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the lies we weave are oh so intricate

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***

She didn’t answer. Angry, and half in love with her and tremendously sorry, I turned away.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

 

***

before.

The last thing that Aaron Hotchner thinks when Diane points the gun at him and presses the trigger is: he doesn’t know I have his collar.

This is not the way it’s really supposed to go. The case had been a disaster from the very beginning, ever since the phone call at dawn and Reid’s voice on the other side: Hotch, I need your help. The plan had been simple: wait for Reid to give a sign, move in from all sides and hope that Reid’s been able to talk her down before she does something rash like point a gun and press the trigger.

Then, of course, there had been a gunshot.

They had been greeted by the sight of Reid on the floor and Diane with a crazed look in her eyes and a gun pointing directly at Maeve. There had been nothing for them to do but simply point their guns like props because Diane had Maeve, Reid’s Maeve and no one had a clear shot of them.

“Diane,” he hears Reid saying, and Diane won’t be able to hear it but he knows, knows that Reid only speaks this slowly when he’s terrified, when he’s trying to keep the shaking out of his voice.

I choose Aaron Hotchner, he had once said in the same voice, half-dead and frothing at the mouth, had pointed at the camera and told Hotch to come save him. And, Hotch decides, leveling his gun the best he can, he’ll be damned if he’s going to fail now.

“You would kill yourself for her?” Diane screams out in anguish and he sees Reid breaking. Yes, he shouts out loud, desperate, echoing around the warehouse. Hotch closes his eyes.

He opens his eyes and sees Diane pulling Maeve – the only person Reid ever lost his eloquence for, the only person who, well - closer, pulling her towards herself and pointing the gun at her own temple and Hotch knows, understands before anyone else can fathom what’s going to happen.

He feels like he’s floating for a split second, like he can’t quite find his own balance and then, and then he points his gun upwards towards the ceiling andfires.

The sound reverberates against the wall. Debris and concrete fall around them in multiple trajectories and it’s a poor distraction, but it’s a distraction nonetheless and the second of Diane’s confusion is enough for Reid to drag Maeve off of her.

Diane recovers fast but Hotch is faster, and he dashes forward and all but kicks both Reid and Maeve out of the front-line, turns back to release them towards Blake until, until he turns back to point his gun back at Diane only to find himself staring at the barrel of one.

I can save him, he repeats to himself over and over again, grits his teeth and exhales it in every breath.

It’s all over too quickly. He can vaguely hear Reid shouting Hotch in the background and there’s some commotion from Rossi attempting a last-ditch negotiation but he doesn’t think of all that. He sees the shot whizzing towards him at exactly the same moment he presses his own trigger and in front of his eyes, Diane crumples to the ground.

The next thing he knows, there is a bloom of warmth that he finds comforting, that soon turns into a white-hot flash of pain on his left shoulder. Something settles low and hot in his stomach and he can feel something wet trickle down his wrist. There’s someone slapping his cheeks and calling out his name in an increasingly louder pitch of desperation. He can vaguely register the EMTs around him now, someone barking out to hook him up to a heart monitor and remove his Kevlar and shirt.

The last thing he thinks is: he doesn’t know I have his collar.

And then the lights are blurring, his lashes are wet, and all the voices around him are merging together like a soundless echo and it feels like he’s falling into an abyss, falling, falling-

 

**

 

one. 2007.

 “You do realize that this thing of yours has bypassed professional concern and is now firmly in the obsession category?” Hotch shifts the phone from his right ear to the left. He can practically hear Erin rolling her eyes on the other side.

“It’s not an obsession,” His voice holds just the slightest bit of outrage.

Despite the notion at the BAU and despite their outward claims, Hotch has come to share something resembling an almost-friendship with Strauss over the years. It helps the she’s a sub who has managed to climb up the FBI ladder remarkably fast, and it helps to have someone who would understand the tightly-wound control their job inadvertently imparted on someone of their orientation.

“Alright, so walk me through this again,” There’s a clinking sound on the other end, which he takes as Erin picking up a drink. “You think he faked his documents?”

Hotch takes his time before answering. “Well, I don’t think that, per se. I’m just saying that there has to be a catch involved somewhere.”

“Do you want to start a formal investigation?” Erin asks, and then continues before he can open his mouth. “I would suggest you don’t, actually. If he turns out to be a dom like his papers say, then both our asses will be on the line. And if he turns out to be a sub, the NSA will grab him up as an opportunity to showcase how sub-friendly they are. Either way, you lose.”

“I’m not going to investigate him,” Hotch replies indignantly. “I just… I guess I just want to let him know that it’s perfectly okay if he is a sub.”

Erin raises an eyebrow again, before realizing that he can’t actually see her expression.  She seems to be doing that a lot in Hotch’s presence these days.

“I mean,” Hotch clarifies, “Harris over at CT is a sub and anyone who dares to cross him gets their arms twisted behind their backs and their shins broken. I just want to let him know that’s it’s all right.”

“Okay,” Erin murmurs, wiping her mouth with her napkin. “Humor me, tell me why you think he’s a sub?”

“Well,” Hotch begins. “He avoids direct eye-contact with me, he’s very prompt with his paperwork and listens carefully to orders, he always walks a millimeter behind Gideon or any other doms and his hair is too long.”

Erin takes a deep breath and tries to calculate how much prison time she will have to serve if she stabs a collared sub like Hotch to death. Deciding it isn’t worth it, she contents herself with: “He avoids eye contact with everyone, he does what you say because you’re his damn boss, Gideon is his mentor and I’m pretty sure he hasn’t actually ever noticed the length of his hair.”

Silence. He opens his mouth, about to argue before clamping his mouth shut. Erin sighs. “Look, I get it, you’re attracted to him. All you have to figure out is whether this attraction is worth losing your family and collar over.”

“I can’t be attracted to another sub,” Hotch.

“I don’t think you’re supposed to attracted to anyone who isn’t Haley.”

Silence. Erin takes a deep breath and relents.

“As far as you know, he’s a dom.”

Hotch sighs again and Erin rolls her eyes. “Why do you have the time to think about this anyway?” she finally changes the subject. “Aren’t you in Georgia on a case? Do I need to fire you for unprofessional behavior?”

Hotch makes a sound which would, on a lesser person, be called huffing. “We have a preliminary profile to deliver tomorrow morning. Not much to do at this time of night actually.”

“Except fantasize about your subordinate?” she teases.

Hotch takes a deep breath. “I’m not – it’s called professional concern.”

Erin finds herself almost choking on her drink. “Of course it is,” she spits out in between coughs. “Go back to work. This conversation never happened.”

There’s a second of silence before she hears Hotch’s smile in his voice. “Yes, Ma’am,” he says and disconnects the call.

*

He looks at the screen.

It’s a daze, pictures and textures swirling in front of his eyes for a few minutes. He shakes his head, takes a deep breath and focuses all his energy on compartmentalization, takes the sheer amount of fear and rage coursing through him and shuts it all in a little box in the back of his mind before reopening his eyes.

It doesn’t change the fact that the screen in front of him shows Reid, drugged and tortured and broken, tied to a chair and Tobias Henkel standing above, pointing a gun at his head.

“Choose and prove you’ll do God’s will,” Tobias says on the screen and he inhales sharply. He looks around the room, looks around the remnants of his team with their eyes glued on the screen, hands clenched at their sides and praying, wishing, hoping that Reid would choose them as the proverbial sacrificial lamb. He looks at the sorrow on Gideon’s face and knows without a doubt that if Reid doesn’t make it, Gideon will never recover. He takes in the anger in Morgan’s stance, the guilt in JJ’s and knows without a shadow of doubt that none of them will recover if Reid doesn’t get out of this; none of them will ever be the same. He will never be the same.

Just choose, he pleads silently, almost as if Reid can hear him, please, please choose.

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Reid opening his mouth. He holds his breath.

“I choose Aaron Hotchner,” Reid says on screen. “He’s a classic narcissist.”

Hotch exhales. He can feel everyone’s eyes on him like they’re waiting for him to react, waiting for him to explode or show any form of emotion, but it’s hard to think beyond the relief coursing through his veins.

I can save him is all he can think. It courses through him, thrums through every blood vessel, flows through every nerve in his body: I can save him.

He doesn’t let himself think of the alternative, doesn’t let him think of another aftermath, another consequence until later, much later for it to matter. He doesn’t let himself think: if he lets me.

*

After Georgia, there's a stifling plane ride and before he can process it, Hotch hears himself offering Reid a ride home.

They sit in silence for a while, Hotch focusing on driving and Reid fidgeting in the passenger's seat.

"Are you alright?" he finally ventures, and Reid almost smiles, smoothens his fingers on his laps, says nothing.

"You're free to take as many days off as you like," he speaks again, and he isn't able to shake off the feeling that there's some kind of amends he needs to make here, say something like I’m sorry even when he can’t find anything to be sorry for.

"Hotch," Reid's voice is all but a sigh, "It's not your fault."

There’s silence again and they both know he's not buying it.

"I'm not, actually, you know-" Reid speaks abruptly, takes a deep breath and slowly, hesitantly, places his palm on his thigh. Hotch grits his teeth and fights the urge to look down at the hand near his knee, fights against the urge to close his eyes and let himself fall, let himself slip and be anchored, be absolved under the mild pressure of Reid’s touch.

"It's not your fault," Reid repeats firmly.

*

The first time they met, Hotch was barely paying any attention.

He was staring blankly at the crime scene photos spread out in front of him, hoping for a miraculous breakthrough in the case from thin air when Gideon poked his head into his office. “He’s here,” he announced, sounding a little too much like a little kid excited for Santa on Christmas Eve for Hotch’s comfort.

He sighed and got up.

It’s all he’d heard since Gideon had come back from a recruiting seminar at CalTech. He’d seen the way Gideon would light up like he was made of actual fairy lights every time the conversation would turn to his new ‘find’. “He’s twenty and he was asking me about areas of profiling I had never even considered,” Gideon had confided in him. “I would be annoyed if I wasn’t so speechless.

Hotch had had the foresight to not say that this guy, whoever he was, wasn’t a poodle for God’s sake. Except Gideon had smiled, longer and more happily than he had in years, and he had been brilliant to an almost alarming degree that Hotch didn’t have the heart to say it.

“His name is Spencer Reid,” Gideon had said, while handing him his resume. “I think you should meet him before anything is finalized.” And Hotch had looked through the very long resume, for Gideon’s sake. He had looked through the list of papers published under his name, containing words and equations too complicated for him to pronounce or process. And he hadn’t failed to notice the small “D” printed at the top-left corner of every page.

“He’s a Dom,” he had mused, handing back the resume to Gideon. “A genius and a Dom. What are the odds.”

