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They've been at it for an hour or so when Garcia knocks on the doorframe and enters without waiting for his response. The NSA guys look annoyed at the interruption. Hotch is more impressed that she managed to wait this long.

"Sir," she says, running her palms over her hips, to smooth down her skirt or to hide the fact that her hands are damp: "Sir, I'm so sorry, I'm interrupting, aren't I? Sir."

"Garcia," Hotch says, a gentle reprimand as much as an attempt to calm her down. She straightens at the sound of his voice.

"Sir," she says, more determined now. "I'm only here to tell you that we've finally found the ex-husband of the last victim. And to ask if I can get you anything."

Hotch raises his brows. He's fairly certain that what she is really here for is intel, but he cannot very well say that in front of the NSA analysts. Besides, there's a headache building behind his forehead that's been getting stronger by the minute, so he might as well take advantage of her ruse.

"Thank you, Garcia. I'm sure the gentlemen would appreciate some coffee?" he says, directing the question at the two men, and is relieved to see their annoyance give way to expressions of gratitude.

"Cream and sugar, please," Li says, and Garcia actually manages a smile.

"Yes, Sir, good choice, I'll back right away with the best coffee you've ever had in an FBI office."

She returns with a tray fifteen minutes later (ten minutes to prepare the beverages, five minutes to report to the rest of the team, if Hotch's estimation is correct) and delivers the coffee with hands that are only barely shaking.

"Thank you, Penelope," Hotch says, the first name a conscious choice: to tell her that he isn't angry with her about the interruption, but also to prepare her for the next curveball. "Could you please tell Dr. Reid to come up? The gentlemen would like a word with him."

"Dr. Reid," Garcia says, and he can see the wheels turning in her head. "Yes. Of course. I'll tell him. Immediately. He'll be here before you can even blink, Sir."

Hotch can see Russell raise a brow from the corner of his eye, and has to suppress a smile, despite the fact that he hasn't felt like smiling since the NSA showed up at the office this morning and requested a meeting. Garcia will do that to a person.

"Thank you, Garcia," he says, then turns to face the two men on the other side of his desk. "I'm not trying to prevent you from talking to Dr. Reid," he says, picking up where they left off before the coffee intervention. "I would be a bad excuse for a team leader if I didn't trust the members of my team to make their own decisions."

"What decisions?" Reid asks from the door, as if on cue. The fact that he showed up so quickly – true to Garcia's promise – confirms Hotch's suspicions that the entire team is basically lurking outside his office door instead of focusing on finding out who killed those four middle-aged women in Baltimore. They really cannot afford this kind of distraction.

"Thank you for coming so quickly, Dr. Reid," Hotch says, and sees Reid's mouth twitch at the unusually formal address. "These gentlemen are Dr. Li and Dr. Russell with the National Security Agency," he continues, and gets to his feet.

"Hi," Reid says and gives the agents his usual little wave, then immediately turns his attention back to Hotch, clearly searching for clues. Hotch sighs inwardly. As if he wasn't already biased enough in this issue.

"The NSA has taken an interest in your recent publications on cryptography," he says, as neutrally as he can manage. "They want to see how you feel about a more permanent form of collaboration." He forces himself to smile politely as he addresses his visitors. "I'm going to give you some privacy. Take as long as you need."

He heads for the door, where Reid is still blocking his exit, consciously or not.

"I'm sure Agent Hotchner can hear whatever you have to say," Reid says, and it's as much a statement for the NSA's sake as it is a question for him. Hotch smiles again, more reassuringly this time, and shakes his head.

"I know why they are here, Reid," he says. "And you should feel free to discuss this without worrying about my opinion." He gestures toward the free chair in the room – his chair – and is relieved when Reid finally separates from the doorframe and enters the room.

"Good luck," he says, although he isn't sure whom he's talking to, and shuts the door behind himself. He closes his eyes and exhales slowly, then he straightens and turns to face the team.

"What the hell is going on in there, Hotch?" Morgan asks. As predicted, they are all in the bullpen, badly pretending to be working on their case while watching the shadows move behind the blinds in his office.

