Actions

Work Header

Desert Mirage

Work Text:

"The night before I left Las Vegas I walked out in the desert to look at the moon. There was a jeweled city on the horizon, spires rising in the night, but the jewels were diadems of electric and the spires were the neon of signs ten stories high." - Norman Mailer

 

Later, he isn't entirely sure what makes him say it. Maybe it's the thought of coming back to an empty apartment, knowing that Jack is spending the week with Jessica at his grandparents' in Michigan, and that there won't be any late-night calls from Beth to fill the silence. Maybe it's the uneasiness he feels when he thinks about the weekend plans Dave made for them: He knows Dave means well, but he is not in the mood for making polite small talk with the friend of Dave's latest obsession over the noise of jazz music and chatter; not in the mood for the inevitable feelings of awkwardness and inadequacy.

Long story short, there is a high probability that he is doing it for altogether selfish reasons, but when Reid looks at him with an expression of such sincere, helpless gratefulness, he cannot find it in himself to regret.

 

Reid gets the phone call precisely an hour after Benton Farland is killed by a shot to the chin from his own gun. By the time Hotch, Morgan and JJ pull up at Amelia Porter's hideout, they face the usual post-standoff confusion, too many things happening at the same time – someone leading Amelia Porter away, handcuffed and defeated, Kate fussing over a crying Rebecca Farland, an officer bringing out the crime scene tape. And with the adrenaline rush of almost, maybe, just in time still pulsating in his bloodstream, Hotch doesn't immediately realize that something else is going on.

It takes Morgan saying: "You alright, kid?", in that particular tone he reserves for Spencer, for him to turn around and see that Reid is pale and hunched into himself, clutching his cell phone with shaking hands, as if his life depends on it.

"My mom is in the hospital," Reid says in a small voice, and for a moment, Hotch has flashbacks of Reid's face after Maeve, after Emily, Gideon, Hankel, and thinks, please, God, no.

"That was Dr. Norman," Reid says. "She has pneumonia. They had to transfer her to University Medical Center. He says she'll be okay, but she's really weak, and they had to give her a lot of antibiotics, and they messed up the response to her usual medication, and the unfamiliar environment has got her all confused …"

"I'm sorry, man," Morgan says, setting a hand on his shoulder, as much to comfort him as to cut off the anxious stream of words.

"Why don't you just rent a car and go see her?" JJ asks. "It's only a, what, six hour drive from here, and you can fly back to Virginia from Las Vegas on Sunday."

"I think that's a great idea," Callahan says and gives Reid an encouraging smile, but Reid just stares at her as if she's suddenly grown horns.

"A car," he repeats blankly. "Yeah, that sounds … I should …" He trails off, helplessly.

Then someone says: "I'll drive you," and it takes Hotch an embarrassingly long moment to realize that he's the one who said it.

Morgan and JJ appear a bit surprised, but mostly they look relieved. "Yeah," Morgan says with an easy smile, "that's probably a good idea, Hotch. Make sure our genius doesn't get lost in the desert."

Dave makes a sound of protest, no doubt to remind him that they have an appointment with a jazz bar and a tumbler of scotch. Hotch gives him a hard look, daring him to speak, and Dave stares back at him for a long moment. Then he closes his mouth and shrugs, although whether it's because he remembers the two days in 2008 he himself spent in Las Vegas to help Reid sort out his family, or because of what he sees in his friend's eyes, Hotch can't be sure. But when Dave pats his arm and simply says: "I'll go call the rental agency," Hotch is reminded of why he's been friends with David Rossi for as long as he has.

 

Some people get talkative when they are nervous, ramble to cover the abyss of fear stretching out in front of them, chat to fill the silence. Reid, on the other hand, talks when he feels safe, when he doesn't worry about being judged, about getting overlooked. When Reid gets scared, he falls silent, withdraws into himself, shuts people out.

Usually, Hotch wouldn't mind the quiet. It's not like he's a big conversationalist at the best of times, and after the frantic chase of the last few days, he appreciates the calmness that comes with simply being on the road, without a clock ticking in the back of his head. It's a nice drive too, down south on the I-15 with barely any traffic, the National Forest to the left, the desert to the right. It almost feels like a road trip.

But after an hour of anxious silence and Reid twitching miserably in his seat like a fish left on the beach to die, even Hotch can't take it anymore. Without taking his eyes off the road, he reaches over, places a firm hand on Reid's shoulder and squeezes once. From the corner of his eye, he can see Reid look at him in surprise, maybe even shock; but the arm stills under his touch, the tension drains from his muscles, and Hotch moves his hand back to the wheel.

"Reid," he says calmly, "it'll be okay. The doctor said she'd be okay. She'll be fine."

He knows it's the same voice he uses on trigger-happy unsubs and terrified victims, and he is sure that Reid knows it too, but the wonderful thing about this kind of sensory suggestion is that no matter if you know it's happening or not, it works nonetheless.

"I know," Reid says, already sounding less panicky, more like himself. "I know." He sighs. "It's just – sometimes I don't know if I can survive losing someone else." He pauses, then looks at Aaron from the side. "Do you ever feel like that?"

Hotch glances back at him in surprise. He remembers this, from when Reid was still new to the BAU and so very, very young; the way he would be so closed off at times and then turn around and ask the most difficult questions, just like that. Aaron had figured that he'd probably lost that habit, at some point during the last ten years, built up that shield of constant self-censorship around himself they all work so hard to maintain. He hadn't realized how much he'd missed this.

"Yes," he finally says, because the honest question deserves to be answered in kind. "Yes, I feel like that all the time."