He had meant it as a joke, except Gideon hadn’t laughed. “Yeah,” he had coughed discreetly, and if it were anyone else, Hotch would have said that he had looked nervous. “Just don’t,” Gideon had flapped his hands about in an uncharacteristic motion, “don’t mention it to him, okay?”

And Hotch had assumed it was because Spencer Reid looked, and acted like a classic Alpha Dominant. He had figured that it was because Spencer Reid was the kind of man who expected the world to fall at his feet, that he was the kind of man who ordered around other Doms and ignored subs as they fawn over him to prove themselves. He had swallowed the smallest tinge of bitterness because he knew, knew from past experience that a man like that only joined the FBI because they wanted to move as far up as possible, crushing everyone along the way. He had felt his fists clench the tiniest bit at the thought of a twenty-two year old kid undermining his authority, trying to exult his genetics over him, and even, God forbid, succeeding in it.

So it was, that he barely paid any attention until Gideon poked his head into his office and looked like his favorite holiday had come early.

He sighed and got up.

From the corridor, he saw the back of a young man as he speaks animatedly to Gideon. He also noticed, with some alarm, the increase in tenor as he delved more into the subject and his hands gesticulating wildly and almost knocking a coffee mug off the nearby table. They both turned when they heard him arrive, and he saw, for the first time, the man in front of him. He wanted to believe that this was the famed Spencer Reid except the man in front of him looked like he was a professor who had travelled in time to the future and had failed to realize that his life no longer made sense. He had a Styrofoam coffee mug clasped in his incredibly long fingers, his hair was long enough to almost cross the FBI regulations, and he’d slung a bag that looked like it was carrying twice his weight over his shoulders.

For a second, he wanted, really wanted to assume that this was yet another trainee bombarding Gideon with questions.

And then, of course, Gideon said: “As I was saying, this is my colleague Aaron Hotchner, my second-in-command. Hotch, this is Dr. Spencer Reid.”

*

The thing is this:

 Aaron Hotchner was, conventionally, a sub.

It was not a secret. He’d known it almost all of his life, ever since he had been in middle school and Missy Jenkins had told him to sit down. She had clasped his arm tightly enough to leave fingerprints and the whole time, he had wondered why he couldn’t bring himself to yank his hand off, until the bell had rung and she had straightened up and let him go and he had thought: oh.

Superficially, he had known what it would mean, even when he hadn’t known how it would be. His father had merely looked at him, breathing harshly and crumpling his cigarette between the creases of his fingers and in a moment of terrible, utter vindication, he had announced that he had figured out his orientation.

His mother had had tears in his eyes. “It’s perfectly normal,” she had assured him.

He had looked away, focused on the ashes crumbling through his father’s hand until his vision had blurred.

*

Spencer Reid looked at him like, well, he looked.

Later, Hotch would remember this, remember that this may have been the beginning of his drive to find out, dissect, know everything about the other man. Later, Hotch would remember that it was because Spencer Reid had looked at him beyond his collar and had seen simplicity, had seen what he was without rudely poking at the edges, trying to look beneath the surface. Reid’s eyes never left his face, never wavered towards his collar, the only time he broke eye contact was to tuck his hair back and look down at his own feet as a subtle gesture of ceding to authority.

And it was rare that Hotch came across something he didn’t understand, something that didn’t leave behind a trail, however obscure, of clues that can be analyzed, processed, understood. It was rare for him to come across someone like him, someone who didn’t leave behind an echo of himself when he walked by, someone who made his head turn not due to their entries or exits but by their presence itself.

It was rare, most of all, the urge to go up to Reid and grab him by the lapels of his shirt, look into his clear, guileless gaze and ask: what are you.  

*

The first time they spoke outside of work, outside a setting that warranted their professional expertise was after Elle left. 

Hotch was coming down the stairs on his way to the exit when he saw the light still on on Reid’s desk in the otherwise vacant bullpen.

The next moment, the light flickered, turning off before turning on again and in the shadows, Hotch could see the light casting a shadow on Reid’s face, giving his face a quality of hardness that didn’t belong there, not yet.

“You should go home,” he said without preamble, watching with slight amusement as Reid jerked on his chair.

Reid smiled weakly. “So should you,” he said in a voice that made it clear that he had no intention of actually telling him what to do, of overstepping his boundaries. It made him vaguely sad, on a level he had fully yet to understand, that Reid wasn’t comfortable enough around him to have a casual conversation.

He picked Reid’s messenger bag from the floor and handed it to him. “Goodnight, Reid,” he said softly, and made to walk out of the bullpen.

“Do you want to,” Reid voice, unsure and slightly high-pitched cut through the quite, “want to get a drink?”

Hotch turned back to look at him, saw Reid looking at him with a stiffness to his shoulders that didn’t sit right at his age, saw him already looking back towards his desk in a gesture of accepted rejection.

“Sure,” Hotch said, if only to see the flicker of surprise wash over Reid’s face.

*

A few drinks and a degree of inebriation later, Hotch gestured towards his beer. "So the point of this is supposed to be what?"

Reid looked oddly relaxed outside of work, a pleasing combination of the slow jazz music in the bar he’d chosen and the flush of alcohol on his cheeks. Hotch found himself having a hard time reconciling Reid from work with Spencer the guy who apparently frequented a bar where people knew  him. It made him wonder, and almost ask how often Reid had the tendency to invite people over here.

 "Does there have to be an actual point?," Reid answered. "We could just be two people having a drink. It's been a tough few weeks."

"And this has nothing to do with transferring any possible feelings of guilt and responsibility and projecting them onto problems created by intoxication?" Hotch kept insisting.

Reid looked up sharply, but didn’t look particularly surprised at the question. A slow smile graced his lips. “Why Hotch,” he teased slightly, a voice that Hotch had never heard used at himself, “thanks for sharing.”

Hotch only had the energy to give him a mock-glare and he relented. “Not tonight," he said firmly, like he was making himself believe it. "Right now, we're just two people with no obvious stressors, and we're having a drink.

Hotch snorted. "You make it sound like one of those cheesy romantic comedy trailers Garcia pretends to not watch at work."

Reid looked curious. "You know Garcia likes to watch romantic comedies?"

"Well, as far as entertainment fodder goes, they are pretty harmless. No unsubs popping out to create mass hysteria.”

Reid smiles into his wine in reply.

There was a beat of silence before Hotch spoke, not particularly comprehending the need to say anything out loud, except that his thoughts seemed important. "If this is like a movie-type scenario, I don't want to be the sub in distress waiting for a dom to come and rescue me or whatever."

Reid raised an eyebrow and he felt the need to defend himself. "What? I'm just trying to avoid future stereotypes."

“You’re not a puppy, Hotch,” Reid wrinkled his nose and took another rather large sip. “And besides, you might have to be the one doing the rescuing and the carrying me home thing if you let me drink much more.”

That time, Hotch’s laugh was genuine.

*

Haley was still up when he got back from having drinks with Spencer. He didn't pay attention for a second; still stuck in that mental place where he was floating on the pleasant buzz created by just the right amount of alcohol.

“Busy day?” Haley asked quietly, breaking into his silence.

He paused in the middle of unbuttoning his shirt. “It’s been a hard couple of weeks,” he replied, already feeling the high from the past hours go down. “The team needed to blow off some steam.”

Haley looked at him with a mixture of sadness and mistrust he didn’t understand. He frowned. "Are you ordering me not to not see the team outside of work?"

Haley gave a short, harsh laugh. "I haven't ordered you to do anything in a long time, Aaron," she said just a little wistfully.

A minute later, she had gone back under her covers, facing away from him on the bed. He stayed still for a long time and his hand instinctively reached up to his neck to feel his collar. It was still there, and it felt solid and engulfing under his touch.

He was almost surprised to be disappointed by it.

*

Aaron met Haley when they were sixteen, long before he became Hotch, and she always had the tendency to tug his hair a little too hard when she kissed him.

Their collaring had been simple and brief: they were twenty-four and it was autumn and they had chosen his collar together: thin, plain, black and dignified with an almost illegible 'H' engraved at the back, right above the clasp. He had knelt and she had surrounded him with her arms, drawn him in into herself, into the sanctity of a space created just by the both of them, and she had clasped it around his neck. Under her touch, in her presence, in her arms, he had felt affixed in place. He had looked at her then, remembered thinking that no one could possibly look any more beautiful, no one could possibly have prettier eyes, no one could possibly look at him like that, like he mattered without needing reasons.

He had been more than a little in love with her, then. He hadn’t been able to help falling in love all over again.

*

“I can’t figure Reid out,” he admitted to Erin over one of their lunches that didn’t happen.

Erin took another sip of her coffee. “Do you think he’s a serial killer?” she asked, with an unsettling level of genuine curiosity.

Hotch set his own mug down, a little too hard perhaps, but enough for her to get the point. “It’s not your job to figure him out,” she clarified, meaning it to be reassuring in ways that wouldn’t show in her words.

Hotch laced his fingers together on the table, said nothing.

He spoke again only after they had finished eating, wiping their mouths and placing their forks back on the table.

“I would do it for him,” he admitted out loud. It felt liberating to say the words out loud, words that had been stewing inside him for a while.

She furrowed her brow. “Wha--?” she began, and then leaned in closer, like it would help her look deeper into him. He tried not to squirm away from the gaze. “Oh no, don’t tell me,” she exclaimed, exasperation coloring her words. “You would… you would actually delude yourself into believing that?”

Hotch straightened imperceptibly. “It’s not as far-off as you make it sound. I have plenty of authority.”

“You have more authority than most,” she agreed, putting down the napkin after a last wipe against her lips. “But, Aaron, this isn’t about chasing down an unsub or leading a SWAT team or crushing the defense attorney. You can’t order him around.”

Hotch raised an eyebrow. “I’m not—“ he started, but she was faster.

“This will ruin your life, if you ever do it,” she laid her words down neatly, flat against the wooden table. “You can’t order food for him or give him a collar or pin him down, and if you do, it’s not going to achieve anything except self-loathing on your part. You can’t do that to yourself.”

Hotch looked away.

“You can’t delude yourself to think that this curiosity you have for him is something else. Don’t make it out to be something it’s not,” she continued gently, with firmness in her voice that he couldn’t let go.

He took another sip of his water instead. Erin reached out across the table, lightly grazed her fingers over his until he deemed it appropriate to make eye-contact with her again.

“Touch your neck,” she whispered softly.

Hotch raised one of his hands up to his neck, inhaling sharply at the barest of constriction against his throat, at the touch of the thin band of leather against his skin. It had been Haley’s idea to choose something relatively conspicuous, thin and sober and easily concealed against his clothes without let him forget that it was there. And he had been thankful, thankful that she understood, thankful that she had no intention of taking away from his future.

