"Suddenly I grasped what was happening- they were all trying to save me.
I never thought I was worth saving."
― Albert Borris, Crash Into Me
It wasn't that Spencer Reid was a bad agent, or any less capable of taking care of himself. It was just that sometimes he seemed to be suddenly, perplexingly young, and that youngness made him vulnerable. Aaron Hotchner decided early on, in the course of that very first day a man of the ridiculous age of twenty-one had been assigned to his team, that he would watch out for the boy.
But all too often, the watching was just that – a bystander non-action, where he was left to observe helplessly as an innocence was taken away. Months and years would pass, and terrible dangers would come, and terrible people would be put behind bars and in the ground, and good people would be forced to watch, and all through it Reid would become different. Older, harder. And he would laugh less often and smile less and there came a day when one police department they were working with on a case remarked in passing that Reid looked astoundingly like Hotch himself. "It's that look in the eyes. You all have seen too much."
The end of the story is that Hotch failed. But the sad, strange part is how unavoidable this failure was from the very start.
Four months into his time at the BAU, Reid celebrated his twenty-second birthday.
It was not his idea that anyone else should know about it, but Garcia couldn't help but tell Morgan, who had been operating under the assumption that the newest, youngest member of the team was twenty-five at least, and just seemed younger because Morgan himself couldn't quite recall being twenty-five, except that it involved many tests and late nights and the occasional weekend touch-football game.
"Twenty-two?" Morgan yelled, leaning over Garcia's shoulder to look at the screen. "That can't be right. You can't give someone that young this job."
"He seems to be good at it," Garcia said, fairly.
"Oh, he's good all right. He can do the work. I just think someone should be questioning whether he should."
But from then on the birthday couldn't go unmentioned. They'd been having a fairly quiet week, and Reid had been asked by a local Virginia police department to assist with the interrogation of a sixty-year-old paroled man who may or may not have killed the four people he was put in jail for killing. He was about to leave the office to go to the police department when he was stopped by Gideon.
"You should know they're planning on having a party for you."
Reid smiled, "I know. JJ has the balloons next to her desk."
Gideon raised an eyebrow, "I would have thought you'd be protesting the celebration."
The younger man fidgeted under the gaze, "No one's ever thrown me a party before. I think it's kind of…nice. Why? Do you think I should tell them to call it off? Is it…narcissistic to want people to celebrate your birthday for you? It probably is. I'll tell JJ I don't want it."
"No!" Gideon grabbed Reid's wrist as he turned to go, and Reid turned back to him, eyes wide. "I'm glad you're not upset about the party. It's okay for you to want other people to want to celebrate with you. Birthdays are something to celebrate – they've been celebrated for thousands of years. People are happy you're alive."
"So…it's okay?" Reid said, and Gideon nodded, telling Reid he'd make sure everything was perfect for when he got back.
The young man made his way over to the door, playing Gideon's words over and over in his head. People are happy you're alive. That sentence probably shouldn't make him feel like there was a small sun in his throat, wanting to get out, but it did.
He was concentrating on the words, and therefore didn't notice Hotch until he'd nearly barreled into the team leader. "Oh! Hotch – I was just going to help out some local -"
"I know where you were going. I thought perhaps you wanted some company. A detective in that department is an old friend. It's a slow day – I thought I'd pay him a visit."
Reid looked at the older man, and smiled a very small smile. Sometimes he thought that Hotch may be just as bad with interpersonal relationships as he was, and Hotch was just bigger more intimidating and could hide his discomfort with his size. "Sure. That sounds…great."
He didn't know what he'd say to Hotch on the forty-minute ride, but it ended up being surprisingly simple to talk to him. Like Gideon, Hotch tried to warn Reid about the impending celebration, planned chiefly by Morgan, though the women on the team were helping out with enthusiasm. Reid, in turn, told Hotch about very Catholic countries, who didn't celebrate birthdays on the day they were born but instead celebrated alongside the saint they were named for.
"I don't think there is a Saint Spencer," Hotch said, speeding a little on the highway. They were making good time.
"No, I don't think there is," Reid said, "Aaron, though…you know I was the only boy in my class without an overtly Biblical name? You'd think in Las Vegas it would be different, but everyone was Elijah or Jonah or Job or Lucifer."
"There was not a boy in your class named Lucifer," Hotch said, laughing.
"There was! Lucifer Knowling. Technically the name means 'bringer of light.'"
