Chapter 1: Prologue & Section One
"For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack." - Rudyard Kipling
Jason Gideon stared out over the slowly gathering audience of Cal Tech staff and students that had come to listen to his seminar on profiling and careers in the FBI. He had felt something gnawing at the back of his mind ever since he'd walked onto the campus early that morning and had spent the entire day trying to place exactly what it was. At first Jason had attributed it to the presence of a small yet active pride operating on campus, as the presence of other shifters always put him on alert, but after meeting the pride leader - a young man whose wild hair was probably an unconscious reflection of his mane - he knew that it was something else, something different. Eventually he'd called Hotch, under the guise of the regular check-ins he'd promised to make when he'd agreed to go on a recruitment tour.
Hotch, their unit chief and pack leader, had immediately picked up that something was wrong. Even three thousand miles away he could tell just by Jason's tone of voice that he was unsettled. Jason had assured him that he didn't need the team to come out, it wasn't the presence of an unsub and he didn't need the pack to back him up, and Hotch had reluctantly let the subject drop in favor of asking when Jason thought he'd be returning.
Standing at the edge of the auditorium, with only a few minutes to go before he was supposed to get on stage, Jason felt the sensation even stronger than before. It was like every sensory receptor was screaming at him to stand up and look, though he wasn't sure what he was supposed to be looking at. Deciding that he had enough time, Jason closed his eyes and let his sense of smell wander. It was a sign of his age that he was able to let his wolf senses mingle so completely with his human ones and it was a double edged sword. Most of the time, it was an advantage in the field, which was all Jason cared about. If some mornings the smell of coffee brewing in the bullpen was enough to send him hurrying in the other direction, so be it.
It was the smell of something intimately familiar that caused Jason to open his eyes. He wasn't surprised very often, not anymore, but to find the scent of his pack in a place where he was certain none of them had ever stood was highly disconcerting.
The auditorium grew quiet, though not silent, as the department head stepped on stage to give a brief introduction. Jason had provided the requested biography, cleaned up for public consumption, but he only partially listened as his background in profiling was presented. He took the opportunity to stand, turning to look across the audience without the stage lights blinding his vision. Once he found the other shifter - Jason was absolutely certain of that much - his eyes confirmed what his nose had told him: pack. He didn't have time to see much more than a young man with his eyes hidden by glasses and brown hair that was worn longer than was currently fashionable obscuring most of his features, but Jason knew that he'd be able to find the man in an instant now that he'd seen and scented him.
The department head finished his introduction, an unnecessarily lengthy one in Jason's opinion, and Jason walked up onto the stage and took his place in front of the podium. He had given the recruitment song and dance more times than he could recall over his years with the FBI, more than he could count just in his past six months of leave after the bombing in Boston, and he knew how to make the work they did sound both important and appealing. He knew enough to leave out the parts where he had seen hundreds bodies of people who had been brutally killed and how sometimes they didn't make it in time to save the life of a child. Usually he stated that the emotional toll of the work was heavy, but left out that after a dozen years the nightmares were impossible to pick apart. But, tonight, Jason gave a different lecture; he told them what it was like to lose a team member because of a judgement call you made, and how the job made up your entire life. The auditorium had fallen eerily silent; it was rare for crowds to ever be completely quiet, and when Jason looked up he found that he had the complete attention of everyone in the room.
Jason focused on the man who he had identified as a member of his pack, meeting his eyes directly from across the mass of people. "It's worth it. Every loss, every minute second guessing, every nightmare, is worth it for the ones we can save and for the ones who never become victims because of our work," he said, surprised to find that he meant every word.
A minute later the department head stepped up and retook the stage, looking unsettled. Jason supposed that it was warranted; that hadn't quite been the recruitment speech he'd signed up to give. He moved to the edge of the auditorium and leaned against the wall. If he was right, the man would come to him, instead of Jason having to seek him out. Either way, Jason knew that he'd be heading back to Quantico within the next few days. He was scheduled for a longer tour, but he could cancel without any problems. Maybe he really had been looking for something when he'd set out on his trip, though he hadn't known at the time if he was ever going back to the BAU, or maybe he'd just needed the time to find peace with himself. He knew now that he'd found whatever it was he'd been looking for.
"That was one of the most interesting recruitment lectures I've had the dubious pleasure of witnessing," the department head said, coming to a stop a few feet away from Jason.
Jason nodded, still distracted as he watched the crowd of students. "They need to know," he said. He wouldn't lie to a member of his pack; couldn't, really.
"True enough, though I'm not sure that you'll actually get many applicants by telling them that they will spend days of their lives believing they are about to die." The man, approximately the same age as Jason, ran his hands through his already untamed hair.
Jason blinked; had he really said that? The speech he'd just given already felt like a distant and foggy memory. "Who was the young man, sitting at the front of the second section on the far right? Longer hair, glasses, collared brown shirt," he asked, ignoring the speech he'd given in favor of focusing on the man who was a member of his pack.
The department head looked out at the students, many of them slowly walking out and gathered in small groups as they talked quietly among themselves. "Ah, of course. Spencer Reid, our resident genius. And, around here, that's saying something. He's only twenty and just starting his third doctorate; engineering this time, I believe. He started his first doctorate here when he was only sixteen, and has additional undergraduate degrees. I'm not sure he's quite cut out for the FBI. I imagine he only came because he was interested in hearing the lecture. Spencer typically attends most of the guest lectures on campus. If you're interested in meeting with him, I might be able to arrange something."
"That won't be necessary," Jason said before he turned to find the young man in question standing to the side of the auditorium. Spencer was watching them with a contemplative expression, staring at Jason like he was a problem to be solved or a question to be answered. Jason picked up his bag from the seat where he'd left it and nodded his farewell to the department head before walking up the aisle.
The young man, though to Jason he seemed hardly more than a child, was taller than Jason had expected, though it was belied by his thin frame. Up close Jason could see the dark circles underneath Spencer's eyes, and the prominent bones at his wrists jutting from beneath the cuffs of his shirt. Spencer looked startled to be approached, his eyes widening as he moved back a step.
Jason stopped well outside of what was the typical comfort zone of a shifter, even though as pack mates he should have been welcome much closer. "I thought we might talk, perhaps you could suggest a restaurant in the area that you prefer?"
Spencer stared, a torrent of emotions flickering across his face. "I have questions. In an interview, you said that Palmer Johanson was caught because his psychosis caused him to deviate from typical behavior during the investigation, but given his history of psychological treatment and consistent medication state, isn't that downplaying his motivation? I mean, when he was interviewed he wasn't displaying any signs that he was experiencing hallucinations or other indicators that he wasn't capable of connecting to reality."
"A local diner that you are fond of, perhaps?" Jason asked, resisting the temptation to smile; Spencer was far more suited for the BAU than his department head believed. "We can talk on the way."
"Pie 'N Burger is point seven miles away," Spencer said. He appeared both nervous and hopeful, watching Jason intently as ever.
Pies and burgers, assuming the restaurant was aptly named, wasn't Jason's food of choice, but he felt that he could be persuaded to eat like a university student if only for an evening. "Lead the way," Jason motioned towards the exit, not unaware of the considering look he was getting from the department head and from more than one professor who had lingered in the auditorium.
"Or do you believe that it was his psychosis that prompted Palmer Johanson to be interviewed in the first place, only hours after his last murder? In subsequent interviews it was never made clear what his motivation was for entering the police station when the presence of the FBI was widely known within the community by that point in time," Spencer continued eagerly as they walked out into the cool evening air.
Jason let himself smile. He was more than willing to talk a little shop and indulge a curious mind before he got down to his purpose. Everything in good time.
Aaron Hotchner looked up from his desk when he heard the sound of Jason Gideon's voice in the bullpen. He couldn't make out the words, at least not without having his door open, but he could sense that things had changed. Aaron had felt a little restless all morning, able to tell immediately when Jason had entered the building even though he hadn't actually seen him yet, but he attributed the feeling to be able to sense all of his pack again. It had been too long, far too long, since the last time he knew that his entire pack was safe and together. Maybe the feeling of completion was an echo of Jason's newfound well being, though Aaron had some doubts that a road trip and a break from the BAU had helped that much.
He tapped his pen idly on the file in front of him; they'd only gotten back from a case in Colorado the evening before and he was still finishing his report. He wouldn't be able to turn it in until after he'd coordinated the entire team's reports, but he liked to have his out of the way as soon as possible because there was always going to be another case demanding their attention. With any luck they'd have a few days downtime to readjust to Jason's presence before they were urgently needed on a case, assuming Jason was still interested in working active cases with the team.
Jason knocked lightly on the door before opening it and stepping inside, his relaxed shoulders and easy movements a world of difference from when he had left just over six months ago.
"You finally decided to come see me," Aaron joked, standing up and reaching for Jason's proffered hand.
Jason clasped Aaron's hand easily, his head tilting away from Aaron and slightly exposing his neck in an automatic expression of submission to the leader of his pack. "I thought it might be a good idea. I figured word would get out sooner or later and I should probably get to you first."
"I'm sure I would have figured out that you'd returned eventually, though you could have told me on the phone that you were coming back." Aaron paused, letting his sense of smell briefly spike as he re-scented Jason. Dropping Jason's hand, Aaron shifted back a step and stared; between Jason's phrasing and a scent that was pack but not familiar to Aaron, whatever had changed was more than just Jason finding some kind of inner peace. "Jason?"
"That was fast, though I'd expect nothing less from you. He's in the bullpen with Derek and JJ," Jason said with a shrug.
"You didn't take a mate?" Aaron asked as he stepped around the desk, confused because that wasn't the scent he was getting from Jason, but he wasn't sure what else would explain the change.
Jason chucked quietly. "No, it's past that time for me, Aaron. I've brought back a cub. His name is Spencer Reid."
Aaron's eyes narrowed in confusion, keeping half of his attention on Jason as he walked over to his window and cracked open the blinds. Sure enough there was a young man standing with Derek and JJ. "Jason, you can't just bring a cub home and declare it pack," Aaron said, not quite sure where to start with voicing his objections.
"I'm aware of that, but he was already pack. You can sense it, smell it, the same way that Derek and JJ can. Look, would they ever let someone they didn't know so close to them without the person being a member of the pack?" Jason asked, settling down in one of the chairs in front of Aaron's desk.
After making sure that Jason saw his look of disapproval, Aaron looked out over the bullpen again and saw that Jason was at least partially right in his assessment of how JJ and Derek were interacting with the young man. JJ and Derek were almost competing for his attention, JJ holding her cellphone up so that the man could lean in and listen to whoever was on the line - undoubtedly Garcia - while Derek was perched on the edge of his desk and smiling broadly. Their body language was the true tell, both of them angled toward the newcomer and pushing at the edges of his personal space.
Valiantly, Aaron pressed his case. "What did you do, Jason? Pick him up off the side of the road and tell him you're taking him to the FBI?"
"Out of a Cal Tech lecture hall, actually," Jason commented mildly. "And he was quite eager to come."
"You can't just pluck a student out of a university and expect him to become an FBI agent, let alone a member of the BAU." Aaron turned away from the window and moved to sit in the seat next to Jason. He was the leader of the pack, and the unit chief of the team, and as much as he cared for Jason as a friend and pack member he couldn't drag some kid into the FBI just because Jason had somehow grown attached. It was as simple as that.
Jason seemed unconcerned with Aaron's objections. "He has two hard science doctorates and undergraduate degrees in psychology and sociology. Not to mention he's a genius and has an eidetic memory. I spent the drive back from California explaining the workings of the FBI and the BAU, and I've already received permission from the director of the FBI to do the majority of his training within the team."
When Aaron didn't respond, Jason pressed his advantage. "You've been putting off adding another profiler to the team because there has been no one who fits both the pack and the team. Spencer will be an asset to this team, but more importantly he is a member of the pack. I knew before I even saw him, before we were even in the same room together. He needs us, Aaron," Jason finished plainly. He wasn't begging or pleading, but simply stating the facts as he saw them.
Aaron turned his head as he heard a small squeal, watching through the window as their tech analyst Penelope Garcia bounded up to greet Spencer. He suppressed a sigh, knowing that he'd already lost this battle even though he'd never had much ground to stand on to begin with. Now that the pack had met Spencer, and obviously approved, they would have a hard time forgiving Aaron if he turned him away.
He wasn't sure if Jason believing that the young man was pack was simply Jason imprinting on the first compatible shifter he encountered, or something else entirely, but it hardly mattered now. Aaron often found that most of being a pack leader and a unit chief was simply reacting to situations that he had no control over and doing the best he could to protect his people. What was done, was done. Unless Spencer was completely incapable of working with the team, and Aaron already suspected that he would be incredibly useful in research even if he wasn't suitable for field work, Aaron would just have to accept that they had a new cub in the pack.
"Send him up and we'll see," Aaron said, not sure why he was even bothering to pretend that he might send Spencer away. Probably something to do with reinforcing the illusion that he had any control over his pack.
Jason smiled, a completely genuine smile that Aaron hadn't seen since long before the Boston bombings. "Thank you," Jason said, and reached for Aaron's hand once more.
Aaron stood and drew Jason close to him, pressing his nose to the skin just below Jason's ear. Once, when Jason had been the pack leader and Aaron had barely been more than a cub himself, Aaron could remember receiving comfort in being held like this for a few moments after a horrific case in South Dakota. It was a relief to have his pack whole again, and if that meant there would be a new cub to watch over, Aaron could live with that.
"Thank you," Jason said again as they parted.
He left the office just before a small ding sounded from Aaron's computer. Aaron sat down behind his desk and opened the email in his inbox sent straight from the director of the FBI, alerting him that Agent in Training Spencer Reid had been assigned to his team. After thinking about it for a moment, Aaron decided that he didn't want to know if Jason had made Spencer's acceptance to the FBI and inclusion on the team as a condition of his return to the BAU.
A soft knock on Aaron's door let him know that Spencer was waiting, and Aaron found himself the slightest bit curious as to what type of person could have called to Jason enough that he imprinted without his knowledge. "Enter," Aaron called, loud enough that he could be heard by a human as well as a shifter. Depending on how much experience Spencer had in his form, his sense of hearing might still be closer to that of a human instead of a shifter.
The door opened, just enough for Spencer to peek inside. "Agent Hotchner? Agent Gideon said that you asked to see me."
"Come in. Shut the door behind you," Aaron instructed, although he suspected that Garcia and Jason would be listening in on the conversation from the bullpen, and Garcia would most likely be passing along any pertinent information to Derek and JJ.
Spencer slipped inside the room and quietly closed the door. He moved so that he was standing in front of Aaron's desk, watching Aaron expectantly.
Aaron took a moment to look Spencer over, noting that physical training was going to be an issue, but being a shifter would probably help with that. He was young, looked younger than Jason had said he was, and if it wasn't for the unmistakable scent of pack, Aaron would be politely but firmly sending him away. "Have a seat," Aaron said, sitting down in his own chair behind his desk.
Spencer obediently sat, still focused intently on Aaron.
Finding the attention a little unnerving, Aaron pushed aside his reservations and went straight to business. "As I'm sure Gideon has mentioned most of your training will be handled within the team. I'll draw up a preliminary schedule and we'll coordinate with the FBI Academy to make sure everything is in order. You have a place to stay in the area?"
"Agent Gideon is letting me stay with him for the interim," Spencer said quickly. "Does this mean you're letting me join the team? Gideon said that it was your decision."
Aaron considered the young man in front of him, trying to ignore the slightly uncomfortable sensation that felt like someone licking his fur in the wrong direction. "On a trial basis. We'll evaluate the situation regularly. I won't lie to you," Aaron said as he got to his feet. "This is a difficult job, with long hours and an irregular schedule. We frequently operate under stressful conditions where lives depend on how quickly and accurately we can profile an unsub and locate them. It can be incredibly dangerous, sometimes deadly. Are you certain you want to be here?"
To Spencer's credit he didn't answer right away and seemed to be giving the question the thought it deserved. He looked down at his lap for a moment, his hands clasping and then pulling apart. "It feels right to be here. I don't really know how to explain it, but when Gideon brought me into the room, and I met JJ and Derek, it was like touching an open circuit. Before, at Cal Tech, I could sense something from Gideon, like something scratching at the edge of my mind, but it wasn't even close. I can't imagine walking away from that, and while I don't have any experience profiling, I find the topic and process fascinating. I want to be here."
"Alright. I'm sure you have paperwork and other matters to settle with the Bureau. When we aren't in the field, the team is in the bullpen by nine, we hold briefings on consultations that we do from Quantico at ten in the conference room. I'm certain that Derek and Gideon will help you get settled in the bullpen." Aaron moved around his desk, smiling a little as Spencer sprung to his feet. "Welcome to the team, Spencer."
"Thank you, sir," Spencer said, his relief visible.
"Hotch, is fine." Aaron reached out to shake hands, intrigued when Spencer held back for a moment before offering his hand like he thought Aaron might bite. Aaron gently took Spencer's hand and shook it lightly. When greeting a pack member, particularly after a long absence or during a more formal situation such as greeting them for the first time, it was customary to bring them in close in order to scent them better and get a sense of their physical state. Given that Spencer was watching where their hands were touching like someone might watch a volatile science experiment, Aaron decided that Spencer was probably overwhelmed with belonging to a new pack and getting to know him better would have to wait for another time.
Releasing Spencer, Aaron took a step back and watched as Spencer pulled his arms in protectively around his body. "Go down to the bullpen, Derek will help you get settled," Aaron said, spurring Spencer into action.
Aaron moved so that he was at his window again, watching as his pack closed ranks around their new cub, simultaneously investigative and protective. Jason had been right that Spencer was pack, and Aaron had some doubts as to whether Jason would have been able to imprint so strongly that Spencer would scent so thoroughly as pack in such a short time.
He recalled how he and Jason had found JJ at a similar university recruitment seminar, how they'd known when they saw her, and how when JJ had bumped into Garcia in the halls of Quantico she'd immediately brought her up to see them. Sometimes there was no rhyme or reason to how members of a pack were brought together, but Aaron had never thought his pack was incomplete before this morning.
Something still felt off; he was certain of his decision to keep Spencer with the pack, but there was still something bothering him that he couldn't place. Resolving to let problem work in the back of his mind, Aaron returned to his desk and went back to the report he was writing. Part of his attention was directed toward the bullpen, feeling the ebb and flow as his team settled in, and Aaron let himself take a moment to savor having his pack safe and together again.
When Spencer had first seen Gideon, the man climbing onto the stage like he was carrying the entire world with him, Spencer had been intrigued - mostly because he'd read about the man as well as all the material that was available about the history of the Behavioral Analysis Unit. Spencer read any background material he could find before any guest lecture that was set to appear, and although profiling wasn't a topic that was usually offered at Cal Tech, Spencer had undergraduate degrees in psychology and sociology and was enthusiastic to hear the man speak.
Then, Gideon had started speaking, and it had been like Spencer's ears had been touched with flames. Gideon's voice filled the room and pressed inward on Spencer, until all he could do was sit frozen and let the sounds overwhelm him. There had been no words, nothing that Spencer could separate out, and when Gideon had finished speaking it was like reaching the surface of a pool and suddenly he could breathe again.
Meeting Derek, JJ, and Garcia had been a little different, but he could feel them standing around him as if their nearby presence was a light pressure against his skin. Right now, as he walked through the building, he could feel that Garcia was in her office, and that a number of the team was gathered in the bullpen. Gideon had explained that he would adapt to being able to sense the pack, and that his senses would sharpen in general with time and practice, but for the time being it was still felt a little like bathing in static electricity. Being around Hotch was particularly intense; Spencer felt like he could barely look away from him while they were in the same room, and sometimes he was certain he could hear the sound of Hotch's voice even when Hotch was in his office and Spencer was in the staff kitchen or in the bullpen.
Spencer had spent a full three days worrying that he was hearing things before Garcia had looked up when they were both standing in the kitchen and mentioned that Hotch was really tearing into the the agent he was speaking with on the phone. Spencer hadn't been able to make out the details of the conversation, but he'd gotten Hotch's tone of voice loud and clear. When Spencer's expression of surprise gave him away, Garcia had simply wrapped her arms around him and told him to just ask someone next time.
"Do you have your go-bag, pretty boy?" Derek asked as soon as Spencer reached where their desks were situated.
Unable to stop himself from blushing, Spencer still wasn't sure how Derek had decided that particular nickname was appropriate, he looked away and dropped his satchel on his desk. "Yes, Gideon said to store it here. We have a case? I get to come?" he asked, both nervous and hopeful.
The team had gone out for a short case only a day after Spencer had arrived. Hotch had left him behind with Garcia because Spencer was still working his way through all of the paperwork and forms that came with joining a federal agency and wasn't yet authorized to do anything official.
"Hotch seems to think you're coming, so I'd say that means you're coming. Now, let's get up to the briefing before JJ has to repeat herself. Trust me, you do not want to be late to one of her briefings. It takes a lot of work to get back into her good graces," Derek said, slinging his arm over Spencer's shoulder and walking with him to the conference room.
Spencer tried to imagine JJ, who seemed so nice, as being someone to be feared. Deciding that Derek was probably just teasing, Spencer shrugged but didn't manage to dislodge Derek's arm. "Where are we going?"
"Lansing, Michigan," JJ said from just inside the conference room, handing them both files as they walked to the round table. "Two couples, both murdered within the last week. The lead detective wants us out there before there's a third."
Spencer sat down in between Gideon and Derek, opening the folder and looking at the crime scene photos that were resting on top of the stack. People murdered, sprawled on the floors of their living rooms and kitchens, the struggle leaving the area surrounding them in disarray. Swallowing with determination, because this was his job now, Spencer turned past the photos and began reading the reports the detective had sent. He used his hand to keep his place as he read through the first page and moved onto the next.
"You're actually reading, aren't you?" Garcia asked as she sat down across from them.
Spencer looked up to find the team watching him and ducked his head. "Yes." He supposed that he should be used to the stares that came when he recited things from memory or read quickly or did calculations in his mind.
"That's so cool," Garcia said, without any trace of sarcasm.
"You're unreal, kid," Derek added.
Spencer looked up again, a little surprised when he found only curiosity and interest instead of the disbelief and hostility that had been directed toward him in the past.
"JJ, if you're ready," Hotch directed.
JJ pointed the remote to the screen that dominated one wall of the room. "Six days ago, a neighbor walked past the front window of the Wilken's household and called the police when she saw this. Three days later, a similar scene was discovered in the home of Liam West." She clicked the remote again and brought up a second photo.
Spencer focused his attention on the briefing, determined that he would help catch this person - this unknown subject, in the words of the team.
"There isn't a pack or pride that works with the Lansing police department, but that isn't reason to be sloppy. Be aware when crossing local pack territory and if it becomes necessary to approach a shifter, do not do so until I have formally introduced our pack. Wheels up in twenty minutes," Hotch said. He made sure he had the attention of each member of the team before standing and leaving the briefing.
Following Derek out, Spencer grabbed his jacket and go-bag from his desk, feeling tugged in half a dozen directions as the team hurried through the building and out to the SUVs that would take them to the nearby airfield.
Spencer turned slowly as he looked around the kitchen. The bodies of the victims were still on the floor; the man on his back with his arms splayed open, and the woman curled on her side with her face hidden in her arms. He couldn't help but turn back to her and notice how she was almost to the living room. Maybe she had almost escaped. He looked up when he heard Derek opening a door in another part of the house, wondering what else there was to be found.
They had started working the case as soon as they'd landed the previous afternoon, spending the evening visiting the scenes of the first two murders, and Spencer had watched and listened, trying to learn as much as possible. They'd spent the night at the police station, Spencer working on creating a geographic profile - something he'd spend almost a full day reading and learning about when he'd been left at Quantico while the rest of the team was out - while listening as the team examined evidence and worked out a preliminary profile. It hadn't been six in the morning yet when they received news that another couple had been murdered.
Now that it was almost noon, Spencer was doubly glad he'd skipped breakfast and that he was used to pulling all-nighters when he got involved in research and forgot to go to bed.
"Spencer, focus. What do you see?" Gideon asked again.
Spencer brought one of his latex-gloved hands up and rubbed absently at his ears. As the case progressed, and the more time he spent in close proximity with the pack, the harder he was finding it to push away the sensations he was receiving from them. Gideon's voice had once again become encompassing and Spencer had found that he couldn't even work in Hotch's presence any longer. He'd finally withdrawn to a side room in the police station in order to concentrate on the geographic profile. "She was trying to get away. The unsub killed the man first, and then went after her. The unsub didn't see her as a threat," he said, kneeling down to examine where a shelf containing a small selection of pottery had been knocked over.
"Why wasn't she able to escape? If there is only one unsub, and they are occupied with killing or incapacitating the man, why didn't she get further?" Gideon asked, stepping carefully around the remains of a half finished meal that had been knocked off the kitchen table.
Noting where the woman must have stumbled into the shelf to account for the array of shards, Spencer stood up straight again and walked back to where the man was centered on the floor. It felt a little surreal, to be standing in someone's home and looking down at their corpse. Spencer had never seen a dead body in person at a crime scene before. He'd looked at the photos, even gone to the morgue to watch the examiner point out the various injuries that a victim had sustained, but this was somehow different. "The unsub killed her to get her out of the way, he wanted to spend time with the male victim," Spencer said, his voice sounding distant to himself.
Spencer nearly stumbled when Derek's hand fell on his shoulder, his feet just barely missing the edge of where a glass had been broken and spilled wine over the tiles.
"Let's go outside for a bit," Derek said, his voice almost as invasive as Gideon's had been.
Letting himself be guided out of the house, Spencer sat down on the steps that led into the backyard. It was chilly, and it took Spencer a moment to remember that he'd left his jacket back at the police station. He took off his latex gloves, the added sensation against his hands bothering him more than he'd realized, and shoved them in his pocket before pressing his face against his hands.
Derek dropped down to the ground a few feet away, far enough that Spencer could feel his presence without it suffocating him.
The silence, only broken by the rustle of branches and leaves in the early autumn wind, was a welcome relief. Spencer listened as his heart rate slowed back to normal and looked up and out at the clouds crawling across the sky.
"Do you want to go back inside?" Derek asked after ten minutes or so had passed.
Spencer got to his feet, realizing that he did want to go back inside. He had been overwhelmed, however briefly, but it wouldn't happen again. He could do his job.
"Thanks," Spencer said, a little embarrassed that Derek had seen him so out of sorts.
"It happens to all of us at one point or another and it will again, probably when you least expect it. The important thing is to realize when it's happening," Derek said.
They walked back into the house together, Spencer immediately noticing details he'd missed when he'd entered the kitchen for the first time and hadn't been able to see anything but the bodies.
Spencer had pointed at the area traced in red, with a darker red rectangle nested inside, and said that was likely the neighborhood, and the darker red the possible block, where the unsub would attack next. Gideon had stood a moment later, examining the map before turning to the rest of the team and added that it would be tonight. Derek had never really appreciated Jason Gideon's flair for the dramatic, but both Spencer and Gideon were proved right in their assessments. Aaron had made the call to deploy the team in the neighborhood along with several units in unmarked cars, leaving JJ and Spencer waiting for them back at the police station.
Derek swore under his breath as he took off running around the side of the house. He hadn't needed Aaron's warning over the radio that the unsub had escaped out a window, but it was good to know that Aaron and Gideon were coming around from the other direction. His feet skidded on the gravel beneath him and Derek wished the cloud cover that had rolled in over the evening wasn't blocking any light he could be getting from the stars and moon.
He turned the corner into the spacious yard and came to a stop, trying to catch any movement that would indicate if the unsub was still running or if he had hidden in order to double back when the path was clear. At least here Derek could see how easy it had been for the unsub to slide through one of the basement windows; they'd never found a point of entry at two of the crime scenes.
About to radio Aaron and suggest that maybe the unsub had gone back inside, Derek had just enough time to turn around as the unsub leapt on him from the roof of the nearby tool shed. They both went to the ground, Derek shouting as the knife that had been intended for his neck sliced into his upper arm instead. The fight was over quickly, Derek first knocking the knife away, then using his legs and unwounded arm to push the unsub off of him and pin him down against the damp ground. His arm was throbbing and he could smell his blood dripping from the wound.
The unsub moved like he was trying to push Derek off, his hips and torso briefly rising off the ground.
"Stay still," Derek said, his voice almost a growl. He wanted to shift, he always dealt with pain better in his wolf form, but he settled for pressing his knee into the unsub's back and reaching for his radio. "I've got him, round the back of the house."
"Right here," Aaron replied immediately.
It took a moment for Derek to realize that the answer hadn't come from his earpiece, but instead Aaron and Gideon were only a few feet away as they raced around the corner of the house.
"I've got him," Gideon said, bending down to cuff one of the unsub's wrists.
Derek stood, watching as Gideon finished handcuffing the unsub and pulled him to his feet.
"Are you alright?" Aaron asked, briefly distracted as a pair of local police officers hurried to help Gideon remove the unsub, but then focusing his full attention back to Derek.
"Fine," Derek said automatically. He tentatively shrugged his shoulder to make sure the damage wasn't worse than it felt originally, not quite able to stop the gasp for air that accompanied the movement.
"There are EMTs waiting on the street," Aaron said, placing his hand on Derek's unwounded shoulder to guide him as more first responders came into the area carrying lights. "Somebody bag that knife."
Under most circumstances, Derek would have pulled away from Aaron's touch when they were in a public space, but he knew that Aaron didn't handle any of his pack being injured well. Aaron's touch was helping him resist the urge to shift, which Derek needed if he was going to last through letting an EMT prod at him for a few minutes. "I'm fine," Derek said again, reminding both himself and Aaron.
Aaron didn't reply except to tighten his grip like he knew that Derek was fighting not to shift. "We'll stay in the hotel tonight. Focus on me."
Derek nodded, trying to ignore the way the blood had soaked through his shirt sleeve and was sticking thickly to his arm. Just before they reached the front of the house, Derek stepped into the shadows where they couldn't be easily seen and turned so that he could press his face down against Aaron's shoulder. He took a few deep breaths, barely registering Aaron's lips pressing briefly against his temple as he focused on the scent of his mate and pack leader. When Aaron's scent had mostly blocked out the scent of his own blood, Derek took a step back and locked his eyes onto Aaron's. He could make it back to the hotel now.
"Tell her you're alright, she won't listen to me," JJ said with a huff as she handed her cellphone to Derek.
Derek smiled and held the phone up to his ear, knowing that JJ wanted to hear that he was alright as well as be told. "Hey, baby girl."
"I don't know why I let you out of my sight. You're gone for two days and someone stabs you!" Garcia said, letting both her indignation and worry bleed through into the words.
"I'm fine," Derek insisted, knowing that offering details of how many stitches he had received would only worry her even more. "We got the unsub." Derek could practically hear the frown in response to that.
"Next time let someone else kick down the door. I love you but I'm mad at you now; give me back to JJ," Garcia said.
"Love you too," Derek replied before turning to hand the phone back to JJ and discovering Spencer watching them both with a very confused expression. "What?"
Spencer blinked and then shook his head. "Nothing. Absolutely nothing."
Derek laughed, his mouth twitching in a grimace when he jostled his arm against his bag. "Sure, just keep saying that," he teased as he tried to keep any indication of pain from his voice. From the way Aaron glanced back, he hadn't entirely succeeded.
JJ hung up her cellphone and dug through her bag to pull out the envelope with the keys to their room. "I got one suite as usual. I figured that Gideon and Spence could share the room with two beds, and I'll take the pullout in the main room."
"That's fine," Gideon agreed as Spencer nodded.
Derek watched as Aaron and Gideon's eyes met, knowing that their silent exchange meant that they had also noticed the scent of another pack in the city. The hotel was out of the local pack's territory, JJ would have made certain of that when making the reservations, but none of them would be willing to stay in separate hotel rooms when there was a pack or a pride anywhere close by.
Aaron set his bag down outside of the door to their hotel suite, Gideon moving to do the same and undoing the zipper that kept his weapon hidden inside his jacket. Usually it would be Derek accompanying Aaron as they checked the rooms, but with his shoulder he wasn't going to be able to draw his gun as quickly or fight as effectively, and sometimes seconds was all it took. He took up his position at the side of the door and kept his eyes sharp for anything moving in the hallway. Other people, other agents even, might consider their routine a little bit paranoid, but one close call had been enough to ensure that they never went in somewhere they were going to stay without checking the rooms first.
Derek noticed how Spencer was standing with his head tilted toward the side, one ear directed toward the door. "You can hear them in there?" he asked, more than a little curious. Spencer was young enough that his senses would still be adjusting, but this was the first time Derek had seen any evidence of Spencer's shifter enhanced senses manifesting.
"You can't?" Spencer asked, looking confused.
Before Derek could answer, Aaron came back and pushed the door the rest of the way open. "We're clear. Jet leaves at eight tomorrow morning, get some sleep," he said as he reached down to get his and Gideon's bags.
"Goodnight," Derek called to the rest of the team as he adjusted his own bag again, the throbbing in his arm making itself known. He could see through the open doors which bedroom only had one bed and when he glanced back he saw Spencer giving the suite a considering look from the kitchen.
"Goodnight," JJ replied from where she was digging through her own bag on the couch. Spencer gave a little wave before he followed Gideon into the other bedroom.
Derek shook his head and smiled, amused despite himself, and closed the door to the room he was sharing with Aaron. He could hear Aaron washing his face and brushing his teeth in the bathroom, and Derek considered it for a few seconds before he sat down on the edge of the bed instead and dropped his bag to the floor.
It had been a long two days without more than a few hours of sleep, his arm ached, and he felt the tug to shift pulling at him again.
"Go ahead. Jason and I are both alert," Aaron said as he sat down next to Derek on the bed.
Derek reached to the side and intertwined his fingers with Aaron's. "You shouldn't have to be," he said after a long moment. It felt like a weakness, to need to shift, even though he knew that he could control it if he had to.
Aaron moved closer, waiting until Derek leaned toward him as a signal that he was welcome in Derek's space. He kissed Derek's forehead and then leaned down so that he could rest his nose and mouth against the crook of Derek's neck. "You've never had any trouble coming back when you need to. And if it comes to it, I'll put a leash on you and take you home on the jet."
"You wouldn't dare," Derek said, mostly playfully, and turned so that he could rest his head against Aaron's.
Aaron sat with him for a few more minutes before he leaned back. "Your choice. If you want to wait until we're home and have some down time, you can."
Derek leaned down to pull off his shoes, already knowing that the choice had been made for him. He could wait for what would probably be another twenty hours, and stay awake all night because he didn't want to accidentally shift while he was asleep. But, if he did that, Aaron would wind up staying awake as well, and probably worrying while he was at it. And twenty hours was a generous estimate; if they got called out on an emergency case - they didn't like to take cases back to back except in unusual circumstances, but it had happened before - he would be a liability to the pack and the team. Everyone was on the same page where that was concerned; team and pack took precedence over everything else. No exceptions.
After removing all of his clothes, Derek examined his stitches and knew that they would tear open during the shift, but it would hardly matter. The healing abilities of shifters were greatly exaggerated, though it did vary from shifter to shifter, but when Derek shifted back to human form in the morning the wound would be closed enough that restitching shouldn't be necessary.
Derek climbed up onto the bed and let himself shift. Memories of the transformation were always hazy at best, and for the most part it was almost like closing his eyes as a human and then reopening them as a wolf. Letting out a small whine, Derek lapped at the wound on his front leg, nosing at it until he felt hands directing his muzzle away. Scenting the man as pack, Derek settled onto the bed closed his eyes.
When Derek shifted back in the morning, feeling greatly more settled in himself and in far less pain, he had the vaguest memory of standing in the main room of the suite while Spencer watched from the doorway to the other bedroom. Examining his arm in the mirror before bandaging it, Derek decided that it was probably a misremembered dream, because he couldn't have possibly gone wandering in the night without waking Aaron.
"I reserved one of the side rooms, it's the most privacy we're going to get without being here before sun-up," Derek said as he pushed himself to his feet. "And believe me, I do not do before sun-up unless there is an unsub to catch."
Spencer smiled uncertainly. He still wasn't very good at figuring out when Derek was joking, or Garcia for that matter. Hotch and Gideon were a little easier; they very rarely joked so it was usually a matter of assuming that they weren't.
The side room was nothing more than an empty space with a mirror along one wall and mats on the ground. When Derek dropped back down to the floor again to resume his stretching, Spencer got down on the floor as well and copied his movements as best he could. He was a little embarrassed when he noticed that Derek had slowed down so he could follow more easily.
"I teach some of the basic hand to hand classes at the Academy when we're in town, so don't worry; I know what I'm doing," Derek said as they stretched.
"I hadn't thought that you didn't," Spencer replied, a little confused.
Derek smiled as he pushed up onto his feet and bent down to plant his hands on the floor. "I know. But what I'm saying is that I know how to train people. I'm not just going to come at you like you're an unsub and expect you to defend yourself."
Spencer's eyebrows shot up; he hadn't imagined Derek would do that, though he didn't have a very clear picture of what exactly they were going to be doing.
"For example," Derek continued, "if an unsub is coming towards you, and you're unable to defend yourself, what should you not do?"
Resisting the urge to roll his eyes, Spencer got to his feet and dusted his hands on his ill-fitting sweatpants. "I shouldn't just stand there."
"Exactly." Derek stood up straight.
Spencer didn't bother to repeat that he hadn't expected the man to lunge at him, or to point out that no one the team had thought the man was the unsub until he'd tried to make a run for it.
It had just been Spencer's bad luck that the unsub had decided he was the easiest way out and had slammed into him. Or maybe it had been the unsub's bad luck that Hotch had shifted and landed on the man only a few feet away from where Spencer was sprawled on the ground.
Aaron had bared his teeth, only inches away from the unsub's neck, and his front paws had pinned the unsub's shoulders to the ground. Unsurprisingly the unsub hadn't fought back at all and had been more than happy to let Derek handcuff him. As soon as the unsub had been handed over to the local police department, Aaron had bounded away and had returned twenty minutes later in a different suit and still looking a little wolf-like in his irritation.
Aaron, whom Spencer had immediately identified as a Gray wolf, was only the second shifter Spencer had ever seen take their form. In the hotel suite in Lansing, Spencer had been shocked when he'd slipped into the kitchen in the early morning to find Derek sitting in the entryway in his sleek wolf form - an Eastern Timber wolf, if his research was correct. Spencer had watched Derek for a few minutes, their eyes meeting before Derek turned his attention back to the door that led out into the hall. Spencer had retreated with the understanding that Derek felt it necessary to stand guard over the pack.
"All stretched and ready?" Derek asked.
Spencer tried to push aside all thoughts of how much of a disaster this was going to be. He knew he wasn't the most coordinated person, not when he routinely dropped things or stumbled over his own feet just in the course of walking down the hallway. But being able to defend himself and others in the field was part of his job and he had to do the best he could to learn the skills that had evaded him for his whole life thus far. "I'm ready," he said, trying to believe it.
Derek grinned. "Alright, now hold your hands out like this, and I'm going to slowly come towards you. Ready?" he asked, holding his own arms up in demonstration.
"Ready," Spencer said again, mimicking Derek. By the fourth time he'd been thrown down to the mats, Spencer felt considerably less ready, though Derek was still enthusiastic about the 'progress' they were making.
When they'd returned to Quantico, Derek had parted ways with him in the lobby, pausing to ask Spencer if he'd extend the invitation to Garcia for team night at Hotch's house on Friday evening. Spencer had stammered, but Derek had said that she'd know what he was talking about and to just let her know that it was this Friday. Reluctantly, Spencer had agreed, getting a solid pat on his shoulders that had very nearly made him cringe in response. He knew that Derek meant well, probably as some fraternal manly way of expressing his affection through physical contact, but Spencer had felt more and more unsettled over the last few days - ever since they'd returned from Sioux Falls where he'd seen Hotch's wolf form.
He'd made it through the training session mostly because he'd been focusing on avoiding Derek's touch, but now that they were finished and back into the routine of the day, Spencer felt like his skin was prickling uncomfortably. It had made him feel sick enough that he had only finished part of his sandwich and had wrapped it up to take with him at Derek's insistence. Derek was a little bit funny about pushing food at him over the course of the day and JJ and Garcia had both gotten in the habit of handing him food whenever he ventured into their offices. Spencer knew he was thin, bony even, but how much he ate had never seemed to make a difference.
Spencer paused outside the door to Garcia's office, wondering if he could get away with just poking his head inside and letting her know before fleeing up to the bullpen. He shivered and rubbed his free hand uncomfortably over the sleeve of his sweater. For some reason Garcia's presence, who he could now sense quite easily, seemed particularly pressing at the moment. Maybe after he spoke with her, he'd go back to his desk and then spend the rest of the afternoon down in the records basement. He had quickly learned that most agents spent as little time down there as possible; maybe it would help him get his senses back under control if he spent some time alone.
He knocked and then pushed the door open, knowing that Garcia probably wouldn't answer and the door would be locked if she really didn't want anyone interrupting. "Oh," Spencer said, briefly at a lose for words.
Garcia was sitting on her couch, not an uncommon occurrence though she usually had a laptop or two by her side, but JJ was on the couch too, with her head resting on Garcia's shoulder and her eyes closed. There was a brightly knit blanket spread over both of them and the remains of whatever they'd packed for their lunches on the table next to the couch.
Spencer took a step back, both a little bit stunned at seeing them so comfortable together and feeling guilty for intruding on what was clearly a private moment. "Sorry. So sorry. I'll come back later! Or I can just email you, or write you a note."
"Spence, what is it?" JJ asked. Her eyes opened just long enough to land on Spencer before she closed them again.
"Come in and close the door," Garcia said quietly, wiggling her fingers on the hand that she had wrapped around JJ's shoulder.
Deciding that this was probably a 'girl thing', because he'd never seen two male coworkers cuddle at work before but had seen plenty of girls resting on each other at the university, Spencer slipped inside and closed the door. Even if it was a 'girl thing', someone would probably frown on cuddling taking place inside a federal building.
"Derek wanted me to tell you that Hotch is having team night at his house on Friday. He didn't say the time, but he implied that you would know," Spencer said quickly, staying close to the exit. Being closed inside the same room as JJ and Garcia felt like he was pressing up against a bubble of static - the same feeling he'd felt in the hallway but only more intense.
"Oh good, it's about time," Garcia said. "You guys have been away on weekends more often than not lately."
"There are sugar cookies on the table, take a few," JJ said, her eyes fluttering a little.
Spencer held up his sandwich defensively. "I just had lunch with Derek."
"Take some for later," Garcia suggested in the tone of voice that meant it was a command and not a suggestion. That voice even worked on Hotch and Gideon, at least when it came to things like computers and sampling various bakery items that she made and brought in.
Spencer carefully picked up one cookie from the top of the basket, and when Garcia raised her eyebrow he took a second as well.
"Consider your message delivered, and tell my sweet thing that I approve of his methods," Garcia said.
It took Spencer a moment to realize that her 'sweet thing' was Derek, before he nodded and fled the room. Garcia was awesome, geeky in all the right ways - she was the only person he'd been able to have an in-depth conversation with about science fiction since he'd left Cal-Tech - but she was definitely easier to handle in smaller doses. The two days he'd spent with her when he'd first joined the BAU, and the rest of the team had been on a case, had been a little bit harrowing regarding the sensations he received from her and JJ's presence had only amplified those sensations.
He made it to his desk in the bullpen and slumped down into his chair, noting that Gideon and Hotch were both in their offices; Hotch's door closed, though his blinds were open, and Gideon's door open as he paced inside. Derek returned to his desk only a few minutes later, his ear pressed to his cellphone as he listened thoughtfully to whatever the person on the other end had to say.
Spencer could still feel JJ and Garcia in Garcia's office, though he couldn't separate them into individual presences, and he felt like he was being pressed against in all directions. Hotch was speaking quietly, and it took Spencer looking up before he realized that Hotch was still in his own office and was speaking into his phone. Gideon's footsteps seemed loud, even though Gideon was in his own office, and Derek almost seemed like he was shouting.
Warm and dizzy, Spencer got to his feet and walked to the bathrooms that were in the main hallway that connected to the BAU bullpen. He made it as far as one of the sinks, planning on splashing some water on his face, when the ground rose up to meet him instead.
Chapter 2: Section Two
Aaron knew something was wrong long before he felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. He had spent most of the day locked in his office, trying to contain the fallout of shifting while on a case. It wasn't unusual for his pack to shift while in pursuit of a suspect; sometimes it was the easiest way to track and take down an unsub, especially when the terrain was rough. However, it was unusual for a member of any pack or pride to shift in the middle of a suburb in plain daylight, surrounded by civilians and a pair of officers from the local police department. Shifting was largely regarded as a private matter, something that should only be done in the presence of other shifters, or with your own pack. There was plenty of prejudice that remained, both from shifters who considered those who used their skills in their work to be domesticated and non-shifting humans who felt that all shifters were unnatural. For the most part, Aaron wasn't concerned, unless it directly affected his pack or a case. As it did now.
The officers who had been with them on the scene hadn't been concerned that Aaron had shifted. If anything, they'd seemed impressed that Aaron had taken down the unsub without anyone getting hurt and that they'd caught the man who'd been on a killing spree in their city unhindered for two weeks within a matter of hours. Their police chief, though grateful that they'd brought in their killer, had been less than thrilled when he'd heard about Aaron shifting and had made his opinions known to BAU Section Chief Erin Strauss.