"Yes, what do they want from Spencer?" Garcia follows, nervously wringing her hands. "He's not in trouble, is he?"

"I doubt that," Rossi says, and Hotch is not surprised to see that Dave is the only one playing it cool, no doubt because he has already figured out what's going on.

"My guess is they are here to recruit him." He throws Hotch a look of wry amusement. "Am I right?"

Hotch doesn't respond immediately, which for his team is answer enough.

"Recruit him?" Callahan asks. "Why Reid?"

Hotch raises his brows. "I'm not sure you are aware of this," he says dryly. "But Reid has been pretty prolific these last few years. He's published at least five papers that I know of since 2013, and as far as I am aware, he just signed a book contract with MIT University Press for a book on cryptography. Just because he's not the reading tour kind of guy," he says with a sardonic nod toward Rossi, "doesn't mean people aren't reading his work."

"Honestly," Dave shrugs, not bothered by the dig at his ego, "I'm only surprised it hasn't happened earlier."

"So what are we going to do about it?" Garcia asks, wide-eyed.

"About what?" Hotch asks. His headache is getting worse, and he has to fight the urge to raise his hands to his temples.

"The NSA," Morgan says, crossing his arms over his chest. "I mean, we can't just let them march in here and steal Reid."

Hotch feels like someone is drilling holes in his eyeballs. He thinks it says a lot about the kind of work they are doing that this is not a purely metaphorical image. "Morgan …"

"There must be something we can do," JJ adds, not as forceful as Morgan, but not any less demanding. "Spence …"

"Spencer Reid is, despite what you may think, not property of this team, nor does he belong to the FBI," Hotch snaps. The team stares at him in shock, mouths open. It's not often he loses his composure like that, and while he knows he will be ashamed tomorrow, right now he takes grim satisfaction in the knowledge that he can still scare them into silence. "He is, in fact, a grown man who can make his own decisions about his professional future. Now, don't we have a murder case to work on? Conference room in five, I want to see what you've got so far."

The team scurries off like a flock of frightened chicken, and Hotch closes his eyes.

"You alright?" Dave asks, touching his elbow gently. Hotch opens his eyes to look at him. Apparently David Rossi is not in the least intimidated by his outburst. Instead, he mostly looks concerned, and Hotch honestly isn't quite sure what's worse.

"Yeah, fine," he says, trying for a smile. Judging from the look on Dave's face, he's failing spectacularly.

"I know this is a difficult situation for the team," Dave says quietly. "But there is nothing you can do about it at this point."

Hotch sighs. "Then why does it feel so much like I’m throwing Reid to the sharks?"

Dave chuckles. "Because you're not stupid, and it's a reasonable reaction when dealing with these guys." He shrugs. "But as a wise man once said: Spencer Reid is a grown man who can make his own decisions."

Despite himself, Hotch finds himself smiling for real, even if the smile remains somewhat lopsided.

"For what it's worth," Dave says, smiling back. "I'm confident that he's going to make the right one."

 

To the team's credit, they do seem to have remembered that there are actual lives at stake, and are working hard to make progress on their case, even while they occasionally turn their heads to see if the door to Hotch's office is still closed.

Hotch's head still hurts, but someone had actually set a bottle of Aleve and a glass of water on the table next to his usual seat when he finally made it to the conference room – a white flag if he's ever seen one – and for once he is grateful to work with people who can read him a little bit too well.

Two hours later, they are still sifting through the victims' personal lives, trying to find a connection between their social circles. When Reid finally shows up behind them, Morgan is rubbing his eyes, and Callahan looks like she's close to hitting her forehead against the table in frustration.

"I think we need to reevaluate," Reid says after one look at the whiteboard, cutting off all potential inquiries before anyone gets the chance to open their mouth. "Garcia, you should focus on professional connections instead."

"What makes you say that?" JJ asks, leaning forward in her chair.

