It’s a well-known fact that proximity breeds discontent. Aaron Hotchner understood it far better than he would’ve liked. The Industrial Revolution bred the cities that corresponded exactly with the rise in criminal activity and the advent of more sophisticated methods of investigation that produced modern policing. Basically, Hotch’s whole career was dependent on people spending so much time together in finite surroundings that they ended up wanting to kill one another. Of course, sometimes it worked in reverse; you could spend so much time with some people that you came to be completely contented by them even if your instincts told you that it shouldn’t be so. But, generally, murder was the end result, and as Hotch passed into his second hour of being trapped in a stalled elevator at Macy’s with Spencer Reid and his annoying friend, Sherlock Holmes, Hotch was developing a strong urge to kill at least one of them.
Christmas in Manhattan. It should’ve been great: a little unplanned adventure to buttress all of the traveling they did in order to whisk from one bloody crime spree to the next. Their New York case had ended sooner than expected, and what with a Nor’easter bearing down on them, Hotch gave the team a day to catch up on holiday errands while hoping that the storm would clear enough to get the jet back to D.C. in time to be with their families. Reid had never been to the city and Hotch had to stop himself from pouncing on that opportunity, instead casually offering to point Reid to the more interesting downtown attractions while doing his own shopping. The crazy grin that Reid gave him as he accepted made that unreasonable contentedness surge in Hotch once again. Really, he was too old for this nonsense, and he knew better. But still… Christmas in Manhattan… it was like the setting for an old movie.
The skaters at Rockefeller Center, the stillness of Central Park as snow lined the black limbs of bare trees against a grey sky, the determined bustle and twinkly lights of 5th Avenue shops, and the cutting winds slicing through the canyons of the city forcing people indoors to curl around mugs of hot something-or-other. Yeah, it should’ve been perfect; almost Capra-esque, he thought before cursing himself for being sentimental and dated. No one knew who Frank Capra was anymore.
He thought these things all the time around Reid, his mind almost as quietly chatty as the genius’s was aloud. Hotch’s reputation for stoicism and silence served him well in his job, but all it really meant was that he was just alone and talked to himself too much. Reid didn’t seem to care, filling up the empty spaces with enough words to satisfy any conceivable conversation they might have. Hotch just smiled and nodded and let his eyebrows speak for him, adding very little and yet somehow coming away with a feeling of community at the same time. He’d grown to depend on this over the years, that dependency growing into delight, and then delight growing into the contentedness that he should have been smart enough to avoid. But as Reid stood in the streets of Soho, eyes boggling at the finds in an antiquarian bookshop’s window with the wind threading snow into his tangled hair and along the shoulders of his peacoat, Hotch realized that he didn’t care about being wise at that moment. He just stood next to Reid in the window’s reflection and enjoyed the warmth on a cold day.
Maybe that warmth had moved him to do what he did. In hindsight, it was obviously a bad idea, and it shamelessly tipped his hand at the same time. He wished he’d never seen the scarf display at Macy’s, but Reid had been wearing that tired purple one for nearly a decade now… At the time, it hadn’t seemed so ridiculous to ask his opinion on the last minute ‘gift’ Hotch had decided to get.
“How well do you know the recipient?” Reid asked with a startled look that seemed out of place for a discussion over men’s accessories.
“Why does that matter?”
“Well, it’s just… a scarf is a very personal gift. That’s all.”
Reid hummed an affirmative as he wandered down the counter, and then all Hotch could think about was who had given Reid that ratty purple thing in the first place.
And then they were on the elevator, and Sherlock stepped on much to Reid’s obvious delight. Sherlock appeared bemused by the meeting but completely ignored Hotch when Reid introduced him not even looking him in the eye. Then, thirty seconds later, the cab had come to a shuddering stop between floors that prompted a rapid fire discussion between the two about elevator safety records, structural design, and common misconceptions about escape mostly based on popular American action films. It went on for almost an hour; the two barely pausing long enough to draw breath, let alone acknowledge their unfortunate circumstance, or that there was a third guy in there with them. Eventually Hotch gave up and slid down the wall sitting on the floor in disgust: in this company, Reid’s complete contentedness was provided by the tall, alien-looking British windbag and there seemed to be nothing he could do to change that.