Strauss, who was already quietly perturbed about the inclusion of an untrained agent on Aaron's team, had been on the phone off and on all morning with the Chief of the Criminal Investigative Division and with Aaron. The Chief had eventually dismissed Strauss's complaint, much to Aaron's relief even though he knew the battle was far from over. Strauss had disliked Aaron's team - his pack - since long before Aaron had taken over from Jason, though she'd taken a particular disliking for Aaron ever since Jason had earmarked Aaron for the BAU directly from the FBI Academy. Aaron had never really decided if Strauss had a problem with shifters in general, or if she simply felt that packs and prides had no place in law enforcement.
It wasn't until Strauss had finally hung up the phone, with a warning that the matter wasn't closed, that Aaron realized the low level of distress he was feeling wasn't coming from his own anger and concern over how much power Strauss could potentially have over his pack within the FBI, but instead from somewhere beyond the bullpen. Aaron stood, walking to the window to look out over the gathered desks, just in time to feel his phone vibrate in his pocket.
"I think you should get down here," Derek said in lieu of a greeting when Aaron flipped his phone open.
"On my way," Aaron answered, hanging up his phone and heading unerringly toward his mate.
The bullpen itself was strangely empty - there was only one other team in the BAU that was currently not away on a case - and there were only three agents at their desks at the very edge of the room. Aaron looked around the room with a single glance, focusing on Derek and Spencer's abandoned desks and deciding that they'd both left in a hurry. Derek wasn't the tidiest member of their pack, which occasionally made Aaron a little bit irritable when it came to sharing both their living and working environments, but it wasn't like him to leave files open and a cup of half-finished coffee on the edge of his desk.
Spencer's desk was even more worrisome, as everything Aaron had seen about him suggested that he was meticulously neat when it came to his work area, even if his bag was typically hit or miss. But there was half of a sandwich and a pair of cookies abandoned next to his keyboard, and one of his drawers was partway open like he'd been looking for something before leaving suddenly.
The assessment took less than a minute, and Aaron moved on to the hallway, scanning back and forth for signs of danger before stepping into the men's bathroom. His first impulse was to go directly to where Derek was kneeling next to one of the stalls with his hand still wrapped around his cellphone, but his eyes were drawn to the pile of clothes by one of the sinks, the telltale beige sweater dragged partway across the floor.
"Over here," Derek said, answering Aaron's unasked question.
Aaron quietly walked so that he was standing behind Derek and ducked his head down so that he could see where Derek was looking. A leopard cub, barely bigger than a house cat, was crouched behind the back of the toilet bowl. Aaron frowned, the only expression of his dismay and shock that he'd let himself show at work, even when there was only Derek to see it.
"He's tiny," Derek said, looking away from Spencer to meet Aaron's eyes.
Aaron nodded, dropping his hand down to rest on his mate's shoulder, feeling a little bit better that Derek had no idea either when Derek spent far more time with Spencer than anyone else in the pack.
"And he's a cat," Derek added, his laugh short and choked, showing how upset he was, even though he would seem calm to the casual observer.
Aaron acknowledged that with a small smile of his own, thinking he should have known one of his pack was not a wolf. "Call Jason. Have him bring us Spencer's coat," Aaron said, tapping Derek's shoulder to get him to move.
Derek rose effortlessly, flipping open his phone and stepping back so Aaron could get closer.
Aaron knelt down, he'd done stranger things than kneel in a men's restroom while wearing a suit, watching curiously as Spencer pressed himself back against the wall and tried to wedge himself further behind the toilet. His dark spots were still close together, not yet formed into the rosettes that would eventually leave him with a lighter and more distinctive coat. It would be easy for Aaron to lean in and pick Spencer up, though he wasn't sure Spencer felt the pack bond strong enough yet to understand that the smell of wolf looming over him didn't mean harm and Aaron wasn't particularly interested in having his arms scratched open if Spencer decided to fight him.
Aaron turned when he heard the bathroom door open, watching as Jason came in carrying Spencer's coat. Fall had been unseasonably cold this year and Aaron had seen Spencer huddling with his scarf and cup of coffee inside the bullpen on more than one morning. Jason joined him at front of the stall, and Aaron noted Jason's complete lack of surprise when it came to both Spencer's form and his current state. Aaron tried to put away his own temper for the moment; as always, there were more important things to attend to than berating one of his pack for not providing him with information he needed.
Aaron accepted the coat without a word, noting the soft lining would make a suitable material to wrap Spencer in until he managed to get him out of the BAU and back to the den. He was about to tell Gideon to go round up JJ and Garcia and tell them to wrap up for the week when he heard their voices through the door.
"It's got to be something hot," Garcia was saying as the men in the bathroom all turned to look at the door.
"I'm sure it's not," JJ replied. "Something's wrong."
"Something hot! They're all in the bathroom," Garcia insisted, promptly shushed by JJ.
"Is it safe to come in?" JJ called as she cracked the door slightly open, concern and a small amount of bemusement coloring her voice.
Aaron closed his eyes briefly, grateful for Garcia's immutable enthusiasm and a little bit wearied as well. "We'll be out in a few minutes. JJ, would you close up my office and collect my briefcase? Garcia, take us off the active team roster until Monday and set all of our phones to forward to our cell phones."
"On it," Garcia called, the door falling shut again.
"I take it we'll be residing with you for the remainder of the week?" Jason asked, standing his ground when Aaron turned to look at him. It wasn't a glare, but it was enough to communicate that there would be a discussion later, when there was time. There was never enough time.
"Very likely," Aaron agreed, watching as Jason nodded his silent assent and briskly left the bathroom.
"He knew?" Derek asked when the door had fallen shut again, regardless of the fact that a closed door wouldn't prevent Jason from hearing their conversation.
Aaron turned back to Spencer, who had lain down on the tile and placed his head on his paws. "He knew."
"Damn it," Derek whispered.
Aaron didn't have to look back to know that Derek was seconds away from either pacing or slamming his fist into something. "I'll handle it. Go collect what you need from your desk and get Spencer's bag."
"I'm not leaving," Derek said.
"You're not. We'll still be right here when you get back," Aaron agreed, waiting as Derek made the decision to comply, as he knew he would. There was always the chance that Derek would meet Jason in the bullpen, but Aaron felt certain that both of them would control themselves.
When the door fell shut again, Aaron sat down just inside the stall, and pulled Spencer's coat so that it was halfway on his lap. "I know you're not terribly interested in coming out right now," Aaron began, knowing that most of his words would be lost when they reached Spencer. He could only hope that some of the mentality of the pack had been absorbed over the past five weeks Spencer had been with them and that Spencer would recognize him in some way.
Spencer's eyes, which had fallen shut at some point when Aaron had been distracted with the rest of the pack, opened sleepily and stared at Aaron.
Aaron sighed and moved a little closer. "I'd really prefer if you didn't shred this suit jacket. It took me thirty minutes to get the blood out of the cuffs, and that was only a week ago. It's not like we don't already go through more clothes on this job than seems descent." He lowered his voice to add; "sometimes I think Jason has the right idea, with the jeans and that jacket of his. Everything just washes out, and if it doesn't, no big deal. Not like replacing your suit pants for the third time in six months."
Spencer twisted his head to the side and after a moment a paw stretched out and landed on the zipper pull of his coat.
After glancing at his watch and at the door, Aaron turned back to Spencer. "Now, here's what's going to happen. Any minute now, Derek and Jason are going to come back in here, and if we're much longer than that, I'm not sure JJ is going to be able to dissuade Garcia from coming in as well. So that they don't have to watch me manhandle you into the coat, I'm going to give you the opportunity to come out now, because I'm pretty sure Garcia will hit me with that purse of hers if she sees me dragging you out from behind the toilet. So what is it going to be?"
Just when he thought that Spencer was going to force his hand, Spencer slunk out and arched his back before climbing onto the coat and kneading his paws in the lining. When Spencer was settled down flat Aaron wrapped the edges so that it would be more difficult for Spencer to scratch him if he tried to get loose, carefully scooped the bundle up and stood.
It felt strange to have a cub in his arms, particularly since it wasn't even a wolf cub. When JJ and Garcia had joined the pack, they'd both been young wolves - and still were - but their forms were physically grown. Aaron felt more than a little ill that he'd sent Spencer out on cases without ever seeing his form. If he had shifted while on a case, even if it had been at a crime scene or an interview, he would have been completely helpless. At the very least he seemed steady on his feet; Aaron didn't think he would have been able to live with himself if Spencer had been blind and mewling.
"You got him?" Derek asked, coming back inside the bathroom with his and Spencer's bags slung over his shoulder.
"He came right to me," Aaron said as he adjusted the bundle in his arms. Spencer was active inside the coat, shifting his weight and pushing his head up so he could look out at the new sound.
Derek smiled a little as he looked at Spencer. "He is awfully cute like that."
Aaron looked down, seeing Spencer's hazel eyes looking back up at him as a single paw reached to press against Aaron's chest. "I wouldn't let him hear you say that. 'Pretty boy' is probably the limit to his tolerance."
"Can't help the truth." Derek smirked. He walked over to the sinks and bent down to collect Spencer's clothes and picked up the glasses from where they'd been placed on the edge of the sink, probably just before Spencer had shifted.
"Let's go to our den," Aaron said, nodding to the door. He could feel the rest of the pack gathered just outside.
Derek opened the door and they stepped out, the rest of the pack closing in around them instantly.
"He's adorable," Garcia cooed immediately, watching in delight as Spencer bristled his fur and twisted around to see the rest of the pack.
Aaron was pleased that Spencer didn't seem interested in escaping, even when surrounded by those who must scent like predators to him.
"He's so little," JJ added, smiling at Spencer before looking up at Aaron, a question in her eyes.
Before Aaron could even begin to address them, he scented a threat and looked to the glass doors that led to the BAU bullpen. Strauss was coming towards them, already looking livid.
Without Aaron having to even give unspoken directions, the pack flanked him. Derek and Jason stood to either side and to the front, protecting both their leader and the cub. JJ and Garcia stood together right behind Derek's other side, in a position of protection but ready to leap to the defense of the pack at a moment's notice.
"Agent Hotchner," Strauss said as she opened the door and stalked out into the hallway, her heels clattering against the slick floor.
Aaron desperately wanted to tuck Spencer somewhere safe, all of his instincts urging him to protect his pack from what was rapidly becoming marked as enemy in his wolf senses. "Section Chief Strauss," he replied, using her full title to remind her that she didn't hold as much power as she liked to think.
"I've just been notified that your team is on stand down for the remainder of the week. I don't have any approved leave forms sitting on my desk, so I thought there must be another explanation for your sudden departure," Strauss said, stopping a full five feet away from Derek and Jason. Strauss was occasionally petty, but she wasn't stupid enough to walk directly into a pack that was standing in formation.
"Pack business," Aaron said simply. It was an acceptable explanation; in all of their contracts there was a simple but powerful section that indicated that to a shifter, their pack would always come first. None of them could be directly fired for taking leave to handle pack matters, though there were plenty of times that worked against them in the minds of those in charge.
Strauss took another step forward, accustomed to taking the dominant position in conflicts. "What exactly does that mean?" she asked, meeting Aaron's eyes in a direct challenge.
Aaron didn't break her gaze, even as he automatically adjusted his hold on the coat wrapped around Spencer when he moved around again.
Strauss's eyes fell to Spencer, her expression indicating her shock and her confusion before she covered it with irritation. "Is that a leopard?"
"An African Leopard cub, Panthera pardus pardus his non-shifting relatives would be called," Jason said, not taking his eyes from Strauss.
That was all Aaron needed to know that Jason considered Strauss every bit as much of a threat as he did. "As you can see, we have pack business to attend to."
"That's Spencer Reid?" Strauss asked, her eyes traveling from Spencer, to the coat and then to the second bag that Derek was carrying.
"Doctor Reid; yes it is. If you'll excuse us," Jason said, taking a step forward.
Strauss stepped back instinctively and a moment later she visibly recognized that she'd lost any power she might have held when she'd backed away.
Derek and Jason moved forward in one smooth motion, JJ and Garcia falling back to cover the position behind Aaron, and they walked into the stairwell that was just beyond Strauss. None of them were willing to wait for the elevator while Strauss was still in the hallway.
Aaron glanced at Jason, and nodded when he noticed the other man looking back. They both knew that Strauss would be on the phone with the Chief of the Criminal Investigative Division, probably within the next few minutes, but there was nothing more they could do about the situation.
"We'll meet you at your house in thirty minutes?" Garcia asked when they reached the parking garage, coming up to Aaron again so that she could lean in to look at Spencer.
"Drive careful, come prepared for a day or two," Aaron said, watching as Garcia held out her hand so that Spencer could sniff it. Spencer did, wrinkling the edges of his nose slightly before leaning in to rub his face against Garcia's knuckles.
Aaron climbed into the passenger side of his car while Derek stowed their bags and Aaron's briefcase in the backseat. He accepted help with his seat belt, his arms full with keeping Spencer contained.
"I'll go slow," Derek assured him, backing them out of the parking space.
"By which you mean five over the speed limit," Aaron interpreted.
Derek shrugged, because that's exactly what he'd meant and that was why Aaron insisted on driving unless he anticipated they were about to be in a car chase. Hopefully Derek would consider that he had his arms full of an inquisitive cat before he took a corner at thirty miles an hour.
By the time he reached the front door, Jason had unlocked it and was bringing in a small group of grocery bags in addition to his go-bag.
"Went shopping?" Aaron asked mildly as he locked the door behind them and picked up two of the sacks.
"Picked up a few things. I wasn't aware he was so close to shifting or I would've already had them on hand," Jason said, stowing his personal belongings in the closet before collecting the rest of the groceries and joining Aaron on the short journey into the kitchen.
Aaron set the sacks on the counter and began to open them, looking bemused at the selection of frozen and raw meat that Jason had bought. Frozen salmon was the biggest item, but there was also rabbit, chicken, turkey, and venison. "Rabbit?"
"They didn't sell monkey or baboon, which is rather amiss of them," Jason replied as busied himself with the sink.
Aaron stored the meat in the freezer and picked up another bag. "Turkey baby food?"
"Microwave one of the jars for twenty seconds," Jason instructed, looking up from where he was washing a bottle. "And if you'd get the formula out as well?"
Aaron uncapped the jar and put in the microwave before finding packages of milk formula designed for very young cubs separated from their packs. "You knew his form was fading and you didn't tell me." Aaron didn't bother to make it into a question.
Jason glanced over his shoulder, coming to pick up one of the formula packages when it became clear that Aaron wasn't moving. "I would think that would be something a pack leader wouldn't have to be told, Aaron. If you hadn't been avoiding him, you would have been aware of the situation quite some time ago. I'm frankly surprised that Derek or JJ hadn't figured it out first."
"That's not the point. He could have died. I doubt I would have been able to compel him to shift if it came to that." Aaron glared, trying to place the welfare of his pack members above his own anger and guilt. "You should have told me."
"You haven't held a pack gathering since my return, which is highly unusual since we ran as a pack almost every week before my leave of absence," Jason stated in that cryptic way he had of bringing in information that seemed unrelated at first.
"I haven't," Aaron agreed, not bothering to cite how busy their team had been lately as a reason. He had been shirking at least some of his responsibilities with the pack, Jason was right about that much, even if he'd been trying to do the right thing. "I should have held a pack gathering when you returned, and I should have made a greater effort to include Spencer. But you still should have told me that he's fading, that he isn't even a full grown cub. What if he'd shifted while we were on a case?"
Jason nodded, half focused on preparing the formula and adding some of the turkey paste. "I'm afraid I didn't recognize how bad it was, or that he was so small, though I know he's been struggling with sensory adaptation. It's a good thing that he shifted when he did, though I'm certain you could have compelled him if it became necessary. He was comfortable with you."
Aaron shook his head, not wanting to point out that Spencer had avoided him nearly as much as he had been avoiding Spencer. He sighed, just a little, and watched as Jason made sure the formula was the right temperature. Sometimes he forgot that Jason had once had another family, and a child, before the BAU and the pack. "He's a cat. I never even noticed."
"You did, you just didn't couldn't define it in your human mind," Jason said. "The scent of pack, the compulsion that surrounds the very notion, can blind us to what would otherwise be obvious."
"Is the bottle necessary?" Aaron asked as Jason raided his drawers for a set of thicker dish towels.
"He won't need it for long, but I'm not sure he's eaten much in his form. Best to start slow," Jason said.
The door to the kitchen swung open and JJ padded inside, barefoot and wrapped in her robe. "I think Spence can smell that, he keeps trying to claw through the carpet under the living room door." She looked from Aaron to Jason, trying to see if the tension between them had dissipated.
Aaron nodded to Jason, their discussion over for the time being; they both held fault and responsibility for the current situation, and had acknowledged it as much as they were able. Aaron knew that he'd apologize later to Spencer. Ignorance was no excuse when it came to taking care of his pack and his team. "Let's go out before he gets through to the floorboards."
"Oh, Garcia already shifted; she nosed at Spence until he stopped," JJ smiled and turned away to lead the way into the living room.
Jason followed her, with Aaron close behind. Inside the living room Garcia and Derek were in the process of corralling Spencer as he investigated the fireplace. Aaron shook his head at the sight. Though his team was predominately comprised of common gray wolves, Derek and Garcia were already anomalies. Most packs were biologically related, and even the ones who were formed through close work environments - law enforcement and government agencies being the most common - were typically made up of the same subspecies. Derek's wolf form was closest in coloring and body type to the eastern timber wolf, and Garcia's was that of a red wolf. To see both of them gathered around a leopard cub was bizarre, to say the least, but Aaron thought that it kind of worked, at least for the time being.
Jason scooped up Spencer, ignoring how Derek put his ears forward with the slightest suggestion of aggression. He settled down into the armchair at the side of the room, guiding Spencer's mouth to the nipple of the bottle. "Go ahead, we'll be along shortly," Jason said, looking up to find JJ and Aaron watching him.
Aaron took a glance around the room, pausing on where Garcia and Derek were play wrestling in the middle of the room before nodding and heading toward the door. He was comfortable being undressed in front of his pack, being nude while in the process of shifting was second nature to all of them, but he didn't particularly care to leave his suit laying around in case it got chewed or clawed.
"He'll be alright, won't he?" JJ asked, following Aaron back out into the hallway. "He's so little, Aaron."
Placing a hand on JJ's shoulder and letting her lean in briefly, Aaron frowned. "He'll be fine. I'll make sure of it."
"I didn't even see it. I just thought that he didn't get enough to eat." JJ pulled back and shrugged out of her robe, shifting before Aaron had a chance to respond.
Aaron opened the door to the living room again and pushed the doorstop in place. There were enough of them now to keep Spencer from wandering into anything he shouldn't. JJ slipped by him, the bright white fur of her muzzle and chest rubbing against his leg as she trotted into the living room.
Undressing in his study and emerging a few minutes later, Aaron closed the door behind him and shifted as he returned to his pack.
Aaron's eyes met his a moment later. Derek got to his feet and made a place for himself next to Aaron on the couch. They sat together for a moment, Aaron's hands running over Derek's shoulders and back. Derek pressed his face to Aaron's chest, resting there and listening to Aaron's heartbeat.
When Derek looked up he found Aaron looking at the rest of the pack on the floor. JJ and Garcia were basically in a pile, only distinguishable where one ended and the other began by the color of their fur. Spencer was curled up against Garcia's side, his ears twitching occasionally and one of his oversized paws resting over his nose. Jason was only a foot away from the others, resting on his side with his legs stretched out in front of him.
"More like a sheep in wolf's clothing," Derek said, feeling the rise and fall of Aaron's chest as he very quietly laughed.
"Something like that. What are we going to do?" Aaron asked.
Confused, Derek sat up, moving so that he was still pressed against Aaron's legs. It was a little chilly to be lazing around in the nude, but he could wait for a few minutes before he got dressed. "What do you mean? Gideon was feeding him earlier, I smelt that. He'll grow."
Aaron nodded thoughtfully. "He will, but what happens when his form is grown? He won't even be fully grown before he's ready to hunt and survive by himself."
"We can all survive by ourselves," Derek said, "that doesn't mean that we should, or that we'd ever want to." He didn't add his opinion about what years of being a lone wolf had done to Gideon; Aaron was already plenty familiar with his thoughts on the subject.
"His form is a leopard. If he was a lion, or even a red fox, maybe he'd want to stay with the pack." Aaron reached out and placed his hand on Derek's knee. "We can raise his form, give him the skills that he needs to succeed in the FBI, but I imagine he'll desire a more solitary occupation before long. Six months, maybe a year."
Derek looked back over to the rest of their pack, focusing on where Spencer was curled up. "Just because his form is solitary doesn't mean that he won't want to stay with the pack. Our form isn't everything."
Aaron nodded in agreement. They'd done as much research as they could about profiling and shifters, though none of it would ever be published. "Have you ever seen a leopard shifter stay with another shifter for longer than it took to mate or raise a cub?"
"No," Derek admitted. "But I doubt they'd advertise it if they did. Where do you think his mother is? He's twenty, he should be almost grown."
Aaron shook his head. "I haven't looked. I'm sure they did a background check before they approved his inclusion in the Bureau, but I never requested the file."
Derek paused, the statement throwing up alarm bells that sounded just like the ones that had started to go off when they were interviewing the unsub that had knocked Spencer over a few days previously. "Why not?"
Aaron opened his mouth like he was about to defend himself, but closed it before he shook his head. "I let my judgement become clouded."
Recognizing that Aaron wanted to drop the subject, Derek decided to let him for the time being. There was a larger problem weighing on his mind. "You really think that he'll leave?"
"I don't know. But we should be aware of the possibility, prepare ourselves for when that time comes," Aaron said firmly, swinging his legs down to the floor and leaving Derek bereft on the couch. "I'm going to go prepare some food. Jason brought fish; hopefully Spencer will be interested because I'm not so keen on the smell to those meat milkshakes."
Derek stared as Aaron left the room, trying to make sense of what was happening in his mate's complicated mind.
Derek paused at the refrigerator to grab a bottle of beer and press his hand to Aaron's bare forearm as he passed by on his way to the dining room. It was nice to be spending time together as a pack again, as opposed to only being a team, and Derek was again realizing how off kilter they'd felt as a pack without Gideon. Casual touches and stepping into each other's personal space was something they curbed when they were on cases and even when they were at Quantico. They were all too aware of how they'd be perceived by others who weren't shifters, and being constantly on guard in addition to working in changing and dangerous environments was wearing.
Derek stopped by Gideon as well, standing next to the man and watching him shake the frying pan over the stove as the oil inside popped and sizzled. Gideon glanced over and Derek nodded in response. He was still angry at Gideon, probably would be at least until Spencer was well, but he was glad to have him back on the team. Gideon returned to his task, humming quietly as he set down the pan and moved to the spices he'd arranged on the counter.
He heard voices from the dining room well before he stepped inside, smiling as he listened to JJ and Garcia cooing over Spencer. Spencer didn't have to worry about getting any flack from him about being tiny and adorable because Garcia was going to drive the poor kid crazy with it before Derek even got a chance to say a single word.
"Hold him up a little bit higher. Spencer, look at me," Garcia was saying as Derek entered the dining room.
JJ adjusted her hold on Spencer. "He doesn't want to look up."
Derek was unsurprised to find JJ and Garcia sitting at the table, JJ holding Spencer up on the table while Garcia was taking pictures with her phone. Spencer looked about as unhappy as a leopard could look, and Derek could imagine what Spencer's expression would be if he was human with his hair falling over his face as he tipped his head forward and sulked.
The flash went off again on Garcia's phone and Derek decided enough was enough, because there was taking pictures of Spencer being cute and there was cruel and unusual punishment, and this was starting to fall into the latter category. "Hand over the pretty cat," Derek said, grinning at JJ and Garcia's mostly feigned dismay.
"He's so sweet, how can I not take pictures of that!" Garcia defended herself, snapping another picture of JJ handing Spencer to Derek.
Derek held up a hand to block the second shot, not desiring to be blinded by the flash. "Put the phone away, baby girl, because I'm pretty sure Spencer will be more than happy to wage a geek war on you to reclaim those pictures if he knew about them."
"He would," JJ said, reaching for her glass of wine. "Just ask him what he did to the photos I took of him and Aaron napping together on the couch."
"As I've told you before, many times, I did not touch those photos." Derek didn't bother to hide his grin as he sat down next to JJ, out of the range of Garcia's phone unless she got up, and settled Spencer in his lap. It was the truth, even though JJ hadn't believed a word of it. Derek had, however, given Aaron some very precise instructions on how to find the pictures on JJ's computer and delete them.
Garcia leaned around JJ to look at him appraisingly. "You mess with my phone and I will buy you a dog house to stay in."
Derek just laughed and managed to grab Spencer before he slid down his leg to the floor with claws digging into his knee. "I don't think so, pretty boy. You stay put," he said to Spencer, turning him so that he'd be more likely to try and climb up his chest or onto the table.
There was a minute of quiet as Spencer attempted to scale Derek's chest, and when Derek looked up he saw JJ and Garcia looking at each other and communicating something just through the minute shifts in their expressions. "What?" he finally asked, their silent conversation passing too quickly for him to decipher.
JJ turned so that she was facing Derek and raised her eyebrows in a mostly believable emulation of innocent curiosity. "Nothing." She turned back to Garcia before adding, "we are so placing bets on this."
"You're on," Garcia said with the grin that meant she was doing something mischievous and possibly not legal.
Derek decided that occasionally - usually when it came to JJ and Garcia - ignorance was bliss, and went back to gently stroking the back of Spencer's head and rubbing behind his ears. Spencer arched his back and leaned in against him, laying down on Derek's lap as soon as Derek moved onto rubbing Spencer's stomach.
The flash of light from the other side of the table was enough to let him know that Garcia had snuck around so she could get a better shot of them with her phone.
"Last one, I swear!" Garcia quickly tucked her phone into the pouch of her sweatshirt, giving Derek a look that was practically daring him to come take it.
"It's not me you have to worry about," Derek reiterated, though he might talk Garcia into showing him the pictures later. He raised an eyebrow menacingly and Spencer placed his front paws on the table and pulled himself up to see over the edge.
Garcia was already reaching for her phone again, but was interrupted when Aaron and Gideon came in with dinner. They dug in quickly, easy conversation filling the air and as soon as Derek had cleared his place he took pieces of the raw fish and dragged them along the edge of the table for Spencer to bat at clumsily with his paws before he ate. The casual pack meals, sitting around half-dressed in sweats and old jeans so they could shed their clothes and shift with ease, was another thing Derek had missed. They stayed at the table for more than an hour, sharing light stories and amusing anecdotes, even though they'd heard them all before and most of them had been there when they'd occurred.
Derek passed Spencer back to JJ with a warning glance at Garcia before he pitched in with the clean up.
"Shall we go for a run?" Aaron asked as he finished loading the dishwasher.
Derek glanced out the window; it was dark and cold outside, and he wanted nothing more than to bound through the small wooded area that comprised their pack's territory. "A quick one. We can be back in half an hour," he said, knowing that Aaron was as concerned as he was about leaving Spencer alone in the den.
"We can stay here." JJ entered the room, carefully cradling Spencer, who had settled down again immediately after he'd finished the fish.
"We don't mind a night in," Garcia added, bringing in the empty wine bottle they'd finished over dinner.
Aaron nodded and started the dishwasher before taking off in the direction of the porch with Gideon right behind him. Derek didn't bother to leave the kitchen, simply tossing the dishtowel in the direction of the sink before stripping off his shirt and pants and shifting to the sound of Garcia's whoop of approval.
The air came alive around him and Derek bounded in the direction of his mate and oldest pack mate, the house disappearing rapidly behind them as they ran side by side into the night.
The most pressing thought was that this wasn't his bed, not his bed at Cal Tech and not his bed in the guest room at Gideon's house, and it didn't feel like a hotel bed either. The thought that immediately became more pressing was that he was stark naked. The last time he could remember falling asleep naked was when he was nine and the late July heat in Vegas had been unbearable and their electricity had been turned off so the fans and the air conditioner weren't working.
Spencer's eyes popped open and he tugged the sheet higher up his chest and looked around the room for any clues as to where he was and if his clothes were anywhere in sight. It wasn't a room he'd been in before. It was reasonably spacious for a master bedroom, with a king sized bed in the middle of a room that was set up for two occupants. The last thing he could remember was eating lunch with Derek and proclaiming that it had been the most government coffee shop he'd ever been in. Derek had laughed, grinning widely before tossing a small piece of bread at him.
Spencer eyed each of the dressers and the closet, wondering how bad of an idea it would be to borrow someone's clothes if he didn't knew who they were. Finally, he spotted a tie resting on a small table; the tie that Aaron had been wearing on the jet when they were on their way back from Sioux Falls. At least that answered the question of where he was, though he didn't really want to examine why he was naked in his boss's bed, especially since he barely knew the man.
He slid toward the edge of the bed but stopped and clung tighter to the sheet when he heard footsteps approaching in the hallway. The door opened and Derek came in, bare chested and carrying Spencer's bag. "I forgot to bring this up on Wednesday. Figured you'd want something to wear. Gideon said he heard you wake up, something about your breathing patterns changing."
"Thanks?" Spencer asked, staring as Derek placed the bag on the bed and then went to dig through one of the drawers.
"Coffee is ready downstairs. I imagine you're like the rest of them and aren't fully functioning until you've had at least a cup?" Derek asked as he stood up and pulled a shirt over his head.
"This is your bed?" Spencer asked, wondering if he climbed back in bed and closed his eyes if everything would be back to normal when he opened them again.
Derek grinned. "I'm going to take that as a yes. The bathroom is through that door, feel free to grab a shower. See you downstairs, pretty boy."
Spencer blinked, feeling himself flush all the way down to his chest. He felt a little weird, like he'd been having an intense and involved dream that he couldn't quite remember but was somehow important. Maybe he'd hit his head or something while training with Derek, or someone had taken offense to his comment about the government style coffee shop and had decided to take him out, though he wasn't sure exactly how either of those situations ended with him naked and in Derek and Hotch's bed.
He listened carefully, realizing that he could hear and sense the rest of the team in the house, but none of them were near the bedroom. Spencer crept to the bedroom door, closing it tightly before he grabbed his bag and dashed into the bathroom, locking that door behind him.
His reflection in the full length mirror behind the door startled him and Spencer thought that it was no wonder JJ and Garcia kept pushing food at him. He didn't remember being this thin before, though he didn't exactly make a habit of checking himself out in the mirror. He felt better though, more awake and refreshed than he had in a long time, and he was actually hungry for more than just coffee.
Showering quickly, Spencer changed into the spare set of clothes in his bag and slung it over his shoulder before heading down the steps and towards where he could hear Hotch and Derek in the kitchen.
"How do you like your eggs?" Hotch asked, looking up from the frying pan before Spencer had even stepped onto the kitchen floor.
"Scrambled?" Spencer guessed, looking over the homey scene in front of him. Gideon was sitting on a stool at the kitchen counter with a section of the newspaper spread out in front of him and a cup of coffee by his elbow, Aaron in front of the stove while Garcia cracked eggs and pulled pieces of toast out from the toaster. Derek was pouring a glass of orange juice next to the fridge, and smiled at Spencer before walking through the kitchen.
"Coffee is in the pot, mugs are in the cupboard directly above," Hotch directed as he picked up a spatula.
Spencer watched as Gideon took a sip of his own coffee and turned the page of the newspaper and Garcia popped four more slices of bread into the toaster. The coffee was probably safe enough if Gideon was drinking it, though Spencer wondered if this is what being drugged felt like. The last thing he could remember having was coffee.
"Poor thing," Garcia practically cooed as she turned to him. "Still not quite back on two feet yet?"
"Right," Spencer agreed uncertainly and wandered to the cabinet above the coffee pot. He poured himself three fourths of a cup, before topping it off with half-and-half and several spoonfuls of sugar. Derek had laughed at him the first time he'd watched him prepare his coffee, but Spencer didn't care. He needed the sugar this morning.
Aaron finished with the eggs and eased the onto a plate with two slices of toast. "Bacon is on the table in the dining room. We'll talk after breakfast," he said as he held the plate to Spencer and motioned in the direction that Derek had gone earlier.
Spencer accepted it, his stomach winning out over his curiosity for once partly because he didn't even know what questions he should be asking.
JJ and Derek were already sitting at the table and JJ smiled cheerfully. "I was wondering if you were going to wake up today." She pushed the plate of bacon down the table and Spencer took a few slices.
"What day is it?" he asked, taking a bite of his eggs and suddenly realizing how hungry he really was.
"Saturday." Derek reached over and grabbed another slice of bacon from the platter.
Spencer looked down at his plate, picking up a slice of bacon and turning it in his fingers. "We were in the gym on Wednesday?"
"That's the last thing you remember?" Derek asked.
"I remember that we had lunch, that chocolate muffin was really good, and then we came back to the BAU," Spencer said, turning in his chair as the rest of the team joined them at the table with their own plates of food.
"After breakfast," Hotch said, who'd obviously been listening to their conversation from the other room.
Spencer went back to his food, looking up halfway through the meal when he realized at least one thing had changed. Sitting next to Hotch no longer felt completely overwhelming; now it wasn't any different than the low level pressure he received from the rest of the team. Finding the change a curious, if welcome, relief, Spencer listened to the light conversation and quietly mulled over the problem.
Hotch sat down behind his desk and waited for the minute it took for Spencer to completely scan the titles of his bookshelves. "I gather you don't remember shifting in the bathroom at the BAU? Or anything that happened while you were in your form?" he asked when Spencer sat down in one of the chairs near the window.
Spencer shook his head mutely, his mind scrambling for details. At least the memory loss made sense now, though he could generally recall closer to the time he shifted better. "I remember, turkey?" he asked. He was fairly certain that's what he remembered the most, but even that flavor was a little hazy.
The corner of Hotch's mouth quirked up. "Yes, you had turkey. That's all you remember?"
After thinking about it for another minute, Spencer nodded. "I think so."
"Spencer, when was the last time you shifted?"
"Four years, eight months and six days ago." He didn't have to think to know the answer to that question. "I don't know why I did this time. It won't happen again."
Hotch frowned, looking deeply troubled. "You haven't felt the compulsion to shift for nearly five years?"
Spencer shrugged uncomfortably. "I'm not even really sure what that feels like. Most of the time, the couple of minutes before I shift are a little blurry. I don't even mean to shift, it just happens. I wasn't even aware I was a shifter until I changed for the first time."
"That must have been difficult," Hotch offered neutrally.
Spencer looked away, focusing outside the window where he could see a tree in the process of losing its dark orange leaves. "Surprising," he agreed. "It took me a while to figure out what had happened."
Hotch paused before he tapped the file that was sitting on top of his desk. "I requested a copy of your background check. Your mother is mentally ill, and I'm guessing she isn't a shifter?"
"No." Spencer looked down, a little embarrassed to realize that of course his boss was aware that he'd committed his mother to a sanitarium. It had been just over two years and while Spencer had dropped by the sanitarium on his way cross country with Gideon - though he hadn't told him where he was going - she had been't been entirely compos mentis when he'd visited. He didn't think she'd forgiven him for committing her and part of him wondered if she ever would.
"And she nor your father never arranged for another shifter in the community to care for you while you were in your form?" Hotch asked.
Spencer's eyes narrowed, feeling his hackles rise the exact same way that they did when other kids in the neighborhood had made fun of him and his mother. "I never told her that I was a shifter. My father left before I was born, I've only met him once and he seemed disinclined to repeat the experience. Are we finished?"
Hotch's expression flashed briefly with suppressed anger before he cleared his face. "I wouldn't be pressing the issue but it is relevant. Have you heard of a shifter's form fading?"
After quickly running his mind through everything he'd read about shifters - which wasn't much, though it wasn't for a lack of trying - Spencer shook his head. "There isn't much research published about shifters and most of the speculative fiction about them contradicts itself on basic facts."
"Shifters don't typically let themselves be studied and holding one captive is a remarkably difficult feat. After a shifter hasn't been in their form for a period of time they start to become ill. Nothing obvious or definitive, but they are thin and frequently tired, almost like they're wasting away. Eventually, they lose the ability to take their forms altogether and they typically die within a year of that time." Hotch leaned forward, looking gravely concerned. "I'm honestly surprised that after almost five years you were able to shift without being compelled."
Spencer stared, trying to process what Hotch was telling him. "Compelled?" he asked, because that was the part that didn't make any sense to him.
"A pack leader can compel one of their pack to shift, though it's only done infrequently among most packs," Hotch explained. "I'm doubtful that I would have been able to compel you, as you are still in the process of bonding with the pack.
"I could have died?" Spencer asked after a few minutes of silence.
Hotch looked uncomfortable. "Yes, and I apologize. I should have been aware of the situation far sooner and been making arrangements to help you. As the situation stands we will do everything we can to ensure that you are able to shift on your own and at your discretion."
Spencer sat back in the chair and turned to look out the window again. His chest felt a little tight, but he supposed that was to be expected when being given a life or death ultimatum.
"I'll let you have some time, it's a lot to take in," Hotch said, getting to his feet and leaving Spencer in the office.
Spencer pulled his knees up to his chest and leaned his head against the wall, watching as the wind tore leaves off the tree outside the window. He felt chilled again, and the breakfast he had felt so hungry for only an hour early churned in his stomach. The team was milling inside the house and Spencer felt Garcia shift, letting her in when she started scratching at the door to the office. They sat together on the floor, Spencer leaning against Hotch's desk as he ran his hand through the deep reddish-brown fur of her thick coat.
Chapter 3: Section Three
They returned to work on Monday, Spencer a little bit embarrassed to hear from Garcia about the altercation in the hallway that had taken place because of him. Of course, he'd been even more embarrassed to hear her coo at how adorable he'd been and how she just wanted to take him home with her if Aaron wouldn't have gone all sinister and threatening. Spencer had blushed and Garcia had told him not to worry about it, reached up to ruffle his hair, and then dashed off to her office before Spencer could even think of retaliating.
He'd spent most of Sunday sitting in Gideon's home library, curled up in one of the armchairs and staring at the spines of the books he'd devoured within the first two weeks of his stay. Over dinner, which Gideon had pried him out of the library in order to come down to the kitchen, Gideon had assured him that the situation wasn't as dire as it seemed and the pack wouldn't let his form fade.
Spencer had thought about saying that he wasn't sure he minded if it did fade, but that wasn't entirely accurate. He wasn't bothered by being a shifter, especially now that he was part of a pack, but he had assumed shifting was something that was uncontrollable for everyone; that shifting just happened and that was that. On Saturday seeing the rest of the team shifting in and out of their forms easily had disabused him of that notion, but he couldn't imagine reaching that point. He wouldn't mind losing his ability to shift into his form, but not if that meant dying. Not now that he actually had something to live for.
When Spencer had looked up, he found Gideon watching him knowingly with that eerie way Gideon had of seeming like he knew every thought that was passing through his mind. Spencer shrugged and went back to moving the pasta that Gideon had cooked around on his plate. "I'm a fast learner," he'd finally said, and Gideon had let the subject matter drop.
"Hey, pretty boy," Derek called when Spencer reached their desks.
Spencer put down his coffee and his bag and then turned to stare at Derek. "Why do you call me that?"
Derek blinked in surprise, like he'd never even thought about it. "I give people nicknames, that's what I do. Garcia is my baby girl and you're my pretty boy."
"You don't have a nickname for Hotch," Spencer pointed out as he took off his coat and sat down.
Derek grinned. "I most certainly do, but I am sworn to secrecy."
Spencer decided that was probably something he didn't want to know and continued on. "You don't have a nickname for Gideon."
"I do have one for him, but it's not something that I'd ever say while he and I were in the same city. He has ears like a rabbit." Derek nodded and then glanced around the room to see if Gideon was in the bullpen or his office.
"Relax, he's teaching at the Academy this morning," Spencer said. "Besides, dolphin would be a better simile."
"A dolphin," Derek repeated.
Spencer nodded. "Dolphins have the best sense of hearing in the animal kingdom, with both a larger auditory nerve and the ability to detect a greater range in frequency."
Derek stared. "Sure. Like a dolphin."
"JJ? You don't have a nickname for her," Spencer pressed.
Derek nodded. "Ah, like I told you, you don't mess with JJ. She'll kick your ass."
"You mean she'll kick your ass?" Spencer asked.
"That too," Derek said. "That woman is fierce."
"You know it," JJ said as she walked by their desks and handed them each a small stack of files.
Derek groaned playfully and grinned when JJ took the time to come back and swat him on the shoulder.
"Don't listen to a word he says," JJ said with a knowing look at Spencer. "He is a bad example."
Spencer nodded earnestly and flipped open the first file on top of his stack. He was still new at doing consultations, but Derek and Gideon both offered their expertise when he asked for their help. When he glanced up he saw that Derek was feigning submission; he'd also opened up a file and was holding his pen as if he were about to take notes.
JJ looked sternly at both of them before she walked back to her office, though as soon as she had closed her door Spencer chanced looking over at Derek and found him leaning back and flipping his pen up in the air.
"What happened to not messing with JJ?" Spencer asked.
Derek winked. "Sometimes playing with fire is fun."
Spencer smiled, though he wasn't exactly certain what point Derek was trying to make. He turned back to the case file from a police department in Tempe, requesting advice on how to proceed in a series of suspicious accidents that seemed less than accidental.
Nearly two hours later, Spencer heard Derek sigh heavily and looked over. The work they did, reading all of the details about vicious murders and assaults, was sometimes hard to stomach. Spencer had talked through a few of the cases with Gideon in the evenings, asking the most important question of all: why? There were answers, most of which were based in psychology; environment, development, genetic predisposition, and interactions among those variables, but none of them could really touch on what he meant by the question.
"What's wrong?" Spencer asked, following Derek's line of sight up to Hotch's office.
"Bad case, coming our way." Derek nodded at where they could see Hotch through the window, standing behind his desk and nodding to JJ.
Spencer closed his eyes and focused in the direction of Hotch's office, but still couldn't make out distinct words in their conversation. "How do you know?"
Derek stood up and started cleaning up his desk. "I know Aaron."
A moment later, JJ and Hotch came out of the office and Hotch walked to the balcony that overlooked the bullpen. "BAU team in the conference room in five minutes."
Spencer stood and started to tidy up his work area as well, glad that he'd washed the clothes in his go-bag yesterday.
"Spencer, a word please," Hotch said before walking back into his office.
Confused and a little startled, Spencer shut his desk drawer and turned to Derek to see if he knew what was happening. Derek just shook his head and gave a half shrug. "Better get up there, pretty boy."
"One day I am going to be impervious to that," Spencer warned as he hurried away, fighting back the flush he could feel coloring his face.
Hotch leaned so that he was resting against his desk. "Because I didn't realize that your form was still a young cub, not even to the juvenile stage of development yet. I can't bring a member of the pack out into the field if they're completely helpless."
Spencer frowned and folded his arms. "It's a moot point. I'm not going to shift in the field." He thought about pointing out that he wasn't particularly threatening in his human form either, but figured that wouldn't help his case.
"You don't know that. When you have more control over you ability to shift and have grown to the point where you're able to defend yourself in your form, I will reassign you to field work." Hotch glanced at the closed door. "I know that's not what you want to hear."
"I have't shifted for almost five years before last weekend, I think chances are pretty minuscule that I'll shift on a case," Spencer said, not willing to back down easily. A lot of people looked at him and thought that he wouldn't stand his ground. They saw a timid geek or a kid who should only be just out of high school; they didn't see someone who had gone to the university when he was twelve or someone who had taken care of his mother for years without any assistance.
"Even if there is the possibility, when we know there's a risk, we minimize it. You can stay here with Garcia and still work on the case. You are still providing valuable input." Hotch turned away, obviously considering the matter closed.
"Your premise is faulty." Spencer said flatly.
Hotch turned back, a folder hanging forgotten in his hand. "Excuse me?"
"You want me to be able to control my shifting and for my form to grow, but you and Gideon both believe that I need to be spending as much time with the pack as possible in order to continue activating my bond with the pack which in turn should enhance my ability to shift. If the rest of the pack is gone half of each week or more that will only hamper the connection that is part of the condition of my return." Spencer paused, waiting until he was sure he had Hotch's full attention. "I could stay back at the police station when the team is apprehending unsubs, and I would always be in the company of another pack member."
Hotch sighed, glanced at his watch and the file, and then looked back to Spencer. "If you leave the police station you stay in the sight of myself or Derek. No exceptions. If you feel like you are starting to experience a sensory overload or any other precursor to shifting, you tell one of the team immediately. If I discover that any of these conditions have not been met, you will be remaining here until your form is grown. Do you understand?"
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." Spencer said quickly, both proud and a little shocked that he'd managed to persuade Hotch. He waited until Hotch tipped his head toward the door and hurried out ahead of him to where the rest of the team was waiting in the conference room.
Derek raised his eyebrows curiously when Spencer slipped into the chair next to him. "What was that all about?"
Spencer shook his head minutely and tipped it in the direction of the door when Derek was about to continue pressing him information. Hotch entered a half beat later.
"JJ is going to give us a quick briefing while they fuel the jet. We'll be on our way within the next half hour." Hotch didn't sit down.
JJ pointed the remote control at the screen on the wall. "Ponderay, Idaho. Small town of just under 1,000 residents, burgeoning commercial area. Yesterday morning a crew getting ready to pour concrete in a section of the mall that is under construction saw something in one of the segments that had been tunneled out. They found the body of a seven year old boy inside. By nightfall, the local police had found four more bodies, all of children under the age of ten. They are still attempting to identify the children."
