Aaron worked slowly and methodically, setting down the bore brush to one side and checking the barrel with his penlight to ensure that he'd removed all the debris built up after his shooting session. Across the work-table, Reid mirrored his movements, frowning down at his own weapon. Instead of the relaxing, nearly meditative state that cleaning his weapons instilled in Hotch, Reid seemed more on-edge now than he had been on the range moments ago. He'd done well – easily earning his qualification as he had done consistently since the episode last year when the two had been taken hostage by the LDSK. One real-life shooting had been enough to get Spencer over his aversion to firearms and allow the young man to get his head in the right place. If shooting accurately was what stood between Spencer's team and certain death at an unsub's hands, the young man was eager to become proficient.
Exchanging the bore with a clean patch, Hotch watched Spencer with quick glances. His hands were steady, moving easily through the motions of oiling his patch and sliding it up and down the barrel, but his jaw was tense and his eyes shadowed. Spencer was a prodigy, a genius, and his contributions had proven his place on this team over and over again. Between Spencer's brain and Gideon's quiet, intense persistence, he'd won over everyone from the FBI administration to hard-headed physical types like Derek Morgan. They'd all learned a lot during Reid's first year working with the profiling team – and so had the still very young man sitting across from him. It remained to be seen whether the evils the team witnessed – the darkness of the abyss of human depravity – would make just as much of an impression on Spencer.
Lately, Hotch had taken a more active role in Spencer's development. He managed to stifle a snort. It wasn't as if he'd had a choice. Jason Gideon might be a gifted profiler and an asset to the team, but he was also a moody, arrogant man who would passive-aggressive his way out of any duties he didn't find personally fulfilling. Like making sure his student passed his firearms proficiency. Or went home to eat and sleep at reasonable hours. Or was brought up to date on hand-to-hand and computer techniques. After Hotch had a few extremely pointed talks with Morgan, the man had toned down the teasing and had begun to show Spencer self-defense moves that no one wearing a badge should be without. Garcia was more than happy to show off both her compassion and her computer savvy. "Imagine," she'd said to Aaron, "the guy doesn't even know how to use a search engine!"
Spencer's eagerness to learn – anything – and his need to prove himself made him the perfect student – something Gideon had figured out years ago, apparently. Taking the young man aside for these sessions wasn't exactly a hardship. Often, Hotch learned a little bit, too. Random facts about firearms. History lessons. And, if he was particularly lucky, a tiny tidbit about Spencer himself. More than the bland facts that appeared in the young agent's file, more than his mother's illness or his father's abandonment. More than his IQ and advanced degrees. Right now, for instance, Hotch could tell that Spencer was upset by the intensity of the young man's concentration and the downturned corners of his mouth. He had intended to let Spencer lead, to wait him out and listen, but that clearly wasn't working. Not this time.
"What's on your mind?" Aaron began, keeping his gaze on his weapon. He didn't want Spencer to feel defensive.
A few moments later Reid answered. "Our last case – finding the little boy who was being auctioned off – it was different. I mean, we've profiled pedophiles before, and the research is startling in its cohesiveness. Did you know that all of the studies reveal the same results, even taking into account age, cultural norms, childhood experiences, education, social and financial status – preferential pedophiles fall into static, predictable lines every time?" Reid's long-fingered hands sketched columns and rows in the air over the work table. "If you laid out the backgrounds of Haydon Rawlings, Kevin's father, and Dustin's abductor you would find completely different vital statistics, and yet their psychological profiles are nearly identical."
"Gideon has me going over the case files for the Crimes Against Children division, the cases that have gone cold. I guess he's hoping that my reading and comprehension speed might help put some tiny details together. Since Dustin's abductor isn't talking, there might be a chance to rattle him if I can find other cases that he could have had a hand in. Especially infant abductions in and around the time of Dustin's."
Hotch frowned, looking at the bowed head of the other agent. That sounded – horrible. It was bad enough that many agents were required to study those files, including him, and see physical proof of these men's evil, but Hotch didn't have a complete and inerasable memory of every single word, a picture of every horrifying act done to those children seared into his mind. "Reid, you don't have to –"
"If I can help one child be recovered –"
"Reid." The Special Agent Hotchner voice usually did it.
Yep. Big brown eyes blinked at him.
"There's no reason for you to study each of SSA Cole's files. Unless she's asked you to help her with something specific."
Reid's eyebrows crooked for a second. "I don't know. I don't think Gideon has talked to her – he just requisitioned the files from records and sent them to me with a note attached."
Hotch forced himself not to change expression or let Reid get a hint of his disapproval. Spencer practically worshipped the ground Gideon walked on, his brilliant mind seeming to overlook the older man's fairly obvious faults. Aaron was going to have to tread lightly. "It's commendable that you – and Jason – are trying to help. But I'd like you to put that on the back-burner for the moment." When Reid opened his mouth to interrupt, Hotch held up one hand. "Yes, it is important and we should do everything we can for these children and their families, but we all have our jobs. And while we were able to help out Agent Cole on this particular case, we need to focus on our own caseload."