Reid doesn't say anything in response, just nods carefully once. Then he leans forward and starts to prod at the radio.

"Do you want me to find some music?" he asks, twiddling with the power button, producing static and the end of a local commercial.

Hotch shrugs. "Out here, it's probably going to be your choice of Mormon rock or country music."

Reid switches the radio off again. "You are right," he says, and drags up his messenger bag from between his feet. He fumbles with the bag, pulls out a USB cord and his IPod and plugs it into the stereo. Hotch watches somewhat apprehensively from the corner of his eye, but only until he recognizes the song after the first few beats. Figures that Reid would share the musical tastes of someone almost twenty years older than himself.

"Neil Young," Hotch says approvingly. "I haven’t heard this song in a while."

Reid smiles at that, wide and pleased. "It's my road trip playlist," he says, and shrugs. "We fly so often, I don't get to listen to it very much."

Hotch doesn't suggest that just because Reid has saved the playlist under "road trip" on his device, doesn't mean he can't play it anywhere else. "Maybe you need an airplane playlist," he says instead, and Reid smiles at him and says: "Who says I don't have one?"

An hour later, they stop at a gas station in Fillmore for bitter coffee and sugary donuts, and Reid offers to drive the rest of the way. "I like driving," Hotch simply says and gets back behind the wheel. Reid doesn't protest much after that, and falls asleep five minutes after they've pulled back onto the road, curled up against the passenger window, a hand tucked under his cheek.

Hotch drives, listens to Janis Joplin try, try just a little bit harder, and watches the shadows in the desert grow long.

 

By the time they pull into Las Vegas, it's past seven, but Reid insists that they stop by UMC first. "I just want to check in on her," he says, apologetically, almost pleadingly, as if he actually thinks he needs to explain. Hotch doesn't mention that he'd been heading for the hospital all along.

"I can wait down here for you," he says in the lobby, already scanning the vending machines and the plastic chairs out of habit. Then he takes in Reid's torn, embarrassed expression, and raises his brows.

"Or I can come up with you."

Hotch had only seen Diana Reid once before, when Reid had flown her out to Quantico during the Fisher King case, and back then, he had been more preoccupied with catching a serial killer, hadn't really felt like he had the time to make small talk with his team members' relatives. He regrets that now, as he is standing next to Reid at the foot of her hospital bed. In his memory, Reid's mother is tough and stubborn, strong-willed and sharp despite her disease. Now she looks frail and worn, her skin the same color as her plain white pajamas. She barely manages to lift her head when they enter, and does not look particularly surprised to see Reid, even though Reid said she didn't know they were coming. Hotch gets the impression that she doesn't actually know where she is.

The pneumonia has clearly taken its toll.

"Mom," Reid says, and his voice is shaking as he pulls up a chair to sit next to her at the side of the bed. He reaches for her hand and pulls it toward him, wraps his fingers tightly around hers. If Diana Reid looks older in this environment, Spencer Reid looks younger, and Hotch gets a distinct image of a ten-year-old Spencer, trying to hold things together in front of his mother even in the face of utter despair.

For a while, Mrs. Reid seems content to just hold her son's hand, even smiles a little while he tells her about their last case, about the drive to Las Vegas, about Henry, about Morgan's dog. When she does say something eventually, it's barely a whisper, too quiet to understand.

"What did you say?" Reid asks, bending forward, and she takes a rattling breath before she repeats: "Isn't he a bit old?"

Spencer looks confused. "Clooney?" he asks. "Well, he's not a puppy anymore, but I don't understand …"

"No," she shakes her head, as forcefully as she can manage, considering the circumstances. "Him." She points her chin at the foot of the bed, where Hotch is watching the exchange with interest. He sees Reid's eyes widen and raises his brows questioningly, but Reid studiously does not look at him.

"Mom," he whispers urgently, as if he doesn't want Hoch to overhear their conversation. "Mom, that's not –"

"He's not another one of your professors, is he?" she continues, unperturbed. Her voice is gaining in strength with every word, it appears, even if breathing seems to be excruciatingly painful.

Spencer throws Hotch a quick, unreadable look before he turns back to his mother.

"No, Mom," he says patiently. "He's not one of my professors. You've met him before. That's Agent Hotchner. He's my boss."

"So he is FBI," she says pointedly. "Is that supposed to be reassuring?"

Hotch coughs quietly. "How about I get you something to drink from the cafeteria?" he asks, "Professor, would you care for some juice?"

He cannot help but notice that her expression turns appreciative at his use of her former title, although her face shifts into a grimace at the mention of juice.

"I guess some 7 Up would be nice," she says graciously.

"Are you even supposed to have soda?" Reid asks, barely veiled concern in his voice, and his mother sends a sardonic smile his way.

"If the pneumonia didn't kill me," she says dryly, "I highly doubt that a carbonated beverage is going to do the job."

 

"How did she seem to you?" Hotch asks in the elevator over an hour later, after listening to Reid and his mother alternately agree on classic literature, and disagree about her health and his job. He suppresses a yawn – the stress of the day is beginning to catch up with him.

Reid studies the elevator control board with intense interest. "You mean, aside from the fact that she thought you were a college professor of mine?" He ducks his head. "I don't know why she said that. You are not old."

That isn't necessarily the part of the conversation Hotch had expected him to focus on, but Reid still looks tense and unhappy, so he decides that this is not a discussion they need to have today.

"Aside from that, yes."

Reid frowns. "She is just so weak," he says quietly. "I mean, last year she was well enough to take a trip to the Grand Canyon, and now –" He shudders. "At least she knew what was going on and who I was."

