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A Thing Achieved

Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice; it is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.  -William Jennings Bryan

 

 

 

***

It started out as one of those things, a favor for a friend. There was no dramatic music, no long looks foretelling that something big was about to happen.

Still, after all his experience, all his years on the job, he really should have known…

***

 

Dave pushed through the double doors of the BAU, overcoat in one hand, briefcase in the other. Even though it was still early, the place was already hopping with agents hurrying by or staring intently at their computer screens.

It was odd—his coworkers could hardly be called noisy. There was Reid, of course, but the rest generally spoke in normal, even hushed tones. So why was it he sometimes felt as if the BAU was the loudest place on earth?

It could be the machinery. There was a hell of a lot more of it than back in his day—phones, faxes, computers, printers, not to mention the heating and air conditioning. Or it could be the room itself—concrete and glass weren’t the best acoustic dampeners and sound waves bounced off both like a rubber ball.

But—he shifted his coat—no, it was something else. Maybe it was the intensity with which everyone worked? Maybe all that focus and energy created its own sound, inaudible but audible just the same.

He snorted at the idea. Morgan and Reid glanced his way and he nodded his hello, then smiled at Emily. She was wearing a soft blue turtleneck—it made her look like the Madonna and no doubt if he told her that, she’d grin. Or scowl. Either was a possibility and he liked that about her.

When he got to second floor, he found Aaron’s door was closed. This early in the morning, a closed door meant they had a case and Aaron was reviewing JJ’s notes. But the week had been uneventful and he hadn’t heard anything to the contrary, so…

He peered through the blinds. Aaron wasn’t working—he was standing behind his desk, cell tucked between his shoulder and ear while he packed his briefcase. His movements were quick and sharp—it seemed Dave had been wrong and they were in for a bad one.

He opened the door without knocking.

Aaron looked up and waved him in with a silent, ‘Come,’ then said, “Yes, I understand. I’ll be there in thirty minutes.” He closed the briefcase and sat it aside. “No, I agree. It’s better to be safe then sorry.” He nodded to whatever the person was saying and repeated, “I understand. Thank you.” He hung up.

Dave leaned against the doorjamb. “What’s going on?”

“That was Jack’s school. He’s sick and they want me to pick him up right away.”

Aaron’s face was grim—surely a sick kid wasn’t that big a deal? “Why not just have him lay down on a cot or something? Isn’t that what the nurse’s office is for?”

“Not these days. They have a zero tolerance policy on sick kids.”

Zero tolerance—it sounded like something from the CDC or the military. “Can’t your sister-in-law do it?”

Aaron began shuffling through a stack of folders, separating them into three piles. “No,” he said absently. “She’s got a project to deliver for her econ class at the end of the week and her group is going to be at the library all day. She said she could if absolutely necessary, but…” He shrugged.

“Yeah.” Dave shrugged, too. From the little he knew, Jessica had proved to be a godsend, helping out when Aaron was busy, helping Jack get over the loss of his mother. But she was getting her master’s and that was a lot of work. Add to the fact that Aaron wanted to give her every opportunity, considering the sacrifices she’d made in the past few months—he wouldn’t pull her away from school unless it was, as she’d said, absolutely necessary. “What about after-school care?”

“They very politely told me they can’t take Jack if he’s sick.” Aaron glanced up. “And I’m not happy with them, anyway. I think I need find a new arrangement.”

Dave ignored that—he’d find out what that meant later. “Then it’s a good thing it’s a slow week, isn’t it?”

It was meant as a joke, but Aaron’s expression darkened. “That just changed. Before the school called, I got a call from the Sarasota DA about a former unsub.”

“Yours?”

“And Gideon’s.” Aaron finished organizing the folders and sat down. “His name is James O’Brien.” He got out a notepad and began to write quickly.

Dave squinted, searching his memory. “Tallahassee. He killed five teenagers back in ’05 and is on death row in Florida.”

Aaron didn’t look surprised that Dave knew about a case he hadn’t worked on. “Gideon always suspected him of more.”

“What happened?”

“This morning the DA received a letter from O’Brien. He said he has information that the state might be interested in.”

Dave didn’t have to ask, but he did it anyway. “In exchange for a regular cell, right?”

“And a parole hearing in ten years.”

“What kind of information?”

“He says that he knows the identity of the man behind the Sarasota murders and is using that as leverage.”

“Ah.” The Sarasota murders hadn’t been particularly brutal, but they’d taken place in a small community that had blown apart at the seams; the fallout had led to three other deaths and a suicide. “What are you worried about?” He jerked his head to the bullpen. “The kids can handle it. They all worked on it, right?”

“Not Prentiss, but the rest were involved. And I know they can handle it. It’s just—”

Aaron sighed and stopped writing. He leaned back, finally giving Dave his complete attention.

Aaron was a good-looking man. But the dark circles under his eyes and the grooves on the sides of his mouth made it seem as if he were sick or twenty years older. Small wonder, considering.

Dave pushed away from the doorjamb and went to sit on the arm of a chair. “What is it?”

“I want to talk the prison psychologist and the judge that tried the case. They need to intervene. And, if possible, I’d like to revisit the case and see if any new information has surfaced in the last five years. Strauss gave me permission to fly out, provided I’m done by end of day. The judge has agreed to meet with me at one.”

Dave rubbed his jaw. “There’s an election coming up in a few months. He’ll want something to show for that. Letting a convicted killer have a reduced sentence won’t look so good.” Florida and Texas always grandstanded for the public in an election year—this wouldn’t be any different.

Aaron shook his head sharply. “The judge is a she and I can’t count on it. The political climate is volatile and the DA might decide that getting the Sarasota murderer is more important than keeping O’Brien on death row.” He picked up the pen and began writing again.

“Then…” But Dave didn’t have a then. Aaron needed to be in two places at one time, something he clearly couldn’t do. “What are you writing?”

“Notes for you and Morgan. I’ll call and explain to Judge Turner that you’ll be meeting her, not me.”

“This is important to you, isn’t it?”

Aaron frowned without looking up. “Of course it is. O’Brien is a vicious sociopath who is responsible for the death of three people and—”

“Then let me take care of it.”

“That’s what I’m doing, Dave.”

“No, Jack. I’ll pick up Jack.”

Aaron stopped in mid-stroke and looked up. “What?”

“I’ll do it. Just give me directions and I’ll go.”

“I can’t ask you to do that.”

Aaron’s voice was quiet, firm, and surprised. Dave couldn’t see what was so shocking about the offer to step in—he’d done it before, if not in such a personal matter. “Who’s asking? Besides, you can’t afford not to. It’s the only logical solution. I don’t imagine you’ll want to ask Emily or JJ to pick up your kid. Strauss would scream.”

“She’ll scream if I ask you.”

“Eh.” Dave waved Aaron’s objection away. “I can handle her.”

“Dave.”

“It’s not a big deal, Aaron. It’s a simple solution.”

“No. I mean, yes.” Aaron was still frowning.

“Then what’s the problem?”

“You’re a senior FBI agent, not a babysitter.”

“Aaron, we both know that there are times when I’m superfluous.” And when Aaron began to object, he waved that away as well. “I’m not saying I’m not valuable. I’m just saying that in situations like these, I’d be better off here, going through current case files. And I can do that someplace other than my office for a few hours.”

“I don’t need someone for just a few hours. Jessica won’t be done until five or six.”

“Not a problem.”

“Dave—”

“Aaron. If I was compromising an investigation, I wouldn’t offer. But I’m not and I don’t care. I have more sick leave and personal days that I’ll ever use. And if it makes you feel better, I’ll bring my notes on the Oregon job. I know you’ve been wanting to review those.”

It was a carrot and Aaron stared at him, long and hard. Finally, when he thought he was going to have to just leave and take the decision out of Aaron’s hands, Aaron said, “Okay.”

He cocked his head. “Okay?”

“Yeah. Let me call the school to let them know you’re coming.” He got out his cell and began to dial. “Take my SUV. It has Jack’s car seat and a few other things you might need. I’ll give you directions to the school and the house.”

“I’ll get my notes.”

He got up and was almost out the door when Aaron called out, “Dave?”

He turned back around. “Yes?”

Aaron gave him a small smile. “Thank you.”

He smiled back. “You’re welcome.”

***

The directions, written in Aaron’s very precise, very bold script were clear: ‘Park on west side of building to avoid the bus lane. Enter from west side, using the door on far right—the others are locked. Have I.D. ready—you might need it. Office lobby is in the middle of the hall on the right. You’ll need I.D. There’s a register on the main desk. The pre-school wing is down the hall, then right (n, then e).

Presumably (n, then e) meant north, then east, and Dave had to smile. The directions were quintessentially Aaron—specific, exact, but also done, Dave knew, so that he wouldn’t be inconvenienced by having to guess where to go and what to do.

So very Aaron.

The school was one of those fancy, private types—wood floors, art all over the place—everything designed to nurture and guide growing minds. A far cry from his own grade school, but that wouldn’t be very hard.

There was no security at the door and the hallways were empty. He glanced at the artwork hanging above the coatracks as he passed, trying not to profile what he was seeing. Although…

He stopped and stared. That one drawing of a small figure dwarfed by a big cat with giant yellow eyes was interesting. If Reid were around he’d probably have some pithy observations as to the psychological implications of the drawing. Which meant it was a good thing he wasn’t around.

Dave grinned to himself and continued on.

When he walked into the office, the staff—all women—turned and stared.

He got out his I.D. and held it up, saying to everyone in general, “Good morning. My name is Agent Rossi. I’m here to pick up Jack Hotchner?” He wasn’t sure why he used his official rank. Maybe it was because it was a school and schools were careful these days. Maybe it was because they were all looking at him with blank expressions that could mean anything.

“Yes,” a woman finally called out from the back. She came forward, rounding the long reception desk. “Aaron said you were coming. I’m Ms. Williamson, the vice-principal. Jack is this way.” She nodded to the door.

He studied her obliquely as they walked: African-American, young and very pretty in a schoolteacher sort of way—conservative blouse and skirt with sensible footwear as if she was making an attempt at gravitas. She was married, but by the way she kept fiddling with her ring, her marriage was either in trouble or very new. He hoped it was the latter but would bet on the former.

She led him to a door marked, ‘Nurse,’ then gestured vaguely. “I’ll be right back.” She disappeared into the first room.

He looked around.

They really didn’t need the sign on the door. Just one whiff would tell anyone where they were: alcohol, disinfectant, and that subtle odor of sickness said it all.

“Agent Rossi?” Ms. Williamson leaned out of the room and waved him in.

The room was as typical as the office—vertical blinds that let in the weak sun, the examination table covered with white paper and next to it, a metal chair.

Jack was sitting in the chair, backpack at his feet. He was wearing his coat and Dave—even with his limited experience with kids—could see he was sick.

Next to Ms. Williamson stood a woman. Even with her white sweater and tan pants, she looked like a caricature of a school nurse—cold, pinched expression, almost like Nurse Ratchet from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Even her hair was the same tight bun and Dave had to hold back an inappropriate grin.

She nodded. “Agent Rossi.”

He nodded in return, then crouched front of Jack. Who looked up dully, eyes half-closed, cheeks flushed. “Hey, kiddo,” Dave said softly. “Your dad says you’re not feeling so good. He asked me to pick you up.”

And oddly enough, some instinct, probably a memory of his childhood made him reach up and place the back of his fingers against Jack’s forehead. The memory of Eric Olson popped up but he shoved it away.

Because Jack’s skin was warm, bordering on hot. So either his fingers were ice cold or Jack was burning up. He twisted to look over his shoulder. “Should he be this warm? Is that normal?”

The nurse tightened her lips and Williamson crossed her arms over her breasts. “It’s higher than we’ve been seeing,” she said. “When I called Aaron, Jack’s temperature was 100. Now it’s 102.”

‘Aaron,’ again? Dave stood up. “Does he need to see a doctor?”

The two women looked at each other, but it was Williamson who spoke again. “With some children, a high temperature isn’t completely abnormal, but with Jack’s history, it’s best not to take any chances.”

She started to say something else, but Dave broke in, “‘Jack’s history?’ What does that mean?”

The women exchanged glances again—this time it was the nurse’s turn. “Maybe Mr. Hotchner should tell you that,” she said.

Dave cocked his head. “Agent Hotchner is unavailable and if something happens to Jack because you withheld information from me, I’ll have your license so fast it will make your head spin.”

She actually backed up and he felt a momentary regret that he dismissed immediately because, hell, at least it got her talking.

“Jack has an atrial septal defect.”

“What is that? A heart murmur?”

“Yes. He’s fine now, but a high fever can be dangerous for a child with his condition and it’s best—”

“To be safe,” he interrupted again. “Okay,” He put his hands on his hips and thought quickly. “I’m assuming you have Jack’s doctor on file?”

The nurse nodded.

“Here’s what you’re going to do. Give me the address, then call the doctor and make an appointment.”

“You might not be able to—”

“I don’t care what they say, make the appointment.” Again, he was too forceful and this time both women stiffened, put on the defensive. Well too damn bad. They should have called Aaron back and told him what the situation was so he could make the decision. Once he found out, he was going to beat himself up for choosing work over his son. As if he didn’t do that often enough and Dave wanted to snarl.

Instead, he crouched again and held out his arms. “Let’s go, kiddo.” He half expected Jack to protest that he could walk, that he didn’t need help, but he just sat there, waiting. Dave picked him up.

Jack drooped against him, one hand curled on his chest and somehow that only sharpened his anger; the boy had been through so much in the past year…

When he turned around, the nurse was holding a slip of paper at arm’s length, as if to a dangerous animal. He took it, glanced at it, then stuffed it in his pocket. He knew the location—it was halfway between the school and Quantico. He shifted Jack to his hip and nodded. “Ladies. Thank you for looking after Jack. Do I need to sign something?”

Williamson shook her head. “I’ll take care of it.”

He nodded again, grabbed Jack’s backpack and left.

Williamson followed him out and they were almost to the main doors when she spoke, “Can you ask Aaron to call us to let us know how Jack is?”

Again with the ‘Aaron?’ “I will. I’m sorry I was so abrupt.”

“No.” She finally relaxed enough to uncross her arms. “I didn’t realize how much Jack’s fever had spiked. Thank you for picking him up.” She opened the door for him.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

The day was warm, already in the low fifties, but the breeze was almost sharp and Jack huddled closer as Dave made his way down the stairs to where the SUV was parked.

“Hang on, son, I’ll have you in the car in a second.”

“Is Daddy going to be there?”

Dave got out the car keys and hit the remote. “At the doctor’s? No, but I’m going to stay with you at the doctor’s and until your Aunt Jessica gets home. How does that sound?”

Jack just nodded. And didn’t say anything until Dave had got him in the car seat and was trying to figure out how the fancy harness worked.

“This is my daddy’s car.”

The latch looked like it just snapped in, but he couldn’t make it fit. “It is.”

“And this is my car seat.”

“Bingo.”

“You’re not doing it right.”

Said a little accusingly and Dave smiled. “How ’bout you help me out?”

“This thing…” Jack took the latch. “Goes here. See?” He turned it around and pushed until it snapped, then fell back as if exhausted.

Dave patted his leg. “Thanks. Now you just relax—we’ll be at the doctor’s soon. What’s his name?”

“Doctor Fielding.”

“Well just relax and we’ll be at Doctor Fielding’s in a minute.” He hurried around to the driver’s seat, got in and turned the key.

***

Doctor Fielding turned out to be a woman. A very pregnant, mid-forties woman. She came out of an examination room as Dave was struggling to complete the registration sheet while holding Jack. He’d tried to set him down, but Jack refused to budge, holding on tight with a strength that was more than a little surprising.

“Agent Rossi?”

He turned. “Dr. Fielding?”

She raised one hand and said with mild, if fatigued, humor, “Guilty. The school called. And, you…” She turned to Jack and her face lightened. “I know you.” She held out her arms and Jack loosened his grip and went willingly. “Oof. You’re getting heavy.”

Dave reached to help, but she shook her head with another smile. “That’s okay. I’ve got a five-year old at home. I’m used to it. Now, young man, let’s see what’s going on with you.” She looked back at Dave. “I’ll be in exam one when you’re finished with that. Reggie,” she said to the receptionist. “Agent Rossi might need help with the intake form.”

The receptionist nodded. “Sure thing.”

Dave returned to the sheet. There were too many questions asking for too much information—he only knew the bare facts and he finally gave up. He signed the bottom, muttering, “I think I’m going to need that help.”

The assistant took the clipboard with a reassuring smile. “That’s okay. I’ll take care of it. I’m new, but Doctor Fielding has treated Jack before—we’ve got the important stuff on file. You can go in now.”

