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In The Loop

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“No hospitals,” Reid gasped as Hotch shifted to shoulder more of his weight against him.

“You need medical attention.” Hotch’s hands were covered in Reid’s blood as he held him upright. They’d finally made it to the SUV and Hotch propped Reid against its side as he unlocked the door. A quick look down revealed that his shirt was also stained with blood. His pulse pounded in his throat and he fought back against the sudden, vicious dry heave it produced.

“No hospitals – promise me, Aaron,” Reid made a hideous whine as Hotch laid him out in the backseat of the truck. “You know why…”

Of course he knew why. A severed piece of ‘why’ was wrapped up in a handkerchief in his coat pocket, for chrissakes. And he’d lied to the team about why he wasn’t waiting for the paramedics too; he figured the less people who knew, the better, and paramedics had no confidentiality requirements.

“There’s debris, bullet fragments…” Hotch slammed the driver’s side door and revved the engine rather than lose his temper. If he lost his temper, his sense of competency would be next, and then he’d just become a useless, terrified human. “It’s not something I can do myself, Spencer.”

“My phone,” Reid hissed lying face down on the backseat. “Look up ‘Sue’ in the contacts… tell her you’re calling for me… ask her to come to my place. She’ll know why.”

Hotch took a hard corner and then regretted it when Reid howled as his back rolled against the seat. Despite that Reid managed to free his phone and lob it onto the front passenger seat. In the rearview mirror Hotch could see Reid’s bloodied back moving under the ruins of his shirt. Blood was pulsing in time with his breathing but his back was also pulsing as if his body were fighting itself.

“They’re all moving…” Hotch murmured. “I’ve never seen them all move like that.”

“The pain…” Reid’s fingers dug into the seat fabric. “It’s instinct. They don’t know what to do to ease it, and I can’t control them right now.”

Hotch’s chest tightened as if he were still wearing his vest. He squeezed the steering wheel until his knuckles turned white to try and convince the feeling to move on. He sped past the onramp that would take him to the nearest hospital and pressed down on the accelerator instead as he ground his teeth at the choices he was making.

“Why weren’t you wearing a vest?” he bit out.

“There was no time,” Reid whimpered but when he spoke again it sounded more like guilt than pain. “And I forgot, I guess.”

“You guess? You don’t make those sorts of mistakes. I trained you better than that.”

“If I’d taken the time to suit up, it would’ve been your face instead of my back. It was my choice and I’d make the same choice again. Now, call Sue, would you?”

Reid groaned and it snapped Hotch’s anger in half. He fumbled on the seat beside him as he tried to negotiate the call while not smashing them into a guardrail. He didn’t want to admit his fear or that Reid was right; Hotch had frozen when he’d come face to face with their suspect’s sawed-off shotgun while clearing the guy’s basement. He’d never been so terrified in his life than when he stared down that crude barrel and couldn’t think about anything else. It was if his mind and all of it’s extensive profiler knowledge had abandoned him - there was nothing but emptiness and the assurance of that wide, dark barrel. Then Reid had yanked him, and the shot exploded in the dim crawlspace followed by another from Hotch’s own Glock. And then there was just the dead weight of Reid against him and the ringing in his ears and a whole new empty terror when he looked into Reid’s eyes.

He forced everything but what he had to do from his mind and made the call. There wasn’t much conversation and the gruff woman on the other end asked a few questions, elucidated nothing, and then hung up.

“I guess that means she’s coming,” Hotch mumbled as he tossed Reid’s phone onto the seat next to him.

“She’s like that,” Reid said. “You two are a lot alike. Not big on talking.”

“I talk.” Hotch glared at him through the rearview mirror.

“When you have to,” Reid hissed and then turned his head towards the seat back. “I go too far the opposite way, so maybe it all balances out… if you don’t mind though, I think I’m gonna stop now before I throw up.”