He looks up with a start and begins to fumble for his phone. "I need to talk to Dr. Norman," he says. "It's common knowledge that there is an increased risk for pneumonia in patients on second-generation antipsychotics, because they lead to a lowered white blood cell count," he says, already scrolling through his contact list. "I wasn't so happy when they switched her to second-gen antipsychotics in the first place. They will have to lower the dose or monitor her more carefully. There's a good chance she caught it from another resident at the sanitarium. Honestly, I don't even understand why it took them so long to notice. And I have to see when they can transfer her back. She hates hospitals almost as much as she hates flying …"

He trails off in confusion when Hotch reaches over and covers the screen of his phone with one hand.

"Tomorrow," Hotch says firmly, cutting off Reid's train of thought. "It's past nine, I'm sure Dr. Norman is not in his office anymore. Come on, Garcia has booked us rooms at the Bellagio. Let's check into the hotel and get something to eat."

Reid looks like he wants to protest, but then he just exhales deeply and stores his phone in his pocket. "You are right," he says reluctantly, and then he smiles, faintly and unexpectedly. "She really is going to be okay, isn't she?" He sighs. "She is really going to be okay."

They are silent as they leave the hospital. Hotch waits until they are back in the car on their way to the hotel before he speaks again.

"The first time the school called me after Haley's death to tell me that Jack had gotten hurt, I had a panic attack in the second floor bathroom," he says.

He keeps his eyes on the road, but he hears Spencer pulling in a sharp breath. "I didn't know that," he says, "what happened?"

"Nothing," Hotch says. "It was nothing. He'd just fallen in the yard and scraped his knees. He kept telling his teacher that he didn't need to be picked up and that his dad had more important things to do than put a band-aid on his knee." He huffs. "We ended up getting consolation ice cream, but I think I needed it more than he did. Getting that phone call – it was like being back on the phone with Foyet." Like waiting for Emily to pull through surgery, he doesn't say as he watches the traffic behind him in the rear mirror. Like watching you being tortured before my eyes.

Spencer bites his lip, as if he isn't sure Hotch wants to hear what he has to say. "I'm sorry you had to go through that," he finally says, hesitantly. "It's worse when you're alone."

Hotch stops at a red light and looks over at him. "That's why I'm here," he simply says, and Spencer smiles.

 

Spencer insists on paying for both hotel rooms, despite Hotch's repeated protests. "How about this," he says while the lady at the reception is running his credit card, clearly refusing to be drawn into their discussion. "If I don't manage to win enough at the casino to cover both rooms and dinner, you can pay me back half later."

Hotch has heard all the legendary stories of Reid's talent at gambling, and he has an inkling that he's not going to get the chance to pay him back a single penny. Then he asks himself why that would even bother him: As long as casino money ends up paying for their bill, who is he to complain?

For about five seconds, they consider the restaurant. But they spent the morning catching a murderer, and after the six-hour drive and the worry about Spencer's mother, they are both beat. Hotch keeps fighting the urge to yawn, Reid looks like he can barely hold his eyes open, even though he keeps insisting that he is not tired at all. Hotch is reminded of Jack making the same argument when he doesn't want to go to bed, and then quickly pushes that thought away. Instead, he suggests room service, and then Reid suggests television, and that's how they end up in the armchairs in Reid's hotel room with enormous burgers and a nicely chilled beer.

"I'm sorry," Reid says when Downton Abbey is interrupted for a commercial break. He's eating fries with his hands and keeps licking the grease off his fingers.

"What for?" Hotch asks distractedly. He wonders idly why on earth Buick would want to advertise that their cars don't look like Buicks anymore.

"I know you were supposed to hang out with Rossi this weekend," Reid says. Hotch glances over, and Reid seems completely focused on the television, a good indication that he isn't really watching the screen at all.

"You heard about that?" he asks carefully. Spencer shrugs, pulling his shoulders up to his ears, and still refuses to look at him.

"Yeah, he told me. Something about a bar and the singer he's got a crush on, and that he was going to drag you out and make you flirt with a beautiful woman." He hesitates. "He also told me that you and Beth had broken up." He finally looks at Hotch, eyes wide in the semi-darkness of the room. "I'm sorry."

Hotch sighs quietly. The show is coming back on, and he still isn't quite sure whether it was Bates or his wife who murdered that guy. So far, his profile is inconclusive.

"Beth and I split on friendly terms," he finally says. "Haley and I ended up resenting each other because I wasn't able to put her above the job, and I wasn't going to let the same thing happen to Beth and me."

Reid looks surprised, although Hotch has a feeling that it's not so much a reaction to the confession but rather to the fact that he is sharing at all. He gives Reid a quick, lopsided smile.

"Also, Dave can be very persuasive if he wants to be, but I truly have no desire to make small talk with strangers in jazz bars right now. Honestly, you were basically doing me a favor."

Reid still looks doubtful, but whatever he sees in Hotch's face seems to appease him. "Yeah," he says quietly, and toys with a lone, left-over fry. "I don't really like bars that much either."

He says it as if he's confessing a big secret, not something Hotch has been aware of for years.

"Reid," he starts impulsively, and then doesn't know how to continue when Spencer looks at him expectantly. He wants to ask him about his mother's comment at the hospital earlier today: he has a fairly good idea of what exactly she was trying to imply, but Reid has never brought any of it up. Not that he is particularly surprised: Reid has always been good at using his air of innocence to cover up the things he doesn't want anyone to see. Hotch looks at him, curled up in his chair, still looking boyish, despite having passed thirty a while ago. He tries to imagine Spencer in college at age sixteen and kind of wants to hit something.