He got out his cell. “Thanks. I need to make a call first.” He turned around, noticing for the first time that the waiting room was packed—probably the reason for Fielding’s tired expression. Not wanting to stand in the middle of the room to make the call, he squeezed into a corner between a built-in aquarium and a potted plant and hit speed dial one.

The phone rang six times and he was thinking of trying Morgan’s number, when Aaron answered in a low, urgent, voice, “Hi, Dave.”

“You okay?” Which wasn’t what he’d meant to ask.

“We’re just finishing up. How’s Jack?”

“That’s what I’m calling about.”

“What’s wrong?”

Aaron’s voice had sharpened and Dave said calmly, “He’s fine, Hotch. He’s—”

“Where are you?”

“At the doctor’s. He’s got a—”

“Doctor Fielding’s? Put her on.”

“Hotch. It’s just a—”

“Let me talk—”

“Damnit, Aaron, will you shut up a second?” He looked up. He hadn’t spoken loudly, but everyone was trying to pretend they hadn’t heard except for an elderly man and a little girl. The little girl was gazing at him, round-eyed and grinning; the old man was frowning. Dave apologized with a shrug, then lowered his voice, “Sorry. I keep trying to tell you that he has a slight fever and that your school nurse thought I should bring him in. Just to be safe.”

He heard a dull click on the other end of the line, like a door closing, then Aaron came back. “Sorry. It’s been a busy day and I’m tired.”

“I know.”

“What’s the diagnosis?”

“I don’t know yet. We just got here.”

“Can I talk to her?”

“Fielding? Sure, hold on.” He gave the elderly man another apologetic look, then went to find the examination room.

When he peered into the room, Jack was sitting on the table and Dr. Fielding was bent over him, stethoscope to his chest, listening intently.

“Doctor?”

“Yes, Agent Rossi?” she asked without looking up.

“Do you have any information yet? Agent Hotchner would like an update.”

She straightened, patted Jack on his knee and stripped off her gloves. “I do, indeed. Thanks.” She took the phone and stepped out into the hall.

Jack tugged at a rip in the table’s paper cover. His skin was pale and he looked too small and vulnerable. Dave hopped up next to him. “So, no lollipop yet?”

“We don’t get lollipops. We get pretzels.”

Jack’s voice was reedy and Dave wanted to pull him close. “That’s no fun.”

Jack looked up. His eyes were red as he’d been crying, making his blue irises that much bluer. “Dr. Fielding says I have a temperature.”

“Just a little one, I bet.”

“Will I have to go to the hospital?”

Asked matter-of-factly, but it didn’t fool Dave. “I doubt it. She’ll probably just send you home for some rest.”

But Jack added wearily, as if Dave hadn’t spoken, “Daddy won’t know where I am.”

“Of course he will. If you have to go to the hospital, I will, too. And I’ll call him and tell him where you are, and if your Aunt Jessica can’t come stay with you, I will.”

“The whole time?”

“The whole time.”

There was a long pause while Jack stared at him and for the first time Dave could see Aaron in him. He’d seen that look often enough—measuring, judging, usually in the presence of an unsub.

“Promise?” Jack finally said.

“Absolutely. I’ll stay with you even if I have to barricade the door so they can’t kick me out.” Damnit. That wasn’t the best thing to tell a sick kid—that a hospital was so dangerous, he’d need protection.

But Jack wasn’t scared—his eyes widened and he asked breathlessly, “You will?”

What the hell—in for a penny, in for a pound. “Sure, and if that doesn’t work, I’ll arrest anyone who tries to make me leave.”

Jack narrowed his eyes as if he didn’t quite believe Dave. And then he sighed and leaned on Dave’s arm.

Dave swallowed and patted his knee. The kid was so sweet and trusting—Haley and Aaron had done a good job.

The doctor came back. She held the cell out to Dave with a smile. He gave Jack’s knee a squeeze, then slid off the table and took the phone. He went back to the hall, but stopped right outside, making sure Jack could see him through the open door. “Hey.”

“Hey.”

“What did she say?”

“That he’s fine. His temperature’s a little high, but that it’s normal for him. I just—”

He strangled whatever words were next and Dave pictured him, wherever he was, head bowed, hand to forehead. “I know.”

“I can’t lose him, Dave.”

“You won’t, Aaron. Kids get sick all the time. He’ll be fine.” You’ll be fine.

“She’s going to give him something for the fever. I’ll try to get hold of Jessie and—”

“No, don’t. I’ll take care of it.”

“Are you sure?”

“What did you think? I’d just drop him off at your house and leave?”

“Of course not.”

“I’ll pick up the medicine. We’ll go home. He’ll be fine.” He wanted to ask about Jack’s heart condition, but it wasn’t the time or the place. “When are you coming back?”

“We’re on the way to the airport now. I’ll be home by five.”

“Meaning seven with traffic.” Fielding was helping Jack on with his shirt, then his jacket. He was looking a little better, probably because the visit was over.

“Dave, thanks.”

“Stop thanking me, Hotch.” That sounded more than a little cranky, so he toned it down with, “It’s not a problem.”

“Okay.”

Fielding gave Jack a bag of pretzels—he took them with little enthusiasm. “See you later?”

“Yes.”

“Jack’s done. Do you want to talk to him?”

“Please.”

Dave held the cell out with a smile. “Someone wants to talk to you.”

Jack brightened immediately. “Daddy?”

He nodded and gave the phone to Jack.

While Jack talked to Aaron—a conversation that consisted mostly of ‘yes’s,’ and ‘no’s,’—Fielding handed him two pieces of paper. “I’ve already called the script in. The first is for the fever, the second is directions to the pharmacy.”

He took them and got out his case notebook. “Is there anything I should look for? In Jack, I mean.”

“He’ll be listless for a few days. If he’s not better by Thursday, call me. The fever might spike; you can control that with the medication and cold compresses and plenty of water. If it goes over 105 for longer than an hour, take him to the emergency room, then call me.”

Dave nodded, writing it all down. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that Jack had finished talking and was looking up at him. He tucked his notebook away and took the cell. He checked to make sure Aaron had hung up, then bent down to pick Jack up. “Doctor.” He held his hand out. “Thank you for seeing us so quickly.”

“Of course. And you…” Fielding smiled at Jack as she shook Dave’s hand. “Do what Agent Rossi says, okay?”

Jack nodded gravely.

“We’ll see you in a few months for your regular appointment.”

Jack sighed.

***

The rest of the morning passed quickly. They drove to the pharmacy and then to the new neighborhood. The only problem turned out to be the hi-tech wonder of a security system that guarded Aaron’s new house. The instructions were clear: ‘Enter 93*3904, then #,’ but the light didn’t change and Dave thought he’d entered the wrong code. After a few tense seconds while he pictured himself, Jack still in his arms, trying to show his I.D. to a rent-a-cop, the light flashed green.

He carried Jack in and glanced around. He hadn’t seen the house yet, so Jack had to tell him where to go: up the stairs to the second floor, down the long hall, then to the first bedroom on the left.

He didn’t bother asking Jack if he wanted to get into his pajamas—he just helped him off with his jacket and shoes and into bed. He got out his glasses, read the instructions on the prescription, then gave Jack the first dose. He stood by the bed for a few minutes, but it wasn’t necessary—the minute Jack swallowed the medicine and shut his eyes, he was asleep.

He started to leave, then doubled back and pulled the drapes closed and turned off the light. He hesitated before leaving the door open a crack. No doubt Jack wouldn’t wake up any time soon and he probably wouldn’t be scared even if he did, but what Dave know? Children weren’t completely foreign, but he sure as hell didn’t know the ins and outs.

He went back downstairs.

Other than being about ten times the size of Aaron’s last apartment, the house was similar in style. Traditional American with a dash of modern—open floor plan, dark wainscoting with matching furniture offset by muted blues and greens. It wasn’t until he was making his way across the foyer that he realized what was missing: the place was bare of the usual knick-knacks like paintings and art. Maybe Aaron didn’t like usual knick-knacks? Maybe he didn’t like decorating?

One thing was clear—whether by intent or accident, the decor was almost a polar opposite of the house Aaron and Haley had shared. That had been light and airy; this was sedate and somehow serious.

He shook his head because even though it was too big, the ambience was cool and quiet and somehow very Aaron. He liked it.

On the north side of the foyer was a study and next to that, a powder room. The living room and kitchen were almost one unit, taking up the entire rear of the house. He would have thought that Aaron would prefer more privacy—two-thirds of the east-facing wall was actually floor-to-ceiling windows but maybe that was the point. Yes, someone could look in, but one could also look out.

He strolled to the French doors. They opened up to a patio that was as broad as it was deep. Beyond that, fading into the dark was what looked like a common area. There were no fences that he could see, just a vague line of trees in the distance. Off to the right stood a swing set and he pictured it, Aaron sitting on a deck chair while Jack played or maybe the two of them throwing a football. It wasn’t necessarily a happy image—the house was just too big for two people.

Still staring out at the dark, he got out his cell and called Aaron. The call went to voice mail and he left a brief message telling Aaron not to worry, that everything was fine. He hung up and pocketed the phone, suddenly at a dead stop.

He was tired. As tired as if he hadn’t slept in weeks. Maybe Jack’s exhaustion was contagious. Yawning was contagious so why not exhaustion? A study probably had been done—The Effects of Fatigue on Social Groups or something like that.

He shook his head at himself and stepped away from the doors.

He should sit down with his computer and do a little work. He should go to Aaron’s study and grab one of the books that lined the shelves. He should go make a sandwich because it had been almost nine hours since he’d eaten.

In the end he did none of those things. He went to the leather sofa, took off his jacket, holster and boots and lay down. He didn’t sleep—he was too well trained for that—but he drifted into kind of a waking dream of Jack, looking entirely too small, asking him not to go anywhere.

***

“Dave?”

He started, confused at first because he recognized the voice and what the hell was Aaron doing in his bedroom? And then he remembered.

He sat up and combed his fingers through his hair. “What time is it?”

“After nine. I’m sorry I’m so late.”

He ignored that. “Have you been up to see Jack?” It was dark, the only light was coming from the foyer and Aaron was just a tall, looming shadow.

“Yes.”

“How is he?”

“Fine. He’s asleep.”

He looked at his watch. “Good. I checked on him a half hour ago. His fever is already breaking. He’s cooler, at least. He needs to take his medicine in two hours.”

“Where’s Jessica?”

Dave scrubbed his face. “She called to check in and I told her not to bother coming home until she was done. It wasn’t like she could lay on the sofa any better than me.” It was a stupid joke and it fell on deaf ears.

“Where’s the medicine?”

“In the kitchen.” He bent down to pull on his boots.

Aaron went to the kitchen, turned on the light and picked up the small bottle. “Every six hours, as needed,” he murmured, then turned back. “I brought pizza. Can you stay?”

He didn’t hesitate even though a slice sounded amazing. “I better not. My editor is waiting for my okay on the next round of edits on the new book. And…” He looked up. “Before you apologize, you need to know that my editor is an anal retentive megalomaniac with control issues. The book is going fine—the edits are just to appease her.”

“You sure?”

He stood up and stretched. “I’m sure, Hotch.” He felt for his keys and remembered that he didn’t have them. “Is my car outside?”

Aaron reached in his pocket and held them up. “Yes. I filled the tank for you.”

As if a few miles worth of gas were a big deal. He didn’t object—it was just Aaron’s way. He took the keys, then tugged on his jacket and picked up his holster.

Aaron walked him to the door and held it open for him. When he stepped onto the stoop, he turned back. “Hey, Hotch?”

“Yes?”

“You remember during the Henson case, you told me that you’d done everything you could to be a good father?”

Aaron looked off to the side, then back again before saying tightly, “I remember.”

Dave shrugged. “I just spent eight hours with a boy whose parents had recently divorced. Who then had to pick up and move to hide from a psychopath, after which he was a partial witness to his mother’s murder. We both know what happens to kids who experience that kind of trauma.” He took a deep breath. “What I’m trying to say is, you don’t have anything to worry about. Given the circumstances, Jack is healthy and happy. And you are a good father.”

Aaron was silent for a long moment. Then his eyes narrowed and his jaw worked and he finally said roughly, “Thank you.”

Dave nodded. “You’re welcome.”

He was driving away, halfway up the street, when he looked in the rearview mirror—Aaron was still in the doorway, watching him. He waved even though he was sure Aaron couldn’t see him.

***

The next day he arrived at the BAU thirty minutes late. He ignored the glances the team threw his way and stopped by Aaron’s office to make sure Jack was okay. Everything was fine and he got to work, feeling a little odd. Kind of like the way he did when he got back from vacation, out of sorts and not completelythere.

At noon, JJ rounded them up to discuss a case in Philadelphia and soon he had other things on his mind. The case turned out to be nothing more than a missing person, but immediately after they were called to Rhode Island.

And so it was a month before the subject of Jack—and favors—came up again.

_____________________

They were here somewhere, he was sure of it. The Frisco job wasn’t forty-eight hours old and he’d never lost his case notes before. But then, if he hadn’t been so damn busy, he’d have found the time to transcribe them immediately like he usually did.

So where were they? Last time he’d had the notebook, he was in the SUV. He’d been reviewing his initial thoughts and suppositions and had asked Aaron if he’d had a chance to speak to the unsub. They’d talked about Roycewood and Aaron had said—

Oh, yeah—he remembered.

He got up and went to find JJ. She was in the copy room, hands on hips, waiting for the machine to stop printing.

“JJ?

She glanced over her shoulder. “Hey. What’s up?

“When is Hotch going to be back?”

“He’s on his way. Is it urgent?”

He tapped the doorjamb with his thumbs. “No, it can wait.” Even though it irritated him a little, not being able to finish the task at hand. “I gave him my notebook and forgot to get it back.”

She shrugged. “Sorry.”

He was turning on his heel, a ‘Thanks anyway,’ on his lips when she called out, “Rossi?”

“Yeah?”

“Why don’t you go to his office and look for it?”

Dave grinned. “I don’t think so. Hotch is one of the most private men I know. He doesn’t like snoopers.”

She shrugged again and brushed a strand of hair off her face. “He won’t mind if it’s you.”

It was a strange thing to say and he knew his bemusement was showing. “I’ll wait until he gets back, thanks.”

“Suit yourself.” She smiled at him and then turned back to the printer.

As he made his way through the bullpen her comment echoed, growing clearer, instead of fading away like it should. Yes, there was some disparity in his relationship with Aaron. They had a long history together—longer than any of the other team members. But Aaron never showed him preferential treatment. He used his team—all of them—to their capacity, relying on their unique talents as an effective leader would without favoritism or prejudice.

Of course, Aaron also consulted with him more often, listened to him when he wouldn’t listen to anyone else. And then there were the personal confidences…

But even those wasn’t unusual, especially considering how much time they spent together and—

Dave stopped cold, one hand on the stair rail.

He’d never realized it before, but all told, he’d spent more time with Aaron than anyone else. At work, out in the field, or meeting for the occasional dinner—even his own wives had never had so much of him and the thought was like a blow to the gut.

He glanced around quickly to see if anyone was watching, then shrugged his unease away and continued up the stairs. And he would have kept on going to his own office, but something, maybe a screw you to his own nerves and the seconds-old epiphany made him open Aaron’s door.

The office was neat as always. Not the same kind of neat as his own, but the, I need to keep order or it will overwhelm me, kind. Perfectly natural considering the balancing act Aaron had to maintain. He went to the desk and began moving stacks of folders this way and that. The notebook wasn’t on or under any of them.

“Hey.”

Dave jerked around. Aaron was in the doorway, coat over one arm. “JJ said you were looking for me. What’s up?”

“Do you have my casebook? From the Lyn—”

“Oh…” Aaron nodded and came into the room, draping his coat over the back of his chair. “Yes, I’m sorry. I meant to give it to you yesterday.” He sat his briefcase on the desktop and opened it up. “Here.” He handed the small black notebook to Dave, then said, “And—”

He brought something else out, a photo. He held it out tentatively.

Dave took it. It was a five by seven of Jack, clearly a school photo. He was wearing an Oxford button-down and his hair was slicked back. He was looking directly at the viewer and even though he wasn’t frowning, Dave imagined he could see the hint of sadness in Jack’s eyes.

Aaron closed the briefcase. “I didn’t tell you, but you made a big impression on Jack. He talked of nothing else the week after you took him to the doctor. He wanted you to have a print of his school picture. For your refrigerator, he said.”

Dave smiled. “I love it. Tell him thank you.”

