Based on “Slave of Duty”
<Rossi> “We need fresh eyes”
<Morgan> “All right, listen up: I want everyone to go back to the hotel and try to get some rest. We’re gonna have to pick this up in the morning.”
<Prentiss> “We’re giving up?”
<Morgan> “No, we’re gonna take a break. We’ve got to give the profile at the morning roll and none of us has slept since the funeral. Once Garcia can get us the paper trail, then we can expand our canvas. Until then, there’s nothing we can do.”
<Rossi> Looks down then turns and leaves.
While the elevator rose, he listened without really listening as Emily and JJ traded comments about the hotel, its amenities and what they had to do before going to bed. Reid didn’t say anything; he just bounced on his toes, gazing blindly into space. No doubt thinking about the case, about their dead end.
As for himself, he was quiet as well, staring at his dull reflection in the equally dull bronze control plate. In the mirrored image, he looked like he was dead. Or at least very, very tired.
The elevator pinged, the doors opened and they trooped out.
Their rooms were at the end of the hallway, a hallway that suddenly seemed much longer than it had the night before. He kept his eyes on the carpeting as if that would make the short trip shorter. The carpet was a deep forest green with a tan border. There were little figures woven into the green, tiny gold diamond shapes that almost got lost in the plush weave, which begged the question: what was the point of the diamonds if you could hardly see them? No point that he could see—design and decoration should have a reason, a purpose.
When they got to his room, the first in line, he murmured his goodnights and unlocked the door.
After the heavy North Carolinian air, the room was refreshingly cool. He locked the door, then did a sweep. Bathroom, bedroom, even under the bed and in the closets. Habit so long-ingrained it felt as if it weren’t due to past experience but an actual genetic trait, like his dark hair and dark skin.
The room was empty, of course. One of these days he was gonna surprise a burglar and then he’d learn who’d be more shocked—himself or the thief.
He took off his jacket and holster and draped both over the back of the armchair. In the same motion, he turned to the mini-fridge. Then stopped and touched his cell, still in his pocket. It was only a few minutes after ten—not too late to call.
But no, there were too many reasons to leave it alone for the time being. After all, it had only been a little over twenty-four hours; nothing important could have happened in that short period.
He took the phone out and sat it next to the cheap alarm clock on the nightstand, then loosened his tie and went to get that drink.
Reclining on the bed, he watched the news as he nursed the scotch, trying to interest himself in the latest from Syria, Afghanistan and Washington. He gave up at eleven-thirty, finished the drink, then sat the glass on the nightstand and made to get up. He stayed there a moment, wondering if he had the will to stand. It wouldn’t kill him to sleep where he was—he’d done it before.
And in the morning when he woke, he’d have a stiff back, a sore neck, and his clothes would be wrinkled beyond the remedy of the hotel’s one-hour cleaning service.
He sighed and rose, then stripped. Before he padded to the bathroom, he glanced at the cell phone.
He angled his face towards the hot spray. Showerheads were amazing inventions. They were a relatively simple design and function but delivered such incredible relief. He turned his back to the spray and closed his eyes again, this time in pleasure at the hot pulse of water against the nape of his neck.
He dried off slowly, taking his time. When he came to the bruise on his bicep, he touched it, pressing lightly. It no longer hurt and—he twisted to look at it in the mirror—no longer showed very much, either. It had been dark, just a week ago. He didn’t bruise easily, but it would have been hard not to be marked by—
Shaking his head to rid himself of the memory of that particular night didn’t help—his body reacted like a teenager, or at least a much younger version of himself. A thought he tried to see as amusing and not pitiful.
He hung up the towel and went to get his pajamas, not glancing at the nightstand on his way to his suitcase.
He couldn’t sleep.
He wasn’t too hot or too cold—the room’s temperature was perfect. And it wasn’t the bed—the mattress was a little softer than he liked, but it was a hell of a lot better than some of the other hotel beds he’d stayed in.
