Title: Mistruth for the Greater Good

OriginalChallenge:The Great Alphabet Meme 2: A is for Anger

'Verse: Triggers & Ties

Prompt by ice_ziggee

Author: Kuria Dalmatia

Rating/Warnings: FRM/R (profanity, sexual situations, adult content) SPOILERS FOR S6's "Lauren" and S7.

Characters/Pairing: Hotch/Reid (established relationship), Jack

Summary: Hotch was under orders to lie about Prentiss, as was JJ. For Hotch, the lies had a much higher cost: not only the trust of his Team, but that of his lover.

WordCount: ~7,900

ARCHIVING: my LJ and FFNet account... anyone else? Please ask first.

July 2011, August 2011

COMMENTS: This was written before the S7 premiere and the return of Prentiss. One of the S7's spoilers regarding Prentiss's return was that "much of the team does not handle finding out that she is still alive well, especially Dr. Reid, who feels betrayed." Well, duh.

Feedback always welcome.

DISCLAIMER: The Mark Gordon Company, ABC Studios and CBS Paramount Network Television own Criminal Minds. Salut! I just took them out to play and I promise put them back when I'm done. I'm not making any profit just trying to get these images out of my head.

########

"There were lies we told to save ourselves, and then there were lies we told to rescue others. What counted more, the mistruth, or the greater good?" — Jodi Picoult

########

Hotch argued. He bargained. He didn't plead, because pleading was a sign of weakness. Instead, he lectured on the importance of trust, how what they were asking had the potential to destroy those bonds.

He knew that they would not budge on the directive, not with as many government agencies insisting on it. Not with the connections that the Prentiss family had.

Still, he had to try.

Because when the truth was revealed—and Hotch wasn't so naïve to believe that it never would—he had to be able to say to his team, to those he considered his family, to Spencer that he did everything he could. That he argued and bargained and lectured to the best of his ability.

He tried.

He honestly did.

"Emily Prentiss is officially dead, Agent Hotchner, and it's your job to make your team and everyone else believe it."

########

There was a distance between the team now. Hotch couldn't quite describe it, but he felt it every time the group got together. They didn't mesh as well as they had in the past. Sure, the loss of a teammate changed the dynamic, especially the way in which she was lost. But this was different.

Maybe because he was the only one on the team who knew the truth.

In the field, there were the hesitations, ever so slight, after he doled out assignments. As if they were waiting for his order to Prentiss and then remembering, 'oh right, she's gone.'

In the office, Prentiss's desk was left untouched.

Hotch pretended he didn't notice the smudged fingerprints on bottom of Prentiss's picture on the wall of the BAU. He pretended he didn't notice how his team would pause ever so slightly when they would pass by the portrait. He pretended he didn't see Garcia stare openly at it for at least two minutes every morning for the first three weeks after the funeral.

Hotch never let anyone see him press two fingers to his lips and then touch the bottom of the frame. He never let them hear his whispered words, "Be safe." Treating Prentiss's photo like a religious icon was somewhat disturbing, but it was sometimes the only thing that made the situation just slightly more bearable.

But only slightly.

########

There was a distance between him and Spencer now. After everything they had been through with Foyet, after how hard they worked to get their relationship back on track, there was this distance.

At first, it was JJ being hijacked from their team. Then, Spencer's migraines or whatever the hell they were that inspired Spencer to nearly get himself killed (again) and to wear a yellow thread bracelet that everyone pretended they didn't notice.

Now, it was Prentiss's "death," and Spencer's mournful words of, I didn't get to say goodbye and invoking Gideon's name.

For Aaron, the half-glass of bourbon as a nightcap became a full glass, because a full glass dulled the edges much, much better.

########

They didn't kiss as often as they used to. Hell, they didn't kiss at all nowadays.

Then again, their hours became even more brutal. Even with Morgan taking on a decent amount of the paperwork, there were some things that only a unit chief could do. Plus, they were a profiler down—two if he was really being honest because while Seaver had good instincts, she was still a rookie.

That, on top of parenting a five-year-old.

Jack came first for him and Spencer. They never said it aloud to each other, but it was a simple fact. They put Jack ahead of their own relationship because, well, it was what they had to do.

It was why when they got into bed at midnight, they sometimes mumbled "Good night" and other times a grunt as they fussed with the bed sheets.

They stopped saying, "I love you," before turning off the lights.

And Aaron decided that one and a half glasses of bourbon did a much better job, but he only poured that extra shot once Spencer had retired to the bedroom for the evening.

########

"Why did you insist on doing your team's evaluations following Agent Prentiss's death?"

Aaron opened his eyes and stared at his clasped hands. He wanted to say, I needed to hear if they believed my lies.

Instead, he replied, "They're very private individuals. I didn't want some stranger making a judgment call on a situation he or she knew nothing about."

"Did you think about what your team wanted?"

"They could have asked for someone else."

"But they didn't."

"No."

There were days (every day, every single day) when he wished they had.