Aaron placed the briefcase on the floor, then sat and began to move things around. First his pencil holder, then his date book, then the stack of file folders, his gestures uncharacteristically fidgety. Just when Dave was getting ready to ask what the hell was wrong with him, he said abruptly, “I was hoping you could tell him yourself.”

“How so?”

“Well, you made such a big impression that he wants to bring you to school. For show and tell.”

Dave laughed, bewildered. “Show and tell? I thought that was where you bring your favorite toy and talk about it? That’s how it was in my day.”

Aaron picked up a folder but didn’t open it. “It still is.”

Dave couldn’t quite tell, but it looked as if Aaron was trying not to smile. “Well?”

“I think he wants to show you off to his friends.”

“What?”

“I told you, big impression.”

Dave sat down. “You’re serious.”

“Yes.”

“You’re a higher rank, why not you?”

“It’s not about rank. I’m his father. I’m not as cool.”

Aaron finally stopped his rearranging and looked up, giving that smile, the small one that Dave had secretly dubbed, Aaron’s Mona Lisa smile—secretive, elusive and more than a little charming.

That odd, out-of-place feeling was back and he crossed his legs, suddenly uncomfortable.

Aaron watched him for a moment, then blurted out, “What did you say to him? He keeps talking about how you go around arresting bad men.”

“We do go around arresting bad men.”

“Yes, but not like that.”

Dave cocked his head. “I can’t even remember what I said. I think it was something to the effect that if he had to go to the hospital, I wouldn’t leave him.” A lie; he remembered perfectly well.

“Well, whatever it was, he thinks you’re the bees knees.”

“Bees knees,” Dave muttered absently. “Why not Morgan or Prentiss?”

“They’re not famous authors. And no…” Aaron held up his hand, forestalling Dave’s objection. “I didn’t tell him and I have no idea how he knows. Maybe Jessica said something.”

“The books again, huh?” Dave murmured, still nonplussed.

“Apparently so.”

“You’re not jealous are you?”

If Aaron weren’t Aaron, he’d roll his eyes. As it was, he shook his head and asked, “Can you do it?”

Dave thought about the day he picked Jack up at school, thought about his reaction when he found out Dave wasn’t going to leave him no matter what and he heard himself saying, “When and where?”

***

This time when he got to the school, the place was hopping. Kids hurried up and down the hall or stood clumped in groups, engrossed in each other, giving him only a passing glance as he strolled by. He remembered his thought from the month before and held back from analyzing the students.

When he was younger and had just joined the FBI, he’d often fantasized about creating a device or methodology that would help him identify psychopaths before they could harm others or themselves. Experience now told him that it was unlikely that the severely damaged could heal just as the so-called ‘normal’ might one day end up on a police blotter.

It was a little depressing.

But—he thought as he got to the office—enough of that. He wasn’t here for work; he was here for Jack.

Today, there was only one woman in the back. She was busy collating and stapling a stack of gold, green and pale blue papers. She didn’t look up when he leaned on the counter. He waited a moment, then cleared his throat.

She peered around a desk lamp. “May I help you?”

He got out his badge and held it up. “I’m Agent Rossi with the FBI. I’m here to see Jack Hotchner.”

“Oh, yes.” She returned to her stapling. “You’re here for show and tell. You need to sign in, please.”

Dave picked up the pen.

“Agent Rossi?”

He glanced around. It was Ms. Williamson. She was wearing a suit this time, well tailored but still, more than a little staid. He held out his hand. “Vice-principal Williamson.”

“I hear you’re going to talk about the life of an FBI agent.”

“Jack told you that?”

She smiled briefly. “He’s very excited.” She turned her ring a few times then clasped her hands. “He did tell some of his classmates that you were going to bring your gun.”

Dave shook his head and signed his name with a flourish. “Don’t worry. The gun stays in its holster.”

“Good. We were a little worried.”

“We?”

“Yes, Principal Miller and I. She—” Williamson cut off. “Here she is now.”

He turned again as a woman came breezing through the doors, herding a scowling boy before her. She was about his age and almost his height. She had short curly reddish hair that his mother would have called, ‘frowzy,’ and cream colored skin—probably African American or mixed race. Her clothing was a little odd—she was wearing beige pants and a pink shirt, but over that, she had on a long, flowing purple robe trimmed with gold and silver stars.

When she saw Dave she smiled. And then winked. “Agent Rossi?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She gently turned the boy so he was facing Dave, saying sternly, “James, this is Agent Rossi with the FBI.”

The boy’s expression changed from grudging fear to true fear.

“He’s here for Jack Hotchner, not you, but you remember he’s just a phone call away. Now, go on into the office; I’ll be there in a minute.” She gave his arm a little pat, calling out as he trudged away. “Just be glad he isn’t here for you, too!” She turned back to Dave with an outstretched hand. “Karen Miller. Good to meet you.”

They shook hands and Dave jerked his head to where the boy was sitting, slumped in a chair. “Trouble?”

She waved his concern away and picked up the register, perusing it quickly. “Nothing we can’t handle. He got a little rambunctious during rehearsal. We’re putting on a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and you know how kids are—anything out of the ordinary and they think it’s time to go crazy. Now…” She put the register down. “I understand you’re visiting Jack Hotchner’s class to talk about being a detective.”

Dave held up his hands, placating and reassuring. “Don’t worry. I have no intention of showing my weapon to a bunch of four-year olds.” Miller choked back a startled smile; Williamson clasped her hands again and shifted from side to side.

Dave wanted to roll his eyes. ‘Weapon’ was always such a loaded word.

The second pun made him grin and Miller blinked. “Anyway,” he tried again, “I’ll be very circumspect and my gun will remain holstered.”

She peered up at him as if he were a perp and she the profiler. “And no gore?”

“No gore.”

“Good.” It was his turn to get patted on the arm. “This isn’t a Quentin Tarantino film.

He snorted softly as she waved and began walking. “C’mon. I’ll walk down with you. He’s in 108.”

The corridor had emptied while he was in the office and their footsteps echoed dully on the tile floor.

Miller said noting until they were past the nurse’s office, then she said, “Jack really started something with you.”

“How so?”

“I’ve got three other kids in his class begging to bring their parents in for show and tell. Generally, we just get Star Wars models, fishing poles, and the occasional geode. Although,” she tapped her finger on her chin, musing, “one memorable year we got a python. That was interesting.”

Dave stopped. The python thing was funny, but— “‘Parents’? Principal. Miller, I’m not Jack’s father.”

“Karen,please. And, yes, we know Aaron is Jack’s birth father, but—”

She waved vaguely and he wanted to laugh. He should have known by some of the looks he’d gotten. “Karen, I hate to break it to you, but Agent Hotchner and I aren’t a couple.”

She raised her eyebrow suspiciously, as if he’d just told her that the earth was flat. “You’re not?”

“No. We are not.”

“Oh. Well…” She began walking. “From what Monica said, I understood that you two were together. And…” She stopped again. “By the things Jack was saying, we just assumed…” She shrugged.

He wanted to ask what the boy had told her, but just said evenly, “Jack’s mother died four months ago.”

All humor left her face. “Yes, she did.”

“Aaron is still grieving.”

“And?”

“And it would be too early for him to start a relationship, don’t you think?” He wasn’t sure why he was so angry. It wasn’t as if her assumptions were born out of malice or mischief. It was a simple mistake that anyone could have made.

“I’m sorry, Agent Rossi. Gossip flies pretty fast around here.”

“Call me Dave, and yes, I’d say it does.”

She shrugged. “I did think it would be out of the question, but Monica kept insisting that you two were an item.”

And now he was angry for another reason—why would it be out of the question? The age difference? The fact that they were both men? And then he realized the direction of his own thoughts and he sighed in exasperation. “Why?”

She opened her mouth to speak, then shook her head quickly. “No, I’ve said too much.”

“If you’ve got something to say, say it.”

He was too abrupt but she met his challenge, looking him straight in the eye. “I haven’t known Aaron Hotchner for very long, but what I’ve noticed is his devotion to Jack.”

“And?”

“I just didn’t think he was the type, that’s all. As you said, his wife has only been dead a few months; it seemed too soon.”

Dave nodded, letting his anger dissipate. They started walking again.

It was interesting that she didn’t dismiss the idea because Aaron couldn’t possibly be gay or at least bisexual—that it was only bad timing that was the issue. He’d need to think on that for a bit. He also needed to think on the fact that it kind of pissed him off that anyone would think he and Aaron couldn’t be an item. “You’d make a good profiler.”

“It comes with the territory. Here we are.” She stopped in front of room 108.

There was one thing he wanted to know. “Who’s Monica?”

“My vice-principal, Monica Williamson. She was heartbroken at the thought that you two were dating.”

Dave cocked his head. Ah. “She’s in love with Aaron.”

“More like a crush. She’s very young.”

“And very married?”

Miller nodded. “But it’s not working out, which means she’s very vulnerable right now. Add to the fact that Agent Hotchner is who he is and…”

She shrugged as if to say, ‘You know what I mean,’ and Dave had another eureka moment. “Was that why there were so many of your staff in the office last time I was here? Because Agent Hotchner was expected?”

“Well…” Karen winked again with a broad grin. “Can you blame them? He’s very good looking.”

“And single.”

“And single and hurting. He’s like catnip to these ladies. And to some of the men, I suppose.”

Dave raised an eyebrow. And made another connection. “I noticed there was only one staff member on hand to greet me today.” He said it with as much affront as possible.

It worked. She cocked her head. And then took his arm. “Don’t worry, Agent Rossi. In time, your fan club will be as big as Agent Hotchner’s. I promise.”

“If you think we’re something, I should bring in the rest of the team.”

“Please don’t. I need my staff to stay focused on work.”

He grinned and she grinned back as she opened the door. “I’ll introduce you to the kids.”

He followed her, suddenly wondering how to break the news to Aaron that they had been a couple, but now they weren’t.

***

“And then what did he say?”

“That I was on TV and wrote a thousand books and had my photo in all of them and that people gave me books to sign.”

Aaron chuckled, the rare sound making Dave smile in return as he walked down the steps of the school.

“And I suppose you didn’t disabuse him of the notion.”

Dave switched the phone to his other ear and pressed the car’s remote. “I did so. I told him that it wasn’t nearly that many. And that I had my photo in only a few.”

“Did you show them your badge?”

“Mm-mm. And my ring.”

“What did they say?”

“That it was heavy.” He got in his car—the day was cool and the heat from the car felt good.

“Did you tell them it was solid gold?”

“I think they figured that one out on their own.” It had been a fun afternoon. The twenty minutes he was supposed to have spent with the class had turned out to be an hour. Karen had stayed to watch, asking some pointed questions, all designed to let kids know what would happen if they strayed to the wrong side of the law.

“I suppose they asked if you’d shot someone.”

“They always do.”

“What did you say?”

“That it was classified information.”

Aaron breathed another laugh. “I bet they loved that.”

“Yeah, they did.”

“Anything else happen?”

“Yeah. Something I think you’ll find pretty funny.” Dave paused for affect, on the verge of asking, ‘Did you know that you and I were sleeping together?’ when Aaron interrupted, “Hold on, Dave.” Aaron covered the phone—Dave could only hear snippets of a conversation, but he thought, Uh-oh.

Sure enough, when Aaron came back on, his voice had changed. “Meet us at the airfield.”

“We’ve got a case?”

“We’ve got a case.”

***

Two days later, weary and still angry, they returned home. It had been a pointless trip. When they got to the tiny town of Ashley, Ohio, the unsubs—or rather, the fake unsubs—were already incarcerated along with the fake victims.

Aaron had insisted on interviewing all nine teenagers and it wasn’t grueling, but it was frustrating—both Dave and Morgan were all for teaching the kids a lesson about hatching a plan designed to make the town think they had been invaded by a Muslim terrorist cell. Aaron, of course, had nixed the idea.

So, one day out, one day back, and the only thing to show for it was a bucket-load of Federal tax money down the drain and hours that could have been better spent. By the time they walked into the bullpen, gear in hand, all Dave wanted was a scotch, a shower and a bed. But, just as he was passing Aaron’s office, Aaron called out, “Dave? Can you come in a moment?”

He stopped and retraced his steps. Aaron was holding a sheet of paper, a curious look in his eye. “What’s up?”

Aaron gave him the paper. “Jessica sent this over for you. It’s from Jack.”

Dave took the paper. It was a drawing in crayon of a man and a boy, both smiling. The man had a beard, a suit, and something on his breast pocket. The boy was wearing a striped shirt and blue pants. Up in the left hand corner was a round yellow ball—it took Dave a moment to realize that it was the sun. Down in the opposite corner, neatly printed by an adult were the words, ‘Agent Rossi and Jack, April 18, 2010.’

He sat down. “It’s a good drawing,” he finally said.

“It is.”

“What’s that on my jacket?”

“I think it’s supposed to be your badge.”

“It looks more like a star. Like a sheriff would wear.”

“When you were four, could you draw an FBI badge?”

“I suppose not.”

“I think it’s good. I was hopeless at art.”

Dave looked up. Aaron was looking at the drawing with pride and a regretful smile and something in Dave’s stomach twisted, sharp and painful. “I bet not, but I love it. Thanks.”

“I told Jack I’d be home early enough to take him out to dinner. Would you like to come?”

He looked back down at the paper. “I think I’ll make it an early night, Hotch.”

“All right.”

Dave got up and was almost out the door when Aaron said, “Dave?”

“Yes?”

“Yesterday, or rather, Tuesday, you had something to tell me. About Jack’s show and tell?”

He stilled, at a loss for words. The joke, only two days old, was suddenly not funny and he couldn’t think now why he’d thought it had been. He shook his head, saying evenly, “It was nothing.”

He left before Aaron could ask again.

_____________________

George Foyet and his girlfriend, Amanda Bertrand, were attacked on a lonely road outside of Boston.

He stopped typing with a frustrated groan, then pushed his chair away from the desk and took off his glasses. The stiffness in his shoulders and back told him he should have stopped hours ago, but he was getting to the good part, the part that tied the previous fifteen thousand words together. He looked at the clock.

It was only eleven. But Monday morning traffic was always a pain in the ass and he liked to get an early start. Maybe for once he’d be a few minutes late—they weren’t on a case and no one would care.

He put his glasses back on and picked up where he’d left off—…on a lonely road outside of Boston, but didn’t get any further—his cell started buzzing as soon as he touched the keyboard. Eleven was too late for most callers, which meant only one thing. He answered it without glancing at the display, muttering, “What have you got, JJ?”

There was a pause, and then a deep voice answered, “It’s your lucky night.”

He grinned and took his glasses off again. “Why lucky?”

“Because you thought we had a case.”

“We don’t?” He quickly closed the laptop. There was something obscene about writing about Foyet while talking to Aaron. “What’s up?”

“I just remembered I have a meeting in the morning. Can we reschedule the critique of the presentation to either later in the day or Tuesday morning?”

“Sure. The symposium isn’t until Friday and the grunt work is done. We can go over the notes on Thursday or even Friday, if you want.”

“No. I’d rather not put it off. I just need a bit more time.”

There was a slight hesitation in Aaron’s tone and Dave found himself asking again, “What’s up?”

Another pause, then, “Nothing.”

“Aaron.”

“It’s nothing, really. I’m just meeting with the director of a new daycare tomorrow.”

Aaron’s voice faded under a soft rustling, then grew clear again and it took Dave a second to realize he was changing his clothes. He nudged the laptop an inch to the right, trying not to picture it, Aaron taking off his shirt. The image didn’t quite go away and he pushed the laptop back to the left. “The current one not panning out?”

“No.”

“Spit it out, Hotch.”

There was a soft squeak, maybe of bedsprings and Aaron said softly, “Jack isn’t happy. I’ve talked to him and tried to tell him that sometimes it takes a while to get used to new places and that it’s only for a few hours in the afternoon. But—” Aaron cleared his throat. “Haley was always the one he’d go to when something was wrong.”

“That’s only natural.”

“I don’t know what to say to him.”

“Well, what is he saying to you?”

“Nothing. I’ve called the director twice and the aides three times. The director said Jack was fine. She said he was quiet at first, but he’s been opening up. He’s even made a few friends.”

“Is it the school? Have you checked it out?”

“Yes.”

“No. I mean, did you check it out?

There was a slight pause, then Aaron said primly, “Dave. You know I wouldn’t abuse my power that way.”

Dave sighed. “Aaron…”

“All right,” Aaron said and even over the phone, Dave knew he was smiling. “Both the school and the daycare have good records. The licenses are all up to date and the staff is clean, including the janitorial and facility employees.”

“Then maybe it’s something else. He’s been through a lot.”

“I know. I also know that Jack hates going and he won’t say why.”