Hotch took advantage of his apparent invisibility to assess the “consulting detective”. He was moneyed - that was obvious by his diction, bearing, clothing, and general social disdain that he didn’t even try to hide. Fiercely intelligent - he easily kept up with Reid and their patter soon sped up with the mutual excitement of discovery and the constantly changing topics of conversation. Probably an autodidact, much like Reid. He had a general lack of empathy though - possible Narcissistic Personality Disorder with sociopathic attributes. He made almost no personal references beyond himself except for a mysterious ‘John’. And he was obviously and disturbingly a junkie - addictive personality with an almost complete lack of impulse control, further evidenced by his disregard for the feelings and opinions of others. Hotch didn’t know how Reid knew Sherlock, but he felt strongly that Reid shouldn’t know him, for his own good. This conclusion created a misguided urge to place himself between Reid and the sociopathic headcase to make that protective barrier clear. What a mess, he thought, some people are just too fractured to fix, and he suddenly had a wave of sympathy for ‘John’, whoever the hell he was.
Sherlock abruptly turned from Reid to address Hotch on the floor. “So, what have you concluded?”
The technique paid off as Hotch blinked hard trying to hide himself under a scowl before either Sherlock or Reid saw too much of his resentment. The way Reid sagged as Sherlock turned his attention away while the genius was in midstream made Hotch seethe, and suddenly found himself speaking without restraint.
“You are a socially advantaged, overeducated, wealthy dilettante whose remarkable intelligence and unified focus have made you a surprisingly effective investigator. However, your lack of adherence to social constructs, your personality disorders, and your addiction issues mean that you’re probably one gentle push away from being on the other end of an investigation. I’d say that the thing keeping you in check is this John person who, despite your transparent attempt to project asexual indifference, is the object of your only significant emotional - and possibly sexual - bond.”
Hotch gave Sherlock a significant stare, but the detective didn’t bite. He waited a moment longer for effect, shrugged, and then continued on in his quiet, studied tone.
“You have a family that you don’t listen to, friends you don’t care about, money that you disdain even though you have no idea how to function without it, and you are only committed to your next distraction because you understand yourself so little that you are terrified by your impulses. It’s a complex profile but I believe in layman’s terms you’re just an asshole.”
Sherlock and Reid stared blankly at Hotch for an instant while he tried to tamp down the satisfaction at momentarily catching Reid’s attention again. Then Reid busted out one of his face-cracking grins.
“Wow, Hotch, you really nailed him down.”
“Yes, he did.” Sherlock continued staring at Hotch, but now he seemed to regard Hotch as something slightly dangerous. “This one’s much sharper than the one that you used to let win at chess… the cranky one…”
“Gideon,” Reid offered.
“I’m glad I could impress,” Hotch mumbled sarcastically.
“I wouldn’t call that impressive,” Sherlock averred with a wave of his hand. “But it was an amusing piece of deduction nonetheless.”
Reid chuckled as he turned back to Sherlock. “Jeez, I think that your manners are worse than they ever were, if that’s possible.”
“Oh, the irony of an American discussing good manners…”
“My point is proved.” Reid gestured to Sherlock seemingly unperturbed by the insult. Hotch couldn’t believe Reid’s warmth and patience towards the man. “I thought that John was helping you with that…”
“Hmmm, it must have fallen by the wayside since we started buggering each other senseless at every available opportunity…”
Hotch watched as Reid’s smile dimmed and he blushed, lowering his eyes to the cab floor. When his glance shifted to Sherlock, Hotch wondered how Sherlock got away with such indifferent cruelty and still managed to cultivate affection from others. There was no need for fancy terminology - the guy was just an ass. Hotch found the detective’s blue stare bearing down on him in a silent analysis.
