“The issue is that we still don’t know how he’s choosing them.”
Hotch rolled his shoulders as he said it, as if his suit jacket were too tight across his back. It was an unusual tick for him, Reid noted; Hotch was always so controlled right down to the tone of his voice. The team sat in a cramped storage space at the New Paltz police station and pondered the question at hand, but Reid was thinking about more than one question. Victim selection of their latest UnSub was his primary focus of course, but his mind was also quietly considering what was bugging his boss. He seemed uncomfortable in his skin from the start of this case, and he’d done that shoulder thing four times in the last two days according to Reid’s count. He wondered if he should be worried or not. He wondered if anyone else was worried about it. And then he began to worry about why he was worried about Hotch. Reid shook his head gently and tried to refocus – they had a case to work and, really, Hotch’s interior world was off limits, everyone knew that. Across the room, Hotch let out an uncharacteristic sigh and looked tiredly at the evidence laid out on a corkboard behind him.
“Let’s isolate the individual elements that we’re certain about and try reassembling the picture…”
The team settled in and peered at the board of photos and report pages. From the corner of his eye, Reid saw Hotch roll his shoulders again.
A brain wave had hit Reid at one in the morning, which was annoying but also not all that unexpected. Now, he was fully awake and energized by it – he had to talk it out with someone, iron out the kinks and make it real. The only person who probably wouldn’t throw something at his head was Hotch, so that’s how he found himself unrepentantly knocking on his boss’s hotel room door and muttering. It didn’t take long for Hotch to answer, which was a good sign; Reid could feel less guilty about possibly waking him.
“Reid,” Hotch said through the cracked doorway. Reid noted that he was shirtless so maybe he had been asleep after all. “What is it?”
“I’ve had an idea about the UnSub’s timing…” Reid’s fingers were already dancing, matching the manic energy of his thoughts.
“This isn’t a good time, Reid.”
“Of course it isn’t. It’s one in the morning, I know that…” Reid pushed through the doorway and brushed past Hotch without a second thought. They knew each other too well to stand on formality, and Reid was sure that his idea was a good one. “Listen, I was considering that his timing pattern is both organized and yet inscrutable so what if we’re just being too linear, too literal with time? That got me thinking-”
“Like how time compresses and expands around large masses in space. You know time is only linear in our perception, here, where masses are all relative in scale-”
“Reid, this isn’t-” Hotch tried again but Reid steamrolled over him.
“I know it sounds like wild theorizing but what if the UnSub is attempting to operate on a more universal understanding of time? It would feed into the God complex Rossi initially came up with because this guy thinks he’s functioning on a different lev-”
Reid suddenly turned to face Hotch and stopped dead, even choking on the half formed words still bubbling in his chest. Hotch’s gaze was dark, almost angry, and then he rolled his shoulders again like he had for the past few days. Except now Reid saw two huge, mottled brown wings shiver with the movement. Reid just stared, stunned into an absence of thought at the sight of them, and then Hotch curled his fists. For the first time since he’d met Hotch, Reid worried for his safety.
“Wow… I mean… wow…”
“You need to leave,” Hotch growled. “Right now.”
“Why?” Reid breathed in wonder without thinking. “It’s not like I can un-see this.”
Hotch sagged and his anger seemed to drain out of him. It was replaced by a look of despair. That look jabbed at Reid and prompted his brain to come back online.
“Hotch, you know me – I’m good with secrets. This information will stay between us if that’s what you’re worried about. I mean, c’mon, that shouldn’t even be a question in your mind.”
“I…” Hotch looked uncomfortable, as if he’d been caught naked, which in a way he had been. “This is private.”
“Yes, clearly it is since I’ve known you for ten years and had no clue. Does anyone know?”
“Jack does, and Haley did before him, but that’s it. I haven’t even told Sean about them.” Hotch looked ashamed. That puzzled Reid. He took a step forward as Hotch eyed him cautiously.
