The bell above the door gave another cheery jingle, and Jason Gideon looked up from his newspaper again. This time the new patron was a twenty-something woman with blond hair (dark at the roots) and overly large earrings. Gideon took in with a glance her oversized purse, chipped fingernail polish and thrift-store clothes. She had a stain on her shirt and bags under her eyes, and her eyes flicked obsessively to the cell phone clutched in her hand. A new mother, he concluded, probably leaving her baby with another caregiver for the first time. He watched her scan the room and then smile when she spotted another woman in a booth by the window.
Gideon was himself in a booth, one that gave him an unobstructed view of the front door. He was on his second cup of coffee, his crossword puzzle was nearly done, and his stomach clenched every time that damn bell sounded. He's not late, he reminded himself. You're early. You were fine without seeing him all these years, so why the impatience now?
And he, the master profiler, had no answer to that. A recent BAU case had made the national news, and the black and white photo that accompanied the story had caught his attention. Aaron Hotchner in profile, caught in mid-speech as he instructed a local cop. An elbow and forearm that might have been Morgan's. And there, in the corner with a cell phone held to his ear, was Spencer Reid.
Gideon almost didn't recognize his former protégé. Studying the picture through the lenses of his reading glasses, he cataloged the changes time had written on the younger man. The hair was the most obvious; a shorter, layered cut that suited his age. Good lord, he must be 30 by now, Gideon had realized. Still lean, Spencer had filled out a bit, his face losing some of its angular thinness, his shoulders broad beneath his neat shirt and vest. His clothes were another change, well-fitting and flattering. Reid no longer looked as though he was wearing clothes discovered in his grandfather's closet. Gideon had been seized by a sudden and painfully visceral need to see him again. Before he could change his mind, he'd picked up the phone and dialed the number from memory, hoping against hope it hadn't changed.
And two weeks later, here he was back in D.C., having postponed their reunion twice due to cases taking Reid out of town. Gideon laid the newspaper aside and fidgeted with the empty sugar packets on the table, picking one up and folding it in precise, careful sections. His hands were absolutely steady. All his shaking was happening on the inside.
The bell sounded and Gideon looked up again. His heartbeat picked up and he froze, taking in the sight of the man before him. Reid was still in his work clothes, a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up his forearms, a purple vest buttoned all the way up, and a patterned tie knotted loosely around his neck. Gideon trailed his gaze down and saw that casual loafers had taken the place of Converse sneakers. He was pleased to note, though, that the younger man's socks still didn't match. Reid hadn't changed that much. But he was definitely more of a presence, so different from the young man who'd always done his best to vanish into the background. This Reid owned his space. This Reid had been to hell and back and wasn't afraid to look any man in the eye. And good lord, had he actually gotten taller? Was that possible?
Reid stared back, and Gideon wondered what he saw. Was he looking at the gray hair, the expanding bald spot, the ever-deepening lines in Gideon's face? Was he seeing for the first time that his former mentor was nothing more than a tired old man? For one moment of sheer terror, Gideon knew he'd made a terrible mistake. Better to the let Reid think Gideon was a coward than to let him see the truth, the sadness and regret and occasional hopelessness that now ruled Gideon's life.
And then Reid offered a small, timid smile, and for a brief second Gideon saw the anxious boy he'd been. The years fell away, and Gideon felt his own face transform. "Spencer."
Reid gave a familiar nervous wave and slid into the booth across from him. "Wow, it's um, it's been a long time."
Gideon nodded. "You look well."
"Thanks. You, too." Catching the waitress's eye, Reid mouthed "coffee" and opened his menu. Gideon could see that he was uncomfortable. He wished suddenly that he'd picked a more private venue for their reunion, a place where Spencer would have felt free to vent his anger in any way he chose.
"Thank you for agreeing to see me," Gideon said, studying the younger man as he rapidly scanned the menu. "I know I'm the last person you expected to hear from."
Reid looked surprised at that. "Why wouldn't I want to see you? I'm not the one who broke off communications." The reproach was mild, and Gideon accepted it as his due. "I am curious, though. Why now, after all this time?"
"I was just asking myself that very question." Gideon told him about finding the article in the paper. "I wanted to see you…to see how you're doing. To see the man you've become."
Reid's eyes narrowed in thought. "You know," he said casually, "I've been taught by some of the best profilers in the business. Additionally, I'm familiar with virtually every methodology and theory in existence concerning the field of human behavior."