He looked down and saw Erin still looking at him. “That’s not his,” she whispered again, pity and pragmatism and the slightly hint of cruelty meshed in her words, and he jerked his hand away like they had been burned.

*

It takes around twenty minutes of knocking before Reid finally opens the door. Every admonishment, every word of encouragement or scolding that had been on Hotch’s mind disappears as soon as he takes in Reid’s appearance. He takes in everything about Reid’s profile, the crushed pajamas and a filthy, stained robe draped over them. But what unsettles him most is the look of pure rage on his face, in his expression.

“I’m fine,” he says as soon as he opens the door, and his tone is hard enough to cut glass, cold enough that it takes everything for him to not flinch away. He doesn’t listen in the end, doesn’t consider the boiling rage in Reid’s expression as he pushes past him to enter the apartment.

There’s nothing exclusively out of place in the apartment but Hotch is very good at reading the signs, can see the way everything has been hastily put in place before Reid has opened the door. Hotch looks away briefly, tries to imagine the way Reid’s fingers had moved when he had talked, how his eyes had lit up every single time at the prospect of further knowledge, how he had smiled and laughed and played tricks in the bullpen. Hotch remembered, with a pang, how purely alive Reid had always been before, so unlike the present; standing by his window with cold, pure rage at nothing particular coursing through his veins.

“I haven’t taken anything in thirteen hours and seventeen minutes,” Reid informs him finally, dispassionately, looking outside at the liveliness of the city to avoid looking at Hotch.

Hotch processes the information with something akin to a sob rising out of him, feels a sudden urge to apologize, to scream out words like why couldn’t I save you that sit heavily on his chest.

“I’m going to go into withdrawal soon,” Reid continues, oblivious to any reactions Hotch is having. “Hence, I need you to go now.”

Hotch closes his eyes briefly. He knows there’s only one thing he can do here: turn back and leave. Officially having knowledge of a colleague’s addiction problem would oblige him to report it, never mind any emotional repercussions of Reid recovering and realizing that someone had seen him at the worst period of his life. Logically, he knows that the best, the wisest thing to do would be to walk out.

He closes his eyes and images of Reid, drugged and tied and tortured against every wish comes back to play in his mind. Reid’s voice, shaking and firm and resolute, being forced to choose, being forced to play a fatal game of Russian roulette. Reid’s voice on the screen, telling everyone that he chooses –

I choose Aaron Hotchner.

And in a flash, he knows exactly what to do. He takes firm, short, resolute steps across the room to make his way to the window where Reid is standing.

He presses briefly on Reid’s back so that he’s forced to turn. The cold, unwavering rage on Reid’s face is still present, although it seems to have been pushed into a corner by an underlying emotion: fear. Hotch steels himself. This will be my absolution, he repeats to himself over and over again, doesn’t allow himself to think further, doesn’t allow himself to think of this beyond a strictly professional exchange.

Slowly, deliberately, never breaking eye-contact with Reid, he reaches back and unclasps his collar – Haley’s collar - and sets it on the window-sill. Reid’s eyes widen comically but he doesn’t allow himself to falter.

“I’m not leaving,” he says with a calmness in his voice that betrays his nervous energy, his anticipation. He doesn’t look at anywhere but Reid, silently pleading with his eyes, silently willing Reid to understand the extent, the meaning of what he’s giving.

“I want to help you,” he says firmly. I can’t go back from this, he does not say. Something in Reid’s eyes soften that Hotch pretends not to notice, just like he ignores the increasingly worsening tremors on Reid’s hands.

Reid shakes his head, opens his mouth to say something but he’s faster, has always been faster in these situations. “No,” he repeats slowly, deliberately looking into Reid’s eyes and willing the other man to not blink, “tell me what I can do.”

Reid still doesn’t speak, and he feels part of the inexplicable courage that had seized him only a few minutes ago evaporate somewhat. He takes another deep breath and moves one step closer.

Tell me what I can do,” he repeats again.

He looks carefully at Reid, watches as his pupils dilate almost unnoticeably and his breathing becomes harsher. There’s a moment of hesitation on Reid’s part before he moves past him and shuts the front door at the other end of the room with a click.

When Reid turns back, all Hotch can see is a different man, someone quite unlike the man who had been standing by the window all this while, something determined and firm and dominating in his eyes. Reid turns back and neither of them are quite the same.

Reid takes  step forward towards him and it takes all of his energy to stay put, to not move.

 “Kneel,” Reid says in a tone, a voice, a manner that leaves no room for any argument, that Hotch has never heard Reid use before.

His reaction is instantaneous, instinctive, naturally given before he can even process the motivation behind it.

“Yes Sir,” he replies, and his knees hit the ground.

 

***

 

two. 2008.

Hotch wakes up to the sound of his hospital door being slammed open, and opens his eyes against the brightness of the night-lamp to see a very irate Reid standing in front of his bed.

“What on earth were you thinking?” Reid’s voice is high enough to be a scream, and he clenches his hands behind his back like it’s the only thing preventing him from being openly hysterical.

Hotch opens one eye fully; there’s a headache pounding behind his temples and there’s a body in the morgue that he is resolutely not thinking about.

“You could have been killed,” Reid continues, and Hotch frowns because it isn’t like Reid to have a delayed reaction period, nor one this intense.

“No, I couldn’t have,” he replies steadily, mostly because it’s true right now.

There’s a moment of silence and Hotch watches the fire in Reid’s eye blaze high for a second before settling down, watches the edges of Reid’s face and the lines around his eyes and the thinning of his lips. All at once, he looks incredibly lost.

He takes a deep breath and seats himself at the corner of Hotch’s bed, stares down at his own fingers with a lack of anything to say.

“It was a stressful situation,” Hotch finally offers an olive branch.

That’s clearly the wrong thing to say because Reid turns to look at him with a gaze that he involuntarily flinches away from.

“You could have died,” Reid repeats again, says them over and over again like they’re a mantra.

Hotch doesn’t understand. He tries to lean forward, tries to reach out and find out except Reid isn’t looking at him at all; he’s too busy staring at the wall like it holds answers to a question he hasn’t been able to formulate. The confusion in Reid’s eyes doesn’t sit well, stays in the corners and threatens to overwhelm.

“It’s been hours,” Hotch says gently, hopes that his something in his tone will soothe away Reid’s doubts. “What changed?”

Reid looks at him, half-dazed. “You could have died,” he murmurs to himself.

Hotch steels himself. “And why does that bother you?” he asks carefully.

He can almost physically see something within Reid snap. “Of course it’s bothering me, as you so eloquently put it,” Reid snaps, and there’s an ugly coldness to his voice that he hasn’t heard in a long time, has never heard directed at himself. “How could you think it wouldn’t bother me? Didn’t it occur to you that I would want to know how my--,” Hotch stiffens at exactly the same moment Reid stills, “how you were doing after this?” he finishes weakly.

Hotch feels the last of his patience slip away from his fingers. The thing is, he doesn’t owe Reid a damn thing. Sometimes, he thinks, it would be easier if he did.

“What did you say?” he asks very carefully, very slowly, keeps every emotion out of his voice. Reid doesn’t reply at all.

“You were going to say something else, weren’t you?” he asks again because he’s  nothing if not persistent, and there’s a jolt of vindictive pleasure that runs through him as the wide-eyed desperation in Reid’s eyes increase.

“Hotch,” Reid sighs, but he cuts him off, doesn’t regard his half-hearted plea to stop over the sudden anger coursing through his veins.

“You were going to say ‘my sub’, weren’t you?” he asks even as he knows the answer, even as he confirms it in Reid’s flinch.

There’s a moment of silence yet again as everything lays bare between them. A moment where he closes his eyes to regroup because the white-hot anger he feels to the tips of his fingernails cannot possibly be good for his recovery. When he looks up, Reid is looking at him, hands bunched at his corner and shoulders hunched, silently pleading for him to stop.

All of a sudden, he feels tired. The thing about his anger is that it isn’t, ultimately, going to change a damn thing.

“Just go, Reid,” he says, and leans back on his pillow.

Reid sighs. “Hotch,” he begins again, but Hotch has no time for this again, not anymore.

He closes his eyes against Reid’s plea, keeps them shut until he hears Reid’s receding footsteps out of his door.

*

In truth, the point had always been to help Reid, first and foremost and always. Everything he had done had stemmed for an innate desire to help the one person he had inadvertently been unable to stop thinking about.

 

--Spencer’s hands tangling in his hair as he bends down to his level, traces the edges, the arches, the sincerity in every fiber of his being and Aaron closes his eyes and tries to focus all his attention on the present, the sensation on his skin , nothing at all but the tips of Spencer’s fingers –

--Spencer’s fingers hovering over his face, his eyes, his nose, ghost of a sensation tickling his pores and he feels something threatening to spill over from his chest, a burst of emotions as yet unidentified, nor something he can quite put a finger on. And Spencer stops, stops right when he’s on the verge of floating inside his own self, marveling at his sheer capability to let go and Spencer stops, stops touching him, stops looking, stops.

*

The only reason he’s surprised when the phone call wakes him up is because of the ID on his screen.

“Reid?” he speaks into his phone as soon as he snaps it open.

There’s silence on the other side.

“Do you need anything for the case?” he ventures again.

Reid sighs at the other end. “I met my father today,” is what he says in reply.

Hotch stills and doesn’t dare move, even as he logically knows that Reid can’t hear his actions.

“I realized,” Reid continues, “that what bothered me the most about him leaving us was that he didn’t leave behind any answers.”

Hotch feels his breath hitch, certain that Reid has heard it too. “I’m sorry,” he says quietly.

Reid lets out a sound on the other end like it may have been a laugh. It makes everything around him feel hollow. “When he left,” Reid continues, “I was angry. I’ve been so angry and furious and confused all this while because I didn’t know why he left, I didn’t know what I did to make him leave, because I never got the chance to know if it was my fault.”

Hotch opens his mouth to try and reassure him but Reid is faster. “Turned out,” he says with the same hollow laugh, “it was never about me. Turned out, he was just too scared the whole time to give me anything in return.”

“I’m sorry,” Hotch repeats, finds himself unable to say anything more eloquent.

Reid takes a deep breath. “He keeps tabs on me, you know. He keeps up with everything I do.”

A corner of Hotch’s lips quirk up a little. “I know.”

Reid sighs on the other end. “I don’t want to keep tabs on you, Hotch.”

Hotch feels, all of a sudden, like he’s drifting. This conversation, the reason of which Reid still hasn’t arrived to, isn’t in neutral territory anymore, and he feels increasingly like he’s merely looking down upon a figment of himself sitting up in bed and closing his eyes against the words from the other end of the phone.