Hotch swallowed hard and nodded even though Reid was turned away from him. He focused on the road in front of him, the wheel under his hands and the pedal under his foot. That was all he needed to concern himself with at the moment.

~~~~

A sharp knock rang out and Hotch left Reid lying prostrate and shirtless on his couch to answer it. On the other side was a small, neat, grey haired woman with a large messenger bag not unlike Reid’s own. Her eyes flicked over Hotch quickly from top to bottom and then she brushed past him into Reid’s apartment.

“Where is he?” she asked without introduction, and then spotted him on the couch and went directly to him. “Why isn’t he in bed?”

Hotch raised his eyebrows and followed in her wake, his nerves bristling a little at her dismissal. “We climbed three flights of stairs. His legs were jelly by the time we got here. I wanted to conserve his energy.”

The woman stood before Reid sprawled along the couch and then placed her bag on the floor in front of her, her hands resting on her hips in silent judgment.

“Spencer,” she said sharply. “What a dreadful mess you are.”

Hotch’s anger flared white hot and he was about to step between them when Reid groaned from the couch and gave her a small wave with the hand that was draped towards the floor knuckles brushing the hardwood.

“Hey Sue,” Reid managed a half smile. “Good to see you.”

Sue snorted and then mumbled something that sounded like ‘silly boy’ as she perched on the edge of the couch and made a cursory examination of Reid’s bloody back. She pulled some surgical gloves from her bag and began exploring his wounds with a lot of critical squinting and tutting. It looked awful. Hotch hadn’t had a chance to clean away the blood but even through it he could see the puckered tears made by shrapnel where the Unsub’s shot had hit a support beam instead of it’s mark. The guy’s shoddy aim was probably the only reason why Reid was still alive. And Reid was the only reason that Hotch was still alive… Hotch’s chest tightened so quickly that he had to remind himself how breathing worked.

Reid flinched and every time he did, Hotch mirrored it unconsciously. And yet he felt nailed to his spot on the floor unable to move to him, to fix any of this. Reid’s eyes flicked to him suddenly, clear but glassy with pain. Then he coughed as if trying to excuse an uncomfortable situation.

“Sue, this is Hotch. Hotch, Sue.”

Sue didn’t look away from her patient. “Did someone actually name you that?”

“It’s short for Hotchner. Aaron Hotchner.”

“Hmmmm,” she muttered and then looked up to him for the first time since she’d entered the apartment. “Dr. Susan Reisen. Who are you exactly?”

“I’m Reid’s unit chief at the FBI.”

Sue stopped what she was doing and stared at him in disbelief. “You’re his boss.”

Hotch nodded and a fierce possessiveness slid into her stare as she looked at him. He recognized it: Haley had that same look when she and Jack went into protection detail, as if she alone stood between her son and unspeakable danger. He shot his own protective glare back at the older woman so that they both knew where they stood in this situation. He didn’t understand who she was to Reid but it was obvious that she cared; she needed to know that he cared as well. In fact he cared enough to go to war with her about him. Maybe he’d go to war with everyone if it were necessary…

“As far as I know, the only person outside of this room who knows about Reid is his mother,” he said softly. “This isn’t the Bureau’s concern.”

“And yet, I’m assuming he got these injuries while working a case. One doesn’t usually get buckshot and shrapnel-like debris in one’s back while doing paperwork, does one? How will you explain that to your Bureau?”

Her tone went straight to his spine and made him stretch to his full height, squaring his shoulders and deepening his scowl.

“Sue…” Reid warned gently, beating Hotch to whatever response he was planning. “You don’t understand…”

“No, I don’t, Spencer,” she snapped, and then rooted around in her bag for something. “I never did and neither does your mother. But you didn’t call me here to discuss this again, did you?”

“Don’t be mad, Sue. You know I never wanted to disappoint you, or Mom.”

There was a heartbreaking ache to Reid’s voice when he spoke. The ache was old, worn, and suddenly Hotch wanted to hurl this innocuous woman from the building because he couldn’t stand to see Reid hurt like that on top of everything else today. He didn’t know what hold this woman had over Reid but he was beginning not to care - he wanted her gone.

“You’ve never disappointed me, Spencer. Never.” Sue leaned close to Reid and Hotch saw affection soften her edges for the first time. “It’s just… difficult to see you like this. It’s a lot to ask a parent to witness it and remain calm.”

Parent? Hotch didn’t understand. Who was this woman?