“Hmm.”

“So, back to my original question—is Tuesday all right?”

“Tuesday is fine.”

“Thanks.” Aaron hesitated, then said quietly, “’Night, Dave.”

“Goodnight, Aaron.”

Dave hung up and stared at his laptop. His experience with children was limited to those who had been affected by serious trauma, but even he knew that most kids worked on instinct. Sometimes that instinct was skewed, sometimes not, but it was always there under everything they did. And with a child like Jack, a child whose life had been turned upside down?

He looked at his watch again. Eleven fifteen. Really too late to call, but what the hell, she’d still be up—she was that kind of girl. He scrolled through his cell’s address book, then hit ‘send’ when he found the right number.

He listened to the soft ring, telling himself that he was being ridiculous, that he was probably getting her out of bed for nothing and Aaron wouldn’t appreciate his meddling any—

The call was picked up and Garcia answered cheerfully, “Oh, captain, my captain!”

“I hope I’m not calling too late.”

“Not you. I was just downloa—”

She stuttered to a halt and he wondered what she was going to say. Probably something to do with computers and the internet. “It’s okay. It’s best if I don’t know.”

“Yes, it is, and what can I do you for?”

Her voice was happy again and he smiled. “How would you like to do a little undercover work for me?”

“Ooh, unofficial?”

“The unofficialest.”

He could actually hear her clap her hands. “Tell, tell, tell.”

“It’s about Hotch.”

“His birthday is on—”

“No, I know when his birthday is. What I want to know is everything about Jack’s daycare.”

“Jack?” she asked, surprised. “As in little J. Hotchner?”

“The same.”

“What are you looking for?”

“I don’t know. Just—” He waved his hand even though she couldn’t see it. “Do what you do. See if everything is all right. See if there’s been any recent trouble.”

“Sir?” Her voice lowered. “Is this something we should involve Hotch in?”

“No, I don’t think so. If there is a situation, it’s doubtful it’s illegal or even dangerous. It’s just something I’m wondering about.”

“Say no more. Garcia to the rescue!”

He smiled, picturing her thrusting her finger into the air like a sword. “And this is between us, right? I’ll tell Hotch if you find anything but until then…”

“Until then. Got it. Mum’s the word.”

“Thanks, sweetheart.”

“Oh, baby,” she purred in that phone-sex voice of hers, “for you, anything.”

He chuckled as he hung up. And then remembered Aaron’s worry and his laughter died.

***

Two days later he was sitting on a bench in the plaza, reviewing his notes from his meeting with Aaron when his cell rang. And even though he was expecting it, anticipation made his heart jerk when he read the caller I.D. He answered, “Make my day, honey.”

“You know, if you keep talking to me like that, people will talk.”

“More than they talk about you and Morgan?”

“Definitely. And…” Her voice grew serious and he thought, ‘Here we go.’ “I’ve got some unofficial info for you.”

He leaned back and crossed his legs. “Let’s hear it.”

“Well…” He could hear her typing away. “Both the school and the daycare checked out. Administrators, staff—they’re all clean.”

Aaron had said as much, but it was nice to have that confirmed. “Okay.”

“The parents check out as well. Without violating too many civil rights, I found out that there’s the average number of domestic problems—divorces, re-marriages, the whole shooting match. All in all, they’re a pretty normal bunch.”

“Okay,” Dave said again, his heart sinking. Who would’ve thought that he’d be this disappointed to find out that the school wasn’t the source of Jack’s unhappiness?

“There are two sex offenders in the area.”

He sat up straight. “That’s not good.”

“No, it’s not. I checked their records and they were both arrested for solicitation. Like a dozen times each, but no kiddy ickiness or anything like that. But, and this is the good news, they don’t live close to the daycare or the school and they report regularly.”

“So it’s not that,” he sighed. What a relief. “What else?”

“The kids in the daycare are pretty normal. Across the board normal. They’ve got above average grades and are active in the community. It’s part of the daycare’s mandate that even the afterschool kids take part in local events, charity drives, etcetera, etcetera—”

“I’m hoping there’s a ‘but’ coming up.”

“Well, I’m getting to that because one of the other mandates is that the daycare requires at least one parent to be active in the child’s afterschool projects. They say it’s to help transition the parents as well as the children, once the kids graduate to regular, full-time school.”

Dave rubbed his beard. “And?”

Garcia’s voice softened to a murmur. “And they’ve got a bunch of photos up on their website and all these photos show the kids doing stuff like making posters and cards and gifts for the elderly and the like. And in each of the photos, the parents are helping them, mostly moms because even in this day and age, moms are more involved than dads.”

Dave closed his eyes. He was an idiot. He should have known. Maybe it was just that his own school days were so far in the past. Or maybe he was too used to trauma and forgot how insidious and sneaky grief could be.

“Sir?” Garcia asked tentatively.

“Sorry. I was just thinking.”

“Me too. See,” she whispered. “What if these moms and dads are evil and are keeping their kids away from Jack because his dad is in the FBI. Or maybe,” she added excitedly before Dave could speak. “Maybe they heard about Foyet and don’t want to have any of that rub off on their own kids even though there’s noway that—”

“Garcia?”

“I mean, it’s not like that psycho had anything to do with Jack and —”

“Garcia.”

“Or! It could be that they don’t know that Foyet was—”

“Penelope!”

“Sorry,” she said, her voice suddenly small. “Sorry, sir.”

Dave sighed and said gently, “It’s all right, but the parents aren’t doing anything to Jack.”

“They’re not?”

“No.”

“Then what is it?”

“Look at the pictures again and think about what Jack is up against, day after day. What he’s missing—no, who he’s missing—day after day.”

It took her a moment and then she whispered, “Oh,” and then again, even softer, “Oh.

Dave nodded. “Yeah. Oh.”

***

He sat on the news for the next few days, waiting for Aaron to bring up the subject of the daycare, but he waited in vain. Aaron was completely focused on their lecture and ignored all the nudges and cues Dave threw his way.

Finally, he decided that he’d bring it up after their presentation on stalking was over. Then he’d drag Aaron out to a bar and tell him why Jack suddenly hated his daycare. And then he’d drag Aaron to dinner, which would be a harder task, because at that point, Aaron would be blaming himself and would want to fire up the jet and get home. And he might as well have some food in him before all that happened.

Dave’s loosely formed scheme didn’t go quite as planned. When he and Aaron got up to speak, his opening remarks were stalled by a faulty multi-media system and the IT kid who had decided on an early dinner. Wishing Garcia had wings, he waited until the hotel manager found a replacement IT kid; by the time he finished his part of the talk, they were almost an hour late.

He listened as Aaron expanded on the bullet points he’d already given and then joined in for their closing remarks. Hoping the crowd was as hungry as he was, he sighed in disappointment when more than a few hands shot up after Aaron asked, “Any questions?”

The question and answer period lasted another hour and it was after eight when they finally packed up their notes and left the hall.

Outside, the crowd had thinned down. Only the diehards and the cleaning crew were left. Dave made quick work of the former by touching Aaron’s arm and guiding him to the service hall and then to the foyer.

When they got to the elevators, he pressed the call button and said, “Meet me down in the bar in a few minutes? We can get dinner later.” In the polished fake brass of the elevator door, he could see Aaron frown.

“Actually, I was going to skip dinner and go to bed.”

Dave shook his head at Aaron’s reflection. “No, you’re not.” A woman came up behind them; she was loaded down with shopping bags and boxes.

“I’m not?” Aaron asked.

“No. After the day we just had, we’re going to relax.”

“Going to bed is relaxing.”

“Not the way you do it. You’ll end up surrounded by the notes of your notes and forget to sleep.”

“Dave—”

“Aaron, you might as well quit while you’re ahead. You know I won’t give up on this.” The woman was pretending not to listen, but not doing a very good job of it.

And Aaron must’ve realized that as well, because he glanced back briefly, then gave in. “Okay.”

“Good.”

“I need to call Jack first.”

“Fine.”

“Let’s skip the bar and go straight to dinner. I’m hungry.”

See? “Fine.”

“Meet me back here in thirty minutes?”

“Fine.”

***

When he returned to the lobby, he wasn’t surprised to find that Aaron wasn’t there. Jack would have more than a few questions about what they were doing and Aaron would want to know how the school day went. He found a chair, sat down and crossed his legs. Sure enough it was ten minutes before the elevator doors opened and Aaron stepped off, cell phone to his ear, saying something about a book before bedtime.

Oddly enough, he’d changed and was wearing slacks and a sweater over a t-shirt. He rarely dressed down in public—Dave had always figured it was his way of putting up an organized, professional front for the public even if the public didn’t know who he was.

Aaron looked around, saw him and waved. When he got closer, Dave realized that he’d shaved, as well. His jaw was smooth and he smelled of something quietly fragrant and sensual.

Huh.
***

Neither of them was in a mood for trying out the unknown, so they ended up at the restaurant on the top floor of the hotel. The place was mostly empty and they had their pick of seats. Dave chose the window side—why look at a boring wall when you had a great view of the city?

Aaron ordered a salad and Perrier. Dave ordered a steak and a scotch. They exchanged small smiles when the waiter left—their eating habits hadn’t changed much over the years, although Dave ate more vegetables in an effort to, ‘Catch up with all those years of not eating right,’ as his doctor put it.

They said nothing as they waited for their drinks.

Dave hated and loved the aftermath of a lecture or book reading. It was wonderful to relax and let go, but it was also the time when he heard all his little mistakes and misspeaks. He’d learned to ignore the urge to review and instead concentrate on the now and he was in the perfect place for it. The restaurant was designed for the view but the rest of the decor wasn’t quite as boring as he’d first thought. The lights and music matched the dark paint and wood—both were pleasantly romantic. It was the kind of place you’d take a loved one after hours in bed.

Startled, he smiled and Aaron cocked his head as if to ask, ‘What?’ but just then, the waiter came back with their drinks.

Dave sipped his slowly, loving the way the alcohol unfurled in his stomach, the way it warmed his hands. All false heat, of course, but still, it felt wonderful. He glanced out the window again—Philadelphia was one of his favorite cities and it was nice to be here with one of his favorite people. He turned back and found Aaron smiling softly down at the table.

“What is it?” He took another sip.

Aaron slid his glass from hand to hand before saying, “Nothing. Just thinking.”

“About?”

“That trip to Bozeman.”

“Bozeman?”

“Hm-mm.”

Dave frowned, then remembered. “That was the first case we worked together outside of Quantico.”

“Yes. Ray had just retired, Katie was in Phoenix and Gideon was in Pittsburgh.”

Dave nodded, musing, “Walter Massey. The kid who terrorized the staff of the retirement community. His grandfather had a heart attack and the facility’s attendants wouldn’t perform CPR because he was gay and they thought he had AIDS.”

“That’s the one.”

“What about it?”

“Do you remember Detective Castallenos?”

“I recall that he gave you a lot of grief when he found out you were a prosecutor. It turned out that his wife had just left him for the same.”

“Yes.”

Dave waited and when Aaron didn’t elaborate, he asked, “And?”

“And, that last day when Massey had been taken into custody, Castallenos and I got into it.” Aaron glanced up. “Did you know?”

“I knew something was off,” Dave said slowly, trying to remember. Castallenos had been abrasive and touchy, not wanting to give the BAU an ounce of respect. Fairly normal back then, but still… “I just assumed that he’d been riding you about being an attorney.”

“No, that wasn’t it. You’d left to do a follow-up interview with the staff and he and I were in his office, going over the timeline that we’d pulled together.”

“Yeah. You called me at some point and told me that you were taking a break—I remember. What happened?”

“He found out you and I were sharing a room and began to make all sorts of insinuations.”

Dave raised his eyebrows and breathed a laugh. “You’re kidding?”

“I told him I was married. I reminded him of Bureau policy, and that due to the BAU’s non-existent budget, everyone doubled up.”

“But he thought it was more than that?”

“He’d noticed, he said, that I always stayed one step behind you. That I deferred to you in everything. And that I watched you too much.”

A little flicker of heat burned Dave’s chest, but he just said evenly, “What did you do?”

“I told him that the case would be far better served if he would pay attention to the task at hand. That he was officious and pedestrian-minded.” Aaron glanced down again. “And that you were ten times the agent he was and anyone would be lucky to work with you.”

Dave grinned. He could just imagine it. Even back then, Aaron had a way about him, concise and dry, bordering on patrician. And for those he considered fools…? “I bet he loved that.”

“He did not. He said it just proved that I was sleeping with you and then he asked me if that wasn’t against the Bureau’s policies, as well.”

“What did you say?”

“I told him that it was interesting that his first thought ran to an affair and that pots always called the kettles black. And then I asked which one of his team was he sleeping with.”

“Jesus, Aaron.” Dave chuckled and shook his head. “No wonder he wasn’t around the next day.”

“He wasn’t around because he lunged at me and I hit him.”

Dave froze, glass halfway to his mouth. “You what?”

“I hit him.”

“Did anyone see?”

“No, but at the time I didn’t care enough to look.”

“You were lucky he didn’t report you.”

“He was lucky I pulled the punch.”

“I would’ve loved to have seen that,” Dave said a little wistfully. Aaron had been so different back then. The same passion and fearlessness, but softer even though he’d never been soft. And he used to laugh more, smile more—Haley had been right about that.

Aaron looked out the window. “I’m glad you didn’t. I was ashamed.”

“Because you lost control?”

Aaron shook his head and murmured, “Because you deserved better, even though you knew nothing about it.”

“Aaron…” he said helplessly. He didn’t want that kind of hero worship, not from Aaron. Slight age discrepancy or no, one of the things he’d loved about their relationship was that they were equals. When he screwed up, Aaron called him on it. When Aaron screwed up, he did the same—they balanced each other out.

But he couldn’t say any of that so he changed the subject. “Hotch, I wanted to tell you something about Jack.”

Aaron’s head shot up. “What about him?” He reached in his pocket and got out his cell.

Dave waved him back. “He’s fine. I just—”

Aaron’s eyes narrowed and he didn’t put the cell away. “What have you done?”

“Nothing illegal. I was just worried about Jack. After what you said about the daycare.”

Aaron leaned back and studied him for a long moment, then muttered, “So you investigated it?”

“Well, yes and no. I asked Garcia for some help.”

“Dave—”

“Don’t worry. Erin already questioned me about it. It’s fine.”

“What did you tell her?”

“That it was part of a case and it wasn’t any of her business.”

Aaron rubbed his forehead. “Dave.”

“It’s okay. She and I understand each other.”

“I know.” Aaron put the cell back in his pocket. “Sometimes I wonder if you’ve got some really good blackmail material on her.”

Dave smiled. “I wish.”

“So what is it?”

“Last week, you mentioned Jack wasn’t happy and even with his recent history, a kid just doesn’t become unhappy over nothing.”

“I know. And?”

This required a bit of delicacy—Aaron was going to beat himself up when he learned what Garcia had found out. “The staff is clean. Squeaky clean, in fact. No arrests, no convictions.”

“All things I already knew and told you.”

Dave ignored that. “They do, however, ask that the parents involve themselves on the day-to-day projects—”

“Yes, I know,” Aaron broke in. “I made sure they understood I was unavailable for much of the time. They said they’d work with my schedule.”

“They are, they are.” Dave gestured again, trying to calm Aaron down. “The thing is, Jack doesn’t care about that—why should he? So he goes each day and what does he see? And remember, most dads have day jobs.”

Aaron’s frown slowly dissolved into a look that Dave was expecting. Like Garcia, he softly said, “Oh.” And then, “I should have thought about that.”

“Between your fourteen-hour day job and trying to take care of your four-year old son? How would you’ve thought of that?”

“I don’t know, but I’m the adult. It’s my responsibility.” Aaron bowed his head as his mouth thinned in a tight line of self-recrimination and anger.

Without thinking, Dave reached out and laid his hand over Aaron’s. “Look at me.” And when Aaron didn’t move, he tightened his grip. “Aaron.” Aaron finally looked up and he murmured, “When Jack is thirty, I want you to ask him if he remembers the daycare, if he remembers being lonely and missing his mom.”

“I know what you’re trying to say, but—”

“What I’m saying, is now you know what’s going on, so now you can step in.” He squeezed again, hard enough that he could feel the fine bones of Aaron’s hand. “That’s your job. You’re there to help and guide when Jack needs it. But you’re not omnipotent and you’re not a mind reader.”

“No,” Aaron said after a minute. Then, “So what do I do?”

“Maybe you can talk to the director. Maybe one of the other moms can help out. Or a nanny?”

“No.” Aaron shook his head sharply. “I don’t want Jack relying on someone who might not be there in a week or a month.”