########

Hotch knew one of the reasons why Reid accepted the consulting assignment in Baton Rouge. The other consult was in Racine and Chicago was only a two hour drive south; Morgan hadn't visited his family over a year. It was gracious, of course, because the Baton Rouge consult was more up Morgan's alley even if Reid was their "expert in everything." Hotch wondered if it was simply to get away because they all knew that the Baton Rouge consult was going to take longer than the Racine one.

He hated himself for thinking that it was the break they needed from each other, that he needed from Reid.

It didn't stop him from making that phone call to the State Department after Spencer left for Louisiana, leaving the office early, picking up Jack, and heading over to the park. He sat on the bench and watched Jack introduce himself to the Asian boy playing on the large netted climber. The boys began climbing the structure, engrossed in whatever game they came up with.

He wanted to be proud that his little boy had confidence like that. He wanted to smile and take photos and use his phone to shoot a video to send to Spencer but he didn't.

He couldn't.

Not with JJ now sitting next to him.

"I've heard Nice is nice," she said as she focused her attention on the children playing.

Hotch wasn't surprised that Emily was still in France. The rare times she had talked about growing up in Europe, she always seemed fondest of France. Maybe because of her grandfather.

Maybe.

JJ shifted closer to him, encroaching his personal space. A year ago, she wouldn't have done that unless they were undercover. A year ago …

"How's Spence?"

Jack high-fived the Asian boy wearing a Ninja Turtle shirt. Hotch forced the smile as he returned the wave of the two women who were presumably the Ninja Turtle boy's parents. Oh, they tried to act like they weren't a couple, but it was easy to see how close they were.

He wondered if their friends worried more over one of them than the other.

For once, Hotch wished someone would ask him how he was doing. For JJ to ask, because JJ was realistically the only person he could talk to. The only person under the same gag order as he was. The only person who knew the directives he had to follow and the penalties for his failure.

But, as always, her focus was on Spencer.

It was infuriating.

He could choose not to answer or tell her to ask Reid herself. He could opt for a non-committal shrug. But this was JJ, the one person allowed to know. So even though Hotch answered with, "He didn't get to say goodbye," which was what Spencer had said to JJ the night Emily was declared dead, Hotch knew that she would understand.

"It's been a rough two years," JJ replied.

The words made him sneer. Hotch looked at JJ, pleased that she immediately moved away. "Of all the people to say that," he growled out, "you're the last person I would have expected."

Her gaze dropped to her lap. "Hotch …"

His anger flared, overriding all the fail-safes he had built for himself so his temper would remain leashed. "I lie to him every goddamn minute of every goddamn day," he hissed. "And the most you can say is, 'it's been a rough two years'? What happened? State got your tongue?"

Hotch stood up abruptly, surveying the park as he did. Ninja Turtle's parents were calling their son over, glancing at Hotch as they did. He knew how scary he could look; Jack called it his 'scowly face.' He tried to rein in his anger, because Jack was now watching him and the smile quickly disappeared from his son's face.

God, Ninja Turtle's parents were probably now convinced that he beat the hell out of Jack on a regular basis.

Yet Jack suddenly ran towards him and hugged him around the knees. His son pointed at JJ and said loudly, "I don't like Miss JJ. She makes you sad."

Ninja Turtle's parents now focused on JJ, their eyes narrowed and their lips set. Obviously, they heard Jack's declaration. Hotch wondered if he knew the two women from somewhere, if they recognized him from the news which is why they seemed to be on his side. Maybe they recognized JJ. It didn't matter. He knew he shouldn't savor the flush of pleasure from strangers taking his side but he did anyway.

"I'm sorry, buddy," Hotch apologized as he crouched down and smoothed Jack's hair. Normally, he would have clarified that JJ wasn't the one who made him angry, that it was someone else.

But that wouldn't be the truth.

Instead, he asked, "What game were you playing with your new friend?"

"King of the Mountain," Jack told him.

And when Hotch glanced back, JJ had left.

He didn't feel guilty about that at all.

########

Two was better than one.

The new brand of bourbon wasn't as good as Aaron's normal one, but it came in a liter bottle.

It cost the same as his preferred brand for twice as much.

Frugal.

It needed ice.

########

The smudges on the glass of Prentiss's FBI portrait were gone.

It wasn't unusual for the cleaning crew to wipe down the picture frames.

But it was the first time since Prentiss's death that it was late in the afternoon and there were no fingerprints.

Aaron pressed his fingers to the wood frame instead.

"Be safe."

########

Spencer's consult lasted six days, two days longer than expected. Jack was sad and Aaron … Aaron wondered why those additional two days didn't bother him.

When the younger man walked in, Jack rushed up to greet him, shouting excitedly that Spencer was home. Spencer hugged Jack and pulled a quarter from behind the boy's ear, like always.

Aaron simply said, "Welcome back."

Spencer nodded.

No embrace. No kiss.