He grits his teeth and wills himself to forget what it had felt like, wills himself to not remember the combination of pain and regret and urge to self-destruct, wills Spencer to stop talking, damn it.

“You’re not my father, Reid,” is all he’s capable of really saying.

There’s a tense silence before Reid speaks again. When he does, his voice is melancholy, bordering on apologetic and filled with a form of fatigue that causes something to happen in Hotch’s test.

“You deserve all the answers,” Reid says. “Will you let me answer you?”

Reid speaks like he’s already prepared himself for denial, for disappointment. Hotch curls his own fingers around his pillow and loosens his grip around the phone. “Come home, Reid,” he says, and snaps the phone shut.

*

And the thing is, all he’d wanted the look in Reid’s eye to change, change from anger and fear and helplessness to something, anything more alive.

 

--Spencer’s hands stop touching him once he reaches his neck and he stops, silently retrieving the collar he had unclasped earlier—

 

It had been so easy, so easy to reach back and hear the click of his collar unclasping, it had been so easy to find it liberating, like he could finally breathe, finally think, finally act on his feelings without them being wrong.

 

--Aaron blinks when he feels Spencer’s hands around his neck. “What are you doing?”

Spencer reached back, trailing his hands through his skin before reaching backwards and locking it at the back of his neck and Aaron sucks in a sharp breath at the familiar feel of the leather against the skin, the feel wrong, so wrong when it’s Spencer’s hands holding it.

Spencer kneels down to his level so they’re eye-to-eye and he can see the fine sheen of sweat on Spencer’s forehead, the slight twitch to his cheek just behind his eyes but his eyes look alert, so much more understanding than they had done in a long while.

“I’m going to get help, Hotch,” Spencer’s voice is scratchy, although he thinks that could be because it’s genuinely hurting him to speak now. “This,” he points at the track marks on his left arm, forcing Aaron to fix his gaze on the bruises, fresh and taunting, “this is on me. And I will do my best not to ruin my life.” His hands ghost near Aaron’s collar. “But I’m not going to ruin your life on the way. I’m not going to do that.”

Aaron frowns. “You’re not--”

Spencer smiles slightly, bending down to kiss his forehead lightly, eyes crinkling around the corners; eyes that know too much too soon, and this isn’t his place, he should be out there under the sun, in the rain, anywhere that isn’t here.

“You should go,” Spencer tells him—

 

Most of all, it had been so incredibly easy to remove the token of years and years of his commitment and feel nothing at all.

*

“I thought I would do something, you know?” Reid says, his plate only half-eaten and his hands stringing together on his lap under the table.

“I mean,” he continues when Aaron patiently waits, “Realistically, I knew I wouldn’t be able to cure schizophrenia by the time I was 25. I figured it would at least take me until I was 40.” Ignoring the snort Aaron can’t help but let out, “I just wanted to not be guided by societal norms. Just because societal norms indicate I should have someone lick my shoes doesn’t mean I like it. It seems a lot more optimal to just… have a conversation and polish one’s own shoes. And I’m so tired of feeling dissatisfied with how people behave, how everyone behaves, how I behave. I think for a long time, I just wanted myself to feel normal.

 “You don’t think it’s weird?” Spencer asks, and it strikes him just how young he really is when he is looking up with uncharacteristic vulnerability.

“Of course not,” Aaron shrugs. “You wanted to change the world; it’s the most normal thing anyone can ever dream of.”

When Spencer smiles at him, he looks exhausted, relieved and on the brink of bursting into tears all at once. Aaron hastily looks away and silently prays that Reid doesn’t decide to have a psychological breakdown in the bar.

When he looks up, Reid is still looking at him and smiling as if his heart has been breaking for years. Aaron stares back and his breath catches in his throat.

Everything is quiet for a while before: “I’m not a sub,” Reid’s voice is quiet, almost inaudible against the hum of the restaurant. It should feel like more, he thinks, years of trying to dissect him to pieces only to have the results laid bare in front of him in four words. It should feel more like a victory or a defeat, either way.

Understanding, when it finally comes, is supremely unspectacular.

The candle faces away from Reid’s face, and in the dim glow, he can see almost nothing except for the bare minimum of Reid’s profile.

He lets out a breath. “I know.”

He knows Reid has turned to look at him from the sudden change in the gust of wind surrounding them, knows that Reid won’t ask anything more from the way his fingers hesitantly reach out to seek Hotch’s.

Reid’s fingers press slightly on his and he smiles to himself; finds something within him willing to forgive.

*

The next time they speak about it, it’s a lot easier for him to look at Reid without the conflicting feelings of anger and reverence. He doesn’t allow himself to dwell much on how much circumstances have changed, how the circles under Reid’s eyes grow darker with every case they solve a little too late, how he retreats upon himself just a little bit more after he fails to save another person from the brink of insanity.

It is why he cannot stop himself from voicing an are you alright when Reid comes into his office to hand him the report on the Adam Jackson case.

Reid turns sharply to look at him. “I’m fine,” he replies curtly.

Hotch continues to look at him because sometimes Reid has the tendency to act like a child, has a way of exuding both defensiveness and naiveté in the same gesture.

“You’re the last one to turn the report in,” Hotch points out, because Reid’s reports are nothing if not impeccable and the first ones to be handed in.

Reid deflates slightly and moves to sit in the chair across from him. “I am fine,” he insists and then: “It’s just beena long time.”

There’s a twist in his chest because Hotch knows what he means, finds it lurking just beyond everything Reid doesn’t say. It’s been a long time since Hankel, It’s been a long time since my drug problem and maybe, just maybe, it’s been a long time since us.

But Hotch, of all things, has never been an idiot, and he doesn’t allow himself to hope beyond the barest of shreds on any of these circumstances. He knows that Reid has nightmares from that night that will never go away, cravings that will rest just beyond his skin for the rest of his life and threaten to rise up at the slightest provocation.

“You’re doing better,” is all he offers.

Reid looks at him calculatingly, like he’s trying to figure something out but Hotch stares resolutely back, because he does mean what he’s saying,

“I can’t...” Reid begins and then trails off uncertainly. Hotch understands, though, has always understood Reid a little more than he’s ever tried to understand himself.

“I know,” he finds himself saying.

“It’s just… I don’t know how to,.. ,” Reid’s voice is earnest, slightly defensive in a way that makes Hotch smile because he’s never been accused of anything in the first place.

“I know,” Hotch repeats.

Reid looks at him again, and something in his face causes Reid to react, causes the creases on his face to smoothen out, and the corners of his eyes soften. And then:

“I’m going to fall in love with you,” Reid announces almost wonderingly, like it’s a revelation, like he’s cradled it to his chest for all this while.

Hotch looks down, finds he has nothing to say to that.

“You can’t be my experiment, Aaron,” Reid speaks again, and this time there is a certain, unwavering reverence to his voice. Perhaps it’s in the way he says Aaron, or the way he looks sad yet firm, resigned to his fate, like he’s protecting the both of them like pieces of broken glass.

Hotch looks up. “I won’t let you be my experiment, Aaron,” Reid repeats again, his voice stronger and more resolute. The words fall and resound into the empty space between them, and the slightest of hope of something within Hotch transcends into a dull, accepting ache.

Reid looks at him with wet lashes, hand outstretched like he wants to reach out and make sure Hotch is real, but he stands up instead and gathers his belongings around him.

“You deserve so much,” he begins with an earnestness that doesn’t stop his voice from faltering. “You deserve so much more.

And then he’s gone.

Hotch bites his lip, doesn’t voice what he really wants to say, refuses to acknowledge the inherent meaning of the urge to say: but I want to be.

He bites his lip and lets Reid go.

 

***

 

three. 2010.

“You have a minute?” Reid catches his elbow on the way out of the cemetery. Hotch suppresses the barest of sighs, tries very hard not to look at the earnest expression on Reid’s face and succumbing to it. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see JJ surrounded by Will and Henry at the other end of the graveyard, and he suppresses a momentary pang of envy at the ghost of a smile on JJ’s face in response to the open, honest adoration on Henry’s face. A part of him wants that kind of absolution for himself, wants to look at eyes that aren’t sorrowful, a smile that isn’t forced, wants to find himself at the receiving end of the uninhibited acceptance that only a child can provide.

Instead, he has to look forward to going home and explaining to Jack that his Aunt Emily is no more; yet another casualty of his father’s job.

He turns to look at Reid, fully prepared to turn him down with a shake of his head before he notices the red-rimmed corners of his eyes and halts. Reid had volunteered to be a pallbearer, he remembers, had volunteered to carry an empty casket. The mere thought of it makes him a little nauseous. Perhaps, he thinks, he owes Reid at least this much.

He opens his mouth to speak but he’s cut off, momentarily speechless by the crushing force of Reid’s lips against his, momentarily unable to do nothing but stand there as Reid kisses him, all teeth and tears running down his face. There’s nothing gentle in his actions, nothing tender about the desperate way in which he clutches at Hotch’s tie like he’s afraid to have to let go, about the bruising grip on a clump of Hotch’s hair.

Hotch takes a deep breath and takes a step backwards, placing a hand on Reid’s chest to create some distance between them. Reid stumbles back, eyes impossibly wide and lips parted, breathing heavily against the stillness of the cemetery.

“We can’t do this,” he tells Reid.

Reid jerks in response, like he’s coming out of a trance, like he’s crashing back to a present that hasn’t served him well. “I-,” he starts automatically and then stumbles. “What?”

Hotch readjusts the collar of his suit jacket. “We can’t do this anymore,” he repeats, words stinging against his teeth.

Reid laughs in response, choppy and sharp and bitter and Hotch closes his eyes against the sound. “Are you fucking kidding me?” he bites out.

“Spencer, this isn’t the time for--”

“Are you fucking kidding me,” Reid repeats, almost to him in a state of wonderment, cuts him off. His eyes blaze in indignation, impossibly bright against the sun and Hotch finds himself having to look away.  There are no more tears in his eyes, cheeks dry and hardened but for the traces of tear tracks running down his face.

Hotch clenches his fists behind his back at the expression on Reid’s face, silently begs him to stop, end this, tries his very best to not profile the anger and hurt mixed with the earnest hopefulness, the sheen of optimism in Reid’s eyes. This is not the time , he begs internally, tries to make Reid see, understand with his own gaze, this is not the time for us. A part of him want to laugh out loud at the sheer fucked-up irony of the whole situation because perhaps this is only right, perhaps this is his fitting retribution: that the thing he wants most will only come back to slap him on the face. And maybe it’s selfish, but the last thing he wants is to lie through a relationship with Spencer, lie to his dom on a daily basis and most of all, stand there and watch him grieve for no reason at all.

