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'Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.' Stephen King.

 

The kid sitting in the interview room swings on the rear legs of his chair, throws back his head, and at the top of his lungs, sings a painfully off-key version of 'Wanted Dead or Alive'. Hotch looks at Morgan with one eye-brow arched in question. "You think he's your unsub?"

 Morgan crosses his arms, clenches his jaw and glares at the kid. The kid, who's now bopping his head heavy-rock style, apparently oblivious to the fact he’s sitting handcuffed in an interview room under the bored gaze of a pinch-faced police officer, as well as two FBI agents behind a window of one-way glass.

"How old is he?” Hotch asks dubiously. “Eighteen, nineteen? That would make him maybe fourteen-fifteen when the first murders in the pattern took place?"

Hotch is out of the loop on this case, just catching up on the bare facts. He only landed in - where they hell are they again…Kansas...Kentucky - anyway, he only arrived an hour ago, physically exhausted and emotionally threadbare. He's not in the mood to mess around with a bratty teenager and a stubborn Morgan. Not after spending eight hours straight interviewing a father who beat his three young kids to death for, as Hotch was disgusted but unsurprised to confirm, no better reason than being a mean bastard that couldn't handle his drink. And not after studying the crime scene photos showing three bloodied, broken and barely recognizable little bodies. Not after talking to a mother who'd been so out of her head that she hadn't noticed her own children dying. Hadn’t heard their terrified screams or pleas.

"He's twenty-two," Morgan says, snapping Hotch back to the here and now. Twenty-two, not as young as Hotch thought, but still he's not convinced that the guy could be responsible for the pairs of murders taking place on the same dates, in the same city, annually for the past four years. "And no, I don't think that he's the unsub," Morgan adds.

"So explain to me why we’re holding him?" Hotch says, watching as the officer accompanying the kid loses his patience and shoves the precariously balanced chair back on all four legs. It earns him just a momentary pause in the singing, before with a smirk, the kid breaks into an enthusiastic rendition of 'I shot the sheriff.' Hotch really is not in the mood for this today.

"Because he's an irritating son of a bitch." Morgan spits with a hot-headedness that Hotch hasn't seen for a while. Morgan shoots Hotch a side-long shamefaced look, and visibly composes himself, straightens his spine and schools his features. "And because he knows where our unsub is."

"And you think the unsub is who?"

"His father. John Winchester, ex-marine. Nothing major ever pinned on him, but a bad habit of appearing in the wrong place at the wrong time. He's been pegged as a suspect in several murder investigations as well as being convicted of grave desecration in Tennessee."

"Okay," Hotch nods. "And he fits your profile?"

At his side Morgan’s shoulders stiffens just a little. Hotch drops his head and sighs. That wasn't a trick question. The answer should be a firm yes. Or at least a yes of some description.

"Our profile is still a little...patchy." Morgan admits. "The kid and his dad were seen at the murder scene, and they've been sniffing around town for a couple of days, acting suspiciously, asking lots of questions."

"Have you any hard evidence?" Hotch asks, rubbing his temples. There's a pulsing pain building steadily behind his eyes. A headache that's going to turn into a killer before too long.

Morgan’s non-answer is answer enough. "I know it's all circumstantial, Hotch, but I've got a gut feeling. I swear the kid and his dad are involved in this thing."

"And you think the kid is going to give his dad up?" Hotch looks back at the boy, who decides at that moment to stop singing, tilt his head and stare directly at the reflective glass. He's a good looking kid, underneath his purpling black eye and the ugly bruise splayed across his cheekbone. All-American, sandy haired and freckle-faced, he looks more like an Abercrombie Fitch model than a criminal. Looks can be deceiving though; Hotch has long since determined that.

"No, he won’t give up his father easily," Morgan grudgingly admits. "He's not exactly co-operating. We know he and his father checked into the Red Road Motel, but there was no sign of Winchester senior or their vehicle when we picked his son up, and so far junior isn't telling us as much as his name."

"Which is?"

"Dean Winchester. Born January 24th 1979. One younger brother, Samuel, whose whereabouts are currently unconfirmed. Mother, Mary Winchester died 1983, after a fire broke out in the family home, after which the family appears to have lead a nomadic lifestyle. As far as we can tell Dean dropped out of high school before he graduated. He has a sealed juvenile record - misdemeanors; petty theft, disorderly conduct and a warning for public lewdness."

Sealed means nothing to Penelope Garcia. Especially when it’s Morgan needing the favor.

Those types of charges don't indicate a particularly happy childhood. "Public lewdness?" Hotch asks, knowing the answer won’t be pretty.

"Caught giving oral sex in a motel parking lot when he was fifteen." Morgan elaborates without a hint of judgement in his voice.

"Garcia's been busy on this one." Hotch notes drily, but inside he has a sinking feeling about where this kid's story is heading. "So I take it you've interviewed him?"

"Actually, I thought he'd respond better to you."