“And then there’s the risk of exposure that is inherent in your job,” she continued. “Your boss is in the room, for heaven’s sake…”

“I’ll never expose him,” Hotch growled.

“That’s easy to say in the moment, Mr. Hotchner, but try living with the burden of it for years and then see how you feel.” Sue glared at him. It felt as though she was daring him to prove his worth.

“He got injured saving my life today. As grateful as I am, I’d do almost anything to trade places with him right now. I’m a parent too, so perhaps you can understand the implications behind that statement.”

Reid’s eyes snapped to Hotch, sadness and stunned disbelief mixing in them with equal measure. He couldn’t help it: it was the truth. Sue’s eyebrows rose slightly as she looked him over again from head to toe; it was almost as if he could see the moment when she recategorized him.

“If that had happened, the trauma would’ve been considerable. Perhaps fatal,” she said carefully. Hotch just nodded. She stared a moment longer and then turned back to Reid, rummaging through her bag again. “Well, you’re lucky that didn’t happen. Spencer’s epidermis along his back is significantly thicker than ours. He also has an extra layer of musculature to control his appendages. In short, this means that he can withstand more damage there. He’s a damned mess to be sure, but he’ll recover.”

“Your bedside manner is still amazing, Sue,” Reid muttered into the cushions.

“Hush, you. Bleeding patients don’t get a say in those sorts of things. They just lie there and obey, if they know what’s good for them.”

Hotch hid his smirk.

“Now,” she continued. “I’m going to give you a sedative to reduce the pain while I patch you up.”

Reid twitched violently and Hotch moved before he even thought about it, getting between Reid and Sue. “You can’t.”

“Relax, Mr. Hotchner.” Sue raised her gloved hands. One held a single white pill. “I’m aware of Spencer’s addiction - as you are too, apparently. This is something intended for sleep. Not an opiate.”

She looked back at Reid’s wide-eyed focus on the pill in her hand. “It’s either this or three shots of whiskey. Your choice, Spencer…”

Reid groaned and then nodded resentfully. He opened his mouth obediently and dry swallowed the pill Sue placed on his tongue. She patted his cheek and smiled.

“Good boy. It’ll just dull things a little. You can still recite Pi to as many places as you want.”

Reid grumbled to himself but stopped and tensed up as Sue began to wash away the blood with gauze. Hotch needed to be useful so he went to Reid’s kitchen and fetched a bowl of warm water. He returned and placed the bowl at Sue’s feet next to her bag. She looked up and nodded approvingly, then he remembered what was in his jacket pocket.

“I suppose you should have this.”

He offered her the severed tentacle wrapped in his handkerchief. She raised her eyebrows at him and then peered at the specimen critically.

“That was quick thinking, Agent… Unfortunately, the end is too ragged for a successful reattachment. Necrosis is setting in as well… it’s probably not viable anymore. But put it in my bag. I’ll see that it’s properly destroyed.”

Hotch’s whole body sagged. Reid had dozens of tentacles but the news that he’d lose even one struck Hotch as akin to losing an arm. Sue cocked an eyebrow at his reaction.

“It’ll probably regenerate anyway.”

“Pardon?”

“It might regrow. His appendage cells show qualities indicative of caudal autotomy. It’s never something that we’ve tested, but I think there’s a good chance it could happen.”

“I’m like a gecko,” Reid mumbled beneath them, sounding a little sleepy.

Hotch shook his head slightly. “What sort of doctor are you?”

“A good one,” Reid slurred. “All kinds of curiosity…”

“I’m a geneticist, but don’t worry, I started out as a surgeon back when dinosaurs roamed the earth.”

“Dinosaurs and homo sapiens didn’t co-exist-” Reid started to argue but Hotch placed a hand on his head to still him while Sue murmured ‘Hush, Spencer’ as she continued cleaning his back.

“Thank you, Doctor,” Hotch said quietly after several minutes. Reid reached out and clutched his pant leg. Hotch saw Sue notice the movement as her hands hesitated and then went back to her bag to retrieve some tweezers and fresh gauze.

“Thank me later. It’s been nearly forty years since I did my emergency medicine rotation.”

“Why did you switch specialties?”

Sue sighed as she prepared to begin extracting the wood and buckshot. “Be ready to hold him down - he might twitch. Also, I’ll have to remove another appendage. That one is too damaged to stitch up. He won’t like that.”

“No, I won’t,” Reid muttered. “And I can still hear you both, by the way.”

Hotch stroked Reid’s hair and then did as he was told. “Shut up, Spence. I’ve got this.”