"It's like naming your child Satan," Hotch said, his voice full of horrified wonder, and Reid laughed. Hotch glanced over at him, smiling. He was not known to be a very funny man, and the times where he made other people laugh were few and far between. He liked it.
They got to the station just before noon, and the man Reid was supposed to be profiling wouldn't be brought in until one thirty. Hotch met up with his friend, a man named John St. Cloud, whose name fit into their previous discussion almost too easily. When he heard it was Reid's birthday ("twenty-two? Hiring them early, huh Hotch?" "So that you don't get the good ones first, John.") he insisted on taking the younger man out to lunch.
It was a tiny diner frequented chiefly by cops, and Reid loved it. "Diners are very strictly an East-coast thing," he said, long fingers tapping Morse code into the table.
"Nothing like this in Las Vegas?" John asked. He, like almost everyone in Reid's life, was already completely smitten with the quirky young man, who seemed not entirely grown up enough to be looking at murders every day.
"Oh, we have everything in Vegas, but nothing is authentic. Everything there is an imitation of a knock-off of the real thing. So we have a diner, but it's trying so hard to be everything a traditional diner is supposed to be that it barely resembles a diner at all." Reid looked up at the two older men staring at him and flushed to his ears. "Or at least that's what I think."
By the end of the lunch hour, Detective John St. Cloud was so taken with the young man's interesting mind (he spent the ride back to the station quizzing Reid on the diner menu and was fascinated to find the agent had memorized it) that he didn't want to hand him over to the interrogation room. "This guy they're bringing in is a piece of work," John confessed to Hotch as they stood in the hallway, waiting for the man to be brought in. Reid was a little ways down the corridor, pouring over a case file.
"I know Reid looks young, but he's a professional. He does this kind of thing all the time, and he does it well."
"Yeah," John said, looking troubled, "but should he?"
It happened so quickly. The con being brought in was named Michael Donald and called "Mick." (And Morgan would howl at that name later, doubled over at the name 'Mick Donald'. Because sometimes it's either laugh or cry.) He was a piece of work. He had killed those people he'd been sent to jail for, and he had killed this young man, too. And he wasn't going down without a fight.
So as they brought him into the room, he saw a very young man with a long pale face and long pale fingers and he was either twenty or twenty-five, right within that range of young men who so infuriated Mick Donald, infuriated him so that he wanted to claw them, break them. He was chained, and he was held by two officers, but it's funny what sheer willpower and fear will do.
He lifted his chained hands and slipped them over the baby officer's head, and pulled.
Reid was so surprised – he was reading, and when he read everything else was fuzzy and muted – he was so surprised that he only had time to cry out one word before the all the air was gone. And he was surprised to find that the one word that exploded from his mouth was, "Hotch!"
Hotch turned, and then so quickly it was more thought than movement had his gun drawn and pointed at the grizzled con who had this newly twenty-two year old man around the neck.
"You're a young one, aren't you?" The con growled in Reid's ear, and he pulled the chains tighter. Reid was tall, but Mick Donald was five inches taller and a hundred and fifty pounds heavier. Reid went on his tip-toes, fingers scrabbling against the chains, but already the world was getting white around the edges.
Hotch didn't have the shot. That was the worst part about the whole situation, about every situation he'd find himself in over the years. He was there, and he had to watch, but he couldn't do anything about it. Here, in this cramped corridor, he couldn't fire his gun without hitting Reid.
There were twelve officers in the hallway, all shouting, but no one made a move towards Mick Donald. He was choking Reid, but he also had the too-young agent's head between his hands. He had the power, the experience, to break Reid's neck.
Hotch saw the moment that Reid stopped struggling. He saw the moment that he lost consciousness. As his head lolled, John St. Cloud fired one perfect shot.
The bang was deafening, but Hotch was already running. While others made sure the con was dead, Hotch pulled Reid away, wiping the other man's blood off Reid's face. "Hey," he said, and he didn't know his voice would come out like that, scared and soft, "Reid, come on. You with me? Come on Reid."
Mick Donald's blood was still on Reid's face when his eyelids fluttered and he gasped in that first breath. It was like waiting for the first gasp of a newborn, and Hotch's heart didn't really start beating again until he heard air sucked in through the other man's lungs. "Ho-Hotch?" Reid coughed, trying to sit up. He got halfway before he flopped back down, hands going up to rub at his neck.
"Lay down, you're fine. He's dead, you're fine." Hotch didn't know the words coming out of his mouth, only that they were meant to be soothing. What he really wanted to say was that he'd been watching and he'd been scared and he hadn't had the shot and he was sorry he couldn't do anything, but Reid didn't need to hear that. He just lay back down, eyes fluttering shut as his chest heaved in and out, probably too quickly, but the lungs were making up for lost time.