"Morgan, I've barely had a chance to glance at the case file. You seem sure that Winchester and his family are involved, why aren't you in there talking to him?"

"Because...."

"Because?"

Morgan’s composure crumbles again. And Hotch has to wonder just what it is about Dean Winchester that has Morgan so flustered. "Because he won't talk to me. I tried when we brought him in, okay; he just smirks and swings on that damn chair and when he does say anything it's a load of...of crap. I swear if I have to sit in the room with him again I'll end up swinging for him."

Hotch looks at Morgan in surprise.

"I know man, I know." Morgan shakes his head and holds his palms up. "It's totally unprofessional."

"Yes it is," Hotch agrees, the disapproval clear in his clipped tone.

"There's just something about him that gets under my skin." Morgan says, glaring daggers at the kid through the glass. Hotch would think Morgan was pouting if he wasn't a very experienced and capable F.B.I. agent. And a grown man. "Anyway I do think he'd respond better to someone older, someone he sees as more of an authority figure."

"U'huh," Hotch says skeptically, looking at the kid again. "Morgan, were you responsible for any of his injuries?"

"No!" Morgan snaps defensively, then again more calmly. "No, he looked like that when we picked him up."

"U'huh," Hotch repeats, thinks he knows just who used the kid as a punching bag.

 

***

 

Hotch walks into the interview room with a towering pile of files balanced in his arms; Dean Winchester's name clearly visible on the top one. The kid, Winchester, blinks lazily and swings back on his chair with a yawn. Neither of them acknowledges the uniformed officer walking out of the room, leaving them alone, bar of course Morgan watching through the glass.

"I'm sorry to keep you waiting." Hotch sets down the files on the table in the middle of the room and takes the seat opposite Winchester. "Is there anything you need; a bottle of water, perhaps? Something to eat?"

Winchester lets his chair slam back onto all four feet, and looks up at Hotch with a wry smile. "Let me guess, you're good cop. Where's your partner? Gone to buy the donuts?"

"I'm Special Agent Hotchner, BAU." Hotch takes the top file from the pile and lays it down between them. "And you're Dean Winchester, date of birth; 24th January 1979, no fixed abode."

Winchester lets out a whistle and nods. "FBI...good for you, man." He doesn't deny his identity, but doesn't confirm it either. Doesn't even visibly flinch at the mention of his name. "BAU - huh? Should I be impressed?"

"Behavioral Analysis Unit."

"Really? Cool, so you gonna head shrink me then?"

The kid actually looks excited. Hotch keeps his expression carefully neutral in the face of Winchester’s impressive acting skills. And blatantly ignores the facetious question. "It looks like you landed yourself in a little trouble here, Dean." Hotch glances down at the closed file in front of him before looking back up at the kid.

Dean meets his gaze easily, no sign of stress in his face.

Hotch considers waiting for Winchester to look away first, show at least a hint of unease, but he suspects he'll have a long wait. The kid's nothing but front. All charm and bluster and an easy smile, one that doesn't quite reach his eyes. He needs to scratch away a little of Dean Winchester's defenses.

"It seems your father's skipped town. Cleared out your motel room and taken off. He do that a lot Dean? Leave you behind to clean up his messes?"

There's a flicker of something at the corner of Dean's eye. Just the briefest of twitches. "I've no idea what you're talking about, man."

"Your father; John Winchester? We know you signed into the motel together."

"Oh yeah? You sure about that?" Dean grins.

"We have several witnesses that place you and your father at the motel."

Dean laughs and rocks back on his chair again. "What can I say, man, I like my men older. A little grey around the edges. A few miles on the clock."

"You're saying the man wasn't your father?"

"I'm saying I've got a daddy kink a mile wide and that guy hit all the right spots. Two nights of heaven, agent. Your guys didn't wonder why I was walking bow-legged?" Dean wiggles his eyebrows suggestively at Hotch, a smirk spreading across his face.

There’s something a little off about his quip. A sensitive vein buried deep underneath that defensive humor.

"I don't think you understand how serious this is, Dean." Hotch slides another file from his pile, flips it opens, takes the crime scene photos out and fans them across the desk. "Your father is a suspect in a series of murders that stretch back four years. Nine people dead, the latest just last night. Beaten and then strangled to death. Your father was placed at the scene by witnesses."

Dean glances down at the photos before looking back up at Hotch, no outward sign of any emotion on his face now.

"If the pattern holds true, and we believe it will, there will be another murder in less than twelve hours."

Dean blinks back silently.

"You can help us stop him, Dean. Help us catch him before he does it again."

The kid's face is still carefully impassive, but Winchester tugs a little at the cuffs locked around his wrists, it's the first sign of discomfort that Hotch has seen him exhibit. "You have no idea what you're talking about."

"Then tell me." Hotch insists, leaning forward slightly, keeping his voice soft, almost intimate. "Tell me what's going on here, Dean."

The kid stares back at him, unimpressed and tight-lipped.

"You don't owe your father anything, Dean. You know that right? You don't need to protect him. Not after everything he did to you."