“Do they work?” Reid couldn’t help it – he was boiling over with questions. “Can you actually achieve loft?”
“Yes, they work,” Hotch said quietly.
“That’s fantastic,” Reid smiled broadly and took another step forward. Hotch’s expression turned from caution to mild horror.
“It’s a mutation.”
“It’s a fantastic mutation,” Reid corrected as he strained to see more of them. Hotch was doing his best to hide them between his back and the door. “You can fly, Hotch. That’s singularly amazing.”
Hotch rolled his shoulders again and winced this time. Reid reined in his enthusiasm at the movement. It was obvious that Hotch wasn’t enjoying this discovery as much as he was, and Reid had known Hotch too long to enjoy something at his expense.
“Ummm, I’m sorry. You’re not happy that I’m here… I should… I’ll just go now.”
“It’s not you,” Hotch said quickly but moved away from the door anyway. “I have to preen. I’ve been putting it off and now it’s becoming painful.”
Reid blinked at this new information and tried to recall everything he knew about bird behavior. He tried to figure out how a human with wings would preen because the images in his head of park pigeons weren’t helping at all.
“Usually Jack helps,” Hotch continued but he wasn’t looking at Reid. “Because I can’t reach the feathers at the base easily. I was hoping that I could just make it through this case and get back home.”
“Well, do you want some help now?”
Hotch’s eyes snapped to Reid with an intensity that shocked him. He didn’t think that his offer was all that alarming, and he assumed that you didn’t need a beak to do it, so…
“I get that it’s private,” he clarified.
“It is.” Hotch didn’t elaborate.
“Okay…” Reid drew out the word because Hotch wasn’t being very helpful and he decided to give him some time to straighten out his thinking. When he didn’t make a move one way or the other, Reid thought that retreat was the better part of valor in this scenario. “We can talk about my theory at breakfast tomorrow. It can wait. I should’ve waited…”
“I’d like some help, Reid,” Hotch murmured as Reid passed him heading for the door. “It may be awkward. I’m giving you fair warning. But I can talk you through it if you want to try.”
“Sure. Whatever you need.”
Hotch nodded once and then headed toward the bed. He climbed in and sat cross-legged on the bedspread with his back facing Reid. Then he slowly stretched his wings out. The span of them was literally breathtaking and Reid just stood there staring for a long time not saying anything. Eventually, Hotch twitched and looked over his shoulder at him.
“It’s weird, I know. It’s fine if you can’t do it, Reid.”
Reid gave himself a little shake and tried to act like a scientist. He wouldn’t get a better opportunity to explore this wonder, or to understand Hotch a little more. “Perhaps we haven’t been introduced: Hi, I’m Dr. Reid – nice to meet you. I’m fine with weird, Hotch.”
Hotch laughed, enough to make the wings sway as they stretched. It was the first time Reid felt like he was in the presence of the guy he’d known for a decade.
“Okay,” he chuckled and faced the wall again. “Climb up behind me.”
Reid did as he was told and then kneeled on the bed, waiting.
“The lower ones are fine. I can reach them easily and clean them often so don’t worry about those,” Hotch continued. “The feathers at the base of the cartilage, both where the spines meet the bone, and where the bone meets my back – those are the ones to focus on.”
“Pull out any loose feathers or foreign objects like seed pods, leaves and the like. There shouldn’t be a lot – I haven’t had time to do much flying this month.”
Reid’s hands hesitantly went to work. His mind was humming. He wondered if the privacy of this act allowed him to ask about things he normally wouldn’t. After a few minutes of work in silence, he stirred up his courage.
“I have questions,” he said quietly.
“No doubt,” Hotch’s voice was warm. That was a good sign. “Ask away.”
“So… do you fly often? Wow, that sounded so weird out loud…”
Hotch laughed again and his wings flapped gently. “I try to. It’s… freeing, and I feel better afterwards. It’s hard to keep them hidden all the time. They need to stretch, to be used.”