"What's wrong?" Reid asks, with a hint of concern.

"Nothing," Hotch says, and then gestures at the screen. "Who do you think murdered that guy?" he asks, "Anna or Bates?"

"I'm not sure," Reid says, almost sounding puzzled at the realization. "I mean, it should have become clear by now, don't you think? By I think the point is that they are trying to keep the audience from guessing."

He suddenly grins. "Want to bet?" he asks, "fifty bucks that it's Anna."

Hotch grimaces. "But that means I have to watch the next season, if they don't wrap the case up soon."

"Come on," Reid says. "Don't tell me you aren't at least a little bit into it."

Hotch groans and raises his beer in resignation. "Just promise me you won't tell Rossi about this."

"Deal," Reid smiles. "Now pay attention so we don't miss any cues."

 

Hotch is glad that the internal clock that comes with being a father functions so well even on the weekends, because it means he has already showered and gone through his work email by the time Reid knocks on his door shortly after eight the next morning.

He awkwardly balances a coffee tray and a large paper bag against his chest, so Aaron holds the door open for him, then starts to button up the shirt he'd just been in the process of putting on.

Reid keeps his eyes firmly on the breakfast tray until he has the goods safely positioned on the nightstand. "I wanted to check in with you before I go to the hospital," he says and fumbles with the paper bag. "When is your flight leaving?"

Hotch reaches for one of the coffees and is grateful to discover that for once, Reid has gone easy on the sugar. "We are both on the flight for tomorrow morning," he says, somewhat puzzled, and takes another sip. It's actually really good coffee. "I thought you knew that."

Reid looks surprised, then embarrassed, then confused again. "No," he says. "I didn't … I must have been … I guess I was kind of preoccupied." He tilts his head, looks like he wants to ask something, then doesn't, and instead begins to unwrap the bagels carefully. He holds the first one out to Hotch, who accepts it gratefully. He is glad for the silence – he is fairly certain what question Reid wanted to ask, but he also knows that he wouldn't have had an answer for him.

"What is your plan for today?" he asks and takes a bite of his breakfast sandwich. He is surprised to realize how hungry he is.

Reid chews quickly and swallows. There's a bit of cream cheese smudged in the corner of his mouth, and he pokes his tongue out to lick it off. "Spend as much time as I can with my mom," he finally says, "and play intermediary for the doctors at the sanitarium and at the hospital. You don't know how many medical complications occur because doctors don't communicate with the medical staff at different hospitals, even though – never mind, you don't want to hear this," he interrupts himself self-consciously, and reaches for his coffee. "So what are you going to do today?"

Hotch shrugs. He crumbles the empty wrapping paper in one fist and wonders if he can hit the trash can from his side of the room. It turns out he can.

"I'll find out what it feels like to have a day off."

 

Reid is already on the phone with his mother's sanitarium when he heads toward the next taxi stand, leaving Hotch with the rental car and a lot of free time.

At one of the tourist stores near the hotel, he buys sunscreen and water, changes into a brand new pair of jeans, t-shirt, and sneakers, then he fetches the car from the parking garage and drives into the desert. Following signs to the Mojave Desert more by accident, he finds himself crossing the state line into California and driving up into the park. There is no snow, despite it being so early in the year, and the sky is clear and sunny, so he leaves the car in the parking lot at the nearest trailhead, zips up his sweater, and simply starts walking.

He pauses to look after an hour or more. There are a few hikers here and there, but overall, it's quiet – just the brown earth dotted with yucca plants, the red rock, blue sky and a spatter of clouds. He can't remember the last time he's been by himself like that, not working, not spending time with Jack, not being surrounded by strangers. It's a strange feeling, frightening even, the sense of complete solitude, and for a moment, he feels his heart quicken in something like panic, as if urging him to run. Instead, he inhales, forces himself to stay still, and then something shifts in him, slots into place. He walks.

Eventually he turns around: he doesn't carry enough water to keep going, and the sunscreen will only do so much for his winter-pale skin. But when he reaches his car, he hesitates. He closes his eyes, tilts his face toward the sun, and stays like that until he hears a car door slam somewhere behind him. Only then does he climb back into the van and keeps driving.

By the time he heads back toward the city, the sun is already setting. He calls Jack and Jessica via hands-free to make sure he catches Jack before his bedtime despite the time difference, checks in with Jessica to see if everything's alright, then listens to Jack ramble on about his day.

"We built a snow fort in the yard, Dad," Jack tells him excitedly. "Grandma even gave me a cardboard box so I could make a proper door."

"That sounds great, buddy," Aaron says. "Did you take pictures so you can show me when you get back?"

"Aunt Jessica did," Jack confirms. "How was your day? Aunt Jessica says you are still at work."

"Not really," Aaron answers. "But Spencer's mom is sick, and I went with him to Las Vegas so he didn't have to go by himself."

"That was nice of you," Jack says. "I bet Spence was glad that he didn't have to go alone. I went with TJ to talk to Miss Summers when he broke that chair in recess last week, and she said I was being a good friend." He is quiet for a moment. "Is his mom very sick?"

Hotch exhales slowly. "She had a really bad cold, Jack," he finally says, "so she wasn't feeling very good. But she's going to be okay."

"I hope she feels better soon," Jack says, and Hotch smiles to himself so he doesn't need to cry. "Me too, buddy," he says. "Me too."