“Interesting,” Sherlock muttered. “That didn’t offend you. Straight men don’t often care to discuss homosexuality. Unsafe images might creep into their unconscious minds…”
“Oh, I’m offended alright, just not by your buggery. I’m offended by the crudeness that you apply to your partner and I am offended at the callousness that you show towards your friend’s sensitivity.” Hotch gestured to Reid and Reid looked back at him in shock as if he didn’t expect anyone to notice him. “And all in a juvenile attempt to get a rise out of me. Your approach lacks sophistication, which means one of us should definitely feel insulted by it.”
Sherlock leaned back against the elevator wall with a thin smile. “Oh yes, you’ll do, Agent Hotchner.”
Do for what, Hotch thought just as Reid shot Sherlock a hard look. Sherlock ignored them both, clearly only interested in his own agenda.
“So, what brings you to this palace of crass commerciality, and consequently this shabby little elevator, Spencer? Shouldn’t you be walled up in your D.C. hobbit hole at this moment counting down the hours to the Doctor Who Christmas special?”
“There was a serial arsonist in Brooklyn.”
“I’m sure there’s more than one,” Sherlock offered dubiously, but Reid just rolled his eyes.
“Why are you in New York, Sherlock?”
“Mycroft was plotting a family Christmas.” Sherlock pronounced ‘family’ like it was covered in tar. “He’s trying to force the issue about John with Mummy, and I shall not be forced. It seemed prudent to place an ocean between us for the time being.”
“And you’re in a heathen department store because…”
“There’s an impeccable black market tobacconist who operates out of the basement of this building. I had a need of some festive Gauloises.”
Reid gave Sherlock a strangely judgmental look, and for the first time since he’d walked onto the elevator, Sherlock seemed cowed.
“And I was also shopping for John. He has a sweater that requires immediate incineration, and I shall have to provide a replacement or I’ll never hear the end of it.” He looked at Reid, genuinely worried. “Don’t tell John about the cigarettes.”
Reid raised a finger. “This one time, Sherlock.”
The detective almost smiled. “You still haven’t explained why you’re trapped in this elevator, Spencer.”
“We can’t fly out until the storm passes so Hotch suggested that we take the day to do some holiday stuff. He had gifts to buy… you know, Secret Santa things…”
Sherlock gave Reid a look as if he’d just started speaking in tongues.
“Nevermind, it’s a workplace tradition. We were just downstairs looking at scarves.”
“As a casual gift?” Sherlock’s eyebrows lifted and then turned to look at Hotch questioningly. “A person should buy their own scarf. It’s intimate.”
“That’s what I told him,” Reid nodded. Hotch suddenly realized that both Sherlock and Reid were wearing scarves knotted exactly the same way. His heart felt like it had calcified in his chest and the only thought that distracted from the feeling was the idea of throttling Sherlock with his intimate, damned neckwear.
“I recently had a similar argument with John.” Sherlock sighed as he touched his scarf where it met the raised collar of his coat. “He claimed to be unaware of this rule as well.”
“But you kept it,” Reid pointed out.
Sherlock smiled. “Well, cashmere… you know…”
“Or maybe the buggery has inadvertently touched your heart,” Hotch muttered under his breath suddenly wishing that he’d decided to spend the day being snowed in at the airport instead.
“Tell me,” Sherlock bent low to meet Hotch’s resentful glare. “Did you buy the scarf in spite of Spencer’s advice?”
Hotch hated the way this man used Reid’s first name so casually. Even Hotch never called him Spencer, and they had saved each other’s lives a few times. He felt the thin, long box containing the soft grey scarf that held flecks of navy, purple, amber, and moss - all of the colors Reid favored - pressing against his side in his inner coat pocket. He felt foolish.