“I was going to tell you,” Reid continues and his fingernails dig deeper into his own palms. Don’t do this, he begs Reid – Spencer – silently, please don’t do this.

“I was going to tell you that I wanted to give us a chance,” Reid takes a deep breath, half-yelling the words in his face. “I was going to tell you that I wanted us to give this relationship a chance. That, more than anything, Emily’s death made me realize that if I don’t seize on an opportunity to be with you now, I’ll never know if it’s too late. I was going to tell you that I don’t ever want to lose a chance with you.”

Out of nowhere, the first thing Hotch feels his white-hot rage, rage at himself for not being able to be there for Reid’s grief, rage at his job for taking and taking and taking no matter how much he tries to give, rage at the way of the world that had decreed that he can only love someone who can put him down, take him under, and most of all, rage at Reid’s consistent, infallible notion that he can change something. After a minute, the rage pools low, firm in his belly, turns into a wave of crashing resentment towards himself, towards everything, but mostly towards Reid, still half-earnest, half-hopeful.

“I was going to tell you that I love you,” Reid continues, and Hotch desperately wants him to shut the fuck up. “I was going to tell you that I love you and that I didn’t want to waste another minute by not acting on it.”

Hotch breathes through his teeth. “You’re not thinking straight. This is the grief speaking.”

Reid takes a step forward.  “I know what I’m saying, Hotch, I’m not--”

“You’re just saying all this because you want something to hold on to.”

“Hotch, no, I-”

“I cannot be your emotional crutch anymore,” Hotch finally spits out, and stills at exactly the same moment Reid’s body goes still.

Reid clears his throat before speaking, voice low and dangerous and almost inaudible. “What?”

He runs a hand through his face and wipes off the fine sheen of sweat from his brow. “Don’t you get it, Spencer, god,” he continues, and once he begins to speak, he finds himself unable to reign himself in, finds himself incapable of shutting up, says things only briefly pondered upon and firmly locked away in a corner of his mind, “it’s been years and I’m so tired of being your punching bag. What right, what possible right do you have to tell me that you love me, that you want to give us a chance? Are you that self-centered that you think that I’ll come running if you call?”

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Reid trying to take a step forward, trying to ward off his words with his own hands. For the first time, he absolutely doesn’t care. It’s the most liberated he’s felt  in ages.

“Do you think you have some form of hold over me?” he continues, rage white-hot and blood pounding in his ears, drowning his own words before he can even comprehend what he’s saying. “Why? Because sometimes, I cross my wrists when you tell me to? Because I kneel for you?” He shakes his head, bringing his hand forward to emphasize his words before he realizes that he’s shaking, trembling all over. “I don’t owe you shit, Reid,” he finished, low and firm and a stark contrast to his earlier words, screamed out in anger. “I don’t owe you a single damn thing.”

Reid stares at him and for a moment, the only sound in their vicinity is the sound of his own heavy breathing. “Hotch,” Reid finally breaks the silence slowly, carefully, and he hates him for it just a little more, for trying to be so damn kind. He wants Reid to shout, yell, lash out, say things that are unforgivable in return so that he can get over this immense urge to apologize. He looks at Reid instead, wide-eyed still, and looking more than just a little lost and something inside him, something breaks.

He wants nothing more than to move forward and hug Spencer, wrap him in his arms and tell him that he didn’t mean half the things he said, that he crosses his wrists because he, himself, wants to, that he chooses this misery with Reid over and over again simply because they’re both in it.

“I just wanted to tell you that I love you,” Reid repeats, somewhat dumbly.

Hotch sighs. “Reid, I don’t think--”

“I love you,” Reid repeats, looking painfully earnest and at a loss of any other words and the rage, barely suppressed, bubbles back up in full force.

“This is not the person I love, Reid,” the words are out before he can curb them, and the lost, glassy expression deepens in Reid’s face. “The man I fell in love with was passionate and kind and joyous and strong and so, so inspiring in everything he did. And the man I see here, the person you’ve become is nothing but timid and weak and you can’t even fight for yourself, let alone for a relationship. This is not the person I’m-”

“You made me into this person,” Reid cuts him off all of a sudden, his voice raised to a yell and no traces of any previous desperation in his voice. Hotch stops abruptly, feeling like he’s been slapped on the face, blood running cold at Reid’s words. When he turns marginally to look at him, it takes every ounce of strength to not flinch back from the anger, the hurt, the honesty in Reid’s eyes.

“You made me into this person, Hotch,” Reid tells him in a low, cold tone without a shred of emotion in his voice. “You made me believe that there was something wrong with me because I didn’t want to be your dom. You made me your dom, over and over and over again. You have the audacity to tell me that I didn’t fight for us? How can I fight for us when I’ve never even believed in it in the first place? You tell me you don’t owe me shit, Hotch, when the truth is that you owe me your sanity, every fucking shred of it.”

Hotch looks down at the ground swaying under his feet and shoves his rapidly clammy hands into his pockets. He doesn’t look up, not wanting to meet the sheer hatred in Reid’s eyes, not when the resounding echoes of you made me into this ring all around him. Tears prickle at the corners of his eyes and he clenches his fists harder, blinks rapidly to will them away. Reid trails off, possibly noticing the expression on Hotch’s face, or more likely just because he’s out of breath.

“Hotch,” Reid begins again weakly and he doesn’t look up from the ground to see him because he’ll be damned if he lets Reid see tears in his eyes, because the last thing he wants Reid to see that he still cares, despite everything.

“You should go,” he says instead. “Go.”

And Reid – ever earnest, compliant at all the wrong times – listens to him. He listens for the sound of Reid’s shoes scrunching up the leaves on the ground as he walks away, and doesn’t look up until he can’t hear them anymore.

*

In retrospect, when it all, when they began, he was caught unawares, as if he were an outsider in his own life.

Hotch woke up to a moment of blissful, sheer calm followed by a blinding sense of panic. The first thing he noticed was the pain emanation from various point in his body, and it only took a few moments of consciousness to remind him of the night before; Foyet’s eyes glinting with malice in the dark and the cold, sharp blade of the knife resplendent in the darkness of his living room. The pain was swiftly being replaced by an overwhelming swirling of thoughts through  his head, torn between not wanting to relieve the memories of the night before, anger at himself for being so lax, a sense of shame for letting Foyet win, get one over him, and mostly an intense amount of fear, a sense of helplessness for his family.

And suddenly, he couldn’t breathe, the room seemed too small, too constricting, choking at his throat and there wasn’t enough oxygen in the world for him to get through this and –

Jack, and all he could see was Jack kicking a ball outside, Jack tucked in at night with his favorite stuffed bunny, Jack wrinking his nose at broccoli on the dinner table, Jack jumping on his lap to wrap him in a bear hug with his tiny arms and maybe this was the wrong choice all along, maybe he should’ve been there more, watched his son grow up, ensured a life for him where he wouldn’t be killed for his father’s mistakes –

“Hotch? Hotch, can you hear me?” A voice called his name in the distance, Hotch, Hotch, it repeated over and over again like a calm, soothing rhythm and he tried to grapple blindly ahead from the depths of his mind towards that voice calling for him.

He opened his eyes abruptly to find Reid looming in front of his face, eyes intent and focused on his face,  each of his hands encircled around Hotch’s wrists.

He yanked his hands off and did his best to hunch over on the bed, trying to button his shirt with shaky fingers.

The whole team seemed to be standing around, an arm half-extended to help him, but all Hotch could see was Reid. He bent on the bed that his forehead was almost touching his knees, shirt haphazardly slung over his shoulders, fingers shaking with every attempt to pass the buttons through the correct slit and his breathing was harsh, ragged, elevated. His shoulders were drawn together and he could practically feel the tension emanating from his own jaw.

“Hotch, you really need to rest,” Morgan tried speaking again. Hotch looked up, and was startled by the sheer desperation in everyone’s eyes and how it starkly contrasted against the calming, steadying influence that was Reid’s gaze. Hotch, who had never allowed anyone – but him, a small voice in his head popped up – to see him out of control, who had never had anything less than an impeccable amount of self-restraint, could do nothing but look at him, at all of them, really, with wide eyes, alive and wild and feared and full with unshed tears, looking up at them like he was seeing them for the first time.

“I need to go,” he said finally, except it was more of a murmur. “I need to leave,” he murmured again to his knees, “I need to find Foyet, I need to find out where he is, I have to look, you know, I have to find him, find him for Haley and Jack and..”

-- maybe he should have looked at her more often, told her how much she meant to him, how much she would always mean to him, and how he was sorry, so sorry about the way their marriage ended, so sorry that she couldn’t have a better sub, so sorry that he couldn’t be enough, so very sorry that he had fallen for someone else –

He looked at each of them with that slightly crazed look in his eyes, willing them to understand, begging them simultaneously to leave him alone and never let him out of his sight. Hotch scrambled through the buttons, look around himself in a blind, unknown despair before he instinctively raised a hand to his neck where Haley’s collar had once been. He stared uncomprehendingly as the hand came back empty, fingers shaking.

“I need to go,” Hotch murmured to his empty hand.

Reid acted on instinct.

“Hotch,” he stated in an even voice with no inflections, no questions, nothing that Hotch could hold on to. He looked from the source of the voice to his hand and back again, and there Reid was, back at the centre of his focus.

“Hotch,” he said again, pressing both his palms just over Hotch’s knees. Hotch closed his eyes agains the brief sensation of pressure, the only thing holding him in place and keeping him from running. “Look at me. Look. At. Me,” Reid continued.

And Hotch did. At first, his eyes were unfocused and there was a split-second where he was afraid that he wouldn’t even be able to recognize, and then his eyes widened a little bit more as he focused all of his nervous energy onto him.

“Keeping looking at me,” Reid said, keeping his gaze carefully on Hotch’s face. He tried to look out, to curb any tics, any twitching of muscles that would give away an underlying sense of inattention but surprisingly, miraculously, he looked at Reid’s face and kept looking. He looked at Reid through red-rimmed eyes and wet lashes and raised eyebrows and then, to Reid’s – and some of the team’s, from the slight hitch of breath he could hear behind him – utter amazement, he lowered his lashes almost imperceptibly. Not enough to break eye-contact, but enough for his posture to dip slightly on the bed.

“Good,” Reid’s voice was calm, a welcome breeze in his ear. “Very good, Aaron.  Can you cross your wrists for me?”

Hotch took a deep breath, focusing solely on the smooth, rich tone of his voice and the palms pressing against his knees. He crossed his wrists in front of him.

Reid removed a hand from his knee and he frowned at the slight sensation of loss, until Reid brought his hand up to hold his crossed wrists together against his chest. “Good,” Reid repeated again, still soothing and firm. “Now, I want you to breathe slowly and count to ten. Count for me.”