Spencer stared blankly at the screen as she clicked through the screens showing the construction site and the bodies of the children laying in the morgue.
"Isn't it most likely that this is the unsub's dumping ground and they're long gone?" Derek asked, his voice unsteady for the first few words before he regained control.
"The medical examiner says that one of the children was killed within the past twenty four hours, and another within the past five days." JJ said. She turned turned off the screen without waiting for requests to view any of the pictures again.
"Garcia is already working on attempting to identify the children from the photographs, dental information will be sent directly to her as soon as it's available." Hotch's expression was carefully neutral. "It's doubtful that the children are local, but it's probable that the unsub will return to Ponderay and even more likely that the unsub has a history or connection to the area. The best way to find the unsub will be to determine where he is taking the children from and what that connection is. Wheels up in fifteen minutes."
The team reacted instantly, grabbing their files and hurrying from the conference room. Spencer grabbed his go-bag, satchel, and coat from his desk and rushed to the elevator with Derek. With any luck he'd be able to read the file during the five minute drive to the airfield and have something to offer the team by the time they were in the air. All thoughts of his own problems were washed away in the rush of adrenaline, though Spencer found himself nodding ever so slightly to the sound of Derek's heartbeat as they stood in close proximity.
He could practically hear Spencer's teeth chattering as they walked through the construction site for the third time in as many days, this time armed with maps and blueprints. It had been Spencer's idea to come out to the dump site again and Aaron had agreed and sent Derek along with him. If it wasn't for the fact that they were meeting dead ends and had only a basic working profile, Derek would have probably protested.
When Derek turned he found that Spencer had wandered away from the tunnels where the bodies had been found and was once again moving in the direction of the small inlet that would be near the parking lot when the structure was finished. He also noticed that Spencer seemed completely focused on the papers in front of him and was not paying attention to the rough terrain under his feet.
"Reid!" Derek shouted, a few feet before Spencer would have tripped over a low beam. "Watch where you're going," he added when Spencer looked up and appeared confused.
Spencer nodded, looked around the area, and then changed his course slightly.
Derek sighed and shook his head, following close behind because he was sure Aaron would be equally mad whether it was an unsub or falling over a cinderblock that caused Spencer to get hurt.
"You and Hotch live together, right?" Spencer asked, still looking down at his map.
Derek raised his eyebrows, but he'd already learned that the quickest way to get to the point with Spencer was to just answer his questions. "Yes, we're mates."
Spencer flipped over to the mall blue prints again and turned to look across where the foundation and metal frame of the mall was slowly reaching up into the sky. "And you moved in with him right away?"
"About two months after I joined the pack," Derek said, a little bit confused when Spencer switched maps again and walked a few more paces before looking back at the mall.
"And JJ and Garcia are together?" Spencer peered over the top of the map. "They live together?"
Derek nodded slowly. They'd hit it off almost immediately and had become inseparable except for when JJ left on cases. "What are you thinking in there?"
Spencer folded the map back and turned to Derek. "Well, I'm actually thinking that it has to be against some regulation to have intra-team relationships. But the important part is that you live together."
"Pack relations take precedence over standard bureau regulations. But why does our living situations matter?" Derek asked, walking over that he could stand next to Spencer and look down at the map.
"We already had Garcia look at all the occupants of the cabins that used to centered around the dump site," Spencer started, pointing to the copy of the pamphlet advertising the old hunting cabins that had been leased during the early 1980s.
Derek frowned as he looked at the map. "And she didn't find anything, not that there was much for her to go from. But the hunters who brought their children with them that would fit the age range of our unsub are basically all accounted for."
"Right, but she didn't check the maintainer's cabin, did she?" Spencer asked, pointing to two cabins on the old map. They would have been located directly where they were now standing.
Derek flipped open his phone and pressed two on his speed dial.
"Speak and you shall receive," Garcia intoned, sounding a little less cheerful than usual. Derek had no doubt that the case had been weighing heavily on her, especially since they'd only been able to identify one of the children so far.
"Baby girl, can you go back to the cabins that were formerly on the construction site? Look for the owners, maintainers, anyone who would have stayed long term and their families." He was certain there was nothing Garcia couldn't find if there was a record of it.
"On it. I'll call you back in ten." Garcia ended the call before Derek had a chance to respond.
Derek slipped his phone in his pocket and looked up to find Spencer wandering a few steps away. "I still don't get what that has to do with me living with Aaron."
"Well, I was thinking that sometimes people in relationships don't always live together, and sometimes people who live together aren't necessarily in relationships." Spencer looked up, shivering violently as the wind blew harder and rattled the maps in his hands. "And I was curious."
"Of course," Derek said, smiling a little - more than he'd smiled so far during this case. He took off his scarf and wrapped it over the one Spencer was already wearing. "Now, if we're finished standing around, can we go back to the station?"
Spencer nodded, struggling to fold the maps in the wind. "Please."
Derek kicked off his pants and climbed under the covers, half listening as Aaron finished in the bathroom. They had their own room, which was unusual when they were on cases, but the nearest pack was over fifty miles away on the distant edge of the lake. The hotel they were staying in didn't have any suites available, which wouldn't have made a difference to Aaron if he'd been concerned about a local pack. Spencer was staying in the room next to them, with a pair of doors connecting the rooms, while JJ and Gideon were in connecting rooms directly across the hall.
When they'd arrived on the first night, Derek had thought Aaron might make Spencer sleep on their couch, but Aaron had eventually decided that it was safe enough. Derek thought that was probably lucky for Spencer because the couch was in the same faux rustic decor that the entire hotel was decked out in.
Aaron slipped in the bed next to Derek and turned off the lamp. Neither of them had been sleeping particularly well, the unsolved case and lack of leads hovering over them each time they shut their eyes. Derek was hoping that a solid lead and their potential unsub's name and picture passed out to every local police department in Idaho and the surrounding states would be enough that his mind could rest for a few hours. It was all they could do until morning, when they would canvas the area and try to find someone who had seen their suspect.
Derek yawned and moved closer into the center of the bed, relaxing as he felt Aaron's arms wrap around his chest. "How much longer is Strauss going to let us stay out here?" He'd heard Aaron on the phone earlier in the evening, reporting their progress.
"At least a few more days," Aaron said.
"If this was in a city this would be a high profile case," Derek pointed out. "She'd give us more time if there was media involvement." Cases involving children being taken and murdered were usually a media frenzy, but the isolation of the town and lack of bereaved parents leading the call that their children had been taken dampened the coverage of the case.
Aaron sighed and settled them further under the blankets. "Just like I told JJ, it would be a bad idea to bring the media in on this."
"I know, he'd panic. Maybe descend into a frenzy," Derek said, because he did agree with that part of the profile. "But is that better than never catching him because we get recalled?"
"He could disappear if he saw that we know who he is. Go to another state, start killing again and it will take another four years before anyone finds the bodies," Aaron said.
Derek shook his head. "His disposal site is too important to him to just leave."
"Maybe," Aaron allowed. "No more case talk in bed. We can go over this again in the morning after the canvas."
Derek accepted that much at least. He always had a difficult time turning his mind off during a case, even when he desperately needed the sleep. "Goodnight," he said, rolling over so that he could kiss Aaron. He pressed his face against the side of Aaron's, a mimicry of what he would do if they were in their wolf forms.
Aaron returned the kiss and then pressed his face down so that he could kiss under Derek's jaw as well. "You smell like Spencer," he said.
Even in the dark Derek could see Aaron's slight confusion. "Spencer was cold so I put my scarf around him when we were walking through the disposal site. He put it back around my shoulders when we returned to the police station."
Aaron sighed and leaned in, putting his mouth down near Derek's collar bone and nipping the skin lightly. "Try not to get too attached," he said quietly.
Derek set his head down on the pillow next to Aaron's. "It might already be too late," he admitted, feeling a little bit guilty that he'd let himself bond so quickly. But then it had been that way with almost all of the pack; Garcia had grinned at him and called him 'hot stuff' and it had been all over, and all JJ had to do was raise her eyebrows and he was there. He and Aaron had barely been out of each others company after they met for nearly a full month, and this felt like something far closer to that. It was like Spencer had somehow wormed his way into his awareness and Derek couldn't even explain it.
"That's what I was afraid of," Aaron said, pulling Derek closer.
It took a long time for Derek to fall asleep that night, his thoughts now mixed with pieces of the case and Aaron's belief that Spencer would leave them. When he woke up almost two hours later from vivid and disturbing dreams, he found Aaron still awake. Aaron was distant in the way that meant he was keeping careful track of his pack as they slept.
Sometimes knowing they'd done everything they could wasn't enough and the flight back was quiet as they all worked through that knowledge so they'd be able to move on to their next case.
It was almost dinner time, which was when Derek would go pry Aaron from his office, when JJ approached his desk in the nearly empty bullpen.
She perched on the edge of Spencer's desk and folded her arms. Spencer had gone home with Gideon a few hours earlier.
"Why are you still here?" Derek asked. He hadn't even realized that she was still in the building.
JJ frowned and looked away. "Will you go stop Garcia from searching for the identities of the children? I don't think she's been home at all this week and she just told me that I can go home, but she has work to finish."
Derek sighed and stood up. "I'll go get her. Go up to your office and I'll have her come to pry you away from your work." He went to JJ and pulled her into a quick hug, letting her rest against him for a moment before she pulled away.
"Thank you," she said quietly, her wane smile disappearing almost as quickly as it had appeared.
"Any time," Derek said, waiting to make sure JJ went back up to her own office before heading in the direction of Garcia's lair.
Derek knocked once on Garcia's door before letting himself in, immediately seeing why JJ didn't think that Garcia had been home. "Baby girl," he greeted before pulling up a chair so that he could sit down next to her.
Garcia glanced over, her eyes narrowing in suspicion. "You can go away now. I know that JJ sent you."
"Then you already know what I'm going to say," Derek said, spreading his hands in mock surrender.
"You're going to say that the case is over and that there is nothing more we can do," Garcia said, not looking away from her computer screens as her fingers typed furiously.
"I'm going to say that they have another team working on identifying those bodies, a team that has more equipment and resources than you do in here." Derek sat his hand on Garcia's shoulder, only to have it shrugged away. "You've done everything you can possibly do. If you were going to be able to find them, you would have found them days ago."
Garcia finally turned away from her keyboard and glared. "There has to be something. There has to be someone looking for these children; a missing notice, a picture posted on the internet, a face on a milk carton. Something!" She grabbed one of the photos she'd printed of one of the children, a girl of about eight. "This one is has the form of a swift fox, though she wasn't old enough to have shifted yet. Why isn't her family looking for her?"
Derek leaned forward and let Garcia come forward into his arms. "Hey, I know," he said as he ran his hand down the back of her hair.
She dropped her head to Derek's shoulder, her breathing hitching as she quietly cried. "We've only managed to identify two of the nine," she said, "I can't just leave them."
"You aren't, I promise. The forensic team is still working the case, and they'll forward information to you as they learn more. Keep them running through your databases in the background, but you have to put them away now so that you can focus on other cases." Derek patted her shoulder one more time as she sat up.
"Alright," Garcia agreed, wiping under her glasses with one hand. "Give me five minutes to set up a continuous search."
Derek leaned back and watched as she went back to her keyboard, screens flashing and information steaming by faster than he could keep track of.
A few minutes later, Garcia stood up and gathered the photographs of the dead children and pinned them to the lower corner of one of her boards. "The system will send me an alert if it gets any matches, and I can feed in more information as I receive it from forensics."
"Good. They are lucky to have you watching out for them," Derek said, gathering Garcia's coat and purse and walking her to the door of her office. "Now let's go pry JJ from her office before you lose her to case files again."
"You need to relax," Derek said, probably for the fifth time in the past hour. "You're not going to get anywhere if you don't relax."
Spencer opened one of his eyes and then the other, focusing on Derek's semi-blurry form. "This isn't exactly the most relaxing thing I've ever done." He glanced around the small back porch of Aaron's house that had been converted into a sun room. It was a clear day outside despite the chilly weather. Inside the room was reasonably warm, but Spencer shivered every time he looked at the snow. Spencer did have to admit that he was more relaxed now that Derek was wearing pants, even if Derek's bare chest was slightly distracting.
Derek opened his eyes and stared back at Spencer. "What is the most relaxing thing you've ever done?"
Believing that Derek sounded honestly interested, Spencer decided to answer truthfully. "I spent nearly three days without a break solving a math problem for my doctoral thesis. I imagine the experience is something that comes close to the described experiences of meditative enlightenment. I'd go into details on the math, but I highly doubt you'd be interested without being knowledgable in the background material."
"Are you sure that was meditative enlightenment and not almost passing out from hunger and exhaustion?" Derek asked.
Spencer thought about it and then shook his head. "I felt rather invigorated when I'd finished."
"Uh huh," Derek nodded slowly. "Close your eyes again and keep focusing on your form."
Spencer closed his eyes obediently, but didn't let the instruction disrupt his thought process. "We've been sitting here for nearly an hour. Is this how most shifters learn to shift into their forms?"
"No, it's not. Most shifters focus on controlling the urge to shift, not on trying to achieve their form. Stop thinking and relax," Derek reiterated.
Feeling his mouth and nose twitch, Spencer couldn't keep himself from responding, "I can't just stop thinking. Nobody can."
Derek's sigh seemed loud in the enclosed space. "Alright, time for a different approach. How did you feel just before you shifted in the bathroom? Maybe we can recreate that sensation so you can find the path to your form more easily."
Spencer opened his eyes again and reached for his glasses. "I don't really remember much beyond going to lunch with you. Mostly I felt itchy and uncomfortable. I could feel the pack kind of pressing on me, and I could hear everyone really well. Too well."
"That's it?" Derek asked.
Spencer shrugged. "Pretty much."
"Okay, how about the other times you've shifted?" Derek asked. He leaned back on the palms of his hands.
"I've, uh, only shifted twice before. It was a long time ago." Spencer looked down and started tracing the pattern on the edge of the blanket with his fingers.
Derek frowned. "But you still remember how you felt before you shifted, right?"
Spencer nodded; he remembered very well. "Abject terror." He watched carefully as Derek sat up straight again.
"Do you think that's why you're having trouble shifting?" Derek asked. "Maybe you associate shifting with being afraid?"
"I don't think so," Spencer said, shivering again when he looked outside. He didn't think that it was the sight of snow making him feel chilled this time.
They sat in quiet for a minute before Derek spoke again. "You can tell me about it? Maybe we can find something else other than fear, something you can use as a focal point?"
Spencer sighed and rubbed his hands on his pants, wondering when he'd clenched his fists. He hadn't talked about shifting to anyone before, but he'd never had anyone he could talk to about almost anything before either. "I was in high school; I'd just turned eleven years old. One of the sophomore girls, Alexa, asked me to come out to the Field House after school." He stopped talking when he realized that he was blushing.
"This Alexa, she was pretty?" Derek asked knowingly.
Spencer nodded and swallowed. "She'd been nice to me before, sometimes. Talked to me when other kids wouldn't, if there was nobody around. I liked her."
"What happened behind the Field House?" Derek asked when Spencer didn't continue.
"Alexa wasn't there; but about half of the football team was." Spencer clutched the blanket wrapped over his shoulders tighter to his chest. "They laughed at me. Said that I was stupid for thinking Alexa actually wanted to see me. Asked what I'd thought she was going to do with me. I didn't know, which was what I told them, and they just laughed some more."
Derek nodded. "What caused you to shift?"
"They started pushing me around. I got knocked around plenty at school and they were relentless, but this was different. Mob mentality, I suppose." Spencer took a slow breath, hating that it was getting harder to breathe when this had nearly been ten years ago. "They grabbed me and tore off my clothes. They had rope and duct tape. I couldn't get away. And then, I don't know. It was like being pulled in half and I kind of remember the sensation of running, but I don't remember the journey. When I woke up, I was curled up naked on the back steps at home and it was in the middle of the night."
When Spencer looked up, he found Derek watching with his expression open in sympathy. "You didn't realize that you'd shifted?"
Spencer shook his head. "Not right away. A few days later, after the people who had been there were all avoiding me, I guessed. I asked my mom if my father was a shifter, but she was just confused. I tracked him down about a month later, and he told me that he was a shifter; we both were. I tried to ask him some questions, but he was busy. He told me not to come back. Strangely, the football team left me alone after that."
"They probably considered themselves extraordinarily lucky they didn't have a vengeful mother leopard hunting them for hurting her cub," Derek said.
Spencer shrugged uncomfortably. "I suppose."
"Okay, close your eyes again," Derek said.
Spencer did so, because it was easier than meeting Derek's gaze.
"Now think about the moment you shifted. Block out the scene and just focus on that very moment. What were you sensing?" Derek asked.
He recognized the technique as one that they used when interviewing victims to get a recollection that wasn't colored by fear. Spencer pushed the football players away from his memory and tried to create the perfect picture of that moment. "It was loud, but I couldn't understand what they were saying anymore."
"Good. What else?" Derek prompted.
"I wasn't cold anymore. And there was pressure all over my skin even where they weren't holding me." Spencer opened his eyes. "That's a little like I felt at Quantico before I shifted. I could feel everyone on the team even when I wasn't in the same room as them."
"Okay, so it stands to reason that your primary focus senses are hearing and touch," Derek said.
Spencer nodded slowly. "Gideon said that all of my senses would adapt slightly in my human form."
"That's true, but most shifters have one or two senses that manifest more strongly in their human form than is typical. Your focus senses are the ones that will become overwhelmed most quickly, particularly when you're fighting the urge to shift," Derek explained.
"Being surrounded by various types of sound might help me shift?" Spencer asked, purposefully leaving out the possibility of a lot people touching him. He liked the team and felt closer to them than he had to anyone except for his mom, but the idea of having all of them touch him at once made the hairs on the back of his arms stand on end.
Derek smiled. "Probably not, but we'll hold that idea in reserve. Do you want to tell me about the other time you shifted? Maybe we can isolate something there that will help."
Spencer didn't really want to share that experience anymore than he'd wanted to share the first, but he was willing to try if it would help him learn to shift. "I was fifteen and finishing my first two graduate degrees. My advisor in the Chemistry department had been working with me for the entire year. He stayed late with me in the labs because they didn't let students under the age of eighteen work alone. There was only a month left in the semester, which was when I was going to graduate and I'd already been accepted to Cal Tech for my first doctoral degree."
"You don't have any idea how smart you are, do you?" Derek asked.
"I have an IQ of 187, but the concept of an 'Intelligence Quotient' is flawed at best," Spencer said, though he'd understood what Derek had meant.
Derek shook his head. "So you were busy being a genius and probably nearly blowing up their labs every other week," he said to remind Spencer where they'd left off.
"I only ever made one experiment explode and that was on purpose," Spencer said. "Technically it was an implosion, but it still set off the fire suppression system."
Derek laughed. "Uh huh. Keep going before I have to get Garcia to take you to the federal labs to get tested for mutant radiation."
Spencer smiled uneasily, wishing he could keep talking about some of the projects he'd worked on instead of his experiences with shifting. "I'd been finishing a series of basic experiments concerning the Bromate-Bromide Ion Reaction as a baseline for a larger section of my paper on Chemical Kinetics. It was late and usually by that point Ben was ready to close up for the night."
"Ben was your advisor?" Derek asked.
"Yeah. Doctor Burrelt, actually, but he always told me to call him Ben. He'd taught one of my undergraduate chemistry classes, and he'd always encouraged me to ask questions and arranged some lab time for me then as well. He was one of the reasons that I chose chemistry to do my graduate work in instead of physics." Spencer tugged at the edge of the blanket again and looked outside for a moment. "That night he hadn't told me it was time to wrap up, and I figured that he was busy with one of his own projects or grading papers or something. When I finished my documentation I realized it was really late, and that we should have been out of the building an hour ago."
When Spencer looked away from the tree line and the clear November sky he found Derek watching him intently. The corners of Derek's mouth were tight. "Go on," Derek said.
Spencer swallowed hard and looked down at the floor. "He kissed me. And I thought it was strange because it was the first time I'd ever been kissed when it wasn't my mom. I kept thinking that when he stopped I would tell him that I didn't want to kiss him. But he didn't stop. He had his hands holding my arms and I was pressed against one of the counters. Right after that, when he came closer, I shifted. It felt just like at the football field."
He looked up just in time to see Derek shift into his wolf form. Derek's body almost seemed to fold in on itself as fur covered him. The entire process took less than five seconds.
Derek kicked his hind legs, managing to untangle his paws from the pants he'd been wearing. He turned to Spencer and his eyes locked onto him.
Spencer didn't know if Derek even recognized him, he couldn't remember enough about being in his form to know if he'd understood that the team had been with him. He sat carefully still under Derek's observation.
Derek let out a soft whine and stepped forward to touch his nose to Spencer's bare hand. Derek stayed for a moment and rubbed the side of his muzzle against Spencer's knuckles. Then he gave a short bark and slunk through the large dog built into the back exit.
"Garcia suggested you might want a friend right now," JJ said, "and I thought maybe you'd want to try a different approach to shifting for a little bit."
"He just shifted and then left," Spencer said. He'd watched as Derek had ran through the backyard and up into the trees. The minutes after Derek's departure Spencer had spent staring at the forest. He was almost able to pinpoint Derek's movements; the small bubble of pressure from where Derek had pressed his muzzle prickled uncomfortably as Derek went farther away.
JJ frowned. "That has nothing to do with you."
Spencer glared back. "Given that he took off after I told him about Ben, I'd say that it does have something to do with me."
"Think outside of yourself for a minute," JJ said, looking remarkably threatening just by putting a hand on her hip and raising her eyebrows. "Despite what you may think, shifting isn't as simple as choosing to do so. Just like when you were in the bathroom at Quantio all shifters encounter circumstances where they can't help but to shift. Derek will be pretty damn embarrassed when he comes back, and he'll apologize. You don't need to make that more difficult for him."
Spencer blinked in surprise. "I'd never told anyone about that before," he said, defending his response.
JJ softened a little. "I understand. And the timing is unfortunate, but you need to trust that Derek wouldn't have shifted right then if he could have stopped himself. I promise that it wasn't intentional."
Spencer tried to will himself to believe what JJ was telling him and found that he mostly could. "If you say so."
"I do," JJ said.
Spencer looked up at JJ and narrowed his eyes. "Was the entire team listening to us talk?"
JJ shrugged. "Gideon and Garcia can't really help what they hear. They're basically tuned into the members of the pack. It's a survival instinct."
"Like the way that I can usually feel where the team is if they're close enough?" Spencer asked.
"Pretty much," JJ agreed. "Now, shall we try focusing on getting you to shift?"
Spencer shook his head. "I think I'm done."
"Nope. You need to be able to shift even when you're upset or worried or whatever else is going on. It doesn't do any good just to practice when you're feeling well. Close your eyes." JJ sat tall, even though she was nearly a foot shorter than Spencer when they were both sitting on the floor.
Spencer tried to wait JJ out, but when she raised her eyebrow again he took off his glasses again and shut his eyes.
"Since hearing is one of your focal senses, I want you to concentrate on the sound of my voice. As you come closer to shifting it will sound like I'm speaking louder," JJ instructed.
"Why do you call Garcia by her last name if you're together?" Spencer asked. It was a question he'd been wondering about for some time.
JJ gave a short huff of laughter. "Because that's what she prefers to be called, even by me. Now focus on my voice and try to recreate the sensation of starting to shift."
Spencer did his best to listen to JJ as she talked him through what shifting felt like for her, but mostly he listened for the sound of barks or howling coming from the woods as he tracked Derek's location.
Aaron shifted outside of the cabin door and opened it. He checked inside in the dimming daylight before he let Derek enter. Everything was undisturbed, exactly as they'd left it from a few months earlier, and Aaron turned on one of the battery operated lanterns and closed the door as soon as Derek was inside. He put on sweatpants and a jacket; the air was too cold for him to be comfortable walking around naked. Derek had lain down on the rough wooden floor next to the door and seemed disinclined to shift back into his human form.
"Whenever you're ready," Aaron said as he opened another of the plastic storage containers and pulled out a blanket. He settled on the low platform they'd built and leaned against the wall, unsurprised when a moment later Derek crawled up so that he was leaning against him.
He wrapped the blanket around Derek and ran his hand soothingly down Derek's side and rested it in his fur. This was the first time Derek had shifted without meaning to in more than a year and Aaron was certain he knew at least part of the cause, if not the specifics.
From the start, from that very first day Jason had dropped Spencer off in the bullpen, Derek had been focused on Spencer - almost like he was attuned to him. It hadn't concerned Aaron at first because it was natural for a senior member of the pack to take an interest in the welfare of one of the cubs. As they were never going to have biological children together, it made sense that the cubs in the pack were surrogates of sorts, and Aaron had been thankful that there had been one less person he had to be watching closely.
It had been nearly a month later when Aaron realized that while Jason's feelings towards Spencer were paternal, Derek's didn't quite fall into that category. That had bothered Aaron for less than a week before he realized neither Derek nor Spencer had the slightest clue, even though JJ and Garcia had obviously made the connection shortly after Aaron had. Now the only thing Aaron was concerned about was protecting his mate when Spencer decided to leave the pack and set out on his own.
"What are you thinking about?" Derek asked, the weight of his human form resting against Aaron's side.
"You," Aaron answered truthfully. "And Spencer," he added when Derek continued to stare at him.
Derek closed his eyes briefly before he rearranged them so that they were both cuddled under the blanket. "You heard what Spencer said?"
Aaron shook his head. "I just felt that he was distressed, and then you shifted and took off running."
"Damn." Derek sat up, pulling away from Aaron. "Did you check on him before you followed me out here?"
"No, but Garcia was rousing JJ when I left. I'm sure they're with him," Aaron said.
Derek shook his head and then folded his arms. "I shouldn't have left him like that."
"It wasn't a conscious decision, he'll understand." Aaron said, reaching so that he could rest his hand on Derek's forearm. "It's pretty cold for you to be sitting around naked."
Derek sighed but adjusted the blanket so it was draped over both of them, even though he wasn't resting against Aaron anymore. "Sometimes we don't do enough. There aren't enough of us to catch every murderer, rapist, and child molester, but that doesn't seem like a good enough excuse." He turned so that he was looking in Aaron's direction.
Aaron knew that there were very few things that could provoke his mate to shift without it being his decision to do so. Given Spencer's distress at the house and Derek's current condition, Aaron could read between the lines well enough to decipher the gist of what had happened. "When I first started working for the BAU there was a case that we spent a week solving. It turned out that the unsub was the father of the four people he'd murdered. The fifth child, a young man who was studying to be a lawyer, we reached just in time to prevent the father from killing him as well. I shot the father, because there wasn't time for anything else, and Jason and I rushed in to free the young man from where he'd been bound."
"He survived?" Derek asked when Aaron paused.
"Yes. He was roughed up, but nothing life threatening. As I stayed with him, while Jason went to direct the ambulance and the rest of the first responders, he looked at me and asked me why no one had done that twenty years ago. And I didn't have an answer for him." Aaron shrugged. "When I told Jason a few days later, Jason told me that there was no one to answer for those crimes but the people who commit them. We do everything in our power to stop them, but it's never enough and never will be."
Derek frowned. "That doesn't seem like very useful advice."
"Maybe not. But he's right. We can't save everyone, and we can't change the past," Aaron said. He wrapped his hand around Derek's. "But, maybe there are fewer people who need saving because of what we do."
"The only person who can really save you is yourself," Derek said quietly, twisting his hand around so he could clasp Aaron's.
Aaron nodded, opening his arms to wrap around Derek as Derek leaned down to rest against Aaron's chest. "We should talk about Spencer. When you're ready."
Derek tensed momentarily but stayed where he was. "You're my mate, Aaron." He leaned up to kiss Aaron but stopped when Aaron shook his head.
"I know that. That doesn't mean you can't have feelings for other people. Doesn't mean I can't have feelings for other people either," Aaron said simply.
Derek eyed him uncertainly. "I always knew you had a thing for Gideon."
Aaron rolled his eyes and accepted the kiss that Derek had been trying to give him. "I'm worried-"
"I would never cheat on you, not even with Spencer," Derek interrupted.
"As reassuring as that statement is, if you'd let me finish, I was about to say that I'm worried about you," Aaron said.
"Worried about me leaving you?" Derek asked, his brow furrowing as he pressed his body closer to Aaron's. "I'm not going anywhere."
"I know you aren't." Aaron knew that was Derek's fear speaking, but it wasn't his own. "I'm concerned that when Spencer leaves-"
"If he leaves, not when," Derek interrupted again.
Aaron frowned but continued. "I'm concerned that you'll react poorly to him leaving the pack, and that will only be exacerbated if you don't acknowledge that you've grown attached. You just shifted from feeling Spencer's distress. There were other factors involved, but you've worked cases and interviewed witnesses with similar backgrounds without shifting, or even feeling the need to do so."
"I am attached," Derek agreed. "He's a good kid, and he needs someone to look up to."
"But that's not all it is," Aaron insisted.
Derek's eyes narrowed as he pushed himself up enough to look at Aaron. "He's a cub, Aaron."
"Yes, but he's also an adult in his human form, and he deserves your honesty. Otherwise you're just going to confuse him." Aaron said. "I would do anything to keep you and the pack safe and well. I don't want you to be hurt by leaving this unresolved if Spencer leaves."
"He won't leave," Derek said.
Aaron considered Derek for a moment, realizing that it was more than just stubborn refusal to admit the possibility that Spencer might leave the pack. "Why do you believe that?"
Derek frowned and turned so that he was facing in the direction of the house. "I could give you a profile, list all the reasons that it would psychologically make sense for Spencer to stay with the pack regardless of his form."
"But that's not why you believe," Aaron stated.
"No. I just can't imagine our pack without him. He belongs here." Derek stood up and started folding the blanket.
Aaron pulled off the shirt he'd briefly worn. When he surfaced he'd cleared his expression of dismay and settled on a worried neutral. "Are you ready to go back to the house?" he asked as he slipped off his pants. He put the clothes and blanket back in the storage containers.
"If we don't go back Gideon is probably going to track us down, and then he'll be upset because we needlessly took him away from whatever he's cooking for dinner," Derek said. He turned off the lantern and put it away; both of them were now shadowy figures in the dark. "Race you back to the house."
Aaron opened the door and watched as Derek's form ran past him into the rapidly darkening forest. He latched the cabin door, making certain it was secure, before shifting and galloped after Derek. They wound up running together, paws landing side by side in the dirt, though Derek leaped ahead the last few feet and onto the deck so he could claim victory.
Derek made a fire in the fireplace, sitting on the floor and tending it with a fascination that Aaron thought wasn't entirely healthy. Spencer was sprawled on the floor a few feet away with a blanket spread over him and a pile of books to either side, one pile that he'd read and the other he was working through.
JJ had shifted shortly after they'd eaten and Garcia had followed. Both of them had tore through the house, leaping and skidding through the halls until Aaron had corralled them and shut them in the living room where they had less space to be destructive. They'd apparently exhausted themselves and were resting together on a rug near Jason's armchair.
Aaron had a pile of files that he'd brought home, most of them financial and administrative paperwork that came with leading the team, but a handful of case files that he needed to review before he made a decision about what to do with them. After an hour of quiet, Aaron put his feet up on the couch and began the process of consolidating and organizing reports for their last case. He watched in amusement as Spencer crept closer to the fireplace but turned his gaze mostly back to his papers when Derek tugged the book Spencer had just finished out of his hands.
"Good book?" Derek asked quietly.
Spencer shrugged as he moved so that he was sitting upright with his long limbs directed towards the warmth of the fire. "Interesting theories but poorly presented. There are far better research studies that have been conducted into the participants of violent organized crime. I can recommend some papers if you're interested."
Derek nodded. "Good to know. You do realize that if I ever need to know anything about, well, anything, I'll just ask you?"
"What if I'm not around?" Spencer asked.
Aaron allowed his eyes to wander up and he rolled his pen between his fingers.
"Then I'll call you. You're on my speed dial." Derek seemed unfazed by the question.
Spencer stared for a moment and then nodded. "Okay."
"Hey, pretty boy." Derek put down the fire poker he'd been fidgeting with and turned to Spencer. "I'm sorry I ran out on you earlier."
Aaron couldn't tell because of the fire backlighting both of them, but he thought that Spencer was blushing. He had no idea how Derek thought that nickname was an indicator of brotherly affection, though he could remember denying his own feelings for Derek for nearly a month. He'd come to the realization one night after he'd shifted and had spent the night waiting outside Derek's hotel room door.
"It's okay," Spencer said. He ducked his head and then suddenly straightened his body as he frequently did when he was uncomfortable.
"It's not okay," Derek said, glancing around the room and briefly looking at Aaron for reassurance. Aaron met his eyes and twitched one hand to indicate that it was up to Derek to decide what he wanted to do.
Before Derek could speak, Spencer haltingly reached out and put his hand on Derek's knee. "It is. JJ said that you have your own history, and that sometimes shifters can't help shifting when they're upset."
"JJ said that?" Derek asked, his eyes flickering to where JJ and Garcia were resting together.
"Not in so many words, but I got the message," Spencer said. "If you, if you want to talk, I'll listen. I'm sure I'm not your first choice, but I'm here."
Derek sat still for a long moment and Aaron prepared himself to get up in case Derek shifted again. It wasn't uncommon for emotional or physical distress to lead to a series of uncontrolled shifts in form.
"I know you're here," Derek said finally, placing his own hand on top of Spencer's. "And you're by no means my last choice. There is a huge list of people behind you. Ending with Strauss."
Spencer's mouth quirked slightly, but his gaze didn't leave where their skin was touching. "She doesn't seem to like me very much. She called me a dangerously intelligent cat last week when I gave her my Academy completion forms to be signed. And then she said that animals aren't supposed to be smart."
Derek's hand tightened around Spencer's until Spencer pulled away. "Sorry," Derek said when Spencer tucked his hand under the blanket he had resting over his lap. "She doesn't like any of us, though I imagine your form doesn't lend you any favor in her eyes. Strauss barely tolerates a wolf pack in the BAU. I can't imagine that having a leopard roaming halls makes her feel any more goodwill towards us."
"I guess. It's not a big deal, it just caught me off-guard," Spencer shrugged.
Derek glanced over to the couch again and Aaron nodded grimly. He wasn't about to let Strauss bully any member of his team, especially someone who was practically defenseless to the machinations of the higher politics in the FBI.
Spencer sighed and looked back towards the fire. "I don't think I'm any closer to shifting of my own free will than I was before."
"It's not going to happen overnight." Derek scooted closer and put his arm around Spencer's shoulders, and Spencer didn't duck away. "Before you know it you'll be running through those woods with us like you were born with four paws."
Aaron gave up on the file on his lap and watched Spencer and Derek sitting together by the fire. Somehow he felt that conversation had probably made things worse instead of better.
Chapter 4: Section Four
Derek was used to the sound of the phone ringing in the middle of the night, and had long ago learned to start getting dressed while the section chief or the director explained why their presence was needed immediately. He turned on the lamp and swung his feet out of bed, still waking up as he listened to Aaron's half of the conversation.
"We'll be there as soon as possible," Aaron said into his cellphone before hanging up and rubbing his eyes. "Men are being kidnapped in central Chicago. They are held and tortured for two days before being killed and then their bodies are dumped in the streets. They just found the body of the fifth victim."
"Dumped in the streets and nobody's seen this guy?" Derek asked as grabbed his cellphone off the nightstand. "I'll get JJ, you get Gideon?"
"Have her bring Garcia in as well. I want her on the surveillance footage as soon as possible," Aaron said as he held his phone up to his ear again. He got out of bed and walked towards the closet. "Jason, we've got a case."
Derek glanced at the clock, deciding that five hours of sleep was going to have to be enough for the next thirty six. Chicago was only a short flight on the jet and they'd barely have enough time to brief before they got there. He pressed JJ's assigned number on his cellphone and reached for his watch while it rang.
"Agent Jareau speaking," JJ said, sounding not entirely awake.
"We've got a case. The jet is leaving in about forty-five minutes," Derek said, automatically calculating how long it would take everyone to get to the airfield from their homes. "Have Garcia come in too. All hands on deck. I'll forward the pertinent information to your phone."
JJ was silent for a moment before answering. "We'll be right there," she said before hanging up.
Derek couldn't help his small smile at the reminder that JJ was not a morning person and probably wouldn't be fully awake until they were sitting on the jet with the case files. "Nothing like home for the holidays," he said to Aaron as he glanced down at the calendar on his cellphone. With five days until Christmas he might as well go see his family for a few hours when the case wrapped up.
"Are you going to be alright?" Aaron asked, turning from where he was adjusting his tie in the mirror.
Derek got up and walked over to Aaron, straightening his tie for him. "Of course. It will be good to see my mom and my sisters."
"What about your old pack?" Aaron asked, his hands on Derek's shoulders preventing Derek from slipping away.
"They weren't my pack. You're my pack," Derek said. He placed a kiss on Aaron's lips before pulling away. He went into the bathroom before Aaron could pursue the matter, doing his best not to focus on his reflection in the mirror as he shaved.
It wasn't a reminder that any of them needed, except for Spencer. He had looked intrigued about the possibility of meeting another pack. The pack had worked cases in Chicago before, they knew they lay of the land and they knew about Derek's personal connection to the pack that was part of the local police force. None of them were thrilled about being there again but they had a case that couldn't be ignored.
"I've set up a conference room for your team and arranged to have the city traffic surveillance accessed through our systems here in the department," Chief Davis said, glancing over his shoulder with an air of impatience. "I'll bring you there myself as soon as these formalities are finished. You have my word that Detective Miller and his team will not interfere with your team or your investigation in any way. I removed them from the case as soon as I requested your presence here."
Derek watched as Aaron nodded with only the slightest tension in his jaw to indicate exactly what he thought of the local pack. Detective Miller should have been there to greet them immediately; this was a power play to make them wait at the edge of the pack's territory. Derek suspected he was part of the reason, but mostly it because Miller couldn't deny their pack entrance. Chief Davis could rebuke Miller for being tardy and delaying their work on the case, but the message was loud and clear.
Derek could practically feel his skin crawling and he was certain that it wasn't just his irritation at being back in the territory of his former pack. Garcia had insisted on coming along, stating that the traffic surveillance systems would be far easier for her access and interface with inside the city itself. Aaron had only considered her for a moment before allowing her to come on the case. Derek wasn't sure if Garcia had wanted to come because she was worried about Derek returning to Chicago, or if she had sensed the pack's unease and didn't want separate herself from them.
Between having Garcia and Spencer with them, Derek felt every protective urge in his body practically thrumming in alarm as he tracked the members of the Chicago pack in the area around them. He could sense twelve pack members in the immediate area, although only four were on the police force, and he was uneasy with the growth in their pack since he'd last been in Chicago. There would be cubs in the city as well, maybe nearly as many as there were fully grown wolves on the pack. Derek was fighting the edge of panic. His pack was outnumbered and trapped.
Spencer took a step closer to him, his hand brushing against Derek's in what could have been an accident, but Derek thought not. Derek smiled as reassuringly as he could, realizing that Spencer was responding to Derek's own unspoken distress.
Aaron tensed when a door at the side of the lobby opened and Derek automatically stepped to the side so that he was blocking Spencer, Garcia, and JJ from the members of the pack that had just entered the room. Gideon stepped even with Derek's other side and Derek found himself slightly stunned at how relieved his was to have Gideon there.
"Agent Hotchner," Detective Miller said as he stepped so that he was directly in front of Hotch, two of his pack flanking either side.
"Detective Miller. I trust you and your pack are well," Aaron said. He was the very picture of a proper pack leader.
Miller's eyes flickered to Derek before he responded. "And yours."
"We request access to your territory. My pack is my own and I carry full responsibility for them. We will cause no trouble for you and yours, nor trespass upon your grounds without cause," Aaron said formally.
"I've met most of your pack before and understand them to be honorable shifters. However, you have a new member traveling with you." Miller zeroed in on Spencer. "I would like to see him for myself."
"He's just a cub," Derek said, immediately finding himself fighting the urge to shift. The urge wasn't uncontrollable, and Derek knew that he couldn't shift here if they were going to take this case, but he desperately wanted to protect the pack from someone who was nearly the very definition of threat to his senses.
Aaron met Derek's eyes, the warning implicit, before looking back to Spencer. "Step forward," he said, his reluctance clear.
Spencer did as Aaron requested, his body stiff and still under the the layers of clothes he was wearing. Miller took a step forward, but stayed at the edge of what was appropriate for approaching a cub that belonged with another pack.
After a minute of consideration, Miller stepped away and laughed. "A cat. You've adopted a leopard into your already impure pack." The two pack members with Miller, police officers as well, shared a smirk.
"Miller, get on with it," Chief Davis snapped, looking thoroughly irritated.
Miller turned and stared at Derek for a long moment, taking in the way Derek had adjusted his stance so that he was closer to Spencer. "Hotchner, your pack has permission to move freely upon my territory until the case you are working has been resolved or until your team is recalled. You are no threat to my pack."
Derek watched as Miller backed away, neither of them looking away from the other until Miller and his pack members had reached the exit.
"I understand the necessity, but sometimes this just isn't worth it," Davis muttered, sending a glare in both directions. "Follow me, I've had everything pertaining to the case gathered. The morgue is prepared to present the bodies and their findings whenever you're ready. I hope, for all of our sakes, that this case is solved quickly. I don't need a serial killer and another pack running around my city during Christmas."
Aaron and Derek glanced at each other before following, the rest of the team close behind them.
"We'll do everything in our power to catch the unsub with as few lives lost as possible," Aaron said carefully.
Derek held back as they walked further into the building, still able to sense Miller's pack spread around the local area. He didn't think that his former pack, however brief a period of time that had been, would try to approach any of them. But he wasn't going to let down his guard either; he couldn't even if he'd wanted to.
After dinner they all met back in the conference room that had been assigned to their team. Derek was sitting quietly next to the door with a file and a pounding headache. So far, they had very little to go on; no DNA evidence recovered from the bodies, two images of the side of a dark colored SUV where the bodies were dumped from in the middle of the night, and an inconclusive victimology.
JJ got up from the table and walked over to stand in front of the board where they'd pinned up each of the victims in the order of which they'd been killed. "Well, our unsub certainly has a type," she said, her blonde hair tumbling forward over her shoulders as she tipped her head.
The rest of the team looked up. Each of them quickly examining the photographs and basic information that had been posted before they turned to JJ in confusion.
"What?" JJ asked when she realized that everyone was looking at her.
"What do you mean the unsub has a type? We have victims of different race and ethnicity, their ages range from nineteen to in their mid-forties. Two were married, three weren't. None of them share a profession or job history, though two of them went to the same university but not at the same time or in the same major," Aaron quickly reiterated.
Derek silently agreed. He'd been going through cellphone records for the past two hours, searching for something that might link at least three of the victims.
JJ turned back to the board, looking at the pictures more carefully. "I guess so. But look at them."
"Skin tone and facial features vary dramatically, as do hair color and style. There's no way the unsub is seeking victims based on their appearance," Derek said as he got to his feet and joined JJ and Spencer at the board.
"No, she's right," Spencer said suddenly. He walked quickly from one victim's information to another. "There is no victim taller than five foot, eight inches, which is just under the average height for a man within the country. None of them are exceptionally well muscled, nor are they overweight."
Derek looked at all of them again. "In other words, they're all the size that someone who was of a smaller stature or not particularly strong could move enough to drag the body and push it out of a vehicle."
"None of the victims have defensive wounds, though they showed signs of being bound in multiple locations, including their hands and wrists," Spencer added.
"And there have been no emergency calls indicating a struggle in a public venue, even though it's believed that all of the victims were heading out for the evening when they were abducted. What would cause a man to go willingly with someone they didn't know, even with the newspaper and television headlines shouting this story?" Gideon asked.
It was probably a rhetorical question, but Derek answered anyway. "A pretty girl or a handsome guy. At least two of our victims were known to be heading for local bars in the city on the nights they were abducted. Combine a few drinks and a pretty face..." Derek shrugged and smiled in Aaron's direction when his mate raised an eyebrow.
A knock on the door interrupted their conversation, though Spencer had grabbed a marker and was scribbling a list down the side of one of the empty white boards.
"Chief Davis," Aaron said quietly.
The team paused where they were. They were familiar enough with serial cases to guess what that tone of voice meant.
"I have a young woman downstairs who is convinced her boyfriend has been taken. He didn't appear to pick her up from work, and she insists that he always picks her up when she works the late shift downtown," Davis said. "Maybe it's nothing, but there's no answer on his phone and she's fairly distraught."
"Where was the last place her boyfriend was going before he was supposed to pick her up?" Spencer asked, his hand hovering over a half finished word.
Davis frowned but answered the question. "He was supposed to meet friends at a bar. We talked to them and they said he was usually there before they got there, but he never showed up tonight."
Derek looked to JJ. "We'll interview her. Why don't you bring her upstairs?"
"You think he's been taken?" Davis asked.
"It's a possibility, but the more we know now, the more chance we have to reach the unsub before they kill again," Aaron said, nodding as Davis left. "JJ, Derek, get what you can from the girlfriend. Find out what bar and when it closes. We'll keep working on the profile here."
Derek touched Aaron's hand as he passed by, using the touch to remind him that he was surrounded by his pack even though he could still feel Miller's wolves lurking in the city.
"His girlfriend was right," Derek said from where they thought the body had been originally dropped off. "She said she was always right."
