Sweetie, just do what he says, okay? You know struggling and talking back to him will just make him more angry."
"Shut up!" said the man, and pointed the knife at him. Too far away, especially with legs he couldn't trust. "Where the fuck do you get off--"
"I'm just telling her she's got to show you some respect." The man's face twitched, and he took the plunge. "That's what your step-father told you, isn't it? When your mother was slapping you, and pulling your hair. He had plenty of good advice, but he never--"
The man flew at him. Hotch pushed himself away from the wall, caught his wrist, knocked the knife away. His knees gave out, but he'd expected that, and when he fell the man was under him. Slamming his temple once on the ground stunned him enough that Hotch dared a glance over his shoulder.
The woman swayed. "I feel sick," she said faintly, and a moment later was vomiting on the ground by the wall.
"Are you okay?" he asked when she was down to spitting.
"Still feel sick," she said, but she found her purse and stumbled to her feet.
The man moved as to struggle and Hotch planted an elbow in his back. "We can call the police and get you to the hospital in case he drugged you."
She shook her head, lurching towards the lights of the street. "Just wanna go home."
"'St wanna go home," she repeated without looking back at him.
Hotch watched until she reached the street and weaved around the corner. No victim, no evidence, and the man probably had a respectable job and a lot of respectable friends who'd swear to his respectability even while he was out cruising other bars for other blondes.
Below him the man laughed shortly. "I could have told you what an ungrateful bitch she was. Now get the fuck off--"
Hotch ran a hand over the man's scalp. The hair was too short to get a decent grip on, but the man froze for the moment Hotch needed to haul him up by the collar and slam him back down with all his strength.
The crack echoed between the alley walls. Hotch moved his fingers down to where the man's pulse should have been and counted a minute to be sure.
He retrieved his cellphone and edged up to the corner. The woman was falling into a taxi; a moment later it drove off. He glanced up at the streetlight: his face would have been in shadow for her the whole time, and her memories tomorrow would be confused at best. Looked down at himself: polish would fix the scuffed shoe. If the denim on his bruised knee had left fibres behind, jeans would scarcely narrow the suspect pool. No signs of blood splatter.
Back down the alley, the body lay still, the knife three arm's-lengths away. It was tempting to go back and stage the scene to look a little more like a mugging gone wrong, but that only risked leaving more evidence. It didn't matter what the police thought had happened if they had no leads.
And if that was more luck than anything else, next time he could plan ahead.