Sue gave him a hard look but then Reid chuckled and Hotch smiled, smoothing Reid’s hair again. When Sue started extracting the debris, Reid tensed and did his best to swallow his pain, but Hotch ended up having to put a lot of effort into holding him still. The tentacles thrashed but, oddly, didn’t move to prevent Sue from her work. Hotch wondered if Reid had more subconscious control of them than he thought. A couple of tentacles stretched up to curl over Hotch’s hands where they pressed into Reid; he had to look away from them before the tightness in his chest strangled the life out of him. Sue worked in silence for a long time, the ticking of dropped buckshot and splinter fragments in the bowl at her feet making the only sound. Then she spoke as if they’d been talking all along.

“I changed specialties because of Diana.”

Another metal ting sounded in the bowl beneath her, a delicate curl of blood rising to the water’s surface at the same time.

“We met in college. I was there when she received her schizophrenia diagnosis.”

“That must have been devastating.”

“Hmmm,” Sue nodded and removed another wood fragment. “But Diana is remarkably strong-willed. She was depressed in the beginning and then one day she said ‘Sue, it’s time to get on with things - I can’t waste anymore time’.”

Hotch’s eyebrows arched. That was indeed a remarkable attitude to take to mental illness. “So, you switched to genetics in order to research schizophrenia?”

“Not really. That’s more of a neurobiology focus.” Sue sighed again, heavy and full of history. “She wanted to have children, you see. She’d met William by this time.”

Hotch suddenly felt chilled all over as his mind uncoiled a long, tangled inference from Sue’s statement. It was the sort of inference that only existed in science fiction. Surely that wasn’t the case here. He looked up from Reid and saw her staring at him calmly, waiting for his reaction.

“You…” Hotch didn’t even know what he wanted to say.

“She made me, in a way,” Reid slurred and they both looked at him. “She made me possible at any rate. Just tried to tweak the odds in my favor… I’m still all Mom and William.”

Hotch looked back to Sue, his mouth falling open a little. “Surely that wasn’t…”

“Ethical? Perhaps not. Legal? Certainly not.” Sue shrugged and went back to her work. “And Diana begged me. She wanted to be a mother so much… she’s my best friend. I couldn’t refuse her. I was also young. My hubris was boundless back then.”

Sue got to the damaged tentacle and focused intently, trying to be quick as she cut and sutured. Hotch was distracted by Reid’s squirming. He moaned loudly while Sue worked and Hotch felt useless that all he could do was press him into the couch and tell him that it would be over soon. The other tentacles reached for his hands on Reid’s shoulders, half seeking comfort and half squeezing to be released. When Sue finished with the amputation, she quickly stitched up a few of the larger shrapnel tears and then packed his pockmarked back with gauze before bandaging him. She worked again in silence. Reid sagged beneath Hotch, perhaps finally passing out. Sue gave him a quick injection but even then he didn’t wake.

“Antibiotics,” she answered Hotch’s glare. “To prevent infection. I’ll leave some with you. He’ll need another dose in twelve hours. Can I rely on you for that?”

He wanted to tell her that Reid could rely on him with greater certainty than he could on a doctor who may or may not have mutilated him for life. “I can’t rest until he does. I’m not leaving any time soon.”

Sue sagged back a little and stared at Hotch’s judgment for a long time.

“He was born normal, you know. Healthy and beautiful and perfect in every way. We wouldn’t know for decades if what I’d done had any effect on his schizophrenia risk. At the time, there didn’t appear to be any harm done.”

“He was normal?”

Sue nodded. “When he first showed signs of accelerated mental development, I grew concerned, but Diana and William were delighted. And, really, there was no way to determine that he wouldn’t have turned out that way on his own. William took it upon himself to lay claim to Spencer’s intelligence - that it was the combined brilliance of his and Diana’s DNA. As if genetics were as simple as a recipe for a prize-winning stew… What a jackass.”

Hotch had to agree there: Reid’s father was an asshole.

“So, when did they appear? The tentacles…”

“Not until he was six. He got a fever and began to break out in red bumps - everyone assumed he had chicken pox. But the fever passed and the bumps kept growing. William was horrified. He wanted to cut them off and Diana descended into a paranoid rage about it that lasted for five days. She barricaded herself in her room with Spencer. She’d only let me in - that’s when I started doing my cursory tests and discovered that amputation probably wouldn’t work. William didn’t believe me.”

“But surely he must have understood the risks?”