With his hand encased in a latex glove, Spencer pushed back the shoulder of the victim. Being run over hadn't done the man any favors, but there was something different about this body compared to the ones he'd seen in the morgue. "Derek?"
Derek was at Spencer's side almost instantly. He looked around the street, focusing on the group of officers blocking off the area before he crouched down next to Spencer. "What is it?"
"The cuts on his chest weren't there on the other victims. The cuts aren't very deep, and I doubt they were the cause of death." Spencer directed his flashlight over the wounds. "Why would the unsub start cutting him? Why this victim?"
"These are hesitation marks. The unsub wasn't sure about cutting him. Look at the gash on the left side of his chest," Derek instructed. He rested his hand on Spencer's back.
Spencer leaned in closer to Derek under the pretense of looking at the victim's chest. "That's a stab wound. Maybe the unsub wants to stab the victims, but hasn't felt confident enough to do so before now?"
"Or maybe the unsub hasn't felt enraged enough? Like you said, why this victim?" Derek patted Spencer's back and stood up.
Spencer pulled his hands inside his coat sleeves and bunched his frozen fingers up inside the fabric. He stood, a little unsteady on the slick ground, and wrapped his arms around his torso the best he could. "What now?"
Derek turned away from where he'd been watching Hotch and JJ interview the man who had run over the victim. "Garcia's looking at the surveillance footage from the traffic cameras. Unless the unsub has gotten sloppy, she won't find much."
"Not in that storm. It felt like the snow was going to come through the windows last night," Spencer said. He was shivering again, and he wondered whether or not it was possibly getting colder.
"I've got an idea," Derek said. He unzipped his jacket and put it around Spencer's shoulders.
Spencer frowned even though having the second jacket actually did feel a little warmer. "You're going to freeze."
Derek shook his head. "We're only going to be out here a few more minutes. Go get in the car and turn on the heat." He pressed the keys into Spencer's hand before trudging through the snow towards Hotch.
Wrapping his fingers tightly around the keys, Spencer took one last look down at the victim. They'd been working the case for two days and they still weren't any closer to finding the unsub. They hadn't been in time to save this man and Spencer felt sick when he thought about the woman who had barely left the police station the last two days as they searched for her boyfriend.
"I'm sorry," he said. He was grateful that Gideon and Garcia weren't there to hear him speak to the body. It seemed like a maudlin thing to do, but there was a growing sense of guilt that he'd started to carry with him. Intellectually, he knew that they did everything they could to save this man. Emotionally was an entirely different matter. He tugged Derek's jacket closer around himself, surprised by how strongly the leather smelled of Derek.
The coroner and his assistant approached and Spencer moved away through the snow to where they'd parked the cars. He could hear the murmur of Derek and Aaron's voices as they talked, JJ chiming in after a moment. By the time Spencer closed the door to the car and had started the engine, Derek was walking towards the car. He seemed utterly unfazed by the weather.
Derek climbed in the driver's seat and put on his seat belt.
"Aren't you cold?" Spencer asked as he stripped off his latex gloves. He cupped his hands eagerly to the heating vents. There wasn't any warm air yet, but he left them there in anticipation.
"I grew up in Chicago. This isn't cold yet," Derek said as he pulled out of their parking space and did a U-turn away from the crime scene.
Spencer shook his head. He hadn't really appreciated the winters in Vegas and Pasadena until he'd moved to Virginia. In stories and on television snow had always seemed like a somewhat mystical and beautiful phenomenon. Spencer could still understand that; one late night when he couldn't sleep Spencer had sat on the floor next to the back door of Gideon's house and stared up as the snow fell down from the sky. It had been strangely calming and peaceful and Spencer had drifted to sleep wrapped up in a blanket on the floor. However, the experience of being outside in the snow, freezing and sliding around as they looked for evidence, had been more than enough to put him off the entire idea.
"Where are we going?" Spencer asked. He clenched and unclenched his fingers in front of the air vents as warm air blasted from them.
"Back to The Rail Yard," Derek said.
The Rail Yard was the bar their victim had last been seen in before he went missing. Derek and Gideon had gone there the night of the disappearance but hadn't learned anything other than that their victim had definitely been there.
"Will there even be anyone there?" Spencer asked.
"It's not even six in the morning and last call isn't until four. There will be people there closing up," Derek explained.
Spencer leaned back into the seat and nestled further into Derek's jacket. "Okay, but why are we going? I thought you and Gideon talked to everyone there."
"We asked around. No one saw him leave with anyone, but no one remembered when he slipped out either." Derek glanced over and adjusted one of the heating vents so it was blowing directly on Spencer. "We'll just see what people say when we ask again."
Trusting Derek's investigative techniques more than his own, Spencer settled in for the short ride. They had canvased a number of local bars over the past two days without any significant results, but so far The Rail Yard was their best lead.
She had stopped working while they talked, though she still held a damp rag idly in one hand. "Well, people come here to make connections. They move around, bumping up against other cars until they find where they fit."
Spencer stared, uncertain if she was making a joke or otherwise obscure reference.
"And I think the boss has a thing for railways, I don't know," the waitress admitted with a shrug. "Generally people come here to meet someone. Sometimes they go home alone, but most of the time they find someone who catches their interest for the night."
"You mean people don't come here to just hang out with their friends?" Spencer asked, hoping he'd understood her meaning.
She raised her eyebrows and sat down on one of the stools. "Friends will meet up, but they typically don't stay together for more than an hour. The point is to put yourself out there, meet new people, try new things. I bet you get people wanting to try new things with you all the time."
Spencer blinked as she reached up and gently tugged on a strand of his hair that had fallen forward on his face. "Not so much," he said. He twisted around to see where Derek was still chatting with the bartender.
"Oh, I see how it is. Shame." The waitress leaned to the side so she could get a better view of Derek. "Not bad at all."
Deciding that he really didn't want to know, Spencer returned to his initial line of questioning. "So a man that said he came here to meet up with his friends-" he started.
"Is lying to his girlfriend. And probably those friends are lying to theirs as well," the waitress finished. "Wish I could tell you more about the guy you're looking for, but everyone blurs together after a while. He's a cutie though."
"He's dead," Spencer said flatly as he looked down at the picture of the victim he was carrying. They'd shown the picture around on the night the man had gone missing, as well as over the past two days at the other bars they'd canvased.
"Too bad." The waitress leaned in to look at the picture. "He would have been popular here with a pretty face like that."
Spencer frowned as a scenario formed in his mind.
"Ready to go, pretty boy?" Derek asked as he walked up. He placed his hand on Spencer's arm and stood so that he was nearly in between Spencer and the waitress.
"Ready," Spencer said. Derek was wearing his own jacket now that Spencer wasn't so cold and Spencer found himself strangely conflicted about the loss.
The waitress smiled and gave a little wave to Spencer as they walked away. Spencer awkwardly waved back.
Derek's hand still was on Spencer's arm as they left the bar. "You have no clue, do you?"
"What?" Spencer asked, getting the feeling that Derek wasn't talking about the case.
Derek shook his head. "Never mind. You learn anything?"
"Tommy Harner was probably cheating on his girlfriend," Spencer said.
"And he wasn't too picky with who he went with either," Derek added. "Which is maybe why the unsub decided to start stabbing with this victim."
Spencer thought for a moment as they climbed back into the car. "Why not with the married victims?"
"Maybe the notoriety of this bar for one night hookups is what set her off. He wasn't just cheating with one woman, he was cheating with anyone who caught his attention." Derek started driving toward to police station.
"That's worse than falling in love with another person?" Spencer asked.
Derek was silent as he pulled into the morning rush hour traffic on the main road. "Love means something. It doesn't make the cheating right, but at least there's a reason," he said after a few minutes.
Spencer considered this as he stared at the line of cars edging forward.
He felt that his work was only being impeded by the presence of the rest of the team. Even though it was comforting to be in the same room, it was becoming more difficult to concentrate on the maps as they milled around him. Spencer was still slowly adapting to his ability to physically sense the members of the team but it didn't make his skin crawl and itch anymore. He was even grateful for it at the moment.
When he'd been out canvasing bars with Gideon and Derek, he had felt like something was following them and slowly circling around their location. Gideon had noticed how distracted Spencer was and had quickly explained that it was the local pack. It was more difficult for Spencer to sense the other pack and he couldn't separate out individuals. After meeting up with the rest of the pack following a few hours spent canvasing, Spencer had discovered that being with his own pack almost completely blocked the other pack out.
Derek didn't seem to get any such relief and Spencer spent more time watching Derek move around the room than he did examining the maps. Derek's restlessness seemed to be contagious because Aaron rarely sat down and JJ wasn't making any progress on the file she had open. Only Garcia at her computer and Gideon bent over his notebook seemed unaffected.
Spencer shook his head and refocused on the map spread out on the table. He'd been staring at Derek for nearly twenty minutes, and still hadn't drawn any conclusions about Derek or about the bar. Not that the two weren't connected.
At first, after Spencer had stopped being overwhelmed by the changes in his life, he'd thought that Derek was just friendly. They spent a lot of time together because their desks were together in the bullpen. When they were on cases, even before Hotch had declared Spencer wasn't to be by himself, Derek spent time with him and explained things that the others didn't even seem realize he wouldn't know. Spencer hadn't had a lot of friends before and the ones that he'd had were always transient and gone when they'd finished their degrees. The prospect of having a long term friend, someone who wasn't planning on leaving, was simultaneously thrilling and a little scary.
Then, as time passed and Spencer learned more about profiling, body language, and trusting his own instincts, he realized that Derek wasn't just friendly. Spencer wasn't entirely inexperienced with relationships, though those had also been infrequent and fleeting. He didn't think the way that Derek casually sat too close and wrapped an arm around him, or the way Derek looked at him stemmed from a desire for a platonic friendship. Derek stepping in between him and the waitress at The Rail Way, and how Derek had almost growled when a bartender at one of the bars had stepped too close only confirmed Spencer's previous suspicions.
Spencer had confirmed that Derek was in a relationship with Hotch, which had only confused him further. Obviously Derek wouldn't cheat on Hotch and Spencer couldn't imagine that Hotch wasn't aware of Derek's flirting, if it could be called that. The strangest part of it all, in Spencer's mind, was that he actually found himself looking back at Derek on occasion and wondering. Nothing could happen between them, but Spencer found that he didn't want to resist leaning into Derek when the opportunity was presented. He felt safe and accepted with Derek, and with the entire team. He would never want to jeopardize that.
"Any suggestions?" Hotch asked.
Looking up, Spencer wondered how long Hotch had been standing next to him. He blinked, suddenly feeling completely useless.
Hotch sat down and spoke quietly. "There is a chance that we'll be wrong. It's even possible that the unsub will have seen the media coverage concerning our arrival and will have moved on to another portion of the city. Make the best deductions that you can and we'll work from there."
Spencer turned back to the map, looking over each of the abduction sites again. "I think the unsub will go back to The Rail Yard or another bar with a similar clientele and purpose."
"Why?" Hotch asked.
"The hesitation marks on the victim we found today, those mean that the unsub wants to cut the victims, right?" Spencer asked. "Wouldn't the unsub seek another victim that will provoke similar emotions?"
"Unsubs escalate. It is very rare that they will return to less violent acts after experiencing something more potent," Gideon said.
Spencer looked up to find everyone curiously gathered nearby. "The unsub has twice abducted from the same locations. There's no reason for them not to go back."
Hotch nodded and stood, touching Spencer's shoulder briefly as he walked away. "We'll go to The Rail Yard tonight and station other teams from the local police department at other bars in the area that cater to a similar crowd."
Swallowing hard, Spencer looked back at the map and hoped that he'd made the right call. It made logical sense to him, but that didn't mean the unsub was using any sort of logic when hunting for a victim.
"Come on," Derek said, tapping Spencer's shoulder to catch his attention.
"Where are we going?" Spencer asked.
Derek grinned. "You don't think you can go out to a bar dressed like that, do you?"
Spencer followed Derek out of the room, self-consciously examining his vest and tan slacks and wondering what exactly Derek considered acceptable clothing for going to a bar.
Spencer placed his drink on the table and pulled himself up on the stool across from Aaron. From where they sat they could see most of the occupants of the bar and would hopefully be able to spot their unsub.
"You go to places like this often?" Aaron asked, mostly joking. Spencer looked completely out of his element in the bar, though the black jeans and soft blue button-up shirt helped him blend in a little bit. From the amount of time Derek and Spencer had spent getting dressed, Aaron suspected Spencer had rejected most of Derek's suggestions.
Spencer blushed strong enough that Aaron could see him flush even in the somewhat dim light. "This is my first time in a bar, not including when we went canvasing."
Aaron couldn't decide whether or not to be surprised by this. On one hand, Spencer didn't seem the type to go out to bars very often. On the other, Spencer had been at a university for years. Surely he'd gone with friends at least once. "There weren't any good bars near Cal Tech?"
"I wasn't old enough. I turned twenty one in early October." Spencer shrugged and traced the rim of his glass with his finger. "I could have forged an ID, but I never really wanted to go to the bars that badly."
"We'll go as a team when we get back to DC," Aaron said. He felt a small pang of guilt that he'd never looked to see when Spencer's birthday was. "For real, not on a case."
"What? Why?" Spencer asked.
Aaron grimaced and took a drink from his coke. "Derek and Garcia will never forgive me, or you, if we deprive them of a valid opportunity to go to a bar and celebrate."
"If you say so," Spencer said with a shrug. He scanned the area he could see of the bar, frowning when he returned his gaze to Aaron.
"It's still early," Aaron said. He understood why Spencer was worried. Even now, after years of giving suggestions on how to proceed in cases, he occasionally worried that he'd given the wrong advice or had looked in the wrong direction.
Spencer glanced at the watch he wore over his shirt sleeve and nodded.
Feeling Derek moving through the crowd, Aaron casually looked around the bar and found each of his pack members. Jason was sitting at the end of the counter. He was about as out of place in the crowded bar as Spencer, though he hid it better. The bartender was flitting back and forth and Jason leaned in to speak with him, feigning asking for a refill as he held out his glass. JJ and Garcia were sitting together near the entrance, simultaneously observing everyone who entered the bar and fending off anyone who might approach them. JJ met Aaron's eyes and shook her head; they hadn't seen anyone who matched the profile.
It took a minute for Derek to cross into Aaron's line of vision. Aaron was slightly concerned when he saw how predatory Derek looked as he moved easily through the crowd. Anyone watching who was familiar with shifters would be able to identify Derek as a wolf shifter just by Derek's movements and how he carefully looked at anyone in his path before dismissing them as inconsequential. Aaron doubted that the reversion to unconsciously mimicking wolf behavior was because of the case and probably had everything to do with the local wolf pack they could feel circling the edges of the area.
Derek's behavior wasn't discouraging people from expressing their interest. In the short time Derek was in Aaron's range of vision, he saw Derek shake his head and walk away from three people who approached him. It was a good thing that none of his team fit the victimology for this case. Aaron was relieved that he hadn't been forced to make the decision to send one of his people out as bait when they were already in the midst of a hostile environment.
Aaron again scanned what he could see of the bar patrons and looked back to find Spencer watching him. Spencer didn't look away when Aaron made it clear that he was watching in return. "How are you finding being a member of the pack?" The noise of the bar would mostly cover their conversation from Jason and Garcia's extraordinary sense of hearing.
Spencer's eyes widened. "Good. I like being here. Well, not here, obviously," he waved his hand to indicate the bar, "but with the team."
"It doesn't bother you that your form is different?" Aaron asked. After a month of watching Derek avoid the issue, Aaron couldn't see a reason not to ask. They could be at the bar for another few hours if the unsub didn't appear.
"Well, I haven't had a lot of success with achieving my form." Spencer winced when Aaron raised his eyebrow. "No success, at all, but Derek says I'm getting closer. I think he's just saying that to make me feel better."
Aaron suspected that was probably so. "But you don't mind that your form isn't a wolf?"
Spencer's eyes focused across the bar, distracted by something in the distance. Just when Aaron thought he wasn't going to answer, Spencer spoke. "It doesn't bother me because no one on the team has suggested that it bothers them. If they don't think it's important that my form is different, it doesn't really matter to me. I've never fit in anywhere before. Even in my doctoral programs I was something of a freak, an anomaly that even the professors found threatening. But the team acts like it doesn't matter. Better actually: they act like what I can do is important and useful."
"That's because it is," Aaron said immediately. He'd read Spencer's background check the first time the Spencer had shifted, but he'd evidently discounted the effects of the social isolation Spencer had experienced. Derek's insistence that Spencer wouldn't leave made more sense to him now, though he doubted they'd arrived at the conclusion the same way.
"Does my form bother you?" Spencer asked.
Aaron discovered that Spencer was watching him intently, though his expression was carefully guarded. It sounded like Spencer was used to being judged for what he was, rather than who, and he probably expected the same from Aaron. "I was concerned that your form would lead you to be less inclined to stay with my pack."
"And now?" Spencer asked.
"I think you're a valuable and much needed addition to my team and my pack," Aaron said. He smiled, gratified when Spencer returned the smile, even if both smiles were uncertain.
They both turned as Jason approached the table. "Female in a black dress, near the back pillar. She's been with the same man for nearly thirty minutes; he fits the victimology."
Aaron didn't think that was exactly a condemning statement but glanced in the direction Jason had indicated. "That's a lot empty glasses on the table."
"All ordered by her, mostly drunk by him," Jason said.
"He's wearing a wedding ring and I'm going to suggest that isn't his wife," Spencer added.
It was all circumstantial, but Aaron could see what was setting off Jason's alarm bells. "She's not interested in him. Her body language suggests she despises him."
"But she's pursuing him anyway." Jason looked away and touched Spencer's arm.
Spencer turned back to both of them; his eyes were almost comically wide. "Look at her boot."
Aaron leaned back casually and looked. He didn't see anything until the woman changed the way she was sitting. There was a bulge in her right boot and when she moved to cross her legs he saw the glint of a knife hilt - unmistakable to his trained, shifter enhanced eyes.
The woman stood, though she had to lean back down to help the man to his feet. They were similar in height now that they were standing and it was easy to see that she would be capable of moving his dead weight.
"Spencer, go get JJ and Garcia. I want the three of you to go wait near the bartender. Do not leave this bar," Aaron said. He stood up and caught Derek's eye from across the bar.
The woman - likely their unsub - was already guiding the man towards the side exit.
Derek visibly followed Aaron's gaze and then nodded before hurrying out the front entrance. They had thoroughly explored the area surrounding the bar before it had opened and had developed plans for all of the exits. Derek would be waiting at the edge of the building long before the unsub reached the parking lot.
"Call dispatch, let them know we'll need backup," Jason said to Spencer. He discreetly adjusted the holster under his jacket.
Aaron didn't have to look back to know that Spencer was going to JJ and Garcia, his cellphone already out. He pushed his concern for the younger members of his pack aside. As much as he didn't want to leave them alone, he knew that JJ was very capable with her gun and that Spencer knew the basics of physical self-defense. They would be fine for five minutes while the rest of the team talked down and arrested an unsub.
Derek had easily disarmed the unsub and cuffed her, though Aaron hadn't relaxed until he had the knife well out of her reach. He could still vividly remember the last case where Derek had been stabbed and could feel the thin scar whenever he touched Derek's bare arm. The unsub had fought only momentarily before sinking down into the snow and remaining there until the local police showed up to take her in for processing.
Aaron's team made it back to the police station with a minimal amount of fuss and a local detective had already let them know that there was more than enough physical evidence in the SUV in order for a confession to be virtually unnecessary.
"We can stay, if you'd like," Aaron offered. It was still their case and they could interview the unsub if he deemed it necessary. He had taken a moment to reassure himself that it wasn't just his desire to get his pack away from Miller's pack and that he honestly believed the local detectives could handle the interview. The team was already cleaning up the conference room; Derek helping Garcia with her computer equipment, JJ and Spencer taking down the pictures and erasing their boards, and Jason finishing the preliminary notes that they would leave with the department.
Chief Davis shook his head. "I appreciate that, but I think it's best if you go. The sooner the better. Not that I'm not grateful for your assistance. This would have gone on much longer without your help."
"I understand," Aaron said. Pack politics were never understood by non-shifters and even to shifters it was complex and fraught with friction. "We'll be off pack lands tomorrow morning."
"We can be off pack lands tonight," Derek said. He walked over to stand next to Aaron's side. "I called ahead, we're welcome whenever we're done here."
Aaron looked back at his team. They all looked tired and a little strange in their bar clothes. It was only about an hour to Derek's mother's house and they could keep the government issued vehicles for a few extra days. "We'll be gone tonight." He wasn't going to make Derek stay here any longer than necessary.
"Thank you," Davis said, though it wasn't clear whether he was thanking them for their help or for leaving quickly.
"Anytime," Aaron said as they shook hands.
Davis shook hands with Derek as well before leaving the conference room in a hurry.
"Thank you," Derek repeated to Aaron.
With no one in the immediate area except for their pack, Aaron stepped close and pressed his forehead to Derek's. He didn't pull away when Derek wrapped his arms around him, but the moment was still brief.
"Let's go," Aaron said, grateful to see nothing but acceptance and love from his pack.
"Miller's here," Derek said as they stood in the lobby.
Aaron nodded grimly. "We're leaving. He's not stupid enough to bother us while we're leaving."
Derek snorted but hunched his shoulders defensively.
"I won't let him near you," Aaron promised. When Derek glanced to where the rest of the pack was gathered together, Aaron grimaced. "I won't let him near any of the pack."
"I know," Derek said. "Let's just get out of here."
If this were a different situation, a situation that was less personal to Derek, Aaron would split them up and have Derek drive one of the cars while he drove the other. They were the strongest in the pack, but Aaron wouldn't leave Derek alone in Chicago if it wasn't necessary.
"Spencer, you're with us. Jason, you're taking JJ and Garcia in the second car. Follow us out of the city on the Kennedy Expressway. Do not stop until we're out of the local pack's lands," Aaron said. "Move quickly and stay alert."
They fell easily into formation and left the hotel. A wolf howled to the east as they walked to where they'd parked the cars near the front of the building.
"Stay with me," Derek whispered to Spencer, his voice carrying further than intended in the near quiet. It was a clear night though their breath was visible in the cold air as they moved under a street lamp.
Aaron and Derek helped load Jason's car first, making sure they were all locked inside before they moved onto their own car.
When Derek and Spencer were settled inside the car, Derek starting the engine, Aaron carefully looked around the parking lot. Even with his sharp eyes he couldn't see any of the wolf pack that he could feel gathered at the edges of the lot.
"My pack is leaving your territory. Your word for our safe passage does not end until after we have left," he said clearly but without shouting. Most members of their pack would be able to hear him. Aaron looked directly at the shadow where he could feel Miller's presence. This wasn't the time or the place to address old grievances, but that didn't quell the rage he felt toward the other shifter.
Aaron got into the driver's seat and backed out of the parking space, making sure that Jason was following closely behind before he drove through the parking lot. They made the Expressway within ten minutes, though it wasn't until they were off the local pack land's that they felt Miller's pack members stop following them.
Derek sighed, leaning back in his seat. Aaron reached over and put his hand on Derek's, letting Derek grip as tightly as he needed.
"Could I get some heat back here?" Spencer asked a few minutes later.
"Sure thing." Derek released Aaron's hand and started messing with the controls to send warm air to where Spencer was sitting in the back seat and then turning on the radio to music that Aaron couldn't readily identify.
Aaron glanced at the clock. It would be well after midnight when they reached Fran Morgan's house but Aaron had met Derek's mother enough times to know that she wouldn't mind. They didn't come to Chicago often and while Aaron was certain that Derek's family understood why, it probably didn't make it any easier for them.
"What are we listening to?" Spencer asked, leaning up between the seats so that he could see.
Derek chuckled. "Finally, something I can teach you about."
Aaron rolled his eyes, but settled in to listen to what would probably be an hour long lecture on the history of hip hop and various branch offs of the music genre. He was happy to listen to Derek talk about anything if it meant Derek lost the tight and anxious expression he'd worn ever since they'd received the case.
The clock on the nightstand read a few minutes past midnight. It was officially Christmas day and Derek was still wide awake. He had slept heavily the night before, exhausted and so relieved to be away from Miller's pack that he'd dropped off as soon as he'd climbed into bed. It had taken his sister Desiree pounding on his bedroom door and threatening to come in regardless of his and Aaron's state of dress in order to rouse him from bed that morning. Derek smiled as he rolled over in bed. Hearing his sister bang on his bedroom door and complain that mom wouldn't start lunch until he'd come down for breakfast had been a strangely excellent start to Christmas Eve.
Actually, it had been one of the best Christmas Eves he could remember having since he was very young. Being surrounded by his pack, his mom, and his sisters had been like settling into some kind of safety net. It helped a lot that his mother and sisters had taken one look at Spencer and had immediately become attached. His mother had taken a month or two before she'd warmed up to Aaron, though Derek understood why she'd been concerned at first.
Derek turned over again and got out of bed. Aaron was still awake and if Derek had wanted to he could have talked to him or even just moved closer so that Aaron would put his arm around him. They had an agreement: if one of them was up in the night, from nightmares or insomnia, and wanted to be alone they could leave the bedroom without the other being concerned. If they needed to talk or wanted someone to sit with them, they had promised to wake each other. Mostly Derek just felt unsettled and awake and he didn't want to keep Aaron awake by moving around every five minutes.
He walked out into the hallway, pausing by his sister's old room to listen briefly as JJ and Garcia slept. Satisfied that they were both asleep, and that his mom was sleeping in her room at the end of the hall, Derek crept downstairs. He stopped again outside the office they'd made into a temporary bedroom for Gideon. Gideon was asleep as well, his soft snores easy to hear through the door. About the enter the kitchen, Derek saw a light on in the living room and walked back a few paces.
They'd run out of bedrooms, even with his sisters sleeping at their own homes, and Spencer had volunteered to sleep on the couch. Derek's mom had fussed and brought out extra blankets, all the while talking darkly in Derek's direction about Spencer being too thin, even as Spencer assured her that he was fine. Derek smiled as he leaned against the wall and peered in the living room. Spencer was sitting in the pile of blankets on the couch, two of them over his lap with a third draped around his shoulders. He was wearing a sweatshirt that was too big for him and it took Derek a moment to identify it as one of his old college sweatshirts that he'd left at the house. One of his sisters, probably Sarah, must have gotten from his room.
It had been six weeks since Spencer had last shifted, even though Derek had spent time almost every weekend sitting with Spencer trying to help him. JJ and Garcia had sat with him as well, though neither of them were any more successful than Derek had been. He knew that Gideon was working with Spencer, though from Spencer's reticence to approach the subject, Derek figured that wasn't going well either. Spencer had looked healthier for around two weeks after he'd shifted, but slowly his appetite had once again waned and JJ and Garcia had renewed their campaign to constantly ply him with food. Derek had noticed Spencer looked more exhausted recently, now that he had something to compare to Spencer's usual state. If Spencer didn't shift again soon Derek wasn't sure he could stand by and watch Spencer's form fade, but he didn't know what else he could do to help.
"You can come in," Spencer said without looking up from the pad of paper in his lap.
Derek walked into the living room. He considered the armchair across from the couch before deciding that he'd rather sit with Spencer. Slipping under one of the blankets, Derek was careful to leave enough space so it was clear he couldn't see what Spencer was writing. "Couldn't sleep, pretty boy?"
Spencer turned to Derek. The nickname, applied here when they were alone, didn't make him blush as badly as it usually did. "Writing a letter to my mom."
Derek frowned, suddenly feeling a little built guilty for not even asking Spencer if he'd planned to travel to see his mom during Christmas. He was mostly certain Spencer would have said something if he'd planned on visiting, but only last night Aaron had to him that Spencer's twenty first birthday had been in October and they needed to do a belated celebration. "Do you usually go see your mom over Christmas?"
"No. I don't visit very often. And even when I was living with her we never really celebrated Christmas. For some reason the holiday bothered her. I'm not sure if it's the lights or the trees or maybe just the change in routine, but she doesn't react really well." Spencer looked down at the paper in his lap. "I write her every day."
Derek raised his eyebrows. Writing a letter every day was a lot of guilt that Spencer had been saving up. During one of their shifting practice sessions Spencer had told him a little about his mother's condition, quietly defensive and nervous all at once.
"I don't send all of them. Just the ones that actually say something." Spencer closed the cover of the notebook and put it aside. "I think that she's happy for me now. Or, I'd like to think that. She was worried about me coming to DC, but I've written a lot about the team. She'd be happy that I have friends."
Derek smiled at Spencer's shy declaration that he had friends. "I think she's very happy for you. And proud of you."
Spencer smiled again, though it wasn't really a smile that expressed happiness. "Your family is nice. Is this what Christmas is always like here?"
"More or less. The Christmas tree, stockings, and meals aren't always consistent, but the important part is being together. I'm not here for Christmas as often as I should be," Derek said. He winced and leaned back against the couch cushions. "I should come back more often."
"But you don't because of Miller and his pack?" Spencer asked.
Derek sighed, his chest feeling tight just from hearing Miller's name.
"You don't have to answer that," Spencer quickly added.
"I should," Derek said. He looked at the window, the night blocking his view of anything but darkness. The rest of the team knew, they'd known from the first case they'd taken in Chicago. Aaron knew more than the others, knew details and specifics that Derek had held back when he'd told his story to the rest of the pack.
Spencer shook his head. "There's no should here."
"I want to," Derek said, even though it felt like more of a question than a statement. He felt like he needed to explain himself to Spencer. It wasn't something Derek talked about, unless he had to, and he knew that the rest of the pack would never talk about it without his permission. But it was something he needed Spencer to know.
"Okay," Spencer said. He adjusted the blankets surrounding them so that they were sitting closer.
The light from the lamp on the table simultaneously seemed like it was a distant beacon that Derek could barely see and a flood-lamp filling the entire room. Derek focused his eyes across the room on the set of family pictures that hung on the wall. The center picture was the oldest, taken when Derek was seven years old, and had their entire family gathered together. His dad was in the center of the picture, surrounded by Derek and his sisters, and Derek concentrated on him as he spoke.
"To understand Frank Miller and his pack, you've got to go back before he was leader of the pack. I was nine when my father died. He was a police officer. Shot right in front of me during a convenience store robbery." This part came easy to Derek now. He was proud of his dad, always had been, and the knowledge that his dad had died in order to protect him and the other people there that day had stayed with him through everything.
"That's him?" Spencer asked.
Derek glanced towards Spencer and saw that Spencer had followed Derek's gaze to the picture. "Yeah, that's him."
Spencer nodded and looked at all the surrounding pictures before turning back to Derek.
"My mom isn't a shifter, but my father was. We were members of the same pack that our father had been, the same pack that ran out of Central Chicago. Patrick Miller was the leader at the time. Typically leadership in packs doesn't transfer from father to son, especially not in packs that aren't biologically related, but Frank Miller had just made detective and was in position to take over when his father died." Derek stopped as he realized that he was talking around the problem.
"Your mom didn't want to take you and your sisters away from your pack," Spencer surmised.
Derek sighed. "That's right. Sarah was just starting to shift and Desiree was still learning to control her form. My mom couldn't help us with that, even though she did her best. But she made sure that we were at the pack meetings and hanging out with other cubs. She tried to be involved in that part of our lives as much as possible even when the pack actively ostracized non-shifters."
They sat in silence, which stretched out into minutes. "Derek, you don't have to tell me," Spencer said quietly.
"You saying you don't want to know?" Derek asked, hating the small part of him that hoped Spencer would say he didn't want to hear this.
"Of course I do. I want to know you, and well, I always want to know everything. It's kind of a curse," Spencer said, smiling ruefully.
Derek shook his head, but smiled anyway. "After my father died, I started getting into some trouble. Nothing major, but enough that I got pulled in by the police after a fight with some local kids. Patrick Miller took me aside, explained that he was responsible for me now that my dad wasn't around. He said that pack meant everything and as a result we were family." Derek turned so that he could catch Spencer's eye. "And he was right about that. Pack is everything. Your pack doesn't replace your family, but they become part of your family."
Spencer nodded. "But you're not part of Miller's pack anymore. They felt, different. You don't feel like that at all."
"Pack can be a little more complicated if you're not born into one. Or if you don't stay with the pack that you were raised with. There are theories, unsubstantiated because any kind of methodical research is almost impossible to conduct, that there is a genetic imperative that decides what packs we belong with. Regardless of form, apparently. Just like you knew when you met us that we were your pack, we felt the same thing." Derek reached out and touched his hand against Spencer's, relaxing at how very right it felt. He had never doubted Spencer belonged with him and their pack.
"What about leaving a pack?" Spencer asked. He tucked his hand down under Derek's. They weren't quite holding hands, but their fingers rested against each other.
Derek felt a small stab of unease. He didn't believe that Spencer would leave them, but Aaron's persistent concerns about Spencer's form not being suited to pack life echoed uncomfortably. "Shifters leave a pack for a few reasons. The first and most common is when a pack grows too large. In that case, the pack will splinter and territory is redefined. That's usually when you'll hear reports of shifters fighting in a city."
Spencer frowned. "Gideon said that there is a lion pride on the Cal Tech campus. Why didn't they react negatively to my presence?"
"Lone shifters, if they aren't considered a threat, will generally be allowed on a pack's territory without any concern. It's possible that since you weren't shifting they didn't even realize you were there," Derek said.
"I couldn't feel them on campus, even when Gideon pointed out their leader," Spencer said. "When I met my father I didn't feel anything from him either."
"That makes sense. They weren't your pack and you're shifter senses weren't really activated yet." Derek tightened his fingers briefly around Spencer's before letting go and bringing his hand back to his own lap. "Sometimes a shifter will decide to leave their pack of their own free will, particularly if it was the pack they were born into and they are drawn to a field that doesn't mesh with their pack's lifestyle. These shifters usually find another pack in their field quickly, though there are some that choose to remain alone. Some shifters decide not to ever join a pack, though their forms are typically solitary."
"But you didn't choose to leave Miller's pack," Spencer guessed.
Derek shook his head and clenched his hands tightly in the blanket that covered his lap. "The other reason a shifter will leave their pack is if their pack forces them out. When that happens, their best course of action is to get away from the pack's lands, as the pack won't hesitate to attack if they encounter their former pack member. Their scent changes, just as the pack's scent changes to that shifter."
"Why?" Spencer asked. He had folded his long arms around his chest and looked distressed at the very idea.
Derek understood that Spencer wasn't asking about the specifics of scents and packs. "In general, breaking pack law or attempting to usurp the pack leadership. It was a little bit more complicated than that in my situation. The pack leader has absolute say in who is in the pack and who isn't. If a particularly strong member of the pack is sent away, it's possible that members of the pack will follow them instead of their former pack leader." Derek paused and took a steadying breath. "I was still a cub when Frank Miller sent me away - sixteen years old in my human form. My sisters chose to leave the pack as well, even though Miller didn't have anything against them, and my family moved north of the city."
Spencer frowned. "Why?" he asked again.
Derek turned so that he was meeting Spencer's eyes. He wanted to look away, but he had promised himself that he wasn't ashamed anymore. "One of the pack members, Carl Buford, ran a local youth center. After I started getting in trouble, Patrick Miller set things up so that I was under Carl's supervision after school until my mom got home in the evening. Carl taught me how to play football and basketball, helped me get good enough that there was a possibility I'd be able to go to college on a scholarship."
When Derek stopped, Spencer reached out and placed his hand on the blanket next to Derek. Derek unclenched his left hand and wrapped it around Spencer's, focusing on how Spencer's hand felt slightly chilled.
"After a while, Carl started touching me. At first, I didn't know what to think; maybe it was just an accident, or maybe I was just overreacting. That continued for more than a year before one evening, I was alone with Carl at the center. My mom was working late that night, and she was supposed to come pick me up when she finished her shift. Carl started rubbing my shoulders, like he sometimes did before he touched me, and then he was touching himself too. He had his pants undone and was helping me touch him. He tried to guide my head down and I panicked. I shifted." Derek paused and took a few breaths. He could feel his heart racing and that he was shaking. The urge to shift was strong and it would have been easy to slide into his wolf form, but Derek stopped himself.
Spencer had gone still and his expression mirrored Derek's horror but was also empathetic.
"That was the first time I shifted. I was thirteen years old. I don't remember what happened, but my sister's felt me shift and came to find me. They brought me back home and later I shifted back into my human form. It turned out that I had attacked Carl after I'd shifted. My wolf form was little, and I probably would have killed him if I had been older. As it was I had bitten his arms and face before he'd had the opportunity to shift. The scarring was deep, and by the time he shifted back, they were healed enough that there wasn't much they could do without performing surgery." Derek shrugged, squeezing Spencer's hand when Spencer tightened his grip.
"Derek," Spencer said.
"Let me finish," Derek said, waiting until Spencer nodded. "After that, there was a pack meeting, and I had to explain why I'd attacked Carl. If I hadn't know that Patrick Miller would be able to sense that I was telling the truth, I don't think that I could have done it. Lying to the leader of your pack is virtually impossible; they always know. Patrick banished Carl from the pack that very night."
Spencer frowned. "But Patrick was a police officer."
"Yes, but he was also very insistent that pack business stayed pack business. Even if my mom had tried to report Carl for what he'd done, nothing would have come from it." Derek closed his eyes, trying to clear the image of Carl from his mind. "A few years later, when Patrick died and Frank Miller took over, Frank called a pack meeting. One of his first decisions was the cull weakness from our pack. He had always said that his father allowed the pack to be too soft. I was the first he declared as no longer a member of the pack. After that, after we moved, and my sisters took it upon themselves to teach me about being a shifter."
"You're not weak," Spencer said. He turned so that both of his hands encompassed Derek's. "Not at all."
Derek nodded, a little surprised that he hadn't summoned Aaron downstairs by almost shifting. He sunk back into the couch cushions, suddenly exhausted but glad that he'd told Spencer. Whenever he told someone, even now when he would occasionally talk about a detail he hadn't told Aaron before, he always felt that flood of fear that he wouldn't be believed or that they person he was telling would react with disgust. The relief that came after, when the person believed him or when Aaron nodded and clenched his jaw in suppressed anger, almost made pushing past that fear worth it.
Spencer's mouth twisted slightly as he scooted closer to Derek. "Well, now I get why Hotch spent the past few days looking like he was about to shift and maul someone."
"He did?" Derek asked, a little surprised. Every time they came through Chicago Derek spent most of the time concentrating on protecting the pack and not shifting that he barely was aware of what everyone else was doing.
"Yep. The entire time he walked like he was about to shift. I kept expecting him to go bounding off towards Miller's pack," Spencer said.
"Aaron wouldn't shift in another pack's territory. His control is excellent," Derek said.
"He would if he thought you were being threatened," Spencer said.
Derek rolled his head to the side. Spencer was sitting right next to him; if they were any closer their legs would be touching.
Spencer reached up and placed a hand on Derek's shoulder. "This is completely inappropriate, but may I kiss you?"
Derek blinked, his heart rate speeding up again. He nodded, not really sure what to expect.
Spencer leaned in and pressed his lips briefly against Derek's. It was one of the most gentle and careful kisses Derek thought he'd ever received. There was no sexual intent in Spencer's kiss, just compassion and warmth.
"May I?" Derek asked, when Spencer had pulled away.
Spencer nodded and he closed his eyes as Derek leaned forward and kissed him on the lips. This kiss lasted just barely longer than the first and Derek felt a whisper of regret when he backed away.
There was a brief moment as they looked at each other. Derek watched as Spencer's face flickered with love and confusion and Derek's own chest still ached slightly. Spencer's eyes widened with surprise right before he shifted, Derek's sweatshirt suddenly covering him completely.
Derek stared at the moving sweatshirt as Spencer squirmed around inside the fabric and then chuckled. "I guess now we know one way to get you to shift," Derek said. He picked up Spencer's glasses from where they'd landed on the blanket and put them on the table where they wouldn't get crushed. Spencer was halfway through wiggling out of the neck of the sweatshirt when Derek rescued him.
"Come on, I can't leave you down here all night. If you think Garcia's bad, wait until my sisters see you," Derek said as he picked up Spencer. He thought that Spencer's leopard form felt a little heavier than it had the first time he'd shifted, though he couldn't see a visible difference yet. "I hope you like ham, because my mom makes the best ham on Christmas."
Spencer didn't seem particularly interested in what Derek was telling him, but he let Derek cradle him in one arm while Derek untangled them from the blankets and turned off the lamp.
The house was quiet, but when Derek reached his bedroom he realized that Aaron hadn't gone to sleep despite the fact that Derek had been gone for more than an hour. Derek climbed under the blankets that Aaron held up for him, resting Spencer on his chest.
"We kissed," Derek said immediately. He was mostly sure that Aaron didn't mind but he wasn't going to try to keep it a secret either way. "And talked."
"I know," Aaron said, leaning in to kiss Derek's temple and then his lips.
"You're not mad?" Derek asked, watching as Aaron rubbed Spencer behind the ears.
Aaron shook his head and adjusted his position so that he was pressed against Derek with his arm wrapped around Derek's shoulders. "I'm not, but we need to talk later."
Spencer settled down so that he was resting on both Aaron and Derek. Derek adjusted the blankets so that Spencer would be able to see and breathe without trouble.
"Alright," Derek said. Aaron wasn't angry or hurt and they could deal with anything else. Derek felt his eyes flickering closed, he was somehow more tired than he'd realized.
"It's okay, go to sleep," Aaron said. He kissed Derek's temple again and pulled Derek in closer.
Derek let his eyes shut and fell asleep with one hand resting against Spencer and the other one pressed against Aaron's chest.
Spencer closed his eyes again, casting out to find the rest of the team inside Derek's mother's house. They were all downstairs, along with the presence of two shifters that Spencer was able to identify as Derek's sisters. He could smell something in the oven and his stomach rumbled pointedly.
He had obviously shifted - there wasn't any other good reason for waking up naked in a place he hadn't fallen asleep - and after a moment of mentally retracing his steps the previous night he recalled talking with Derek. Spencer opened his eyes, remembering being horrified as he listened and wanting to do anything he could to take that haunted look from Derek's face. Then Derek had kissed him back, and it wasn't anything like the first kiss.
Spencer realized that he remembered shifting, not entirely, but enough that he could identify the sensation that the rest of the team talked about when they were coaching him. Gideon had described it as following a cord or a line inside to where your form was, and JJ had explained it as letting her wolf form follow a path forward. Spencer understood now why they would describe it that way but when he pictured it, it was more like a hook suddenly reaching forward and pulling him deep inside. He thought he might be able to find that hook again if he reached for it, but decided that he would rather go find something to eat before he risked shifting again.
A glance at the clock on the nightstand informed him it was late in the afternoon. He had vague recollections of crouching underneath a tree and ribbons that were just begging to be chased and bitten, but he guessed that he'd slept most of Christmas day. Someone had brought his bag up to the bedroom and Spencer found that his clothes were freshly washed. Incredibly grateful, Spencer got dressed and sat down on the bed to tie his shoes.
There was a knock on the door. "Spencer?" Hotch called.
Spencer doubted that it was a coincidence that Hotch showed up right after he finished getting dressed. He'd probably felt him shift back into human form. He decided to be thankful that Hotch had waited that long considering the team in general was far too comfortable wandering around half-dressed. Spencer sometimes got the feeling that any clothes that were worn on pack nights were out of deference to him.
"Come in," Spencer said. He stood up as the door opened and Hotch came inside. When Hotch shut the door behind him, Spencer twitched slightly. This was a conversation he'd never thought he'd have to have with his boss. "I kissed Derek."
Hotch's eyes widened ever so slightly.
"Well, Derek kissed me as well, but I kissed him first," Spencer clarified, wondering why he felt the need to explain further. "When I kissed him, I didn't intend for it to be a kiss that-"
"Spencer, I know," Hotch said, holding up one of his hands in the way that Spencer was learning meant Hotch wanted him to stop rambling. Hotch walked over and sat down on the desk chair.
"Derek told you?" Spencer asked. He wasn't really surprised by that, but it was good to know.
"He didn't have to, I know when my mate kisses someone else." Hotch nodded slowly. "But, yes. Those were the first words out of his mouth when he brought you up here. At least I know that neither of you would try to keep that a secret."
Spencer looked down, feeling guilty. He'd never kissed someone when they were involved with someone else, never been a party to cheating on someone before. "I'm sorry."
Hotch leaned forward in the chair. "That's not something you need to feel sorry about. Actually, I wanted to thank you for listening like you did. Derek struggles to talk about his past, but I know that it was weighing on him to keep you excluded from something the rest of the pack knew."
Spencer folded his arms and glared at the worn floorboards, letting some of the anger he'd felt last night show. He hadn't expressed how furious he was at Derek's former pack and at Buford because he'd known that it wouldn't help Derek. "I don't know how you can come to Chicago without wanting to hunt them down. All of them."
"I do want to. Every time I see Miller I want to shift and snap his neck under my teeth," Hotch grimaced, turning away to look out the window. "But that's not what Derek wants, and I wouldn't start a pack war unless it became necessary. I would do anything to protect any member of my pack. That includes you."
Spencer looked up, surprised to discover that he actually believed that. "You're not angry that I kissed Derek, or that he kissed me back," he said, reading Hotch's body language as he mentally went over to the past few minutes.
"No, I'm not," Hotch agreed. "Fran sent me up here to collect you for dinner, now that you're able to sit at the table. Though I think Sarah and Desiree were looking forward to feeding you while you were a cub."
"Great." Spencer covered his face with his hands.
Hotch laughed, a strange but pleasant sound coming from a man who was usually more reserved. "You'll survive," he said as he stood up.