That elicits a response. Dean's eyes narrow just slightly and his shoulders lose their almost languid pose. "I really have no idea what the hell you're talking about."

Hotch grabs the file with Dean's name on it and lays it on top of the photographs. He keeps it closed, because really there's very little in it, but taps on it meaningfully. "I know you, Dean. I know exactly what you had to do to survive. How far you had to go."

"You don't know jack-shit, agent." Winchester scowls.

"Habitual truancy, Dean? Fighting? Stealing groceries? Prostituting yourself when you were barely out of middle school?"

"Now, we both know you're making all that up, special agent Hotchner, cause if I had done any of that crap then my juvie records would be sealed tighter than a nun's panties. I think you're full of shit." His words may be confident, and he isn't completely wrong, but Dean Winchester is shaken.

"It's true though Dean, isn't it?" Hotch tries to keep his tone understanding, goes for sympathetic rather than aggressive, as he pushes his point. "You had to grow up fast. Your childhood ended the night your mother died."

If Hotch thought Dean's face was blank before, now the shutters slam down hard.

"When the other kids at school were learning how to read and write you were learning how to look after yourself and your little brother. How to do everything your daddy told you so he wouldn't have to punish you. Growing up you kept yourself closed off and unapproachable. You didn't make friends, didn't allow anyone to get too close. Couldn't risk letting anyone see the bruises and the signs of abuse. How old were you the first time he hit you, Dean? Six, seven? How old where you the first time he left you all alone?"

"Man," Dean shakes his head. "You're deluded."

"I know, Dean. I know what he did to you. The beatings, the neglect."

Dean stares at Hotch, trying to look unruffled. But Hotch knows he's getting to him. Knows by the tiny twitch of his left eyelid, and the way he's twisting his fingers in his lap.

"Where's your brother, Dean?" Hotch asks, changing direction suddenly, knocking Dean even more off-balance. "Did he run away? Did he realize just how unhinged your father was and leave? Or did your daddy go too far one night? Did he drink a little too much 'Jack', did he punch a little too hard, too often? Did you watch your brother die because your dad couldn't control his temper?"

"Wow," Dean nods, his brows quirking up. "You have one hell of an imagination, agent."

Hotch can honestly say that he really doesn't. He's seen similar things too many times to count. Seen far worse things; things that would give this kid nightmares for the rest of his life. The photos of his earlier case are still fresh in Hotch’s mind. Blood-stained evidence of the atrocities a father is capable of committing. No, Hotch doesn't have a good imagination, just the hellish affliction of a good memory.

"Co-operate with us now, Dean. Tell us where you father is. Who his next victim is. Help us and let us help you. Let me help you, Dean."

Dean juts his chin up and smiles, his cocksure attitude suddenly pushing back to the surface. And any headway Hotch thought he was making feels like it’s slipped away. "You got a bit of a hero complex there, agent? Think you can save everyone? Think everyone needs saving?"

"Don't you, Dean? Who messed up your face? You telling me your father didn't do that to you?"

"My daddy didn't hit me, agent." Dean smirks. "He didn't beat me and he didn't touch me in a bad place. Oh...and by the way, he didn't kill my brother, you sick freak. You know what I think...I think you're projecting. Was your daddy a bad man, agent?"

Hotch's temper starts to fray in a way that it never does. He's uncomfortably aware that he's sweating below the starched collar of his shirt and his palms are growing clammy. He's starting to understand Morgan's antagonism towards Dean Winchester.

"You can deflect all you want, Dean." Hotch sticks to the script in his head. "But I know the life you've lead. The things you had to do to get by. How old were you the first time someone paid you for a hand-job? Twelve, thirteen? How long before you moved onto oral sex, how long before you needed the money so desperately that you let someone fuck you?"

There's a slight hesitation, a barely noticeable intake of breath, before Dean slips his plastic smirk back in place and looks up at Hotch through his eyelashes. “You’re a kinky motherfucker aren't you? You want to know all the details of my sex life? You sure? Let me tell you, agent, I can get a little kinky myself. You want to know a secret; I like panties, shiny ones with little bows. They make my ass look awesome and you wouldn't believe how comfortable they are, the way they cradle my balls just..."

"Enough," Hotch slams the file down on the table top. Instantly rebuking himself when the kid's face lights up with a genuine shit-eating grin, like he's winning a game and he knows it. Home run scored by Dean Winchester and the crowd goes wild.

Goddamn-it-all, but Hotch is tired, screw it - he's exhausted. Maybe if he'd had more than three hours sleep in the past two days, maybe if he hadn't come straight off such a goddamn awful consult, maybe if he hadn't been so arrogant to think he could persuade the kid to give up his dad without a fight especially after Morgan tried to warn him, then maybe he wouldn't be letting the kid get to him. He's handling this interview like a rookie. Worse. He needs to take control. Start over.

"Your father killed a teenage girl last night." Hotch goes back to basics, tries to impress upon Dean how serious the situation is. How urgent." If the pattern holds true, if he doesn't escalate then he'll kill again tonight."