Reid pulled a loose feather out and Hotch shivered slightly. “How do you manage to hide them? I mean, you wear all of those tailored suits an’ stuff… How come none of us have a clue?”
“They’re invisible,” he said as if it were obvious.
“Excuse me?” Reid placed the stray feathers and leaves in a pile at his side. “Am I hallucinating here? I can see them.”
“Most of the time they’re invisible. About once a month I can’t camouflage them and I have to stay out of sight for twelve hours or so. Then I regain control again. I can also tuck them tightly against my back. It doesn’t take a lot of thought or effort really.”
“So, this is your… time of the month?”
“Oh please, can we call it something else?” Hotch replied dryly.
It was Reid’s turn to laugh. “Okay. I’ve pulled the loose feathers. What’s next?”
“There are glands at the base of each spine where it meets my back. They secrete oil that conditions the feathers and waterproofs them. Here’s where things get awkward… you need to squeeze out the oil and spread it along the feathers from the top of the sheaths to the tips. Some sheaths will be molting and it would be helpful if you could work them free. And then… well, make sure everything looks… pretty.”
“Pretty?” Reid’s eyebrows rose even though Hotch couldn’t see them.
“Yeah,” Hotch huffed. “Awkward. Get it now?”
“A little.” Reid reached towards one of Hotch’s wings where it embedded into his back. His fingers traced around the joint lightly trying to find the glad Hotch mentioned. Hotch shivered noticeably under his touch. “Am I doing it wrong?”
“No,” Hotch breathed. “Keep going. Under the thickest part of the bone…”
Reid hunted around and then finally felt the small bump under the wing spine. He pressed it gently and felt a tiny amount of liquid line his fingers, warm and a bit viscous like honey. Hotch twitched a little and his breath came out short.
“Seriously, Hotch, if I’m doing this wrong you need to tell me. I don’t want to hurt you.”
“No, no. It really doesn’t hurt – believe me. I’m just used to it being my hands, or Jack’s, that’s all. You feel different.”
“Alright,” Reid mumbled dubiously as he spread the oil along the length of the feathers that were least accessible to Hotch’s reach.
Hotch kept twitching but never moved away from Reid’s touch. His wings stretched as Reid worked along them, as if trying to give him as much access as they could. He felt like they wanted to draw him in. The more Hotch stretched, the more feathers were revealed and Reid saw different kinds: long, strong flight feathers with thick, agile spines almost like bone, contour feathers that gave the wings color and weight, and soft, downy under feathers tucked close to where his wings would fold into his back. There were old ones, brittle and frayed with use, and there were the new ones shaking off the prison of their sheaths as Reid’s fingers tried to free them. Reid turned the action into a meditation working through Hotch in zones as if addressing muscle groups in a massage. He diligently worked the oil from sheath root to feather tip until the ones he left in his wake shined glossy brown with their intricate fawn colored dots and stripes interwoven through it.
Hotch’s breathing lengthened considerably and then his head drooped forward. Reid worked in silence, still brimming with questions, but mesmerized by the hypnosis he was unwittingly creating with his hands. Despite Hotch’s relaxation, there was a new tension thrumming through him; his spine was taut and his trapezius and scapulae muscles fluttered when Reid tugged away a dead sheath or ran his fingers down a feather in one, sure stroke. When Reid’s fingers found a pocket of loose dander under some strong flight feathers and wiggled to remove it, Hotch let out a low moan that froze Reid in mid tug.
Hotch nodded his sagging head but didn’t answer. Reid went back to work and Hotch moaned again, the tip of his opposite wing twitching like a cat’s tail. Reid dug in his fingers a little more forcefully than he had anywhere else and it elicited a matching moan and a shuffle backwards into his grip. Reid’s face grew hot and he decided he should start talking again.
“H-how long have you h-had them?” he stuttered.
“Since puberty.” Hotch took his time answering and when he did his voice was the measured, even tone he used when he was trying to constrain himself. “It made being a teenager extra uncomfortable.”