It would be nice to blame his sleeplessness on the case, but that wasn’t it, either.
So he tossed and turned, first trying his right side, then his left. On his stomach and then his back. He kicked the covers off, then tugged them back up. Each time he moved, he forced his muscles to relax, told his mind to shut up already. And each time he thought he’d been successful until the gears started creaking and he roused again.
Finally, at ten after midnight, he rubbed his face in frustration, got up and went to the sliding glass doors. He touched the cold pane of glass. It was insane for hotels to have balconies—they were a danger and the insurance had to cost a fortune.
He unlocked the door and tugged it open.
The air had turned cool and it slipped over his cheeks, his chest. He tipped his head back and squinted up at the moon. It was pretty, almost full, and had a soft ring around it. He’d been to North Carolina a handful of times but never in the winter. The faint bite in the air felt good and reminded him that Christmas was on its way. Christmas and then New Year’s Day.
A time of change and new beginnings. Or, in his case, a long weekend in Vermont for a little hunting. Which wasn’t exactly a change or new. Just his standard fall back when the business of catching and chronicling serial killers became too much and he needed to get away.
Months ago, when he’d made his plans earlier than normal, he’d reassured himself that it was a sensible reaction to events. Ray’s murder had been a blow, especially since it had been his fault. Never mind his usual problems with Christmas, a vacation would give him time to decompress, maybe get the new book started.
Now, it felt more as if he were using the excuses of work and grief to make a preemptive strike—if he was out of town, he couldn’t very well hope for an event that probably wouldn’t happen.
Generally, he wasn’t a runner. He’d learned long ago that avoidance only brought him face-to-face with the very thing he’d been running from.
A logical piece of reasoning made difficult because this pursuer was his own hopes and wants and the thing he was really running from, the thing he couldn’t stop thinking about was the man, hopefully asleep some three hundred miles north.
He closed his eyes again, irresistibly drawn to the fantasy that was really memory: Aaron, on his side—his favorite sleeping position—one hand under his cheek, the other reaching out, fingers curled as if beckoning.
He slept like that so often, as if sleep were a temporary state that his mind forced upon his reluctant body. The only time he slept deeply was right after sex and then he was out for hours, on his back, almost insensate.
Dave looked over his shoulder. His cell was, naturally, right where he left it—a black rectangle on the dark nightstand.
And, yes, it was still too late to call even though Aaron wouldn’t be sleeping. He’d be lying on the couch or working at his desk, doing everything he could to keep the grief and guilt at bay. Grief for Sam and Haley, for bringing Foyet down upon them all even though it wasn’t his fault.
Guilt for taking a lover when he hadn’t quite gotten over his wife.
Dave had never asked Aaron about the latter, knowing the conversation was due, unable to breech the invisible barrier that Aaron erected every time Haley’s name was mentioned. He could have forced the issue, of course, but hesitation got in his way every time. Hesitation—or he admitted with a grim smile—cowardice. And now it was too late, because if there ever was a time for that conversation, now surely wasn’t it.
When he was young, his mother would sometimes send him to his grandmother’s house, the next block over. His mother’s errands would vary: she’d borrow flour or deliver washing because his grandmother’s bad back had always kept her from doing the heavier chores. He was glad to go. Invariably, his grandmother would be in the kitchen, listening to the radio while she baked or cooked.
She’d greet him with a kiss, he’d do what he came to do, then he’d climb up on a chair as she returned to the stove or the table. He loved it, watching her mold and roll dough, or stir a pot of red sauce, each action done carefully but also absently, as if her hands and arms acted without direction, so many times had they rolled or stirred.
The best times were when she made lemon bars. He’d sit, breathlessly waiting while she hefted the cookie sheet from the oven with a soft grunt, then place the sheet on the table. It was impossible to wait and he’d reach out only to be stopped by a slap on his wrist and a smiling, ‘Fermata! É troppo caldo!’