Hotch's hand was resting on Reid's chest, so he was able to feel the fast thump-thump-thump of the youngest agent's heart, which was somehow soothing. Then there was a hand on his shoulder, and John St. Cloud was there, taking one last look at Reid before he went to spend a week filling out paperwork to justify shooting a man who tried to kill the brightest mind he'd ever seen in person. "Happy birthday, kid," John said, "You'll remember this one for a while, huh?"
"Yeah," Reid said, his voice sounding old and hoarse and wrong.
"John's the one who fired the shot," Hotch murmured, rubbing circles absent-mindedly on Reid's chest.
Reid's eyes grew huge. "Thanks," he said, staring at John St. Cloud with wide eyes, "thank you."
"No problem, kiddo. You can thank me by giving Hotch here more grey hairs, okay? I think it's hilarious."
Hotch smiled, because he knew it was expected of him, and people came and made sure Reid was okay, and he insisted he didn't need a hospital, just bandages for the big bruised cut around his neck, and on the way back to Quantico he looked out the window and talked about the history of birthdays, and Hotch wanted to tell him to go to sleep, his voice sounded so awfully small and tired, but he didn't have the heart, he just stared straight ahead and wondered how many grey hairs this man would give him. He wondered if he would be able to prevent things like this happening to his team, to this particular too-young young man. He wondered if you could save anyone at all.
But mostly he thought about what John had said, what others had said and would say in the coming years. Reid could do this job, and do it well. But should he?
A year passed, two, three. Gideon left abruptly and devastated the team, but no one more so than Reid, who would sit sometimes with the chess set Gideon had given him on that birthday he'd nearly died standing ten feet away from Hotch. Garcia's hair changed color and Hotch's marriage was dissolving and one dark-haired woman on the team was replaced with another. JJ thought seriously about the balance between career and family. Morgan didn't seem to change at all.
Three years after Hotch decided that he may not be able to save everyone, but he would do his damndest to save Reid, the youngest member of the team seemed to be quietly falling apart.
"Hotch?" The team leader knew every voice on his team, knew their dips and cadences. He knew how every member of his team screamed, and could pick those screams out of a crowd. He wished he didn't know, but he did.
Aaron Hotchner looked up to see Reid hovering in his doorway, a package under his arm, looking supremely uncomfortable. It was Christmas Eve, and Hotch's marriage was falling apart and Jack had been spirited away from him for the holiday. He was staying in the office late, and would work throughout the holiday, and didn't mind, really, especially if it meant his team got some measure of respite.
But even though the lights had long been flipped off, the holiday greetings long past being exchanged, here Reid was, lingering with a single package. "Weren't you going to be with your mother?" Hotch asked, not accusingly. He was happy for the distraction.
"She told me at Thanksgiving that I spend too much time flying all over the country to go see her, so she made me promise not to go out for Christmas," Reid looked like he had once been upset by this sentiment, then had learned to live with the fact that his only relative had ordered him to stay away. He took an experimental step into the office, two, and somehow he made it to the desk. "I wanted to give you this."
It was a Christmas present, wrapped neatly in pale purple paper. Reid's hands shook when he handed the gift over. They'd been shaking for months now, and Hotch wondered if there was any way to stop it. "Are you all right, Reid?" He asked, looking up at the young man's surprised face.
"I'm fine. Why do you ask?"
Hotch mulled over the words before he said them, "No one…no one's expecting you to be fine, Reid. Not all the time."
Reid reared back, "You're talking about Tobias again."
"And Gideon," Hotch said. "But Reid…what happened to you isn't supposed to happen. We come into contact with evil but our jobs aren't supposed to be dangerous. You didn't sign up for a war. It's all right if you feel -"
"We did sign up for a war!" Reid said, "Excuse me for cutting you off, Hotch, but this is a war. I accepted that a long time ago. And we've saved so many people. Do you get Christmas cards from them? The people we've saved? I did. Six more came today. There's letters about their lives, and their children's lives. One had cartoons on it. One woman had become a novelist. We did something important."
"Your life isn't a price to pay for theirs," Hotch said, "it's not okay to be put in danger as long as other people make it out alive. You're not worth any less than the people we save."
Reid shrugged, "there should be an algorithm for it. I was working one out once, on a plane ride. An algorithm for whose life is worth more. I figured out that your worth gets multiplied by how many people would miss you if you were gone."
