Author's note: Thanks so much to everyone who reviewed, and special thanks to everyone who messaged me to encourage me to finish this.
I took a little bit of creative license with a couple of things. As per usual, while I've done some research, I apologize if there are any technical or medical inaccuracies.
It's been a joy writing about the team as a whole. If you love them as much as I do, I think you'll like this.
The important thing to recognize is that it takes a team.
- Auto Executive Philip Caldwell
He felt like a competent adult again.
Like a leader.
Maybe like a parent.
With the fear of an impending beating gone and hope renewed, Hotch found that he could take stock of the state that the rest of his team was in.
And while none of it was good, it felt good to be back in control.
Especially since everyone else looked so close to losing it.
Reid had gone back to fighting to make sense of the code, and in his desperate fervor he'd snapped his pen in two. The blue ink that stained his hands and clothes was a constant visual reminder that they were all dangerously tense.
As if the sight of JJ wasn't enough.
He wasn't close enough to see the fear that he knew lurked in her eyes, but there was something about the posture of her limbs that was unsettling and distracting. Judging by the way Emily was gripping her hand, he wondered if the muscle spasms Reid had mentioned as a possibility had become a reality.
And then there was Morgan, who had a death stare locked on the steel door, and didn't seem to have so much as blinked since sending their captor after Garcia.
Hotch saw him leap to his feet, and realized the door was opening.
A second later, Morgan caught Garcia as she was shoved inside.
"Baby Girl --"
"What the --"
"Are you hurt?"
Morgan quickly shook his head 'no', focused on her.
"Hey, hey, if they so much as touched you…?"
She just barely shook her head, scanning the room, distracted.
Her face filled with surprise and concern, and Hotch stepped between her and Morgan, needing to get her on task.
"What's --" Garcia started, trying to move toward JJ.
"Some kind of invenomation," Hotch filled in, stopping her. "We don't know what it was, but we do know that she's running out of time, and so I need you to listen to me."
He waited a moment, for her gaze to move from JJ to him.
And when it didn't –
Her head turned.
"What's going on?"
He made quick work of an explanation.
"The man who brought us here wants a code cracked. It was created by some kind of programmer or analyst. You need to take a look and tell us what you see."
Garcia just looked at him for a moment, slack-jawed. Probably in a bit of shock.
And if he'd had the time to be gentle and understanding about that, he would have been.
"Here," he said instead, not unkindly, pulling her to the table. "Sit down."
He shoved the ink-stained page of numbers under her nose, and then sat down next to her.
She looked up at Reid, opened her mouth to ask a question.
"He already tried," Hotch cut her off before she could even get started.
She finally turned her eyes to the paper in front of her.
And it took only a few seconds for her to look up again, completely lost.
"What am I looking for?"
"Anything," Hotch told her, softening his tone. "Anything that strikes you. Some kind of pattern."
She stared blankly at him, her eyes saying that it seemed a hopeless task.
He wanted to scream.
But he was the boss, and control was his thing.
And so he grabbed up the folder of information they'd received about the code's creator.
"Let's take a look at this…"
When Hotch and Garcia were knee-deep in wading through the file folder, Morgan gave her a gentle clap on the back and stepped away.
He stood back and watched her.
Reassuring himself that she didn't look like she'd been hurt.
Telling himself that he hadn't chosen Reid's life over hers.
Reid voice broke into his thoughts, sounding awkward. Even for him.
"Something wrong?" Morgan asked.
"Uh… everything?" An uncertain half-smile just barely reached Reid's lips.
Morgan nodded, looking him over, wondering what the look on his face was about.
Did the kid look… guilty? Touched?
"You okay?" Morgan asked him. "You need something?"
It took Reid a moment of staring at the floor, and then he admitted, his voice quiet:
"I don't know whether to say 'thank you' or 'I'm sorry'."
Morgan heard him loud and clear, knew exactly what he was saying.
But still he asked, already setting up a trail of breadcrumbs in his head:
"Sorry for what, Reid?"
And Reid looked up and met his eyes, surprised at the question.
"For… Garcia. For you, for… for having to get her here."
"For needing to be saved? What, you figure we should be blaming JJ, too?"
Confusion registered on Reid's face, along with a hint of offense.
"Of course not. But I was the one who…" Reid struggled for the words. "I made him angry."
"Because you tricked him."
"Which was Emily's idea. And Hotch's choice."
Reid sighed a sigh that made his shoulders rise and fall, then rubbed his eyes with his ink-stained middle fingers, and took up a place at Morgan's side, leaning against the wall.
A moment passed in silence.
But he still hadn't made peace.
"It was still me or Garcia --"
"No," Morgan said quickly, and maybe more harshly than he should have. "No, I didn't make that choice. It was her safety for your life."
Even as he said it, Morgan still didn't feel good about it.
But what the hell was he supposed to do?
He'd feel a hell of a lot worse if Reid was dead on the floor.
They all would.