The slap was never hard and it became a game with them—his grandmother would put the hot lemon bars on the table, he’d reach out a hand and she’d laughingly slap his wrist.
He smiled up at the moon, remembering. He loved his grandmother, loved how she taught him the value of waiting, even though he’d never been any good at it.
He still wasn’t any good at it.
Because, all he wanted to do was to call Aaron and tell him how much he missed him. How—Haley’s death none withstanding—he wanted nothing but to get on a plane and drive to the apartment so he could be with Aaron again.
Something he couldn’t do, another bit of knowledge that didn’t need Aaron’s input to realize that space was what was important. That he had to make a careful measure of that space—too little would drive Aaron deeper into his guilt, too much would leave him alone with his grief. It would take time, too. Weeks spent holding Aaron at arm’s length, watching as he grieved, patiently waiting for the wounds to close, for the scars to form.
He looked at the room’s reflection, unable to see the nightstand because of the window’s distortion, knowing exactly where it was as if he had eyes in the back of his head.
‘Fermata! É troppo caldo!’
Stop! It’s too hot!
He held his breath, reminding himself about space and time and all the important things that made a relationship thrive. That it would be the ultimate in selfishness if he didn’t listen to his own advice. And then he remembered the post-funeral reception and Aaron’s expression and small nod when he’d asked, ‘Are you gonna be okay?’
“Screw it,” he muttered as he turned on his heel. They’d been no use, the self-admonishments and he should have just done it when he closed the hotel door because he was always going to make this call, right? So much for knowing himself, so much for being a great profiler…
The line rang six times, four more than usual. He began to pace across the thick carpet, his bare feet sinking in with each step. On the sixth ring, just as he was preparing to hang up and try again, it clicked through.
“Hey,” Aaron said.
Aaron’s voice was scratchy, lower than normal—had he been asleep after all? “Sorry to call so late.”
“No, that’s okay. I wasn’t asleep. I wanted to call you, but…”
Yeah, ‘but.’ “How’s Jack?”
“He had a nightmare about Foyet earlier.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“He’s here with me.”
“Fine.” And then, as if Aaron knew that one-note answer wouldn’t satisfy, he added, “I’ve almost got everything unpacked.”
“I thought you were going to wait for me.”
“Jessica came by with a few of Haley’s things. She stayed and helped out.”
There was an uncomfortable pause and then Aaron asked, “How’s it going?”
“Stalled. For the time being.”
“Anything I can do?”
He wanted to say, ‘Just talking to you helps,’ but it was too soon for those words, so he just answered, “No, we’ll figure it out. We always do.”
He sighed and sat down on the bed. He’d finally sussed out the odd tone in Aaron’s voice. “Erin called, didn’t she?”
Aaron hesitated for a moment. “Hold on. I’m going to the study…”
There were the soft sounds of Aaron getting out of bed and then the softer sound of a door closing.
“There,” Aaron said in a louder voice. “Now we can talk.”
“About Erin calling you.”
“Actually, she came by. Did she tell you what she was going to say?”
“No, but I know her. She doesn’t miss a trick, does she?” He reached for the extra pillows. “What did she say?”
“She offered me early retirement. Full pension and benefits.”
He froze in the act of adjusting a pillow. “She did?” The quiet words were like a punch to his gut. He knew she was going to look into offering Aaron early retirement; she’d intimated as much when he’d gone by to ask when the hell she was going to be done with her little inquisition. But he thought she’d wait, at least a little while longer.
“It was a surprise to me, too.”
He lay back and got comfortable. “What did you say?”
“That I would think about it.”
He snorted because he couldn’t help it. “Bet she loved that.”
“No,” Aaron answered, his voice as dry as a desert, “she did not. She seemed to think I’d jump at the chance to leave.”
“Anyone else would.”
“I’m not anyone else.”
‘You’re telling me.’ “How did you leave it?”
“I told her I needed to weigh my options.”
“Yes. She wasn’t too happy about that.”