"All those people who send you cards would not be alive if you weren't, Spencer."
Reid's head snapped up at the use of his first name, and he smiled, though it was strained. "I'm fine, Hotch. I just came by to give you your present, and ask if you were doing anything for Christmas dinner."
"I am, actually," Hotch said, and went on quickly as Reid's face fell. "My friend John St. Cloud invited me to share his Christmas dinner. I'm sure he would appreciate having you there. He asks about you."
"Really?" Reid said, sounding so surprised it was a little heartbreaking. "You don't think he'd mind?"
"Of course not. John subscribes to the theory that if you save someone's life you're responsible for them. He thinks you're remarkable."
"Really?" Reid said again, looking happily dumbfounded.
Hotch leaned back in his chair, "I would have thought you'd have many invitations to Christmas dinner."
"Everyone invited me," Reid said, shrugging, and Hotch tried not to think that the real answer was everyone but you, since before this evening he had no idea that Reid's plans with his mother had fallen through. "But I didn't want to impose on their families," Reid flushed as soon as the words were out of his mouth, "Not that I want to impose on yours either." Suddenly Reid was backing out of the room, shaking his head. "No. I can't. Goodbye, Hotch. Merry Christmas."
"Reid!" Hotch stood up, crossing the room, "Reid!"
But the man was already down the hallway, his footsteps fading into an echo in the dark building. Hotch stood there, trying to decide whether to go after him or let him be. No one should be alone on Christmas, but Hotch and Reid weren't especially close. Maybe Reid didn't relish the thought of spending the holiday with his boss.
Still, Hotch had made a promise to himself, years ago. The other agents were grown adults, and while he wanted to watch over them all, keep them safe, the only one he felt truly protective of – the one they all felt protective of – was Reid. He went back into his office for his coat and saw Reid's present on the desk.
Maybe it would give him insight to the agent's state of mind. He tugged open the paper to reveal a worn, ancient copy of the Bible and a letter on smooth, heavy paper.
I don't think I ever properly thanked you after Tobias. The whole night is mostly a blur, and I'm afraid that if I try to remember it won't stay that way. I know that you would say that it was part of the job, and my gratitude is unnecessary, but you figured out my puzzle, and my puzzle couldn't have been too easy to figure out. It is hard to be subtle and clever when you are so scared.
You know the Bible so well already, but I thought you might like this. It is the copy my mother had, the copy she gave to me. She had nothing but scorn for religion, but she, like me, and I think you, liked the stories. Some of them are really spectacular.
Every year I get cards from people we've saved, and I always find it thoughtful and touching that they remember me. You saved me, because you understood me, and I think that is something worth remembering.
The whole letter was written in a slow, deliberate hand, each word agonized over, painfully etched out, as if Reid was afraid of imposing his gratitude upon Hotch. It had been months since Tobias and his split personality, and Hotch had thought he'd had some part in saving Reid, but as he read the shaky words he knew he hadn't really saved him at all. Reid was breaking, and maybe none of them could do a damn thing about it.
By the time Hotch went out to search for the youngest agent, he was long gone. He left a message on Reid's cell, on his phone at home, inviting him, imploring him to come with him to John St. Cloud's Christmas feast. His old friend really did ask after Reid, his voice always having that anxious protectiveness when talking about the younger man. But he knew Reid wouldn't come. Hotch couldn't save him this time around, not from the insanity that was Tobias, but that only meant that he'd have to try harder next time. He'd seen people break under the strain of this job, but Spencer Reid wouldn't be one of them.
Reid turned twenty-five, and Morgan told him that he may have finally hit puberty, though he hadn't stopped calling the younger agent pretty boy, a term of endearment used only by Morgan that Reid tolerated and maybe even enjoyed. JJ brought her baby boy to the office and Hotch picked him up only to find he wasn't a baby, really, but a toddler who hung warm and damp in his arms, and fell asleep on the team leader's shoulder for an entire afternoon. Garcia had a boyfriend, then didn't, and fell even more passionately in love with her computers. Rossi played chess with Reid and beat the genius soundly every time.
There was a case in Pennsylvania, in the Poconos, and somehow it was Hotch and Reid in the car again, driving up to the crime scene while the others set up the local police station. This was more than a year after Reid had ignored Hotch's invitation to join him at Christmas dinner, but the young man seemed to be doing better. He told Hotch a joke, a long and convoluted bit about a bar on the seventy-fourth story of a hotel, and though Reid was perhaps a worse joke teller than Hotch the team leader laughed anyway, because Reid's fast, high voice made his timing hilarious.