"You're wrong," Dean says mildly, and he sounds sincere. Hotch can't even see the lie in his eyes, in his body language. "You're so wrong that it's almost funny."

"Then tell us what's going on, Dean. Tell us where your father is. Let him tell us what's going on." Hotch urges, careful to keep his voice level.

"Dude, I ain't telling you squat."

"Why are you protecting him, Dean?" Hotch asks. "You think he'd do the same for you. At best the man is a controlling manipulative abuser. At worst he's a sociopath with psychopathic tendencies."

Dean barks an unamused laugh. "Man, change the record. You're way off base here, trust me. And I'm getting real tired of this bullshit. Don't you have anyone else to bug?"

"As soon as you tell me where your father is, I'll happily leave you alone."

"Yeah, that doesn't really work for me."

"This isn't a joke, Dean."

"Dude do I look like I'm laughing?" Dean asks, yanking at the cuffs around his wrists and sounding if anything exasperated. Frustrated. Almost as frustrated as Hotch.

Taking a deep breath, thinking calm, rational thoughts, Hotch focuses on what he knows, what he does best. He reads people. He profiles. "The kind of life you've had Dean-"

Winchester rolls his eyes and sighs, slouching down in his chair. "Not this again. You don't know shit about my life."

"I know you grew up without a mother, and with a father that was too busy drowning his sorrows to look after you."

Dean bristles at the mention of his mother.

"I know you're the one responsible for bringing up your little brother. I know you protected him from your father; looked after him when your dad was too busy or too drunk or just not there. What did you tell him when your dad disappeared for days on end, Dean? Did you make up stories? Pretend he was some kind of hero? I bet your little brother had no idea how hard it was for you. How often you had to steal just so he wouldn't go hungry. How often you starved. How often you stalked truck stops and dive bars hustling cash. What's his name Dean?" Hotch opens a file and quickly searches for the name. "Samuel? Sam? How old is Sam now, Dean? Eighteen, nineteen?"

Hotch scans the file for information on Samuel Winchester. There's not much. High school history is about the extent of it. But that's enough for the final piece of the puzzle to click neatly into place in Hotch's head. "He's at college isn't he, Dean? Little Sam grew up and went to college. How did you feel when he left, Dean? Were you proud that you brought him up so well, so normal, that he secured a place at college, a full ride at college?" That's a guess, but considering Samuel Winchester's SAT scores and the Winchester family's lack of funds, it's a safe one. "Were you happy that he at least had the guts to leave?" Hotch goads, scenting that Dean's finally rattled, pushing for a reaction. "Or were you jealous that he got out and left you behind. Left you to face the music. Did he even thank you, Dean, for everything you did? Everything you sacrificed? Every punch you took for him. Every..."

"Shut the fuck up, asshole," Dean growls. "Leave my brother the hell out of this." Success; Hotch has to swallow the satisfaction, keep the smile from his eyes.

"He didn't know, did he Dean?" He presses relentlessly. "Didn't know that daddy took it out on you every time he did something wrong. That every time Sam whined, every time Sam complained, you were the one that felt the bite of your daddy's belt. What happened when he left Dean? How bad was it? Do you still have the stripes on your back where he whipped you bloody?"

"My father didn’t whip me. And he never laid a hand on me in anger." Dean bites back, two patches of color burning high on his cheeks. "My father did the best he could under the circumstances."

"Your father is a bully, Dean. And your brother is an ungrateful brat that took for granted every single thing you did for him. He abandoned you, just like your mom did, just like your dad's done. Just like everyone does sooner or later."

Dean's face is scarlet now, a vein pulsing angrily in his neck. And Hotch is breathing hard, leaning forward, his elbows on the table. The two of them stare at each other. Both know one is about to snap. Which one is still in question.

"You know what I think, agent?" Dean says, placing his bound hands on the table, mirroring Hotch and leaning forward. Close up, Hotch can see how startlingly green his eyes are; can see them shimmering with pent-up rage. "I think I was right earlier. And y'know, I didn't really mean it at the time, I was just messing, but yeah....you are projecting. You're the one with the abusive daddy and the brat of a little brother. I think you believe that my dad beat me every chance he got because that's what happened to you. What do you call that - displacement?"

Hotch does not flinch. He stares back coolly at the smart-mouthed kid taunting him.

"I think your daddy beat you. Whipped you even. I bet you've still got the scars. And I bet your brother – your little brother, right? – I bet he doesn't even know. I bet he walked off without a backward glance or a thank you. Do you even know where he is?"

"Tell me where your father is." Hotch says, the words sounding strangely hollow even to his own ears.

"Where's your dad, agent? Sitting pretty on a generous pension in a nice house? I bet the neighbor’s think he's a real stand-up guy. Do you still want to make him pay for everything he did? Is that why you do this? Catch all those psychos? Stop the murderers and the rapists and the assholes that beat up little kids?"