“Did she give you a deadline?”
“Well, knowing Erin, you don’t want to keep her waiting.”
There was a long, uncomfortable pause and he wished he could see Aaron’s expression. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s a difficult decision.”
His chest tightened up. Three days ago, if someone had asked which way Aaron would jump if he were offered any sort of early retirement, he would have said without pause, ‘He’s staying.’ Now? “Yes, it is.”
“There are a lot of factors to consider.”
“Jack being the main one, of course.”
“Yes, but there’s all the work I need to finish, the half done profiles.”
“You don’t need to worry about those. Morgan and I can finish all that for you.”
“And then there’s the team,” Aaron continued, as if Dave hadn’t spoken. “They depend on me.”
“They do, but they’ll adjust. They’ll understand why you need to step down.”
But Aaron didn’t finish and this time the pause was longer and the lump in Dave’s chest hardened to a dull pain. “And then?” he said evenly though he wasn’t sure he really wanted to know.
“And,” Aaron murmured, almost too low to hear, “then, there’s you.”
Tip of the tongue time, things he could say but wouldn’t. Things like, ‘Don’t worry about me. I’ll survive no matter what you decide.’ And, ‘I’m not going to let you push me away, Aaron. Do you really think you could?’ The first a fractured truth, too cruel to utter and the second a promise he wouldn’t be able to keep if Aaron’s retirement also included retirement from their relationship. Aaron held all the cards here.
He cleared his throat. “This is one of those times where what I think or want doesn’t matter.”
Aaron didn’t speak and Dave added, trying for humor, “And that’s probably the last time you’ll hear me saying anything remotely like that.”
He expected a laugh or at least a chuckle, but all he got was, “We never talked. About Haley, I mean.”
“You really want to go into that now?”
“Then we will, but not now. Let’s give it some time.”
“And when you’re ready, we’ll talk.”
And he should leave it alone, stop before he pushed too hard, stepped too close. But it was impossible to leave them both with just the barebones of comfort, so he added, “Unless we get a break, we’re gonna be here another night, maybe two. I’m gonna call you each night, okay?”
He waited for the, ‘I’m fine, Dave,’ or, ‘I need time with my son,’ but what he got was a quiet, “I’d like that.”
And what the hell—if Aaron was going to give him an inch, he was gonna take a mile. “I want you to get some sleep. Jack needs you to be rested.”
This time Aaron’s voice wasn’t quite so blank when he said, “I will.”
“I was thinking… The holidays are coming up and I was wondering…”
He cleared his throat, an effort to keep the relief and joy at bay. “What I was gonna do for Christmas?”
“Yeah. I know it’s not your favorite time. I was thinking we could go away together. Just the three of us.”
“Yeah, I was thinking the same thing. We can go to my cabin. We don’t have to—” He shrugged even though Aaron couldn’t see it. “You know—you and Jack can have your own room.”
“You’re welcome.” You’re more than welcome—you’ll always be more than welcome, Aaron.
“Thanks for being here. For Jack and me, I mean.”
“Of course. I’ll talk to you tomorrow, okay?”
Aaron hung up and Dave pushed End. He tossed the cell on the bed and rose to go to the open balcony door. He looked up. The moon was much lower but still had that ring of condensation around it.
That went okay. He’d managed to remind Aaron that he had his back, was reassured that this thing wasn’t gonna end anytime soon, as well as quieted the insistent need to hear Aaron’s voice.
Tomorrow he’d do the same only he’d try to call earlier so he could talk to Jack. And when the case was done and he was back home, he’d get in the car and head north instead of west. He’d try the cemetery first and if Aaron wasn’t there, he’d go to the apartment.
He closed and locked the balcony door, already picturing the words he would use, the gestures he’d make. He’d keep it simple and allow himself a single touch.
Satisfied, he turned off the light and went back to bed.
Story notes: Aaron Hotchner/Dave Rossi Criminal Minds
All characters belong to people and organizations that are not me