Reid encircled his wrists with his own hands, fingers pressed against the inside of his wrists, just above his pulse. For a moment, he couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think until he saw the expression on Reid’s face, calm and neutral and expectantly looking at him, giving him no room to not follow through.

He closed his eyes and breathed. Began to count. Reid pressed his wrists to his chest, rhythmically putting more and more pressure until he could feel his pulse beating in perfect synchronization on his ribcage, until the minor pain of his hands pressing on his chest became the focal point of sensation, the welcome pressure he could focus on and forget every other shred of thought going through his mind.

“Good, very good,” Reid kept stroking his wrists with his thumb, murmuring a constant stream of words just so his voice could be heard, and Hotch closed his eyes in the rare moment of peace and laid back.

*

The next time, he awoke only to the sight of Dave, reading a journal over the top of his glasses.

“Hey,” he managed scratchily. “How long was I out?”

Dave looked up, put down his folder. “A few hours, I think. Everyone’s still here, I just sent them to get a coffee.”

He nodded, lying back on the pillows. “Jack?”

Dave moved to sit on his bed. “Haley’s bringing him over in half an hour. She wanted to let you get some rest before you saw him. They’re being taken into protective custody right after.”

He closed his eyes briefly. “The less I know about that the better,” he sighed. A little while later, he opened his eyes to find Dave still looking at him, brow furrowed and a pensive expression on his face.

“What? What else happened?”

Rossi peered at him. “You don’t remember your almost panic-attack?”

“I was hoping that was a dream, to be honest.”

Dave frowned at him some more. “So what’s the deal with you and Reid?” he asked as casually as one would ask about the weather.

Hotch choked on air. “What the hell, Dave?”

“He told you to look at him and you did. He told you to listen to him and you did. He told you to calm down and he did. I didn’t know that you had such a good track record of listening to others.”

Hotch coughed again, finding himself unable to look away from Dave’s piercing gaze. “I—don’t?” he ventured cautiously.

“So I was right? Reid’s your dom?”

Hotch looked up, blinking at the apparent leap of logic. “No, what? He isn’t. He really, really isn’t.”

Dave reached out to put a hand on his shoulder and he tries his best not to flinch back. Count for me, the snippet of a memory came back to him in a rush and he has to rearrange himself to not shy away from any other touch, force himself to think about anything the press of long, callused fingers against his wrist, against his heart.

He sighed. “It’s complicated,” he finally offered. “Mostly because it only exists on my side.”

Dave sighed loudly in reply. “What?” Hotch asked.

“Did you know that he got shot? In the knee?”

Hotch sprung up on the bed so fast that the movement makes him dizzy. “He what?” he exclaimed in half-disbelief because surely that couldn’t be true, he couldn’t have hallucinated that voice, those fingers, that touch, and mostly because he couldn’t fathom any possible reason for Reid to have been there if it were true.

“He is in a lot of pain and he’s refused all narcotics,” Dave continued. “The doctors say that he wouldn’t be able to walk for quite a few months.”

Hotch stared at him. “He came for you,” Dave emphasized softly, firmly.

He kept looking, not knowing what to say in reply. Dave stood up, patting him lightly on his shoulder. “He came for you,” he repeated again. “Make sure it means something.”

*

He didn’t truly know what he was doing there until he found himself knocking on the door to Spencer’s apartment and came face to face with Reid flinging the door open, a small enquiring frown on his face.

Aaron looked down at his hands uncomprehendingly before looking up to meet Spencer’s gaze, patiently awaiting. “I killed him,” he spoke the words out loud for the first time, marveling at how three short words could make him want to dissociate himself from his own skin.

I love you.

Count for me.

Count for me.

Haley used to tease him about his hands, used to say that he had poor circulation because his hands were always a little cold. She used to tuck his hands inside the blanket whenever she got up at night and then, and then he had caressed her, clutched her still, lifeless body with those hands, used those hands to kill, not out of necessity, but out of pure malice, unparalleled rage and hatred.

I killed him.

Count for me.

“I,” he began, looking at Spencer, willing him, begging him to understand what he didn’t know how to voice. “I can’t…,” he trailed off once again, and Spencer understood, found something to comprehend in the wild desperation of his expressions, moved forward to pur a hand to his shoulder.

Please,” Aaron repeated again, the word falling off his lips effortlessly.

Spencer pressed his thumb against the nape of his neck. “Kneel,” he said.

“Yes, Sir,” Aaron replied, and his knees hit the ground.

*

“I find it curious,” Spencer announced on a lazy Sunday afternoon, abruptly pulling away from their kiss. Aaron opened his eyes and looked at him questioningly.

“You haven’t suggested that we talk about this yet,” he elaborated.

 

--Later, all Aaron will remember is the sheer wide-eyed confusion as Spencer lowers himself to his knees behind him, bracing his shoulders with both his arms.

He tries to turn backwards. “What are you doing?” and his voice is frail, frailer than ever before and a part of him wants to sink down on the damn floor of Spencer’s living room and the thing is, another part, a bigger part of him wants Spencer to hurt him, tie him down and give him a specific point of pain to focus on.

Mostly, he’s just really, really tired.

“Shh,” Spencer will tell him, rubbing his shoulders, trailing his fingers down his back. “Relax. I’m going to give you massage.”

He tries to turn back again but Spencer gently puts a hand on his jaw and turns him back to the front. “Shh,” he repeats again. “Close your eyes and feel.”—

 

“Do you want to talk about this?,” he gestured towards Spencer’s mussed up hair and swollen lips, and the traces of toothpaste at the corner of his lips.

 

--The next thing he fully remembers is being woken up by a casual tug on his elbow and he opens his eyes to see Spencer’s face in front of him, an amused smile barely playing on his lips.

“You fell asleep,” Spencer tells him, and on instinct, he flexes his shoulders, marveling at how loose and soft and pliant his whole back was being. “Let’s get you to bed,” Spencer repeats, looking at him with open, vulnerable fondness.

He came for you, he remembers Dave saying like that meant something.

He frowns. “But I thought--,” be begins, only to be cut off by Spencer’s sigh, slow and melancholy and completely at odds with the fondness emanating from his gaze.

“Hotch,” Spencer sighs again, and maybe there are unspoken words here that he should understand, gestures he should comprehend, but he doesn’t.

I’m going to fall in love with you, Spencer had said once, like it was the most complex piece to put together in his puzzle, like the mere idea of being able to love was his novelty.

“Hotch,” Spencer repeats his name again, extending a hand to pull him up from the floor. “Get some sleep.”—

“I…” Spencer trailed off, unsure and caught off-guard and Aaron looked away, said nothing as he patted Spencer on the knee. The only thing worse than not talking, he thought, was the terrible fear, the underlying certainty that he was going to lose this, them, if they ever talked.

“I know,” he murmured instead and kissed Spencer on the cheek.

--Spencer wraps an arm around him for support, gesturing towards the direction of his bedroom.

“Get some sleep,” he repeats, kissing Aaron’s forehead in a terrifying moment of déjà vu. “I’m not going anywhere.”—

 

He came for you, is what Aaron remembers.

 

*

Sometimes, very rarely but enough for it to count, it will go like this:

It will be late on one of the paperwork-heavy days where everyone has been stuck till ten at night and tempers and frustrations are running high all around. By the time Reid will be ready to leave, it’s already ten-thirty and he can still see the sliver of light underneath Hotch's office.

He will knock softly, waiting for the weary, mumbled come in before opening the door tentatively.

Hotch will be leaning on a desk that looks like it's made out of files. His tie will be loosened and shirt sleeves rolled up, a smudge of stray ink near his lips, looking like the only thing that's preventing him from collapsing is the moving ground beneath his feet.

"You should go home," Reid will say softly.

Hotch will sighs, always, always. He’ll be too polite, too strung out to actually say no, but a part of him hopes that his body language is conveying the underlying go away and leave me alone effectively.

Reid will do nothing of the sort. Instead, he will pull up the chair directly opposite Hotch and pull the nearest file towards him.

Hotch will sigh again. "Reid," he’ll begin wearily, losing track of what he means to say when Reid looks up. You really don't need to take care of me will die on his lips, and he’ll  idly wonder if this is what it feels like inside Reid's head all the time, and tries to fight against the conflicting feelings of indignation and gratitude rising within him. Making a split second decision, he will get up, lock his door and check that the blinds are closed.

Taking a deep breath, he will walk across the room until he's standing at Spencer's right. Slowly, he’ll hitch up his trousers a little and kneel on the carpet, right next to the chair where Spencer is sitting, fixing his eyes on the floor, clasping his hands behind his back and wait.

The few seconds before Spencer responds are agonizing every single time.

And in that split second, Aaron will try his best not to think of the consequences of Spencer not responding, instead choosing to focus on the heady rush of endorphins that follows every time he simply gives in to his intuition. Finally, as if in torturous slow motion, he’ll feel Spencer's hand grazing over his hair and let out a breath he wasn't even sure he was holding. They will stay like that for a few minutes, Aaron kneeling with his hands behind his back, and Spencer’s hand in his hair, gently tugging and caressing, easing away his tension by repetitive circular, soothing motions on his head. He won’t even realize that he's leaned forward to rest his head on Spencer's thigh until he will hear himself mumble, "This paperwork needs to be finished by tomorrow."

Although he will make no move to actually get up, Spencer will clasp his shoulder tightly, an unspoken order not to move from his position and he will be glad for the reassurance that his Sir understands his dilemma. He’ll hear shuffling for a few seconds before a file and a pen are laid out in front of him.

 

"This is the file you were working on last," Spencer will murmur. His hand back on Aaron's shoulder, except this time the pressure will be different. This time, it will will him to relax. Aaron will sit back on his heels, pick up the file and open it, although his eyes are blurry with an underlying sense of relief. Spencer will move to place one of the piles in front of him on the carpet and pull the other pile towards him on the table.

They will work like that for a long while, and the room will remain quite except for the occasional sounds of Aaron shifting his weight from one knee to the other, and the sound of pen scratching on paper. Occasionally, Spencer will take a second to stroke Aaron's hair, a constant and subtle reminder that he's there, that he will continue to be there and that he understands.

There will always remain a large number of files for him to look over, and he will already know that his kneecaps are going to be sore the next day, but Aaron never tries to fight the small smile tugging at the corner of his lips.

*

Ironically, the very first thing he remembers when he watches Spencer take off his Kevlar and move forward to talk to yet another unsub, arms raised and unprotected and completely unwilling to heed anyone’s advice is the echo of his words: you made me into this.