"Where's your father, you punk-ass little brat?" Hotch growls, jumps to his feet, slams his palms on the table and glares down at the kid.

Winchester relaxes back in his chair nodding smugly; battle won.

"If you don't tell me where your father is, I'm charging you right now. With conspiracy to murder, accessory-"

"The road is long, with many a winding turn," Winchester swings back on his chair again, balancing dangerously as he sings upwards towards the ceiling, ignoring Hotch completely. "That leads us to who knows where.."

Hotch, a rest mist rising in front of his eyes, smashes his closed fist on the table, demands the kid's attention. Winchester shakes his head in time with his tuneless hollering, ignoring him completely. "Are you really prepared to go to jail for your father. He left you, Dean. Left you high and dry and alone. He beat you up and screwed you over and you're too damn brainwashed to see it." Hotch is full-on yelling, chest heaving and blood pounding in his ears.

"He ain't heavy. He's my brother," Dean belts out, turning towards Hotch with a sly sparkle in his eye.

The next thing Hotch is aware of is Morgan dragging him out of the room as a cop helps Dean Winchester to his feet, conscientiously checking the back of his head where it slammed against the floor. The damn kid is still smirking.

"Hotch..Hotch! What the hell, man?"

Hotch shakes Morgan's hand off his arms and shoves him away.

"Come on man, I've never seen you like this. What's going on with you?"

"Long day," Hotch says, straightening his tie. "A really long day."

"Listen, why don't you go rest and I'll finish up here." Morgan's looking at him tentatively, like he's an unexplored bomb or worse...a shaken victim.

The easiest thing, possibly the most sensible thing to do, would be to let Morgan handle the obnoxious brat. Get some damn sleep and shake off his ghosts. Hotch doesn't do things the easy way though. He does what's right. "No, it's fine. I need to finish this. I shouldn't have lost my temper. And I should never have let him get to me. I want to talk to him again."

"Are you sure?" Morgan asks, patently disagreeing with Hotch, but unusually reticent to admit it. "Gideon and Reid will be here in a few hours. We've still got time to let Winchester sweat it out. Maybe he'll be more co-operative after a little time out."

"No," Hotch shakes his head. "We're on a short time line here. We don't have hours to waste. I've got a handle on the kid now. I can finish this."

"Sure," Morgan reluctantly agrees, looking at his watch, probably praying that Gideon can arrive in time to stop Hotch screwing the situation up even more. "Why don't you just grab a coffee first, cool down a little before you head back in there?"

Hotch agrees more to get Morgan off his back than because he wants a coffee. Although, he concedes as he walks away, gaining a little distance if not perspective, the caffeine hit might help him sustain him through the next few hours.

 

As it turns out Morgan doesn't have to worry about Hotch screwing things up.

 

"What the hell do you mean he disappeared?" Morgan is yelling when Hotch returns, the taste of cheap vending machine coffee still lingering on his tongue.

"What's going on?" Hotch asks, although peering at the empty interview room behind Morgan, he can hazard an educated guess.

"He got away." Morgan scowls. "Two minutes. We left him alone for two damn minutes."

Somehow, Hotch can't find it in himself to be surprised.

 

***

 

There is no second murder. Which is great. If a little disappointing, although probably not for the potential victim. The frustrating thing is they'd figured out who that was. The pattern was obvious in retrospect, but then these things usually are. The first murder victim was always a teenage girl and the second victim, they'd figured out with a little help from Garcia, was always the father of one of the victim's friends. Obvious, yes, but somehow along the way that little detail had escaped detection. Morgan and Garcia had narrowed the likely target down to two men. Both had been warned, and both had been watched by a team of cops lead by Hotch and Morgan.

And nothing. Neither men had suffered as much as a paper cut.

Morgan and Hotch’s relief was far outweighed by impotent anger. Failing to apprehend their unsub when they’d come so close was a bitter pill to swallow.

The strange thing was, Gideon who'd arrived with Reid in tow a few hours after the disappearance of Dean Winchester, hadn't appeared overly concerned.

 

Even the following day, with no new leads and the team at a loss of how to move forward, Gideon is strangely quiet. No suggestions, no insights, no new take on the profile. The only thing he does add to the discussion is his opinion that John Winchester isn't the unsub. That he thinks Morgan's evidence is thin and purely circumstantial and that neither Winchester nor his son fit the profile at all.

The rest of the day is less than productive. Everyone is oddly out of sorts. Gideon's blunt criticism so soon after the escape of Dean Winchester leaves Morgan in a foul mood. He spends half the day uncharacteristically sullen, and the rest on the phone to Garcia looking, Hotch suspects, for a sympathetic ear and a little ego-massaging. Reid works religiously on revising the profile and only succeeds in confusing himself and everyone else with his conflicting theories. Hotch pours over all the files again and again until the words blur in front of his shadow-rimmed eyes. And the only thing Hotch witnesses Gideon do is a crossword puzzle. Several of them.