Gideon blinked. "And?"
"And, I know when someone's being less than truthful with me. The question is, are you being truthful with yourself?"
Saved from answering by the arrival of the waitress, Gideon ordered a Reuben while Spencer ordered a turkey club. They spent a moment in silence while Reid added sugar to his coffee and stirred in a slow, contemplative movement.
"Whatever your reason is, I'm glad you called," he said. "I've wanted to speak to you for awhile. There are…there are things I need to say to you, and I never thought I'd get the chance."
Here it comes, Gideon thought, bracing himself for the onslaught. Go ahead, kid. Let me have it. We both know I've got it coming.
"Since my…misadventures with Dilaudid, I've become aware of the need to make amends with certain people." Reid spoke into his coffee cup, scratching at a chip in the handle with his thumb.
Frowning, Gideon tried to catch his eye. "You have no amends to make with me, Spencer."
"You're wrong," the younger man replied, looking up at last. He took a breath and straightened in his seat, meeting Gideon's gaze with determined fearlessness. "I used you. And I know that added to the stress you were trying to deal with and made everything that much harder. Gideon, I'm so, so sorry."
"You…used me?" Gideon couldn't remember ever feeling so pole-axed in a career full of shocking moments. "Spencer, I don't understand what you're –"
Reid waved his hands vaguely, his distress evident in his repeated hard swallowing. "You felt responsible for me, and I took advantage of that."
"I was responsible for you. I brought you into the Bureau practically out of the cradle."
"No. No, you didn't understand, and you still don't. You thought I was some delicate, helpless kid who needed looking after. The truth is, I've been looking out for myself since I was ten years old. I got very tough, very quickly. I didn't need you to protect me. But I let you anyway."
Not wanting to respond until he'd heard Reid's entire argument, Gideon urged him to continue. "Why did you do that?"
Reid hung his head. "Because I liked it."
Gideon felt the light bulb illuminate in his mind. He wanted to nod, he wanted to smile. He wanted to cry. "Spencer. Look at me." He waited until Reid turned large, shining eyes to him before speaking. "You liked having someone take care of you. That's a very normal desire. We all feel that way, from time to time."
"Hear me out. As a student of human behavior, would you say that having a ten-year-old boy as the head of household and sole caregiver for a mentally ill woman is a normal situation?" Spencer miserably shook his head, and Gideon nodded. "Of course not. Throughout your childhood, and yes, in your young adulthood, you were supposed to be looked after and supported by your elders. All the people who were supposed to take care of you, let you down. And that includes me."
Spencer was shaking his head, opening his mouth to speak, but Gideon held up a hand. He noticed absently that it was shaking just a little. "Spencer, you are not to blame for my leaving. You're not to blame for your father leaving, or your mother's illness."
"I know that," Reid insisted, somewhat crossly.
"Do you? Even with all your studies, do you believe that, deep down? The adults in your life made choices that not only hurt you, but left you feeling like there's something wrong with you. That is unforgiveable. And I am so sorry." Gideon paused and cleared a throat that was suddenly tight. "I'm so sorry that I left the way I did. That I became one more in a long line of people who let you down. You deserve so much better than that. Please believe me." Gideon squeezed his eyes shut against tears that wanted to fall, his hands tightening into fists on the tabletop. His own breathing sounded strained and quick in his ears.
Long fingers closed over his hand, squeezing gently. Gideon opened his eyes and looked straight into Reid's composed face. "Feel better?"
Gideon smiled through his tears, adding his free hand to their clasped hands on the tabletop. "You've turned out to be a hell of a profiler, Spencer Reid."
"You needed to say it. And I guess I needed to hear it." The waitress brought their food and they broke apart, each wiping discretely at his eyes. "For what it's worth," Reid said as he reached for the ketchup and used it to drown his fries, "I understand. I didn't, back then, but I do now. And I forgive you."
Oh, god. Gideon had no idea how badly he'd needed to hear those words until now. "Thank you," he whispered as more tears threatened.
Once again, Reid proved himself an adept student of human behavior and changed the subject. "Hey, did you know Rossi's afraid of snakes?" As he launched into his story, wildly exaggerated no doubt, Gideon picked up his sandwich and thought about long-ago chess games and the countless victories he'd logged over the younger man.
He had a feeling he wouldn't be winning any more games against Spencer Reid. The student had surpassed the master, in more ways than one. And Jason Gideon couldn't have been happier.