He eventually ends the call when Jack starts yawning uncontrollably. Mere moments after he hangs up, the phone starts ringing.

"I'm done for today," Reid says without much ado when he picks up. "I saw my mom and talked to the doctors at the hospital and Dr. Norman at the sanitarium. And then I spent more time with my mom."

"How is she doing?" Hotch asks, and sets the blinker to take the turn toward the hotel.

"Better, I think," Reid says. "She actually breathed without sounding like a steam engine. She knew what was going on, and we talked some more about literature." He pauses. "She also told me to be careful in case you are only keeping me on the team because you want to harvest my brain for military experiments."

Hotch snorts. "She's onto me. She ruined my perfect scheme."

Reid laughs. "To be honest, whenever she says things like that, I am pretty sure she's just pulling my leg." He is silent for a moment. In the background, Hotch hears laughter and the clinking of slot machines.

"Are you hungry?" Reid finally asks. "Where are you?"

"Just pulling into the parking garage," Hotch replies. He parks the car, leaves the engine running. "I should probably get changed."

"No problem," Reid says. He sounds a bit distracted. "Come and find me on the slot floor. I'm just winning back our hotel bill."

"Don't drive the casino into complete ruin," Hotch says. It seems a justified concern. "I kind of like the place."

 

After the quietness of the desert, the casino at the Bellagio is a shock. It takes his eyes a moment to adjust to the blinking lights before he finally spots Reid at one of the slot machines in the back of the hall. He's not alone: an attractive woman in a bright red dress is leaning next to him, and they seem to be engaged in an animated conversation. For a moment, Hotch considers turning around and leaving them to it – his heart sinks a little at the idea of spending the evening by himself, but he tells himself he can take one for the team. Then he takes a closer look and remembers the curious effect Reid tends to have on ladies of the night. He decides that Reid probably won't mind him interrupting after all.

"Hotch," Reid says cheerfully when he notices him, waving him over. "You made it!"

"I did," Hotch nods. "Who's your friend?"

"Oh, this is Marley," Reid says, gesturing at the woman, then at Hotch, then back at her. "Marley, Aaron Hotchner. She kept me company while I was waiting."

Marley looks back and forth between them. "Oh," she says slowly, her fake lashes sweeping. "Honey, why didn't you just say you were here with someone?"

Hotch feels his face heat up at the implication. Reid mostly looks confused. "I told you I was waiting for a friend, didn't I?"

Marley rolls her eyes at Hotch in an almost conspiratorial manner. Interestingly, she seems more fondly exasperated rather than annoyed, considering that from her perspective, she just wasted an hour of her valuable time barking up the wrong tree.

"You did," she nods, and lifts her drink to drain the last of it. "My bad."

Reid squints at a pile of paper receipts stacked up on the counter, no doubt the collected winnings of the day. "Hm," he says thoughtfully, "I think with the money I just won, we could stick around for another week. Do you think our boss would give us the time off if we asked?"

Hotch raises his brows. "Are you really asking me this question?" he says dryly, and Reid gives him a lopsided smile.

"Yeah, never mind," he says, not sounding particularly broken up about it. "In that case, I think this is all we need," he says and chooses three receipts from the pile. "Do you mind taking the rest off my hands, Marley?" he asks.

Both Marley and Hotch stare disbelievingly, but Marley is decidedly quicker to recover. "Are you serious, sweetheart?" she asks, and Reid shrugs.

"I wouldn't have asked if I wasn't," he says. "I hope you are ready for dinner, Hotch, because I'm starving. It was nice to meet you, Marley," he adds, and blinks when she leans over to kiss his cheek.

"You too, honey," she winks, and then turns her attention to the receipts he's pressed into her hands.

Hotch groans inwardly when he realizes that he owes Dave an apology. The man had sworn up and down that Reid had once given two grand to a prostitute he'd talked to about how to quit smoking, and Hotch had more or less explicitly called him a liar.

"You know you left this lady with a lot of money," he says casually, when he is sure they are out of earshot. Reid blinks at him.

"Well, to be fair," he says, "she was on the clock, and she was keeping me company while I was waiting."

"Yes, for – what, 45 minutes?" Hotch says. "For that kind of money, she would have kept you company all night."

Reid shrugs. "It's for a good cause," he says. "It'll go into her kids' college fund."

"She has kids?" Hotch asks, quickly looking back over his shoulder, but Marley has disappeared. "Did she tell you that, or did you profile it?"

Reid smiles. "A little bit of both," he says. "Now where do you want to eat? You –" he turns around to look at Hotch and falters in his step, studying him with a scrutiny that makes him want to fidget.

"What?" Hotch asks, and watches in amazement as a faint blush rises to Reid's cheeks.

"You – you are wearing jeans," he states, sounding confused, and then he actually raises a hand, but snatches it back quickly when he realizes what he's doing, gesturing at his own face instead.

"And it looks like you got some sun," he says faintly.

Hotch lifts a hand to his cheek. His skin does feel a little warm and tight to the touch.

"I was in the desert," he says, vaguely embarrassed. "Not used to the sun anymore." To distract himself, he grabs a hotel brochure from a table and studies the floorplan quickly.

"Olives?" he suggests, and is rewarded by the excitement on Reid's face.

"Yay, Pizza," Spencer says happily. "And don't you forget, I'm buying."

 

"It feels like Jack is finally getting to know his uncle, you know?" Hotch says, placing the fork onto his empty plate.

"That's good," Reid says, nibbling idly on a left-over piece of pizza crust. "I wasn't sure, after what happened in New York …"

"I wasn't either," Hotch admits. "But Sean is really making an effort. It's important for both of them, I think."