“I’ll bet. And I thought I had it bad hitting puberty in college…”
Hotch laughed and it was low and throaty. The effect made Reid even warmer than before. “It made dating difficult. There was no one I could go to for advice.”
“But they’re invisible most of the time, right?”
“Not in the beginning. I had to learn how to do that.”
“Really,” Reid leaned in closer as he pulled a few dead feathers loose at once. Hotch’s back flexed and then relaxed as he let out a long, slow exhalation. “That’s fascinating.”
“No writing any papers about this, Doctor,” Hotch mock-warned in a breathy way.
“Damn,” Reid huffed, close enough to flutter the light downy feathers at the base of Hotch’s shoulders. He wasn’t sure when he’d scooted up closer to Hotch’s back. “Obviously, you showed them to Haley…”
“It wasn’t intentional.” Hotch curled his back towards Reid and stretched his wings as wide as he could. The tips of his longest flight feathers on either wing brushed the far walls of the hotel room. It was as if he wanted Reid to climb into them and Reid was momentarily tempted. They were magnificent. “We were out on a date and… well, I was excited. I forgot to camouflage for a moment and that was that.”
“But she was okay with it.” Reid thought he was getting a little carried away when his fingers moved back to the feathers he’d already cleaned near Hotch’s shoulder blade. It felt as though Hotch had heated up under his hands and Reid enjoyed the idea of that and the closeness that it afforded him.
“In time, yes. And she enjoyed flying.”
“You can… fly with people?”
Hotch shuffled and looked over his shoulder at Reid. There was new warmth in his stare that hadn’t been there before. “Wouldn’t be much of a winged hero if I couldn’t, would I?”
Reid smirked at him. “Winged hero? Do you have tights too?”
Hotch laughed. “No. Haley liked the idea though. I can’t carry someone too far anyway – it takes practice. The balance and weight distribution gets thrown off.”
“I gotta say, Hotch… it’s not scientific or professional… but this is just way too cool.” Reid hated this sudden fit of fanboy he was exhibiting but he didn’t know how else to describe his enthusiasm or excitement at being trusted in this new way.
“I think it might be understandable that I don’t feel exactly the same way about it,” Hotch sighed.
“I’m not trying to discount the burden of it. The need for secrecy is obvious and I can see how that would be stressful…” Reid amended, trying to find an appropriate way to express his awe.
The problem was that Hotch couldn’t see the beauty of it, perhaps he never had. This was new to Reid and he was utterly struck by it - the uniqueness, how unrelentingly odd it was in both a natural and unnatural way. Reid loved outliers, things that defied reason and convention. Although he was a child of science and logic, he understood the benefits of having a broader scope of perception. His career at the FBI was basically premised on that belief. And his personal experience with being odd, an outsider, made this new revelation more compelling. He suddenly felt closer to Hotch in a fundamental sense - as if they’d both been fighting the same fears all along and never knew it. To see someone as ‘perfect’ as Hotch newly painted in this bizarre light gave Reid a sliver of hope about people in general: you just never knew what lurked beneath anyone’s surface, good or bad. The possibilities were endless and exciting.
Reid got lost in mid thought as he focused on the delicate color pattern in Hotch’s wings. The brown initially looked uniform - the color of a sparrow - but shuffling the feathers around revealed that the brown was dappled like sunlight through leaves. There were dusky tones and rich veins of auburns, mahoganies, chestnuts and ocres. The spots and mottled streaks were fawn, and like their namesake, were soft and graceful, signaling some sort of essential need that only nature understood. To human eyes they were just…
“Beautiful,” Reid breathed and then stopped with a gulp when he realized he’d said it aloud.
Hotch turned a little under Reid’s hands, which froze above the wings where he had been aligning the feathers. Reid knew Hotch was staring at him, but he didn’t say anything about the comment. Reid slowly lowered his hands again and began massaging Hotch’s feathers - making them ‘pretty’ as he had been instructed to do.