"Something Dr. Russell said to me about trusting people," Reid says distractedly, ignoring the alarm bells that anyone with an ounce of intuition would be able to see going off over everyone's heads. Reid focuses on the whiteboard instead, tilting his head as he studies the victims' profiles. "Well, we assumed that because there was no sign of forced entry in any of the cases, the killer must have been someone they knew personally," he says. "But look at these women – none of them are in relationships, two of them don't have any family in town at all, none of them seem to have a lot of friends …"

"We know that, Reid," Morgan says impatiently. "That's why we got stuck."

"Yes," Reid says, "but look at their jobs. Two firefighters, a police officer, an EMT …"

"Their partners," JJ says slowly. "Their teams. That's who they spend most of their time with. That's the people they would trust."

Hotch glances around the room, satisfied that everyone is focused on their task now that they have a new lead, then he heads back into the bullpen, where Li and Russell are waiting for him.

"Thank you for your visit, gentlemen," Hotch says politely, shaking their hands. If his grip is a bit tighter than usual, they are not going to notice.

"Thank you for your time, Agent Hotchner," Li says. "We appreciate you being so accommodating about this." He actually sounds mostly genuine.

"And we trust that you will take into consideration what's best for Dr. Reid," Russell adds. Hotch feels the headache come back with a vengeance.

"I think you will find that Dr. Reid has his own opinions about what's best for him," he says. "I am not going to try and influence him either way. Everything else is up to him."

Russell raises his brows. "Fair enough," he says, and smiles. Hotch thinks of a shark circling its prey and quickly bids them goodbye before he can say anything he might later regret.

 

Closing a case this quickly is always a good thing, Hotch tells himself. Closing a case without anyone dying – not the suspect, not the last victim, certainly not anyone on his team – is even better. So what if that means doing paperwork all night, even if the beneficial effects of the painkillers have worn off hours ago.

He squeezes the bridge of his nose between two fingers and sighs. When looks up again, Reid is standing in the doorway, staring at him with an odd expression on his face.

"Everything alright, Reid?" Hotch asks, spinning his chair so that he can face him more directly. Reid raises a brow.

"Somehow I feel I should be the one asking you that," he says dryly. "No offense, but you don't look so great."

Hotch shakes his head. "I'm fine," he says. "It's just been a long day."

Reid looks like he wants to disagree, but then he seems to change his mind. "The team is heading over to Cherry's for drinks," he says instead, hesitantly.

"On a weeknight?" Hotch asks, surprised. "Did I miss someone's birthday?"

Reid laughs quietly. "No one has said anything, but I think they are trying to prove to me that the BAU is more fun than the NSA."

Hotch snorts, then winces when the pounding in his head gives way to a stabbing pain. "Don't let them pressure you, Reid," he says, because it's something Reid needs to hear. "You need to figure out what's best for you. You don't owe the BAU anything."

Reid frowns. "I don't think that's exactly true," he says slowly, but then he smiles. "But if it helps, I can assure you I won't let them bribe me with blue cocktails and pink umbrellas."

Hotch raises his brows at the oddly specific image. "Do I even want to know?" he asks, and Reid shrugs lightly.

"It's a long story. But I could tell you over a drink?" He bites his lip. "Nothing blue or pink, I promise."

Hotch grimaces. "As tempting as that sounds, I think I'm going to pass tonight. You go have fun, though."

"Oh, okay," Reid says. Hotch tries to ignore the hint of wistfulness in Spencer's voice as he turns back to his paperwork.

"Don’t work too late, Hotch," Reid says finally, and Hotch glances up at him again for a moment.

"I won't," he lies smoothly, and Reid gives him a tiny smile.

"See you tomorrow, then," he says, and quietly closes the door.

 

"So what are they offering you to lure you to the dark side?" Dave asks Friday night, on the flight back from Seattle, and Reid scrunches up his nose over the chess board between them.

"Pretty much anything I want," he says lightly, and pretends not to notice how everyone is subtly tilting their heads in the direction of their conversation.

"There are things you might want that the FBI is not providing you with?" Dave asks and makes his move. "I'm shocked."

Reid frowns as he contemplates the board. "Turns out the NSA has excellent childcare resources," he says absent-mindedly, "although I'm not sure that should be my top priority."