Reid nods, and for a moment, they are silent, just letting the background chatter wash over them.

"This is nice," Reid says finally, contently, but also a little bit wistfully.

"It is," Hotch nods and leans back in his seat, taking in the surroundings as he is sipping from his wine. "Not too crowded around this time of year."

"No, I mean -" Reid drops the crust onto this plate and starts playing with his napkin instead. "Just. Us. Talking. We don't ever really talk anymore."

"What?" Hotch asks, straightening in his chair. He feels like Reid is continuing a conversation he didn't even realize they were having. "What do you mean?"

Reid shrugs awkwardly, twisting the cloth of the napkin around his fingers.

"I just – we used to have conversations," he says slowly. "About – I don't know. I'd tell you things, and sometimes you would even do the same. Like – you told me when Haley asked you to sign the divorce papers, remember that? You told me in the car on the way back to Quantico, just like that, and I don't know – it felt like you trusted me, you know? But lately – I didn't even realize you and Beth had split up until Rossi told me about it. And I can't help but think that it's my fault," he says. "That somehow over what happened with Maeve, I became so self-absorbed that I didn't even notice anymore what was going on in your life."

Hotch carefully sets the wineglass back on the table, trying to figure out what to say. "Reid," he starts eventually. "I'm sure you know that I'm very glad to have you on the team, and that I trust you to do your job. That I trust you with my life. None of that has changed." Reid nods without looking up, clearly unconvinced, and Hotch sighs.

"Perhaps I simply figured you didn't need guidance anymore."

It's not the entire truth, but he tells himself it's the part that will matter to Reid.

"Guidance," Reid says skeptically. "What does that even mean?"

"It means that you've been doing this job for over a decade now, Reid," Hotch says. "You know what you're doing, you've found your place. You don't need someone like Gideon or me to tell you what to do anymore – although in hindsight, I'm not so sure you ever did." He takes a deep breath. "And Spencer – about Maeve. What happened to you – I know you talked to Dave, and I know he told you the same thing. It's normal to have a reaction. To need time to recover. God, you were there – you were there for me when Foyet –" he breaks off. "I'm the last person who should lecture you on self-absorbance."

Reid shrugs vaguely, as if he isn't sure he agrees, or thinks that's not the point. He goes back to chasing the pizza crust across his plate with his index finger, then he pulls up straight and looks Hotch in the eye.

"You know," he finally says. "Maeve was so easy to love. I mean, she was smart and kind and funny, and talking to her felt right. And I still miss her, even now."

Hotch doesn't respond, stunned by so much sudden frankness. Since he called out Reid on his behavior after the case in St. Paul, Maeve has never come up between them. Sure, it was him Reid came to when he was desperate to find her, but when he sought to confess his feelings after, he chose Rossi and Blake over him. Hotch tells himself he is glad that Reid is finally opening up. If there is a subtle sting to it, he doesn't feel like investigating it further.

Reid doesn't seem perturbed by his silence. "Sometimes I wonder, though," he continues after a while. "I ask myself if not part of why I still feel so guilty about her death, if not part of why I waited so long to meet her in person back then, was because deep down, I was worried that I wouldn't know how to do it."

"Do what?" Hotch asks.

"Dating," Reid says. "You know. Buy her flowers. Take her out to dinner, kiss her in public. Truth is," he pauses, looks down at his hands, embarrassed again, "truth is, I've never played that part in a relationship before. Because I've never been in a relationship with a woman."

Most people, Hotch thinks, would take this simply as an admission of a lack of experience, but he knows Reid well enough to know that he chooses his words with care – even when he's emotional and impulsive, he is very aware of what he's saying, and he's aware of the why. He remembers Diana Reid's remark about college professors, and hears what Reid is not saying just as clearly as what he does.

"I would think that as long as two people are attracted to each other, there's not that much of a difference," he says carefully. He makes sure to phrase it as neutrally as possible, but Reid's eyes still flicker up to his face for a moment, sharp despite the awkwardness, and Hotch needs to force himself not to look away.

"Maybe," Reid says vaguely. He picks up his wine glass and drinks. "Still, in my experience, most women I meet are looking for someone more dominant." He keeps the glass raised in front of his face, as if to hide his expression for what he has to say. "And most men I meet prefer a partner who doesn't undermine their masculinity." He shrugs, sets the glass down at last. "It's just always happened that way."

Hotch studies him for a moment. "So, excuse me for asking, but – why even try?"

Reid keeps toying with the stem of his glass. "Maybe because it's the easier route when you work for the FBI? Maybe because I wanted people to see me as normal, just for once?" He sighs. "Maybe because I thought that with a woman, I wouldn't do her injustice by constantly comparing her to someone else I've been attracted to."

He says the last part very quietly, without once looking up, and Hotch is grateful because it means he does not have to school his expression. He is still trying to figure out how to respond when the waiter saves him by sidling up to their table.

"Would you care for dessert?" he asks, starting to stack the empty plates, oblivious to the pregnant silence hanging over their table.

Hotch puts one hand on his full stomach and shakes his head regretfully, but Reid leans forward in his chair with interest. "Do you have anything with chocolate in it?" he asks hopefully.

The waiter looks genuinely distressed. "I'm sorry," he says. "Only sherbet and tiramisu."

"No, thank you," Reid says, disappointment written clearly on his face. Hotch can see the waiter desperately trying to come up with a solution.

"I think the bar offers a cocktail with cream and chocolate liqueur, if that helps," he suggests hesitantly, and Reid immediately perks up, then throws a furtive glance at Hotch as if to ask for permission.