The house was at the top of a mountain, and though it was nearly April there was snow in patches and ice everywhere. The car slid once going around a bend and Reid turned pale. "When I retire," Hotch said, readjusting the wheel, "I am living somewhere that gets no ice."
"That sounds like a good idea," Reid said, though he could never imagine retiring. That was more than forty years away from him, a staggering amount of time. He had always thought that he would die long before then. He only hoped it was a good death – saving someone, hopefully one of his teammates. Not taken out by a car and black ice.
They got up to the house, where police had already stretched out bright yellow DO NOT CROSS tape and reporters had already flocked. Hotch went over to the entrance to the house but Reid was stopped by a little girl of six, who tugged on his hand until he knelt next to her.
"Are you going to find Melissa?" she asked, looking at him with huge grey eyes. Reid had never seen a girl with grey eyes, and found the effect startling.
"We're going to try. Is Melissa your sister?"
"She's my baby-sitter, even though I'm not a baby. I'm six and a half on Tuesday. But Noah is a baby and I guess Melissa needs to take care of him, since I can't hardly pick him up and he's stinky when he needs a change."
"Right," Reid said, wishing JJ or Emily were. Morgan usually laughed at him when he tried to talk to children. "Do you remember what you were doing the last time you saw Emily?"
"I was sliding down the hill," the girl said, "And Melissa was waiting at the top, so she could hear Noah if he cried." She tugged Reid's hand until he followed her to a hill. None of the cops milling around followed them, though one reporter with a camera did.
"When I came back up she was gone, but I found footprints in the snow like they do on NCIS."
Reid looked at her, "You're too young to watch shows like that."
The girl giggled, "Melissa lets me watch it with her. She says Tony was super hot." She stopped abruptly, and pointed. "See? I was sliding down the hill and I found the footprints, but no one believes me."
Reid looked down the hill, which was much steeper than he would let a little girl slide, but he hadn't grown up with cold or mountains, just desert and dunes. He told the little girl this, already looking over his shoulder, eager to get in the house, but the girl tugged his hand again. "You have to slide! It's so much fun and you have to do is 'specially cause you never gone before!"
"I really should be going back inside," Reid said, trying for patient. He turned, and as he was turning the little girl tugged and he was falling, back against ice and snow, and it was cold, but not as cold as falling into the stream, not as cold as the wet icy blackness that swallowed him whole.
Hotch, after asking the police officer where the babysitter was last seen, came out of the house to see Reid already standing at the spot, looking down the hill with a little girl. Hotch shook his head – Reid always seemed to know instinctively where to go – and then froze as Reid turned. They locked eyes for half a second, then the agent fell out of sight.
"Reid!" Hotch yelled, drawing the attention of a half dozen officers, who all ran with him over to the edge of the hill. The little girl was crying, and Hotch put her hands on her shoulders to keep her from tumbling herself. "Where'd the man you were talking to go?" Hotch asked, trying to keep the bark out of his voice.
"He fell!" The girl said, pointing. "But I never fell into the water before, I did it a million times!"
Hotch's hands dug into the girl's shoulders and she twisted away from him, crying. "He fell into the water?" he asked, eyes searching the brook.
He was about to take off running, and one of the officers sensed it because he grabbed Hotch's arms and held him back. "You go in there we lose you too! We need a rope!"
"Freddie's down there!" A reporter next to Hotch pointed down. They were all descending the hill now, moving without conscious thought, a pack of men sliding down the ice and the snow. The reporter yelled in Hotch's ear, "he was following the agent and the kid. As soon as the guy fell he took off. Freddie's a big guy – used to swim in college. Almost made the Olympics. He'll get the guy out."
Except Hotch knew that swimming in a pool and swimming in an ice-filled creek were very different things. In the cold, it wasn't about swimming prowess, it was about force of will and stamina and the ability to conserve body heat.
When they got to the bank of the stream, Hotch saw a head bob up from the water, with a bright red shock of hair that was definitely not Reid's. "That's Freddie!" the reporter crowed, pointing. "He's got some guts. He'll get the kid out."
Freddie ducked under the water again and Hotch moved forward without thinking. He didn't know what he would do, only that he had to do something. He wasn't good at standing by and letting a member of his team go. The reporter held his arm tight. "Hey now. Freddie's my best buddy, and you don't see me going in after him. They'll be out no problem. You aren't going to help by giving us another guy to save."