He moves his pawn and snatches Rossi's rook from the board. Dave groans and shakes his fist at him in jest, and just like that, the interrogation is over. Hotch has a suspicion that this is exactly what Reid intended, but then, maybe it was not.

It's been five days since the interview. Hotch knows that the NSA is expecting an answer within a week, but if Reid has made up his mind, no one knows but him. The team is getting antsy, and Hotch cannot even blame them: he's been watching them prod and poke Reid all week, carefully, almost fearfully, as if they are worried they'll scare him off if they push too hard. For all that Hotch knows, it might be a justified concern: Reid has never taken kindly to being pressured too hard. He hasn't acted defensively though, not like he's seriously bothered by JJ's attempts to catch him alone after work, or Garcia's new-found hobby of leaving candy on his desk at random intervals. But he's certainly been evasive: it's not like he's been denying that the NSA is trying to get him to work for them, it's just very hard to tell how he feels about it.

Morgan throws Hotch a look and raises his brows questioningly. Hotch just shrugs in response and buries his nose in a case file, ignoring Morgan's frustrated grunt. It's not like he knows anything they don't, he tells himself. It's not like there's anything he can do that the others haven't already tried.

But back at the office, staring at the stacks of paperwork piling up on his desk, he suddenly feels an overwhelming sense of fatigue washing over him, and he has to sit down and hold onto the edge of his desk to get himself back under control. Since he's already sitting, he figures he might as well stay where he is, and he doesn't move until he hears JJ clearing her voice in the doorway.

"I'm heading out, Hotch," she says, searching his expression for – something, although what he doesn't know. "Do you need anything before I leave?"

"No, thank you, JJ," he shakes his head. He pauses. "That was good work in Seattle today."

"Thank you," she says, sounding surprised at the praise. "I was just doing my job." She hesitates. "What do you think Spencer is going to do about the offer from the NSA?"

"I don't know, JJ," he says, and that at least is the truth. "He hasn't said anything to me."

"And you haven't asked him, have you," she says, and it's not really a question. She runs a hand through her hair. "Don't you want him to stay?"

Hotch sighs and looks down at the form on his desk. "What I want, I'm not going to get," he says, and then wonders why that sounds so familiar.

JJ draws in a sharp breath, but when he looks at her, she just gives him a sad smile. "Don't work too late, Hotch," she says, and as she is leaving, Hotch thinks that somehow, her words sound very familiar too.

He is still stuck on the same form when he hears a knock against the doorframe. "I thought you'd left, JJ," he says, signing the bottom of the page before looking up. "Did you forget –" He stops himself. "You are not JJ."

Reid smiles wryly, shoulders drawn up to his ears. "That I am not."

"Sorry, Reid – I was just –" He hears himself rambling and pulls up short, takes a deep breath. "Why are you still here?"

Reid grimaces and stuffs his hands into the pockets of his pants. Hotch get the impression that it's mostly to keep himself from fidgeting.

"You know, everyone has been trying to convince me to stay on the team all week," he says, conversationally, as if he's continuing a dialogue they started a while ago. "Even Cruz has taken me out for coffee to find out what's going on, can you imagine? It's funny – sometimes it feels like they don't even like having me around, but now that the NSA wants me, it's like they are worried that someone is going to steal their favorite toy."

There is no bitterness in his voice, but Hotch is still taken aback. "What? No, Reid – you know that's not – you can't possibly think, after all this time, that the team doesn't love you."

He winces inwardly at the choice of words, even as he knows that he couldn't have phrased it any differently.

"Yeah, I guess so," Reid shrugs, looking embarrassed. He is avoiding Hotch's eyes, his gaze darting from the floor to the bookshelf in the corner and back. "At least objectively speaking, I'm aware of it. Old habits are hard to shake, I guess." He pauses. "What's strange is, though – you are the only one who hasn't said anything to me."

He is looking straight at Hotch now, despite the apprehension in his eyes, and Hotch forces himself to look back.

"I didn't want you to feel like I was influencing your decision, Reid," he says evenly. "It would have been – unprofessional."