Jack tugged on Spencer's hand, chattering on about all the pictures he'd drawn while Spencer was away. Spencer allowed Jack to lead him to his bedroom.

Aaron went back to making dinner, refreshing his cocktail along the way. There was nothing extraordinary about the latter. His mother used to drink and cook all the time, although she preferred scotch and soda. He could hear Jack asking Spencer all sorts of questions about his trip, demanding that they place the pin on the U.S. large map they had on the living room wall. The map had been Spencer's idea, a way for Jack to keep track of all the places they've been. The blue pins were for Aaron, yellow for Spencer, green for when it was both of them, and red when they went as a family. Of the sea of blues, yellows and greens, the five red pins stood out.

Aaron wondered what color would represent Aaron-Jack trips and which for Spencer-Jack ones.

He wanted to hate himself for even thinking that, but the logical part of him chided, It's only a matter of time.

By the time Spencer and Jack had marked the map, set the table, and washed up, dinner was ready.

Aaron poured him and Spencer wine.

The dinner conversation was focused on Jack and Aaron was thankful for it up until Jack said, "Miss JJ was in the park and made Daddy sad."

Spencer stilled for a moment, and then cocked his head sideways. His eyes narrowed slightly. "Why did Miss JJ make Daddy sad?"

Jack shrugged and all the attention was on Aaron, who took a mouthful of wine and swallowed hard. Aaron dabbed the corner of his mouth with his napkin. He met Spencer's gaze. "Miss JJ talked about Miss Emily."

"Oh," was all Spencer said.

"Miss Emily is in heaven with Mommy, right?" Jack asked.

Aaron already had the wine glass to his lips again. His stomach turned hard, but he was able to get out, "Yes, buddy, just like the pictures you drew."

Because Jack's solution to everything was to draw pictures.

"Did you have fun in the park?" Spencer asked, and Jack answered with enthusiasm.

Aaron learned that Ninja Turtle's name was Junichi and Junichi had two mommies. He should have felt proud when Jack said, "And I told him I have two daddies and he thought it was awesome!"

Instead, his gut twisted a little more.

And when dinner was over, Aaron took the plates from Spencer's hands and said, "Spend time with Jack. He missed you."

He wondered why he didn't say, I missed you, too.

After all, he'd been lying so much to Spencer, what was another one?

########

It was well past one in the morning and Aaron was surprised that Spencer was still up. Usually, after getting home from a consult, Spencer went to bed almost as early as Jack.

Usually.

Tonight? He was sitting in bed, reading a book. He glanced over at Aaron as he closed the tome. "When you're sober, we need to talk."

Instinct was to argue, was to snap that he was, "just fine goddamn it."

Instead, Aaron stumbled towards the bathroom. When he stumbled back out, the room was dark save the nightlight in the corner casting a pale glow on the lump in the bed that was Spencer.

Aaron got into bed.

Thankfully, the booze allowed him a dreamless sleep.

########

Aaron was well-practiced in the art of being yelled at. He knew to sit forward on the couch, lean forward with his elbows resting on his knees, fold his hands together, and bow his head. He knew that this body language—penitent, submissive—was rewarded, whether it was a shorter argument or less accusations or a slap across the face instead of a leather belt across the back of his legs.

He had a hangover, which wasn't surprising once he dared to count how much he had last night. And, of course, his luck was particularly shitty because there was no Tylenol, Advil, aspirin or Alleve in the house. He checked. Twice. Even searched their go bags. He wondered if Spencer hid them as punishment.

Haley used to do that.

Not that Aaron routinely drank like he had last night, but there were days during his first marriage when he got back from a case, battered and bruised, and all the pain meds were mysteriously gone.

Spencer sat on the armchair, looking more like a king on his throne than a profiler on an overstuffed chair. "I'd like us to see Doctor Kincaid together."

Aaron twitched. Sure, he admired and respected the doctor, the woman he still met with every month or so to discuss his recovery. She helped bring him back from a bad cocktail of prescription drugs after Foyet's attack. Back when he drew his weapon on Prentiss and almost shot her because his mind was locked in a full blown panic attack.

Prentiss, who ordered him to stand down.

Prentiss, who called Spencer, which led to Kincaid sitting in Aaron's living room and evaluating his behavior.

Prentiss, who refused to file the report afterwards, a report that should have been submitted because, goddamn it, Aaron had temporarily lost his mind.

Prentiss.

Emily.

Bile raced up his throat.

Aaron swallowed hard to keep it down. After a few moments, he said, "Okay," because that was really the only answer he could give.

He was surprised when Spencer stood up and walked away, the conversation clearly over.

He wasn't surprised by the sense of déjà vu.

########

The first session with Kincaid went like every other marriage counseling session Aaron had been subjected to. Reid aired his grievances, Kincaid rephrased them and asked for Aaron's reaction, and Aaron dutifully replied the answers that they were expecting to hear.