Hotch wanted to explain that Reid was his responsibility. The young man was a member of his team, but he was also the young man who Hotch had decided he would save. After everything, Reid still had a measure of innocence, had managed to preserve a nugget of it for years. Just today, on the way up the mountains, Reid had remarked that, though it might sound crazy, he still saw everybody as being basically good to start out with, and still believed that the majority of humanity would do whatever it took to make sure other people wouldn't come to harm. That's insane, right? We've been faced with the worst kind of people imaginable, every single day, and I still believe that people are here to do good.
And Hotch had remarked that he didn't think it was insane at all, but very bold to think that way. He himself had lost faith in the kindness of strangers many years ago. He'd cultivated the ability to care for only a few select souls. To care widely, indiscriminately, as Reid seemed to do, would open himself to pain. He was the leader. He couldn't afford pain.
Still, watching one of his team members not come up for air for one minute, two, made Hotch hurt. It was a physical pain, this concern for Reid, and he found himself tearing away from the reporter, logic and good sense be damned.
"No!" The reporter said, fingers scrabbling.
Just as Hotch was about to throw himself into the water, Reid's head burst above the surface, his face pale and blue and bitten, his eyes closed. He wasn't moving, wasn't breathing.
But everyone standing on the bank cheered, and the reporter lay on his stomach and reached out an arm the Freddie, Reid's savior, and pulled. Hotch got on his stomach, too, reaching for Reid.
"You scared me, man," the reporter was saying to Freddie, the reporter-turned-hero, "what's with the fish act, huh? You know how cold it is in there?"
"Yeah, actually, I think I do. Wanna get me a blanket?" Freddie's teeth chattered, and his friend didn't want to leave his side so he just hugged Freddie in his lap, saying over and over again that this must look very gay. But he didn't let go even with a police officer showed up with a blanket.
Hotch had Reid in his lap, too, but he wasn't bantering, wasn't smiling. Wouldn't it be so pointless if Reid died like this? After being kidnapped, after being exposed to a bio weapon, after being shot and held at gunpoint and threatened, here he was, dying because a little girl thought he should experience sliding down a hill of snow once in his life.
Reid's eyelids were frozen shut, but his lips parted as Hotch and several other big men were carrying him up the hill. The first word out of his mouth, like all those years ago when someone had tried to kill him on his birthday, was "Hotch?"
"I got you, Reid," Hotch said, squeezing Reid's arm. "That was a nice fall."
"The girl okay?" Except that wasn't how the sentence sounded. It was broken, stuttered out between chattering teeth and a frozen jaw, and it took Hotch nearly a full minute to figure out what had been said.
"Oh yeah, she's fine. She's sorry she pushed you."
"Don't tell Morgan," Reid said, his voice quiet, heavy with impending unconsciousness. Hotch jiggled the young man's head and pretended it was an accident.
"You fall asleep on me and I will tell everyone you were nearly killed by a six year old."
"She was very forceful."
"She was half your size." The ambulance was cold. Hotch had never noticed it before, but it was cold and Hotch ended up draping everything he could find on Reid's thin body, including his own heavy outer coat. "Don't fall asleep."
"I won't," but Reid was gone just as the words left his mouth.
Months ago, on his birthday, Reid had confessed to Hotch that he always suspected he would die young, that he'd once told his mother he didn't expect to live past twenty-five. It was the only time his mother had hit him, and he was barely more than a baby, three or four, too young to comprehend that twenty-five wasn't really old at all.
"Well, you're not dead," Hotch remembered saying, cutting himself another slice of Reid's birthday cake.
The younger man had nodded in agreement, then added, quietly, almost to himself, "Yet."
He should have ordered Reid stay off the case, like Morgan said they should the first time they pinned up the pictures of the victims. But Reid had protested. "You don't make JJ stay away from cases that involve blond women!" Reid said, fairly, and so as not to seem discriminatory Hotch said fine, he could investigate as long as he didn't wander off alone.
But he'd felt uneasy since they pinned up the pictures. He thought it was just him being paranoid, but then Rossi walked in the room and said woah, and Hotch had to admit that it was true. There were seven pictures on the board, all men between eighteen and twenty-two, all murdered in grisly, terrifying ways, all bearing an uncanny resemblance to Reid.
Over and over again, Reid fought to stay on the case, "I'm too old, anyway." He'd celebrated his twenty-seventh birthday three weeks before, making him five years outside the age range. Since he'd cut his hair, he didn't look as young anymore, though Morgan still called him pretty boy and said he couldn't' get away from the nickname that easily. But Hotch was afraid he could still be mistaken for a twenty-year-old.