“He didn’t know. Only Diana and I knew.”

Hotch leaned heavily onto the arm of Reid’s couch. He huffed out a huge breath; he wasn’t sure how he’d respond if Haley had done something to Jack during her pregnancy without his knowledge.

“William doesn’t have the sort of ego to handle something like that - he’s a weak man. In the end, learning what Diana had done broke his bond to Spencer. He didn’t want anything to do with either of them.”

Sue leaned forward and ran her fingers gently through Reid’s hair. Her voice lowered to a whisper.

“When he left, he said that he just wanted an easier life. He said no one would blame him if they knew the truth.”

Hotch’s stomach twisted with disgust. Reid said that his father left because of him but Hotch had always thought that was Reid’s inferiority complex speaking. Now, to know that William Reid abandoned his son for a reason that Hotch thought made Reid so special… well, he just hoped that he would never run into William Reid ever again.

“I only wish there was a way to erase all traces of William from Spencer. He deserves better.”

Sue continued stroking Reid’s hair until he stirred under her hands.

“Don’t be like that, Sue,” he croaked.

“Don’t tell me that you’ve forgiven him…”

“No, I haven’t. But I also no longer give him any of my time. Neither should you.”

Sue made a noise that was halfway between a sob and a note of pure pride. “That’s my beautiful, brave boy…”

The undamaged tentacles on Reid’s back reached for Sue’s arm, stroking it softly. Sue dropped her hand into them and curled her fingers amongst them. It was a trusted, familiar movement - probably one that she’d done over and over for years. Hotch suddenly felt jealous but also as if he were intruding. Reid and Sue were family, for better or for worse. He didn’t belong. He stood from the couch arm and tried to give them some privacy. Reid’s grip on his pant leg tightened and stopped him from going anywhere.

“Stay,” he mumbled.

Sue’s eyes flicked to Reid’s grip again and then she rose from the couch, her hands suddenly busy with tidying the mess she’d made.

“I’ll clean up,” she directed to Hotch quietly. “Try to get him to the bedroom. He’ll be more comfortable there.”

She took the bowl of bloody water, shrapnel, and rags to Reid’s kitchen leaving them alone in the living room. Hotch maneuvered Reid as gently as he could but the process involved a lot of yelping and hissing. By the time he got Reid sitting on the end of his bed, Hotch’s pulse was thundering in his ears.

“I’m sorry.” Hotch whispered it over and over. He was sorry for so much: Reid’s pain, the risks that he took day in and day out, the crappy deal life had dealt him… all of it.

“Don’t be,” Reid mumbled as he let Hotch strip him down to his shorts and then fuss with the bed sheets. “I told you that I’d do it again.”

“Maybe I don’t want you to make sacrifices for me. Maybe I don’t want to force you to find reasons to forgive me.”

Hotch wasn’t meeting his eyes but Reid grabbed his hand and forced him to look at his face. The fatigue and pain dulled some of the sharp focus he usually had but he was still staring at Hotch critically. Hotch collapsed under the scrutiny and ducked his gaze in shame.

“You mean you don’t blame her even a little for what she did?”

“No,” Reid said without hesitation and it forced Hotch’s eyes back to his. “Sue never told me I was anything less than special… beautiful even. That’s more than William ever gave me. She helped me with Mom, she listened to me, and she was always there when I needed her. She loves me, Aaron, as surely as if I were her own son. Who knows what her actions actually did to me? The point is that she stuck around to handle the consequences. She never asked for forgiveness, and even if she had, there’s nothing to forgive in my mind.”

Reid was special all right. Hotch found himself staring at him in silence, struggling to compose something that would express how he felt.

“There’s nothing for me to forgive you for either,” Reid continued. “I accepted the risks when I took this job. The sacrifices I make are my own. You can either choose to be okay with that or not.”

Hotch swallowed hard and had to look away. All he could see was Reid’s exhaustion and the dark circles under his eyes and the flecks of blood Sue hadn’t managed to wash away. He remembered the horrible moaning coming from the backseat of the SUV, his own shirt covered in blood… He looked down and realized he was still wearing it. Hotch walked to Reid’s bathroom on autopilot and returned with a damp washcloth. He slowly, gently cleaned the remaining blood from Reid’s neck and shoulders, his fingertips shaking where they rested on the bandage wrapped around him. He could feel Reid’s eyes on him, feel him waiting him out.

“I’m scared.”