Reid makes a small, miserable sound and sags against the doorframe. "You mean unprofessional like it is unprofessional to make a pass at one's boss at a colleague's funeral?"

Hotch coughs in shocked surprise. He hadn't expected Reid to bring this up, just like that, put it out there where it can't possibly be ignored. Truth be told, he'd been prepared to never speak of it again.

"Look," Spencer says, and there is a hint of desperation in his voice. "I know I shouldn't have done it, and I am so sorry, and I fully understand if you would rather I left –"

"What?" Hotch interrupts. His head is starting to hurt again. "No, Reid, that's not – no. I would not rather you left. Reid. Spencer. You were grieving, it's only natural that you would – but Spencer, you need to see that – under the circumstances, anything that could have possibly happened ... And I can't – " he draws a shuddering breath, and forces himself to go on: "I cannot be your replacement for Jason Gideon."

"Replace Gideon?" Reid asks, and now he's the one who looks taken aback. "Is that what you think that was about?" He puts his face in his hands, then lets his hands fall away, palms facing up. "I really screwed this up, didn't I." He hesitates, then walks into the room and takes the chair across from Hotch, perching on the edge of the seat as if poised for flight.

"Hotch, I know I made a mess of things, but you need to know. Whatever I think of you – I promise, I swear, it has nothing to do with Jason Gideon." He bites his lip and looks up at the ceiling. "It hasn't had anything to do with Gideon for much longer than I'd ever wanted to admit."

There's an ache in the back of Hotch's throat, slowly trickling down toward his chest with every inhale, making it difficult to breathe. "I didn't know," he says slowly, and then, the only thing he can think of: "I didn't know."

Reid's face shifts into a complicated expression that Hotch would call a smirk if didn't look so pained. "You weren't supposed to," he says. He leans forward, elbows on his knees. "Hotch, I need to know – do you want me to leave the team?"

"No." The answer comes automatically, he doesn't even have to think. Reid blinks in surprise and leans back in his chair. He had expected a different answer, that much is clear, and Hotch feels guilty for making him fear the worst.

"No, I don't want you to leave the team, Spencer," he says, more quietly.

"So what do you want?" Reid asks hesitantly.

"It doesn't matter what I want," Hotch says and allows himself to drag a hand over his face. "The basic dilemma stays the same."

Reid tilts his head questioningly, and then something shifts in his posture. He looks less like he wants to disappear and more like he's found a curious puzzle to solve. Hotch wonders if that's how unsubs feel when they are on the receiving end of Reid's studying gaze. It's not a very pleasant thought.

"The dilemma," Reid repeats slowly, nodding thoughtfully. The he gets up from his chair. "Thank you, Hotch," he says, "for being so honest with me."

Hotch isn't so certain that that's in fact what he's been doing, but he doesn't think disagreeing with Reid would help his case. So he keeps silent and nods, and only after Reid has left and closed the office door quietly behind him, Hotch realizes that he missed his chance to ask Reid whether he has already made up his mind.

 

When Garcia call him at ten on Saturday night, he's just settled down in front of the television with a glass of bourbon, marveling at the fact that he's made it through an entire day with Jack without being called away on a job. They'd bundled up and headed to the park for a bit of soccer, then stopped by Starbucks for hot chocolate on the way home. It had felt comfortable and peaceful, and Hotch had reminded himself to be grateful for the things he had.

Of course, in between cooking spaghetti for dinner and watching Frozen on DVD, he did receive calls from both Rossi and Morgan, asking in more or less roundabout ways for the latest news on Reid's potential transfer. He ended up telling both of them that maybe it wouldn't take Reid so long to make a decision if he wasn't constantly bombarded with questions from all sides, a strategy that worked pretty well on Morgan, but less so with Dave, who took his response as an opportunity to ask him how he was doing. Hotch managed to refrain from biting his head off and instead made plans to meet at Jack's favorite diner for lunch the next day, so at least the conversation wasn't a complete waste of time.

"Garcia," he says, after checking the caller ID, reaching with his free hand for the remote to switch off the volume on the TV.