Hotch knew that Reid left angrier than before, but the moment they stepped into the house, Reid's anger faded. Jack was there, all smiles and hugs. Jess watched the both of them, arms crossed over her chest and a piercing gaze to Hotch that was so similar to Haley's, Hotch couldn't stop the full shiver that raced down his spine.

Hotch didn't drink that night. Hell, he even poured the bourbon out and washed the decanter.

A superficial gesture, certainly, but Hotch knew how to play the game.

Reid fell asleep on the couch that night, claiming that he must have done so while working on his latest paper.

Hotch knew he was guarding the liquor cabinet.

Reid did that for the next four nights.

The meditation exercises on Hotch's iPod did little to help him sleep.

########

The fourth session with Kincaid was an individual one. Hotch had a decent rapport with her; he trusted her and appreciated her no nonsense approach. She didn't try to out psych him, just initiated a conversation and let him go where he wanted to go with it.

Usually.

Today, as he sat down in the overstuffed chair, Kincaid leaned back in her own seat and tilted her head slightly. "How many marriage counselors did you see with Haley?"

The question surprised him, but Aaron answered, "Four."

"All of her choosing."

"Yes."

"Which is why you know the drill," Kincaid concluded with a small nod. "Aaron, this is not a punishment."

He looked away, focusing on the coffee maker on the sideboard. Mister Coffee. Had to be at least twenty years old. The carafe had that dinginess that came from excessive use and washings in hard water, from coffee sitting overnight and burning when the machine was left on too long. It had sentimental value, probably the coffee maker she used to earn her degree in psychiatry. It also probably made a pretty good pot of coffee.

"He says you haven't grieved and it concerns him," she continued.

Aaron flinched and looked down. "It's … complicated."

"I am concerned, Aaron," Kincaid told him as she leaned forward slightly. "You're more distant, more cautious. You have lost weight. And when you're here, you capitulate when Spencer challenges you, willingly accepting the blame when, in some circumstances, there is no blame to be had. You tell us what you believe we want to hear." For several moments, nothing was said. Then Kincaid began, "During that last session with both of you here, Spencer listed several court cases but didn't give the context behind them, which is very unusual. He did that right before our time ended and refused to elaborate."

"Physician-patient privilege," he answered quietly. "Those cases were where the courts ruled in favor of the confidentiality, including instances where it was a group session. He included cases in the commonwealth of Virginia, where you are licensed to practice."

"Why do you think he brought that up?"

He closed his eyes. He swallowed hard. "To remind me. That if I were to be subpoenaed, the rulings are on my side."

Kincaid paused. "This has to do with Agent Prentiss's death."

"It's five forty-nine," he said instead. Their sessions ended precisely at fifty minutes past the hour.

Kincaid sighed. She paused. "You're my last appointment."

"You have a daughter … early teens … she'll be home from practice. Field hockey," Aaron blurted. It was the first time he'd broken his 'no profiling Kincaid' rule after their first meeting.

"Got it in one," she murmured before gesturing towards the door. "He's worried about you as I am."

Aaron wanted to say he was fine.

Another lie.

Another. Lie.

Instead, he fled the confines of her office, hating his own cowardice.

########

Spencer would never arbitrarily leave. He was part of Jack's life. Jack waited for him. Jack saved stories specifically for Spencer, stories that he refused to share with Aaron because, 'They are Spencer stories.'

Aaron watched as his son excitedly relayed the day's events, details excluded from his earlier account to Aaron. Jealously surged forward—why didn't he tell me about the bunny in the classroom?—but it was squelched by the way Spencer dropped everything by the front door and followed Jack to Jack's bedroom where apparently there were drawings.

Spencer will never leave.

William Reid cruelly deserted his son and his wife.

Aaron knew that no matter how bad things were between him and Spencer, Spencer just wouldn't pack up unless Aaron became a serious threat.

I'd have to hurt Jack …

Aaron cursed himself for thinking that way. He edged towards the bar, momentarily angry that his drink of choice was not there.

He then thanked himself for pouring it out four weeks, six days ago and not stashing a spare bottle in the pantry.

He wasn't his father's son.

Nor was he his mother's.

########

The moment Aaron walked into Kincaid office and closed the door, he took his shoes off. He set them by the door before he sat down on her spacious couch. He pulled his knees to his chest.

This wasn't him.

It really wasn't.

Yet, this last week had been particularly hellish. Spencer hadn't spoken to him outside of work and the sparse interactions with Jack. Jess had asked, "What the fuck?" in that special way of hers. The way she used to question him when things with Haley really turned bad.

He and Spencer tried to have sex, but it was a humiliating failure. Aaron couldn't keep his erection and Spencer's responses seemed mechanical, as if he were going through the motions. Spencer fell asleep on the living room couch more often.

But what thoroughly freaked Aaron out was last night. They were watching Cars on DVD, Spencer and Aaron on the couch while Jack sat on the floor, leaning against Aaron's legs, and clutching his stuffed T-Rex. Occasionally, Jack would turn around, stand up, and grab Aaron's hand and pull so that it rested on Spencer's. Satisfied with his work, Jack would sit back down and continue to watch the movie. Aaron moved his hand away once Jack sat down. The fourth time Jack did this, he looked right at Aaron and said, "You're supposed to hold hands! You love each other."