When Hotch decides to cut their losses early not even Reid objects. The local cops are staking out their possible intended victims' houses for another night or two, but Hotch has a gut feeling that the case is dead in the ground. It's not like him to feel so easily defeated, but there's something decidedly off here that he just can't put his finger on.

And Dean Winchester and his damn smirk still hovers at the edge of his thoughts, taunting him like an irritating bug.

"Hotch," Gideon says, just as he's shoving the last of the files he really should look over again into his briefcase. "Leave that here tonight. We're heading out."

"Out where?" Hotch asks impatiently. He's not in the mood for any of Jason's cryptic crap. He wants a shower, room service and some desperately needed sleep. And maybe a stiff drink.

"To meet someone - an old friend of mine." Gideon checks his watch and starts walking toward the door. "Trust me, Aaron, it's important. And he doesn't appreciate tardiness so hurry it up."

"This case is important," Hotch reminds Gideon's departing back.

"I know." Gideon retorts, as though it's the most obvious thing in the world. As though he hasn't spent all day sitting on his ass doing puzzles. "It's to do with the case."

That's enough to peak Hotch's interest.

The dive bar Gideon drives to is not in the classiest part of town. The outside of it could do with a lick of paint or ten, and the inside stinks of stale beer and decade’s worth of lung-cancer. Hotch won't be surprised if he ends up with fleas. He objects when Gideon asks the guy, pock-faced and shifty-eyed, behind the bar for a bottle of scotch and four glasses, and his unease only grows when Jason insists he's going to need it.

The reason why he's going to need it soon becomes evident. Gideon leads him to a table in the corner of the room, one that's almost completely cast in shadow. It's not until they are only a few footsteps away from it that Hotch notices the two men sitting there. A stride later and Hotch recognizes them, his hand flying to his gun holster. One man is Dean Winchester. The other is his father.

"Relax, Hotch." Gideon says, his hand on Hotch's wrist, fingers wrapped around it in an insistent grip, stopping him before he can draw his weapon. "We’re just going to sit down and talk."'

"Jason, these men are wanted-"

"I know, Aaron. Just trust me here, please."

God knows why but Hotch relents, doesn't relax, but does sit down.

And he does need the scotch.

 

Ghosts and monsters. The supernatural. It's unbelievable. Literally unbelievable.

 

"You want me to believe these murders were committed by a ghost." Hotch looks from John Winchester to Gideon. He can't bring himself to look at Winchester junior yet. The temptation to arrest him, or punch him is still too great.

"Two ghosts. And not the first murder."

"So, Frank Jessop killed his daughter's best friend, in a sexual attack that went too far, and the next night his victim's ghost killed him in revenge?" Hotch's voice drips with a skepticism that no sane person would judge him for.

"And every year the pattern is repeated," John Winchester nods before taking a sip of scotch. "We salted and burned both the bodies, but unfortunately there was a little bit of Jessop left behind. That's why I had Dean let himself get caught. We needed into the evidence lock-up."

Gideon takes a look at Hotch's face, obviously sees how close he is to arresting both Winchesters for their growing list of crimes. "I know this is a lot to take in, Aaron."

That is the understatement of the decade. If he didn't know Jason Gideon so well he'd arrest him right then and there along with the Winchesters. As it is, it takes another hour before Hotch starts to think they might possibly be telling the truth. That Gideon hasn't just been sucked into some kind of delusional psychosis. And the more he hears, the more it does make a bizarre kind of sense. Makes him wonder about some of the unsolved cases he’s worked on over the years. Especially when Gideon says, "The Dallas case last year, the murder victims with their hearts ripped out - that was a werewolf. I called John in to deal with it. And the missing children in Vegas, that was a raw-head."

"This is..." Hotch struggles, not sure if he's ready to believe. If he's ready to admit that he believes.

"It's the truth, plain and simple." John Winchester's tone brooks no argument, more ex-marine than diplomat. "Gideon told me you needed to know and now you know. What you do next is up to you."

"Hotch," Gideon starts, probably anxious to tone down Winchester’s brusque manner.

Hotch has had enough though. Directing a steely glare at John Winchester, one that the man reciprocates, he brushes Gideon off, scrapes his chair back from the table and stands up, spine stiff and fingers clenched. "I think I need some fresh air. Excuse me." Ignoring Gideon calling after him, Hotch slips out the bar through a side exit, glad that although the alleyway is poorly lit and stinks, it's at least empty.

The air is hardly fresh, but it’s cooler than the muggy atmosphere of the bar, and it does give him a chance to stand and think away from the scrutinizing stares of the men inside. He's probably insane to believe Winchester’s far-fetched tales, but then again, Hotch more than anyone has witnessed the horrific evidence that evil, that monsters, exist. It's just that up until now, he firmly believed those monsters were human.

Ten minutes later he's considering heading back inside when the door swings opens; yellow light spills into the alleyway highlighting the appearance of Dean Winchester. Hotch tenses, his hand twitching next to his holster. He's not sure how he feels about the kid right now. If he's a criminal or a victim. Both more than likely. He's still convinced that John Winchester has beat his son more than once. And the childhood neglect is obvious in every defensive tic that Winchester wears like a shield.