"Sir," she says, sounding upset and out of breath, and Hotch immediately feels a tug of worry. "Sir, I'm so sorry for calling you, because it's the weekend, and you need your private time, and maybe I interrupted your date – God, please tell me I didn't interrupt a date."

"I'm not on a date, Garcia," he says automatically, both because it's true and because he's had enough practice talking to an upset Penelope Garcia to know how to get her back on track.

"Oh, thank God. I mean – not that it's good that you are not on a date, but – never mind. I'm just calling because – I was stopping by Spencer's place earlier tonight, just to – you know, tell him that he would be horribly missed if he left the BAU, because sometimes I'm not sure he knows how much we'd miss him, but – he wasn't home, and I've been calling his cell, and he isn't picking up, and I know it's stupid, but I'm so worried."

It's stupid, yes, ridiculous even, but Hotch cannot even blame Garcia: After everything that's happened to them these last few years, it's not a surprise that her mind would go to all the dark places in a situation like this. In fact, he feels a stirring of anxiety himself and clamps down on it at once.

"Did it occur to you that he might just be at the movies?" he asks calmly, because that's what Garcia needs to hear. "He does that sometimes, doesn't he? Go to the movies by himself? And he would switch off his phone if he was at the theater, wouldn't he?"

"Yes," she breathes, sounding so grateful that it hurts a little. "Yes, of course, he's probably just …" She trails off. "I'm so sorry, Sir, I really shouldn't have called, it's just – "

The doorbell rings and takes Hotch's attention away from Garcia's apologies. He lets her ramble on, in the knowledge that talking has a cathartic effect on her, and heads to the kitchen, carefully lifting the curtains to get a glimpse of who is outside his door. When he recognizes the dark figure on his doorstep, he isn't even that surprised.

"Hold on, Garcia," he says, cutting her off mid-sentence. "Actually, you can stop worrying. He's outside my house."

"Reid is at your house?" Garcia asks, "why – oh, of course, he probably wants your advice – that's good, thank you, Sir, I'm so glad I called – and please, could you just tell him again that we don't want him to go? Even if it's just to Maryland?"

"I promise I'll tell him," Hotch says, opening the door with his free hand, grimacing apologetically at Reid as he steps back to let him in. "But I'm going to hang up now so that I can actually talk to him. Goodnight, Garcia," he says, and barely waits for her "Goodnight, Sir," before he disconnects the call.

"Was that Garcia?" Reid asks and takes off his hat. Hotch watches his hair spill out in all directions, thinks of Penelope's panicked phone call and wonders, not for the first time, why his eight-year-old son acts more maturely on most days than half his team of top-class profilers.

"Yes," he nods, "she couldn't get a hold of you and was worried."

"Oh." Reid pauses halfway through taking off his coat, beginning to fumble awkwardly for his pockets. "I guess I turned off my cell after the third call from JJ …" From somewhere in the depths of his coat, the phone emerges and promptly tumbles to the floor. "Crap." He gives Hotch an embarrassed smile. "Sorry. I'm nervous."

"Okay," Hotch nods, because he has given up on figuring out what's happening here. He kneels to pick up Reid's phone, positions it safely on the drawer next to the door, then holds out his hands. "Give me your coat."

Reid obediently finishes unzipping the jacket and hands it over to Hotch, who proceeds to hang it on the coat rack in the corner. When he turns around, Reid is standing straight, looking determined, despite the flush that the cold has brought to his cheeks and nose, despite the tousled hair.

"I need to talk to you," he says.

"I figured," Hotch says, resignedly. He feels tired and old. "Can I get you something to drink?"

Reid shrugs. "No alcohol," he says, and follows Hotch into the kitchen, looking around the room as Hotch inspects the contents of the fridge.

"Sprite okay?" he asks, holding the bottle out to Reid for approval.

"I love Sprite," Reid says with passion, and Hotch laughs a little as he stretches to get two glasses from the cabinet.