Aaron's mouth went dry. Spencer's hand tensed under his. Finally, Aaron was able to say, "I do."

"Then hold Spencer's hand!" Jack ordered, complete with stern glare and a firm shake of his head.

It was supposed to be a wonderful moment, this acceptance of his relationship with Spencer by his child. Instead, it made him nauseous and light-headed. He managed to get out, "Yes, sir" which earned a bright smile from Jack.

They watched the rest of the movie in silence, Aaron's hand not moving from where it rested on Spencer's. But after they put Jack to bed, Spencer picked up his laptop and went back to the couch, leaving Aaron standing outside the master bedroom.

No wishes of good night. No discussion at all. Just the oppressive silence that reminded Aaron of the last weeks of his marriage to Haley.

He'd never been so thankful for having a counseling appointment the next day.

It was why he was now on the couch and whispering, "I'm losing him."

Christ. It wasn't like him to confess like this. It really wasn't.

But Kincaid knew Spencer. Spencer met with her weekly, more often than Aaron did.

She had to know something.

"What happened?" she asked.

So Aaron relayed last night's events, ending with, "We didn't even talk about what Jack said. Just went our separate ways. I'm losing him and … I … I can't." His voice cracked on the last word. He shivered.

"You haven't mourned for Emily Prentiss," Kincaid replied bluntly. "You've made those on the team confess how they feel, yet you have not done so yourself. You imposed this distance, Aaron. You are withholding …"

"I have no choice!" he snarled. But his feet were on the couch, his arms wrapped around his legs. He was a child confessing to an adult.

He had no sense of self right now. He could feel the tear slide down his left cheek. "If I say anything more, it will be a violation of ..." He almost said 'national security' before realizing how asinine it sounded.

He heard the soft creak of the leather, smelled the faint waft of perfume, and felt her warm hands cover his. "Aaron …"

"I lie to him. Every day. Every goddamn day. He knows it. It's why we're here."

"It's why you began drinking heavily."

"It's why I stopped."

"This lie … it's not only taking a mental toll on you. It's taking a physical one," Kincaid told him, squeezing his hands. "You don't have the luxury of spousal privilege."

"I still couldn't tell him," he replied miserably, keeping his eyes closed.

For several moments, there was silence. "You need to take a few days."

"I can't," he cut her off. "Strauss is on administrative leave. I have her job in addition to my own."

She swiftly moved away. "I can declare you unfit for duty."

Aaron's eyes snapped open. He rocketed to his feet, rolling his shoulders forward and clenching his fists. He opened his mouth but she held up her hand.

For whatever reason, it made him stop.

"Three days," she told him firmly.

"Doctor …"

"Three days. Roanoke is beautiful this time of year," she said as she moved toward her desk.

"The Blue Ridge Strangler hunted in Roanoke."

"Massanutten, then."

"Cory Bridges murdered two of his peers and tried to pin it on the Lords of Destruction."

"Given that logic, you certainly can't stay at home."

And, good Lord, the words were out before he could stop them: "A federal agent was nearly stabbed to death in his living room."

"Six Flags America, then," she offered. "But there were probably some child abduction cases there, too."

"The rides malfunction on the anniversary of Eleanor Hall's death."

"You've got a comeback for everything, don't you?" Kincaid shook her head, but her tone lacked any heat. "Do something, then. Away from work. With Jack. With Spencer. Even if it's just a picnic by the Washington Monument or touring a museum."

"Work …"

"Can wait." She met his stare with a calm one of her own. "You came into my office today knowing that your relationship is on the brink. You are the type of person who has to be bullied into doing something for your own good, so guess what? I'm bullying you. Do it. And schedule yourself for another appointment in four days. If you don't do it on your own, then I'll be forced to reprimand you. And really, Aaron, you don't want that."

########

There was no picnic. There was no follow-up appointment in four days.

There were three missing prepubescent girls, their captor with a video camera, an online auction, and seven days of utter frustration once they realized just what was being auctioned.

They saved two but lost one.

Hotch took the seat in the rear of the jet; Reid took the one closest to the cockpit, which used to be Emily's (and Elle's) favored spot.

Before Emily's death, the rest of the team would have noticed the distance between Hotch and Reid. Dave would have pressed the issue. Morgan would have stared him down. Hotch was sure both men noticed it, but there was that distance … the distance that threatened to destroy this team …

Who was he kidding? The team was already on the brink of falling apart.

It was the reason when they got back to the office, Hotch buried himself with paperwork. Jack was spending the night with his Brooks' cousins, so there was no rush to get home, not with the current state of the Hotchner-Reid relationship. He did rebook his appointment with Kincaid for Monday although he dreaded telling her that he failed to follow her directive about taking time off and spending it Spencer.