Hotch shrugs. "Our flight isn't leaving till eleven," he says.

Reid nods with determination. "You can bring the check," he tells the waiter, who looks decidedly relieved. "We'll move to the bar."

Hotch waits until the waiter is out of earshot before he leans forward. "I hope you are not thinking of making me get whatever monstrosity you are considering," he says sternly, and Reid smiles.

"Don't worry, you can stick to your super manly scotch on the rocks. As long as you don't judge me for my sweet tooth."

"Super manly scotch, huh?" Hotch says, feigning disapproval, but the grin threatening to show on his face probably ruins the effect. Deep down, a tiny part of him distantly wonders what he's just agreed to. The bigger part of him is just curious to find out.

 

The sound of an alarm wakes him up, then cuts off abruptly before he can properly identify the source. He takes a moment to catalogue his sensations: A minor headache, due to that last scotch, no doubt; a feeling of numbness in his left arm, due to the unfamiliar weight against his biceps; and the edge of a narrow hipbone pressing against his bare thigh.

He groans quietly when he remembers. "You know, this is really not what I had in mind when I offered to accompany you to Las Vegas," he says, without opening his eyes.

He feels as much as he hears the responding huff of laughter against the sensitive skin on his neck.

"Yeah, me neither," Spencer says ruefully, his voice a bit rougher than usual and lazy with sleep.

Aaron opens his eyes. Spencer's face is right there, looking down at him from beneath long lashes. There's nervousness around his eyes, tension in the way he's holding his head, and still: With his hair sticking up in all directions and his features smoothed out by morning-softness, Spencer looks comfortable and sleepy, even content. He yawns and stretches an arm out over his head like a napping cat on a sunny sidewalk, and Aaron stares. He has always been amazed at people who seem to shed all their social awkwardness when they shed their clothes. He knows they exist, has met a few of them in his life, but he never expected Spencer to be one of them. Of course, before yesterday, he never thought he'd ever find out either way.

Christ.

"Christ," he says, and Spencer purses his lips, half agreement, half trepidation.

"Just look at it that way," he finally says, when he realizes that this is all Aaron has to say. "Theoretically speaking, it could be much worse. It's Las Vegas. You could have woken up married."

Aaron stares at him disbelievingly, watches Reid blink in dismay when he realizes that he might have said something rash. Then the absurdity of the situation catches up to him. He starts laughing and then realizes he simply doesn't know how to stop. By the time he calms down, tears are running down his cheeks. He wipes at them with the back of his hand and finds Spencer staring at him with an odd expression.

"What?" he asks, suddenly self-conscious.

Spencer shakes his head. "It's just – " he says slowly. "I don't think I've ever, ever seen you laugh like this."

Aaron shrugs. "Usually I lower the blinds to my office first. I have a reputation to protect."

Spencer gives him a look as if he's almost certain that Aaron is kidding, but not a hundred percent. Aaron thinks he probably should not find that so endearing. Experimentally, he puts a hand on the bare hipbone next to his leg. Spencer doesn't protest, and the curve of the bone feels nice against his palm, so he leaves it where it is.

"So … is this going to be one of those 'What happens in Vegas' things?" Spencer asks it lightly, as if in jest, but there is something halting about his voice, and Aaron realizes he is already bracing himself for rejection.

He thinks of his empty house, too silent and dark while Jack is gone. He thinks of Jason's worn out face, that exhaustion in his eyes right before he had left. He thinks of the way Spencer said I've never seen you laugh like this. Takes in the feeling of Spencer's hip under his fingers, the way it fits into his hand, the fleeting ghost of a pulse under the skin. He thinks of that moment in the desert, that sense of rightness he felt with the sun on his face, the sand beneath his feet, the land stretching out in front of him.

"No," he says eventually, "no, this is not a Vegas thing."

A tiny smile starts to tug at the corner of Spencer's mouth. He looks so hesitantly hopeful that Aaron feels almost guilty for continuing.

"But it's still going to be a mess," he says somberly. "I just don't know – There's rules about this kind of thing, even if I wasn't your boss. The last time I was with a man was one night four years ago, and I never told anyone about that. The FBI is not exactly known for marching in the Pride. I need to think of Jack … and I think even Cruz at his worst won't be anything compared to the attitude I'm going to get from Morgan if he finds out about this."

"Of course, I know," Spencer says quickly, too quickly almost, like he already expected all of these things being thrown his way, and Aaron understands that this is because Spencer has significantly more experience with secret affairs than he has with actual relationships. The idea is so sad that Aaron refuses to consider it further, so he leans in to kiss him instead.

Spencer's mouth opens under the first press of his lips. Their tongues slide together, languidly, and he raises a hand to keep Spencer in place, his fingers getting tangled in silky-soft hair.

Eventually, Spencer draws back reluctantly, a rueful look on his face. "I need to see my mom before we leave," he says apologetically.

Aaron smiles and brushes Spencer's hair away from his face. "Okay," he says. "Go shower, we'll stop by the hospital on the way to the airport before we drop off the car."

"Yes Sir," Spencer says with a grin, and slides out of bed. Aaron groans inwardly when he finds himself harden at Spencer's casual use of the formal address – this has the potential to be disastrous. But it's difficult to be alarmed when he still feels so warm and relaxed, so he does not stop himself from watching Spencer's naked back as he makes his way across the room. He will be the first to admit that it's a rather nice view.

 

Reid's mother seems much improved: She is sitting upright on her own volition, her eyes clear and alert.