Spencer followed Hotch downstairs into the kitchen. He found himself enjoying the many conversations he had with both his team and Derek's family. This was the first Christmas he had actually celebrated; most years when he was growing up he considered it a good Christmas if he and his mom made it through the holiday break from school without her having a major episode. Even when he'd been at Cal Tech, and had declined to return to Vegas over the holiday break, he had spent Christmas researching or working on a project. He found it surprisingly nice to sit down at a dinner table and be surrounded by people who considered him part of their family. It was taking some time, but Spencer thought that he was starting to think of them the same way.
They ate dinner soon after Spencer and Hotch came downstairs. Spencer wound up sitting between Hotch and JJ and across from Derek's sisters. Sarah teased him gently about the fact that he'd apparently tried to climb up the Christmas tree in his form and Spencer decided that Derek was his favorite person ever when he got everyone off the subject of Spencer's form and talking about the meal instead.
At the end of the night, Spencer stuffed from dinner and somewhat sleepy, found himself being hugged by Derek's mother. He leaned down and rested his head on her shoulder, momentarily lost in remember the last time his mom had hugged him before he'd started his master's degrees and would be living away from home.
"You're a good man," Fran Morgan said quietly, patting his back. "You're good for my son."
"I hope so," Spencer whispered.
She squeezed him briefly before she let go and bid the rest of the team goodnight.
Spencer gave and received hugs from JJ and Garcia, and clasped hands with Hotch and Gideon as they all said goodnight. It was strangely comforting, though he felt a little bit overstimulated by touch by the time Derek reached him.
"Goodnight," Derek said. He rested his hand on Spencer's arm, like he realized that Spencer was slightly uncomfortable.
Spencer wrapped his arms around Derek. He hadn't had a chance to be alone with Derek since the previous night, not even just to say a few words. "I'm sorry I shifted on you last night."
Derek shook his head, his own arms now holding Spencer against his chest. "Don't worry about it. I didn't scare you, did I?"
"No, not at all. It was nice." Spencer leaned in, staying in Derek's embrace for as long as he could before he shivered and reluctantly backed away. "Goodnight."
"Goodnight, pretty boy. Merry Christmas," Derek said.
"Merry Christmas," Spencer replied, the words almost unfamiliar on his tongue.
He curled up in the blankets that had been returned to the couch for him and picked up the notebook he'd been writing in the previous night. Reading over what he'd written the night before, Spencer turned the page and started a new letter. This would be one that he wouldn't send, as he wrote about the Christmas tree, and the dinner, and bumping elbows with Hotch as he passed the gravy, and how everyone had talked over each other and laughed and been happy.
When he finished that letter, he turned the page and started another one. This was one that he could send. He wrote that he was safe and doing well. He wrote about the cold and the snow, and how he missed winters in Vegas where the chill only required a jacket on the coldest days. He said that he missed her and that he remembered sitting with her and listening to her read to him whenever he sat down with certain books.
Spencer closed his notebook and turned off the lamp before arranging the blankets so that he was wrapped up against the cold. He thought briefly about reaching for the hook, the one that would shift his form, so that Derek would come and take him back to bed. Spencer could just barely remember being surrounded by the warmth of Derek and Hotch as they all slept.
After deciding that was probably a bad reason to want to shift, Spencer slowly drifted to sleep. They would be returning to Quantico the next day, assuming the weather was good enough for the pilot to fly back to Chicago, and Spencer forced himself to think of the soothing lull that came with flying instead of being surrounded by Derek and Hotch.
Chapter 5: Section Five
It was early in the afternoon when the team made their way to the hotel where they were staying. They'd been working the case for four days and the lack of sleep was starting to get to all of them. When JJ had knocked her cup of coffee off the table because she'd fallen asleep and slumped against it, Hotch had declared that it was time for them to take a real break and sleep in shifts until nighttime. Their unsub was active at night and so far they had plenty of leads but nothing that was particularly outstanding.
Derek and Hotch had already swept their rooms, as they did every time they returned to the hotel. They were in New York City and the sheer number of packs and shifters running around put everyone on edge. Spencer had barely been able to focus for the first day that they were at the police department. The next morning, Gideon had pulled him aside and worked with him on muting the presence of other shifters in his mind. Spencer could still feel them now, lurking just outside his awareness of the team, but they were less distinct and distracting now.
"JJ, Jason, and Spencer can sleep first. Four hours, then we'll switch. We should be back on the streets by ten tonight." Hotch looked over the team, his eyes pausing on where JJ was slumped against the wall.
"I don't think I can sleep right now. I'd rather keep going through case files and narrowing our suspect pool," Spencer said. He was tired but his brain was still running through the dozens of case files he'd read over the past few days. If he tried to sleep he would wind up just staring at the ceiling and thinking.
Hotch looked at Spencer, assessing him just as he would an unsub he was questioning. "Alright. When I tell you to rest, you go. Don't push yourself "
"Okay," Spencer said, already digging through the file box he'd carried up with him. There was a specific set he wanted to look through again.
Derek walked back in the kitchen, examining the leftovers they had dropped in the fridge the first time they'd been to the hotel suite. "I'm good to stay up for a bit too. I want to look at the explosives schematics again."
Hotch nodded. "Four hours," he said again and walked briskly into the room he was sharing with Derek.
"Goodnight," JJ said, following Gideon into the second bedroom. Gideon closed the door behind them, looking equally exhausted.
Spencer scanned through the files he'd pulled out, not looking up until he felt the couch cushion sink beside him.
"You're looking at the gang stuff again?" Derek asked as he picked up one of the files Spencer had set aside.
"It doesn't make sense," Spencer said. "Well, it does, because the various factions in the city have every reason to want to take out members of the police. But blowing up their homes and killing their families as well? That doesn't fit any MO I've come across."
Derek flipped through the files, looking more at the crime scene photos than the reports. "The Tenth Ave Killers are notorious for their use of explosives to take out rival gang members and the South End Blues have launched incendiary devices at police officers before."
"Car bombs and small IEDs planted in doorways aren't the same as bombs that are activated remotely and are designed to kill an entire family," Spencer said as he flipped the next file closed. "This unsub is doing everything they can to avoid confrontation with his victims."
"Alright, but that doesn't mean a member of either of those gangs, or one of these," Derek nudged the rest of the stack with his knee, "couldn't be acting alone without the knowledge of the rest of his gang."
"Maybe," Spencer said. "The group cohesiveness we encountered today would suggest otherwise. Not a single member even looked away until their leader gave them the signal to run."
Derek looked down at his pants, the bottoms of which were still grimy from his chase through the wintery streets. "Speaking of which, I'm going to take a quick shower and change. Keep working on that angle though. If not one of the gang members, maybe someone affiliated with a gang?"
Spencer nodded and started searching for the files that contained the information about the evidence gathered from the crime scenes. They had concentrated the majority of their attention on a few of the local gangs. Threats that had been made specifically to two of the police officers who had been killed had made the connection seem reasonable. The very reason that this case was putting everyone on edge, from the local officers to Hotch and Gideon, was the reason it didn't make sense to Spencer that it was a gang affiliated killing spree. Killing police officers sent a message. Killing their families was personal.
The bottom of the file box was empty and Spencer frowned as he searched the small space of the living room. They must have left the second box in one of the cars. Spencer closed his eyes and pictured them leaving the cars; he had carried one of the file boxes and the other had been left in the trunk of the car Hotch had drove. The schematics for the bombs would be in that box as well.
The hotel suite was quiet, everyone except Derek was probably already asleep. If he concentrated he could hear the sound of water hitting the tiles in the shower and Derek quietly humming. Spencer's eyes fell on where the keycards the for the hotel and the keys to the car were sitting on the table. It would take him less than five minutes to go down to the parking lot and grab the box. Spencer thought about grabbing his coat, he'd already learned that just because it wasn't snowing didn't mean it wasn't very cold, but the car was only in the second row of the parking lot. He grabbed the keys and slipped out of the suite, careful to ease the heavy door closed so it wouldn't wake the team.
He didn't bother with the elevator, instead taking the stairs down to the front lobby and out into the parking lot. The mid-January wind hit him immediately and Spencer shivered grimly. At least the sidewalks and the parking lot had been cleared of snow.
Spencer unlocked the trunk and placed both sets of keys on top of the box. Everyone must have been tired if they'd all forgotten to bring in the case files. Yawning, Spencer reached for the box. The sound of a van door sliding open right behind him caught his attention.
Before Spencer could turn around, his vision went dark as a piece of fabric was pulled down over his face. He turned his body, like Derek had taught him, but there was more than one person surrounding him. "Derek! Hotch!" Spencer shouted, his voice muffled through the fabric. Despite struggling valiantly Spencer felt himself being dragged into vehicle and then the vehicle moving. His arms were restrained behind him and he yelped as he was pushed down the the floor.
"Go," the man to the left of him said, and Spencer slid a little on the floor as the vehicle roughly rounded a corner. Spencer shivered and managed to sit up, drawing his knees up to his chest so he presented a smaller and less vulnerable target. Derek would be out of the shower soon and then the team would come find him. He just had to survive until then.
He walked out into the bedroom, intending on sneaking through while Aaron was sleeping, but stopped short when he saw Aaron standing in the middle of the room in his boxers and undershirt looking alert and intense.
"Where's Spencer?" Aaron asked without turning away from the section of wall he was staring at.
"Looking at files in the living room," Derek said. He reached out with his senses and feeling his stomach drop when he couldn't hear paper being rustled or scent Spencer. He pushed open the door and quickly scanned the room, his eyes confirming what he already knew. "I left him here, not even ten minutes ago."
"He's getting further away," Aaron said.
Derek stepped back in the bedroom and watched as Aaron fumbled for his clothes. Aaron's eyes were still focused on the far wall, his sense of pack fighting to keep track of Spencer's location.
"Wake the rest of the pack," Aaron instructed as he buttoned his shirt.
Derek fought back the swell of panic and hurried the short distance to the door of the other bedroom. He knocked once before opening the door.
Gideon was already dressed and was checking the holster on his belt. "We need to move quickly. If Hotch can keep a hold on his direction we have a better chance of finding him."
"We'll find him." Derek's voice sounded foreign to his own ears.
"I'm calling Garcia. I'll have her track his cellphone," JJ said. She was brushing her hair out of her eyes and reaching for her cellphone.
"Don't bother." Aaron entered the room carrying Spencer's coat in one hand and his cellphone in the other. "He took a hotel room key and keys to one of the cars, but he didn't expect to be gone long."
JJ faltered, her hand resting on the phone.
"Call Garcia. Have her get started on traffic footage from the intersections near the hotel. The local PD should be able to give her access. We can do all of this on the road. Let's go," Aaron said. He was dressed now, looking as dangerous as Derek had ever seen him.
They left the hotel suite less than a minute later, Derek feeling a little more uncoordinated than usual. Their line of work sometimes required them to be able to be ready to run and shoot and fight at a moment's notice, but the change from being half asleep to being terrified for one of their own was a rough transition. The cold air was like being hit in the chest and Derek realized they'd gone down the stairs and through the lobby without conscious awareness of their surroundings other than the threat assessment that was instinctual for all of them.
The back of the car was open, Derek could see that from the sidewalk, and he drew his gun as he approached. He could see the keys to the car sitting on top of the box of case files and he grimaced as he realized why Spencer had left the hotel room.
"There are skid marks on the road. Whoever took Spencer left in a hurry. They're professional and it was no accident that they took Spencer," Gideon said from where he was examining the asphalt. "You've still got a fix on him?"
Aaron nodded, staring unerringly to the south. "I don't know how far."
Derek picked up the car keys and the hotel key card from where they were resting on the box and closed the trunk with what was probably excessive force. "Let's go."
"Garcia's working through the footage as quickly as she can. She's staying on the line with me," JJ said. She was turning slowly where she stood, as if trying to get a fix on Spencer's location as well.
"Let's go, now." Derek moved to get in the driver's seat but was stopped by Gideon.
"You and Aaron have the strongest connection to Spencer. I need you to focus on finding him and navigating, not on city traffic," Gideon said. He pressed Spencer's coat and cellphone into Derek's hands.
Derek shoved the keys at Gideon, not willing to waste time arguing. "This isn't the unsub who is planting bombs. We don't know why they want him." He left off the part about not knowing how long they'd keep Spencer alive.
"He's with shifters," Aaron said as Derek urged him into the passenger seat.
Derek nodded as he and JJ climbed in the back seat. They could do something about shifters. There would be no repercussions, legal or otherwise, for a pack doing everything necessary to get one of their cubs back when they'd been taken by another pack. He held Spencer's coat tightly and inhaled his scent as Gideon drove them through the parking lot and turned in the direction where Aaron was focused. If Spencer stayed close enough, they should be able to use Aaron like a compass until they could all sense him.
"We're coming," Derek whispered, squeezing JJ's hand when she reached for him.
The ambient noise in the van changed and Spencer slid a little way along the floor as the van sped up. They were getting on one of the highways he realized with a jolt of fear. Spencer had only been working with the FBI for a little over three months but he already knew that all bets were off when the person being abducted was moved to a prepared location. He tried to work the statistics for chances of survival based on how far away an abductee was taken, but his mind kept reaching out for the pack. It was strangely disorienting to not be able to feel them and determine their locations. He wished he knew how much time had actually passed, because he was certain that it hadn't been more than a few minutes but it felt like far longer. Derek had to have realized he was gone by now and they would be looking for him.
Spencer reached for the hook inside of him that would let him shift. He would still be vulnerable if he shifted, but maybe he would stand a better chance of slipping away when they removed him from the van. Unless his captors had planned for the possibility of him shifting and had a cage or something waiting in the van. Spencer wasn't exactly sure what would happen if he shifted back to his human form in a space that was smaller than he was, but he didn't want to find out. It didn't make much of a difference because each time Spencer attempted to shift into his form he found it harder and harder to grasp the hook until he couldn't find it at all. He gasped for air and slumped back against the wall of the van, unaware until that moment how much physical effort he'd been putting into trying to shift.
"Are you done?" One of his captors spoke, his voice deep and his tone amused.
Spencer resisted the urge to kick out. He was getting better at physically handling himself, but not so much that he stood a chance while blindfolded and with his hands bound behind him. His best chance at this point was to stall and try to stay alive long enough for the team to find him. "Yes," he answered. It was interesting to Spencer that they could feel that he'd been trying to shift and he vowed to pay more attention to the sensation when members of the pack shifted.
Hands wrapped tightly around Spencer's upper arms and lifted him onto a seat. Spencer swayed slightly, his balance thrown off as the van changed lanes. "Why did you take me?" he asked. He didn't expect a real answer, but he would take any information they were willing to give.
"We need you to deliver a message to your pack." A different voice spoke this time, slightly higher pitched and with a different accent.
Spencer turned to his left, where the voice had come from, and stared despite not being able to see anything except for patches of light from the front window. "You couldn't have sent a letter?" He was hopeful that this meant he would be returned alive, and in one piece, but he wasn't going to stop looking for a way out.
Both of the men laughed, apparently genuinely amused.
"A letter wouldn't have had quite the same effect. This is a warning as well as a message. Your pack is to stop investigating the local gangs. In return, we will tell you where to find your killer and your pack will leave as soon as the case is solved." The first man spoke again.
"Why?" Spencer asked. He shifted against the seat, trying to lean forward and take the pressure off of his bounds wrists.
"The man you are looking for is not affiliated with the local gangs," the first man said.
"No, we know that. But why do you care? None of the gang members we've seen are shifters," Spencer said, moderately confused. "And if you know who the killer is, why didn't you tell the local police?"
There was a long silence and Spencer wondered if he was going to get an answer at all.
The second man, to Spencer's left, sighed. "We would have taken care of the situation ourselves, but we are not willing to start a war over one rogue shifter. As for the gangs, they have their uses."
Spencer nearly fell out of his seat as the van abruptly slowed down and veered to the right.
One of the men moved closer and steadied Spencer. "You aren't in a position to make a binding pack agreement, but you will deliver this message to your pack leader. Tell him that the next time one of his cubs roams he will be lucky to get them back and it's fortunate that you were found by a pride as forgiving as ours."
"What do you mean?" Spencer asked, but there was no response.
A few minutes later, after several turns and brief stops, the van came to a complete stop and the side door was rolled open.
Two sets of hands lifted Spencer up and he shivered as he felt the cold wind through his shirt. The next time he went outside, even if it was supposed to only be for a few minutes, he was going to wear his coat.
"This goes to your pack leader. No one else," the man with the deeper voice said as he pulled open Spencer's fingers and pressed what felt like a piece of paper into his hand.
Spencer struggled briefly as they lowered him to the cold cement and then tied his ankles together.
"Your pack is about ten minutes behind us. You should be safe here until they find you." The second man tugged on Spencer's bindings to make sure they were secure. "Just stay here."
"Wait!" Spencer shouted as the footsteps moved away from him. The van door closed and he listened as the vehicle pulled away. It wasn't long before Spencer could only hear the wind blowing against whatever building he was leaning against and the sound of leaves and other debris rustling down the nearby road. He shivered and reached for the team again, but they were still too far away for him to find. Trying to remind himself of all the ways he could be in a worse situation at the moment, Spencer attempted to flex his slightly swollen hands and pulled his legs as close to his chest as he could manage. He cast out with his senses, hoping that he would hear Hotch's voice or feel Derek's presence before long.
"Garcia has the van stopped at a traffic light on exit 12, ten miles from here," JJ said. She kept her phone pressed to her ear. "She says to get on I-90 northbound on Seneca Street."
Gideon veered the car across two lanes of traffic and made an abrupt left turn. "Tell her to keep track of them and not to worry about guiding us," he snapped.
Derek grimaced but held on tight as Gideon slammed to a stop at a red light. There was no way around the traffic surrounding them and they hadn't gotten on the highway for fear of missing a sudden turnoff that they wouldn't be able to follow. He looked down at his watch and swallowed hard. It had been a full twenty minutes since he stepped out of the shower to find Aaron staring blankly at the wall and Spencer missing. He wasn't going to think about what could have happened to Spencer in that time; he knew from experience that wouldn't help.
"Are you sure?" JJ asked, leaning to look out the window as the car started forward again. She frowned as she listened. "Keep looking."
"What?" Derek asked, his stomach clenching.
JJ looked at him, her expression tight. "They drove into an industrial storage area. There aren't cameras along every street. She's keeping an eye on all the exits. If they leave, we'll know."
Derek swallowed as he thought of the number of human slaughter houses he'd seen in warehouses. They were isolated, far from where anyone would search or hear someone screaming for help, and the unsubs could unload their victims directly into the storage bays. He felt a small tug from Aaron and leaned forward when he realized Aaron was resisting the temptation to shift.
"I'd be able to scent him better if I was in my wolf form," Aaron said quietly.
Derek wanted to reach forward and touch Aaron's arm, but he knew better than to disrupt Aaron's concentration.
At last, Gideon pulled onto the highway and they began to move quickly through the traffic.
Derek leaned his head against the cool glass of the window and searched for Spencer. "Come on, pretty boy," Derek whispered as he closed his eyes. He could feel shifters nearby in the city, a small wolf pack to the east and a lone cheetah driving by on the opposite side of the highway. His eyes opened suddenly and he leaned back, trying to make certain before he said anything.
"I've got him. He's stationary, to the north-west of our present location," Derek said as he turned to look at where he could feel Spencer. He could tell that Spencer was alive and not badly hurt, but that was all.
"Yes," Aaron agreed, looking in the exact same direction as Derek.
"Exit the highway in two miles," JJ instructed after repeating Spencer's direction to Garcia and listening for her response.
Gideon drove through the slightly congested highway with little regard for the cars around them. Derek barely noticed as another car honked at them when Gideon cut them off and they were soon sailing down the exit ramp.
"The shifters left him alone," Aaron said as they slowed down marginally on the narrower roads.
Derek cast out, confirming that they were the only shifters in the vicinity. "Two streets east," he said, quickly calculating the distance now that they were closer. He watched out the window, impatiently scanning for where he knew Spencer to be.
"I'll call you back as soon as we've found him," JJ whispered into her cellphone before closing it and putting it away.
"Here," Aaron instructed, and Gideon stopped the car.
Derek was out the door before the car had completely stopped and his glock was already in his hands. Within seconds, Aaron, Gideon and JJ were at his side, all of them scanning the area for signs of danger.
"Spencer?" Aaron called.
"Hotch! Derek!" Spencer shouted back, his voice coming from one of the alleys.
"We're coming to you," Aaron called back. The team moved together as easily as if they'd been a single person. They quickly and carefully cleared the alley closest to them and moved deeper into a narrow space between two of the buildings.
"Spencer," Derek said as soon as he saw Spencer's sneakers sticking out from behind a metal container. He and Aaron raced forward and rounded the corner.
Derek was flooded with relief as soon as he saw Spencer, curled up and shivering on the ground, but alive. He knelt down immediately, trusting that Gideon and JJ were covering them from anyone still in the area.
"It's just us," Aaron said when Spencer jolted at his touch.
Spencer gasped through the rough cloth bag that was over his head and tied around his neck. "I know."
Derek pulled out his pocket knife and handed it to Aaron. "Hold still, we're cutting you loose." He held onto Spencer's shoulders to try and ease some of the shaking while Aaron cut the ties on the bag and carefully pulled it up over Spencer's face.
"My hands," Spencer said, shaking his head to get his hair away from his eyes.
"We've got you," Derek repeated, smoothing away Spencer's hair for him and helping him lean forward so Aaron could cut the plastic ties that were restraining Spencer's wrists.
Spencer whimpered as he pulled his hands back in front of him, his hands slightly swollen and red from having the circulation partially cut off. "The note, for you," he said, shoving his right hand to Aaron.
Derek looked up from where he was untying Spencer's ankles and watched as Aaron carefully took the piece of paper from where it had been clenched in Spencer's hand.
"Can you stand up?" Aaron asked.
When Spencer nodded, Derek and Aaron helped him to his feet. Unable to stop himself, Derek wrapped his arms around Spencer and held him tight, breathing a sigh of relief as Spencer rested his head on Derek's shoulder. He looked up in time to watch Aaron open the note and read it with a tense frown before showing it to Gideon.
"We need to go," Aaron said. He placed his hand on the back of Spencer's neck and leaned in. "Are you going to be alright for the time being?"
Spencer turned to look at Aaron, his expression fearful. "The note told you who the unsub is, right?"
"No. It's a list of names of police officers. Three of them have already been killed, which makes the last name on the list the unsub's next target," Aaron said. He handed the piece of paper to JJ. "Call Garcia from the car, get us an address."
Derek holstered his gun and slipped out of his jacket, placing it over Spencer's shoulders. He kept one arm wrapped around Spencer as they walked back to the car.
"They were a pride," Spencer said as he shivered under the jacket. "They want us to not investigate the local gangs. I still don't understand why."
"Okay. It's okay," Derek said. They reached the car and Derek got Spencer in the back seat and covered his lap with Spencer's coat. He turned briefly to Aaron as they stood outside the car. "What are we doing?"
"We're going to go stop the unsub from blowing up a police officer and his family," Aaron said tersely, looking at Spencer and then turning to look around the area.
Derek nodded even though he could see his desire to confront the pride who took Spencer reflected in Aaron's eyes. Derek couldn't feel the pride in the area at all and while it was possible Garcia was still tracking the van, it would likely take them more time than they had to follow it to its destination.
"I've got the address," JJ said as she climbed into the backseat next to Spencer and relaying the information to Gideon.
Derek touched Aaron's hand now that he could without distracting him, and relaxed when Aaron briefly squeezed his fingers.
"Let's go," Aaron instructed as he got into the front passenger seat.
Derek sat next to Spencer and closed the door, putting on his seat belt and helping Spencer's with his. "How do your hands feel?" he asked, noticing Spencer's swollen fingers twitching intermittently.
"Uncomfortable," Spencer admitted quietly.
"May I?" Derek asked. When Spencer nodded, Derek took Spencer's right hand and began to gently warm and massage it. "We'll soak them when we get back to the hotel."
JJ turned to Spencer, her expression slightly grim. "Garcia wants to see how you're doing." She held the phone up to Spencer's ear before he had a chance to object.
Spencer waited for a moment, listening to whatever Garcia was saying. "I'm really fine," he said.
Derek smiled as he heard the pitch from the cellphone increase and Spencer leaned away from the auditory onslaught. It might have only been coincidental that Spencer leaned towards him, but Derek was glad to feel Spencer pressed against him.
After letting Garcia express herself for a minute, Derek reached over and took the phone from JJ's hand. "He's alright, baby girl. Just take a deep breath and focus. Did you ever find the van?"
"No, I didn't," Garcia said, her frustration obvious even over the phone. "I have a unit coming to search the area, because it hasn't left."
"They probably switched vehicles," Derek said. "Keep looking, but make sure we have backup in place on the target. Bomb squad and everyone."
"On it. Give me back to JJ. And tell Spencer that this conversation isn't over," Garcia instructed.
Derek smiled and handed the phone back across the car. He was exhausted, and from the way Spencer was still slumping against him, he wasn't the only one. They could only hope that this went down quickly and that the pride's information was accurate.
Derek walked back into the hotel bedroom carrying the antibiotic ointment from his first aid kit. Their job tended to get them scraped up on occasion and resting in their forms to promote faster healing wasn't always an option. He paused in the doorway, looking at where Spencer was sprawled out in the middle of the king sized bed. His hands were resting on a pillow, elevated to help reduce the mild swelling, and his hair was spread out on the pillow beneath his head. If it wasn't for the way his entire body jolted every so often, Derek could have believed that he was asleep.
"I'm gonna put some ointment on your wrists," Derek said, making sure he had Spencer's attention before he climbed on the bed.
Spencer nodded, watching as Derek pushed up Spencer's sleeves and applied the ointment to the places where the plastic straps had cut into his skin.
"How are your hands feeling now?" Derek asked when he'd finished, gently touching where his hands were still barely discolored.
"Better," Spencer said as he experimentally clenched his hands and released them.
"Good." Derek got back up and returned the ointment to his bag and washed his hands before returning to the bed.
Spencer was still nestled in Derek's jacket as he lay on top of the covers and Derek decided that this was as good of time as any for them both to get some rest. If Aaron and the rest of the team didn't catch the unsub now, they'd all be back out tonight. Aaron had dropped them both off at the hotel, saying that Spencer wasn't in any condition to help them confront an unsub. Derek had got the message that Aaron wasn't comfortable leaving Spencer by himself at the moment and he agreed wholeheartedly. He had felt torn; he wanted to be at Aaron's side and keeping his team safe, but leaving Spencer in that moment felt almost impossible. He knew that Aaron was fighting a similar battle, caught between his job and wanting to keep his pack safe, and he was doing what he thought was the best compromise for the moment.
Derek reached for Spencer's shoes, untying the laces and pulling them off to reveal Spencer's mismatched socks; the left sock was a pale lavender and the right was black with gray and white stripes around the ankle. Derek set aside Spencer's shoes and kicked off his own before pulling back the covers.
"Come on, pretty boy. Move yourself for just a minute," Derek said, managing to slide the covers out from under Spencer and rescue his jacket in the same movement.
Spencer shivered and turned his head to follow where Derek set the jacket down over the back of a chair. "I'm still cold," he said, sounding exhausted.
"I think I'm a better source of warmth than my jacket." Derek settled the covers over Spencer and climbed into bed. He wrapped his arms around Spencer and settled his face against Spencer's shoulder. It took nearly a full minute, as Spencer made himself comfortable, for Derek to realize this was very close to the way he situated himself with Aaron. Not quite the same, because Aaron was usually the one sheltering him, but close enough for Derek to feel vaguely unsettled. "Try to get some rest."
"I don't think I can sleep right now," Spencer said. He moved so that he was on his side, his shoulder blades and elbows briefly digging into Derek's chest before he settled.
Derek breathed in Spencer's scent from his hair, blocking out the strong scent of the ointment and the faintest hint of blood, and rested his head on the same pillow Spencer was using. "That's okay. Just let your body relax." It wasn't long before Derek felt Spencer's chest hitch and Spencer ducked his head to the side to wipe his face against the sleeve of his shirt.
"It's just a stress reaction," Spencer mumbled. "It's not uncommon after an intensely stressful situation for the body to release chemicals that sometimes necessitate increased lacrimation."
"Increased what?" Derek asked, bemused but gently rubbing his hand up and down Spencer's shoulder.
"Lacrimation, the production of tears," Spencer clarified. "Did you know that different types of tears are composed of different chemicals, and those chemicals can relay chemical messages to others?"
Derek shook his head and moved closer to Spencer. "I did not know that. I do know that that happens to just about everyone on a case at some point or another."
Spencer nodded and took a shaky breath. "You won't tell anyone?"
"Not a word," Derek promised, though he doubted he'd have to say anything for any of the others to guess.
They rested in silence for a while, Derek resting his hand on his cellphone and concentrating on the rhythm of Spencer's breathing.
"Is Hotch angry with me? I know I wasn't supposed to go anywhere without letting him know and being in the company of one of the team, but I didn't think he included the hotel parking lot in that stipulation." Spencer turned so that he could see Derek.
Derek shook his head. "He's not mad at you, and I'm sure he agrees that it should be perfectly reasonable for you to be able to walk in the hotel parking lot alone without being abducted. However, I do wish you'd waited until I was out of the shower."
"Me too." Spencer nodded but he was still frowning with his brow furrowed. "One of the pride said that Hotch was lucky to be getting me back."
"We are," Derek agreed. "They know the territory here and if they'd brought you back to their pride's territory we would have had a hell of a fight getting you back.
Spencer rolled over and rested his tender hands on Derek's side. They both readjusted their feet and legs until they were comfortably intertwined and Spencer tucked his head down so he was resting his forehead against Derek's shoulder. "I couldn't sense you or the pack and I couldn't shift. I kept reaching but after a while I couldn't even find the hook anymore."
Derek had never heard the imperative to shift called a hook before, but it made a certain amount of sense. "That's okay, we'll keep working on it." They hadn't had a down weekend since Christmas in order to spend time together as a pack and practice shifting with Spencer, but Derek would remind Aaron that they weren't the only team in the BAU and did need to spend some time not actively working cases.
"I thought I could do it though, now that I could find the trigger." Spencer yawned and nestled closer to Derek.
"You will." Derek moved his hand so that he could feel his cellphone again. He wanted to call Aaron and check that he and the team were alright, but wouldn't in case they were hiding inside the house for the unsub to show up. He wouldn't fall asleep as long as the team was possibly in danger, and even through his exhaustion he still felt the edge of adrenaline from losing Spencer. Derek rested as Spencer drifted in and out of sleep, watching as Spencer checked that Derek was there every time after startling himself awake.
"We'll join you in a few minutes," Jason said as he shrugged out of his jacket.
Aaron nodded and looked over his exhausted pack mates before leaving them and walking to the bedroom where he could feel Derek and Spencer resting together. The room was mostly dark when he stepped inside, the sunlight through half drawn curtains fading slowly as the sun went down behind the nearby buildings. Derek and Spencer were curled up together in the middle of the bed, and Aaron marveled at how easily they fit together. It wasn't unlike him and Derek, and Aaron realized that they had never found the time to have the conversation they'd agreed to have. Aaron hung up his suit jacket and took off his shoes. He was just about to go into the bathroom to clean up when he saw that Derek's eyes were open and watching him.
"How did it go?" Derek asked, his voice quiet so he wouldn't wake Spencer.
Aaron sat down on the edge of the bed nearest Derek. "The unsub was setting the IED when we arrived. Jason talked him down, kept him from blowing it and himself up. No one was hurt."
Derek dug in his pocket and handed over his cellphone and then latched onto Aaron's hand. "I was waiting for you to call," he said without any trace of accusation.
"I didn't want to wake Spencer," Aaron said, not bothering to say that he didn't want to disturb Derek's rest either. "How is he?"
"He'll be alright," Derek said. He took his hand back and smoothed Spencer's hair away from his face. "Come join us."
Aaron nodded and stood up. He had originally planned on showering after he'd woken up from his nap, but he hadn't actually had much of a nap either. He went into the bathroom and settled for getting out of his suit pants, brushing his teeth, and washing his face and hands. Satisfied that he was as clean as he could get without showering, Aaron went back into the bedroom and walked towards the lamp he'd turned on.
"Hotch?" Spencer asked, struggling to free himself from Derek and the blankets.
"Right here," Aaron said.
"Can you leave the light on?" Spencer asked. He was sitting up and squinting in Aaron's direction.
Aaron dropped his hand from and went to the bed. "Of course."
Spencer turned to watch him, still looking disoriented and half asleep. "Did the note help?"
"Yes, we got the unsub." Aaron said, not without a twinge of guilt. The chances that they would have found the unsub before he'd blown up Officer McNeil and his family were exceedingly slim. He was grateful that they had been there in time to stop the IED from being planted, but the means were far from perfect.
"Good." Spencer blinked at Aaron and then looked at where Derek was still laying next to him. "I'll go to the other bedroom, or the couch if JJ wants that bed."
Aaron was saved from answering by JJ opening the door and letting herself and Jason in. Jason was in his form and eased himself up onto the bed, sniffing at Spencer before settling down on his legs.
"I think we're all in here tonight, if that's alright with you?" Aaron asked. Spencer was far better about letting people come close to him than he had been when he'd first joined the team, though Derek was the only one he really seemed comfortable with touching.
Spencer nodded and averted his eyes from where JJ was in a long t-shirt and not much else.
Derek just laughed and tugged Spencer back down under the blankets. Spencer moved his legs so that Jason was next to him instead of on top of him and rested one of his hands briefly in Jason's fur. JJ climbed in on the other side of Derek and Aaron took the last space next to Spencer.
Once everyone was settled, Aaron reached and placed his hand on Spencer's shoulder.
Spencer turned so that he was facing Aaron, his eyes mostly closed. "Thank you for coming for me."
Aaron assessed Spencer for a moment and decided he seemed comfortable enough with the pack to allow the contact. "May I?" he asked.
Spencer's eyes opened all the way and he peered at Aaron. He was obviously confused about what Aaron was requesting but nodded anyway.
Leaning in, Aaron pressed the side of his face to Spencer's and wrapped one of his arms around him so that they were huddled together. It felt natural to shelter one of his pack, especially one of his cubs, but there was more than that. Aaron lightly brushed his lips against Spencer's pulse point. Spencer didn't respond except to settle his head closer to Aaron's shoulder.
Aaron felt another hand on his arm and glanced up to find that Derek had moved closer and was resting just behind Spencer. They met each other's eyes, Derek smiling sleepily before he set his head back down. Aaron was definitely going to have to have that talk with Derek, though the contents of what he'd been planning on suggesting had changed a little bit.
JJ, who was already asleep, moved closer to Derek and Aaron felt himself relax a little further. With Jason in his wolf form resting against his legs they were almost a whole pack and Aaron once again considered the possibility of bringing Garcia on more cases with them. It was a complicated problem, but he always felt better knowing that all of his pack was safe with him in spite of the risks.
Derek's hand squeezed Aaron's arm again and Aaron recognized that as his unspoken signal to stop worrying and go to sleep. Aaron closed his eyes, his mind casting out over the city nearby for the presence of the pride who had taken Spencer. Eventually the slow breathing of his pack surrounding him lulled Aaron to sleep.
He had felt Derek get up an hour earlier and had sleepily tracked him as he shifted and ran around in the area just outside of the backyard. The sound of the animal door opening and closing downstairs and Derek racing up the steps in his form woke Aaron fully. He sat up and watched as Derek bounded into the room, clumps of snow still caught in his darker fur and along his underbelly.
"Don't even think about it," Aaron said when Derek looked like he wanted to leap up onto the bed.
Derek obediently laid down on the rug for all of thirty seconds before getting up going racing through the house again.
Aaron shook his his head as he heard Derek clatter down the steps and laid back down. They had hardly done anything after getting home yesterday except for order take out for dinner and throw in a load of laundry. He hadn't realized he was tired enough to sleep straight through the night and well into the morning, but he did feel quite a bit better now that he'd rested.
"What are you thinking about?" Derek asked as he walked back in the bedroom, on two feet this time instead of four paws.
Aaron opened his eyes and watched as Derek toweled himself dry. "Have a good run?" he asked when Derek tossed aside the towel and climbed under the covers. He wrapped his arms around his mate's chilled body and nudged his feet away when Derek tried to warm them on his legs.
"There's almost six inches of fresh snow out there," Derek said with a content smile.
"And you had to run through all of it," Aaron added, amused even though he wound up with Derek freezing and clinging to him every time they had new snow in the morning.
Derek placed his head on Aaron's shoulder. "It's part of understanding my form better."
"Of course." Aaron smiled and kissed Derek's cheek, pulling him in closer even though it meant Derek snuck his cold feet back against his leg. "We should talk."
"Now?" Derek asked, not looking up at Aaron.
Aaron nodded and reminded himself that this wasn't the end of anything, just the start of something different. "We've been putting it off since Christmas. Longer, really."
"Classic avoidance. If we don't talk about the problem or acknowledge it, it doesn't exist. At least not until the situation escalates." Derek sat up, the blankets falling down from his bare shoulders. "You want to set limits about how much time I can spend with Spencer and under what circumstances?"
"Not at all." Aaron frowned and sat up. "Do you want me not to spend time with Spencer?"
Derek furrowed his brow and stared at Aaron. "Of course not. You're his pack leader."
"And you're my mate," Aaron countered. "You have just as much say in our relationship as I do."
"This is not the conversation I thought we were going to be having," Derek said. He pulled the sheets up so that he was mostly covered and frowned at Aaron. "You're saying you don't care if Spencer and I are closer than just team members and members of the same pack. You don't care that I feel something for him?"
"I do care, I just don't think that has to be a bad thing." Aaron placed his hand next to Derek, wanting to reassure him without overwhelming him. "I realize that you care about Spencer, in more than just a friendly way, and it's clear from the way he looks at you that he feels similarly. I want both you and Spencer to be happy."
"What about you?" Derek asked. He was watching Aaron's hand, but hadn't reached for it.
"And me," Aaron said. "But I don't think this is mutually exclusive."
Derek stared, intently looking at Aaron's expression.
Aaron let the last of his emotional reserve fall away. It was second nature to keep his expression neutral, had been long before he started working with profilers, and he found it difficult to reveal himself in such a way even to his mate and his pack.
"You love him too," Derek said quietly, his hand finding Aaron's in the sheets.
"It's not the same as it is with you, but I do care for Spencer very much," Aaron admitted, remembering how right it felt to lay with Spencer and Derek in the hotel bed. He had nearly shifted when they were looking for Spencer, and while he would have been livid if any one of his pack had been taken, the feeling was somehow different with Spencer.
Derek slid closer to Aaron and rested his free hand on Aaron's chest. "You, me, and our pretty boy, huh?"
Aaron laughed. "If he agrees."
"And you're over worrying about Spencer leaving the pack?" Derek asked.
"Not over, but if that happens, we'll deal with it. A stronger tie with us might make him less likely to leave the pack when he's grown," Aaron said. "And you're not concerned about his form still being a cub?"
Derek paused and then shook his head. "It's like you said, Spencer's an adult. He knows what he's doing if he decides to join our relationship. We'll take things slow."
Aaron knew that meant Derek was still concerned, but that was alright. He was perfectly content taking things as slowly as Derek and Spencer were comfortable with. "Of course, all of this is contingent on Spencer even being interested in both of us."
Derek smiled, his body relaxing more than he had the entire conversation. "I don't think that's a problem. You don't get to see the way he watches you when you're running around right before we go looking for an unsub. I think he has a thing for your bullet proof vest."
Aaron laughed and pulled Derek over so they could kiss. "Go shower. You smell like you've been rolling in the mud."
"Only if you come with me." Derek got out of bed and disappeared into the bathroom with what was supposed to be an alluring grin.
The idea of a hot shower with Derek was enough motivation for Aaron to get out of bed. He followed Derek into master bathroom feeling like a weight had been removed from his chest. He had been fairly certain of his plan before he'd suggested it to Derek, he actually felt more comfortable with this plan than just suggesting that Derek and Spencer could do what they wanted with each other, but it was still a relief that Derek hadn't been bothered by the idea.
Aaron pushed the shower curtain aside just enough to slide inside and under the hot water with Derek. He smiled as he felt Derek's arms wrap tightly around him and they stood together for a moment.
"Thank you," Derek said quietly, resting his chin on Aaron's shoulder.
Aaron closed his eyes and leaned into Derek. "Thank you."
"Looks like a bad one," Derek said.
Spencer turned and saw that Derek was watching the closed blinds of Hotch's office with his shoulders squared defensively.
"I can't quite make out what they're saying. Neither of them are yelling," Spencer admitted.
"That's where your all-seeing, all-knowing, and most importantly, all-hearing goddess of everything knowable comes in handy," Garcia said as she approached them with JJ following closely.
JJ shrugged when Derek raised his eyebrows. "Sometimes it's more important to know than it is to respect their privacy. If Hotch didn't want us to hear he would have gone to Strauss's office."
Derek vacated his chair for Garcia and walked over to lean against Spencer's desk. "Well?"
Garcia tipped her head to the side so that she was angled toward Hotch's window. "She's saying that he should have let the local police officers do their job and not interfered. Hotch says that the locals invited them on the scene and that he was the most senior agent in the field at the time."
"What did he do?" Spencer asked, sparing a glance for Hotch's window and straining to be able to hear more than the indistinct rises and falls of their voices.
"Shh." Garcia waved one of her hands in Spencer's direction. "Strauss says that being a shifter does not mean that he can allow his allegiance to become compromised, and oh, that she'll relieve him of duty if he doesn't remember where his priorities are."
JJ placed both of her hands on Garcia's shoulders and Garcia leaned her head back against JJ's side. "She doesn't mean that, does she?" Garcia asked, looking to Derek.
Derek shrugged. "She means it, but she won't suspend him without cause. The director will side with Aaron when it comes down to it."
"Now she's asking him if he even considered the source of his information, whether or not the pride who took Spencer could have been setting the team up." Garcia winced. "Hotch says that they did take precautions and believed the note to be a valid source of information after analyzing it. Which is-"
"An exaggeration, but the truth," JJ interjected quickly.
"And now she's..." Garcia trailed off, her eyes flashing to Spencer and then looking down at her hands.
Derek stood up and paced a few steps. "What, baby girl?"
Garcia shook her head. "She's talking about Spencer, and that's all I'm going to say. Lips sealed, translation is off, no way."
Spencer grimaced and looked down at his report. Hotch had assured him that he didn't blame him for being abducted, and had even said that some seasoned field agents for the FBI tended to have a high abduction and recovery rate. "What's she saying about me?"
Garcia stood up and walked to where Spencer was sitting. "Don't worry about it. Hotch is your knight in shining armor and I promise you that he is thoroughly defending your honor. Now, if I am no longer needed, which I'm not, I am rewriting a program and have things to do." She bent down and kissed the top of Spencer's forehead before hurrying away.
"I tried," JJ said with a shrug and walked off in the direction of her own office.
Spencer willed himself to stop blushing and stared down at the words he had written. Maybe he should redraft his report so it sounded less like he'd been an passive abductee and more like he'd been gathering information.
Strauss left Hotch's office about a minute later, walking away smoothly but slightly faster than she would have if she wasn't at least a little upset.
Spencer glanced over and saw Derek watching as well. They both smiled as soon as Strauss had left the room. If Strauss was ruffled as she left then Hotch had come out on top. Hotch would never let Strauss see if she had hit a nerve.
"Spencer," Hotch called from the edge of the balcony that overlooked the bullpen. He continued when Spencer looked up. "We're training on the firing range this afternoon. Two o'clock."
"I'll be there," Spencer replied.
Hotch nodded, his eyes sweeping the area like he knew that Garcia and JJ had been there only moments before, and walked back into his office.
"Well, this will be fun," Derek said. His previous smile was now a grin.
"You'll be there, right?" Spencer asked, suddenly realizing what he'd just agreed to do.
Derek shook his head. "Nope. Aaron is the best shooter we've got. I'll come and mock you after you've got the basics down. It's too easy otherwise."
Spencer frowned at Derek, not quite sure if he was joking or not. "Do you think Strauss ordered him to teach me? So I'd be a better agent?"
"No. Aaron doesn't take orders from Strauss when it comes to the team. He might make it look like he is, but he doesn't do anything he doesn't think is in the best interests of the pack. He's teaching you because he thinks it's important for you to know how, even if you don't carry a weapon in the field. What if one of the people who abducted you had a gun and you managed to grab it while you were trying to escape, but you didn't know how to shoot properly?" Derek asked.
"That makes sense," Spencer agreed, even though he still wondered a little bit about what Strauss had said to make Hotch want to teach him now.
Spencer quickly set his mufflers over his ears and made sure his protective glasses were still resting securely over his regular glasses. They'd been down on the range for nearly an hour and so far Spencer hadn't managed to even clip the sheet he was supposed to be aiming at. It should have been simple; it was just physics, but he had never really been good at using his body to perform things that physics dictated should be relatively easy. He pressed his hands down over the mufflers and watched as Hotch steadily drew from his hip holster, aimed at the target, and sent three shots into the chest of the paper figure.
Hotch pulled his mufflers down around his neck and motioned for Spencer to do the same. "Three steps. Front sight, trigger press, follow through. Now you try."
Spencer did his best not to show his reluctance as he traded places with Hotch and put his mufflers back on. It wasn't the possibility of shooting someone that bothered him, he had seen it happen on enough cases now that it was still a horrible sight and he knew that they never shot unless they had to, but the thought that he'd be in a situation where he had to and wouldn't be able to haunted him.