And Spencer – sweet, kind, beautiful Spencer, Spencer whose face lights up in joy just be finding the toy in the Cheerios box, Spencer who had convinced himself that no one will ever look beyond his orientation to uncover him as a person, Spencer who wears tragedy and guilt and misfortune like a badge of honor and stands tall, Spencer who is good and isn’t that really what all of them have ever wanted to be step by fucking step all of their lives- Spencer is moving forward towards the unsub and disregarding the shiny blade of the knife because taking a knife would mean he can protect, save, defend someone else, anyone else. And then he watches in horror as the unsub, their latest victim of a terrible childhood, suddenly turns around and sticks the knife into a socket on the wall, instead. For an instant, there is blinding light and a flash of fire that illuminates the contours of Spencer’s face, highlights his cheekbones but no, no, he can’t think like that, doesn’t deserve to think like that, not anymore, and then Spencer’s eyes are wide and the unsub is dead at his feet.

Spencer is escorted outside by two of the SWAT team, and under the pretense of talking to a few of the local LEOs, he watches as everyone crowds around him. Morgan squeezes his shoulder and he can make out everyone asking him if he’s alright briefly. He knows he should go there, should have at least the decency to tell him he did a good job nonetheless. So immersed is he on controlling his emotions that he doesn’t hear Spencer approach him until he touches him on the shoulder.

“I, ah,” Spencer shuffles his feet and looks down towards the ground, “I’m sorry for not following protocol back there.”

You made me into this.

“Reid, are you-?” Aaron begins, but he’s cut off.

“I just wanted to apologize in person.”

“Spencer,” Aaron feels himself getting desperate; desperate for Spencer to meet his eyes, to tell him all sorts of words and phrases that ultimately amount to I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m so so sorry. “Just get yourself checked out by the paramedics, okay?” is the only thing he can say without his voice breaking.

Spencer finally looks at him. For a brief second, his eyes look sharp and hardened and he stands a little bit taller and his shoulders widen instinctively and his eyes rake over Aaron’s form with an air of authority that makes him want to not care whoever is around and get to his knees in front of Spencer. But then the moment is gone and Spencer just looks tired and weary like this conversation is physically aging him.

“I’ll have the report on your desk by tomorrow morning, Sir,” Spencer says.

*

The first time they talk, really talk after Emily’s return, Hotch finds Reid sitting on the front steps of Dave’s house, fingers tightly intertwined around the stem of his wineglass. He looks back at the light, slow din of music and laughter emanating from the living room before taking a deep breath and plopping himself down next to him.

“Thanks for coming,” he speaks first, and if Reid feels him sitting there, he gives no indication of it at all.

Reid laughs hollowly and sips more of his wine. “Yeah.”

Hotch looks at him sideways. “I mean it,” he repeats softly. “I know how angry you still are.”

Reid laughs again and finally turns to look at him, and what scares Hotch the most is the absolute lack of any expression in his eyes, nothing but cold emptiness staring back at him. “Don’t worry, Hotch,” Reid tells him mildly. “I wasn’t going to ruin your team building efforts.”

Hotch frowns. “I- that’s not what I meant.” Reid doesn’t reply.

He sighs. “Look,” he tries again. “I wanted to clear the air about what happened, you know, before. And I meant what I said. If you want to be angry at someone, then--”

Reid stops him with a short wave of his hand. “Yeah, you said that. Hotch,” he turns, looking him in the eye for the first time, “I’m not angry. Anger is not… I’m not angry.”

Hotch frowns again, shifts his weight from one side of the stairs to the other. “Okay,” he replies with a lingering question behind his words. “I hope you now understand what I said before, why it wasn’t the right time.”

Reid drinks the last of his wine and puts the glass down. “I get it, Hotch,” he clasps his hands together and goes back to staring ahead. “You didn’t trust me.”

“What? No, Emily’s disappearance was-”

Reid breathes through his teeth. “I’m not talking about her. I know you couldn’t tell me. I meant that you didn’t trust me enough to believe that I would be there when it has blown over. You didn’t trust us enough to think that we can make it through this. You didn’t trust me enough to think that I could deal with the fallout.”  

you made me into this. you made me into this.

Hotch looks away. Maybe, maybe once he would’ve done everything to deny it, merely because most of is simply not true, but they’ve both reached a new level of ambivalence around one another, throwing words like knives – you made me into this – and not looking back to see where they land, and he isn’t sure that he this is something that they can right together.

“We can get through this,” he tries again, one last time, tries his best to keep any hint of desperation out of his voice, tries to speak over the echoes of the past inside his head. “Now that Emily’s back and things are-”

And Reid turns towards him with narrowed eyes and nothing but understanding burning through his gaze and aging him, and Hotch never, ever wants to see that expression directed at anyone, much less himself; so much disappointment and acceptance and pain that sears in his soul.

Maybe they were supposed to fall apart, because there was nothing stopping them from being happy.

Reid slowly raises a hand to touch his cheek, just below his cheekbone, pressing his thumb just a little. “No, Aaron, don’t you get it?” he speaks and his voice is soft, floating, drifting away.

“We’re done,” he says. “This,” he gestures between them and breathes through his teeth, “this is done.”

 

***

 

four. 2013.

*

“He looks happy,” Rossi informs him, entering his office and making himself comfortable there like it belongs to him.

Hotch doesn’t look up from his paperwork. “I’m sure he does,” he murmurs. “Who are we talking about?”

Rossi puts both of his hands on the table and patiently waits until Hotch signs off on the last leave request and looks up to meet his gaze. “He looks happy,” Rossi emphasizes again.

Hotch shakes his head and picks his pen back up. “Just for the record, we are actually not schoolgirls hanging out during lunch break.”

“I just thought you might like to know,” David leans forward on his elbows.

“I don’t.”

There is a moment of silence that’s all kinds of oppressive because Hotch can feel David profiling him from across the desk, feel him finding out all the chinks in his armor from the way he’s holding his pen or the way he has tied his tie in the morning. He finally sighs and puts the paperwork away.

“He has a girlfriend,” is all he says. It’s the first time he’s spoke the words out loud, the first time he’s allowed himself to think of the possibility of an aftermath where such an occurrence is even possible. The words feel hollow as they drop from his lips.

Dave seems to understand because he doesn’t push further, simply leans back in his chair. “He has a girlfriend,” he agrees and then: “Have you spoken to him at all?” he asks carefully.

Hotch balances his words on his tongue. “I speak to him every day,” he finally says. “We all do.”

Rossi sighs in a way that makes Hotch feel like a guilty child hiding the last piece of chocolate from his ever-patient parent. “He doesn’t know if she’s dom or a sub, Dave. That’s all he’s ever wanted, to not know,” he bursts out. “Of course I haven’t talked to him. Happy?”

Dave makes a clucking sound with his tongue. “I just want you to be happy,” he says.

Aaron smiles. “Who says that I’m not?”

“Because you’re here and not out there, wherever he is being happy.”

“Dave,” Aaron began warningly, silently urging him to drop the subject.

“Fine, fine,” he raises his hands in surrender. “The question is, aren’t you going to do anything about it?”

Aaron stares. “Will you believe me if I tell you that if he’s happy, I’m happy?”

“No,” a third voice interrupts them from the doorway. “You should really close your door, wouldn’t want the BAU to know all about the hard work their Unit Chief puts in,” Erin Strauss tells him in a mildly admonishing tone, dropping an iPad on his table. “Email from the Director,” she continues. “Video-conference in ten minutes.”

Aaron stands up abruptly, brushes his hands on his thighs. “Looks like we’re done with today’s edition of horribly uncomfortable conversation,” he deadpans, not even bothering to keep the note of relief out of his voice as he follows Erin out of the door.

“Have fun,” Dave calls at his retreating back. “Make sure you don’t end up being accidentally happy or something.”

*

The phone rings, much like the worst of news always does, in the very early hours of the morning.

He is immediately alert when he sees Reid flashing on his screen, and when he picks up, all he can make out for a moment is silence on the other side, punctuated by rhythmic heavy breathing. For a second, he is seized with an immense terror that Reid is being held by gunpoint by yet another psycho, or that he’s lying in a ditch somewhere or, the worse of all, that Reid has accidentally dialed his number during sex.

He hears Reid’s voice then, sounding as if it’s coming from far away. “Hotch?” Reid says, and he understands the barely enunciated I need you even before he can barely get the I out.

“I’m on my way,” he replies instinctively.

*

The thing is, the collar would’ve never caught his eye if Reid hadn’t left his messenger bag wide-open and severely rummaged on his table.

Even then, it’s mostly a coincidence that he comes back to his desk only to see a brown paper bag poking out of one of the compartments of his bag. His first thought that it’s a message from the anonymous caller, or anything similarly implicating that Reid has simply chosen not to disclose. It’s purely a coincidence that he opens the bag when he does and discovers the collar.

For a moment, he simply stares at it uncomprehendingly, not understanding what Reid of all people would use this for, and then something in his heart clenches, tightens in ways it hadn’t in a long, long time. You made me into this, he remembers Reid saying, waving his hands and burning him through his gaze, throwing words and words of blame for making him into the very person he has, evidently, become.

You made me into this.

He traces the collar, dark brown and simple and thin, slim in its  beauty and dignity, with a trembling finger—not imagining, never imagining what it is that Reid has found without him, outside of him. The next moment, he hears footsteps racing towards his office and he hastily shoves the collar into an inner pocket of his suit and puts the paper bag back into Reid’s bag.

The collar sits against him heavily, smelling vaguely of ink and old books and Reid’s particular brand of moisturizer and he buttons his suit jacket back up.

*

It’s all over too quickly. He can vaguely hear Reid shouting Hotch in the background and there’s some commotion from Rossi attempting a last-ditch negotiation but he doesn’t think of all that. He sees the shot whizzing towards him at exactly the same moment he presses his own trigger and in front of his eyes, Diane crumples to the ground.

The next thing he knows, there is a bloom of warmth that he finds comforting, that soon turns into a white-hot flash of pain on his left shoulder. Something settles low and hot in his stomach and he can feel something wet trickle down his wrist. There’s someone slapping his cheeks and calling out his name in an increasingly louder pitch of desperation. He can vaguely register the EMTs around him now, someone barking out to hook him up to a heart monitor and remove his Kevlar and shirt.

The last thing he thinks is: he doesn’t know I have his collar.

And then the lights are blurring, his lashes are wet, and all the voices around him are merging together like a soundless echo and it feels like he’s falling into an abyss, falling, falling-

*

When he wakes up in a hospital – again, damn it, he might as well give Reid a run for his money – to see Reid waiting for him, barely perched on a chair next to his bed, the first thing he ponders upon is the universe’s sick sense of humor. The second thing he thinks is: he doesn’t know I have his collar.

“You’re awake,” Reid informs him quite uselessly, breaks him out of his thoughts.  He stays silent.