“The only thing weird about the gift is the arbitrary importance you two seem to place upon it,” Hotch answered.
“I see,” Sherlock smirked as he straightened. “I hope you kept the receipt. Just in case.”
The elevator shook and made a terrible grinding noise that momentarily made Hotch think that he was going to die at Macy’s, and then the cab lurched upwards, the doors sliding open with a soft ding of welcome. All three men leapt out of the deadly conveyance at once, and Reid began to shoo away people who were waiting to board while Hotch flagged down a security guard. Sherlock just appeared amused by all of the flapping and clucking, offering no help whatsoever.
After a few minutes, irritation seemed to win the upper hand as Sherlock marched over to Reid and pulled him from the conversation he was having with Hotch and the store’s maintenance staff.
“I’m leaving. This is boring.”
“Oh, okay,” Reid blinked and then launched into a hug that appeared most unwelcome on Sherlock’s part. “Good to see you, as always, Sherlock. Tell John I said hello and that I admire his inexhaustible tolerance.”
“Hilarious.” Sherlock extracted himself from Reid’s hug with a tight smile. “Your sarcasm is tedious but I know John will appreciate it. I’ll email you my paper on the consumption intervals of flesh-eating invertebrates on necrotic and non-necrotic bodies, and at least then we can have an interesting discussion.”
Reid seemed to light up at the prospect and Sherlock nodded approvingly before abruptly turning to address Hotch.
“And good luck with your dilemma.” Sherlock’s eyes quickly flicked to the side of Hotch’s overcoat where the box lay snuggled from sight, and then he walked away without another word.
“Mindboggling,” Hotch murmured through clenched teeth, though not quietly enough to avoid Reid hearing it. Reid chuckled and slid up beside him, his proximity warming Hotch’s right sleeve from cuff to shoulder.
“Believe it or not, that’s personal growth for him. There was a time when he simply would have disappeared. All of us - his friends - routinely thought that he was dead because he vanished so frequently and for such lengths of time without a word to any of us.”
Part of life’s disappointment was that very little surprised Hotch anymore. And yet, the idea that Sherlock Holmes had friends completely floored him.
“I find it hard to believe what you get out of that friendship makes his rudeness worth the effort.”
Reid turned to him then. “Difficulty has its own rewards, Hotch. But it takes time to bear fruit. He’s really not so bad once you get beneath the surface. John has made an unmistakable impact on him.”
“I’ll take your word for it. I sort of believe that ‘manners maketh man’…”
“That’s pretty old fashioned.” Reid grinned at him but it made Hotch slouch as if his strings had been unexpectedly cut.
“Well… I’m old, and not very fashionable, I guess.” He started walking, wanting to be out in the storm again, to have it distract him from his thoughts. “Come on, let’s get going. I recommend we take the stairs this time.”
The Christmas party at the unit was a low-key affair, just like always. The team waited until they got to their local watering hole before they really let their hair down. The Bureau had stuffy standards when it came to socializing and it was just easier to have fun elsewhere; there was still a regulation in effect from the Hoover era that forbade alcohol anywhere on FBI premises.
Hotch wasn’t going to the bar this year. He didn’t have anything more pressing to do, but he just didn’t feel like it. He watched the team open their gifts and drink their store-bought eggnog and enjoy one of the few horror-free days the building afforded them before quietly slipping away to his office. He’d chickened out and given Reid a second edition collected works of Mark Twain instead of what he’d intended. Reid unwrapped the book and smiled at him in thanks, but there was something weird about it. It was the same smile that he gave Morgan for his gift of Marvel superheroes pint glasses (which he probably liked), and the one he gave to Garcia for her tin of homemade marzipan squares (which Hotch knew Reid loathed). The same happy display of appreciation for everyone, regardless of suitability; it made Hotch wish that he cared less. Or didn’t understand Reid at all.