"Agent Hotchner," Dean says approaching him, outwardly confident but trying a little too hard to look that way.

"Dean?" Hotch replies evenly, waiting to see whether the boy wants a fight or an apology.

"Look man, I wanted to say sorry, for earlier." That surprises Hotch. And frankly after the past couple of hours Hotch thought nothing else could possibly surprise him.

"What I said about your dad and your brother was out of order. I mean, you were being a bit of a dick, and talking about my dad and Sammy like that is sure to piss me off, and I really did need out of that room, but still-" Dean trails off, hand rubbing absently at the back of his neck. Hotch gets the feeling that the boy doesn't usually do much in the way of apologizing. But the guilt is clear in his unsettled eyes.

"It's fine, Dean." Hotch says, his hands relaxing at his side. And for some reason he suddenly feels pretty damn guilty for some of the things he said. "I said a few things in there I maybe shouldn't have. About your mother and brother leaving you, that-"

"No man, it's fine. You weren't wrong. Not about that anyway." Dean shrugs, then points at his face. "But my dad didn't do this to me. Didn't beat me up or anything. That was Jessup's bitch of a ghost, threw me into a wall. My dad's not...not what you said, what you think."

Hotch isn't so sure. "Maybe not, but Dean, there's more than one kind of abuse." And then, without conscious thought, without knowing why, he confesses something to Dean Winchester that he's told only two other people. "You were right...about my father. He did beat me. Not all the time, but if he had a bad day and a little too much liquor, he'd take his anger out on me with his fists, or his belt. But you know what Dean? What was worse than that? The psychological abuse. The cruel jibes. The bitter put downs. The constant criticism. He made me feel like a disappointment, a poor excuse for a son, a bad brother. Stupid. Weak. Useless. He really didn't need to lay a finger on me to hurt me. When he died the only think I felt was relief. And that made me feel worse than anything."

It’s hard to admit but it’s true. Hotch’s visible wounds have long since faded, but the bruises in his heart, in his psyche, are as painful as they were when he was a boy. His father was an abusive son-of-a-bitch, and deep down Hotch is glad that he’s dead. And just as glad that Sean never knew what a cruel and vicious bastard he was. Hotch just wishes that Sean hadn’t left like that, hadn’t said…anyway, it’s not the time to dwell on his past.

"I'm sorry." Dean shuffles nervously, looks toward the door of the bar.

Hotch coughs to clear that rough crackle from his voice. "You don't have to be sorry, Dean, just be careful. Don't let your father drag you down. The kind of life you're living, you're going to get hurt, or killed. Or get caught. And one of these days having a friend in the FBI won't be enough to get you off the hook. Your brother got out; he's living his own life, making a future for himself. You could do that too."

"Na, my brother's different. He got the brains and I got the dazzling good looks," Dean grins, too quick, too practiced.

"Dean, you've got-"

"Hey, Agent Hotchner?" Dean asks, quickly cutting off Hotch's protestations. "Just do me a favor, huh? Don't mention to my dad about the thing, he didn't know anything about it. Doesn't know."

"The thing?" Hotch's eyebrows furrow, unsure what Dean's talking about.

Dean looks away, kicks at a bottle lying on the ground, watches it roll across the width of the alley. "The public lewdness thing. My uncle Bobby bailed me out of that one. Dad doesn't know. And I don't....he can't find out, please."

Before Hotch can reply the side door swings open again and John Winchester strides out. "Come on Dean, time to roll. Pastor Jim called; there's a hunt a few hours from here he wants us to take a look at."

Dean looks up at Hotch, a silent plea in his eyes.

Hotch nods back reassuringly, he hopes, and watches as Dean's shoulders relax and his smile turns back into that familiar cocky grin.

"I'll see you around agent," Dean says, easily catching the keys his dad tosses towards him and sauntering away with his bow-legged gait.

John Winchester pauses, lets Dean walk away without him, then turns towards Hotch. "Just for the record, I don't beat my boy. And I may not be father of the year, but I gave him and his brother the best childhood I could."

"No," Hotch argues quietly, not intimidated by the steel in Winchester's voice. Or the razor-edged intelligence behind his eyes. "No, you didn't. You could have settled down. You could have let your boys be boys. Children. You could have let Dean lead a normal life instead of forcing far too much responsibility on his shoulders at far too young an age. You could have been a dad instead of a drill sergeant."

John looks at him thoughtfully and finally nods. "You're right. I could have done all that. But do you know how many people would have died if I hadn't been there to save them. Do you know how many monsters would be out there killing children right now, tearing apart families? I did the only thing I could do."

"At the expense of your own family."

"My family was torn apart the night my wife was killed."

"You had two small children. They were your family. Your priority."