"Just stick with me," Hotch said, over Morgan's protests. "Or Morgan." That seemed to calm the man down. "Okay?"
"Fine," Reid said, already reading the case file.
"Promise me," Hotch said, his voice tight. All the men had been killed while on their own, lured away from parties or jumped after walking girlfriends home.
Reid looked up, surprised at Hotch's tight voice, and smiled at the Senior agent's worry, "I promise."
Now they were in a living room and tied up and Reid looked so sad. "I'm sorry," he said, the words blurry because his lip was split and his cheek was huge and swollen. "I'm really sorry Hotch. I should have taken myself off the case."
"We didn't know he'd go outside his age range. And we didn't know he'd take you with me there," Hotch said. He knew he was an imposing figure, even to the cowards they dealt with, who preyed so often on young women and small men. "It's not your fault."
Reid's eyes were still wide and scared, because he knew and Hotch knew that if this man had a type, he wouldn't bother keeping Hotch around very long. "The team knew where we were," Hotch said, when Reid voiced this fear out loud, "they can't be very far behind."
Reid nodded without conviction. "Maybe I can distract him," he said thoughtfully, looking down at his hands, which were trembling, and taking a deep, experimental breath to see if that could make the shaking stop. It did.
"Don't you dare," Hotch barked, eyes flashing. "That's an order, Reid."
The man was a peculiar sexual sadist, who got most of his pleasure from torturing his victims and sometimes raping them, though out of the seven men only five had been raped.
"He probably wouldn't want me, anyway," Reid said, his voice trembling. "I'm not a virgin."
Hotch hadn't thought Reid was. Though he didn't think the awkward young man had a particularly active love life, very few people got to twenty-seven without having sex, and as Morgan often remarked, Reid was an objectively 'pretty boy.'
"We don't know for sure that was the connection between the men who were raped."
"We can be pretty sure," Reid said, leaning his head back. He was on the ground, Hotch was tied to a chair. He'd been working at the knots for a quarter hour and they wouldn't budge. He wanted to check Reid's arm, which had been dislocated, and see if he could pop it back in. Mostly he wanted to subdue the Unsub before Reid could do something stupid.
There was a loud banging sound in the next room. Hotch flinched and Reid moaned, trying once again to get up, but his ankle was broken, and though Hotch could see the will in Reid's eyes his body would not allow him to move with so many injuries. He dragged himself back up so he could work on the knots on the chair anyway, though with arm dislocated his fingers felt slow and dumb. "Hotch?" Reid said, quietly, "I need to tell you something."
"Save it, Reid," Hotch said with more bite than he probably needed too, but six years ago he'd sworn that this would be one man who made it to his thirtieth birthday without major trauma. He'd sworn he'd watch out for Reid, and it seemed like that was all he could do – watch, and stand by as Reid was put in danger, was hurt, over and over and over again. "We're getting out of this."
"I've never told anyone," Reid said, scintillatingly, "I thought someone should know, before -"
"Tell me later," Hotch said, his hands scrabbling against the ropes. Those were definitely footsteps.
Reid's hand slipped into his, "You're making yourself bleed," he said, quietly.
"Don't do anything stupid," Hotch pleaded, "the team will be here soon."
Another hand was on top of Hotch's. Reid was patting him, like an adult does to a child who doesn't understand why they can't have a third helping of ice cream. "You've been a great boss, Aaron. Sorry for being a precocious pain in the ass."
"Reid…" Hotch said, wanting to tell him that he failed, that he failed so many times along the way and he never apologized. He wanted to tell Reid that he thought he was brilliant and brave, that his Christmas gift three years ago was the most thoughtful one he'd ever received, that he was a good person, and should have gotten out of this business years ago.
But the Unsub was in the room, and anything he wanted to say was caught in his throat, because there was a gun pointed at his head.
"No!" Reid was injured, and broken, but when he saw the gun there was suddenly strength for this. He threw himself across the length of Hotch's body, shielding him. "Don't hurt him! I'll do – I'll do anything. Just please don't hurt him."
The Unsub stared, his eyes unreadable. There were some people you could reach by talking to them. Most people had some ounce of humanity, even if it was that side of humans that wanted to see people scream. But this man had the kind of eyes that meant psychopath.
He stared at Reid, and didn't lower the gun. "You will do what I want anyway. And then you will die."