“What I meant to say was, there can be horror in being so shockingly different, but this is… there is tremendous beauty in this.”
Hotch took a moment before replying softly. “Would you still call it beautiful if I had a double row of teeth or poisonous spines?”
“Yes,” Reid breathed without hesitation. He looked up and now saw that it was Hotch who was staring in awe. “Undoubtedly. Are you saying that you’ve never seen yourself that way before?”
Hotch just shook his head, no.
“That’s a shame,” Reid said simply and gave Hotch a look that implied he meant it. He went back to the meditation of arranging the feathers knowing that Hotch’s stare followed him. He felt the flush slowly return to his face as Hotch continued staring and the implications of this intimacy settled over him. Reid was close enough now that every time he spoke Hotch could feel his breath across his shoulders.
Reid’s fingers dug under Hotch’s flight feathers and massaged the downy ones beneath. Hotch twisted and groaned into the movement. Reid didn’t look at him as he tried it again and got the same result. The heat of his flush began to spread out across his body; he was crossing a line now and he worried about the reality of his intentions. Hotch was his boss and they had ten years of history between them - some things could be overlooked but not all.
“After Haley died,” he began softly knowing that his words would cross a line of a different sort. “Jack would’ve been too young to do this. How did you manage on your own?”
“I didn’t. Or not very well anyway.” Hotch’s voice was close, soft, but Reid wouldn’t look at him. “I lost a lot of feathers from neglect. I didn’t fly for a long time.”
Reid nodded and made an ‘oh’ sound. His fingers skimmed under and through Hotch’s primary feathers as the man flexed and moved to get as close as he could. Reid tried to imagine these feathers in flight, doing what they were made to do, pulling Hotch skyward effortlessly…
“Jack started helping me when he was seven. He was probably still too young but I had no choice.”
“Preening is a mating activity,” Reid concluded. “Your mate was gone. You had no other option than to go to the only person you trusted: family.”
“Yes,” Hotch breathed hesitantly and then cleared his throat as his shoulders straightened under Reid’s hands. “Could I ask… can you do what you’re doing now… to the spine where it meets my shoulder? It feels… very good, and I can’t reach there.”
Reid looked up then and was flustered by the undisguised need he saw radiating from Hotch. Heat throbbed through him again - his face must have been scarlet by now - but he nodded and slid his fingers through the feathers until he came to the boney junction between wing and man. Then his fingers bit into the connection with force as he circled around Hotch’s shoulders, eyes riveted to Hotch’s face to read his reaction. Hotch closed his eyes and let his head dip so that his chin rested against his shoulder. He breathed out expansively and then made a deep groan of satisfaction. Reid was lit, skin almost flaming and curling under the power of what was radiating from Hotch. He bent closer, breathed the feeling in as he hovered just above the back of Hotch’s neck. The wings flicked and twitched against him as he massaged Hotch; they pressed into his pants and shirt in absent waves like the give and take of some unintentional dance. Hotch’s eyes remained closed and it was hard to tell if it was from pleasure or shame. His hunger for comfort was almost a physical thing hanging in the air above him and it reverberated through Reid down to his bones that someone could deny himself something so basic and human for so long.
“Touch is elemental,” Reid breathed across Hotch’s twitching shoulders. “It’s a language older than words. Touch is how we are made real in the eyes of others.”
Hotch was very real to him now. New and strange and real. Only hours before he’d known just a fraction of him and thought that they understood a lot about one another. Hotch opened his eyes, staring as he breathed through his mouth.
“You can spend a lifetime trying to get used to it,” he said.
“Because we’ve codified it as intimate. It is both the signifier and the signified: it can convey a lot in a single gesture.” Reid’s fingers found both of Hotch’s glands beneath the wing spines and pressed them gently in addition to the circular motion of the massage. Hotch gasped and Reid felt a small amount of oil line his fingers, smoothing his path as he moved on.
“Should I stop?” he asked because they were well over the line now and they both knew it.
“No.” Hotch’s voice was low, almost threatening.