"You're right. They were and they still are. I did everything for them. To keep them safe, alive, and to teach them the skills to protect themselves so they can stay that way. Do you think if I'd hidden them away, coddled them, let them have a 'normal'  life they'd have been any safer? Just because you don't know what's out there, what monsters are lurking in the dark, it doesn't make you safe. It doesn't make you invisible."

Hotch stares at Winchester darkly. Just because the man can justify his actions doesn't make them right. He wonders if John Winchester has any idea how well he trained Dean. If he has any idea the lengths the boy will go to protect his family.

The growl of a muscle car rumbles through the air and a sleek black Impala pulls up at the bottom of the alley, purring as it sits idle.

"Jason's waiting inside for you Agent Hotchner. If you've any more questions I'm sure he can tell you all you need to know."

"And you? You're just going to keep on doing this...hunting? Forever?"

"Until I catch the evil son of a bitch that killed my wife, yes."

"That's really what this is all about isn't it? You can hide it behind 'hunting monsters, saving people' but what it all comes down to is revenge."

Winchester's jaw clenches, his eyes narrowing.

"You've already lost one son, John," Hotch carries on. "Is your quest for vengeance worth losing Dean too?"

"That won't happen." Winchester insists. "I won't let it."

Hotch casts a glance down the alley towards the waiting car. "You've trained the boy well, Winchester. He's an excellent soldier. Brave. Loyal. Self-sacrificing."

Winchester growls again. "Dean's not a soldier. He's my son. I won't let anything happen to him. He's more important to me than any hunt."

"Does he know that?" Hotch asks.

Winchester looks towards his car, his son, a shadow passing across his face. Without a word, only one last long look at Hotch he storms away, shoulders hunched inside his leather jacket and purpose in his stride.

Hotch feels Gideon slipping out the door behind him as Winchester climbs into the car.

"He's a good man," Gideon says quietly, as the door slams shut and the car roars off, impatient for the open road.

"How long have you known him?" Hotch asks, not at all convinced that Gideon's right.

"Since we were both young, idealistic and stupid." Gideon really doesn't answer at all.

"And now?" Hotch asks. "You throw him the cases we can't solve?"

"No," Gideon meets Hotch's accusatory glare without blinking. "I ask him for help on the cases I know aren't our specialty. And he contacts me when the things he investigates turn out to be our brand of crazy rather than his."

Hotch sighs, and shakes his head. “This is insane, you do realize that. And wrong in so many ways that I don't know where to start."

"Life isn't black and white. You've seen that. John Winchester hunts the killers out there that we can't. He's no saint, but he does save lives."

"And his sons? What about them?" Hotch asks, wondering just how much Gideon knows about Dean Winchester and the scars he hides.

"John loves his boys, Hotch. He'd do anything for them."

"Anything except give them a home and a chance at a normal life."

"Homes are more than bricks and mortar."

Hotch feels like banging his head against the brick wall behind him. He wonders why he bothers arguing with Gideon. The man might be a genius, but right or wrong, he's intractable once he's formed an opinion.

"I know those kids didn't have a normal childhood, but how many of us really did? And the boys have turned out all right. Sam's doing great at Stanford, and Dean-"

"Dean’s a soldier fighting his father's war." Hotch snaps, not willing to stand and listen to any more of Gideon's excuses for John Winchester. "And he's so well trained that he'll do anything for his dad. For his brother. Anything. John Winchester has no idea how far his son will go, has gone, in order to not disappoint him. How much he'll sacrifice."

"Dean loves his family, Hotch. Especially his brother. Is it so wrong that he wants to protect them? I'd have thought you of all people would understand that." It's said softly, compassionately, but still Hotch stiffens, every muscle flexing. And when Gideon tries to lay his hand on his shoulder he steps out of reach.

"Aaron," Gideon says. "I-"

"Maybe I do understand," Hotch cuts him off. "But I got away. I'm fine. I have a great career and a wife that I love."

"And maybe one day Dean Winchester will have those things too." Gideon says.

But he knows, Hotch can see it in his eyes. He knows that's not true. That Dean Winchester is on a different road. A road that's destined to end in blood and fear and loneliness.

Hotch exhales heavily, drops his head. This time he lets Gideon clap his shoulder and then shepherd him back inside the bar. God knows he needs another drink. This investigation, the Winchesters, the whole damn week - he just wants to forget it all. He wishes he could.

Hotch slumps down in a chair, all the stress and exhaustion of the past few days hitting him with a vengeance. “What now?" He asks Gideon, his usual conviction stripped away leaving him lost.

Gideon sits down, pours out two generous shots of scotch, and hands one to Hotch. "Now, we drink. Tomorrow we carry on as normal. We do our best to catch the bad guys."

Hotch knows it's not that simple, but for now at least he's going to pretend it is. He has enough old ghosts and invisible monsters to deal with, without seeking out new ones.

When Gideon raises his glass Hotch clinks his against it and takes a long sip, saying a silent prayer for the lost boy Dean Winchester. He hopes someone somewhere is listening.

 

 

 'Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.' Kahlil Gibran.