"Yeah, Jack does too," he says ruefully. "I know I shouldn't let him have it, but …"

He pours the Sprite, but suddenly handing Reid the glass seems too intimate, so he gestures towards the counter and lets Spencer pick the one he wants. Reid doesn't seem to mind.

"You know," Reid says thoughtfully, in between tiny sips, "if the only regret you have about your parenting is that you let your son have too much soda, I think you're doing a pretty good job."

Hotch does not say that it's easy being a gold-star parent in comparison to Reid's own dad; instead he covers up his awkwardness by lifting his own glass to his mouth. Too late, he remembers that unlike Reid, he does not like Sprite very much.

"I think I figured out your dilemma," Reid says then, and his tone is so conversational that it takes Hotch a moment to realize they are not talking about beverages anymore.

"My dilemma?" he asks casually, even as he feels his heart picking up speed.

"Yeah," Reid nods, leaning against the kitchen counter. "Yesterday at the office. You said it didn't matter what you wanted, because the dilemma would remain the same." He shrugs. "At the time, I thought you were just talking about how to – let me down easily. But that's not what you meant at all, was it?"

Hotch exhales slowly. "Are you profiling me?"

Reid smiles wryly. "I'm trying to read your verbal and nonverbal cues. Even normal people occasionally do that in conversation. Or so I've been told by different reliable sources." He tilts his head. "There are two variables in this equation, the offer from the NSA and my –" he sighs, "recent behavior. You said you don't want me to leave the team. But you think that either way you react to my confession would end with me having to leave: You reject me, you think I might feel uncomfortable enough to not want to stick around. You don't reject me, there would be fraternization rules to deal with, which means I might have to leave anyway."

He looks away, toys with his now-empty glass. "The thing is: There wouldn't be a dilemma if you hadn't at least considered the possibility of not rejecting me." He turns back toward Hotch, like he's searching for something. "Tell me I'm wrong," he says, almost like a challenge, and then, more hesitantly: "Tell me I'm wrong."

Hotch closes his eyes from the sight. "You are not wrong," he says finally, and hears Spencer draw a sharp breath.

"Then –" Reid says, and Hotch cuts him off before he can finish his sentence.

"But that doesn't change anything," he adds tiredly. "I shouldn't even have said this. You should be able to stay on the team, and the rules -"

"Hotch," Spencer says. "Aaron. Would it help if I told you that my faith in fraternization rules went out the window the day Garcia and I caught Rossi and Strauss in flagranti at a Doctor Who convention –"

"Excuse me?" Hotch chokes out a laugh. "You what?"

Reid grimaces. "Well, not in the act – but – actually, never mind. My point is that others have done it, the former section chief has done it, and the team didn't fall apart. But I promise you, if this whole thing comes crashing down on our heads, I will clear my desk and desert to the NSA, and I'll be just a one-hour-24-minutes drive away in Maryland."

Hotch frowns. "I thought they needed an answer by Monday."

Reid rolls his eyes. "That's what they said, yes. But they also said – in very secretive voices and completely off the record – that it's a standing offer. They want me to work for them, Hotch, and if I show up in five months on their doorstep with my tail between my legs, they are not going to turn me down."

Hotch stares at him, incredulously. "Are you negotiating with me?"

Reid shrugs sheepishly. "Maybe? It's not exactly a secret that my logic is superior to my romancing skills."

Hotch laughs, a brief, choked sound. Reid looks embarrassed and vulnerable, and surprisingly determined, and Hotch has no resistance against the sudden surge of affection rising in his chest.

"You would really be prepared to do that?" he finally asks, and Reid gives him a puzzled frown.

"Do what?" he asks.

"Transfer to the NSA," Hotch says. "If something goes wrong. I know you love working for the FBI. I know you love this team. And you would be willing to quit over – this?"

Reid swallows, but he doesn't look away. "I would," he says quietly. "If it came to that. I would."

Hotch swears he can feel something inside him break. He's been working so hard to not let himself think about it. He's forced himself to forget the rush of want he felt when Reid had leaned into him on the way to the car that night after Jason's funeral, to block out the fact that when Reid had kissed him, tasting of wine and too many tears, he had, for a moment, allowed himself to kiss him back. He's tried to be a professional, tried to think about what's best for the team. But now Reid is standing in his kitchen, with a glass of Sprite in his hand and that spark of hope in his voice, and it's too much.