He could hear their laughter from his open door, and it lulled him into an ease that made the monotony of paperwork seem enjoyable. You had to take your happiness where you could find it; sometimes it was small and nondescript, but that didn’t mean that you could afford to ignore it. It was fleeting - he knew that from experience. One by one, they left and soon he was left to the ticking of the bulb in his desk lamp and the soft scratching of his pen.
“I can’t believe you’re doing paperwork on Christmas Eve.”
Hotch looked up and saw Reid’s unmistakable outline leaning against the doorway. An ache lit in the center of him when he saw the silhouette of a book in Reid’s hands.
“I’ll be able to relax more over the break knowing that it’s done,” Hotch coughed and looked back to his papers.
He heard Reid shuffle slowly across the office carpet and then saw the line of him edge its way into his peripheral vision.
“Thanks for the book.”
“You’re welcome.” Hotch looked up. “I noticed your interest back in New York, but I couldn’t buy it in front of you, could I? The shop owner was very helpful. He set it aside and then FedEx’d it down here for me.”
That wasn’t how it happened at all, but Reid didn’t need to know that he’d received a frantic, back-up gift.
“I have my moments.” Hotch chuckled, which in turn made Reid do the same. That set off all sorts of physiological alarm bells in Hotch that just spelled out BAD IDEA.
“You’re coming out to the bar, right? After this, I mean…” Reid waved at the paperwork and gave Hotch a hopeful look that he attempted to ignore.
“I don’t think so. Not this year.”
“Oh.” Reid sounded disappointed and when Hotch looked back at him he saw Reid’s body sag, leaning into the book that he balanced along the edge of Hotch’s desk. “That’s a shame.”
“I don’t say much at those things anyway.” Hotch tried to sound casual. “After a few rounds, I won’t be missed.”
“That’s not the point. And you talk all the time, Hotch, just not always in the conventional sense.”
The statement stilled him. Hotch wanted to say thank you; every fiber of him tingled with gratitude over that simple realization. He found conversation difficult and yet despite that, he had made a connection with this person that didn’t ask him to constantly fight his nature. It was as if he’d been saved from slow suffocation - as long as Reid was around, there was a chance that he might be heard. He wished that he’d had the balls to give Reid something other than that stupid book.
Reid leaned forward so that the edge of his face fell into the lamplight. “May I ask… to whom did you give the scarf?”
Hotch’s mind went blank for a long moment. The heated light bulb continued to tick beside him and the wind blew icy rain against his darkened windows as he struggled with how to answer. He hadn’t given the scarf to anyone and he couldn’t find the desire to return it. It was only ever intended for one individual. Finally, his hand moved to his desk drawer, opened it, and drew the thin box out onto his desktop. He focused on his hands and his breathing as he lifted the box lid away to reveal the soft wool scarf neatly folded inside. Reid hesitated, but then reached forward and allowed one finger to trace the edge of the fabric.
“It’s beautiful,” he murmured.
“I bought it for you,” Hotch added before he lost his nerve.
“Then why did you give me the book instead?”
“Because you and Sherlock made it sound… inappropriate.”
He wasn’t looking at Reid, just staring at his hand as it pressed against the desk next to the box. After a moment of awkward silence, Reid’s hand moved to the box again and hovered there.
“May I?” he asked.
“Please,” Hotch said and looked up to watch Reid wrap the scarf around his neck. He swallowed hard as Reid gave him a look of warm thanks while tracing the end of it with one hand.
“It’s perfect. Like something I would buy for myself. May I keep it?”