And the thing was…
"Look, Reid, here's what makes this something more like 'okay' for me: Garcia would have chosen the same thing I did. I believe that. She'd have put herself here in this place to save your life."
Reid's eyes fell on Garcia at that.
And he seemed a hair less troubled as he noted:
"She would have done it for JJ, anyway, right?"
"Right," Morgan agreed, and that lifted the weight from his shoulders a bit, too.
But even looking less troubled, Reid still looked incredibly solemn. And so Morgan spoke up again:
"But don't go kidding yourself. She'd have done it for you, too. I have it on good authority that everybody's favorite tech goddess sees you as one of her brothers."
Reid just barely smiled at that, but the smile was genuine.
And maybe it was just that they'd almost lost him today, but Morgan couldn't help pushing that a little further.
"She's not the only one," he admitted casually, like it was nothing.
And then he quickly moved to go check in with Hotch and Garcia, to avoid the moment.
"You have all sisters," Reid pointed out, confused.
And Morgan turned back.
Just a wee bit irritated.
"So? Guess I had an opening," he tossed out with a shrug.
Reid smiled again, just a bit wider this time, looking for all the world like a contented five-year-old.
And Morgan shook his head, walked away.
Little brother, indeed.
Morgan and Reid had been talking just loudly enough for Emily to overhear them, sitting on the cold floor several feet away.
She could relate.
It was nice, these pseudo-sibling relationships they all had going on.
Or it would have been, under different circumstances.
This whole thing probably would have been a hell of a lot easier if it didn't feel like she was watching her little sister die.
JJ's hands were ice cold in hers.
But at least the muscle spasms had stopped.
She felt guilty for thinking it, since it might well mean the toxin was working itself into another stage.
But at least JJ looked more at peace when she was still.
"Garcia's looking hopeful," she told JJ quietly.
It was a blatant lie.
But she'd long ago asked herself what JJ would do if their situations were reversed.
And telling people what they needed to hear – that was JJ's thing.
She'd fallen into the habit of rubbing JJ's shoulder, but her hand stilled when JJ suddenly spoke up.
"If I pass out…" JJ murmured, and Emily leaned in to hear her. "And if that's just it for me --"
"No one's giving up --"
"Hey, promise me… you'll come up with some really brilliant last words for me, okay?"
Emily looked her over, struck.
Was she joking?
"Something…" JJ continued, sounding half serious. "Something that would be worthy… of a liaison…"
"By the time you need last words, you're going to have to come up with something worthy of someone's grandmother," Emily insisted, blinking back the tears that threatened to come to her eyes.
JJ managed to meet her gaze for the first time in a while, tears in her own tormented eyes.
And she whispered:
"Denial's a horrible thing to lose."
And then she started shaking.
Out of nowhere, without warning.
Her body absolutely convulsed. Head arched back, every muscle straining.
And even though she could already hear his rapid footsteps, Emily cried out:
He came running.
But there was very little he could do.
"Don't restrain her," he instructed Emily. "Let it happen…"
And then, because it was ugly and awful and the sounds coming from JJ's throat were inhuman, he half instructed and half prayed:
"Just let it end…"
Excruciatingly long seconds crawled by. He wasn't sure how many.
And then JJ stilled, and Emily looked up at him for further instructions.
There were tears on her face.
"She needs to be in the recovery position," Reid told her. "On her side. You know how to do that?"
"Yes," Emily responded immediately, grateful for something to do.
Morgan bent down to help, as familiar with basic first aid as the rest of them.
And Reid fisted his stained hands…
And tried to ignore the voice in his head that screamed that she was going to die.
There was less than two hours left on the clock.
She was going to die.
Right here in front of them.
A sob caught in his throat almost before tears reached his eyes.
It was Hotch, standing just beside him.
"Reid, it's not over yet."
He turned, looked Hotch in the eye.
Broke down right in front of him.
"I'm trying so, so, so hard…"
"The stupid numbers just, like, refuse to mean anything…"
"Reid, you are going to do this," Hotch intoned, refusing him any pity. "You're going to sit down at the table with Garcia, and the two of you are going to figure this out."
Reid sniffled, tried to get it together.
He dreaded laying eyes on that page of elusive numbers for the hundredth time.
But if there was any chance at all…
And Hotch's determined eyes said there was…
"You and me," Garcia encouraged, even though she looked about as broken as he felt.
Hotch put a hand on his shoulder, turned him toward the table.
And he felt himself nodding, committing, even before his rational mind had caught up with the mess of emotion.
He found himself almost running to the table.
Desperation hit hard.
And served him well.
He rushed through the questions:
"There are a total of one-thousand-forty-seven digits. Does that mean anything to you?"
"The only break is after the first two-hundred-thirty-four digits. Does that mean anything to you?"
"The most frequently appearing patterns occur in threes. Does that mean anything to you?"
"The most frequently occuring pattern is six-four-eight. Does that mean anything to you?"
"The most --"
His eyes jumped to her face.
Hope attacked him.
"I need a computer!" Excitement nearly had her slurring her words. "I need a computer, I need a computer!"