He unholstered the gun Hotch had loaned him for the session from the holster that felt uncomfortable on his hip and steadied himself. Felt recoil with a glock 17 wasn't a lot when compared to most handguns, from what Spencer had read, but it had still caught him by surprise the first time he'd fired the weapon. He looked at the target and aimed at the central mass, just as Hotch had explained. He knew that if the paper figure had a gun in his hands and was preparing to fire back he would be spending a ridiculous amount of time preparing himself, but that couldn't be helped at the moment.
Spencer pulled the trigger and sighed heavily when his shot disappeared into the range without coming close to the paper. He had no idea how was he supposed to be able to shoot in the field if he was more likely to hit one of his team than he was the unsub.
"Holster your weapon," Hotch said, loud enough to be heard through the mufflers.
"Sorry," Spencer said as he did so and tugged off the mufflers instead of letting them rest around his neck.
Hotch shook his head. "Don't worry about it. It's a skill that takes practice. Take a few minutes to clear your thoughts and we'll try again."
Spencer winced and wiped his damp hands on his pants. "Just like shifting?"
"Just like shifting," Hotch agreed.
"What's going to happen to Charles Yander?" Spencer asked suddenly, referring to the unsub the team had caught in New York. He hadn't learned his name until after, when they were going through everything at the police station the next day.
Hotch pulled off his safety glasses and set them on the counter. "There will be a hearing and he'll be released into the local pack for sentencing. It's likely he'll be executed before the end of the month, if they even wait that long."
Spencer shivered. "I know that he killed people, families, but they'll just let the pack execute him without a trial?"
"It will be a mercy killing," Hotch said quietly. "The cruelest thing they could do would be to leave him in the justice system and let him die in jail after his form had completely faded."
"All because he lost his mate. Does that happen often" Spencer asked. Yander's pregnant mate had been killed in a police shoot out nearly a year ago, something they had only learned when Hotch had questioned the man.
"Typically only when the shifter's form mates for life. Yander's form was a coyote, and when he lost his ability to shift after his mate's death in addition to witnessing the trauma, he didn't think he had a reason to live." Hotch looked down at the target. "It might have been better for him if we'd allowed the police to shoot him, but then we would have never known why."
Spencer frowned as he traced the grip of the glock. "Is that why Strauss is mad at you, because you wouldn't let them shoot him?"
Hotch didn't look surprised that Spencer knew about Strauss. "She would be right, if we hadn't realized that Yander couldn't shift. Never forget that an unarmed shifter is more dangerous than an unsub who is armed with a gun or a knife. You'll only have seconds of warning when a shifter changes form, and they are far more difficult to shoot when they are in their animal form. That's why it's policy that shifters are shot from a distance during confrontations unless there is a trained group of shifters who are able to temporarily suppress the ability to shift. Even then, federal policy recommends shooting them on sight." Hotch looked down at the gun on Spencer's holster. "You don't have to carry a gun to be on the team, not if you don't want to, but I would feel better about your safety if you knew how to shoot."
"I wasn't trying to get out of learning how. I think it's important," Spencer said hastily. "I just hate the idea that people are killing shifters for no other reason than the fact that they can shift."
Hotch nodded. "That's one of the reasons why many shifters don't disclose their ability to anyone other than their packs and mates. The government came to the consensus a long time ago that since it was deemed impossible to eradicate shifters, or even to heavily police them, that whatever passes for justice is deemed legal, both within shifter communities and government law enforcement."
"It's still awful," Spencer said, unable to stop himself from thinking of Derek's former pack and their version of justice.
"Sometimes, but we do our best to make certain no shifter is killed without cause in the investigation of our cases. That's all we can do." Hotch patted Spencer on the shoulder. "Are you ready to try again?"
Spencer didn't feel particularly ready, but nodded anyway.
"Don't worry about accuracy right now, just get the feel for firing the weapon. Empty the entire round this time. I'm going to guide your stance." Hotch picked up his safety glasses and put on his mufflers.
Spencer followed suit and aimed the glock towards the target again. He felt a little bit better with Hotch's hands on his shoulders, and more so when his arms come forward to hold his aim steady. He leaned back into Hotch's chest and focused on memorizing the sensation as he fired.
Chapter 6: Section Six
Aaron looked up from the file spread out in front of him on the kitchen table. Any time one of his team was injured, especially when it required ambulances and hospital visits, Aaron found himself with a guilt inducing pile of paperwork. No matter how many times he reminded himself that Derek and Jason were both fine, that he had seen them both active and readily speaking, he couldn't help but remember being across the building when the explosion had shaken everything and sent down a cloud of dust and debris. He knew that they were actually lucky no one had died, not even the unsub, but when he listed the multiple lacerations, Derek's mild concussion and amount of time they'd spent in the emergency room due to smoke inhalation he wasn't so sure.
Derek sat down across from him, a cup of tea cradled in his hands, and peered at the paper work. "They always make it sound worse than it is."
Aaron raised one of his eyebrows. Even though he and Derek had spent most of the night in their forms Derek still had a bandage across one of the deeper cuts on his forehead and was sitting stiffly.
"I'm fine. Gideon's fine. It's part of the job," Derek said. He sipped at his tea and flipped open the newspaper Aaron had collected off the front steps of the house early in the morning.
Aaron nodded, though his guilt wasn't particularly assuaged. He did this every time one of his pack was hurt and they both knew that it would take a few days before Aaron had thought through every aspect of the case and either decided that they'd taken every reasonable action and precaution or that there was a practical lesson they could take away from the situation.
"Do you want breakfast?" Aaron asked. His instincts to make sure that his pack was safe, and that included warm and fed, tended to go into overdrive while he worked through the aftermath of these cases. The rest of the pack would probably be over that evening, where they would hover near him until Garcia deemed it safe enough to make a joke about him mothering all of them.
"Omelet with cheese and chives and hot sauce?" Derek asked, looking up from the front page of the newspaper.
Aaron smiled and abandoned his pen and the file on the table. Their eating habits were dissimilar in a lot of respects and under most circumstances Aaron would have pointed Derek to the drawer where they kept the pots and pans. But, after a semi-serious injury to his mate, Aaron was far more susceptible to suggestion than he should be. "Hash browns too?" he called from inside the kitchen.
"If we have any on hand. Don't go to any trouble," Derek called back, the sound of the newspaper rustling in the background.
Aaron was certain if he poked his head into the dining room he'd see Derek with a serious expression that had been a smirk only seconds previously. He poured himself another cup of coffee, his third for the morning, as fortification. Breakfast was actually the meal he was best at cooking but that didn't mean it still couldn't potentially turn into a minor disaster.
He'd just placed the pan on the stovetop and bent down to get the carton of eggs from the fridge when he realized something was wrong. He stood up and let the fridge door fall closed. Something wasn't wrong, exactly, but it was unexpected at least.
Derek was standing in the doorway from the dining room only a few seconds later, frowning as he looked back and forth in the direction of the street. "Do you...?"
Aaron nodded and walked to the front door with Derek just a half pace behind him. He opened the door, shivering a little in the early February chill, and stared out at the couple inches of snow that covered the front yard and the street. It was still early on a Saturday morning and very few cars and pedestrians had disturbed the new layer of snow that had fallen during the night.
Thirty seconds after Aaron opened the door a figure walked into view. Aaron recognized it as Spencer immediately, much as he had recognized Spencer's presence as soon as he'd entered the area near the house. Aaron could generally reach out and feel the distant presence of each member of his pack from his home as they all lived within a reasonable distance of Quantico.
He stepped out onto the front porch, ignoring his bare feet and thin shirt, and merely raised an eyebrow at Spencer's rather awkward wave from the end of the front walk.
"Get in here before you freeze to death," Derek called, not quite shouting. He'd stepped out onto the front porch next to Aaron and didn't go back inside even when Aaron glared.
Spencer hurried as well as he could through the snow and stumbled in an uncoordinated slide up to the front steps. "Sorry," he said, sounding a little breathless.
"Come in," Aaron said. He waved Derek back into the house and ushered Spencer in behind him.
Spencer pushed off the oversized hood to his coat once inside, his noise and cheeks both bright red from the cold. "Sorry, I'm kind of dripping on your floor."
Aaron closed the front door and quickly repressed any trace of panic that Spencer's sudden appearance had elicited. "Don't worry about it. Take off your coat."
"Don't tell me that you walked all the way here," Derek said. He didn't give Spencer a chance to take off his coat by himself and was unzipping the garment as he spoke.
"Of course not," Spencer said, making a futile effort to brush Derek's hands away from him. "I took the bus from Gideon's neighborhood to the stop that's three blocks north of here."
Aaron took Spencer's coat and realized that Spencer's pants were soaked up to his knees. "I'm going to go get you something to wear. Go get some coffee and sit down."
"But Gideon's missing," Spencer said insistently, smoothing his hair where the hood had left it in a tangle. "He was gone when I got up this morning, which was pretty early, and he didn't come back or answer his cellphone when I called."
Aaron paused on the first step and looked back. "Alright," he said after a moment of consideration and then continued up the staircase.
"Alright?" Spencer asked.
Aaron overheard Derek telling Spencer that everything was fine and then asking him why he hadn't just called them instead of taking the bus. Trusting that Derek would take care of Spencer for a few minutes, Aaron walked into their bedroom and shut the door behind him. He leaned against it and took a slow and steadying breath. It took a moment to remind himself that he knew where Jason would be, because it was where Jason always went when he needed some space to think - his deep depression following the Boston bombings notwithstanding. He'd realized on the flight back home that the bomb detonating while there were team members in the vicinity had probably triggered some of Jason's residual PTSD, but Aaron hadn't thought that Jason would actually leave the area when the pack needed him. Maybe the reminder of the bombing had been worse than Aaron had anticipated.
He took his cellphone out and held down Jason's speed dial button. He didn't expect a response, and wouldn't get one if Jason was at his cabin, but Aaron figured it was best to check that Jason hadn't just slipped out early to the grocery store and gotten distracted somewhere. The call went directly to Jason's voicemail and Aaron shut his phone without letting the mechanical voice finish telling him to leave a message. He closed his eyes and cast out with his senses, feeling the presence of Derek and Spencer downstairs in the dining room, and then moving beyond the walls of the house.
JJ and Garcia were in their home to the west, close together and almost unmoving. Aaron decided that they were most likely asleep and continued his search. The area near Jason's house seemed vacant, harder to sense when there wasn't a member of his pack there to anchor him, and when he'd completed slow search of the town surrounding him Aaron opened his eyes.
Decision made, Aaron went to the second guest room, the one that usually served as a second office when Spencer wasn't staying with them, and took a pair of sweatpants and socks from the closet where Spencer kept a few changes of clothes. His form wasn't big enough yet that he could accidentally destroy his clothes when shifting, but Aaron always tried to be prepared no matter the occasion.
Derek was talking quietly when Aaron reentered the dining room, while Spencer sat at the edge of his chair and flipped a pen between his fingers in an almost hypnotic motion.
Aaron handed the clothes to Spencer, who promptly dropped the pen he'd been making dance in his hands only seconds earlier. This only reinforced Aaron's perception that Spencer was quite capable and even coordinated, but only when he thought other people weren't watching. Spencer fled the table without waiting for instructions.
"How is he?" Aaron asked, pitching his voice low because he knew Spencer's enhanced sense of hearing was still in the process of developing. It shouldn't be more than a few months more before Spencer would be able to pick out conversations within the pack as easily as Jason or Garcia.
"Well, he drank two cups of coffee and solved all the puzzles in the newspaper," Derek said, as he nudged the paper filled with Spencer's untidy handwriting towards him. "He feels guilty. He thinks he should have woken when Gideon left. I tried to tell him that Gideon just does this after bad cases, but he's still worried about it."
Aaron nodded because that's exactly how he would have placed Spencer's reaction if he'd thought that this would have happened. Part of him was quietly furious at Jason for abandoning a cub, even though Spencer was an adult and perfectly capable of taking care of himself. He had thought Spencer's presence in Jason's house would have been enough to keep Jason stationary for the time being, but Aaron knew very well that one of his greatest blind spots was his unwavering belief in the sense of duty that came with pack and team.
"You'll go after him?" Derek asked.
It was at that moment, seeing the tilt of Derek's head and his strained jaw, that Aaron realized that Derek was angry as well - far more angry than he would have guessed. "I'll drive to his cabin later in the day."
Derek frowned to cover the flash of surprised that crossed his features. "Not now?"
"You're hurt and we have a distressed cub," Aaron said. There was no doubt in his mind where he was needed most.
"Go. Talk with him before he talks himself into leaving again," Derek said with a quick shake of his head. "Spencer and I can take care of each other just fine."
Aaron was about to object when Derek added, "please."
"I'll go as soon as you're both settled here," Aaron said, leaning into Derek's hands. They sat together for a moment, drawing strength from each other.
Spencer returned soon after, still a little ruffled but looking much warmer.
"What do you want for breakfast, Spencer? I was just about to make Derek an abomination of an omelet," Aaron said, smiling in Derek's direction at the minor insult. When Spencer just looked confused and worried, Aaron interrupted him before he could try to form the question. "I'll go check on Jason after breakfast. I have a pretty good idea where he is."
"Okay," Spencer said after a moment, still sounding uncertain, and he sat down at the table.
"Good," Aaron said, proud that Spencer trusted him enough to let him take care of Jason and the resulting situation. "What will it be? I can do eggs, toast, and occasionally bacon."
Aaron's clothes, his slacks close to what he'd wear at Quantico while his shirt and jacket were more informal, showed that he was torn between providing empathetic support for a friend and bringing an errant pack and team member back in line.
Derek couldn't help but hope that the pack leader in Aaron won out over the sympathetic friend. Gideon needed help, that much was true, but Derek was exhausted from his inconsistent presence on the pack and team and he wasn't about to let Gideon do the same to Spencer.
"We'll be fine," Aaron said.
Derek assumed that the projected confidence was for Spencer's sake since Derek could see right through it. "We're only a phone call and an hour's drive away."
"I know," Aaron said, stepping into Derek's space so that their faces were almost touching. "And that drive is closer to an hour and a half."
"When you're driving." Derek relaxed a little as he touched his cheek to Aaron's. "Bring him home."
"I will." Aaron stepped back. "I'll be back before nightfall. If you're feeling up to company invite JJ and Garcia for dinner tonight. Don't overtax yourself."
Derek ignored the way Aaron's expression said that he'd try to bring Gideon back with him but wasn't absolutely certain he could. "Me and pretty boy here will be just fine," Derek said, walking to where Spencer had stepped away.
Aaron shot him a warning look, and Derek smiled innocently. They hadn't yet had the opportunity to talk with Spencer about their intention to include him in their relationship. Aaron had begun the slow process of making inroads with Spencer and they'd intended to let that friendship and trust stabilize before they suggested anything more. Derek wouldn't mess that up, even though he'd enjoyed his own task of carefully broaching Spencer's personal space piece by piece to help him become more comfortable with physical contact. JJ and Garcia, mostly Garcia, were unwitting accomplices in Derek's plan, but he sometimes got the idea that they knew more than they were letting on.
When Aaron hesitated in the doorway once more, Derek fought his desire to ask Aaron if he wanted them to come with him. It would be most effective if Aaron confronted Gideon alone, but Derek was willing to sacrifice that advantage if Aaron needed him there. "Go. We're fine," he said, knowing that Aaron would go if it was them he was worried about.
Aaron nodded and grimly turned away. He was out the front door before they could say anything more.
"Well, my vote is that we spend the rest of the day with our feet up," Derek said. He took Spencer's arm, just above the elbow with a light enough grip that it would be easy for Spencer to pull away if he wanted, and guided him into the living room. "What do you want to do?"
Spencer sat down on the armrest of the couch, about two feet away from where Derek had settled. "I've already read everything in the house," he said as if that answered the question.
"You didn't get to all of today's newspaper. Just the puzzles," Derek pointed out.
"I read the paper at Gideon's house while I was waiting to see if he'd show back up," Spencer said with a graceless shrug.
Derek nodded because of course Spencer had. "Which reminds me, you never asked my question about why you didn't just call us instead of taking the bus over here. We would have come to you, you know."
"I know," Spencer said a little bit too quickly. "I just kinda forgot I had a cellphone. I was calling Gideon from the home phone, and it never really crossed my mind that I could call Aaron and tell him that Gideon had gone missing."
"You forgot you had a cellphone?" Derek asked with disbelief. "You have an IQ of like 200."
"187," he corrected automatically before he shrugged again and looked away. "I never really had one before I joined the team and Garcia set mine up. I barely know how to use it and I almost never get phone calls on it. I never really had anyone to call before and even now I don't really. When we're on cases I'm always with you or Aaron, and if someone wants to talk with me they just have you hand over your phone. It's like I'm an extension of both of you."
Derek felt that way sometimes as well, but somehow he didn't think that Spencer viewed that as a good thing. "You don't feel like we treat you as your own person?" he asked, reaching for whatever it was that Spencer was trying to broach.
"No, not at all." Spencer was rapidly shaking his head. "It's just different."
Derek thought there was more to it than that but he could see that Spencer was already distressed from the days events. This was a conversation that could wait for later; the Gideon conversation was one that could not. "You know it's not your fault that Gideon left, right?"
"I know," Spencer said, his restless hands making their own statement. "It has to do with the bombing in Boston. Having the bomb explode with both of you in the building triggered the same emotions and memories that nearly made him leave the BAU before he found me, right?"
"That's part of it," Derek agreed. He couldn't say that standing in a building that had been exploding around him had done a lot of good for him either. There had been a moment when he realized there was nothing he could do but find as much cover as he could while parts of the building came down around him. He'd covered himself the best he could and hoped that Gideon had found somewhere safe because he'd lost sight of him as soon as the noise had temporarily deafened them and the dust had started raining down. While he waited the only thing that had been on his mind had been mentally reaching for Aaron, the presence of the team in the nearby area a promise that he would make it through.
"And the rest of it?" Spencer asked, his voice quiet. He'd pulled his feet up on the couch cushion with his legs roughly crossed and was watching Derek with a carefully guarded expression.
Derek frowned as he thought. "Gideon doesn't do well when he's wrong. He made the call in Boston that the unsub wouldn't set off the explosive and he told Aaron that he was certain. People - agents - died because of that. It's happened to all of us at one point or another. We're forced to make the best decision we can with the facts that are available to us and it turns out to be the wrong one. And then someone dies because of that decision and sometimes the unsub gets away. But Gideon isn't used to being wrong. I think he's almost forgotten how to be."
"But he wasn't the one who made the call this time. Aaron's the one that had us looking through the buildings and the bomb could have been anywhere. We didn't have enough information about the unsub to even hazard a guess as to whether or not he would have rigged explosives," Spencer said.
"That's not quite the point," Derek said, grimacing at the reminder that it had been Aaron who had split up the teams and designated search areas; Aaron would feel guilty about that long after the injuries he and Jason sported had healed and faded. Derek refrained from imagining Aaron and Spencer inside the explosion and only having his sense of them to assure himself that they were still alive. "If Gideon had told Aaron to send the bomb squads in, Aaron would have listened to him. To Gideon, that's just as bad as giving the order to go in."
They were both silent for a few minutes, Spencer's fingers running repetitively over the inner seam of his sweatpants while Derek tipped his head back and rested it against the couch. He was still tired, explosions and injuries and worrying took up all the energy he usually directed at taking out unsubs and racing through the forest in his form.
"Hotch isn't sure that Gideon will coming back," Spencer observed.
"Aaron isn't sure that Gideon will stay," Derek corrected. "If Gideon tried to leave the pack without formally addressing Aaron, Aaron would feel compelled to follow him and bring him back. Gideon wouldn't force Aaron to do that. And Aaron won't let Jason leave for good until he's said goodbye to the entire pack. Gideon isn't going to get to disappear without letting us know first."
"Everyone leaves," Spencer said. His voice and expression were completely blank and he seemed like he didn't even know he had spoken.
Derek's chest hurt and it wasn't from the residual bruising that covered him from his sternum to his lower left ribs. Aaron's warnings that Spencer could choose to leave them hadn't gone from Derek's mind, even though Derek couldn't see that ever happening. Spencer was like a piece that had been missing from all of them before; the team and pack could function without him, but he filled in some of the places that had previously echoed empty. More importantly, Spencer needed them and not just to learn to shift. Spencer had forgotten that he could call him and Aaron simply because Spencer had never had anyone he could call when he needed help before.
"Grab that blanket and come sit," Derek said, pointing to one of the quilts that was folded in a basket near the fireplace.
"I'm already sitting," Spencer pointed out, but he got to his feet and retrieved the blanket and shook it open.
"But you weren't sitting with me." Derek patted the cushion next to him and Spencer spread the blanket over Derek's lap before sitting next to him. Derek adjusted the blanket so it was covering both of them, which forced Spencer to scoot a few inches closer in order to stay under.
"Do you want more tea? Or a pillow?" Spencer asked, his eyes landing the bandage on Derek's head.
Derek smiled. "Nope. I just want to sit here next to you for a while."
"I can read to you if you want," Spencer said. When Derek's hand wave pointed out the lack of books in the vicinity Spencer blushed lightly. "Well, recite I suppose. Pretty much anything I've read before."
"Okay, you pick. Whatever you'd like to read," Derek said.
Spencer started on something that Derek didn't immediately recognize beyond the fact that it was some sort of Renaissance era literature. He smiled when Spencer made himself comfortable and wound up with one of his knees resting against Derek's thigh.
He walked to the front door and knocked. There was no answer but Aaron could feel that Jason was inside. After a moment, Aaron turned the handle and went inside. Jason didn't ever lock his cabin when he was inside. There were muddy wet paw prints on the wooden floor that disappeared into the bedroom and Jason was sitting on the windowsill that looked out into the forest. Jason had a set of deep scratches on his cheek that hadn't quite healed yet and the one hand that was resting on his knee was heavily bruised. The maroon terry-cloth robe that he wore was ratty and an open hole in one of the armpits was evidence that Jason had shifted more than once while still wearing it.
Aaron felt a small ache of concern. He could only recall once when he'd ever seen Jason shift when it was beyond his control. He had seen Jason deep in sorrow, absolutely furious, and almost broken, but none of those things had ever forced the man to shift before. Shutting the door behind him, Aaron walked the small space and pulled up the desk chair so that he was sitting across from Jason and angled looking out the window as well.
"Was it a mistake to ask you to come back to the BAU?" Aaron asked. The question could have seemed self-centered or like Aaron was trying to take the blame for Jason's situation, but his tone held nothing more than honest curiosity.
Jason didn't turn away from the window. "No," he said after a long pause.
Aaron nodded and waited. He'd had enough experience with Jason in the past to know that Jason would give him more information if he let him. A low wind unsettled lingering snow from the branches of a nearby tree, the flakes shimmering in the weak rays of sunlight as they poured to the forest floor.
"I would have come back. Even if I hadn't found Spencer, or even if you hadn't asked me, I would have been come back to the team. It might have taken longer, but I would have made my way back." Jason flexed his bruised hand, his fingers tucking in to form a fist momentarily. "I'm not the man I used to be, Aaron."
Bitting back every thought that immediately came to mind, he sat with that for a moment. Jason, as indirect as he ever was, was telling him something important. Aaron was going to lose his pack member, teammate, and friend if he didn't decipher what that was. "The job changes us more quickly than circumstances might allow otherwise," Aaron finally said. It didn't feel like quite the right thing, which was only confirmed when Jason slowly shook his head.
"Everyday we stare into the abyss. We stand on the crumbling edge and call out to it, taunt it to come and get us," Jason said, his voice deceptively mild. "We look into the darkness until one day we find it watching us back. That's what changes us."
Aaron swallowed to clear the constriction in his throat. He hadn't come here to get into some kind of deep philosophical debate with Jason, even though Jason would undoubtably suggest that was the only type of discussion they could have at this point. "Taking another leave of absence isn't going to help," he said.
"No, it wouldn't," Jason agreed. "And I wouldn't go anyway. The team - the pack - needs me right now. But that won't always be the case."
He hadn't planned on bringing up the pack, but since Jason had broached the subject Aaron decided it was fair game. "You do realize that Spencer was quite distraught when he couldn't find you this morning?"
"I do," Jason said with a solemn nod. His uninjured hand reached up to touch the healing marks on his cheek. "I'd assure you that it won't happen again, but right now that's not a promise I'm sure I will keep."
Aaron's gaze strayed back to the slowly drying paw prints on the otherwise immaculate floor. He wondered how much it had cost Jason to venture back through the forest to the cabin and retake his human form so that Aaron could speak with him.
"He should come live with you and Derek," Jason added. He turned so that he was looking at Aaron for the first time since his arrival.
"You think that's a good idea?" Aaron asked, a little surprised by Jason's suggestion. He was aware that Jason considered himself Spencer's mentor, though Derek had fought a quiet and determined battle for that title, and he hadn't thought that Jason would so easily relinquish the extra time he could spend discussing theories and providing insight.
Jason touched his cheek again and refocused his attention to the window. "Spencer is a capable young man and if I'm not mistaken, which I'm not, you and Derek have taken to him quite well. Better than I would have expected considering you didn't want him on the team when you first saw him. Of course, you reacted negatively to Derek's presence for the first few weeks as well."
Aaron wasn't surprised to learn that Jason knew of their interest in Spencer, it was all in their body language that couldn't entirely be stifled. "What about you?" he asked, redirecting the conversation away from Spencer.
"What about me?" Jason asked. It sounded like he was asking that question of himself as well.
"You don't want to take a leave of absence. You want Spencer to come and stay with me and Derek. What are you going to do, Jason? Keep going on cases until there's another explosion or until we lose someone else?" Aaron sat straight, hating himself a little for what he was doing. "Because it's going to happen. We don't catch them all. We make mistakes."
"We can't change the past," Jason finished. "I honestly wonder if we can change the future, or if we are just deluding ourselves."
Aaron shook his head and stood. "That's something only you can decide for yourself. You know what I think, because I wouldn't be here otherwise."
Jason was quiet for a long moment, moving to cradle his injured hand in his lap as he stared intently. "Spencer came to you. Told you that I had gone missing."
"He did," Aaron agreed, wondering why they were back on the subject of Spencer.
"That's good. I'm glad, very glad." Jason stood. "I'm going to go run again. I'll be back at Quantico on Monday. I trust that if you aren't intending to keep Spencer at your house for the interim you'll set him up with the rest of the team until another situation can be arranged."
"I need to know what you intend to do," Aaron said, moving subtly so that his body blocked both the front entrance and the door to the other rooms of the cabin.
Jason watched Aaron's shift in stance and lifted up his jaw to expose his neck in surrender. "I'll continue in my current position on the team and when it is time, I will leave. Maybe travel for a little while."
"You know you don't have to be on the team in order to stay in the pack," Aaron said, though he already knew he had very little chance of dissuading Jason from his intentions.
"You believe that I could remain here in Virginia and watch idly as the rest of the pack places themselves in the line of fire, knowing that every time one of you came home wounded or defeated I would wonder if I could have protected you?" Jason asked. "You're my pack leader now, Aaron, but in all the ways that matter most, to me you will always be the half-grown cub that stumbled into the BAU thinking he was all grown."
Aaron understood immediately. He couldn't imagine sending his pack into danger without him at their sides. "You will not disappear when it is time. You will come to me and you will come to the pack and let them say goodbye."
Jason paused, his expression weary turning to resolved and then nodded. "I will. You have my word. In return, I need you to take Spencer now instead of when I leave. He doesn't need to be in the house if I can't control my shifting. I don't want anyone to see me that way."
"Spencer can stay with us if that is what he wants," Aaron agreed. It would complicate things, to be certain, but that couldn't be helped. "I don't like leaving you out here alone while you're injured."
"My cabin is perfectly safe as are the lands around it. It's the best place to for me to heal without Spencer worrying over me every half hour," Jason said firmly.
Aaron winced sympathetically and briefly wondered if he'd done Derek a favor by leaving him with Spencer. "I don't like you being completely alone; turn on your phone. We won't call, but have it on. Be back on Monday."
"I said I would." Jason walked around Aaron and out the front door, pausing to leave his robe on the small table just inside. He shifted and his form lifted his front paw and licked at it before he lopped off into the woods.
Aaron walked back to Jason's bedroom and found his cellphone sitting on the nightside table. He turned the phone on and listened to the voicemail messages, two from Spencer in the early morning, and deleted them before placing the cellphone where he'd found it. He checked to make sure the large dog door in the front door was unlatched so Jason could get inside and closed the door behind himself on his way out.
This hadn't been the conversation he'd hoped to have, but it wasn't the worst case scenario either. Jason would come back to them for now, but Aaron had gotten the sense shortly after Jason had returned from his recruitment tour that they were on borrowed time.
He got out of the car before someone got worried and came out to find him. Someone had already shoveled the sidewalks and the walkways that led up to the house. Aaron spotted two shovels leaning together next to the front steps and hoped that Derek had enough common sense to let JJ and Spencer take care of the task. Taking off his shoes and jacket, Aaron sighed and hung up his jacket next to Garcia's thick coat. He couldn't delay any longer and the relative silence from the living room told him that they already know Jason wasn't with him.
The scene inside the living room was cozy; the pack - all in their human forms - settled in front of the fireplace with cards scattered between them. From the look of things JJ was fleecing them all at poker again and from the cards that Aaron could see in Spencer's hand, they was letting her.
Spencer looked up at his entrance, obviously concerned but without any of the blame that Aaron had anticipated.
"Come sit, you're probably freezing. There's a pot of coffee in the kitchen, and there should be some left if this one," JJ gave Spencer a particularly threatening look, "didn't already get to it."
"There's some left!" Spencer said, bringing his mug closer to him.
Aaron felt himself take a full breath and realized he hadn't quite been getting enough air. His shoulders relaxed and he knelt down in between Derek and Garcia. Derek's hand was resting on his knee a moment later and Aaron placed his hand over the top of Derek's fingers.
"I can deal you in," Garcia offered, her smile a little too forced and her eyes sad.
"That's alright. I'd rather watch you play," Aaron said. He adjusted his stance so he was leaning against the side of one of the armchairs and slightly closer to Derek. The pack all scooted closer in response until they had formed a close and quiet circle.
The game continued, the soft slap of the cards against each other and requests for more cards or raising the bet - that JJ was keeping track of on a small pad of paper - the only sounds other than the fire crackling.
When they finished JJ got up and brought him coffee as well as more pillows for the floor while Spencer played a lightning fast game of solitaire and then advanced into a series of tricks with the cards that caught all of their attention. Spencer almost seemed to slip into another persona as he manipulated the cards and performed slight of hand tricks. It was remarkable, Aaron thought as he watched. He hoped that the quiet and sly confidence they were witnessing now would someday overtake the shyness and uncertainty that they saw more often when Spencer interacted with most people.
"You're good," Garcia said, looking impressed as Spencer plucked the card he'd shown them from the center of the pack. "I'm going to have to keep a more careful eye on you. I didn't know you knew how to be sneaky."
Spencer grinned and flushed at the same time before he recovered control over his expression. "It's not me you need to keep an eye on," he said, using a discreet hand to point in JJ's direction.
"I already knew she was a cheat, but I didn't know you had the skills too," Garcia said, getting a goodnatured complaint from JJ in response. Aaron chucked and felt Derek trying not to laugh too hard next to him.
"I grew up in Vegas, what do you expect?" Spencer asked with a shrug, not quite having lost the confidence from his performance. He shuffled the cards flashily before neatly returning them to the deck.
They pack grew quiet again and their attention turned to Aaron.
"Jason will be back at Quantico on Monday. He's taking a weekend up at his cabin so he can rest and heal," Aaron said, unfortunately aware that he had slipped into his team leader voice. "Spencer, he regrets that he wasn't able to let you know where he was going, but I'm sure he'd rather apologize to you in person."
Spencer nodded, his eyes falling to the floor and focusing on the deck of cards.
"But he's coming back to the BAU right? To the team?" Garcia asked, her voice wavering slightly.
"He is," Aaron said. He debated about saying anything more but from the way none of them seemed pleased that Jason was supposed to return, he figured that they already got the gist.
Derek patted Spencer's shoulder and then got to his feet, a little more slowly and carefully than he would have in uninjured but otherwise showing no indication that he was hurting. "I'm going to start some lunch," he said.
"I'll help," Garcia added and started to collect the empty coffee mugs.
Aaron shook his head and touched Garcia's knee. "Why don't you and JJ and Spencer stay in here for a little bit, maybe see if you can't get one of them to show us their secrets to winning at poker. I'll help Derek."
"Okay," Garcia said, giving Aaron a considering look. After a moment she settled back down next to JJ.
Aaron collected the empty mugs, including Spencer's - to his obvious dismay - and went into the kitchen.
Derek looked up from where he was rummaging for something in the cabinet. "He'll be back on Monday, huh? If it was anyone other than Gideon you would have kicked our asses and dragged us back here."
Aaron inclined his head because that much was true. "Sandwiches with soup?"
"Tuna melts and tomato?" Derek asked, holding up two cans of tomato soup.
Aaron nodded and got out the bread while Derek peered back into the cabinet. "There's more you should know, but we'll talk about it later," Aaron added once they were both standing next to the stove. He glanced to the hallway to indicate that there was more than one person in the house with the ability to listen in on their conversation from another room.
"Okay," Derek said. He picked up the can opener and a can of tomato soup. "I trust you. You'll do whatever the pack needs."
Aaron walked the few steps to close the gap between him and Derek and gently traced the edge of the bandage on Derek's forehead. "I will always try to do what is best for the pack, and for us, and for you."
"I know," Derek sat simply. He set aside the can and can opener and leaned into Aaron's touch.
Aaron turned and found Derek still propped up against the pillows but the book he'd been reading was sitting closed on his lap.
"Do you need to sleep?" Aaron asked, keeping his voice pitched quiet so he wouldn't wake any of the pack who had shifter enhanced hearing.
Derek shook his head and dropped the book on the nightstand. "Somehow I'm just not very interested in an action thriller tonight," he said, waving his hand to the picture of a man on top of a speeding train on the front cover.
Aaron smiled and decided not to comment on Derek's choice of literature. "I'm sure if you asked, Garcia would be more than happy to lend you one of her quasi-historical romance series." Well, he wouldn't comment much.
Derek raised his eyebrows suggestively. "You'd better be careful or I might just do that. And then I'll be expecting you to ride a horse and wear a sword and a ruffled lacy shirt in order to woo me."
They both laughed, mostly because it was clear that Derek had no better idea than Aaron what actually happened in those books other than what they could tell from the pictures on the cover. "Could be worse, I suppose. Could be police detective novels," Aaron admitted.
Derek nodded in agreement and the smile slipped from his face. "There was more about Gideon. He's leaving, isn't he? Not just the team but the pack too."
"Not right away, but he'll go when he feels it's necessary. It won't be without warning, but it will probably be quick when it happens." Aaron sighed and feeling slightly selfish hoped that Jason would stay with them longer than he seemed to think. "He wants Spencer to come stay with us."
Derek considered it for a moment. "That's not such a bad thing. That's what we were eventually aiming for, right? And I'd feel more comfortable if Spencer came home with us, especially if Gideon might just go running off like this again."
"I think that Spencer staying with us is a good idea as well, in theory," Aaron said cautiously. "However, I don't think it's fair to him, or to us, to have him living here without any idea of what type of relationship we're hoping to have with him in the future."
"That seems reasonable," Derek said. He sighed, his frown deeper now.
"What is it?" Aaron asked. He moved closer to Derek and traced the edges of a purpling bruise on Derek's forearm.
Derek watched the path of Aaron's hand, his eyes flickering as he thought. "I guess I'd hoped we'd have more time. He seems less intimidated by you now, and he's gotten more comfortable with sitting closer to the team, but I don't know that he's going to say yes to moving in with us knowing that we want to open our relationship to him."
"If he's not, then we'll do damage control and JJ and Garcia have a guest room that he can use until he decides he wants to live by himself or if he eventually wants to move in with us," Aaron said, trying to remain as detached as possible.
Derek reached across Aaron and turned off his bedside lamp. "I don't really like that possibility," he said into the darkness.
"Me neither," Aaron agreed, though his thoughts were deeper in the realm of scaring Spencer away from the pack entirely. He didn't think it was likely to happen, but the possibility weighed on him.
"Tomorrow," Derek said, moving so that they were comfortably entangled. "We'll think of something."
Aaron tucked his arm under his pillow and leaned back, waiting for the moment that he felt his pack sleeping around him.
He had a book spread open in his lap, something he'd already read but didn't mind looking through again while he thought. JJ and Garcia had gone back to their home after breakfast and when Spencer had asked them if they would mind dropping him back at Gideon's house Aaron had said that he should at least stay put for the rest of the day. JJ had touched his hand before she left and Garcia had pulled him into one of her all encompassing hugs that had nearly sent him into a small panic attack the first time she'd done so.
Derek had shifted a short time later and had ran through the snow in the backyard for twenty minutes before coming in with clumps on snow stuck in his fur and settled down on the rug in Hotch's office. Hotch, freshly showered and dressed, had offered to let Spencer sit with them in his office while he took care of some paperwork, but Spencer had declined and retreated to the living room instead. It felt too much like being a kid; sitting on the floor and leaning against the large wooden desk in his mom's office when she'd been well enough to work. He remembered her office at the university; he would sit on the floor out of sight while she met with students and spend hours reading all the books on the shelves he could reach.
Shaking his head, Spencer forced his eyes back to the text in front of him and read a few chapters until the rhythm of the words lulled him back to safer thoughts. It was still a little strange, he thought as he turned a page. Sharing his life with a group of people, or even one other person, was not something he was used to yet. At the university he'd always had a room to himself and even though he was living surrounded by people there wasn't anyone who knew him. With the exception of the resident's advisor who had kept an eye out for him when he was under eighteen, no one had noticed when he'd come and gone or what he did with his time. And, after the first semester, Spencer had just slipped a note in the folder on the advisor's door when he got back to the dorms in the evening. Even when he'd been living with his mom, it had been different; in a lot of ways it had been like living alone.
Now, he heard the sound of voices when he walked into the kitchen, and there was always someone asking him a question or saying hello when he sat at the table. Occasionally he was woken by the sounds of four or eight paws racing through the house, and usually Hotch's voice calling after them a moment later. Spencer could feel his cellphone in his pocket, the plastic digging slightly into his thigh. He hadn't called Hotch or Derek yesterday, hadn't even thought about it. When he was on a case with the team, if he wasn't already standing right next to the person he needed to talk to, calling them using his phone would have been the next obvious step. Yet, when he needed their help, he had got bundled up and been grateful that he'd memorized the public transportation schedule for the area.
There were plenty of reasons he could pinpoint psychologically as to why this had happened the way it did, but there was one at the forefront of his mind that kept interrupting his cautious dissection of the rest. He'd been fifteen and away at the university working on master's degrees. It was a holiday - a long weekend - and most of the campus was shut down except for the essentials. Spencer had considered going home but he had big projects due that he had needed to work on - this was mostly the truth and he clung to the explanation out of necessity. Two days into the weekend he'd gotten sick; a high fever, vomiting, and shaking weakly. The schools health clinic was closed and there wasn't anyone Spencer knew still in the dorms. He had, of course, gotten himself dressed and walked down to the bus stop and taken the bus to the clinic downtown that the school health insurance plan would cover.
Spencer knew how to take care of himself; letting other people help him and letting them close enough to do so was something he was finding much more difficult.
A small noise caught Spencer's attention and he looked up from the book he'd been staring at for some time now without reading. Derek, in his wolf form, was sitting next to the couch with his chin resting on the armrest and his nose wiggling slightly as he sniffed in Spencer's direction.
Spencer closed his book and swung his feet down to the floor. He was more used to seeing Gideon, JJ and Garcia's forms than anyone else's. Hotch and Derek usually shifted together when they went out to run in the forest behind the backyard, though Derek was prone to running through the house in his form with JJ and Garcia. JJ and Garcia would stay put and rest in their forms, whereas Derek was usually pacing or exploring. "Hey," he said quietly. He wasn't really sure how much the rest of the team understood when they were in their forms. His own memory of the time he spent as a leopard was still infuriatingly foggy and even then he couldn't be sure if it would be the same for shifters with different forms.
Derek stood and walked over to Spencer, titling his head up. After a moment he leaned in so that his weight was against one of Spencer's legs.
"You're heavy," Spencer told him clearly, a little big surprised at exactly how much weight Derek was pressing against him. He used one hand to push at Derek's side and Derek resettled himself so that he was leaning more on the chair than on Spencer. "Thank you."
Derek rested his nose against Spencer's knee and gave a short whine.
Spencer leaned down, trusting the Derek was cognizant enough in his form that he wouldn't attack him, and looked at the gash in Derek's fur above his eye. He touched the side of Derek's head, well away from the wound and gently rubbed behind Derek's ears like he'd seen people do with dogs. When Derek's eyes closed, clearly enjoying himself, Spencer smiled and laughed a little bit. He wondered if he would be able to shift without a pressing need soon. Whenever he tried he could still feel the hook inside of him, centered in his chest, but he couldn't reach for it without it slipping away.
"Hey," Spencer said when Derek pressed his nose to Spencer's knee again, and Spencer felt the cold dampness through the fabric of his pants. After a moment he slid down to the floor and let Derek arrange his front half across Spencer's legs. Derek was still heavy but most of his weight was on the floor. Spencer pet the fur down Derek's back, a little surprised at how coarse it was against the skin of his hands and wrists. The fur closer to Derek's stomach, now dry after the snow had melted, was softer, but Spencer mostly stuck to running his hands over Derek's back; it was strange enough to think he was basically petting his friend and coworker's back without adding in rubbing his stomach as well.
Spencer was so lost in the sensation of the warmth of having a wolf half in his lap that he completely missed Hotch's entrance. He froze, suddenly wishing he knew more about shifter etiquette. He often wished there was more information published or available about shifters and partially felt that the whole secrecy about shifting was unnecessary. Not wanting to be studied or used in laboratory research was understandable, but would it really be so terrible if someone had told him that shifting was necessary before he got ill from not shifting? Or if someone had told him whether or not touching your pack leader's mate in his form was some kind of grave offense?
Hotch didn't looked offended, just curious in that silent and a little bit daunting way that he had. "Were you interested in lunch now, or would you rather eat later?"
"Later," Spencer said immediately. He had discovered that for the first two weeks or so after he shifted he was hungrier and eating came easily. Then, he'd start to forget to eat again because he didn't feel hungry and soon after he'd notice that he found it harder to wake in the mornings again. The last time he'd shifted had been Christmas even though Gideon and Derek had sat with him on their occasional free weekends and led him through guided meditation and sensory expansion.
Derek looked up at Spencer when Spencer spoke and pushed himself up so they were sitting at eye level. He pressed his nose against the side of Spencer's face before standing up and briskly trotting out of the room.
Spencer waited until Derek was gone before he wiped his face with his shirt sleeve and pushed himself back up onto the chair. "Sorry," he said, not quite meeting Hotch's gaze.
"You don't need to apologize," Hotch said. He sat down on the couch but didn't look away from Spencer.
Feeling a little unsettled with Hotch watching him, Spencer placed the book he'd been flipping through on the end table and pulled his feet back up onto the chair. He sat, trying to think of something to say that was relevant. "Did you know that Isaac Asimov is the only author to have a book in every category of the Dewey-decimal system?" He pointed to the book on the end table and inwardly cringed - that wasn't even remotely relevant.
The corners of Hotch's mouth twitched upwards. "No, I didn't know that. I imagine there is a lot of things about Isaac Asimov that are pretty interesting if he wrote on so many subjects."
Spencer paused, trying to decide if Hotch was making fun of him in that oblique way that he didn't always catch right away. Deciding that Hotch was at least politely interested, Spencer sorted through everything he could recall reading about Asimov and picked out the most interesting facts about both the man and his works.
Derek reappeared before Spencer could get to some of the more significant theories about Asimov's science fiction works. He was dressed in clothes that mean he wasn't planning on shifting in the immediate future and had forgone a bandage to cover the wound on his forehead. It looked more healed than it had at breakfast that morning. He sat next to Aaron and smiled a similarly soft smile as Spencer finished his thought.
"That's really interesting," Aaron said when Spencer stopped speaking, sounding like he actually meant it.
Spencer returned the smile and wondered why he suddenly felt like he was being watched like a scientist might observe an experiment. He almost thought that if he suddenly leapt up and spun in a circle or did something equally outlandish, all Aaron and Derek would do is nod thoughtfully and make a notation in observation notebooks.
"Spencer, we have something we'd like to discuss with you," Aaron said, turning briefly to Derek.
"Gideon's not coming back, is he?" Spencer asked, feeling a little bit like he'd been hit in the chest.
Both Aaron and Derek blinked, their expressions revealing their surprise only briefly. "Jason will be back at the BAU tomorrow, just like I said yesterday," Aaron said.
Spencer licked his lips and breathed out, suddenly feeling his heart thump in his chest even though he knew that his heart wasn't beating any different now than it had been a moment ago. "Okay," he said, at a complete loss as to what they wanted to tell him.
Derek and Aaron looked at each other again before Derek leaned forward and met Spencer's eyes. "Gideon will be back at the BAU tomorrow, but he's likely going to leave the team and the pack at some point. It might be a few months, or maybe a few years. He thought that it might be better in the long run if you were to move in with us, and we think that's a good idea too."