"But you don't need to hurt him!" Reid said, backing himself up against Hotch until he was covering as much of the bigger man as he could. "I bet you never had a willing participate before."
"After what I do to men, they are not so willing."
"If you let him live," Reid said, and Hotch bet he was one of the few people in the world who could tell that Reid's voice was shaking, that he was so, so scared. "I promise you, I will be your first ever."
Which is how Hotch ended up nearly severing his wrists as he attempted to get to Reid, who was screaming, screaming, and it was one of those moments where Hotch couldn't remember that anything of beauty or love existed in the world, there must only be these screams and this pain, it had gone on for so long, it had obliterated the good.
Reid turned his head and his eyes locked with his boss's, and somehow the fact that Hotch looked desperate and sad made it easier, because someone else was confirming that this was not the way a normal course of life should go. The Unsub, whose name Reid had forgotten, had stuffed a rag into Hotch's mouth, and Reid knew he should wish for the team to find him or the Unsub to suddenly suffer a massive heart attack, but all he found the strength to wish for was that rag gone so Hotch could dispute the words coming out of the Unsub's mouth and tell him that he was a good man, a smart man, and he was not useless and he was not a whore and there were people out there who loved him. Which was very selfish, for if he wished for the team to find them than Hotch would be out of this terrible situation, too, but as the Unsub whispered the hot awful words in his ears he couldn't remember a time when they hadn't been true.
There was blood running down his back, and burns on his body, but Reid's mind had gone somewhere else. There was no reasoning with a psychopath. There was no reason he shouldn't let his mind wander away from the situation. He was surprised to feel the minefield that was his back. He was surprised that his clothes were suddenly off.
Afraid that the Unsub would reveal the secret he'd been meaning to reveal for himself, he twisted and fought for the first time in the process, forgetting the deal, forgetting that he'd promised to be willing and supple and still.
The Unsub didn't say a word, just shot Hotch in the leg, and Reid screamed, and was still. "Okay! Okay! I'm sorry! I'll be good. Don't hurt him anymore! I'm sorry."
Hotch was shouting something through the gag, probably just shouting in pain, not shouting Reid's name. Probably.
Fingers probed at his body and Reid was desperate to turn his mind away again and found that he couldn't get any further than looking away from Hotch, his face burning with shame. The Unsub whispered in his ear, breath hot, "someone has been a very naughty boy."
"Please," Reid said, begging the man with no conscious to not reveal that secret. "Please."
And then, as if they heard him begging, a man fired one perfect shot and the man fell on top of Reid's naked body and was still.
Reid knew the time for fear had passed, but he couldn't help himself. He screamed.
There were hands reaching for him, touching him, and he screamed again, bucking until the body was off him. "Reid! –somebody get a blanket or something. Reid!"
There was something being draped around him and he clutched for the ends of the fabric, but big hands were on him again and he pressed himself flat against the floor, trying to avoid them. He was trying desperately to understand that he wasn't about to be raped and killed.
"Reid," this voice wasn't loud, just soft and relieved, and Reid found himself turning to see Hotch's hand dripping blood on the floor.
"You're hurt," Reid said, stupidly, even as he inched forward towards the waiting embrace. He shook in Hotch's lap as people moved all around him. He couldn't understand the movement, couldn't concentrate on it, could only think about the words Hotch was saying over and over:
You're okay, you're safe. I've got you. You're doing so well, Reid. We're both going to be okay. It's over. You're doing so well. You're good and strong and safe.
He didn't look up at the words, didn't acknowledge them until he felt tears falling on his face, and there was blood there, too, and bruises, but he felt the tears anyway and looked up. "What's the matter?"
"Nothing. Except I promised to keep you safe and I didn't."
Reid nodded, not bothering to contradict the words. "Sometimes I wonder if we really save anyone. Maybe surviving isn't the same as saving."
"You saved me," Hotch reminded Reid, quietly.
There was a laugh. Reid remembered how to laugh, and Hotch was the one to bring it out of him. Somehow that made the world not seem like it was collapsing on top of him. "It's not really payback. You've saved me plenty of times. I owed you one."
Before he could tell Reid that he didn't owe him anything, that he'd never really saved Reid at all, just watched as he fell apart, his head rolled limp in Hotch's arms. People moved around him, tried to pull Reid away from him, but he held on tight. Suddenly he remembered what an old friend had said…oh, it must have been years ago now. And he wondered about the nature of battle. Should someone be forced into a war just because they happen to be good at fighting?
Shouldn't there be exceptions for a brilliant, desperately young man who was dying more by the year?