When an opportunity like this came up before, Reid would have sent him goofy text messages to his personal phone. They would clock-watch in their eagerness to get home, to have the evening to themselves. They would try different things. Experiment. Test their boundaries. Play. Indulge, even if it was something as boring as eating vanilla ice cream from the carton and sharing the spoon.

Now?

Hotch didn't realize it was just after nine in the evening until he heard the roar of the vacuum cleaner outside of his office. He put his pen down. He wondered if he was sleeping on the couch tonight. He wouldn't be surprised if he was. Reid really was too tall for the couch although the younger man did not complain.

He leaned back in his chair. He let out a long sigh. He rubbed his eyes, knowing that he should get that prescription filled for reading glasses but, like everything else, he put it off. He closed the files on his desk, debated on putting them in his briefcase. He did it not because he was expecting to work on it when he got home (contrary to popular belief, he did know when to call it quits for the night), but in case they were called out on a case and he didn't have time to stop by the office on the way to the airstrip.

Briefcase in one hand, go bag slung over his shoulder, he turned off the lights to his office with his right hand. He closed the door, rattling the knob to confirm it was locked. He did his nightly ritual of ghosting through the bullpen and stopping at each person's desk, recalling the case he or she was working on and a random personal fact.

He didn't stop by Spencer's desk.

He didn't stop by Emily's either.

He walked back up to the portraits hanging on the wall, noting that the cleaning crew had moved into the conference room.

He was alone.

He raised his right hand, kissed two fingertips, and then touched the bottom of the frame of Prentiss's picture. He closed his eyes and murmured, "Be safe."

He wondered if Nice was still nice.

He still hadn't spoken to JJ since that disastrous meeting in the park.

He wasn't sure he could stand to see her again.

Suddenly, Spencer's quiet voice broke the silence: "What prayer do you recite?"

Startled, Hotch whirled to face the direction of the voice, go bag dropping to the floor as he automatically palmed his weapon. His breathing was rapid. His nerves on fire. Trapped. Caught. He knew his own guilt was horrifically palpable.

Spencer stared him down, and although his face was devoid of any emotion, his eyes shone with that fearlessness that that had first lured Aaron down the path of inappropriate thoughts about his subordinate. The fearlessness that he had when Aaron had tried to end their relationship, back when Aaron was still in the throes of PTSD and a bad combination of pills.

"Which prayer?" Spencer demanded softly yet with that edge that meant he expected to be answered.

Aaron wanted to look away … wanted to run run run … lie lie lie because that was all he had been doing for these past months.

Lie. Run. Run. Lie.

He couldn't do either.

He just stood there.

Kincaid's words from last week rang in his mind: You came into my office today knowing that your relationship is on the brink. You are the type of person who has to be bullied into doing something for your own good, so guess what? I'm bullying you.

It was precisely what Spencer was doing now.

Finally, finally … Aaron was able to speak. "I don't."

"Don't?"

Don't speak. Don't speak. He'll know. He'll know. He can't know. Lie. Lie. Lie. Run. Lie. Run. Run. Run. Lie.

"Pray," Aaron choked out. "I don't pray."

Spencer's gaze narrowed. He tilted his head slightly. He pursed his lips for a few moments before silently mouthing words. He did it quickly, yet Aaron knew exactly what he was doing: figuring out what Aaron had said when he touched the photograph. Spencer's eyes darted back and forth like always when his guard was down and he allowed people to witness him think.

It took less than a minute for Spencer to suss out the phrase. And when his mouth formed the words Be safe, his eyes widened and he visibly blanched. He took a step back, as if he had been physically struck.

There, in the middle of the goddamn FBI, the secret that Aaron meticulously kept to the detriment of everything important to him was revealed.

The secret that could cause his team to be blackballed within the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. The kind of blackballing that Garcia's technical wizardry and Dave's political savvy had no defense against.

The kind of blackballing that ruined lives.

And Aaron Hotchner watched as the man he loved, the man he endured this secret to protect, spun on his heels and stormed out of the BAU.

Aaron knew that Spencer wouldn't be home tonight.

He glanced back at his locked office.

He wondered why he should go home.

There was nothing there for him.

########

The stupid thing to do, the predictable thing to do was for Aaron to raid what was left in the liquor cabinet—and there was still quite a selection of vodka, whiskey, rum, tequila, brandy and assorted liqueurs for making those sweet, frozen concoctions that Spencer adored so much—and get drunk out of his mind.

Hell, Aaron could easily give himself alcohol poisoning; it wouldn't be that hard.

And, if he was going to over-achieve like that, he might as well wash down the prescription painkillers he still had.

Instead, Aaron brewed a batch of sweet tea at midnight. Ironically, as much as Spencer loved sugar and confections, he abhorred sweet tea. According to Spencer, "It just tastes wrong."

And Aaron would always reply, "And coffee-flavored sugar doesn't?"