Reid looked to Hotch, who moved to bang on the steel door.
"We've got something!" And then, his mask of control slipping: "Get in here!!"
"Microsoft… standard English…" Garcia muttered, and Reid was about to press her for information when the steel door slid away, and The Dominant stepped into the room, The Submissive just behind him.
"I need a computer!" Garcia repeated herself, high-pitched.
"If this is a game," The Dominant started. "So help you God --"
"No games --"
"Wait there!" He ordered.
And he left the door open, guarded by his partner, while he marched into the adjoining room, to his computer.
The password that had foiled their group earlier was no problem for him, and Reid paid close attention, straining his eyes and ears.
On the numeric keypad.
"There's no Internet connection," The Dominant informed Garcia as he returned.
"No worries," Garcia tossed out, beelining for the computer.
The Dominant was on her heels, and Reid had to move cautiously to follow, but neither of their captors tried to stop him.
And he watched as her hands flew over the keyboard.
Mostly the numeric keypad.
And it was like magic.
She hit the numbers.
And words started to come up on screen.
How was she doing this?
"They're used mostly for special symbols. But they can bring up standard characters, too. Any Tom, Dick or henchmen could decode this if he knew what it was."
Her fingers kept flying as they talked, and since he wasn't distracting her from the task, he went ahead and asked her:
"How did you know?"
"Three digit patterns. And the common six-four-eight. It brings up 'E', which --"
"-- is the most common letter in the English language," he finished for her.
He could feel The Dominant literally breathing down his neck.
The miserable jerk was almost as stressed as they were about the clock running down.
"You want the Green Street Bus Station," Garcia announced. "Locker 62. The rest is starting to look like instructions on what to do with the shipment when --"
"You're finished," The Dominant interrupted, pulling her chair back from the computer.
He hit a few keys on the computer almost in the same second that he headed for the door.
"Both of us?" The Submissive questioned, surprise ringing in his tone. "Danny's dead --"
"Both of us! Move! I need a bodyguard more than they need a guard."
The other door slid open.
Hotch called out:
Reid joined in:
"You have to let us --"
But the door shut again before he could even finish.
And then suddenly all was disturbingly quiet.
And hope slipped away again.
It was all a blur to JJ.
Like the world was coming at her from under water.
She knew they were yelling only by the desperation in their voices.
"But we've never seen his face! That means hope! You taught me that!"
"This is organized crime, Mama --"
"We've got access to his computer! If it controls the cameras, who's to say it can't control the doors?"
"Like in Jurassic Park!"
"We have to get past the password first."
"It was all numbers! Four digits, on the keypad. But that's… that's ten thousand possible combinations."
"Can you hack past it?"
"Probably, but it would take some time."
"Which we don't have. Goddamn-son-of-a-bitch!"
Or got thrown.
Maybe a chair.
And they kept yelling, about whether to take the time to search the documents in the desk.
She tuned them out.
Something had occurred to her.
And she wasn't sure what it was.
Her mind wouldn't cooperate.
But there was something in what they'd said…
Beyond the pain, and the colors meshing before her eyes…
Somewhere in the back of her head…
A link between the words they'd used…
She tried to speak, couldn't get her tongue to cooperate.
It was so simple.
Why couldn't they see it?
"Time…" she managed to whisper.
But all it did was bring Emily back to her side, get her rubbing her shoulder again, assuring her time wasn't up yet.
"It's the time…"
"Jaje, you're gonna be fine," Garcia's voice insisted.
"The password…" she rasped, "…is the time…"
They went silent.
Or seemed to.
And she just barely heard whoops of joy, a moment later.
And then there was nothing.
They were all there when JJ woke up.
Hotch stood back and watched as Garcia embraced her, and Reid told her she was going to be fine, and Emily muttered a quiet 'thank God', and Morgan started cracking ironic blonde jokes.
Maybe it was the sun streaming into the room and the fact that they'd won the battle, but…
Hotch couldn't quite keep a smile from gracing his face.
He didn't want to.
And he realized, standing there watching them, that above all else he felt pride.
They were a team.
They were such a team.
They were his team.
And even with their own lives on the line, they'd all done their part.
Reid and Garcia solved puzzles.
Morgan and Emily took the bad guys down and kept the good guys breathing.
JJ came up with a flash of brilliance when they needed it.
And there was more to it than that, of course, and they all traded roles now and then.
But they did their parts.
They did their thing.
And then there was him.
And he'd never be so presumptuous as to say that he was the glue that held them all together.
At most, he might admit that he was quite good at keeping the rest of them on task.
He'd never tell anyone that sometimes… when he noticed them using skills that he'd taught them… or pulled them through a rough patch…
Sometimes it was like he was neither a bad father nor a distracted hero.
Sometimes it was like he was a good father, in a family of heroes.
He'd never say that out loud.
But just this once, watching a card game break out around a hospital bed, and calling out to his youngest (agent) to deal him in, he indulged his mind.
And he let himself think it.