“What about Jessica?”

“She offered, but she’s so busy.”

“Can you have her trade off? Maybe spend a few hours a week at the daycare, then give her some nights off?”

Aaron frowned. “I’m not sure if I can handle it. It’s all I can do to find time as it is. I should step down—if I weren’t section chief, I wouldn’t have all this paperwork.” He looked up again and his eyes were filled with such doubt and worry that Dave found himself saying, “Then let me help.”

“What?”

“You know this job is mostly paperwork. I’m generally done by four. Which gives me plenty of time to get to the daycare to pick up Jack if you need me.”

“I can’t ask you to do that.”

“You’re not asking. I’m offering.”

“Dave—”

“Hotch.” He squeezed once again, then let go. “You’re making a big deal out this. It’s not a big deal.” His palm was cold and somehow empty. “It actually makes a sense, now that I think about it. My class at Quantico doesn’t start until the summer so it’s not like my schedule is crammed. Besides, it’s not a hell of a lot more than I do now. How many times have you needed help in the past few months?”

Aaron shrugged. “Not very often.”

“See?” He relaxed, hitching one elbow on the armrest, consciously arrogant. “It’s a done deal. Talk to Jessica—if she needs time off in the next couple weeks, just let me know.”

Aaron mirrored Dave’s pose, chin tipped up in a familiar pose of assessment. “Okay.”

“Yeah?” he asked, a little skeptical, surprised at Aaron’s easy capitulation.

“Yeah. We’ll try it for a month. If it doesn’t work out or interferes with your job performance, I’ll figure something else out.”

Dave smiled and drank the last of his scotch. It would work out. He’d make it work out.

They didn’t talk much after that. The food arrived within minutes and as they ate, they stayed away from the iffy subject of family and kept to the safer dissection of the presentation and the hoped-for results.

***

It was later on, when he was in the bathroom brushing his teeth, that he remembered Aaron’s words, ‘I don’t want Jack relying on someone who might not be there in a week or a month.’

He paused, toothbrush still stuck in his mouth, staring at his reflection. Interesting that Aaron hadn’t put him in the same category as the casual acquaintances that would breeze in and out of Jack’s life. Interesting that he assumed Dave would be there in the future.

He shrugged at himself, gave his back molars a good scrub, then bent over the sink and spit.

_____________________

Nothing changed at first.

He went to work as usual, did the job and when the day was done, he went home. He wasn’t disappointed he told himself that second week when  Aaron hadn’t brought up the subject of Jack. But he wondered if Aaron hadn’t believed him or if he was still trying to go it alone with only Jessica for help.

That Sunday evening, he was at his place standing in front of the refrigerator, trying to decide if he were in the mood for pasta or steak when his phone buzzed. It was a text from Strauss, sent to the whole team. A small town outside St. Louis had been hit with three murders and even though the local PD was hesitant to call it the work of a serial killer, they thought it best not to take chances. He answered the text, saying that he’d be at the airfield by seven, then made a quick bowl of pasta and peas.

***

The team landed in St. Louis at eight and was on the job by nine. They spent the next day tracking down a man who liked to break into elderly women’s homes and attack them with a nine-inch butcher knife.

The case was over before they got too far in. Thanks to a news report that JJ helmed, the unsub discovered they were hot on his trail and got scared. He showed up at a precinct, knife and rope in his backpack, trying to explain why he’d been forced to kill the women. He was incarcerated by five and they were back on the plane by sunset.

The minute they lifted off, Aaron got out his phone and called Jessica. Dave was sitting across from him and he made no bones about listening in, the upshot being that they were on their way home and would land by eight.

Aaron hung and Dave asked, “Everything okay?”

“Yes. She’s going to leave as soon as I get home.”

He closed his casebook. “She’s got something going on?”

Aaron looked out the window. “Her study group is meeting tomorrow and she needs to prepare.”

“And?”

“And, Jack’s first t-ball game is tomorrow. I was hoping she could go.”

He crossed his legs. “Then it’s a good thing I’m not busy, isn’t it?” When Aaron looked over, he smiled.

_____________________

He slowed down and took a right into the parking lot. It was packed with SUVs and Volvos and it came to him that it would be interesting to build a method of profiling based on an unsub’s choice of car. Maybe it had already been attempted—he’d ask Reid about it.

He tapped his cell. “Okay, Aaron, I’m here.”

“Good.”

“It wasn’t as hard to find as you said.”

“I know. I just didn’t want you to end up in—”

‘Mr. Greason’s long drive,’ yeah, I remember.” He pulled in next to a gleaming black Volvo and cut the engine. “Who is that guy, anyway?” There was a long pause. “C’mon, spill.”

Aaron sighed and murmured, “It’s public record so it doesn’t matter… Greason got his money from real estate, seemingly legitimate. He has fifty acres, owns twelve horses and five Rottweilers.”

Dave got out of the car and locked it. He didn’t look around as he made his way towards the entrance of the ballpark. “The last of which chased Haley down when she made the mistake of turning into the property. I bet they gave her a scare.”

“They terrified her. It made her rethink our decision to sign Jack up at the school. We had a fight about it.”

Aaron’s voice was too quiet and Dave changed the subject. “When did Rottweilers replace Dobermans as the guard dog of choice?”

“Who knows?”

“Ten, fifteen years ago?”

“Maybe.”

He reached the entrance. It was empty except for the elderly man at the booth. “I’m about to go in.” He gave the man a ten, got a five and a half a ticket in exchange. Ahead and to the left lay the stands and the fields, to the right was a big open space, probably where the teams gathered. His only option was the stands. “Gotta go. See you soon.”

“Tell Jack I’ll see him after the game at the latest.”

“I will. Say hi to Erin.”

“You know I won’t.”

There was a smile in Aaron’s voice and Dave smiled as well. “If she keeps you longer than an hour, get up and leave. You just put in a seventy-hour week. Remind her of that and remind her it’s Friday.”

“Dave, I am not going to just get up and leave. That might work for you, but not for me.”

More’s the pity. “So, we’ll see you in a couple hours?”

“At the latest. Thanks for doing this.”

Aaron hung up and Dave switched off the phone and pocketed it. He’d tried to take his time at the booth, making it seem as if he were in no hurry, but now he had to move. He found the perfect spot—a wide pillar that supported the stands. He ducked behind it and leaned against the cool concrete and settled in.

He didn’t have long to wait. Within seconds he heard gravel slide and crunch—someone of considerable size and weight was walking toward him. When his stalker got to the pillar, the footsteps slowed then stopped; he could almost feel the presence on the other side.

He waited another heartbeat, then said loudly, conversationally, “You really need to take a refresher course in Stalking Your Co-workers, 101.”

There was a deep laugh, then Morgan rounded the pillar. He was wearing sunglasses and his ID. “Need some work?”

“You do.” He nodded to Morgan’s ID for emphasis.

Morgan made a face and removed the card and pocketed it. “When did you realize?”

Dave jerked his head and they walked out into the sun. “I saw you get off the elevator in the basement. You know that mirror on the east side?”

Morgan smiled and shook his head. “Damn.”

“You won’t make that mistake again.”

“No, I won’t.” Morgan looked around. “What are you doing here?”

“Taking in a ball game.”

Morgan shrugged. “Okay, play it that way.”

He hid his smile at Morgan’s tone. He looked around—the park was large with four fields, and according to Aaron, Jack’s team would be playing on the very last one. But where to sit? There was really only the choice of the nosebleed seats because the stands were as full as the parking lot. He nodded towards the center aisle and they began to climb.

“I mean,” Morgan added, “you either have a secret life with a secret kid or you’re here for Jack.”

“What I wouldn’t give to answer to the former.”

Morgan chuckled, then murmured, “So, Rossi?”

“Yes?”

“Will I have to follow you again?”

“You didn’t have to follow me today.”

“That’s not an answer.”

Dave stopped and turned. “There’s nothing going on, Derek. I’m just helping out. Like I said the other two times you asked.”

Morgan shook his head. “Uh-uh, man. I know you and I know Hotch. Something’s going on.”

Dave smiled blandly. “These okay?” He gestured to the top row.

Clearly not done with the conversation, Morgan bowed. “After you.”

***

“C’mon, Jack! Go for it!”

Dave winced and glared. Morgan could really belt it out. “Do you really think he can hear you from this distance?”

“It’s what you do at your kid’s game, man.” Morgan grinned and sat back down.

“He’s not your kid.”

“No, he’s not.”

Dave adjusted his glasses. The sun was had moved west and it was getting cooler. “If I go deaf, I’m blaming you.”

“If you go deaf, you and Hotch can talk to each other in sign language.”

“Hotch isn’t deaf,” Dave muttered, strangely pissed off. “His hearing loss was minimal and you know it.”

“No offense, man. I was just joking.” Morgan waved without taking his eyes off Jack, running to second base. When he made it, Morgan jumped up again and shouted, “Way to go, Jack! Hold tight!” He sat down with a big smile.

Dave sighed. He’d played sports when he was a kid—every boy did; baseball, basketball, a little football. But things had changed since then—it was all too serious. The parents were so involved, the equipment so expensive. Jack’s team had professional-looking uniforms that they’d no doubt grow out of in six months.

Even the kids themselves had changed.They were supposedly all the same grade, but look at that kid on the mound. He had to be between four and five and yet he was a foot taller than Jack. And, unfortunately for Jack’s team, he was good. The next batter hit the ball but the pitcher caught it, then pivoted and threw to third. Jack didn’t have a chance—he got tagged and the game was over.

“Oh, well,” Morgan said with a sigh. “Too bad Hotch missed it.”

“I told you he probably wouldn’t make it.”

“Yes, you did. You want to go get a drink?” Morgan gestured to the cart down by the first field. “It’s probably just Kool-Aid.”

He nodded; they got up and ambled down the steps. “More like it’s imported Vichy water. And it’s just as well.”

“You mean because Hotch wouldn’t be happy that I’m here?”

“Not being happy would be putting it mildly. You know how prickly he is about privacy. And if he finds out you followed me?” Dave shrugged. Jack’s team was trudging towards their coach, dejection in every move.

“I’m leaving, anyway—what he doesn’t know, won’t hurt him.” Morgan stepped aside for two women with a smile. Dave didn’t have to see their response to know that they’d stopped in their tracks and were staring. Morgan had that effect on a lot of people.

“Do you still think I’m hiding something?” They edged their way around a group of kids waiting their turn at a field.

“Hey, I didn’t say you were hiding anything. I just said that you’ve been very mysterious about your comings and goings in the past few weeks, that’s all.”

He stuck his hands in his pockets. “That’s sort of the same thing, isn’t it?”

They got to the cart and Morgan began fishing around in the iced-filled well. “No, the former is an absolute, the latter…” He shrugged and shook his head. “Not so much. Do you want a Sun Tea or orange juice?”

“Semantics.”

“Sun Tea or orange juice?” Morgan said again, this time a little more curtly.

“Tea.”

Morgan handed him a bottle, then got a carton of juice and handed the vendor a five.

Dave unscrewed the cap and took a sip. Not as good as scotch, but  still, it tasted great after an hour in the sun.

Yesterday it had been cool, today it was hot. Tomorrow was supposed to be cool again—all in all, a fairly typical spring but he wondered if the sudden changes were getting too much. A few days ago, he’d received an email from a friend who’d recently moved to Phoenix. She’d gotten tired, she wrote, of changing her tires in the winter and spring. She wanted to live in a place where the weather was always the same.

Dave had dutifully written back saying he understood and if he was ever out in Phoenix, he’d look her up. But inside, he couldn’t help a flash of unease. Would he, one day, be following the same flight pattern? Was he getting soft?

He took another sip, deciding that no, he hadn’t gotten soft. Pretty much the opposite—just lately he’d felt more invigorated and alive than he had in a long time and he couldn’t imagine wanting to change that.

Morgan drank the juice in one go, then said, “You want to go congratulate Jack?”

Dave glanced at where Jack and his team were huddled around the coach. They were probably listening to a pep talk. “In a minute. It looks like they’re busy.”

“Sounds good. Are you hungry? We could get a dog.”

He was about to answer in the negative when he heard a cheerful, “Agent Rossi?”

They both turned and he smiled. She was making her way towards them, threading through groups of parents, nodding and saying hello. When she got closer, he held out his hand. “Principal Miller. It’s good to see you again.” She was wearing bright green today, a sort of floral print with big white flowers. If she had a large hat, she’d look like she was at a garden party or the Kentucky Derby.

She shot Morgan a quick look. “I told you to call me Karen. And this…” She turned to Morgan. “I suppose, is another FBI agent?” She held out her hand.

Morgan smiled and even Dave was dazzled. “Derek Morgan, ma’am.”

She shook her head. “Where do they find you all?”

Morgan raised an eyebrow and shot Dave a quick look. “I’m sorry?”

“Karen,” Dave intervened, “contrary to what you’re thinking, we all don’t have his looks or my charm.” She laughed and he added, “Most of us are fairly normal.”

“That’s not what you said last time.” She smiled again, this time professionally. “You’re here for Jack?”

“We are. Aaron is going to try to make it.”

“I hope he does. Jack will be so happy.”

She didn’t say more—she didn’t have to. He knew that Jack needed someone there at his school events because Haley was out of the picture. And that reminded him— “Damn.”

“What?” Morgan asked.

“I should have brought a camera. I didn’t even think about it.”

“Call Hotch and see if he has one.”

“That’s okay,” Karen said. “Our school photographer is making sure we get photos.”

“That’s nice of you.”

“All part of the service.” She glanced to the side and her smiled died. “And speaking of service, I have to go. There’s a certain eleven-year old that thinks she can get away with smoking under the bleachers.” She patted Morgan’s arm distractedly. “Good meeting you, Agent Morgan.” And then she was off in a swirl of green, striding towards the stands.

Morgan said thoughtfully, “I like her.”

“So do I.”

“Do you think she needs help?”

“No, not her. She’s tough.” Sure enough, Miller had the girl out in under a minute. She ushered the girl toward a group of parents and by the set of her face, she was giving the girl the riot act.

He watched her absently, thinking that a hotdog, even a school hotdog, was starting to sound really good when a flash of white caught his eye.

The walkway in front of the bleachers was solid with parents and kids but even so, the tall figure weaving in and out of the crowd stood out, probably because he’d taken off his jacket and his white shirt almost glowed in the sun. He looked around, scanning the crowd until he saw Dave. He waved. And then stopped waving when he recognized Morgan.

Dave smiled again, this time a little smugly. He downed the rest of the tea and threw the bottle in the recycling bin. “So what Hotch knows won’t hurt him?”

“Nope.”

“Then you won’t mind explaining that to him yourself?”

Morgan followed Dave’s glance and muttered, “Shit.” And then again, “Shit.”

Because even though Aaron was wearing sunglasses, the downturn of his mouth said he wasn’t happy. In fact, he looked pissed. He was hurrying forward in that swift, yard-eating stride of his, shoulders forward, tie fluttering across his chest.

When he met up with them, he nodded to Dave without looking at him, then said, “Morgan.”

“Hey, Hotch, nice—”

“What are you doing here?”

Morgan gestured to the field, the players. “You know, just enjoying some ball.”

“How did you find out about the game?” He shot Dave a sideways glance.

“It wasn’t Rossi, if that’s what you’re getting at. He didn’t say a thing. I just found out about it and—”

Aaron stepped in, invading Morgan’s personal space. “How did you ‘just find out about it?’ We have a no coworker-profiling rule, remember? That includes snooping.”

Even Dave, who was expecting something of the sort, was startled. Morgan frowned, face changing with building anger. He held up his hands and stepped back. “Hey man, I just—”

“Morgan?” Dave said quietly—they were starting to get some looks. “Do you mind if I speak to Hotch for a moment?” He took off his sunglasses.

Morgan shook his head without taking his eyes from Aaron, but finally, he shrugged and walked away. Dave turned back to Aaron. “What was that all about?”

“We keep our private lives private, Dave. You know that.”

He made a  face. “No, we don’t, Aaron. At least, not always. We don’t make a regular habit of it, but we get together for lunch and dinner. You do too, when you have the time.”

“That’s different.”

“How? And will you take off those sunglasses? I feel like you’re gonna arrest me.”

Aaron scraped his glasses off and glared. In the bright sun, his normally dark eyes were a muddy green. “There’s a difference between having the occasional after-work drink and injecting ourselves into each other’s lives.”

“‘Injecting ourselves?’” Dave’s hands clenched against a sharp jolt of anger. “Are you talking about me?”

“No, of course not.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

Dave nodded, his quick anger already subsiding; Aaron was telling the truth, but what did he mean about— “It’s not just Morgan coming to the game, is it?” He watched Aaron carefully, searching for clues. “It’s about us.”