The words barely made a sound but Hotch gulped afterwards as if he’d just made his way from the bottom of the ocean, painfully holding his breath until he broke the surface. Reid shook slightly under his fingertips as he sighed a long, low exhalation. Then Hotch felt the tip of a tentacle brush the edge of his finger. He looked up just as the tentacle curled over him, squeezing ever so slightly.

“Are you going to stick around for the consequences of that?” Reid asked.

Hotch watched the tentacle, felt it squeeze tighter when he extended his finger towards it. He stepped closer to Reid, laid a hand along his neck stroking his fingers into his hair a little. He sighed loudly, closed his eyes, and then bent to bring his mouth next to Reid’s ear.

“I need you,” he confessed.

More than anything, he thought, and he didn’t know what to do about that if there was a chance he’d lose him. That’s why he was so damned scared.

“I know,” Reid said simply. “I love you too.”

Hotch stepped back to look at Reid’s face. He was wrung out and I little blurred around the edges, but he gave Hotch an unambiguous smile, like he was saying ‘Accept it. I have.’ Hotch felt as though his ribs were fracturing inwards - trying to remember how to breathe wasn’t working anymore. He held his breath and waited the feeling out, focusing instead on the circles he was tracing through Reid’s hair along his neck. He should say something… he had to say something. Maybe Reid was right: he wasn’t much of a talker after all.

“Stick around,” Reid’s voice was barely a whisper. Hotch looked into his eyes and saw his own fear mirrored there. “If you do, I know we’ll figure this out.”

Hotch’s grip on Reid’s neck tightened possessively. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Reid’s tired face lit up, erasing his fear. He straightened with a wince as if to say something more when someone cleared their throat from the bedroom doorway. They both turned to find Sue standing there with her bag held formally in both hands.

“Spencer, you should be lying down. What you need now more than anything is rest.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Reid said and received a withering ‘don’t make me come over there’ look from Sue in response. Then his tone changed to something tender and small. “Thanks, Sue.”

“I love you, my brave boy,” she said simply after a moment of silence. “You’d be doing an old woman a huge favor however, if you stopped being brave in the vicinity of bullets.”

“I’ll try.” He looked bashfully at both Sue and Hotch, as if offering some sort of promise that he owed them both equally.

“That’s all I ask. I assume that I’m forbidden from telling Diana about any of this…”

“Please don’t, Sue. I’ll tell her in a few days… when I’m feeling stronger. You know what kind of a conversation it’ll be.”

Sue suddenly looked stricken. It was so intense that Hotch took a step towards her in case something was physically wrong with her. But she rallied back almost instantly and nodded to them instead.

“Of course. I’ll come by again tomorrow to check up on you, Spencer, but I expect to find you in that bed. There’ll be hell to pay if you are not.”

“ ‘Kay,” Reid smiled and then hissed as he tried to lie down. Hotch was next to him in a flash, hands gently moving over his bandaged wounds to help him.

“On your stomach,” he murmured as Reid winced and settled, and Hotch tucked a blanket around him.

“Rest now, Spencer,” Sue ordered and then turned her gaze to Hotch. “Agent Hotchner, walk me out?”

“Yes, Doctor.”

Hotch went to follow her when he felt something brush his side. He turned back and saw Reid reaching for him, face looking sleepier by the second, but with a goofy smile on his lips.

“I think she likes you. You two are a pair of Chatty Cathys together too. Who would’ve guessed it?”

“You’re delusional,” Hotch said flatly but felt the corner of his mouth curl.

“Am not.”

“Go to sleep. I’ll be back in a minute.”

“To stay?”

Hotch’s pulse boomed once so forcefully that he felt it should’ve rattled things in the apartment. “Yes.”

“ ‘Kay. Good.” Reid snuggled into his pillow and sighed, eyelids drooping.

Hotch forced himself to walk away and follow Sue to the front door. She stood there waiting for him, her prim stare of judgment back in full force.

“I’m leaving him in your care.”

“Yes.”

“This isn’t something I do easily.”

“I understand, Doctor. I’ll be here the whole time. If his condition takes a turn, I’ll contact you immediately - believe me.”

They spent thirty seconds in silence staring one another down.

“You’re not his boss,” she said eventually with a certainty that surprised him.

“Not here I’m not, no.”

Sue blinked - the only concession to what his answer might have provoked in her. Then she slowly smoothed her hair back into the neat bun at the base of her head as she considered what to say next.