"Agent Hotchner," she says in greeting, when he enters the room after Reid. "You are back."

"Yes, Professor," he nods. "I wanted to say goodbye before we left."

She raises her brows at him, but addresses Reid when she answers. "At least he's dependable," she says, and Hotch watches with fascination as Reid flushes under his mother's gaze. "For an FBI agent," she adds pointedly, and Hotch bites back a laugh.

"Your son is an FBI agent," he points out, "and a very good one at that."

She sighs. "He made one youthful mistake," she says, "and I know that now you've got your claws in him, you are not going to let him go."

"We would be very sad to see him leave," Hotch nods and makes sure to look at Reid as he speaks. "I'll give you some privacy," he adds. "Reid, meet me downstairs in twenty? It's been a pleasure, Professor."

She smirks. "I'm sure I'll see you around."

He is nursing a cup of crappy coffee from the vending machine and going through his missed text messages when Reid finds him in the lobby twenty-five minutes later.

"Everything alright?" he asks, grateful for an excuse to get rid of the offensive beverage.

Reid nods, looking pleased. "She's doing so much better," he says, following Hotch to the visitor's parking lot. "I talked to her doctor, and it looks like they'll be able to transfer her back to the sanitarium tomorrow. And he promised me to discuss a change in prescription with Dr. Norman – they might have to put her on a different antipsychotic, if they cannot lower her dose, to make sure this doesn't happen again. But she'll be fine." He stops so abruptly that Hotch is three steps ahead by the time he realizes that Reid isn't following. He turns around, ready to remind Reid that they have a plane to catch, but when he gets a look at his face, he keeps silent and waits.

Reid looks nervous, tense even, a radical shift from only a moment ago. "Thank you, Hotch," he says, and his voice, at least, is steady. "Aaron. I don't know what – I mean, I understand if – anyway, whatever else happens, I just wanted to let you know that I'm glad you came."

Hotch takes in the way he is fiddling with his bag, already beginning to slightly hunch over again, as if his body realizes that the impromptu vacation is coming to an end. Coming to a decision, he walks back to Reid, raises a hand to cup his cheek, and kisses him, briefly but firmly. They are in a hospital parking lot in Las Vegas, probably captured by a dozen security cameras that Garcia would have no problem finding if she knew what she was looking for. He is surprised to realize how little he cares.

"I'm glad I came too," he simply says, and then turns around and heads toward their car.

 

"So what did I miss?" Hotch asks as he climbs the steps to the jet on Monday morning, looking back at Rossi over his shoulder.

It's just their luck that they flew back to Virginia yesterday only to find out that their next case would take them straight back to Nevada. For a moment, Hotch had let himself imagine what they could have done if they had known in advance: Instead of spending most of Sunday on the plane and going their separate ways for the night, they could have kept the hotel room for another day, could have ordered room service and stayed in bed, then driven the rental eastwards early Monday morning. Then he had firmly pushed that thought to the very back of his mind. Speculating about things he can't have is not going to do any of them any good.

Dave winks at him and smiles. "Well, the music was delightful. Celine was delightful and very appreciative of her admirer, if I may say so. And I'm pretty sure that wasn't just the free champagne speaking. I should also mention that she was accompanied by an equally delightful friend, who did strike up a lively conversation with Derek, but she was really more your caliber. Besides, Derek's flirting skills have gotten a bit rusty since he's taken." He ignores Morgan's shout of protest from behind and grins up at Hotch. "So how about I introduce you this Friday, if we make it back in time?"

Reid is walking right in front of them. He doesn't turn around at Rossi's words, but Hotch can see him tense up oh so slightly, sees his shoulders hitch up just the tiniest bit.

"I don't know," he says, a bit louder than he usually would. "I may already have plans for the weekend."

Rossi gives him a look that is half surprised friend, half calculating profiler, and Hotch knows he'll probably be subjected to the third degree at the next possible occasion. Reid doesn't react at all, but on the plane, he chooses the seat next to Hotch without hesitation. They are not touching, not really, and still, throughout the briefing, Hotch senses Reid's body at his side as if they were pressed against each other, shoulder to shoulder.

"How many boats are there on Lake Mead?" he asks, less because he needs the information and more because he enjoys the way Reid doesn't even have to think before he answers: "1908."

"Come on," Callahan protests, "you just know that?"

"Thank you," Derek chimes in. "Ten years. It took ten years for someone to finally have my back."

Reid is clearly in a good mood. He mostly seems amused by Callahan and Morgan's doubts, and his smile when it turns out he was right is downright impish. It takes some restraint for Hotch not to kiss him right there – instead, he switches the case file to his left hand, and offers Reid the knuckles of his right. Reid gives him a look – furtive, surprised, pleased – and readily taps Hotch's fist with his own. It's the world's quickest, most gentle fistbump, and they both go right back to studying files, but Hotch feels Reid sneak glances at him for the remainder of the flight.

He waits until the plane lands and everyone starts to collect their belongings before he leans over into Reid's space.

"Do you have that airplane playlist with you?" he asks quietly.

Reid looks at him questioningly. "Yes," he says confused, "it's on my IPod. Why?"

"I was hoping you'd let me listen to it on the way back," he says.

Reid smiles. "Anytime," he says quietly, then he gets up to leave the plane.

Hotch knows he has to get moving too, has to get into the mindset for this case. But he allows himself to sit for another moment, two seconds, or maybe five.

He closes his eyes and thinks of the day in the desert: The sun on his face, the land in front of him, and the broken pieces of his heart slowly slotting into place.