“They found a collar on you,” Reid continues, not wasting any time on idle conversation. “It looked awfully familiar.”

Hotch scans his face, looks for any signs of anger or displeasure or embarrassment but Reid simply looks at him impassively, not showing much of anything on his face. Hotch decides, all of a sudden, that he can’t take it anymore.

“You bought a collar for her,” he spits out, and takes more than a little pleasure in seeing Reid visibly deflate.

“I wasn’t going to give it to her,” Reid mumbles, and it does nothing to hide the indignation he’s been feeling since discovering it.

“Not the point,” he replies tersely, and Reid sighs, runs a hand through the disheveled mess of his hair. When he turns back to look at him, he looks as tired as Hotch himself feels.

“You—it means everything,” Reid tells him haltingly. “That you saved her.” For a split-second, it looks like he wants to say something more, reach out, touch, but instead he tucks a strand of hair behind his ear and leaves.

And Hotch remembers, the look of absolute terror on his face when Diana was holding Maeve to the barrel of her gun, the quiet smiles in the bullpen while talking on the phone when he thought no one would notice.

You would kill yourself for her?

“It means everything to me too,” Hotch murmurs to  himself in his quiet, empty hospital room.

*

Aaron isn’t expecting anyone when he hears the doorbell rang. A quick glance at the watch reveals the time to be far too late for anyone to call on him. Which was why, all in all, he opens the door to the surprising sight of Spencer standing on his doorway. He stares.

“What are you doing here?” he asks, forcing Spencer to make eye-contact with him. Spencer looks, well, he looks exhausted with his hair frizzing up in all directions and a coat that he has only haphazardly put on; inside out with the buttons wrongly buttoned. But what strikes Aaron as most bizarre is his body language. Spencer stands in front of him with his hands shoved into the pockets of his jeans, his shoulders hunched forward, trying his best to look anywhere except at Aaron.

“Can I come in?” he asks, and Aaron wordlessly steps by to let him in. It terrifies him still, how much he is willing to let slide for Spencer, how much of his own principles he’s willing to bend for the other man. I can’t let you fuck me around, he had said, and yet he takes one look at Reid’s posture and lets him in.

“I am going to do something now,” Spencer starts without preamble, staring at the distant spot on the wall in order to avoid looking at Aaron. “I would appreciate if you wouldn’t misunderstand.”

Aaron starts a little. Its one thing to come in and talk, but Spencer actually warning him not to misunderstand probably meant that he would, and that doesn’t bode well for either of them. A small part of him wonders if Spencer’s going to pull out a gun and shoot him, telling him not to misunderstand until the bullet is firmly lodged in his brain.

And then, and then he can do nothing but simply stare.

He looks on with a growing sense of dread and horror as Spencer calmly removes his coat and drapes it over a kitchen chair. He then looks Aaron straight in the eyes and begins to get down on his knees. Aaron’s first thought is a mad daze of oh my god, he’s going to propose, but no, Spencer isn’t lowering himself on one knee, not even close. His horror further intensifies when he sees that Spencer is kneeling, kneeling on the floor of his damn living room with his hands behind his back and his eyes downcast. He isn’t kneeling at Aaron’s feet per se, but he’s definitely kneeling for him.

Aaron can feel his stomach dropping to the ground, a bottomless pit increasing and expanding where his throat had once been. A mixture of shame, guilt and anger floods through him and blood rushes to his face and leaves his hands cold and clammy.

“This is not to mock you,” Reid says in a calm voice, eyes still downcast and body language so subversive that all Aaron wants is to grab at his hand and pull until  he stood up again. “Did you know,” Reid continues like kneeling at his ex-sub’s feet is a perfectly normal, average thing to do, “that the original purpose of kneeling was to ask for forgiveness? It was originally used to achieve a level of power disparity between two people, as the person asking for forgiveness believed that his original actions had shamed both himself and the other person to such an extent that until he had the chance to beg for forgiveness, he could never be on equal ground with him.”

Aaron’s breath hitches again, for the umpteenth time. His eyes burn and he clenches his hands into fists and bites his tongue, willing Spencer to stop this and get up, do anything but this in front of him. Spencer, however, continues to stare fixedly at the floor and has no way of knowing any of this.

“You said the other day that it’s been ten years,” Spencer continues. “You’re right. And it took me this long to realize the extent of everything I’ve put you through. It wasn’t fair for me drag you through my emotional mess, it wasn’t fair for me to expect you to go along with it, and most importantly, it was unacceptable of me to take advantage of your feelings to suit my purpose. I should have done this a long time ago, should have allowed myself to open up enough to ask for this. I know it won’t be easy, and I know that it is absolutely not fair for me to ask this of you now, but I really hope that you might be able to forgive me one day.”

Once, a lifetime ago, Aaron had said I will learn to dom for him, if need be. He had imagined scenarios, over and over again, of what would happen if Spencer had turned out to be a sub. He had imagined himself learning to take Spencer apart under his touch, entertained images of Spencer bound, gagged, moaning his name over and over again, kneeling at his feet, calling him Sir.  I will learn to dom for him , he had said, and yet here Spencer was, kneeling on his living room with his eyes on the floor and hands firmly clasped behind his back and Aaron was sure that if he wanted to, he could ask, order that man, make him beg for anything, everything right now.

Spencer is kneeling in front of him, practically at his feet, and all Aaron can find himself feeling is shame. It isn’t arousing; he can’t reconcile the man kneeling in front of him with the man who once had the ability, the right to silence him with one look, one touch, who had been able to make him go down on his knees just by walking into a room. All of a sudden, all he wants to do right now is throw up.

“Will you please,” he finally chokes out, almost gagging over his words, “just get back up? Please.”

Spencer finally looks at him. Whatever he sees in Aaron’s expression must be startling, because Spencer is on his feet in seconds and rubbing Aaron’s back and arms reassuringly.

“You can’t just--” Aaron chokes out.

“I know. I’m so sorry, so sorry--” Reid’s voice is soothing.

I am supposed to be--” He tried again, and the words twist all around his tongue, refuse to be formed. Spencer understands, nonetheless.

“I’m so sorry, Aaron.”

“You have to stop saying that. I haven’t… I don’t..”

Reid doesn’t reply, just continues to rub his arms and make soothing patterns on his back until his breathing evens out.

 “Maeve,” Spencer finally whispers, “she said that she saw my expression when you got shot.”

Aaron turns to look at him. “Are you…?”

“She said I looked like I had lost my world,” Spencer murmurs. “I told her that it felt like I did.”

Aaron clears his throat and glances at where Spencer is still clutching his arm.

“You still love her,” Aaron states. He realizes, even as he says it, that it had never been a question.

Spencer looks away. “I wouldn’t have gotten on my knees for anyone other than you,” he replies finally. They both know it’s not an answer.

“What do we do now?” he finally asks.

Spencer looks at him, lips twitching upwards even as his eyes remain impossibly sad. “We sit,” he replies quietly.

Aaron looks at him, and he looked back steadily. Spencer’s eyes are red like he had been trying very hard to not cry, and there are high points of flush on his cheeks. They sit together nonetheless, sinking side by side to the floor and resting their backs against the coolness of the concrete, shoulders touching and looking ahead at a vast impasse of emptiness.

 

***

 

after.

“Where do we go from here?” Spencer finally asks the impending, dreaded question an hour later, when they’re seated at his kitchen table, hand curled around a steaming mug of hot tea.

Aaron looks up carefully, struggles to find words that would mean something to the both of them. “I wasn’t aware that there was an option of going anywhere at all,” is what he says, because a part of him can’t quite help being on eggshells around Spencer, around them.

Spencer looks at him sideways, his eyes hidden from view under the hair falling on his forehead. “I, uh, was kind of hoping that there was?”

Aaron opens his mouth to say something, find some way to voice the conflicting emotions coursing all over him. You made me into this, he remembers, the words resounding in his ears like they were said yesterday.

“You’re in love with another person,” is what he replies with. “I don’t think that makes for a good beginning.”

Spencer’s lips curl around the ring of his mug. “Maeve,” he stops to examine the words coming out of his mouth, “is the best thing to ever happen to me.”

“No, listen to me,” he continues, waving his hand once he takes notice of the expression on Aaron’s face. “Being with Maeve showed me, gave me an insight into what it would be like to have a relationship with someone without wondering if they were a dom or a sub, it showed me how to be with someone just as a person without constantly wondering whether I was expected to do something, or whether I was expected to expect something from the other person. And it made me realize, “he takes a deep breath and tentatively reaches forward to touch Aaron’s hand with his own, “that I wanted a sub who would go down for me as a person, not just as a dom. And it made me realize that I want nothing more than to cherish, to worship the person – the sub, rather – that I’m in a relationship with, that I want them to be my equal. I realized that all I really want is to have a relationship where I trust someone, open myself up to someone totally comfortable, even so much so that they can potentially hold a tremendous amount of power over me. And I want to be able to trust that they’ll never abuse it.”

He leans forward, pressing both their hands on the surface of the table, and touches Aaron’s cheek lightly with his other hand. Aaron breathes, arches against the touch of those fingertips, the feel of that callused skin against him that he’s never been able to let go of.

“I loved you first, Aaron,” he continues, voice reduced to barely a whisper, “and I want to love you last. I realized that everything I wanted out of a relationship, I already had; spread out right there in front of me. And I never want to throw it away again. And I love Maeve, more for this than anything else, that she made me realize this about myself, about us.”

In that moment, Aaron can do nothing more than stare straight ahead at the vague horizon ahead, blood rushing through torso, heart pounding against his ribcage, every nerve ending, every sensation alive at the sound of Spencer’s voice, at the touch of Spencer’s skin against his, at the notion that he may have this, have this, have this.

“That’s a good beginning, yes,” is all he can say in reply, clearing his throat in order for the words to gain any semblance of comprehension.

Spencer laughs somewhere right behind him, low and light and gloriously free. “We have ten years worth of mistakes to avoid,” he murmurs.

Aaron smiles back in response and turns back to grasp Spencer’s hand in his until they’re sitting side by side, together in their silence, in the process of becoming absolved of their past, the portrait of a silent show of support, of solidarity for one another. When he slides off the chair to kneel at Spencer’s feet, the action is mostly involuntary, unnoticed yet never overlooked. He pauses to take a deep breath, wrapping his head around the fact that they’ve managed to come this far, stumbling and falling but together, that he can finally, finally be next to his Spencer – his Spencer, his dom, his.

Slowly, he leans to rest his head against Spencer’s thigh, lips curving upwards when he feels Spencer’s hand come down to rest lightly on the top of his head, just behind his ear.

“Well,” he says around the smile building on his lips. “I think it’s time we make memories of a different kind.”

 

***

 

end.