“In a lifetime of questionable choices, he’s the best thing I’ve ever done, Mr. Hotchner. If you mess that up, I’ll have nothing left to lose. I’m sure you’re aware of how dangerously irresponsible that can make a person.”

Hotch just looked intently at her, feeling the force of her protection reaching out to batter him. She didn’t realize that there was no need for the threat. “Perhaps you ought to call me Aaron.”

Sue snorted. “Well, I certainly won’t be calling you ‘Hotch’.”

Hotch allowed a smile to crack his stare.

“Have you told him, Aaron?” Sue stepped towards him. “Have you said the words?”

“He understands, I think,” Hotch hesitated. “I’m not good at talking.”

“Find a way to say it. Take it from someone who knows.” She patted him lightly on his arm and then turned away quickly, fussing with her bag. “I’ll be by tomorrow.”

“Yes,” Hotch cleared his throat, following her to the door. “And thank you for everything. I… I wasn’t sure what to do.”

“I know, dear. I can see that Spencer throws you for a loop. That’s how it works.”

“He does throw me for a loop…” Hotch said it with wonder because he’d never thought of it like that before. Then he watched the small, unassuming woman pass through the door as if a ‘goodbye’ were too much to ask of her. Her protective shell suddenly came into focus for him, so much like his own that he felt blind for not having recognized it immediately; Spencer had. Then the question was on his lips and out on the air between them before he could stop his brain from ticking it over.

“You changed specialties, you violated your oath and ethics, you risked criminal charges, license revocation, jail time, social condemnation for your work… that’s a lot to lay on the line in your youth with no idea of how events would unfold. Why did you do it?”

Sue stopped and turned around, staring at him from Reid’s stoop with a look on her face that told him the answer was obvious. “I did it for Diana. I love her.”

She stood there a moment longer while he absorbed her simple declaration, and then she was heading down the stairs - conversation over. Hotch closed the door and shuffled back to the bedroom. He felt numb suddenly, the danger and fatigue and revelation all landing at once and making him feel weak and old. He stood in the doorway and watched Reid doze; he’d already untucked himself and one arm was draped over the edge of the mattress. Hotch’s listlessness lifted for a moment as a task presented itself. He moved to the bedside and gently rearranged Reid under the blankets again. Reid didn’t wake and Hotch took the opportunity to linger, smoothing hair away from Reid’s face.

“Thrown me for a loop…” he muttered and then caught sight of the dried blood on his shirtsleeve.

He quickly took off the shirt, tossing it in the trash, and then found one of Reid’s t-shirts in a drawer. It was a little too tight but it would do, and having the scent of Reid wrapped around him did wonders for his lethargy - Reid was always so busy, he thought…

Hotch settled next to Reid in the bed and fished out his phone. He made quiet calls to J.J. and Morgan, Jessica and Jack. He arranged to work remotely for the time being, and for Reid to take a medical leave until further notice. He calmed the team and deflected their well-intentioned desire to take shifts at Reid’s bedside. And he explained to Jack why he had to be away for a while, to care for ‘Uncle Spence’. When all of that was done, he sank down into the pillows and his exhaustion with relief, rolling on his side to watch Reid sleep. He reached out, gently laying a hand along Reid’s lower back below the bandages. He focused on the soft rise and fall of Reid’s body as he breathed. The tentacles wiggled a little, feeling the weight of his hand on the blanket above them; he slipped his hand under the covers instinctively and felt their warm tendrils wrap around his fingers.

“Ev’rything okay?” Reid mumbled sleepily.

“I’m sure it will be,” Hotch sighed and the tentacles squeezed his fingers in agreement.

“Yeah…” Reid said and then seemed to drift off again.

Hotch smiled and found himself snuggling closer. The tang of blood and antiseptic couldn’t block out the scent of Reid everywhere, surrounding him, and Hotch suddenly felt that things would be fine rather than just thinking it. He thought about Sue moving mountains for Diana, he thought about how it must have seemed impossible at the time. He thought about an impossible child made real, and then the impossible consequences of him. He thought about how no one could predict anything, how it was all up in the air all the time. And yet people loved one another anyway, even when it wasn’t perfect, even when it seemed hopeless. And as he lay there with Reid, the certainty of him pooling in his lungs and cinching his heart and mind, Hotch realized that this situation was far from hopeless.

“Yeah,” he echoed back quietly, and he meant it.

They were made of hope and in time, he’d learn to say the words.