I Could Just….
"I've got her! On the street. She's been drugged."
Hotch's voice carried a touch of panic that was rare to hear. Alex and Reid shot each other a look as it came through their radios. They abandoned their task and ran outside. They were only steps behind JJ, who was almost a block behind Morgan and Rossi. All of them were panting as they arrived at the site.
It was a paradoxically peaceful scene. Hotch sat on the bench, Erin Strauss next to him, leaning into him, his arms around her. She could have been asleep. But she wasn't.
Hotch looked up at Rossi, apology in his eyes. "She was too far gone, it was happening too quickly."
He could see the sorrow looking back at him from his good friend.
Later, he would share, in private, her final words.
"I don't want to die alone."
Rossi fought for control. "She didn't. Not just because you were there. God, I hope she knows she didn't. So much of her life was lost to the alcohol, and she'd almost lost her whole family in the process. But she found herself again, Hotch. That girl that I knew so long ago when we both joined the Bureau. She found her again. And so did I. And it was like her kids were meeting her for the first time, really. But they loved her. She wasn't alone. She had them. She had me."
Hotch reached an arm behind his colleague and laid his hand on Rossi's shoulder.
"She knew, Dave. She was so different this year. I know it was the sobriety. But it wasn't only that. She knew she had someone in her corner, that she didn't have to carry the burden alone. Makes all the difference in the world."
Rossi turned and smiled. "You're right. And I'm glad. And I'm glad you've got someone in your corner again, too."
Hotch returned the smile. "Me too."
Hotch knew his team well. He knew the loss would be personal for all of them, each in a different way.
For Rossi, it was obvious. But his friend had been there before, and knew that sorrow eases. He would mourn, but he would recover.
For Alex, he knew it felt like an argument had ended abruptly, with Erin Strauss having gotten the last word. She'd made repeated apologies, but seemed always to be looking for more from Alex. And now she'd died, without Alex having given her that something more. It would always feel like unfinished business.
For Morgan, and for Garcia, it was a challenge. Someone had violated the life of the 'family' they each sought to protect in such very different ways. Regardless of their specific feelings about Strauss, regardless of the history, this was clearly a threat. They were hurt, and they were angry. And they didn't intend to allow it to happen to anyone else in their group.
Hotch knew JJ was frightened. Her husband and her four year old son were home, alone, in DC. The Replicator's ability to get to Erin Strauss even when she was traveling with the whole BAU team told her that he was a master at seizing opportunity. And it wouldn't take much opportunity, with the distraction of a preschooler to care for. Washington was only a short plane ride from New York. The Replicator could be there now. She began calling Will hourly, "just checking in."
Reid. Reid, who'd only just begun to sleep through the night again after Maeve, whose psyche was still so very fragile from her loss. He'd insisted he was ready to work again, much sooner than Hotch had anticipated. And so he'd come back. And he'd contributed. But he hadn't been quite the same. Not as sharp, not as precise, not as fluent. Recently, it seemed like he'd turned a corner. And now, Hotch feared, he would regress, would slip back into that dark pool from which he'd so arduously climbed. Reid would bear watching. Hotch knew he would have company in that task. JJ and Garcia had been finely attuned to the young man's moods. All three of them noticed he'd barely said a word since Strauss' death. JJ, closest to him, noticed that the staring seemed to have returned, along with the rumination. Spencer Reid seemed to be visiting that dark place again.
Aaron Hotchner could be single minded when he had to be. He put aside his feelings for and about Erin Strauss, so long his nemesis, much more recently a friend and true colleague. He put aside his concern for his own loved ones….Jack, who'd already suffered the devastating loss of his mother….and Beth, so newly the subject of the word 'love' for him. He had a team to lead, a death to avenge and a public to protect. He would attend to himself later.
He gathered his team and got busy.
They had him. Or, rather, they knew him. They knew who he was. But, in truth, he knew them much better. John Curtis. The Replicator.
The team was so well-oiled, so well integrated with one another and with their jobs that, even under siege, they performed. No matter the loss of Strauss. No matter that Rossi was down, poisoned by the same unsub. No matter that Morgan had faced the end of Rossi's gun during the man's delusion. They recovered, and they deduced, and they discovered the source of their threat. And now, they were on their way to meet him.
Rossi was still at the hospital, Garcia with Kevin in the 'lair'. They'd finally gotten it back up, and she breathed with relief that she could help her team again in her own imitable way. The rest were headed to the estate via helicopter, Morgan and JJ in one, and Reid, Alex and Hotch in the second.
The flight would be a short one, their destination not very far. All minds were on the strategy they would employ once on the ground. Not realizing that one set of them might be on the ground much sooner than expected.
When the copter first stopped responding to the pilot's commands, it started downward in a nosedive. All three agents on board gripped a handhold to keep them from slipping from their seats despite their restraints. Hotch was seated next to the pilot, and looked desperately for a way to help. Alex and Reid, seated behind them, could do nothing but pray. And then, just as suddenly as it had malfunctioned, the copter stabilized, the controls responsive once again.
In the minutes that followed, a conversation took place inside Spencer Reid's head, right after he found himself thanking God for stabilizing the copter.
"Look at you, you were just praying to stay alive. After praying for the opposite for so long. What gives?"