"I haven't been neglecting our cases," Spencer assured him. "We don't have a current case – not something we're pursuing at the moment."
"I know that. I was not implying that you are neglecting anything except your own mental – and maybe physical – health. Our job is difficult as it is; gathering in extra cases from around the bureau on the off chance that we can spot a single stray clue is not part of it."
The young man's frown cut deeper across his forehead. "I understand. On the other hand, I have the ability to read and comprehend quickly, to see patterns. Why not use that?"
"Because you're not a tool, Spencer." Aaron couldn't help the sting in his voice. "You are not a brain we take out of a drawer and use like we would a stapler or a weapon or even a computer. You are an agent, and a human being. Please let us treat you like that."
The young man's mouth dropped open. Aaron could almost see the wheels of his mind churning and churning, trying to process that statement. To find the correct mental slot to file it in. Reid's head dropped and he frowned down at his weapon.
"I'm getting better at compartmentalizing." His voice was just above a whisper.
Aaron nodded. "And that's good. But inundating your mind with these files, these images of children while knowing what could be happening to them – even jaded agents would have trouble with it. And, believe it or not, Gideon should not be assigning you cases from other departments without their approval. Or mine."
Head nodding, Reid glanced up for a moment.
"But I don't think it's those cases that are what's bothering you. Can you tell me what is?" Aaron tried again.
Spencer's eyes cut to the left. Aaron pretended not to notice. It was a tell, one that the young agent would need to discipline out of himself if he was going to have any aptitude at interrogation. Aaron discarded the dirty pad and exchanged it for a clean one while Spencer decided whether or not to answer his question truthfully.
"I know we have an agreement not to profile each other," Reid began, his voice low and thready. "But sometimes –"
"Sometimes it's an impossible agreement to keep." Aaron flashed a smile.
"It is," Reid agreed quickly. "I've talked about it with Gideon, but he told me she just needs time. And, honestly? I don't think more time is going to help."
Aaron's hands stilled. "You're talking about Elle."
Spencer leaned forward. "There's something wrong. She's – she's different. I know, I know," he hurried on, "being injured that way, the shock of it is not something you can throw off easily. But I think there's something else going on. I mean, Elle's always been brusque and a little intolerant of, well, me, but she's never walked right over me before. Or tried to use me as an excuse for her own behavior like she did on this case." He swallowed, fingers twitching on the table. "I don't think she should be in the field."
Letting out a long, slow breath, Aaron felt the icy knot that had been tightening behind his breastbone since Elle's return give way. Reid was right. And Aaron knew it. Elle had passed Physical Training with ease, but she'd been putting off her psych eval. And Aaron had let her.
"It's too soon," Spencer continued. "And I know this is really none of my business, but I wanted someone to know. I've asked her if she wants to talk, but," his self-effacing shrug and lowered gaze told Aaron how Elle's rejection must have felt, "well, I don't think she sees me as much of a confidant. Or friend, even. Maybe if someone else, someone older, who she respected –"
"I'm going to stop you there." Aaron's voice was gentle. "First, I'm sorry that anyone on this team has ever made you feel disrespected. You've more than earned your place here – and not just as Gideon's student but on your own merit." He waited long enough for Spencer to nod although they both knew the young man was not convinced. "Second, I'm glad you brought this up. It actually coincides with my own feelings on the matter. And, no, I agree that time is not the answer here. Maybe decades ago this kind of personality change after a personal trauma might have been overlooked or ignored, but the bureau isn't quite as backwards on these matters as it used to be. We've gotten a lot better at caring for our agents, especially since the early days with Gideon and Rossi sitting alone in the basement." Hotch had no trouble imagining Gideon's empty gaze and careless hand-waving at Spencer's concern. "Elle needs help. And now that the issue has been addressed by another agent, it will be taken seriously."
"I don't want to get her in trouble," Reid added, fear for his co-worker clear behind his eyes.
"This isn't trouble – this is care. It's trouble that we're trying to avoid." Aaron gestured at the weapons on the table between this. "Let's finish this up and then I'll see what I can do. We're on mandatory one week stand-down after the CAC case, so we have some time."
When Spencer made no move to finish cleaning his weapon, Aaron looked up, one eyebrow raised. "Can you trust me to handle this, Spencer?"
"Yes." The answer was immediate. "I trust you. Just – thank you. For listening."
"Huh." Another face popped up in Aaron's mind's eye. "You remind me of a friend of mine – he's always amazed when I sit quietly and listen to his ramblings about cases or his co-workers or movies, anything really. It makes me think you – and he – need to have higher standards for your friends if I'm the best listener you've met lately."
Reid smiled. "I think I'd like to meet this friend of yours."
Head tilted sideways, Aaron considered. "You two in the same room. I think you might each meet your match." He pointed a stern finger at Reid's weapon. "Now. Finish."