He gives up.

"I give up," he says, his voice cracking. He watches Spencer set his glass down, his expression melting into one of concern. A strand of hair is falling into his face, curling up against his cheek, but he doesn't push it away.

"Are you –" Spencer asks, taking one step forward and pausing again, stretching out a hesitant hand as if he's thinking about petting a skittish dog. "I'm sorry, I –"

"I give up," Aaron says again, and suddenly it doesn't sound like defeat anymore. It feels like relief. He reaches out to grab Spencer by the wrist and pull him in. Spencer stumbles a little, but he comes willingly, and Aaron reaches up to brush that errant strand of hair out of his face and tuck it behind his ear.

Spencer stares, lips slightly open, but he seems to have lost all his courage now that he's so close, so Aaron reels him in for a kiss. The Sprite doesn't taste so bad anymore on Spencer's lips, just a hint of sharp freshness, and Aaron presses in, hungry for more.

Then Spencer moans, a quiet, fragile sound that makes Aaron push him against the kitchen counter, one hand on his hip, one on the back of his head to hold him in place. Spencer kisses greedily, desperately, as if he thinks this is the only chance he's going to get; and Aaron realizes that Spencer may very well think that's true.

So he tightens his grip, pulls him closer, deepens the kiss, because he isn't quite sure how to tell him that now they've started this, he doesn't think it will be that easy for him to stop.

Eventually, he breaks away from Spencer's mouth, but he doesn't go far, feels Spencer's body shudder against his where they are pressed together, chest to thigh. He drops his forehead onto Spencer's shoulder and takes a ragged breath.

"Are you alright?" Spencer asks carefully, one hand coming to settle on the nape of his neck hesitantly, as if he isn't quite sure whether he's allowed to touch.

Aaron nods against Spencer's collarbone and lifts his head. "I just –" he says, "I don't –" He breaks off. "Why?"

Spencer huffs, almost smiling. "Why you?" he asks, "or why now?"

"Either," Aaron says helplessly. "Both."

Spencer sighs, looks down. "A comprehensive answer to the first one might take a while, although I can tell you that a gun range and a cemetery and a prison cell all feature prominently in that story. As for the second – look, if Gideon's death had anything to do with this –"

He looks up right in time to watch Hotch tense up, ready to back away, and quickly shakes his head. "No, no, that's not – it's just, Jason's death – You know, for eight years, I'd been thinking that all I had to do was give him a call, and he'd be there. And then, all of a sudden, he just wasn't. And with everything that's happened – with Maeve, and – it just made me realize that in this line of work, I cannot afford to just wait for things to work themselves out."

Aaron briefly closes his eyes. "I thought you were just drunk, that night," he says, his voice unsteady and rough. "I thought you were just coping."

Spencer smiles ruefully. "I was drunk," he concedes. "No one's ever said I was courageous."

Aaron frowns. "No?" he says doubtfully. "Someone probably should."

Spencer chuckles quietly, bashful but genuinely amused, and the movement makes their bodies shift together once more. Aaron can feel Spencer's erection strain against his hip, feels his own cock twitch in response. Spencer shivers violently, and Aaron tightens his fingers in Spencer's curls, runs his other hand down his side, comforting or teasing, he isn't quite sure himself.

"You think the NSA has wired your place?" Spencer asks, his eyes too bright, his voice coming out hoarse and strangled.

Aaron frowns, confused, and tries to remember when he's last checked the house for bugs. "What? Why would you say that?"

Spencer raises his brows and smirks. "I just thought I could save myself the time to inform them of my decision if they were listening in."

"God, I hope not," Aaron groans, and tugs Spencer's head back a little to expose his throat. Spencer exhales a faint, helpless moan, and Aaron wonders what sounds he's going to make when he nips the sensitive skin with his teeth. He looks forward to finding out.

"There are some things the NSA really doesn't need to know."