"However, we wanted to address a few things before you made a decision about where you want to live. Rest assured this is not your only option," Aaron added.
"Okay," Spencer said. He was partially relieved that Gideon hadn't just disappeared and the last way he would have seen him was injured and agitated the evening they'd come home after the bomb had exploded. It had taken a few months to do some searching for apartments but he had yet to find anything that was close enough to public transportation and cheap enough for him to afford by himself - not to mention his schedule made any type of dedicated apartment seeking almost impossible. Living with Derek and Aaron wouldn't be too bad, but he guessed that Aaron was about to tell him to that his conduct with Derek was inappropriate and needed to cease regardless of how long he wound up living with them. Spencer braced himself and looked up at Aaron.
"You're aware that Derek and I are mates, but as I'm sure you're also aware, Derek has feelings for you that are beyond the reach of friendship and members of the same pack," Aaron started, his tone as serious as when he gave briefings in front of police departments.
Derek sighed. "Will you let me do this?"
Aaron placed his hand on Derek's knee and leaned back in acquiescence.
"Spencer, I like you, and I'm pretty sure you like me too. I'd like it if we could become closer. Close your mouth and let me finish," Derek said when Spencer's mouth opened, either from surprise or from desire to say something. "Aaron likes you too, though I know the two of you are still sorting yourselves out. The important point here is that Aaron and I are interested in our relationship expanding so that you are a third member."
Spencer stared, his mind racing to try and make sense of what Derek was saying.
"It's not our intent to make you uncomfortable in any way, nor to pressure you. We're more than willing to move at whatever pace you feel comfortable with, or not at all if that's what you decide. We just felt you should know our intention to broach the subject with you so you could decide if you felt comfortable living with us," Hotch said.
"Can I have some time to think about this?" Spencer felt himself ask. The whole conversation seemed like some kind of a strange dream. Maybe he'd shifted and this was just a dream as a result of falling asleep in his form resting with Derek and Hotch. He wasn't too clear on the entire subject of dating, never having actually been in what he would consider a serious relationship, but he didn't think that a committed couple asking another person to join their relationship was typical. Maybe it was another shifter cultural thing, or a wolf thing.
"Of course," Derek said quickly. "As much as you need."
"Neither offer is contingent upon the other. If you decide that you would like to live with us, but still need time to think about the relationship aspect, that's fine. Or if you'd like to stay somewhere else while you consider everything, we can arrange that as well." Hotch twisted his hand under Derek's so they were holding hands. "This isn't a passing interest for us, we've considered the possibilities and potential ramifications and we wouldn't be making this offer if we didn't think it would be a good thing for all of us. We can't promise that it will work out or that it will be easy, but we would like to try if you would."
Spencer swallowed and tucked his legs up close to his chest so he could wrap his arms around them. "I understand," he said, even though he wasn't sure that he did at all.
"You want us to hang around with you, or do you want to be alone for a bit?" Derek asked. The sympathy in his expression suggested he had guessed exactly how overwhelmed Spencer was feeling.
"I think I want to be alone for a while, if that's okay?" Spencer asked. He untucked his limbs and stood, a little bit unsteady. He wondered if he was about to shift, but he didn't feel anything like the hook coming forward to drag him under. Instead he just felt confused and a little bit shaken.
"That's fine. We're here if you want to talk," Hotch said.
Spencer walked quickly out of the living room and into the hallway. He looked around and considered going upstairs to the room where he slept when he stayed at Hotch and Derek's house, but that reminded him too much of fleeing home and into his bedroom after a day of being tormented at school. He walked through the kitchen and the dining room and found himself on the converted back porch.
Sitting down on the rug where he sat when he meditated, Spencer looked out the windows to the backyard. The sky was clear and the snow was crisp and frozen. He could see holes in the snow where members of the pack had leapt and landed on the small rises and tumbled through the low bushes.
Hotch and Derek had both seemed absolutely sincere when they'd made their offer, so why did it feel almost like when people would make snide remarks about him? He'd gotten used to being a curiosity, or something that could be shown off by professors who happened to be advising him. At worst, he'd been a threat or a menace; something that had to be reminded its place or handled or dealt with somehow. As grateful as Spencer was to be at the BAU and with the team, he had to admit that even Gideon had recognized him as pack and then as an asset to the team. There hadn't really been anything about him as a person that had caused Gideon to chose him.
Spencer brushed the strands of hair away from his eyes and brought his head up from where he'd been hunched over. He liked Derek, more than he should like a man who was already in a relationship. He liked Hotch, as a boss and as a pack leader, and he could see that as potentially becoming more as well. He felt safe with both of them and as happy as he could remember being. But he didn't understand why they wanted him. They were already getting everything he had, just by him being a member of the pack and the team.
Closing his eyes, Spencer sat taller and went reaching for the quiet, still space that JJ and Gideon had been teaching him to reach for. He ignored the hook that should lead to his form and instead focused on being quiet and blank. It was strange to hear nothingness echo in his mind when there was usually a cacophony of thoughts, but it was also far more restful.
"Feeling any better?" Hotch asked. His tone was different than usual. When Hotch spoke, even just among the pack, there was almost always a sense of reservation, like Hotch was stopping to filter everything through the mental lens that he was their leader. Now Hotch seemed more like he was speaking directly to him, like Spencer was just another person that he knew and was having a conversation with.
"Yes," Spencer said after he'd had a moment to check. Even now as he reprocessed the same information he'd been presented with earlier, he felt less panicked and out of control. He still didn't have any idea what it meant.
Hotch nodded, taking in Spencer's posture and expression and clearly coming to the same conclusion. "Derek and I would have liked to presented that better, and we wouldn't have brought it up so soon if it weren't for the situation with Jason. If you're more comfortable staying with JJ and Garcia tonight, they have space and I'm more than happy to drive you over to their home."
Spencer instantly shook his head. JJ and Garcia were incredible - they were what he imagined having sisters would be like, caring for him and annoying him all in the same breath - but he didn't think that living with them was a good idea. "I'd rather stay here with you and Derek, if that's alright; at least until I find a suitable apartment."
"That's fine. Like we said, we're happy to have you here no matter what you decide," Hotch said. "I thought I might sit with you and try to help guide you towards your form, if you'd like? It's been a while since you last shifted."
"Okay," Spencer agreed uncertainly. "You've never tried to help me shift before. Why?"
Hotch seemed momentarily surprised by the question. "I didn't want to accidentally compel you to shift. I'm not sure that I could have initially, but while you were first attempting to find your form the possibility was there. Now that you're more aware of what shifting feels like it will be easier for you to feel me guiding you."
Spencer considered this, turning the information over in his mind and redefining what he thought he'd understood. "Why would have compelling me to shift be a bad thing?"
"For one, it's a very unpleasant experience. Shifters don't typically recall the physical sensation of changing form with good reason. The transformation your body undergoes is usually lost to memory recall in either form, but when a shifter is compelled to their form, they will remember what that felt like. After being compelled there is sometimes a pathological fear of shifting that can increase problems with control over shifting," Hotch said. His voice was steady, but he was focusing past Spencer's shoulder and out the side window. "A pack leader is typically the only one that can compel a shifter to change their form, though there have been incidents were three or four shifters in a pack were able to compel a lone shifter. For the most part a leader will only compel one of their own pack members to shift if the shifter has completely lost their ability to shift and would die without the intervention."
Shifting wasn't explainable by any science that Spencer had seen or read, but the sheer physics that it would take to contort a human body into something smaller made him wince a little. He had never really given any thought to why shifting didn't hurt and now that he was considering it he didn't want to dwell for too long on the idea. There were a lot of disturbing ideas and images that came along with being a member of the BAU without imagining his body being turned into something just larger than a house cat. "You said that you didn't think you would accidentally compel me now?" he asked, warier of Hotch's offer of help than he had been a few minutes ago.
"Now that you're aware of the sensations of shifting you'll be better able to shield yourself from outside intrusion. You'll be able to feel me guiding you towards the hook, as you called it, and will instinctively move to protect it from being disturbed. Before, when you didn't know what you were reaching for, neither of us would have been able to stop me from coming too close," Hotch explained.
Spencer nodded, because that made as much sense as anything involving shifting did. He closed his eyes and sat straight again, resting his hands on his knees as he prepared to reach in towards the hook that he could vaguely sense. It was a little bit like looking at a picture with an illusion hidden inside; he knew the picture was there, he just had to focus his eyes right in order to see it.
"Actually, go ahead and keep your eyes open this time. I'm going to sit a little bit closer and I'd like to touch your hands, if that's alright?" Aaron asked, waiting for Spencer to nod his permission before he moved closer.
They wound up sitting so that their knees were almost touching. Spencer held his hands out palms up and watched as Aaron cupped them in his own hands.
Aaron brought their hands down so they were resting in the space directly in the center, his thumbs gently exploring the skin and bones along the outer edge of Spencer's hands. "Aim for the relaxed state that you were in before while remaining aware of both me and of the sensation of our hands touching. We're trying for a controlled shift rather than just triggering a condition that forces you to shift."
Spencer immediately understood the difference. He needed to be able to shift when he wanted to instead of needing a set of circumstances that forced him to do so. He felt around the edges of the space that was the closest he could get to the hook without losing it entirely. A moment later he was surprised to feel another presence there, nudging his attention away from the hook.
"Leave that alone for now. You know it's there, you don't need to check. Focus here, on our hands," Aaron said.
Spencer's eyes went back to watching his hands in Aaron's. The backs of his hands were warm where they rested against Aaron's palms. Occasionally Aaron's fingers would fold up, bringing Spencer's hands almost closed before they relaxed once more. It took several minutes before he stopped finding it strange that someone was just sitting there holding his hands and he was able to relax again.
"There you go," Aaron said, his voice soft and warm. "Now, I'm going to guide you back towards the hook. I'll do all the movement, all you need to do is let yourself be pushed along."
It was a sensation that Spencer couldn't quite place where he was feeling. His hands curled up of their own accord as he was slowly guided closer to the hook and he felt Aaron's hands moving to stay in contact with his.
"You're right there. Reach for the hook with no intention but to touch it," Aaron instructed. He had gone absolutely still, his hands still holding Spencer's but his presence just barely out of contact.
Spencer moved towards the hook and looked up to meet Aaron's eyes in surprise as he touched the edge of it and felt himself being pulling towards his form. A few seconds later Aaron was guiding a small leopard out from under the heap of clothing that had been left behind when Spencer had shifted.
Chapter 7: Section Seven & Epilogue
Derek sat down in the seat next to Spencer, watching as he flipped back and forth between the case file and the map that he had spread out in front of him. The jet was still on the ground and Aaron and Gideon still boarding while they waited for clearance to take off.
"Getting a head start so you can wow us with your prowess?" Derek asked, watching as Spencer made another mark on the map of the area Garcia had printed him before they'd left the building.
Spencer looked up and pushed up his glasses from where they'd been sliding down his nose. "No, I was just mapping out the spread of the attacks. The way we process information allows most of us to make connections more quickly when there is some type of visual representation. This is why graphs and charts are so frequently used to illustrate large amounts of data, though those can be rather easily manipulated to create misinformation."
Derek blinked and then smiled when he was sure Spencer was finished. "You've got ink on your face," he said, tapping on his own face where there was a smudge of black ink just below the rim of Spencer's glasses.
Spencer checked his hands and found ink on his finger tips, which he quickly wiped on his dark corduroy pants, and then rubbed at his face where Derek had indicated.
"You're making it worse," Derek said, when Spencer looked up in question. Spencer started to use the edge of his sleeve to wipe his check and Derek shook his head. It was as bad as watching Spencer in his form curiously climbing into every nook and cranny in the house. "Here, let me."
Spencer's eyes grew wide in horror as Derek licked his forefingers and then used them to rub the remaining ink from his cheek. He immediately wiped at his face again with his sleeve and then stared at Derek in disbelief. "It's not uncommon for mammals to use saliva as an aid in grooming, but we've evolved a little bit beyond that, don't you think?"
Derek did laugh at that. "Your mom never washed your face like that?"
"No!" Spencer wiped at his face again and looked in the direction of the small bathroom that was on the jet.
"Don't even think about going and washing yourself. My spit is just fine, thank you very much," Derek said, managing a mock stern expression for all of about three seconds before he smiled again.
"Do you have any idea the number of germs that are in the human mouth? And how many mucus membranes on your face? It's a bad combination," Spencer said emphatically, but he didn't get up to go into the bathroom.
The sound of JJ laughing drew both their attention and she just shook her head. "You two are utterly ridiculous, Garcia owes me twenty bucks, and that's all I'm saying on the subject."
Derek turned back to Spencer and found that he looked as baffled as Derek felt. Spencer's expression very clearly asked the question of what had just happened and Derek subtly shook his head and shrugged in response. He loved JJ and Garcia, just like he loved his sisters, but sometimes he just had no idea what was going on with them.
"If everyone is finished, we're about to take off and we then we can start the briefing," Aaron said, looking over all three of them.
Derek immediately caught that Aaron's serious expression was meant as a reminder that they were professionals and they were working a case. There would be time to mess around later.
Spencer had obviously understood Aaron's tone of voice and had grabbed his pen and returned to the map and the file.
Twenty minutes later and they were steady in the air and JJ moved to the edge of her seat so that she could be heard by the entire team.
"Over the past two weeks in Plymouth, Washington there has been a series of attacks that were at first attributed to wild animals, but is now believed to be shifter related. A large jaguar was caught on a security camera fleeing the scene of one of the attacks. The local sheriff's department has authorized the local hunting of any shifters and there have been two people, non-shifters, who have been shot since the free for all has been decreed. Fortunately the shootings were not fatal, but they were what prompted the state police to call us in." JJ looked down at her closed folder on her lap. "We were chosen because the director of the BAU said that we were the best able to locate and neutralize a shifter, but we've been warned in advanced that we shouldn't expect a warm welcome from the locals."
"They told the people of the town that they should go hunt shifters?" Derek asked, not bothering to hide his scorn and disbelief. "Are they trying to get more people killed?"
Gideon stood up from where he'd been sitting and walked so that he was across from JJ. "These people don't have any concept of how shifters function, or even that there were any living among them until the attacks started. This might be more than a case of a shifter simply going rogue."
"Someone is seeking revenge against anyone who had propagated anti-shifter sentiment?" Aaron asked, frowning as he considered the idea.
"Then why hasn't he gone after the sheriff or anyone affiliated with them?" Spencer asked as he flipped back through the list of victims. "I'd say that authorizing the town to shoot you on site if they even suspect you can shift is more hateful than whatever the mother of two toddlers who was loading her groceries into the trunk of her car did or said."
"More hateful and threatening, perhaps, but if our unsub grew up in this town they could feel more wronged by the townspeople in general than by the authorities. Instead of striking out at community leaders, attacking townspeople could mean that they feel it is all of them who have wronged the unsub," JJ suggested. "If this unsub has been keeping their ability to shift a secret for their entire life, they've probably heard a lot of awful things said about shifters, maybe even said some awful things about them just so they wouldn't stand out."
Derek had been flipping through his copy of the file while they talked and stopped on the page that transcribed the sheriff's statement to the community. "The sheriff says that their town has never been a home to shifters. It's possible we're looking for someone who has a pathological relationship with their form, who maybe didn't know that they could shift until it started happening. Maybe they can't control what they're doing."
Aaron stood and looked over the pack. "Whether or not the unsub is able to control what they are doing, we need to be vigilant on this case. Don't go anywhere alone, even when you're with the local officers. The last thing we want is a confrontation with this unsub in the middle of the town. I don't want any of us being taken out by friendly fire and I have serious doubts as to whether the sheriff or his men would hesitate to shoot any of us if they saw us shift."
Derek nodded solemnly and met Aaron's eyes. Sometimes going into a case they could tell when it had the potential to easily and quickly go from bad to worse. Derek didn't remember the last time they'd taken a case that qualified more.
The entire team was set on a slow simmer, even Spencer - who Derek had nearly never seen get angry - had his arms folded and his head held defiantly high. To say it had been a long day had been an understatement, and as much as Derek tried to remind himself to not empathize with the unsub he was half tempted to let the unsub take out almost every one of the townspeople he'd met that day.
"Be ready to be back on the road at six. We've got a lot of ground to cover still," Aaron said as they approached their rooms.
There hadn't been any suites available but Garcia had managed to get them a pair of rooms directly across from each other. They checked 117 first, Gideon and Aaron more thorough than they were usually - which was really just saying that they had checked in every drawer and felt under the edges of the mattress instead of simply checking for intruders.
"Goodnight," Spencer said as JJ and Gideon went inside, JJ pausing in the doorway to raise her hand in a half-hearted wave.
Derek and Aaron checked the other room, leaving Spencer in the doorway so he was in the best position to get help if there was something wrong inside.
"Are we checking for explosives and incendiary devices?" Derek asked quietly as he went through the drawers in the bathroom while Aaron pulled out the ironing board from the closet and looked it over.
Aaron nodded. "One of the sheriff's men was telling me and Spencer that there was an old farm on the edge of town, and that some of the local high school kids used left over dynamite to blow up one of the out buildings on the land about three years when there was a rumor that there used to be shifters lurking up there. They never knew if the remains they found up there was an unlucky farm animal or if they'd actually got a shifter, and they never bothered to find out. Spencer asked him what was done about the kids who blew up the buildings and the deputy just laughed."
Derek sighed and pushed the last drawer closed. He knew this was verging on paranoia but he could understand why Aaron felt it was necessary. "The sooner we catch this unsub the better. I don't think even the sheriff can stop the locals from shooting at each other, even though we had him tell them to rescind the orders about shooting shifters on sight."
"We're clear," Aaron called, the sound of the door falling closed letting them know that Spencer had come inside.
"Uh, guys?" Spencer called back a second later.
Derek left the bathroom and set down his on the end of the bed. "What's up?"
"There's only one bed," Spencer said quietly as he looked around the room. "And I don't think that chair is hiding a pullout inside it."
Derek looked around the room and at the chair in question. They had a king-sized bed, a small table with two wood chairs and an armchair by the window. "Well, do you want to go share with JJ and Gideon, or stay here with us? I'd say we don't bite, but that's not entirely true."
"Derek," Aaron admonished as he came out of the bathroom, his tie and his suit jacket off and his shirt halfway unbuttoned. "I promise you that all any of us are going to do is sleep."
Spencer looked at the door and his hand twitched by his side. "I'll stay with you, if that's alright?"
"That's fine," Aaron said. "Go take your turn in the bathroom."
Spencer disappeared without a word and the bathroom door shut a moment later.
Derek kicked off his shoes and took off his jacket with a quiet sigh. Spencer had told them that he didn't know yet concerning their relationship about once a week, even though Aaron and Derek had been quiet on the subject since they first broached it with him. He didn't mind, and neither did Aaron, but it was a little bit painful to watch Spencer sit on Sunday mornings with the newspaper and look at apartments listed for rent. So far Aaron had vetoed all of the possibilities as being too far away or not secure enough and Derek was left wondering how long it would take Spencer to realize that he and Aaron wouldn't ever give their explicit approval of somewhere that wasn't with the pack.
"It'll be fine," Aaron said unbidden.
Derek nodded and yawned, digging through his bag to find his toiletries. "Let's just get this guy and get out of here."
Spencer reappeared, dressed in flannel pajamas that were a little bit too short and with his hair messier than usual.
"Get in," Derek said, pointing to the bed before he grabbed his stuff and headed to the bathroom.
Ten minutes later they were all in bed, Derek in the middle, with Aaron hyper-vigilant on one side and Spencer tense and fidgeting on the other. Derek lasted about a full minute before he placed one hand on Spencer's arm to quiet his movements and the other on Aaron's hip in sympathy. Aaron wrapped his fingers around Derek's and Spencer settled, scooting towards Derek just a little.
"Any luck?" JJ asked, looking up from the laptop. It had the video conference screen up but that was currently dark.
"Could barely get anyone to say a word," Derek said, leaning against the wall with a thump.
"Except for the man who spat at us. He had quite a lot to say about the town and the shifter problem they'd experienced fifteen years ago," Spencer said. He was doing his best not to be bitter about the whole exchange considering it had actually provided them with some interesting information. "Turns out there was a small group of shifters that lived a ways outside the town, and a group of the townsfolk went up there one night after they accused the shifters of being responsible for a large number of farm animals that had recently been killed."
Gideon set down the papers he'd been examining. "All the shifters were killed?"
"That's the thing, no one we asked was able to tell us how many shifters there were or what their forms were," Derek said. "There were three confirmed causalities, but there are a lot of rumors that some of the shifters survived."
"So it's possible that someone used to live here and is now back for revenge." Hotch frowned and looked over at the victim timeline they'd posted on one wall. "There's a lot of crossover among the victims, but in a town this small there would have to be. Maybe the younger victims are descendants of those involved with the attack?"
"Hate to burst your bubble, boss man," Garcia's voice called from the laptop.
Spencer joined the rest of the team at the table and looked over JJ's shoulder to see Garcia on the small screen.
"What do you have, baby girl?" Derek asked.
"I've been researching about anything connected to shifters and the town where you guys are at, and needless to say there isn't a lot. However, one of the early shifter advocacy newsletters got ahold of the incident you were just describing. Fortunately, the shifter advocacy website has scanned in all of their old newsletters, which makes it much easier to find relevant information," Garcia said, smiling brightly through the webcam.
"Garcia," Hotch said, standing up straighter.
"I'm getting there. This was one of the first shifter massacres that was reported at all and it didn't even reach any widespread news coverage. Anyway, it looks like three shifters were killed at the scene and it was reported that a cub went missing during the attack, though that's possibly just speculation. As for the attackers, five were killed during the attack, another was seriously maimed and died a few years later, and the other three are still alive. Two remain in Plymouth, the third lives in Portland." Garcia looked away and started typing quickly at her keyboard. "None of them nor their immediate relatives were victims of the recent attacks, though one of the cousins was the third victim killed."
Gideon shook his head. "That's likely a coincidence. If this was motivated by revenge it would have been directed at the former attackers and their immediate relatives."
"Keep looking for information about the purportedly missing cub. Anything you can find might tell us who our unsub is," Hotch said.
"Your wish is my command," Garcia said. Her smiled dropped away and she looked directly at the monitor. "Be careful and come home soon. Please. I don't like where you are right now."
"Neither do we," JJ said. "We're only a call away. We'll check in regularly."
Garcia nodded and gave a small, sad smile before she reached forward and disconnected the video feed.
Spencer turned away and went back to the map. Something had been tugging at his mind ever since he'd finished mapping out the attacks and he still wasn't sure what it was. The rest of the team was talking behind him, but Spencer had gotten better at tuning out the sounds of their voices for the most part. He put his finger on the map and started tracing out lines between the attacks. Doing a geographic profile to assess a comfort zone hadn't helped much in a town the size of Plymouth. His finger paused on the indentation caused by his pen that was the furthest away from the rest of the town.
"Wait," Spencer said, mostly to himself. He moved back to the dot he'd drawn before, and then the one before that.
"What is it?" Derek asked, coming to stand next to him.
Before Spencer could answer the conference door slammed open and the sheriff rushed in, missing his hat and looking almost comically alarmed. "There's a gathering in the east edge of town. I just got calls saying there's almost a riot out there with people accusing each other of being the shifter. There's been shots fired and I've only got myself and three deputies. It's a powder keg out there just waiting to explode, this whole town is!"
"Stay calm. We're glad to help if you don't think our presence will exacerbate the situation," Hotch said, reaching for his jacket. The rest of the team was already moving.
"Look, I know we don't take too well to your kind around here, but right now an FBI badge is gonna shut these people down better than me using a bullhorn to remind them that we're all neighbors." The sheriff ran a hand through his hair and then reached for the radio hooked on his belt when it beeped. "If you're going to come, me and my men will be approaching from the west field."
Spencer checked the gun in his hip holster and zipped up his jacket again. He'd only passed his firearms qualification one week ago and he'd yet to actually pull out his new glock on a case. He was almost hoping that he'd never have to, but he'd already witnessed or heard about enough unsub take downs to know that was incredibly unlikely.
"JJ, Reid, I want you both to stay here and keep working on locating the unsub," Hotch said as Derek and Gideon moved toward the door.
"What? Why?" JJ asked. She had already shut the laptop and was clipping on her own holster.
Spencer decided to be grateful it had been JJ who'd asked and not him.
"Because keeping the locals from shooting each other is going to get harder and harder until we find the unsub and right now your talents are best utilized here," Hotch said, meeting both of their gazes. His expression was grim and serious.
"And because the people here have shown slightly more respect to you three than they have to JJ and myself," Spencer added. Most of the people they'd come across in town had ignored him entirely in favor of speaking with Morgan and Spencer had seen that the sheriff and his deputies barely acknowledged JJ's existence at all.
"Crowd control will go smoother if we're presented as an overpowering force. We should be back soon," Gideon said, though his eyes held a hint of apology.
JJ nodded, though she didn't look any happier about the situation.
"Stay together. I wouldn't even trust the sheriff's people here as far as I could throw them," Derek said darkly before joining Hotch and Gideon as they hurried out the door.
Spencer and JJ stood in the now much emptier conference room, both waiting until the rest of the team was out of the building before they looked at each other.
JJ sat down on the edge of the table. "Great. We might as well have stayed at Quantico."
"Who knows how many more people would have been killed as they search for the shifter if they hadn't called us," Spencer pointed out before he walked back to the map and picked up his thought where he'd been left off.
"Who knows how many still will be," JJ said. "I would suggest that Strauss sent us out here as a form of vengeance, but I know for a fact she didn't have anything to do with assigning our team this case."
"Come look at this," Spencer said, trying to push aside his concern for what the rest of the team was walking into by focusing on his task. "Look how the dates of attack correspond to the locations."
JJ got up and came to stand next to Spencer. "You're going to have to be more specific. Unlike some I can't hold more than dozen dates and locations in my mind at once."
Spencer smiled a little, understanding from JJ that it wasn't a dig at his abilities but just a request for more information. "Here is the first attack, the one closest to the southwest and right on the edge of town. And then the second, a little further in, and then the third, more to the east but still south and moving in the same pattern." He picked up a pen and sketched two diverging lines on the map.
"It's not so much of a comfort zone as it is the unsub coming from a single direction and branching out in the only space available where there are targets," JJ said. She pressed her finger to where the lines met outside of town to the west and the south. "So what's out here?"
"From what I can tell, not much. Probably an abandoned farm or two, but nothing that the town records say is currently inhabited," Spencer said, looking at the map. "It leads into some rocky hills though, which is most likely why the town expanded west and away from the source of water."
"What do you want to bet that the shifter massacre took place out there fifteen years ago?" JJ asked, a gleam in her eye as she reached for the laptop again.
Spencer and JJ both looked up and at the door to where the youngest sheriff's deputy was standing. He appeared around Spencer's age and incredibly nervous. Out of all of the people in the town, so far he'd been the only one Spencer had noticed that didn't recoil at the sight of them.
"Can we help you?" JJ asked. She exchanged a slightly mystified glance with Spencer.
"There's been reports of an animal by the old mill. A man just called in; Mr. Faber, an older man who lives near that area. He says he was out on his back lot and he says he saw a cat that was too big to be around here. Shouldn't be that close to town if it was a natural animal." The young deputy swallowed and looked away. "I woulda gone to the sheriff, but everyone else is out trying to stop people from going at each other."
"And you were left behind to tend the store," JJ said, not without sympathy. "Can you show us where the mill and Mr. Faber's property is on the map?"
The deputy looked at both JJ and Spencer and then at the map that was in between them.
"What's your name?" Spencer asked quietly.
"Jeremy. Jeremy Reynolds," he said and then took a step into the room. "I know you're not like they say you are. Shifters, that is. I went to college in the city, and I knew a pack. They were good guys, good people. The only reason I came back here is cause my momma got sick and I'm taking care of her."
JJ nodded. "That's good of you, Jeremy. Do you think Mr. Faber saw the shifter that's doing this?"
Jeremy nodded. "Mr. Faber's a good man. He wouldn't be stirring up trouble for no reason." He stepped all the way into the room and walked over to the map. "That's his house and his land. And the mill is here."
Spencer looked at the map and then to JJ. The points Jeremy had just marked were right in the mouth of lines Spencer had drawn.
"We're going to go check to make sure Mr. Faber's okay, and then we're going to look around a bit. Will you tell our boss where we've gone if they come back before we do?" JJ asked, picking up her jacket from where she'd dropped it on the table.
"I will," Jeremy said. "Mr. Faber doesn't deserve to die like that if you can stop it. No on does."
"You're right. Thank you for showing us," Spencer said, checking his holster once more. "We'll be back soon."
They left the building quickly, their steps crunching on the loose gravel beneath their feet. The early March weather had left the ground still frozen but most of the snow had melted away. JJ pulled out the keys to the second SUV they'd rented and paused for a moment as they both looked west to where they could feel a slight pull from the rest of the team.
"We'll be done and back before they even get everyone to put down their guns," JJ said and unlocked the doors.
"Right," Spencer agreed, his memory of Hotch telling them to stay at the station sitting uncomfortably in his mind. At least they were doing what he'd told them to do; finding the unsub. That should mitigate some of the resulting upset if Hotch did return before they did. And they were both carrying their cellphones if the team did need them for anything. Spencer climbed into the passenger seat and buckled his seat belt. "Let's go."
Spencer sighed and shook his head. They hadn't discovered that somewhere on the drive out of town they'd lost cellphone reception until Spencer had gone to call Garcia to ask her about the farm buildings they could see in the distance. "I guess the only thing we can do is go and check it out."
"Do you think the unsub is actually out there?" JJ asked, holding up her hand to shield her eyes in the setting sun.
"Faber's reports of what he saw matched the description of a jaguar shifter and we're in the right area. It's possible you were right and the shifter survived the attack that happened near here." Spencer turned around in a circle and surveyed the land surrounding them. "The drive is thirty seven minutes back to the sheriff's department, and then all the way back again if Hotch decides that it's worth checking out. Or, it's a five minute drive over to the farm. We could look around and if there's nothing there, that's what we tell Hotch."
"And if there is something there?" JJ's voice rose slightly in pitch as she walked back to the car.
"And if there is something there that suggests that a shifter might have been in the area recently, we drive as far back as we have to in order to call Hotch and get the rest of the team out here as soon as they can." Spencer climbed back into the passenger seat. "It's your call. If you don't think it's worth checking out, then we won't."
JJ started the engine and turned out onto the road in the direction of the two farms. "We take a quick look. If this is a rogue shifter out there, we don't want to encounter it by ourselves. If we do happen to come across the rogue shifter, shoot first and don't ask questions."
"JJ," Spencer said, his hand touching the handle of his glock.
"No, Spence. If we're doing this, there is no room for mistakes," JJ said quietly. "I don't like shooting anyone, whether or not they're a shifter, any better than you do. Especially with the history in this place. But you can't go in there and expect to talk down a rogue shifter; it's like talking down a man who has already set the timer on a bomb - it doesn't happen."
Spencer was still for a moment as he processed what JJ was saying. He couldn't imagine shooting someone without at least trying to stop them, even though he could see JJ's point of view. "Okay," he said.
"Okay what?" JJ asked as she pulled the car to a stop in front of the first farm.
"Okay, I get it. If a wild shifter comes racing towards us, we shoot." Spencer patted his holster and tried to smile.
JJ shook her head. "A quick look and then we get out of here."
They spent five minutes walking through the farm, JJ's shifter enhanced vision catching things that Spencer's didn't even with his flashlight.
"There's nothing here," she said as they peered inside the barn with a swinging door that had come loose.
"One down, one to go," Spencer said, looking around one more time. "Maybe I was wrong? Maybe there's nothing out here?"
JJ shrugged and turned to walk back to the car. "Two less places we have to search when we come out here tomorrow. And here I was really hoping this case would be a quick one and we could be back on the jet by tomorrow."
"Does it ever work that way?" Spencer asked, actually curious.
"No," JJ admitted. "But that doesn't mean I'm going to stop hoping."
Spencer stopped walking suddenly, his gun unholstered and his wrists braced so he could see with his flashlight just as Hotch had taught him before he even realized what he was doing.
JJ had her gun out own a second later and they both stood still as the dusk slowly drew light away from the farm. "Spence?"
"Yeah," Spencer said, his voice hardly louder than a whisper.
"Get back to the car. Now." Her voice was tense but she kept her words quiet and even.
"What? No?" Spencer hissed, turning to face JJ. He was honestly a little bit offended that she would even try to protect him by sending him back to the car.
"Spence! Run!" JJ shouted, moving to step in between him and the barn.
Spencer turned in the same direction, the light of his flashlight landing briefly on the form of a large spotted jaguar as it barreled towards them from around the side of the barn. There was a second where he could have fired, his finger ready on the trigger, but he lost the moment as fast as it had come.
JJ's shout transformed into a growl as she shifted and Spencer took a few steps back as he desperately tried to find a way to stop the attack without shooting JJ in the process. His light caught a flash of blood before he fell backwards over something - an old, broken wheelbarrow - and the flashlight fell from his hands.
"JJ!" Spencer shouted as he scrambled back to his feet, his gun still weighing useless in his right hand. He caught the barest glimpse of the fight, the wolf and the jaguar moving inexorably towards him, and then they were upon him.
He shifted without thinking and without desire, his form pulling down over him even as he tried to fight off the sensation. The last thing he heard was the high pitched yip of a wolf being pinned to the ground and savagely bitten.
"Maybe Spencer and JJ will have something," Derek said as they walked up the front steps of the building. "Maybe this won't have been an entirely wasted day."
Aaron just shook his head and waved one of his hands through the air. Even if they had a good idea of who the unsub was, Aaron wasn't sending his team out into the wilderness that night to go hunting him. He was almost certain that the unsub was not currently living in the town, but was still attached to it somehow. His next step was to call Garcia to tell her to put a search in the database for people who had moved out of the town in the last twenty years and then tell her to go home and get some sleep before she stayed at Quantico working the entire night. Garcia routinely told everyone in the pack that they were incorrigible workaholics but the truth was that Garcia was just as bad as the rest of them at setting a case aside and getting some rest.
Derek came to a stop just inside the door of the conference room and Aaron was about to reach out and move him along when he realized what was wrong.
"They're not here," Jason said a moment later, his head turning back and forth as he searched the building for the presence of JJ and Spencer.
Aaron immediately checked as well, first casting out for JJ and Spencer's presence specifically and then for the presence of any shifter in the area. There was nothing.
"The second SUV wasn't parked in front of the building," Jason said as he pushed past Aaron and into the conference room. "They must have left."
"Maybe just to pick up dinner?" Derek asked, though his deep frown as he held his cellphone to his ear suggested he didn't really believe that. "JJ's not answering."
Aaron didn't bother to tell him to try Spencer next because Derek was already holding his phone to his ear again. "They aren't anywhere in the town. I can reach just beyond that and there are no shifters here."
"Call us, now," Derek said into his cellphone before hanging up and shoving it into his pocket. "Spencer was trying to tell me something, right before we left."
Aaron joined Derek at the map and noticed the two lines that were new. "They wouldn't have gone off without us. They would have waited until we returned before they went to check it out."
"Not if someone was in danger," Jason said. He had the laptop open but walked away from it. "Get Garcia on that thing. Have her search for their cellphones or something."
Aaron nodded and turned slowly in the room as Derek immediately went to the computer. He had been able to follow Spencer before, but he'd actually felt Spencer leave that time. The small riot had so fully overwhelmed his senses that he hadn't even realized that JJ and Spencer weren't in the building before he'd seen the empty conference room. Aaron oriented himself east, where the two lines intersected on the map, and reached out again. He couldn't tell if he was actually feeling the small pull of another shifter in that direction or if he was just hoping he could.
"Garcia, I need you to find JJ and Spencer's phones for me, can you do that?" Derek said as he bent over the laptop.
"What happened?" Garcia asked.
"We're trying to figure that out right now," Aaron said, moving so that he was standing at Derek's side. "Can you find their phones?"
Garcia turned away from the webcam and started typing rapidly on one of her keyboards. "You don't know where they are?"
"They should be near the town somewhere. Don't worry just yet, baby girl," Derek said. His hand found Aaron's and Aaron held on.
"I always worry. I worry about all of you all the time," she snapped, the sound of her fingers against the keys growing louder for a moment. "I'm not getting anything, but there are a lot of dead patches in the area where they wouldn't be close enough to a tower to ping back their location. Or their cellphones could be turned off or disabled."
"Keep checking on their phones. We'll call you back as soon as we've got any information," Derek said.
Garcia nodded, her mouth twisting in worry. "Don't do this to me again, you guys. Please."
"We'll call you soon," Aaron said, his heart aching as he stood back away from the computer when the video screen went blank.
Jason entered the room a moment later. "They went to check out a sighting of the shifter shortly after we left. One of the deputies told me where they went."
"Let's go," Aaron directed. His logical mind was telling him that they were just out of cellphone range and probably driving back into town, but the anti-shifter sentiment in the town had already put him on edge. Even if Spencer and JJ hadn't found the shifter the local population could be just as dangerous to two lone shifters. They climbed back into the SUV, and for once Aaron was the one peeling out of the parking lot and speeding down the main road.
He opened his eyes again and twisted around so he was on his back and looking up at a rough stone ceiling. There wasn't much light, a small lantern on the floor about ten feet away, but Spencer could see that he was in some type of cave or tunnel. The floor was smooth where there wasn't pieces of fallen rubble, and he guessed that he was in an abandoned mining or railway tunnel. He wanted to call for JJ, to see if she was nearby, but he didn't dare until he had a better grasp of the situation. There was a blanket wrapped around his naked body, with ropes spaced every foot or so that kept him bound up like a hotdog. He wiggled his arms away from his sides and started working them towards the top of the blankets. If he could get his hands free he might be able to untie himself. Apart from his ankle, which he'd probably twisted when he'd fallen on the farm, there was a stinging on the back of his neck and left shoulder that he couldn't place.
"You're awake," a voice said.
Spencer stopped trying to free his arms and titled his head back in the direction the voice had come from. He didn't have his glasses, they'd come off with his clothes when he'd shifted, but he could make out the outline of a man in the lamp light. "I am," Spencer agreed. He wasn't sure what to do exactly, he'd seen other members of the team trying to talk unsubs down before but never from this much of a disadvantage. The most important thing, Spencer figured, was to keep things calm. If the man shifted he would be able to kill Spencer in a matter of seconds.
The man crouched down next to Spencer and touched Spencer's hair. His hand was gentle and he looked concerned. "I didn't know you were a cub, I've never seen one before. It's okay, we're safe here."
"Thank you," Spencer said. He licked his lips and quickly reevaluated the situation. As far as they knew the unsub had never taken anyone before, it had all been blitz attacks with the unsub bounding away before anyone had a chance to respond to a cry for help. "Could you untie me?"
"No, not yet," the man looked down the tunnel in one direction. "We might have been followed. I"ll have to hide you if they come here."
"But, I can help you." Spencer felt a pang of sympathy for the man. "If you let me go, I can get my friends and we'll help you."
The man stood and turned away. "Your friends? Those who can't shift are not your friends; they'll turn on you, strike you down. You can't trust them."
"No, no," Spencer said quickly. "My pack is with me. You attacked JJ, and she's a shifter."
"A wolf," the man spat. "Hardly any better than the anyone here. I was protecting them. And then I saved you."
Spencer sighed and mentally cast out, hoping that he'd be able to feel JJ's presence nearby, or maybe the rest of the team if they'd been gone long enough for them to come looking. All he could find was the heavily thrumming presence of the shifter standing with him in the cave. "My name is Spencer. What's your name?" he asked.
"Thomas. Tommy, when I was little," he said. He turned back and came closer to Spencer again. "I thought you'd be younger. You're just a cub; I carried you here in my mouth."
"You said you were protecting them?" Spencer asked, his mind racing as he tried to keep the conversation going. "Who were you protecting when you attacked us?"
Thomas brought one hand up to his mouth and pressed down hard. "My father, and my uncle and cousin. We lived on that farm, when I was little. Didn't bother anyone, didn't even go into town."
Spencer nodded. "You were the cub that escaped. Have you been here the entire time?"
"No, only a few weeks." Thomas started pacing back and forth in the small space. "My father, he would make me shift. He did it that night when he heard them coming. Told me to run as far as I could go, and that he'd come and get me when it was safe. He never came, and after a while I shifted back. I was nine, and I stumbled into Williamston half dead a few nights later. I was placed with a foster family there."
"What made you come back here?" Spencer asked, slowly working his arms up through the bindings of the ropes again while Thomas was distracted. He had a pretty good guess, but Thomas seemed to want to talk. The more Spencer knew the better chance he would have at manipulating the situation.
Thomas shook his head and stopped near the lantern. His head was bowed and his body shuddered visibly. "They found out. I had to get away and this was our den. This was our safe haven and they haven't found it yet. We're safe here. They won't come looking."
Spencer weighed his options. "They will come looking, Thomas. My pack will come looking for me, and even if I wasn't here, they'd still be looking for you. If you let me go, I can talk to them. I'll tell them that you're not a threat and we can work something out."
"They aren't your pack! You're my cub, I found you. You were all alone, and little, and afraid, and I saved you." Thomas's face was illuminated in sharp relief by the lantern and his fierce expression chilled Spencer.
"They'll still come. They aren't going to just let you stay here when you've been killing people in the town," Spencer said, still aiming for getting Thomas to see some type of reason. He couldn't see a standoff between Thomas and the rest of team ending without casualties.
Thomas stood up straight and banged one of his fists against he side of the tunnel. "I haven't hurt anyone. I would never do that. It's a lie!"
Spencer froze, immediately realizing his misstep. "Thomas-"
"No! No, it's evil, vicious lies, just like last time. They said we were killing animals, that we'd start killing people next. We're shifters, not murderers." Thomas walked over to Spencer, his steps sharp with anger. "You shouldn't repeat those lies. They're wrong."
"I'm sorry," Spencer said quickly. "I didn't-"
"No, no one is sorry," Thomas snapped, his voice echoing through the tunnel. "You are my cub now, and I will teach you that you don't tell lies."
Spencer took a shallow, panicked breath and tried to roll away from Thomas. The side of the tunnel he was facing was darker than the section illuminated by the lantern and Spencer fought the urge to close his eyes. He could remember his mom in the middle of having a particularly intense episode of paranoia insisting that 'they were telling lies, always telling lies' and he couldn't even get her to tell him who they were. That had been shortly after Spencer had finished his first graduate degrees and when he realized that if he wanted to go to Cal Tech to do his doctoral work he couldn't leave her alone.
The first blow landed against Spencer's upper arm and he let out a small shout, mostly in surprise of just how much it hurt. Thomas rolled Spencer so he was on his back again and straddled him to prevent him from turning away.
"You don't tell lies. Lies get people hurt. Lies get people killed." Thomas struck Spencer at each sentence.
Spencer turned his face away and tried to contain the cries that were making their way from his mouth. "Stop, please. I'm not lying," he managed to gasp in between blows.
Thomas didn't respond, silent now as his hands closed into fists.
It felt like a long time before Thomas stopped, and when he did Spencer kept his body tense for a few more minutes as he waited for another fist to fall. Thomas stood and pulled off his shirt and then his pants before he shifted and then took off down the tunnel.
Spencer gasped and sagged against the floor. Eventually he managed to pull himself together enough to reach out for the rest of the team again, chanting in his mind over and over 'please come, please find us,' and to JJ, 'please don't be dead'. His silent mantra stayed with him as he dropped into an uneasy yet exhausted sleep.
"JJ," Aaron said, finally able to identify the shifter he'd been able to sense shortly after they'd driven out of the town proper.
"Only JJ?" Derek asked, the light of his cellphone screen bright from the passenger seat as they sped along the dark road.
Aaron wasn't prepared to reach out further when he was driving a vehicle, but he knew there was only one shifter in the immediate vicinity and it was JJ.
"Yes," Jason said from the backseat. "She's hurt. I can smell the blood from here."
Aaron flipped closed the air vents without comment and resisted the temptation to press his foot down on the gas pedal harder. They would be coming to a turn off soon and it would take longer to backtrack than going faster would make up for.
"Still no service. When we've found JJ, I'll drive back far enough to call for emergency services," Derek said, closing his phone and putting in his pocket.
Aaron's immediate thoughts covered everything from the utter lack of emergency services in the town to the fact that it might well be too late by the time they drove anywhere. It still didn't answer the question of what had happened to Spencer. "We'll make decisions after we've assessed the situation," he said, his voice seeming unfathomably loud in the confined space of the car.
"Up ahead, turn left," Jason said from the back seat, his senses directing them more than any signs that might have been on the road.
Aaron slowed and even then nearly missed the turn off to a small farm, the broken sign hanging from one chain and the opening to the dirt road hidden behind overgrown bushes.
They pulled up next to the second SUV and were running across the farm towards JJ almost before Aaron had turned off the engine.
Their eyes were thankfully sharper than most and while flashlights would have helped they weren't necessary. There was very little cloud cover and the waning moon provided them enough light to make their way.
"JJ!" Aaron called, his senses casting out around them for anyone who might be lurking in the nearby buildings.
Jason was the first to spot the form of a human crumpled on the ground across the open door to the barn and they all raced to her.
There was blood everywhere and Aaron could just make out the ripped skin on JJ's arm and chest before Jason placed his jacket over her.
"She's alive and her pulse is strong and steady," Jason said, leaning down over JJ's body. "She'll be alright for now."
"Aaron," Derek said.