Aaron narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean?”

“The BAU. You don’t want us around Jack.”

Aaron hesitated, and yeah, bingo. Dave nodded again, this time with understanding. “You think if we’re around him too much, he’ll hear stories he shouldn’t, see things he shouldn’t. Maybe even begin to look up to us?”

“He already does.”

“You and Morgan maybe, but the rest of us?” He waved his hand dismissively, making a joke of it. Aaron didn’t smile and Dave gripped his arm. “Hotch. Do you really hate what you do that much?”

That got an instant response. Aaron straightened and squared his shoulders. “Of course not. I think I’ve proven that more than a few times. But I wouldn’t wish this job on anyone, Dave, especially not my own son.”

“But that’s not your choice to make, Aaron. At least, it won’t be in a few years’ time. And if you make a fuss, guess what’s going to happen? Jack is too young to pick up on any undercurrents now, but he won’t be too young forever.”

Aaron pressed his lips together and looked down at the ground. He was thinking about it, and Dave could literally see the moment when his fear and anger gave way to logic. His shoulders sagged and he nodded, still looking down. “You’re right. I know it’s foolish, but I just want—”

He shrugged and Dave finished silently, ‘What’s best for my son.’ Or, ‘My son to be free of fear and pain for the rest of his life.’

Two completely normal reactions, impossible though they might be. Dave stepped closer and relaxed his fingers, holding instead of grabbing. “Being a father—or a mother for that matter—has to be the toughest job around. Every parent wants their child to be safe, Aaron.”

“I know.”

“And he will be because you’ll be there.”

Aaron looked up. They weren’t plastered against each other but they were close enough that he could feel the heat of Aaron’s body, the movement of his ribs as he breathed. Too close and for some reason, too intimate. He was about to step back, when he felt the weight of a stare on the nape of his neck. He looked around—Monica Williamson was about twenty feet away, arms crossed tight over her breasts, watching them.

He met her gaze and refused his first instinct—to jump back and drop Aaron’s arm like a hot potato. She finally turned away and melted into the crowd.

“Dave?”

Aaron hadn’t missed the exchanged, but there was no way to explain it. “It’s nothing.”

“She works at Jack’s school. She’s the vice-principal.”

He let go and smiled blandly. “Yeah, I know. I met her the day I picked Jack up.”

“What is it?”

“Nothing. So…” He made his voice light, dismissing Williamson while averting more questions. “Are you going to can Morgan for going to your son’s t-ball game?” He gestured and they turned as one and began to walk towards the last field.

“No, it’s fine.”

“Because I’m sure there’s a Bureau rule against it. You could write him up; he could be gone by tonight.”

Aaron snorted softly, then put his sunglasses back on, murmuring, “You are so dramatic.”

He grinned and had to stop himself from touching Aaron’s arm again.

By the time they got to the field, the kids from both teams were milling about, drinking Gatorade. Morgan was with Jack, crouched in front of him, smiling as he listened to whatever Jack was saying.

When Jack saw Aaron, his face lit up and he ran over, arms raised. Morgan straightened up, but stayed where he was.

“Dad!” Jack shouted. “I hit the ball, straight out like you said.”

Aaron swung him up. “That’s great. Did you make it to home?”

Jack’s face fell. “No. I got tagged.”

Aaron hugged him, smiling at Dave over Jack’s shoulder. “That’s okay, buddy. This is your first year. You have to expect those things.”

“That’s what Morgan said.”

“Well.” He exchanged a long look with Morgan. “He’s a smart guy. I would listen to him if I were you.”

“Dad? James is having a party next week. He wants me to come. Can I?”

“Who is James?”

“James is my friend,” Jack answered, as if that explained it all and he pointed to where a group of kids were playing. “He’s over there.”

“I’ll need to talk to his parents first. What’s his last name?”

“Martinez. They have a swimming pool and a puppy and a hot tub. Can I go?”

Dave said sotto voce, hoping Morgan was too far away to hear. “I met them at show and tell. Jason Martinez works in IT at Quantico and Alison works at Potomac Hospital.” Meaning, they seemed okay.

Aaron nodded slowly. “Okay, let me talk to them, but it should be all right. Just remember, no hot tub.”

“Yay!” Jack squirmed and Aaron sat him down so he could run back to the group.

“You do know he’ll be begging for a puppy from now on, right?” Dave asked cheerfully as Morgan finally joined them.

Aaron sighed. “I know.”

Morgan shot Dave a quick glance, then asked, “Hey, Hotch, are we okay?”

“Yes, we’re okay,” Aaron said. “I’m sorry. It’s just that I—” He broke off.

Morgan shook his head and said quietly, “No, man, you don’t have to explain anything to me. I know you’re worried about him, being around us so much. But you gotta know, I would protect that kid with my life.”

“Me too,” Dave added, just as quietly.

Aaron cleared his throat then murmured gruffly, “Thanks. I hope there’s never another reason to.”

“Yeah, I get that.”

There was a pause, a moment made awkward by leftover tension. Dave clapped Morgan on the shoulder and announced, “I’m hungry.” He wasn’t really, but anything to take the pressure off Aaron. “Feel like grabbing a bite to eat?”

Morgan shook his head. “If you mean dinner, I can’t.”

“Hot date?”

“You got it.”

“Who’s this one?”

“You remember Lisa from Channel 9?”

“No. Can’t place her.”

“She was the reporter on the Greensboro case.”

Dave nodded. He did remember her after all. She was beautiful and tenacious, dogging the team’s heels the entire time. He’d thought she’d been a pain in the ass no matter how pretty, but to each his own. “This is your second date, right?”

Morgan cocked his head. “You keeping track?”

“Of course, I am,” he said with feigned pensiveness. Tit for tat, my friend. “Two dates for you is a big deal. Are those wedding bells I hear?”

He expected something along the lines of: ‘Mind your own business, Rossi,’ but Morgan just smiled and said, “Hey, Hotch. If you’re interested, Lisa has a friend for you.”

Dave closed his eyes briefly. Derek, what are you thinking?

Aaron frowned, obviously confused at the change of subject. “A friend for me, what?” And then he got it—his expression hardened and he said tightly, “It’s been six months since Haley died.”

“I know, I just wanted you to know that when you’re ready…” Morgan trailed off with a shrug.

“I’m going to get Jack.” Aaron gave Dave a quick glance, then strode off.

They watched him go and Morgan said thoughtfully, “Next time I get ready to put my foot in my mouth, block me.”

“Sure. If you give me some sort of warning.”

“I only wanted to help.”

“I know.”

“He’s so alone.”

Dave shrugged. “He’s got us.”

“That’s not the same and you know it.”

“It’s too soon.”

“He needs someone, even if it’s just a date.”

“It’s never not ‘just a date.’ Not with Hotch.”

“Rossi—”

“Derek. You’re talking the difference between sexual release and companionship. Those are two different things and some people need both to be happy.”

“Not always.”

“Yes, with Hotch, always.”

Morgan thought about it and nodded slowly. “Yeah, you’re right. Glad that’s not my deal.” His frown gradually changed to a smile and he tapped his watch. “I’m late. Say goodbye to Jack for me?”

“Will do.”

Morgan turned, then looked over his shoulder. “And Rossi?”

“Yes?”

Morgan grinned. “I’ll find out, you know.” Before Dave could reply, he was off.

He shook his head a little sourly. Morgan was like a pit bull sometimes—once he got a mouthful, he never let go. It would worry him if there was anything to find and he sighed and went to stand next to Aaron. “What are they doing?” he asked, nodding to Jack’s team.

Aaron shook his head. “I’m not sure.”

The boys were playing some game with their gloves, tossing them up in the air and trying to catch them on their heads. It didn’t quite work because they kept running into each other but it didn’t matter—they were having fun, laughing and shouting and carrying on.

“Were you like that when you were young? Silly?” Aaron asked softly.

“Yes, and so were you. You’ve just forgotten it.”

“Have I?”

Said so wistfully that the something that had been growing in his chest twisted sharply. He wanted nothing more than to take Aaron’s arm again, this time just to connect and reassure, but…

He stuck his hands in his pockets. “Every child, at some point, is sublimely happy, even for a moment, even for a split second.” He looked around and lowered his voice “Even though they’ve been abused by the ones they’re supposed to trust the most. Children are like that—it doesn’t take a lot for them to be happy. It’s only when they grow up that they learn to push those moments away or learn to live without them.”

Aaron didn’t say anything for the longest time, but when he finally looked over, the sadness was gone from his eyes. “You always know the right thing to say.”

Dave swallowed. “Hotch—”

Aaron started to say something else, but Jack interrupted them, running up, shouting, “Dad!”

Dave let go of the breath he’d been holding and stepped back a pace.

Like before, Aaron swung Jack up, only this time Jack rested his head on Aaron’s shoulder as if exhausted, saying, “I’m hungry.”

“Then we should eat.”

“With Dave?”

“I don’t know. He might be busy.” Aaron didn’t look at Dave, clearly giving him an out.

He opened his mouth to politely decline, but what came out was, “Sure. I could eat.”

“Yay!” Jack said, some of his energy returning and before Dave knew it, Jack launched himself forward. Dave caught him as if he’d been doing it for years, only realizing afterwards that he done it. He met Aaron’s glance and there was an exchange, swift and fleeting that he couldn’t quite parse.

“C’mon,” Aaron said softly as he smoothed the back of Jack’s shirt. “Let’s go.”

***

They ended up at Aaron’s.

Aaron had suggested a restaurant he knew off Jeff Davis, so they set out, Aaron leading the way, Dave following in his car. They’d only gotten a few miles when his cell rang. He answered it, saying jokingly, “Don’t tell me. You forgot the way.”

“More like someone is asleep.”

“Ah.”

There was a pause, then Aaron said hesitantly, “What about dinner at my place?”

“What have you got?”

“What do you want?”

“I don’t care. A steak and a good red?”

“I can do that. I even have the steak, if you can cook it.”

“I can do that.”

“We need to turn around.”

He followed Aaron again, this time to in Woodbridge. When they got to the house, Aaron pulled into the garage and Dave parked in the driveway and got out.

Before, he hadn’t a chance to inspect the neighborhood and he stuck his hands in his pockets and strolled down the driveway.

It was a new development, designed for privacy—the streets were wide as were the properties and each house sat well away from the curb with maybe fifty feet of breathing space between. It was nice, but even though there were a few kids playing in their front yards, it seemed lonely.

Across the street a young woman was clipping her roses, a big basket at her side. She looked around and tentatively waved. He smiled and waved back.

“That’s Mary Beth. She and her husband just divorced. She travels a lot for work. ”

“What does she do?”

“Something in project management.”

He looked around. Aaron was standing at the head of the driveway, Jack asleep in his arms. “I guess he’s down for the count?”

“It’s been a long day.” Aaron turned and led the way through the garage, and into the house. “I should probably wake him. He hasn’t eaten since lunch.”

The house was pleasantly cool and he took off his jacket. “You know what my mother always did?”

Aaron stopped at the foot of the stairs. “What?”

“If we were sick or very tired, she’d let us sleep on the couch. If we smelled the food and woke up, that meant we were well enough to eat. If we didn’t, that meant we needed rest more than food.”

“I like that,” Aaron said with a smile.

“Then—?”

Aaron changed course and went to the living room, then lay Jack on the sofa and pulled a throw over him.

Dave unbuckled his shoulder holster. “Aaron?”

“Hm?”

He pulled his TRP and held it up. “Where do you want me to put this?”

Aaron looked over his shoulder, then nodded to a cabinet next to the French doors. “In that top drawer. Thanks for asking.”

“You’re welcome.” It was odd—he rarely removed his holster in front of anyone anymore and it almost felt as if he were stripping as he pulled the whole thing off. He shook off the feeling, then went to the refrigerator and opened the door. The shelves were stocked with orderly rows of food and drinks. “Where’s Jessica?”

“At her own place in Alexandria.”

“You know…” He bent and opened the drawer labeled, Meat. “I never asked. Is she living here with you?” Under a Ziploc bag of turkey and another of chicken was a brown-wrapped package labeled, Sirloin, 16oz. Eat or freeze by May 10.’

Aaron sat down at the island countertop. “I didn’t want her to do that much driving so she’s got her own suite here. She kept her own place for the days when she can’t get away. Can you get me a bottle of water?”

Dave grabbed one and handed it to Aaron without looking. “How are her parents?” He began to rummage in the vegetable drawer—Aaron didn’t have much, but grilled peppers and onions would compliment the steak nicely.

“He’s dealing with it. She’s dealing with it. They haven’t spoken to me other than to ask after Jack. They try to see him a couple times a month.”

“It’s good Jessica is there for you.”

“Yes.”

Dave turned. Aaron was staring at the water bottle, his expression still and quiet. “What is it?”

“The neighborhood.”

“What about it?”

“I think they think we’re sleeping together.”

He froze and then realized who Aaron was talking about. He returned to the refrigerator and ducked his head inside—the cold air felt good on his hot cheeks. “And?”

“And we’re not.”

“So you know that and she knows that. Who cares what they think?”

“I suppose.” Then Aaron shrugged and stood. “I’m going to change.”

“Sounds good.”

“The wine is in the cabinet next to the refrigerator.”

“Thanks.”

Dave watched him leave, then rolled up his sleeves and turned on the water to wash his hands. Like Morgan had said, it would probably do Aaron good to date someone. Take the neighbor for example. She traveled a lot and would understand his work commitments, and then there was the convenient location…

But, a recent divorcée would be vulnerable, perhaps still hurting. Would that be the best thing? Aaron wasn’t good at boundaries when it came to people in pain. Would he be able to stand back and not get emotionally involved because in Dave’s experience, once Aaron opened his heart to someone it was a done deal.

His hands were cold and he looked down, startled. He’d forgotten to adjust the temperature and his fingers were red from the chilly water. He adjusted the faucet and began to wash.

***

He’d figured out the grill and had dinner halfway started by the time Aaron joined him on the patio. He’d taken a shower and was dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt.

He was also barefoot.

Dave turned away and sipped his wine. His surprise was foolish. Aaron probably went barefoot all the time—he hadn’t been born in a suit and a tie.

Aaron stopped a pace away. “It’s cold out here.”

Then maybe you shouldn’t be wandering around without any shoes. “You’ll be happy about that in a few months.”

“It was one of the reasons I picked this house.”

Aaron’s feet, as fine-boned as his fingers, were also covered with a scattering of dark hair and Dave told himself to stop looking even though he wasn’t really looking. He was too old to develop a foot fetish, wasn’t he? “Because it faces west?”

“Yes.”

“And, I bet, because the houses are a good distance apart and it gives you privacy.”

“Yes.”

They were silent for a moment, then Aaron leaned over and sniffed. “That smells good.”

“It does.”

“I’ve only used it twice. The grill, I mean.”

“Hmm.”

“Both times I burned the food. Jack said I should take a class.”

Dave poked the nearest steak; it was almost done, just another minute or so. “Might not be a bad idea.”

“Where did you learn to cook?”

“My family and my second wife. She was a fantastic cook. After that, I just did my own thing. I like to mess around in the kitchen but I’m not good with recipes.”

He waited for Aaron to ask him about wife number two, but all he said was a soft, “What should I do?”

“Set the table?”

“Already done.”

“The salad needs to be dressed.”

“Is oil and vinegar all right?”

“Perfect.”

“That’s good—it’s all I’ve got.”

Dave smiled. It was probably the quiet and the clear night sky, but it felt as if they were the only ones on the planet. Including the boy, of course. “How’s Jack?”

He hadn’t meant it as anything but a question, but something broke. Aaron straightened up and stepped back. “Still asleep.”

“Maybe this will wake him up. Hold this…” He picked up a platter and handed it to Aaron, then loaded it with the meat and vegetables. He turned off the grill and nodded.

As he followed Aaron across the patio, he kept his eyes firmly on the house and not Aaron’s feet. It would be embarrassing to do something stupid like trip, simply because he couldn’t keep his eyes to himself.

***

They ate in the living room. Aaron was distracted at first, eating small bites, glancing over at Jack every few minutes. When it became clear that the boy was out for the night, he relaxed and they began to talk.

He would have thought he knew all that could be known about Aaron, but he found out that Aaron hated scary movies, but loved the old black and whites from the 40s and 50s. That he had no idea who the current pop musicians were and had no desire to learn. That he’d learned to sail when he was young and wanted to teach Jack.

Dave told, for the first time, of his dream of being a ball player when he was young. And the time a viper had bitten him when he’d been in the Marines and it had been touch and go for a few days, so much so that the doctor had thought he was going to lose his foot.