To which Spencer would fire back, "If the others knew your Sunday morning splurge of mocha caramel coffee with heavy cream …"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. My reputation would be ruined."

It already has been.

Sweat dripped down the side of the highball glass Aaron had poured his tea into. He sat on the floor in Jack's room, back against the dresser, and stared at his son's neatly made bed. The sheets were a plain light blue, but the bedspread and pillowcases were decorated with dinosaurs. Jack new all their names and, thanks to Spencer's tutelage, knew what types of food each one of them ate and what era each were from. There was even a map on Jack's wall with pictures of the various dinosaurs pinned to where their fossils had been discovered.

Aaron remembered when he invited Spencer over for the first time after Haley's death, when Spencer sat at the breakfast bar and colored dinosaurs with Jack.

He closed his eyes. He felt the tears.

He was alone, so it was okay to cry.

And, just like that afternoon in Kincaid's office, he pulled his knees to his chest.

He wept because he was all out of any other emotion except sorrow.

They'll take everything away from him. Oh, they had been painstakingly clear on just what retribution would be visited on his team. They knew him well. They knew that a personal threat to him would not have the same impact as threatening his team.

As threatening Spencer. As threatening Jack.

Light suddenly streaked across the carpeting of Jack's room. There was a jangle of keys. Aaron knew he should get up. Knew he should reach for his guns but no, those were in the safe where they were supposed to be this late at night. Knew he should confront whoever the hell was in the apartment.

But he didn't.

Instead, he wondered why Foyet didn't drag him into Jack's bedroom and stab him there. It would have certainly more symbolic than behind his couch, between the sofa table and desk. It would have had more of an emotional impact. A violation of Jack, that he couldn't step into this room without thinking what an utter failure he was. That if Jack was in that bed, Jack would be watching his father be butchered by a madman.

The door to Jack's room swung wider and a tall, slender shadow loomed on the carpeting. Aaron closed his eyes. He rested his forehead against his knees. He could hear the rustle of fabric and the rattle of ice cubes in his glass.

He's checking to see how drunk you are.

Aaron didn't move.

He heard the light thump of Spencer sitting next to him and smelled the stale stench of cigarettes that clung to Spencer's clothing. Spencer didn't smoke, but his sponsor did and it was a peculiar blend with a distinctive scent.

For the longest time, they sat shoulder to shoulder, not touching. Spencer's quiet, steady voice filled the room. "I'm angry."

You deserve to be.

"I understand why," Spencer continued. "But I'm still angry." Another lengthy pause. "I'm angry at you. At JJ. At whoever … whatever …" He heard Spencer's fist pound the carpeting. "I understand why. And I think that's what I hate the most." Again, more silence. Finally, Spencer spoke, still sounding frustrated. "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference."

The Prayer of Serenity. It was popular with recovering addicts. Aaron remembered the discussion they had one night after they had gotten back together about the guilt that Aaron still felt over Haley's death.

Guilt that he wasn't sure he knew how to let go even now.

Spencer's hand rested on his shoulder. "We have a breakfast meeting at seven."

Aaron opened his eyes and glanced up. "Kincaid?"

"My sponsor. He wants to meet you."

Indignation made him straighten up. "I haven't been drinking. I stopped. I purposefully stopped."

"I know," Spencer replied. "That's not why he wants to meet you." He stood, groaning a little as he gripped the side of Jack's dresser. "Come to bed, Aaron."

With one last glance at Jack's bed, Aaron stood. He wanted to say he was sorry, but he couldn't.

########

Of course, Aaron didn't sleep much that night. He supposed Spencer didn't either. And when Spencer revealed that his sponsor was coming over to their place for breakfast, that they weren't going out, he couldn't muster up annoyance or frustration.

There was just fear.

And he really hated that feeling.

"Casual," Spencer insisted as he moved toward his closet. "No suit. No tie. No dress pants. No button down."

Denied his armor, Aaron wanted to be angry. He wanted to quip, "Would naked be acceptable?" but didn't. Instead, he dressed in jeans and a polo. He made a fresh pot of coffee and rummaged through their fridge, dismayed that they only had eggs, bread, milk and cornflakes. He was supposed to finally meet Spencer's sponsor and he had nothing to serve for breakfast.

It was the stupid times that those manners his mother beat into came to the forefront.

"He's bringing the pastries," Spencer announced as he brushed by Aaron on his way to the coffeemaker.

Aaron closed the fridge door, fingers lingering on the handle. It was six-thirty. Thirty minutes to waste.

Before Prentiss's death, they would have made out in the kitchen. Aaron would have dropped to his knees and sucked Spencer off. They might have even fucked right there on the kitchen floor. Now …

Spencer breezed out of the kitchen with his coffee and over to the dining room table. He plunked his mug down and then switched Jack's placemat with the one reserved for Jess when she had dinner with them. Aaron wondered if it was deliberate or just something for Spencer to do to pass the time. They didn't get the morning paper simply because they never knew when they were going to be home, and piled up newspapers were a dead giveaway to an absent homestead.

