The footsteps in the hall wake him and for a split second he’s seven years old again and telling himself to stay so, so still; he’ll become invisible and the monster will never find him. But then he blinks and the snapshot of his childhood fades back into the safety of memory like a bleached-out photo tucked away in a box. He reaches for the nightstand drawer and finds his back-up gun, heartbeat pulsing behind his eyes. He’s still scared – you don’t outgrow fear – but he can do something about it now. He pads across the ancient floor on the balls of his feet avoiding the boards that he knows squeak.
Then he’s in the hall, facing down no one, the shadow of his Glock leading the way. He starts to wonder if he’s overreacted, if he was still dreaming when he heard the steps, but then the creak of hinges sounds from his living room and all he can think is that it shouldn’t be possible that someone got past two locked doors and foyer security. He slips into the living room, long shadows from the front windows making everything monochromatic and nightmarish. There is someone sitting on his couch.
He flexes his grip and aims for the back of the guy’s skull. “I’m a federal agent. I’m armed and I will shoot you.”
The silhouette doesn’t move, doesn’t even twitch at his voice.
“Do you hear me?”
Another agonizing moment passes before he can convince his legs to move, and then he makes a wide half circle in the room until he can face his visitor. He blinks in the gloom, like a visual stutter, because he can’t believe what his eyes are telling him, and then he flicks the safety on and moves to stand in front of his guest.
“Hotch?” He peers at his boss, the man’s face half in shadow and half lit by the streetlights streaming through his windows. His expression is blank, completely open, his hands resting on his knees as he stares past Reid looking at nothing.
“Hotch,” Reid tries again gently, this time reaching out and squeezing his shoulder. Hotch’s expression changes. His eyes move slowly to Reid’s face. He takes a deep breath as his pupils dilate, going almost black, and his gaze gets glassy. Then a sad fondness moves over him like clouds passing over a windswept landscape.
“Reid,” he whispers and then his voice breaks and it makes Reid’s stomach twist with anxiety. “I’ve missed you.”
Reid quickly sits on his coffee table staring Hotch eye to eye. Hotch’s gaze follows him like he hasn’t seen him in years and he’s cherishing the experience, but his movement is sluggish. Reid reaches out his other hand and lightly measures the beat of Hotch carotid artery and his pulse is slow, deeply relaxed.
“Do you know where you are?” he asks.
“I’ve missed you,” Hotch repeats after a long delay. “I’ve missed you all. It’s been so long.”
“Where have we been?”
Hotch doesn’t respond, just smiles again with such wistfulness that it feels like a stab to the chest and Reid has to breathe through it waiting for the unexpected shock of it to pass. Eventually, Hotch’s hand reaches for Reid’s and draws them both down to rest on his knee. His grip is warm and light, wrapping Reid hand over hand.
“Aaron,” Reid tries again. “How did you get here?”
Hotch looks away to the windows beyond Reid. He sits and breathes and holds Reid's hand as if this scene is the final one after a long journey. Reid realizes that he’s barely blinking, just barely present.
“The dead aren’t gone,” Hotch says quietly. “They live inside my head.”
“Am I dead?” Reid swallows hard just trying to form the question. He knows he isn’t – he knows it – but in Hotch’s mind he must be.
“Scratch got in,” Hotch mumbles, expression hardening for the first time. “But he won’t get to you again. Not again.”
Reid closes his eyes and sighs, his head drooping forward between hunched shoulders. Hotch is asleep and living out a second life of Peter Lewis’s making. Reid twists his hand in Hotch’s and squeezes it. This fucking job…
“No, he won’t,” Reid soothes. “You’ll keep us safe. We know you will, Aaron.”
The touch brings Hotch’s gaze back to Reid and the anger slips away immediately. “It’s been so long, Reid.” Hotch’s voice nearly breaks. “I get so tired, you know…”
Reid moves to sit next to Hotch on the sofa. He wraps a hand gently over Hotch’s shoulder and directs him back to lean into the cushions. Hotch’s eyes follow him, unfocused and trusting, but with lagging, slow blinks.
“You should sleep,” Reid murmurs as he watches Hotch rest his head against the couch as if Reid had ordered him to do it.
“Scratch’ll get in.”
“No, he won’t, Aaron, because I’m here now. I’ll watch over you while you sleep.”
Hotch is blinking harder, fighting his body to stay present, but his eyes can’t focus on Reid anymore and he knows that the man is just moments away from slipping into REM sleep.
“My job…” he slurs and tightens his hand on Reid’s for an instant.
Reid leans in as Hotch’s eyes close and stay that way. “S’okay, it’s my job tonight.”
And Reid’s as good as his word for an hour or two at least. He spins out scenarios in his brain trying to find one that will offer his friend the help he needs without sacrificing the dignity that’s taken far too many hits over the years. Just imagining Hotch living another life inside his head where he struggles to stay connected to his dead friends makes Reid bleed as he sits and watches the man sleep. He can’t believe that Hotch is doing it alone, that’s he’s never mentioned it to anyone, and then he remembers that is exactly the sort of thing Hotch would do. Grief presses him deep into the sofa beside Hotch and then, like a shadow passing over them both, sleep drags him down as well.
When Hotch wakes before dawn tucked tight against Reid’s shoulder on the couch, he is all apologies and formality, refusing to look Reid in the eye. He can’t remember anything, can’t remember how he made it across town to Reid’s apartment, and that in itself worries them both. Reid summarizes the evening and Hotch’s face grows increasingly ashen. He looks to his feet and eventually says he’ll take care of it.
“No, you won’t,” Reid sighs and Hotch looks up. “But we will.”
“I can handle it,” he says in the quiet, firm way he has about him that usually ends any discussion.
“At night you grieve for us.” Reid leans in to emphasize his point. “And from what I saw last night, the grief is more real to you than your waking reality. You’re chasing after memories of us – chasing them right across town – but we’re right here. You have to let us in so that we can kick Peter Lewis out once and for all.”
“Reality, in large part, is what we want it to be, Hotch. Let us help you change yours so that we can all live again.”
Reid watches Hotch turn his expression to stone while he considers the alternatives.
“The loss I saw in you last night, Aaron,” Reid murmurs trying to keep his voice steady. “It was devastating. It would have broken a lesser man long ago.”
Hotch’s mouth turns down in a scowl that is second nature to him, and then he nods almost imperceptibly at Reid.
“Thank you,” Reid sighs.
“Thank you for not shooting me,” Hotch mumbles back and then kind of smirks using only his eyes.
Reid shrugs, stuffing his hands in his pockets, and it seems to be the end of the conversation. He walks Hotch to the door and just as he’s about to shut him out in the hall, Hotch turns back with soft confusion painted all over him again.
“Reid, I…” he swallows and searches hard for something that he can’t find, and then he gives up and just reaches for Reid’s arm instead and squeezes it tighter than he did when he thought he was a ghost.
I’ve missed you.
“Me too,” Reid says and lets it go at that.
Hotch nods once, straightens his shoulders and lets his hand fall away. Then he strides out into the hallway and heads towards the sunrise.