There were certain topics they naturally veered away from. Aaron didn’t talk about his childhood beyond the impersonal. Dave didn’t talk about his other career, that of author, and it was the first time in a long time that his dinner companion didn’t want the details of the tours, the fans, the money.

It was nice.

Several times the conversation drifted into the work-related, but each time they brought it back around to the safe waters of the personal.

By nine—the meal long since eaten—the conversation wound down, interspersed with long silences that were almost too comfortable.

“It’s odd,” Aaron murmured.

“Hmm?” Dave looked up. He’d fallen into a trance, watching the way Aaron—head on fist, completely at ease—had been turning his empty wine glass around and around.

“Last year at this time, Haley and I were barely speaking to each other. I rarely saw Jack and never knew when I’d get a chance. Now she’s gone and it’s just us two.”

“Aaron,” Dave began, but Aaron cut him off with a slow shake of his head.

“No, it’s okay. I was just thinking.” He paused, long enough for the silence to grow awkward, then said, “Do you think I’m ready to start dating again?”

“Don’t take what Morgan said to heart.”

“I’m not. What do you think?”

“I’m probably the last person on earth you should go to for advice about women.”

“Don’t joke.”

Dave drew a sharp breath, then let it out slowly. “I wasn’t. I just think those are the kinds of things only you will know.”

Aaron leaned forward. The ceiling lamp threw his face into a bas relief of extreme darks and lights. “Yes, but how does one know?”

“You trust your instincts, trust yourself.”

“And what if those instincts are wrong?”

“Do you mean morally or intrinsically?

“Does it matter?”

“Of course it does. An instinct can’t be wrong, Aaron. It just is.

“But isn’t that what we preach, that unsubs are only following their instincts?”

Dave frowned. “You think you’ve got the same behavioral traits as an unsub?”

Aaron straightened up out of the light. “Of course not. That’s not what I’m saying.”

But Dave followed, the table’s edge pressing against his ribcage. “Isn’t it? I know you think we all walk a hairsbreadth edge from upright citizen to unsub, but Aaron, there is so much more to it than that.”

“Like what?”

“There are the choices—tiny, even minute—and we make them every day. We’re not even aware of most of them, but we make them. Should I stop now or run that yellow light? Should I have another drink or remember that I have to get in a car soon? Who will know or care if I cheat on my taxes?” He waved his hand. “They’re all part of the broader picture of who we are.”

“Murder and tax evasion are two different things.”

“You know what I mean.” He smiled but Aaron didn’t return it. And damnit, he didn’t want Aaron to worry so much so he did something that wasn’t planned even though it kind of was—he reached across the smooth wood surface and laid his hand on the back of Aaron’s.

Last time, he’d been too focused on the conversation to feel what he was feeling, but now…

Aaron’s hand was cool, broad and strong, the long bones somehow perfectly in keeping with the rest of him, like his feet, hidden from sight.

Aaron’s expression didn’t change and Dave pressed harder, murmuring, “I know we have to be vigilant with potential perpetrators as well as potential victims. To stand back and judge our every decision, our every move. But there are times, Aaron, when we just have to go with it and have a little faith in ourselves. And know that our faith is what will keep us steady in the end.”

Aaron watched him, almost brooding, and Dave let him watch, content to let the words sink in.

But when Aaron spoke again it was completely out of left field. “Do you know that Morgan calls us Mom and Dad?”

Dave cocked his head. “He does?” He pulled away and sat back.

“I heard him the other day talking to JJ, and if I know Morgan, the rest of the team is calling us the same thing.”

“Huh.”

They were silent again until Dave snorted and said, “Then we have only one thing to worry about.”

Aaron smiled the tiniest of smiles and gave him an odd glance. “You mean which of us is Mom and which is Dad?”

“It’s not even a contest.”

“If that means what I think it does, you are so wrong.”

Dave laughed and maybe he was too loud or maybe it was just time because right at that moment, Jack woke up.

“Daddy?”

Like night to day, Aaron’s expression and body language changed. He got up, calling reassuringly, “I’m right here, buddy.” He went to the sofa and picked Jack up, then returned to the table.

Jack’s hair was sticking up and he was rubbing his eyes. “I’m hungry.”

“You should be,” Dave said as Aaron sat Jack in a chair. He was a little too short for the table, but Dave imagined his highchair days were long over. “You haven’t eaten in about ten hours.”

“Then I’m really hungry.”

Aaron smiled. “How about steak, salad and bread?”

“I want toasted cheese the way you make it.”

Aaron exchanged a quick look with Dave, then said, “Sure.”

Dave nodded; some battles were just not worth fighting.

Jack was almost asleep again when Aaron came back with the sandwich. He’d cut it into neat triangles and in the center was a dab of ketchup. After the dinner they’d just eaten, it looked a little unappetizing but Jack, apparently, loved it. He wolfed it down while Aaron, sitting again and leaning towards Jack, watched.

It would make a great painting, Dave mused. The dark, muted background in soft contrast to the light from above, and in the center as a focal point, the father leaning on one arm to watch his child. Lyrical and warm, almost classical.

The only problem, of course, was that Dave couldn’t think of a single painting that featured a father watching his child. It was always mothers and children. Maybe harkening back to earth mother imagery or because most of the well-known artists were men?

“What are you thinking?”

He glanced up. Aaron was no longer watching Jack. “Oh,” He gestured vaguely. “Just about the Renaissance and gendered imagery.”

“Do I want to know more?”

“Depends.”

“On what?”

“On how tired you are.”

Aaron raised an eyebrow and said, “Then, no.”

Dave smiled. “Probably a good idea. And,” he sighed, adding, “on that note, I have to get going.” Even though it was only ten-fifteen, he was as tired as if he’d been on a two-day stakeout.

Aaron nodded. “It’s late.”

“Do you want help with all this?” He gestured to the table, the kitchen.

“No. Whoever cooks doesn’t have to do the dishes.”

Dave smiled, then stood up and began to roll down his sleeves. His jacket was somewhere but he couldn’t remember where he’d tossed it.

“It’s on the back of that chair.” Aaron pointed to the chair next to the sofa.

“Thanks.”

“You okay to drive home?”

He got his holster and gun from the cabinet. “Of course.”

“Because the sofa is comfortable. Ask Jack.”

Jack looked up and nodded sleepily.

“No, that’s okay.”

“Okay.” Aaron touched the back of Jack’s hand. “Son, say goodnight to Agent Rossi.”

Jack waved. “’night, Dave.”

Aaron opened his mouth as if to correct, but Dave shook his head. He didn’t care if Jack called him by his first name and, anyway, ‘Agent Rossi’ was a mouthful.

Aaron rose and led the way through the house.

This time Dave couldn’t help himself—he watched Aaron’s feet, trying to decide if the foot fetish thing was an actuality or some weird, stress-induced reaction. He couldn’t decide—he’d think about it later.

When they got to the front door, Aaron held it open and Dave stepped outside. It was chilly, this late at night. Most of the houses were dark and the neighborhood seemed even lonelier.

“Hey?”

He turned. Aaron was standing in the threshold, gripping the doorknob. “You sure?” he asked.

Dave gestured. “About the couch?”

“Yes.”

“I’m sure, Hotch.”

“Okay.” Aaron nodded once. “Drive safely.”

A curious, ‘What’s going on with you?’ was on his lips because the mood of the evening had changed. Aaron was looking at him only not looking at him and for some reason he couldn’t ask because he wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer. Aaron would just deflect, in any case. “I will.” He gave an uneasy wave, then went to his car.

As he drove away, he looked back and like that first time, Aaron was still there, watching.

Weird.

***

He was on I-95, thinking about Aaron and his strange behavior, when his cell rang. The screen said, ‘A. Hotchner,’ and he muttered, “Not tonight.” Then, louder when he pressed the call button, “This better not be about a case.”

“It’s not.”

“Did I forget something?”

“No.”

“Then how can I help you?”

“I just wanted you to know that in the mom and dad scenario, I am so the dad.”

Aaron hung up before Dave had time answer and he looked at his phone in bemusement. Then he laughed out loud and tossed the cell on the seat. “We’ll see about that.”

We’ll see about that.

_____________________

After that, dinner with Aaron, Jack and Jessica became a more common occurrence. The next time, three weeks later, it happened as if by accident. Dave’s evening teleconference with his editor was cancelled after she got food poisoning. He was leaving his office, briefcase in hand, wondering idly what sounded good for dinner when a precipitous urge made him stop at Aaron’s office and suggest, “Why don’t I pick up a pizza and bring it to your house?”

Aaron answered that he had planned on working late and Dave said that he and Jessica and Jack would eat and he could join them later. With a degree of hesitation that Dave didn’t miss, Aaron had said sure.

When he showed up at the house, Jack whooped at the novelty of it and whooped again when he found out that Dave was going to stay a few hours. They sat down to dinner and Jack declared it the best pizza ever. Dave told him how Italians made real pizza, embellishing to make the story last. As soon as they finished, Jessica excused herself to go work on her paper and he and Jack moved to the living room. They spent the rest of the evening on the carpet, building a truck out of Legos. Aaron didn’t show up until after eight and by that time, Jessica had put Jack to bed.

The third time wasn’t really a third time. Aaron had asked him over for hamburgers and they’d gotten as far as firing up the grill when their cells rang. Jack had pouted, Jessica had reassured, and they got back in their cars and returned to Quantico.

After that he stopped counting. They fell into a routine of dinner every week or so; sometimes they went out, but mostly they stayed in and cooked. He found out early on that Aaron’s repertoire was limited to canned soup and sandwiches, so he gladly took over in the kitchen. He didn’t make anything elaborate, just the same meals he’d had as a child. If Jack got bored with his toys, he’d wander to the kitchen, climb a bar stool and watch from the island. They’d talk about everything under the sun because Jack was interested in everything.

If Aaron was stuck at work, Dave would pick Jack up from daycare. Contrary to his first expectations, he was never asked to help with the afterschool projects. He mentioned it, a few weeks after, and Aaron just nodded and said that Jack had adjusted to his new situation and he’d put off finding a new school.

He got to know the rhythms of Aaron’s household, got to know Jack. The boy was, as he’d first told Aaron, a good kid. He was sometimes willful, but Dave remembered being headstrong at that age and figured it was normal, four-year old behavior.

Aaron would watch Jack at those times, searching, Dave knew, for any sign that would indicate hidden emotional turmoil or unresolved trauma. Again, normal, but without realizing it at first, he found himself giving Aaron unspoken reassurance that everything was fine by stepping in and helping out.

Jessica was a cipher in the beginning and he was cautious with her. He learned a few things, like she and Haley had a contentious childhood that changed when they became adults. And that she’d had a crush on Aaron when Haley had first brought him home, a crush that had morphed into a sisterly, but guarded, love. Aaron, she’d said one night while she was clearing the table as Aaron got Jack ready for bed, was a hard nut to crack. Dave, surprised, had almost answered, ‘Seriously? Aaron is the easiest person in the world to understand,’ before he caught himself.

But he liked her, even though she wasn’t around much, just as he liked Jack, and began to look forward to the evenings a little too much. Because something else was happening, a foundation was forming with his full knowledge if not his full encouragement.

He knew what was going on; he’d have to be an idiot not to. The signs were there—faint and subtle but definitely there. Sometimes he was happy for no reason. He went to bed at night with a smile and woke up the same way. He sang in the shower and while he was in the car.

And it wasn’t just the outwardly—his senses were on overload, too; everything tasted better, looked better, sounded better. And even though he’d known Aaron a long time and would’ve thought there was nothing else left to notice, he began to watch him more closely with a new appreciation, enjoying the way he moved and spoke, the way he did his job.

At first he tried to convince himself that his newfound happiness was a normal extension of their friendship. That it wasn’t unusual for people in their profession to form tight bonds. But he soon gave up that idea because there were bonds and then there were bonds.

He thought to curb the growing emotion, but dismissed the thought as soon as it formed because it wasn’t just him. When he was standing in front of the stove or when they were eating, he felt the weight of Aaron’s gaze and it was too heady, that regard, and he wanted more.

The only time he truly checked himself was when he walked through the doors of the BAU. There were Morgan and Erin to consider—the one was just curious, but the other would use the knowledge as a way to get to Aaron and he couldn’t have that.

He was reminded, at one point, of his comment to William Harris—‘Do you remember how it felt, falling in love?’  Then, the words had been a way to get a sociopath’s goat, now they felt the literal truth. Because he was falling head first with a delicious sense of fatality, as if he’d been waiting for this tumble for twenty odd years.

So beyond being careful to shut his emotions down at work, he metaphorically held his arms out to fate, saying, ‘Here I am—give it your best shot.’

_____________________

He nodded to the last guest, gave her the signed copy of his latest book, then looked over at Brian. He was standing at the edge of the group where he’d been doing ‘crowd control,’ as he put it. He was an ex-cop turned bookshop owner, and still fancied himself in the game. They nodded to each other and Dave pushed to his feet.

It had been a long night, made more so by the beautiful night outside. He’d found that the duration of a book reading depended on the weather. If it was bad, the attendees wanted to get home as soon as possible, if they even bothered to show up. If the weather was nice, they tended to linger.

“That went well,” Brian murmured, still surveying the crowd. “They stayed a lot longer than I’d hoped.”

“That should equal more cash in your drawer.”

“It already has. Stacey says the register is up thirty-eight percent from last Thursday.”

He looked over to where the store manager was happily ringing up sales. She caught his eye and smiled. He shifted from foot to foot and looked away. “That’s good news.”

Brian finally relaxed enough to smile. “Thanks so much, Dave. I really appreciate it.”

“No problem. Glad I could help.”

“We don’t close for another half hour. Why don’t you browse for a while—I’ll give you a fifty percent discount.”

All he really wanted was a drink and his hotel bed. But Brian was looking at him too hopefully and he reminded himself that it was a hard business, selling books, and every little bit helped. He nodded and lied, “I was looking for a book on Nixon. Can you point me to the biographies?”

“Sure thing. They’re this way.” Brian led him to the next room where the non-fiction was shelved and excused himself.

The room was almost empty—a woman was sitting on a leather chair, head bent over a paperback; a man was turning a rack of audio books. He glanced up when Dave passed by and gave him a sour look. Dave wondered if he was angry because he couldn’t find a particular title or because he was upset that Dave’s fans had overrun his quiet bookstore.

Dave smothered an apologetic smile and wandered to the biographies.

He forgot all about his cover story the minute he saw the thick book on Lafayette. It was new, published just the month before and Aaron had mentioned wanting to read it.

It would be a foolish purchase, he thought, running a fingertip down the book’s spine—no doubt Aaron had either bought it or had ordered it.

But, what the hell? If Aaron already had it, he’d keep it himself and it was a simple gesture wasn’t it? The kind of thing a friend would do for a friend? He pulled the book firmly from the shelf with a careless bravado and then began to look in earnest.

By the time he left the non-fiction section, he had two more biographies and one history, all for Aaron, but his splurge didn’t stop there—on the way to the register, he spied the children’s corner and he veered off to see what they had.

He had no idea what kind of books Jack liked. There were so many of various sized and thicknesses. Luckily, the store was prepared for shoppers like him—near one bookcase hung a list of current best sellers, award winners and store recommendations. Using that and his own memory as a guide, he picked out a book on trucks, one on dinosaurs and then a series of a young boy’s adventures in the woods.

He paid for the books and when the manager pushed the heavy bag towards him and asked him, sotto voce, if he had time for a drink, he pretending ignorance.

As he was leaving, Brian waved to him and a few fans nodded shyly. He didn’t give them an opportunity to approach—he smiled politely, then was out in the fresh Boston air, feeling strangely free.

***

When he got to his room, he sat the bag down and went to the mini-fridge. He had a choice of whiskey or vodka, which wasn’t really a choice at all. He got the whiskey, poured it, then went to the window.

The night sky was free of clouds but this was Boston—light pollution made it hard to see much other than a few faint stars and the buildings off Constitution Avenue. Recent memories aside, he liked the city. It was old by American standards and when he walked the streets he sometimes wondered what the buildings would tell him if they could talk. Probably they’d tell of horrors and nightmares because along with its rich political and social history, Boston had been the site of many famous murders and not just Foyet.

He grunted at the familiar path his thoughts had taken and downed the rest of his drink.

***

He was in bed, trying to decide if he was tired enough for sleep or if he should catch the news when his cell rang. He glanced at the screen, planning to ignore it, but it wasn’t Strauss or his editor. He answered it on the second ring. “Is anything wrong?”

“No,” Aaron said, his voice light as if he were smiling “Why should anything be wrong?”