Aaron glanced at his watch. Twenty-five minutes to go. Plenty of time to "go out and pick up a paper," he said aloud because it was a Saturday and they weren't due in the office until Monday unless they got a case. Jack wouldn't be home until ten.

He glanced over and met Spencer's steady gaze. It wasn't necessarily a peace offering; they both preferred an actual newspaper to going online, even if the newsprint made their fingers dirty. Spencer nodded and Aaron found himself almost dashing out of his own home to escape the silence.

The coin-op newspaper stand on the corner was out of papers; Aaron wondered when the last time the thing was actually stocked. It really didn't matter, because walking two blocks to the Starbucks helped burn off his nervous energy. He picked up the Post and the Times, paid, and checked his watch. Ten til seven. He debated picking up four muffins just in case Spencer's sponsor forgot to bring the pastries. He looked at the line that had formed in the two minutes it took for him to pickup and buy the paper, and realized that he wouldn't have time. He left and wondered just what prompted Spencer's sponsor to want to meet him.

At five til seven, Aaron walked up the short sidewalk to the front of his building. Cigarette smoke assaulted his senses, but he immediately recognized the specific smell: the kind that Spencer's sponsor favored. Gripping the papers, Aaron made his way inside and down the hall. He almost knocked, but then chastised himself for wanting to ask permission to enter his own goddamn home.

He opened the door, hearing Spencer explain, " … went to get the morning papers." He didn't glance into the living room as he turned to close the door. "Ah. Um. He's. Ah. This is him. Aaron."

Aaron turned to face Spencer and …

Holy Jesus Christ – the goddamn director of the FBI.

He immediately straightened, the Hotch persona washing across him. Just because he wasn't wearing a suit … "Sir."

The director strode forward, hand extended. "It's John."

Aaron automatically shook his hand, noting the firm grip. Questions surged in his mind, foremost being, Has Spencer just outed me to the director of the FBI? Because while there is an unspoken bond between addicts and an expectation in the sponsor-relationship, this … this …

There was no judgment in the man's eyes. No disdain. John. First name. Informal. We are all equals. He could see Spencer fidgeting slightly. No hierarchy. Just two recovering addicts and one who was heading down the same path.

Aaron repeated the man's name, shook his hand and introduced himself. He placed the papers on the end table. "May I get you a cup of coffee?"

"No, thank you, Aaron. I just stopped by to drop off pastries," John replied.

And drop a big goddamn bomb, Aaron thought.

"A friend of Spencer's is a friend of mine," the director continued and then held out a small piece of paper. Aaron accepted it, instinctively knowing that he was just given the man's personal phone number. "No man is an island."

"I'll try to remember that," Aaron replied, because he certainly wasn't going to promise it.

"Enjoy the pastries," John smiled warmly as he briefly clasped Aaron's upper arm. The man turned and did the same to Spencer. "See you Thursday."

"If we don't have a case," Spencer responded as he shoved his hands further in his pockets. "Thanks for breakfast."

"I owed you one," John replied.

Aaron did his best not to let his jaw drop open at the implication. We all fall down sometimes, he recalled Spencer saying. It's just knowing how to get back up. Took me a few times to remember that.

"I'll just show myself out."

Aaron just stood there, staring at Spencer, as he heard the director walk across the room and leave his apartment.

Once the door clicked closed, Spencer rocked back on his heels. "He knows we're close friends, that I spend time here when my apartment gets too …" He shrugged. "I didn't tell him the details about Emily. He knows she's dead and that we've all had a hard time dealing with it." Spencer then looked away. "But he did remind me that mistruth is sometimes needed for the greater good." His voice dropped to a whisper. "You closed yourself off."

"I had to," Aaron hoarsely replied.

"I know." He heaved out a sigh. He took a step closer to Aaron. He pulled his right hand out of his pocket and cautiously held it out.

One of these days, Spencer's generosity and understanding were going to run dry. Aaron went to that well so many times …

Now or never. It wasn't forgiveness. Aaron wasn't stupid enough to think that three hours and a visit with his sponsor would inspire Spencer to absolve him of this sin. It was a peace offering, a first step.

Aaron wondered if he himself had only taken those steps while he was married to Haley that things would have turned out differently.

Foyet would still have killed her. Actually, he would have butchered Jack first, making Haley watch …

The words tumbled out of his mouth. "I'm sorry. I'm so goddamn sorry."

"I know. I've watched this eat away at you worse than Foyet. We're going to get past this, right?"

"Yes." Then, the words he hadn't been able speak since that awful night in Boston, when he'd been given the directive that he knew would destroy his personal life, seemed the most right thing to say. "I love you."

Spencer nodded once. "I know that, too."

"I'm sorry."

"You've already said that."

"I can't lose you."

Spencer then reached forward and brushed his fingers along Aaron's jaw. "Then promise me you'll stop trying."

"I promise," Aaron whispered fiercely. "I promise."

######## Finis ########