"Maybe I'm just worried about the others. I don't mind if I die. But I don't want them to. Hotch has a son, and Beth. And Alex has a husband. It would be selfish."
"Really? Or are you done with 'life isn't worth it'…..and 'if she can't have a life, I don't want a life…..or, 'it's not worth it, being alone'…..or 'no one would even miss me'. Maybe you want to live, now."
"But…..but Maeve is still gone. How can I want what she can't have? This drivel about living my life for both of us….how does anyone even do that? No, I'm living because I have to. But, if death comes to me, if it won't hurt anyone else, well..."
"You don't mean that, Spencer."
Anyone looking at him at that moment would have seen his eyes go wide. The internal voice had changed. He was listening to Maeve.
"You don't mean that. Life is precious, and you should live every minute that's given to you."
"Not without you!"
"Are you without me?"
The copter went out of control again. This time, the pilot was stymied. He managed to keep them from striking the ground nose down, but the machine crashed nonetheless. Reid's conversation with Maeve ended when he lost consciousness.
It looked to Morgan and JJ that their colleagues had been out only a minute or so. Hotch stumbled from the copter but found his footing quickly. JJ noticed that Reid looked more dazed.
"Are you okay?" She helped him step down.
"Are you okay?" She was worried. Had he hit his head harder, or was this something else?"
He turned and looked back in. "Blake! JJ, where's Alex?"
The others had already surmised that she was gone. "It looks like the Replicator's got her."
The estate was sizeable, but they found the main house quickly enough. Hotch sent Morgan and JJ in one direction, while he and Reid took the other. They each quickly searched the house, and came back together in a basement corridor. They moved slowly along the corridor, until they reached a door. Morgan pushed it back carefully, and they saw her.
Alex Blake was seated, bound and chained, with eight padlocks securing her restraints. A digital timer led their eyes to an explosive device, set with C4. If they were going to save Alex, they needed to work fast.
There was a set of keys, which Reid began to use. It was only as he deduced the code connecting the key with the padlock that he realized the lettered keys spelled a word. Zugzwang.
When she saw how rapidly Reid responded to the word, JJ realized that the fog he'd been in before hadn't been neurologic. He'd recovered too quickly. She was sure she'd been seeing him react to something as he'd climbed out of the copter. Now, his brain in full working order, he quickly deduced that the use of the word, zugzwang, was more than just a twist of the knife on the part of the unsub. It was a message.
Reid's brain leapt synapses instantaneously, and he knew. The zugzwang…..it was the false choice. Save Alex, and suffer a dire consequence. He began looking for it….and saw.
"Don't get up! There's a pressure sensor!"
It was too late, she couldn't react quickly enough. As Alex Blake rose from the seat, a heavy metal door slid shut, sealing the team in the room with the explosives.
Without warning, Reid was back in his silent conversation again. This time he started with someone else.
"I told You! I asked You! Not them, just me! Just take me! Why? Why does it have to be all of us?"
"Spencer, who are you talking to?"
"God! ….. You…..Maeve! Please, do something, they can't all die!"
"it's not up to me, Spencer."
"But….they all have people who love them. People who need them. They can't die!"
"All but you, Spencer?"
"I lost that privilege, Maeve….when I lost you. No one needs me."
"No one needs you. And no one loves you?"
"Not that way. They'll be fine without me. And I could be with you. Couldn't I?"
Miraculously, meaning through the magic of Penelope Garcia, the door slid open. Four profilers ran through it immediately. The fifth hesitated in the doorway.
"It would be so easy. They're out now. I could just….."
"Spence! Spence, can't you hear me? Come on!"
JJ had been the last out, before him. She'd been running, when she realized she didn't hear footsteps behind her. Without any thought of the risk, she turned and went back toward the basement room. She saw him standing there, looking in, a remarkably calm, pensive look on his face. And, just that suddenly, she knew.
"Spence!" She'd reached him now, forced him to turn and look at her. "Spence, come on, we have to go!"
He was shocked to see her there. JJ! No!
She began tugging at his arm. "Spencer Reid, you come with me right now! I am not losing you tonight! Maeve wouldn't want this! "
He was brought up short. How did she know? He turned back to the room, as though she was there.
"Maeve! Maeve, I can't! JJ…it's JJ…and she won't leave without me! I can't! I'm so sorry, I can't!"
A large part of him wanted to cry. But then he heard that interior voice again. Her voice.
"Spencer, take care of the ones you love while you have them. And let them take care of you. It will be soon enough, for us. You'll see. Go. Go with JJ now."
"Spence! Please! We need to go,now! Please, do it for me! Do it for Henry!"
He looked at her, and one more time into the room…..the empty room. Apparently Maeve had said all that she had to say. He would have to make his choice on his own.
He could follow the woman he loved into an uncertain eternity. Or he could leave with the woman next to him, who was risking her own life, and the love of all those she loved, to come after him.
And then he heard the voice one more time, her voice, coming from inside his head.
"Love, Spencer. What do you think brought her back for you?"
JJ didn't quite understand as she watched Reid nod. But she thanked God…and Maeve and whoever else needs thanks…..when he took her outstretched hand and followed her through the basement maze and out into the starlit night.