And Reid bent closer and caught Hotch’s lips. They both breathed in suddenly as they connected, and Reid expected Hotch to pull away, but he just moaned again softly as Reid’s hands worked around his shoulders. They held together like that in stasis for a long moment, perhaps too paralyzed by the act to do anything else, and then Reid moved, pressing a little closer drawing on Hotch’s lower lip. Hotch twisted a little - he was already at an awkward angle - but when he settled his mouth softened, letting go to Reid. Then it was Reid who moaned a little.
The wings fluttered between them, perhaps shaking off the dust of disuse, and then Reid felt the pressure of Hotch’s long primary flight feathers cage him around his waist, like they were trying to fold into Hotch’s back but carry Reid along with them. Suddenly Reid’s mind roared to life screaming about who he was, where they were, and whom he was with. He quickly pulled back, just enough to separate their lips with a soft pop that he wouldn’t forget any time soon. He was breathing a little too fast, his hands forgotten and buried in the soft feathers at the base of Hotch’s wings.
“That might have been more than we intended to say,” he whispered unsteadily.
“Maybe.” Hotch’s lips were out of reach but his words brushed Reid with the same tenderness. “Grooming is intimate, which is why it’s been a struggle for me for so long. It’s hard to let people into this.”
“You let me in…”
“Yes, I did.”
Hotch answered carefully, his gaze looking confused by his own actions. Reid understood that response - he felt it too. He pulled away, forcing a more friendly distance between them. He hoped it didn’t look like rejection to Hotch; Reid wouldn’t take any of it back, even if it would never happen again. He placed his hands on the strong, contoured surface of Hotch’s wings and made one last pass to smooth them.
“I think I’ve done all I can. I should go now.”
He smiled to gentle his words. Hotch’s face closed off as he nodded his agreement. They both climbed off the bed and Reid watched as Hotch stretched his wings one last time before folding them almost impossibly into his back. He turned away and Reid was amazed at how the wings almost looked like a tattoo when they were tucked in close. And then, they suddenly blended away leaving nothing in view but the skin of Hotch’s back. Reid felt something close to sadness at their disappearance. Hotch turned back and seemed off guard when he saw Reid’s expression.
“Ummm, yeah. It’s just… I wasn’t prepared…”
Reid stopped and shook his head. He just wasn’t ready for reality to resurface so quickly. The moments before had been an interlude, a scene of magical realism in an otherwise average tale. His real life was about cases and murder and his team and how to solve the riddle of their latest UnSub. Hotch watched him work through it in silence.
“Do you want to talk about your timing theory now?” he asked eventually.
“No. I think I need to be more coherent to manage that. It really can wait until morning.”
“All right then,” Hotch said gently and then walked them towards the door. He laid his hand on the knob and stopped, then his hand slipped from the handle and smoothed out along the doorframe itself. He waited and then turned back to Reid. “Thank you for this. For everything.”
The words were quiet, weighted - they spoke volumes about how much solitude he’d become accustomed to. It went straight to Reid’s guts and twisted them.
“Y-you’re welcome.” He wanted to say more. He wanted to tell Hotch that if they never mentioned this evening again, Reid hoped Hotch would remember that someone else thought his true nature was beautiful.
Hotch smiled - the unironic smile that warmed his entire face and he used so infrequently - and then he opened the door. As Reid passed him thinking that the conversation was over, Hotch cleared his throat.
“Would it be too much to ask,” he said carefully. “To call upon your skills again in the future? If the need should arise? I’m not suggesting that I’d make it a habit or anything… Feel free to say no.”
Reid grinned, and knew by the resulting grin it provoked in Hotch that it was delighted and unambiguous. “Any time. I’m pleased that you asked.”
“Okay then.” Hotch looked like he might be blushing beneath his grin. “Goodnight, Spencer.”
“Goodnight, Aaron.” First names suddenly seemed very important; first names for moments of magical realism and surnames for killers and daylight. “See you at breakfast.”