Hotch tried to speak but had to clear his throat and start again. “I thought it was weirdly personal to buy a scarf for someone else…”
Reid leaned forward and Hotch felt fingertips against his jaw an instant before Reid’s lips brushed his. He sucked in a shocked breath and Reid held still against him for a moment. Neither of them moved and it felt as though they’d both lost their courage, but then Reid shifted closer and softly slotted himself against Hotch’s mouth. Hotch’s body took over after that and left his mind to wonder; he wasn’t so old that he’d forgotten how to do this. He pulled Reid in, little by little, moving slowly, pressing gently until he got as close as he dared. He wanted nothing more than for that shared breath to stretch out forever. When Reid’s lips parted and his fingers skimmed across Hotch’s jaw and back to trace the hairline along his neck, he thought he might never be able to explain how happy this simple act had made him. He moaned and tried not to be embarrassed by how obvious it made his want; loneliness could make you desperate, but he was just appreciative, even if it would be over in a second. Reid pulled away, and just like that, the moment passed. Hotch discovered that one of his hands had moved without his knowledge landing against Reid’s chest near his heart. Reid looked down at the hand and then back to Hotch with a smile.
“It’s better this way,” he said quietly. “I can wear it in front of the team and no one will give me a hard time about what it does and doesn’t mean.”
“What does it mean?” Hotch was almost too scared to ask.
“It means difficult things take time to work out. But they’re worth it when they do.”
One side of Hotch’s mouth lifted. “Are you calling me difficult?”
Reid’s fingers curled into the hair at the back of Hotch’s neck sending excited shocks up and down his spine. “Only to someone without inexhaustible tolerance.”
Reid backed away into the shadows. Hotch’s hand slipped from his chest and his neck suddenly felt naked without Reid’s fingers, and he thought he might begin shivering at any moment. But Reid was smiling at him from the darkness just beyond the lamp’s halo.
“Merry Christmas, Aaron. Come out to the bar for a drink with the team when you’re done. I think you’ll find it’s worth the effort.”
Hotch’s stomach bottomed out at the sound of his first name and he knew that his plans for the evening had been suddenly and irrevocably altered.
“I’ll take your suggestion into consideration,” he said in his most official tone, but he wasn’t fooling anyone in that room. “Merry Christmas, Spencer.”
Hotch watched Reid walk to the doorway and then pull up short, turning back with one hand on the frame and the other holding his copy of Mark Twain.
“I enjoyed our day in Manhattan. I don’t think I told you that.”
“So did I,” Hotch said. “But I could’ve lived without being trapped in an elevator with Sherlock Holmes.”
Reid shrugged. “Sherlock may be an ass, but he was right, wasn’t he? The scarf was intimate.”
Hotch didn’t care if Sherlock was right about every insight he’d ever had, he wouldn’t thank him for his condescension. A hot curl of curiosity snaked through him in that moment and before he could consider the consequences, he said it aloud.
“Did Sherlock give you the purple scarf?”
Reid held still in the doorway and then Hotch heard the distinct sound of laughter.
“God, no. Sherlock has never given anyone anything other than a hard time. Mom gave me that scarf the day I left for college. She said it was to remind me on tough days that somewhere out there someone was holding me close. I had a lot of tough days in college.”
“Oh, well… I wouldn’t want you to give up that connection… you should-”
“Burn the receipt, Aaron. I’m not giving it back.”
Hotch sat up straighter at his desk. He suddenly felt fortified, at right angles where his joints connected, too sturdy to shatter or topple. And that’s when he felt the grin on his face, one that he rarely gave to anyone anymore. His mind whispered, this is what happiness feels like, remember?
“I’ll save a seat for you at the bar.” Reid said it and then ducked out of the doorway, disappearing without waiting for a reply.
Hotch sat for a while, his paperwork forgotten. He didn’t really need to finish it anyway; it had just been an excuse. He watched the empty doorway but only saw a hazy reflection in a Manhattan shop window. Standing side by side, they stood close enough to feel each other’s warmth through their coat sleeves despite the frigid greyness around them. In that reflection, Hotch watched the wind tangle Reid’s hair, and sprinkle fat, heavy snowflakes along his jacket, his shoes, and the wool scarf wrapped tightly around his neck containing all the colors that he favored.