Both Aaron and Jason turned to look and Aaron nearly felt a sharp pain in his chest when he saw that Derek was holding up Spencer's jacket and glasses.
"The rest of his clothes are here too. He shifted," Derek said. "I can smell that he was here, but there's so much blood that I can't tell what direction he went."
Aaron brushed JJ's hair away from her face and wiped some of the drying blood away from her mouth. "This was a shifter attack. JJ has bite marks."
"And the shifter took Spencer?" Derek asked, having gathered up all of Spencer's belongings and gone to collect what he could salvage of JJ's. "Why would he do that? This guy kills, he doesn't take people."
"Because Spencer is a cub," Jason said, getting to his feet and scenting the air around them. "The unsub and Spencer both went in the direction of the hills."
"Can you track them?" Aaron asked. He reached out and was able to find the unsub's scent, but the smell of his pack member's blood was too strong for him to move beyond in order to find the direction.
"In my form," Jason said, completely confident.
Aaron knelt next to JJ's unconscious body and searched for what he would do if this wasn't his pack that he was trying to save. He had to get JJ to a hospital, he had to find Spencer, he had to keep Derek and Jason safe. He had to do all of these things and yet he felt absolutely powerless to do so.
"Jason and I will shift and find Spencer. It's obvious that JJ and Spencer were taken by surprised when the unsub attacked them, that won't happen to us. We know what we're dealing with," Derek said. "You can call Garcia and get JJ to somewhere where they will help her. Not here, not in Plymouth."
Aaron touched JJ's hair again. Derek's suggestion made the most sense, but Aaron couldn't send members of his pack out there alone to fight another shifter. It wasn't done.
"Let me do this, Aaron," Jason said. "I promise I will bring them both back to you."
"Leave me a scent trail. I'll get JJ somewhere safe and I will come follow you," Aaron said, his heart hammering in his chest as he carefully picked up JJ and stood up.
He placed her in the back seat of the SUV he'd driven earlier and with Jason's help secured her. Derek dropped all of the items he'd collected in the trunk of the second SUV and pulled off his jacket and then his shirt.
While Jason removed his own clothes, Aaron beckoned Derek over and placed his hands on Derek's bare shoulders. "Please, be careful. This shifter has killed over a dozen people. Don't do anything stupid and heroic."
"Do I ever?" Derek asked, leaning in and resting his forehead against Aaron's. It was probably meant to be a joke but neither of them had enough energy left to smile. "By the time you get back, we'll be here waiting for you."
Aaron nodded, wishing he could believe what Derek was saying. "Find him."
"We will," Derek said. He backed away and pulled off his shoes and pants before shifting.
Two wolves bounded off into the darkness and Aaron watched until they had completely disappeared from his sight. He got back into the driver's seat and made his way back to the road. "I've got you," he said to JJ, his phone open in one had as he watched for the icon that meant he had a cellphone signal to light up again. "Hold on, we're almost there."
Thomas was sitting over by the lantern, his back towards Spencer. He was nude and from the number and variety of dusty prints across the tunnel floor Thomas had been shifting frequently. Thomas was clearly agitated, his hands clenched tightly in his longer hair and his body rocking back and forth. A moment later Thomas shifted, a large jaguar rising up from the ground and pacing around the edge of the tunnel.
Spencer stayed as still as he could be when Thomas walked over to the blankets. Thomas gave a low growl, his nose sniffing along the edge of the blankets and following it up to Spencer's face. There was nothing Spencer could do but close his eyes when Thomas stood directly over him. The form of the jaguar had blood matted in the fur around his mouth and drops of salvia fell down onto Spencer's face when Thomas snarled. He listened to the sound of Thomas walking away, four footfalls turning into two by the time Thomas reached the other side of the tunnel again.
Slowly and painfully Spencer let out the breath he'd been holding and tried to muffle his whimper as well as he could. Thoughts and questions raced through his mind; Thomas could kill him at any moment, what if that was JJ's blood in his fur, and how far away was the rest of the team from the tunnels. He could barely suggest a list of answers for any single question before his mind pressed onto the next. Spencer made his hands into fists, the sharp pain in his arms from the movement clearing his mind for a single bright moment.
A new question formed in his mind when the pain had receded: what if Hotch, Gideon, and Derek came looking for him and Thomas attacked them? Escape by himself was pretty much an impossibility at this point as far as Spencer could figure. Even if Thomas left the tunnel and Spencer could untie himself, which Spencer was having some concerns about, he wouldn't get very far on a twisted ankle and Thomas would probably be able to follow his scent trail anyway. Under most circumstances Spencer would bet on the team every time. He'd seen them them take down the most dangerous and unstable of unsubs, stood by their sides as they rescued hostages and took guns from the hands of those who had committed murder and worse. But he knew that the team wasn't infallible and Thomas had already seriously hurt JJ - Spencer couldn't think of JJ as dead, not until he knew for certain.
If the team found him, which he was sure they would eventually, they would already be down at least two members and be emotionally invested in the outcome. They wouldn't be thinking clearly and wouldn't realize how dangerous and committed Thomas was. One thing that Spencer had learned about shifters was that they were intensely committed to the cubs in their pack. He brushed aside the thought that it obviously wasn't true in all situations because his own father hadn't seemed to care one way or another if Spencer had survived. But if Thomas considered him his cub, then he would fight the team to the death in order to defend his den and his cub.
Once, when Spencer had asked Gideon about the outcome of a particular case the BAU had done ten years ago - a young mother who killed four police officers in a standoff before she killed her two toddlers and then herself - Gideon had explained that while there were a lot of factors that hadn't been accounted for, the most important had been the woman's willingness to go to any length to defend her home and her children from what she viewed as a threat. Spencer rolled his head over to see where Thomas was sitting on the floor with his head in his hands as he huddled near the lantern. There was a good possibility that at least one of the pack would die if they came racing into the tunnel searching for him, and an even greater likelihood that Thomas would die killing him instead of letting him be taken by his pack.
Spencer weighed these realizations in his mind and recalled the exact moment when he'd had a line of sight on Thomas with his gun right before they'd been attacked. He hadn't taken the shot then, hadn't been ready to kill or hurt someone, and there had been a high price to be paid for that indecision. He didn't want Thomas to die - or anyone else - but he understood Thomas better than he thought he'd ever understand any of the unsubs they caught. Spencer remembered what it was like to be alone and lost. He remembered all too well not understanding what was happening to him and having no one he could even ask questions to, let alone ask for help. But he also knew he couldn't let Thomas kill anyone else; not the people in the town and not his teammates. Trying to talk Thomas down would only lead to him being beaten again, or even killed if Thomas lost control and shifted.
He only had one chance at this and when his mind ran through the probabilities there was a reasonable chance that he would be dead by the end of the day based on any action or inaction he took. But if he acted now there would be a far better chance that the rest of the team would survive; if he died before the team arrived he would take away the unsub's reason for a staunch and deadly defense. Spencer checked to make sure that Thomas hadn't moved and was gratified to see that Thomas almost seemed to be slumping forward.
Closing his eyes, Spencer remembered Derek and JJ talking him through the steps of meditation, Garcia popping in and out of her form as she encouraged him, Gideon's steady voice as he described what it felt like to shift, and Hotch carefully guiding him towards the hook that would let him shift. He took his last thought to cement his goal in his mind, hoping that it would carry over into his form, and carefully reached for the hook. A rush of surprise and relief carried him through the shift and a moment later he was pushing his head and paws out from the blankets that now covered him.
Aaron was torn for a brief moment as he debated between calling emergency services and calling Garcia. Most emergency rooms had facilities to treat shifters and medical staff that were trained to do so, but when the nearest major hospital was more than a hundred miles away he didn't dare to bring her to a local hospital, one that could and would decline to treat JJ. He didn't have time to waste driving from hospital to hospital and he wasn't willing to hand her over to paramedics either. The decision made, Aaron pressed three on his speed dial and lifted his phone to his ear.
It only rang once before Garcia answered. "I lost your signals nearly an hour ago, JJ and Spencer's phones haven't reappeared on the network, did you find them?"
"Garcia, I need you to listen to what I'm about to tell you and do what I ask," Aaron said. He kept his tone commanding and no-nonsense, even though he desperately wanted to soothe and reassure his distressed pack member.
"Okay, whatever I can do," Garcia said, her voice trembling.
Aaron kept himself steady though his left hand tightened on the steering wheel. "Jason and Derek are out looking for Spencer. I have JJ with me and we're heading west. I need you to find me the nearest place that will give emergency medical treatment to shifters."
"Hotch?" Garcia asked, his name muffled slightly through the sound of her tears. "Can I talk with her?"
"She's unconscious and I'm driving right now, but we will call you as soon as she's able to talk. I need to know where I'm taking her, Garcia. Where am I going?" Aaron asked, silently reassuring himself that Garcia could still do her job even under the worst of circumstances.
The was quiet on the line for a moment, the only sound Garcia's broken gasps as she tried to stop crying. "There's a wolf pack listed in Pendleton on one of the shifter awareness message boards, it says they have a doctor on staff and they're willing to shelter shifters in emergency situations."
"Good, how far away?" Aaron asked quickly.
"Nearly forty minutes from your current location. Go south and then east when you get back to Plymouth. I'm sending the listed address to your phone," Garcia said. "Can she make it that long? Maybe there's somewhere closer; I can call the hospitals in Hermiston and Stanfield and see if they will treat her."
"Do that," Aaron said, though he doubted there was anything more than basic care medical facilities in the immediate area. "I'll call you when we're settled at Pendleton. Don't expect to here from Jason and Derek anytime soon, they've shifted and are following Spencer's scent trail into the hills."
"Okay," Garcia said, sounding choked up again. "Call me if there's anything else I can do, or when JJ wakes up, please?"
"I will," Aaron said. "You're doing good, Garcia."
Garcia hung up and Aaron's phone beeped a few seconds later as he received her message with the address to the local pack lands.
JJ didn't wake the entire drive through Plymouth, across the state border into Oregon, and back east to Pendleton. Aaron spoke to her every five minutes or so, hoping that she would answer or at least make a noise to let him know she was alright. He'd pulled over four times during the trip to make sure she was still breathing and one of those times he climbed out to add another layer to the quick wrapping Jason had done on the worst of the wounds on her arm.
The wolf pack in Pendleton appeared to own a fair amount of land on the edge of town and the address led him to a group of administrative buildings that nearly blocked a small outcropping of houses from view of the road. It was almost ten at night and the only building other than the houses that had lights on was the one that had "Shifter Advocacy Group" in narrow letters across the front door. The sides of two of the buildings had evidence of recent vandalism and Aaron guessed that shifters weren't much more welcome in Pendleton than they were in Plymouth.
Aaron parked in front of the door and shut and locked the doors to the SUV. He wasn't going to place JJ in more danger until he had the local pack leader's word that they were safe. He only had to wait about thirty seconds before three members of the local pack came out down the road that led further back into the pack lands. The one in the center, a tall woman with long brown hair that spilled over her shoulder, was a pace in front of the others and Aaron immediately identified her as their pack leader. They stopped a dozen feet away, all of them watching him with carefully neutral expressions.
"My name is Aaron Hotchner. I seek asylum for my pack, medical assistance for my pack members, and if you're willing to grant it, help retrieving my cub from the rogue shifter who has been murdering the townspeople of Plymouth," Aaron said, projecting his voice so that he could be clearly heard. "I have no ill will toward you and yours and I will remove my pack to my own lands across the country as soon as I have recovered my cub."
"I am called Jamison, I speak for my pack. We willingly offer our assistance to you and grant asylum to you and yours," the woman said and moved closer. "How many shifters can we be expected to shelter and how many will need medical attention?"
"Right now, just myself and JJ - the shifter in the vehicle. She's bleeding heavily and has yet to regain consciousness after she was attacked by the rogue shifter. There are two more members of my pack who are currently just outside Plymouth attempting to local our cub," Aaron said. He assessed the shifters who were standing nearby but had paused far enough away that they were making an obvious effort to appear nonthreatening. This would have to be good enough.
Aaron unlocked the door to the car and undid the seat belts that he'd secured around JJ. Another shifter arrived as Aaron was gently pulling JJ from the car.
"I'm a doctor, please bring her this way," the shifter spoke, already pushing up his sleeves as he beckoned Aaron towards the door.
"Go with Michael. I will gather a group to assist with locating your cub and we will come to you to get more information as well as your scent so your pack knows you sent them," Jamison said, one of the shifters next to her breaking into a run as he went down the road - undoubtably operating on unspoken instructions.
"Thank you," Aaron said as he met Jamison's eyes. He followed Michael into the building, carrying JJ and hoping he had done the right thing.
"They went into the tunnel. Spencer's body only touched the ground in a few places so I believe the unsub was carrying Spencer while they were both in their forms," Gideon said, his head tipping back as he examined the rockslide.
Derek sighed and looked around the area again. This was not the way he would have chosen to approach the unsub, but they so rarely had a say in how the final confrontation went down that it shouldn't really matter. It mattered though, because Spencer was somewhere in the tunnel, or on the other side where it came out, and the idea of slipping through the dark in an enclosed unfamiliar space while the unsub lurked in wait did not bode well for them.
The only good thing he could find about the entire situation was that he knew Spencer was alive somewhere in there. He'd nearly staggered running by a small stream when he caught the first awareness that Spencer was alive and nearby. Derek didn't have near the ability to sense the rest of his pack mates the way that Aaron did and his range was much more limited, but knowing that they hadn't been too late had briefly bolstered him for the rest of the journey. There was no sense of another shifter in the area at all that Derek could find and he hoped that the shifter had realized what he'd done and had fled. It would mean staying longer and attempting to track him, but that would be better than a potentially deadly confrontation in the dark.
"If we use the wall for support we should be able to slip inside without changing the layout of the rocks. We don't know where this tunnel comes out, though considering it's an abandoned railway tunnel it's possible that the other end isn't blocked off," Gideon said as he moved closer to the rocks. "I'd rather not test that theory if we can avoid it."
"Agreed," Derek said. He watched where Gideon placed his hands and feet and followed him across the threshold of the tunnel. Five tense minutes later they were on the other side. It was dark, too dark to see anything more than the general outline of shapes and even that was lost further down the tunnel.
"Follow the left wall and I'll follow the right so we'll know if the tunnel diverges. I can't make out Spencer's scent very well in here," Gideon said, the soft whisper of his feet against the ground filled the air as he moved to the side and started walking. "Stay alert. The unsub caught JJ and Spencer off-guard, he could well do the same to us. He has the advantage; he's holding all the cards."
Derek moved to the other wall and touched the roughly hewn surface. He couldn't blame Gideon for having trouble finding Spencer's scent; Derek couldn't make it out at all. All he could smell was the stench of mold, rot, old death and blood. They walked quietly, Derek paying careful attention to where Gideon was a few feet away and his tenuous hold on Spencer's general direction. As far as he could tell, Spencer hadn't moved at all since he'd first sensed him. If Spencer was as badly hurt as JJ had been, Derek didn't know how they were going to get him out of there. He reminded himself that they could only take it one thing at a time, and that Aaron would be doing everything he could to get back to them, and took a steadying breath.
"Up ahead," Jason said, his voice barely audible.
"Got it," Derek replied, keeping his voice pitched soft and low. There was a dim light coming from around the bend and Derek's sense of Spencer told him that he should be around there as well. A small part of him was grateful that the unsub had provided light - Derek had a sneaking suspicion that Spencer was afraid of the dark, given that Spencer always had a light on at night in the room he stayed in.
They approached the bend of the tunnel, Gideon joining Derek now that they could see there was currently no way for the tunnel to diverge, and they stayed as well out of sight as possible. The smell of blood had steadily been growing stronger and Derek was certain they were about to discover the source.
His eyes first fell on the lantern that was providing the light, a wind-up electric lantern that looked like it was close to dying completely, and then on the body of a prone man with blood covering his shoulders and where the back of his neck had been torn open. It took a second to convince himself that the man was not Spencer and he felt like his heart was leaping against his chest as he quickly searched the surrounding area.
"There," Gideon said at the same moment Derek's eyes fell upon a leopard cub that was pressed into cranny in the tunnel wall.
The leopard's fur was coated in thick blood and its eyes were closed. Derek ran over and rested his hand on Spencer's back to feel him breathe. It was obvious enough that under the matted and slowly drying blood that Spencer was alive but injured and Derek carefully picked him up.
Gideon was at his side a moment later with a blanket. They wrapped Spencer in the blankets, Derek settling him in his arms while Gideon gathered the loose ropes and the lantern.
"You think that's the unsub?" Derek asked, nodding to the body.
"I do," Gideon said, his eyes tracing from the man's opened neck to the small amount of Spencer's blood stained fur that was visible from Derek's bundle.
"Damn," Derek said quietly. This was the best out come he could have hoped for; they were all alive and the unsub was not, but he couldn't help but feel that they'd failed anyway. If Spencer had found the need to kill the unsub, attack him even though the unsub would have every possible advantage, then the situation had to have been dire. "Let's get out of here. The locals can deal with the body."
Gideon led the way out of the tunnel, the lantern illuminating the way back to the fallen rocks. Derek climbed through first, taking the lantern and the ropes and setting them aside before he had Gideon pass Spencer out. Gideon followed immediately and they hurried the last few steps out under the night sky once more.
It would be a long trek back to the farm and would take far longer in their human forms. Derek wasn't about to try to attach Spencer to one of them or take Spencer in his teeth, there was too much risk, and he resigned himself to a long and freezing cold walk.
"We can take turns shifting, that should keep us from contending with frostbite," Gideon said as he looked up at the stars and then across the land. "We should be back to the farm shortly before sunrise."
Derek nodded. "You shift first. I'll let you know when I need to change."
They started off, Derek letting Gideon choose the path that would lead them most easily back down the hills and through the trees.
"JJ, it's okay," Aaron said, immediately at her side. He'd been sitting in a chair at the side of the room for hours now, waiting as the doctor cleaned and treated her injuries and then watching as she slept. There was a mug of coffee on the side table that a young member of the pack had brought up for him, cold now and still mostly full. Aaron had held it in his hands for an hour or so, letting the warmth soak into his fingers as he worried. Part of him, a quiet and dark part, had spent most of the night imagining flying back to Quantico with just JJ and himself. The thought was heavy in his mind and he couldn't push it away.
JJ's eyes opened all the way as she sat up and Aaron placed his hands on her back and her better shoulder so she wouldn't try to catch her weight on her bandaged arm. "Aaron," she said, her blue eyes wide and glossy as she blinked.
"Right here," Aaron said. He used one hand to prop up her pillows. "Lie back, you're alright."
JJ leaned forward, looking briefly down at the bandages that were covering her arms and the upper part of her chest that wasn't covered by the white gown. Most of her attention was focused on the room around her and she moved so she could see around Aaron. "Where's Spencer? Is he in another room?"
"JJ, relax before you pull out your stitches," Aaron said, keeping one of his hands on her shoulder and wondering if he needed to call for someone before she sent herself into a panic attack.
"No, Aaron. Where is he?" JJ looked into Aaron's eyes, her eyes filled with tears but none falling yet.
Aaron mentally reached for the rest of his pack even though he knew they were still too far away for him to even sense their general direction. "Derek and Jason are following his scent. They should call soon."
The tears started to fall but JJ's voice stayed clear and steady. "The unsub took Spence?"
Aaron checked the time on his cellphone, it was just after two in the morning. The rescue group that the Pendleton wolf pack had sent should have reached the farm over two hours ago and would be following their trail. Hopefully they would meet up with Derek and Jason in time to be able to help. "As far as we can tell," he said. He wanted to say more. He wanted to promise her that they'd find Spencer and all of them would come back safe, but his mind was filled with too many dark possibilities to give his word.
JJ leaned back and Aaron helped resettle her under the blankets. Her tears fell silently and she didn't try to wipe them away.
"Are you up to calling Garcia and letting her know that you're alright?" Aaron asked when the tears had stopped falling.
"Can you give me a few minutes first? Alone?" JJ asked.
Aaron stood. "Of course. I'll be right in the hall."
He left the room and made it about ten feet away before he sagged against the wall and pressed the palms of his hands to his forehead. He'd seen his team go through a lot together; they'd been shot at, wounded, and threatened by some of the most dangerous people in the country. But he'd never seen JJ break like that before and it shook him more than a little. Aaron was the pack leader, he stayed strong and kept it together so that the pack would continue on while the individual members recovered from whatever horrors they'd witnessed and experienced. JJ was always his other cool head, the person he counted on to be calm and collected even when a case was affecting her emotionally. Aaron didn't blame her in the slightest for her reaction, but it had still unsettled him.
There was a small kitchenette at the end of the hall and Aaron washed his face before he took a pair of plastic cups and filled them with cold water. He had abandoned his suit jacket in the hospital room, it was stained with JJ's blood, and the cool water when he wiped his face dry on his thin shirt sleeves chilled him.
"May I come in?" he asked from the doorway to JJ's room.
"Yes, sorry," JJ said. She was sitting up again and struggling to get to where she could both sit and lean back.
Aaron set the cups down on the table and rearranged JJ's pillows again before helping her to scoot back so she could sit up and still rest. "Are you ready?" he asked after he'd given her the cup of water and given her time to drink. She nodded and he pressed Garcia's speed dial and handed over his cellphone.
"Penelope," JJ said. Her voice did break this time, but she managed to hold most of her tears at bay. "I'm okay, I'm so sorry."
Aaron quickly excused himself and slipped out of the room again. There were some conversations between members of his pack that he didn't need to hear. He found a small chair, close enough to the room that he could hear the rise and fall of JJ's voice without hearing her words; close enough that he would hear her call to him if she needed him.
He sat, keeping his back straight and his head up as a reminder that his task wasn't done yet. He needed to stay alert, stay together, until he had his entire pack safe and whole once more. Some time later, long after JJ's conversation with Garcia had ended, Aaron looked up as two pairs of footsteps came from around the corner.
Jamison appeared first, with the doctor - Michael, who'd never given Aaron a last name - a step behind.
Aaron stood, not yet daring to ask any of the questions that came tumbling through his thoughts.
"One moment, here he is," Jamison said into the radio she was holding before she handed it to Aaron.
"Aaron, we've got him," Derek said, the hiss of static nearly covering his words.
It was like taking a punch to the chest as the relief temporarily overwhelmed him. "How is he? How are you and Jason?" he asked; they were now the only two questions on his mind.
"Jason and I are fine. We've got Spencer, he's alright for now," Derek said, the radio breaking up very slightly. "We're on our way back. We'll see you in a few hours."
"Yes," Aaron said, holding onto the radio tightly for another moment before he managed to compose himself and hand it back to Jamison. "Thank you."
"We're glad that we were able to locate the rest of your pack. From what I was told your pack members had already found your cub and were heading back," Jamison said. She smiled even though her eyes were tired. "I'll have them brought up to you as soon as they arrive."
Michael stepped forward. "I'm happy to look over your cub to ensure that he's well enough to travel. I just checked in on JJ, she's doing fine and she'll be well enough to fly in the morning."
"Thank you," Aaron said again. He felt a little lost without the weight of half of his pack missing. "I think I'm going to go sit with her. If there's nothing else?"
Jamison shook her head. "No, go get some rest. It's been a long night."
Aaron nodded and walked back into JJ's room. She was sleeping, Aaron's cellphone resting in her least bandaged hand. He probably wasn't supposed to wake her, but Aaron thought that she would rest better if he did. He sat down on the edge of the bed and used his fingertips to brush her long hair away from her face. "JJ, wake up for a moment," he said.
JJ's eyes opened. It took a few moments for her to focus on Aaron's face, her own face still fraught with misery.
"Derek just called over the radio. They've got Spencer and they're bringing him here," Aaron said.
"He's okay?" JJ asked.
"He will be," Aaron said. He wanted to see Spencer for himself before he said exactly how okay he was.
JJ shivered and her head bowed down towards her chest. "Okay," she said, pausing to catch her breath. "He'll be okay."
Aaron slipped his cellphone from JJ's hand and placed his own hand there instead. As soon as JJ was resting again he would call Garcia. Then all he'd have to do is wait for the rest of his pack to arrive. He spared only a brief thought for the unsub, knowing that he'd get the full story from Derek and Jason soon enough.
Derek and Aaron were sitting side by side on the aft facing seats while JJ was resting curled up on the opposite seat. Her arm was in a sling and the bandages showed brightly where the exposed skin on her arms and upper chest should have been. Gideon had shifted shortly after they'd taken off and was sleeping on the floor by their feet. Spencer was still in his form, though was wrapped in a fresh blanket, and Derek and Aaron were taking turns holding the bundle in their laps.
It had taken Derek the better part of an hour, back in Pendleton, to carefully clean most of the blood from Spencer's fur. He had be relieved to discover that most of it wasn't Spencer's, though the doctor had said there had definitely been some damage done while Spencer had been in his human form. Spencer had mostly slept ever since they'd recovered him from the tunnel and Derek half hoped he would remain that way until they reached the safety of their den. The aftermath of this case wasn't something Derek was looking forward to seeing but he was still so glad they were all alive to experience it that particular worry paled in comparison.
Derek had quietly listened when Gideon had explained to Aaron about the scene they'd found and Aaron had dutifully placed a phone call to the Plymouth sheriff to let them know where they could find their dead unsub and that the case was closed. From what Derek had overheard the sheriff hadn't exactly been pleased and probably even less so when Aaron hung up his phone and turned it off entirely.
"Want me to take him until we land?" Aaron asked, looking pointedly to where Derek was restlessly moving his legs.
"Sure," Derek agreed and eased the pile of blankets over onto Aaron's lap before stretching his legs out so they were resting over Gideon's sleeping form. Spencer didn't look a lot bigger than he had when they'd first seen his form in November but after carrying him for a couple of miles Derek was certain he was heavier. He wondered if Spencer would always be smaller than typical in his leopard form; Spencer hadn't grown as much as Derek would have expected, though he knew Aaron would tell him to be patient and stop rushing things.
JJ twitched restlessly in her sleep and gave a short whimper that was cut off as she woke all the way up. She looked across the seats, her eyes checking each member of the team before she sighed and put her head back down on the seat again. She'd already apologized to all of them, even to Spencer while Derek was bathing him, and seemed to be resisting the compulsion to do so again. After she'd woken in the morning and was a little more put together she'd told them about the call the deputy had told them about and how they'd gone to check it out just in case. They'd all assured her that they would have done the same thing under the circumstances, though from Aaron's dark look Derek could tell that Aaron was having suspicions about the deputy that had given them the information. After spending nearly two days in that town, Derek understood why and felt the same way.
"Are we almost home?" JJ asked, turning her head to the side as she yawned. A second later she pushed herself up so that she was sitting, though from the stiff way she was holding herself she was still in pain.
"We should be landing in about fifteen minutes," Aaron said, readjusting his hold on the blankets as Spencer moved in his sleep.
Derek leaned closer to Aaron and tugged the blanket back into place when Spencer had settled again. "Almost home, pretty boy," he said, hoping that Spencer could understand him somewhere through the veil of sleep.
JJ smiled, though it looked weak on her drawn face. "When he's grown I fully expect him to retaliate for that nickname. Garcia thinks that he actually likes it and we have not an insignificant amount of money riding on the outcome. I'm pretty sure you're actually weighing things in my favor."
Derek echoed JJ's smile and gently rubbed behind Spencer's ears. "We'll see."
The jet landed and came to a full stop nearly twenty minutes later and Derek gathered his, Spencer and JJ's bag. Aaron had his own and Gideon's and they climbed down the steps to the tarmac as well as they could. Derek went first, with JJ following closely behind. Gideon nimbly leapt down the steps after they were out of the way; four paws a disadvantage on the steep and narrow staircase. Aaron came last, balancing himself and Spencer as he made his way out into the mid-afternoon light.
Derek's attention was immediately drawn by the sound of Garcia shouting from next to the parked cars and then dashing the short distance to where the team was gathered. She barely stopped herself from hugging JJ, though she did lean forward to kiss JJ's forehead. "Oh, baby," Garcia said, sounding just as upset as she had on the phone the previous night.
"I'm okay," JJ said immediately, placing one of her hands on Garcia's arm. "We're okay."
Garcia kissed JJ again, her dismay apparent before she turned to Derek. She didn't show the same restraint as she had with JJ and she quickly wrapped her arms around him. "You guys can't do this to me," she said into his chest.
Derek returned the hug and let Garcia cling to him for a few moments. "I know," he said, knowing that he couldn't promise that it wouldn't happen again.
"Derek," Aaron said, his voice low.
"What's she doing here?" Derek asked as he watched a car roll to a stop and Erin Strauss exit the driver's seat.
"Stay here," Aaron responded, handing Spencer to him and walking away quickly to prevent Strauss from getting closer to his pack.
Derek cradled Spencer's form close to his chest and watched Aaron cross the parking lot; Aaron's stride was determined and filled with energy for someone who'd only had seven hours of sleep in the past forty eight. Gideon moved so that he was in front of Derek and Spencer, his ears forward and his teeth bared.
"If I need to shift, you take Spencer and get yourself and JJ somewhere protected," Derek instructed Garcia, keeping his voice quiet so it couldn't travel to Strauss. He was on edge, they all were, and even though the idea of fighting Strauss here was completely irrational he couldn't prevent the flood of adrenaline that told him danger was close by.
Garcia nodded, stepping in front of JJ and standing as tall as she could in her heels.
"I just received a very interesting call from the sheriff of Plymouth," Strauss said. Her voice carried well enough that Derek didn't have to ask Garcia what was being said.
"I'm sure you did," Aaron said. To anyone who knew him it was clear that he was barely holding his temper, though to outsiders he would have appeared a paragon of calm and civility. "We caught the unsub and were unable to bring him into custody alive."
"You called the sheriff and told him where he could go to pick up the corpse. That is unacceptable behavior, Agent Hotchner," Strauss said. "The sheriff has asked that an inquiry be taken into the actions of your team, and to you personally."
Aaron only stood straighter. "The sheriff's deputy sent two of my team knowingly into a dangerous situation and they nearly died as a result. If you'd like to evaluate my team you are welcome to do so, but not until after they've received appropriate medical treatment and a recovery period. I will seek counsel from the Chief of the Criminal Investigative Division. I'm certain John will have some questions for you as well concerning your interest in my team."
Strauss stiffened. "I'll make the arrangements myself."
"Good," Aaron said. "My entire team will be away for the next three days and Agents Jareau and Reid will not be returning to field duty until they have healed. I formally request that my team be taken off the active case roster until my agents are cleared for the field."
"Granted," Strauss said. "If I was you, I'd be preparing my agents to transition to different departments."
Derek watched silently alongside the rest of the team as Aaron stared at Strauss. Aaron's expression was eerily impassive.
"Fortunately, I'm not you," was all he said, his voice clear from across the tarmac.
Strauss glared at Aaron for another moment before she turned away, her gaze sweeping over the gathered team. Her eyes lingered on Gideon and then on the bundle Derek was holding before she walked the few steps back to her car and drove away.
Aaron stayed where he was until her car had disappeared from sight completely. "Let's go home," he called.
Gideon responded first and bounded across the distance, leaving the rest of the team to follow on two legs instead of four.
Garcia had taken over the roll of mother hen and everyone was either too weak or felt too guilty to stop her. JJ was irritable and uncomfortable; she was supposed to wait another two days before she shifted back into her wolf form to prevent the worst of the scarring and as a result she paced back and forth until Garcia could convince her to take the pills she'd been prescribed. Jason had stayed in his form for the better part of the last two days and slept a good portion of the time. After hearing from Derek about their trek through the freezing hills, Aaron didn't blame either of them for the amount of sleep they'd needed to recover.
Spencer had shifted back to his human form early that morning and, upon seeing his bare chest, Aaron had immediately called the doctor. The doctor was an older gentleman, a gray fox when he was in his form, and had been good friends with Jason before Aaron had ever met him. The doctor had checked over Spencer, sighing at the deep bruising covering Spencer's torso and chest, and had only muttered for a few minutes about the dangers of government work while he treated Spencer. Aaron had gotten a bare bones description from Spencer as to what had happened during the attack and in the tunnel before Spencer had gone quiet for the rest of the day and retreated to the covered back porch. The rest would come out later, when they were writing reports, and Aaron could only think of how he could protect Spencer if Strauss followed through with her threat of requesting an inquiry about the case.
The events of the previous days weighed heavily on all of them, but Spencer was the one who Aaron found himself worrying about. Aaron knew his pack, he'd been with them all in the field for more than two years now and he'd seen how they recovered from disaster. Jason would withdraw even further, JJ would stress and worry until everyone was well, Garcia would stay close to them and only start to worry more when they left on cases again, and Derek would sublimate his fear into racing through the woods in his wolf form and becoming even more vigilant in his protection of the pack. What Aaron didn't know was how Spencer would come to terms with having killed someone or how well he would recover from being abducted and beaten. All he could do was watch, wait, and hope that Spencer would let the rest of the pack help with the emotional fallout.
The coffee maker clicked off and Aaron poured two mugs. He left the first black and added cream and way too much sugar to the second; he had no idea how Spencer managed to drink the stuff without gagging. Picking up both mugs he walked out to the back porch and set the sugar filled coffee down in front of Spencer.
"Thanks," Spencer said, picking up the mug and looking down into it.
"Mind if I stay?" Aaron asked.
Spencer shook his head but didn't look up as Aaron settled next to him. They drank their coffee in silence, Spencer sipping only sporadically like he would momentarily forget that the cup was in his hands.
Aaron got up to go back to the kitchen, collecting both of the empty mugs.
"I shifted on purpose. I thought about everything that you and Derek and the rest of the team taught me, and I shifted," Spencer said when Aaron reached the doorway.
Aaron considered this for a moment. "Good," he said at last. "I'm proud of you."
Spencer didn't say anything else but his gaze lifted from the floor to the window.
JJ had come to him on Saturday and told him how sorry she was and Spencer had reminded her that it hadn't just been her decision. He knew that she felt responsible for him, both as a member of the team with more seniority and as a fully grown member of the pack when Spencer was still considered a cub. As far as Spencer was concerned they'd both botched up that case pretty badly.
It was different to be alone in the house during the middle of the work day. Spencer had roamed from room to room before sitting down on the couch in the living room. He'd leaned down on the cushions for all of one minute before the racing of his heart and the trembling racking his body had forced him to sit up again. He'd discovered that every time he laid on his back he started to shake and that if he forced himself to stay he would descend towards a panic attack. So far reminding himself that he had the ability to sit up any time he liked and that there was no one hovering above him hadn't done any good. This was something he was going to have to work on before any of the team noticed, but Spencer figured he had some time. He could at least wait until the bruising faded and it didn't hurt so much to breathe.
Thomas was still in his mind. Spencer actually thought it was almost worse that he couldn't really remember killing him. The strongest sensation he recalled was the taste of blood flooding his mouth as he'd bitten into the back of Thomas's neck. So far no one was pressing him about recounting the events that had taken place in the tunnel and Spencer was happy enough to let that wait as long as they were willing to let him. Garcia had reluctantly told him about Hotch's confrontation with Strauss, and Spencer knew that there would come a time where he'd have to defend his actions. Maybe either being accused or absolved would release some of the guilt he could feel pressing against him, almost like the weight of Thomas was still holding him down with his fists ready to strike.
While Spencer had been working on pushing away thoughts of Plymouth over the past few days he'd discovered a new set of thoughts that had come to take their place. He could have died in that tunnel, several times over. Derek could have died while coming to rescue him. Aaron had been in less danger but the rioting townspeople carrying guns could have shot him just as easily as they could have shot anyone else. Spencer had spent quite some time over the past six weeks thinking over Aaron and Derek's offer to become a part of their relationship, weighing the potential outcomes and the possibilities. Even though every case they went on carried the potential for one or more of them to be seriously harmed - Spencer ran the probabilities every time they took a new case - spending those moments alone where he knew there was a very good chance that he'd never see Derek and Aaron again had somehow made the fact that he had no basis to predict the outcome of saying yes far less important.
He'd waited the few days while everyone was milling around the house just to make sure that it wasn't just a reaction to the situation that would fade with distance. It hadn't. Instead he'd found himself watching Derek and Aaron and wondering what it would be like if he was with them. Would they reach out to casually touch his hand the way the did each other without seeming to realize what they were doing? Spencer was somewhat surprised to find that the idea of Derek and Aaron casually touching him on a day to day basis didn't bother him as much as he would have thought. It helped that Derek already patted him on the shoulder or tugged gently on his hair or nudged his knee practically every day and Spencer had slowly come to expect the contact. Aaron was less hands on with him, as he was with everyone but Derek, but their fingers brushed from time to time when Aaron was passing him something or they occasionally bumped up against each other in the hallway.
The thought of coming out and telling Derek and Aaron that he wanted to be in a relationship with them was still unnerving. There were a lot of things he still had reservations about, not the least of which was how it would effect the rest of the team. He thought that JJ and Garcia would understand, but he wasn't so sure about Gideon. Gideon had been slipping further and further away it seemed, lost in his thoughts more often and slipping away on pack nights to go run through the woods by himself. Spencer hoped that Gideon would be happy that Spencer had found somewhere he was wanted, but he worried that it might only make Gideon feel more isolated from the rest of the pack.
Spencer spent most of the day in thought while he flipped idly through various books that were around the house; he'd already come to his decision, now all he had to do was talk himself into it. Derek and Aaron came home well before dinner, Aaron moving into the kitchen to cook and direct his thoughts away from their work while Derek joined Spencer in the living room and flipped on the tv.
The sound was on mute and Derek hardly seemed to be paying attention, so Spencer figured it was probably alright if he spoke. "Derek, can I talk with you and Aaron tonight? After dinner maybe?"
Derek turned to look at Spencer, taking in everything from his posture to his tone of voice in a split second assessment. "Sure. Do you want to talk now? I can get Aaron."
Spencer shook his head. "No, after dinner would be better."
"Okay," Derek said. He went back to watching the basketball game that was on though his attention wandered to Spencer more frequently now.
They ate dinner in a companionable silence and Spencer decided that Aaron seemed like he was in a relaxed enough mood for conversation. After they cleaned up the kitchen, though Derek and Aaron both tried to wave away his assistance, they all went back into the living room. Spencer sat in the armchair again, his feet up on the seat with him but not holding his knees up near his chest. Aaron and Derek sat on the couch, Aaron apparently already aware of Spencer's request to Derek.
"What's on your mind?" Derek asked, prompting Spencer with a small smile.
"I've been thinking about what you both offered a few weeks ago, about," Spencer faltered, a dozen words that didn't quite meet his needs suggested and dismissed in a matter of seconds. "About including me in your relationship," he finally settled on.
"Okay," Aaron said when Spencer didn't continue. "That offer still stands."
"I want to say yes. That's what I've been planning on saying, but I have a question first. Actually, I have a lot of questions, but only one that really matters right now," Spencer said. He realized he was using the fingers of his left hand to rub nervously against the knuckles on his right and forced himself to stop. "What are your expectations of me, if I say yes?"
Derek and Aaron looked at each other for a moment before turning back to Spencer.
"No expectations," Derek said. "We'll just see how things happen. If you don't want to do something, say so. If you want to try something, say so and we'll see what we can do."
"We'd take things slowly. I don't expect that our individual relationships with each other will be the same. The way I interact with Derek will be different than the way you do, and so forth, and all of that will evolve over time," Aaron explained. "But essentially Derek is right; no expectations. Just be yourself and being willing to try. That's all."
Spencer took a slow breath and nodded. "Okay. Yes." He forced himself to keep his gaze up so he could see Derek and Aaron's reactions.
Derek smiled and held out his hand. "I'm very happy to hear you say that. Come over here." It was the most relaxed Spencer had seen him since they'd left for Plymouth.
"If you want to," Aaron added, though he was smiling too.
Spencer untangled his legs from the chair and walked over to the couch. Derek pulled him down so that he was sitting between them and after a few minutes Spencer found that even though he felt uneasy he also felt safe and protected. "Now what?" Spencer asked.
Derek shrugged. "Now we keeping going one day at a time, all together."
"I can do that," Spencer said, startled and relieved to realize he thought that he could.
The weather was unseasonably warm for the first week of May and Spencer's feet were bare as he sat on the front steps to the house. There was a slight breeze that kept pushing Spencer's hair into his face and the fourth time he used his left hand - his right hand was busy holding an unopened envelope - to brush it away he wondered if he should get it trimmed. He didn't really want a hair cut, he liked his hair long, but decided that he could ask Derek and Aaron and see what they thought. He could feel Aaron in the kitchen with Garcia at the counter, two presences close enough that he could separate and identify them. Every now and then Aaron said something and Spencer could catch a word or two.
Derek was further back in the house, maybe in the living room or the dining room, and JJ was in Aaron's office on the phone. He couldn't hear anything from either of them but he could feel Derek moving about every five minutes. Spencer thought that he would go to him in a little while, try to distract him or convince him that they should go running in the forest. Aaron had only recently let Spencer join the pack as they ran and even then curtailed them before they went too far from the house. The memories of running in his form weren't much more than a vague wash of smells and textures, damp underbrush and his paws digging into the ground as he raced through the trees with a group of wolves surrounding him. He flexed his hands at the memory, the envelope crinkling a little before he released his muscles and smoothed the paper flat again.
He could only just feel Gideon now, moving further and further west and out of the city. Spencer had been concentrating on holding onto his presence for as long as he could, otherwise he wouldn't even be able to pick up a direction from him. Gideon had told them at the beginning of the week that it was time for him to leave and that the majority of the preparations had already been made. No one had tried to make him stay, not even Garcia who had hugged him and walked away before he could see her tears. Spencer suspected that Aaron might have privately spoken with Gideon about staying with the pack even if he didn't stay on the team, but if he had it had been unsuccessful.
The night before Gideon left Aaron had held a final pack night and they'd stayed awake most of the night. Spencer thought it wasn't unlike a vigil. Gideon was leaving and in Spencer's experience once people left they were basically ghosts - only their names and memories could stay behind. Gideon had pressed the envelope into Spencer's hand that morning on his way out the door, a single suitcase the only thing he'd seen fit to take with him. There was only one question that Spencer wanted to ask, only one that mattered: why? He knew some of the answer, could guess at other parts of it, but the rest of it he doubted even Gideon knew. At least he'd been able to say goodbye, which was more than Spencer usually was allowed to say.
Spencer tipped his head up, his eyes unfocused as he reached across the rooftops of the surrounding suburbs. Gideon was gone, the last tendrils Spencer had been able to hang onto slipping away as Gideon sped off into the world. A moment later he heard the front door open and Aaron sat down on the steps next to him.
"Are you alright?" Aaron asked.
Spencer nodded and turned to look at Aaron. There was a significant part of him that wanted to ask if Aaron or Derek would leave too; not today or soon, but if some day there would be something that would drag them away from him. It wasn't a question he would ever ask and Aaron could no more predict the future than he could, but he turned it over in his mind like a smooth stone that had its edges worn away by being touched constantly. Aaron placed his hand on Spencer's knee and after a few seconds Spencer put his hand over Aaron's. Aaron's skin was warm to the touch and Spencer realized that it was colder outside than he'd realized.
Derek joined them, sitting a step lower than Spencer so he could turn and face them. "Are you going to open that?" he asked, nodding to the envelope Spencer was still holding.
"Maybe later," Spencer said. He didn't know if he wanted to read what it was that Gideon hadn't been able to tell him directly. Either way he had plenty of time to do decide. "Can we go running later?"
"Sure. You know, one day you're going to be able to outrun all of us," Derek said, gently bumping Spencer's leg.
"I should hope so," Spencer said, managing a wry smile.
Aaron squeezed Spencer's knee and stood. "Come in, Garcia and I made breakfast."
"I'll be there in a moment," Spencer said, grateful when Aaron and Derek were willing to go inside and give him another few minutes by himself.
Spencer reached one more time, nearly stumbling from the low steps when he couldn't find Gideon's presence anywhere in the area. He hadn't been expecting Gideon to have miraculously returned but he'd gotten used to constantly feeling five pack members nearby. One by one, Spencer located the members of the pack and re-centered himself around them. When he was done he got to his feet and went inside, closing the door without looking back out towards the west.
Each time he started his engine again he'd hesitate with his hand over the turn signal. He could go back; he was less than a day away from what had once been his pack and his home. He had no doubts that if he needed the pack, if he called them, they would circle around him just as they would any pack member. He wouldn't call and he wouldn't go back; each time he turned left and went back out onto the freeway. East bound for now, maybe further north as the weather grew warmer.
Once, Jason had a wife and a son, before he'd realized who he was and where he needed to be. Then he'd been two men; a husband and father, and a federal agent and member of a wolf pack. The years before he'd joined the FBI he'd run alone, slipping out in the night on four paws and back home on two feet before the sun had risen. Eventually his wife had gone and taken his son with him, unable to love and live with a man who was only half there. Jason had found them before he'd left his pack. He had addresses and a town halfway across the country burned into his mind. He would never go there either.
Jason believed that in most respects people were immutable. They grew and became and then they were whatever it was that they had finally become. Years and years of studying people, their minds and their thoughts, how they saw and how they were seen, and Jason had never found anyone to be who they were not. He could only be who he was; a man and a wolf.
He found a small motel at the edge of the town; paid for his room but left his bag in his car. Shifting was a single fluid thought, his human mind falling away and the rush of fur and sensation racing to fill its place. He left the motel room door cracked open and slipped out into the night, the small area of dense trees nearby enough of a refuge for the time being. North, some part of him decided as he lopped through the trees, he would go north in the morning.