“Because it’s late.”

“It’s ten.”

Dave leaned over so he could see the clock. “Huh. I thought it was at least eleven.”

“The evening went that well?”

He smiled at the books, then settled against the headboard. “Pretty good.”

“Sign a lot of books?”

“About forty-five.”

“Is that good?”

“For a Thursday night, yeah.”

He expected Aaron to follow up with a question about the crowd but he just said, “How’s Boston?”

“The same.”

“Hm.”

“At least, better than the last time we were here. If you know what I mean.” He tried for humor but the ‘we’ had set off a chain reaction of emotions, from pity to yearning to desire, so fast and complete that his head almost spun. It had been three days since he’d seen Aaron and it suddenly felt like three hundred.

“Yes, I know what you mean.”

“So, what’s up?”

“You mean why am I calling you at this ungodly hour?”

“You got it.”

“I was wondering if you’re free for dinner tomorrow. Jack’s last t-ball game is at three-thirty.”

He tucked his arm behind his head. “They’re already done? How many games did they play?”

“Eight.”

There was a rustling noise of fabric in the background—Aaron was probably getting into bed and this time Dave didn’t try to quell the instant fantasy. He smiled as warmth filled his chest. “Hope the kids don’t get used to that light schedule if they go to the big leagues.”

“I doubt any of them will be playing major ball. Jack is already talking about soccer.”

He nodded absently. “How’s he doing?”

“Fine. He’s a little grumpy tonight. He’s been asking me if I could could make that pasta you made a couple weeks ago.”

Aaron’s voice had lowered—he was definitely smiling. “What did you say?”

“That it was better if you did it and then he asked me if you could make it tomorrow.”

“So this is just a ploy to get me to make my carbonara?”

“It is.”

“Okay.”

“You’ll come?”

“As long as you make sure you’ve got eggs and pasta.”

“I’ve got everything you need.”

There were so many ways one could take those words and the heat that had warmed his chest moved to his belly. “Then I’ll see you tomorrow,” he managed. “What time?”

“Six, if you can make it. And Dave?”

“Yeah?”

“Jessica won’t be around so it’ll be just us three.”

And without another word, Aaron hung up.

Dave let the phone fall to the bed as he stared up at the ceiling.

So…

If he’d wondered if his feelings for Aaron were a fluke, the question was answered by the way he wanted nothing more than to get on a plane now… Or the way he wanted to jerk off, mindlessly thinking about Aaron in that big empty bed.

He stroked his chest, his ribcage, then placed his hand flat on his stomach. Only another eighteen hours. Waiting wouldn’t kill him.

***

Waiting, apparently, was going kill him and when he pulled into Aaron’s drive, he was thirty-three minutes early. He thought about hanging out in the car because it would look weird, arriving so early, but Aaron probably wouldn’t mind and wouldn’t mention it if he did.

He was sitting there, still trying to decide, when the front door opened. So much for that. He sighed, grabbed the books and got out.

Aaron was dressed all in black—trousers and a silky shirt that Dave thought might be new, and yeah, no fluke, no mistake—his heart was beating so fast he thought he might stroke out.

“Hey,” Aaron said.

“Hey, yourself.”

“How was the trip home?”

He shrugged. “Uneventful.”

“Oh. I mean, good.” And then, after Dave said nothing, “What’s in the bags?”

They were standing three feet apart and Dave could almost feel the space between them thicken, as if the air had solidified and contracted, binding them by some invisible force. He hadn’t felt this way in so long… “Presents for you and Jack.”

Aaron smiled. “Oh.”

He needed to move but somehow his shoes were glued to the cement pavers. If any of the neighbors were watching, they were probably wondering what the hell was going on. “Can I…?” He gestured to the door.

“Oh,” Aaron said for the third time. He stepped back. “Yes. Come in.”

Dave managed to unstick his feet and he went in. As he stepped across the threshold, he noticed two things: Aaron had shaved and his cheeks were a faint red. Good, he thought with a shiver of anticipation. Good.

***

They ate out on the patio, a simple meal of pasta, corn and salad. Jack finished first and after he was excused, he went to play on the swing set.

And the minute he was out of earshot, the mood changed.

The sun was almost down and the sky ran pink to dark blue. Dave turned his glass, watching the way the reflected light from the electric torches made the wine glow as if it were lit from within. Beautiful. As was Aaron, sitting across the metal table.

Dave looked up and murmured, “What are you thinking about?”

Aaron gave a half smile and glanced quickly at Jack, then back again. “Nothing.”

“Yeah?”

He’d filled the single word with a good measure of disbelief; Aaron picked up on it immediately. His small smile turned to a grin and he added, “I was thinking about Strauss.”

Again, a lie, but all Dave said was, “What about her?”

Aaron shrugged. “Nothing, really. I was just wondering if she’s going to mess around with my staff again.”

“Does it matter?” Because the team been through the crucible of sudden change and had come out whole, had come out better.

Aaron cocked his head as if hearing Dave’s thoughts, then he murmured, “No, I suppose not.”

They were silent again as the mood altered course once more and this time he didn’t pretend to examine the wine glass, he examined Aaron. “Aaron?”

“Yes?”

“I missed you.”

A first salvo and Aaron’s eyes narrowed. “You did?”

“I did.”

Aaron leaned forward. “I—” he began, then on the same breath, “I need to get Jack in bed.” He sat back.

“I can do that if you clean up.”

Aaron smiled softly, amused. “Okay.”

“Then come on.”

Aaron went to get Jack while Dave stacked the plates and empty bowls. He worked methodically, keeping his mind on what he was doing and not what he wanted to do. When Aaron returned with Jack in his arms, he was saying something about, “…because the sun is getting closer to the earth.”

“But why?

Jack’s tone was fractious and Dave hid a smile—he remembered that from his childhood—cranky, so tired he almost couldn’t sleep. “Hey Jack?”

“Yeah?”

“I’ve got a present for you.”

“You do?’

He shook out the placemats and nodded. “I do. How ’bout you and I go upstairs and I’ll give it to you?”

Jack shrugged a yes. Aaron’s lips tightened but Dave shook his head and held out his arms. As Aaron passed Jack to him, their hands met, Aaron’s stroking his. It was somehow startling intimate and he tucked Jack close to his chest, using him as a reason to not do anything stupid.

Aaron watched him, eyes blank of emotion. “I’ll be up in a while to say goodnight.”

He cleared his throat and nodded. “Okay.”

***

Jack wanted to see what was in the bag, but Dave insisted he get ready for bed first. He helped Jack change into his pajamas then stacked his clothes on the dresser. He had no idea if they needed washing, a decision he’d happily leave to Aaron.

After Jack had brushed his teeth and was in bed, Dave sat on the side of the bed and gave him the bag. Jack’s eyes lit up when he saw the books and he immediately chose the dinosaur book. He handed it to Dave and slid under the covers. Dave began reading, putting as much effort into it as possible, steadfastly ignoring the urge to rush. Luckily, his effort—or lack thereof—didn’t matter; he’d only gotten to page three when Jack closed his eyes, one minute awake, the next sound asleep.

Dave shut the book, sat it on the nightstand, then stood and turned.

Aaron was standing in the threshold.

“Hey,” he said.

Aaron came forward. “It doesn’t take very long, does it?” he whispered.

Dave backed up, giving Aaron room to slip in front, room to bend over Jack so he could kiss his forehead.

Dave stared. Aaron’s shirt stretched tight over his back, showing the sharp line of his shoulder blades, the curve of his spine. What would happen if he reached out and placed his palm flat on Aaron’s back? Would he feel his breath, feel his heat through the black fabric?

The thought made his heart thud and his cheeks burn. He curled his hands into fists. Calm; he needed to be calm.

Aaron straightened and without a word, they left the room together, Aaron leading the way.

They walked down the hall side by side, then down the stairs in the same fashion, sedately, as if they were on their way to nowhere special. As they got to the foot of the stairs, Aaron reached in front of Dave for the light switch and they jostled, Aaron’s shoulder pressed against his chest. He stilled, breath caught in his throat. It would be so easy to use momentum and gravity to push Aaron up against the wall, even back to the stairs. But the moment wasn’t right and it was somehow important to wait.

So he held his breath and after a moment that couldn’t have been as long as it felt, Aaron turned off the light, then pulled away and they continued on.

When they got to the living room, he headed for the sofa while Aaron went to the liquor cabinet.

The house was dark, lit only by the fluorescent light above the sink and the tall torches outside. Aaron was just a shadowy figure, moving slowly as he poured scotch into two glasses.

Dave wasn’t fooled. Aaron was at his most controlled when he was on edge, his most still when he was about to explode into action.

Something—he realized with a sharp jolt—that he’d always enjoyed. Watching Aaron stalking an unsub with a purpose and rough grace that few men was thrilling. Sexy, even.

He crossed his legs and rested his elbow on the sofa’s armrest, a pretense at serenity he didn’t feel.

“Can you stay a while?” Aaron asked quietly without turning around.

“Yes.”

“Good.” Aaron brought the glasses over and gave one to Dave. But he didn’t sit down. He went to the French doors and stared out over the patio. Just as Dave had done on that first day and he remembered how it had been: the school, the doctor, then entering Aaron’s house for the first time…

“What are you thinking about?” Aaron asked.

“Monica Williamson.” He hadn’t been, but he’d suddenly remembered his conversation with Karen Miller and it was a good lead-in.

Aaron turned around in surprise. “Ms. Williamson? The vice-principal?”

“The same.”

“What about her?”

“She’s in love with you.”

Aaron looked down and nodded. “I know. I try to be as distant as possible, but…” He shrugged.

Dave hid a smile—this was going to be good. “She also thinks we’re lovers.”

Aaron’s head shot up. He met Dave’s waiting gaze. “What?”

He took a sip. “Hm-mm.” When Aaron didn’t say anything, he added conversationally, “Karen told me the day I went to show and tell.”

“What did you say?”

“That we weren’t a couple, but I’m not sure if she believed me.”

“Huh.”

Dave nodded. “That’s what I thought.”

Aaron waited a moment, then said quietly, “Does it bother you?”

He made a face. “You should know by now that I don’t care what people think.” Aaron didn’t say anything for the longest time, and Dave added, “It doesn’t bother you, does it?”

Aaron gave him an almost exasperated look, then padded over to the sofa. He sat a little too close and Dave’s palms began to sweat. Why was he so nervous? He wanted this, right? “It was sort of funny,” he said through a suddenly dry throat. “They were both so sure and—”

Aaron reached for Dave’s scotch with an insolent authority and placed both glasses on the coffee table.

Dave tried again, louder because he was almost deafened by the sound of his own heartbeat pounding in his ears. “They thought I’d—”

Aaron leaned in and brushed his lips against Dave’s, just once. His lips were cool and rough. “They thought you’d what?” he whispered.

Dave said nothing. The echoes of shock were still racing down his spine, every nerve firing. What the hell had he been saying? He couldn’t remember, couldn’t think. It was as if his senses had decided to take the night off because he felt as if he were encased in cotton, the only thing solid and sure was Aaron. Even the sofa seemed to have disappeared and— “I don’t remember.”

Aaron breathed a laugh. He slid closer and rested a heavy hand on Dave’s knee. He kissed Dave again, this time harder.

“Aaron?” Dave whispered against Aaron’s lips.

“Hmm?”

“What are we doing?”

Aaron snorted softly. “If you need me to answer that, I must be more out of practice than I thought.”

A challenge as well as a prod, both bordering on flirting and he smiled. Aaron flirting was a crazy thing—who’d have thought it would be such a turn on? “Just making sure.” He tilted his head for a better angle, this time opening his mouth, sighing because Aaron kissed like he did all things—thoroughly and with great concentration and skill and wow…

He let his arm fall onto Aaron’s shoulder, let Aaron push him back into the corner of the sofa and the pressure on his chest, his back brought his sense back online and—

Aaron’s shirt was crisp under his palm, muscles as firm and unyielding as he’d imagined. He smelled good—a mix of faint aftershave and fainter sweat. And the sound? That was the best of all: the creak of leather, the whine of springs, Aaron’s little sighs, soft almost breathy when he stroked Dave’s leg with his own, pressing as close as possible, his kisses changing from slow to urgent and it was one of those things—the silent house, the pools of light, the man in his arms…

Taken all together, the separate elements became a single unit, an amalgam of the night itself, powerful, intense, indelible, and he knew, just as he’d known when he’d met a girl with long dark hair at the age of twelve, that he’d remember this moment for the rest of his life.

Aaron pulled back and nuzzled the corner of his mouth. “What?”

“Hmm?”

“You said something.”

“I did?” He brushed Aaron’s cheek with his thumb, down the sharp crease that looked like a scar but wasn’t.

“You did.”

Dave shook his head. He had no idea what he’d said, no idea what he was doing, but…

He pushed up, this time taking the advantage, humming deep in his throat as he took kiss after kiss in something he could only call a daze because it had been too long since he’d felt this all-encompassing sense of want

“Wow,” Aaron murmured when they parted again.

Dave breathed a laugh. “‘Wow?’”

“Yeah. You’re a good kisser. I should have known.”

“What d’you mean?”

“All those women, those groupies.”

He rolled his eyes. “You’re always going on about my fans. There really aren’t as many as you imagine.”

“But enough, right?”

He smiled and kissed the corner of Aaron’s mouth. “Are you jealous?”

“No.”

Another lie and he wanted to say, ‘Oh, Aaron,’ surprised at the way it made him feel, that Aaron might be jealous of him. He slid his hand down Aaron’s side, over the soft fold of flesh at his waist and then to his thigh, stroking the solid muscle through the thin wool, getting back to the kissing because Aaron believed actions over words any day.

And that’s all they did.

Making out on the couch like teenagers in an ebb and flow of lust until the refrigerator hummed and they broke apart at the loud sound.

They smiled at each other and Dave cupped Aaron’s jaw, examining his face, the way his lips had reddened and his cheeks had flushed like he had a fever. “Well,” he said, hesitantly.

“Yeah,” Aaron nodded.

“I should go.”

“It’s late.”

“And we should take this slow, right?”

“We should,” Aaron agreed, this time with a smile behind his eyes that was too bright and Dave had to force his voice to stay even. “Then you’re going to have to stop looking at me that way or I’m never gonna leave.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

“I mean it, Hotch.”

Aaron narrowed his eyes, then drew back. “Okay.” He pushed to his feet and held his hand out. “Come on.”

Dave let himself be pulled up. Aaron dropped his hand as soon as he was on his feet and he shrugged internally—Aaron wasn’t a hands-on kind of guy.

They walked to the door side by side, not touching. When they were on opposite sides of the threshold, he turned back. The porch lamp shadowed Aaron’s face, highlighting his forehead, nose, and chin.

“Are you busy this weekend?” Aaron asked.

“I—” He shook his head. “I have another book reading in Boston tomorrow.”

Aaron frowned. “You mean you flew out just for this?”

He shrugged. “Yeah.” Yeah, Aaron, I flew out just for you and it was more than worth it.

Aaron didn’t say anything for a moment, but his shoulders relaxed and he repeated, “Okay,” in a completely different tone.

Dave waited until the moment got awkward, too aware of the houses across the street, the possibility of prying eyes. “I’ll see you on Monday?”

Aaron nodded. “Yes. On Monday.”

***

He was almost to the airport when he remembered the books he’d bought Aaron, still on the chair in the living room. He touched his pocket, thinking about calling then decided no, he’d catch up with Aaron on Monday. He needed space and time to reflect. And there was a chance that if he heard Aaron’s voice, he’d say to hell with the book signing and turn back around and it was important to start this right, boundaries and all.

_____________________

The next week at the BAU was quiet, no cases, no drama.

Which was a good thing, Dave told himself for the third time as he sat hunched over his desk, trying to make himself work or at least stop staring at the blotter. It was cruel and sick to wish for a case that would keep them busy simply as a distraction.

Because as much as he tried, he couldn’t stop thinking of that night and of Aaron, just fifteen feet away. He’d always been good at separating the personal from the professional, but not this time and he couldn’t stop remembering of how Aaron had felt, how he had tasted—

He reminded himself that they were surrounded by people who made a living off of picking up on unspoken clues and lies. He reminded himself that he’d come this far in his career without screwing up his job by, well, screwing on the job and now wouldn’t be a good time to change that.

It sort of worked—as the week progressed, the silent ache in his chest grew even though he managed to keep his feelings in check and his eyes to himself. He discovered that the truly dangerous time was after five when the BAU emptied of everyone but the diehards—Aaron and Erin. In the past, Dave had sometimes stayed to catch up on his paperwork, but now, too aware of the temptation of excuses, he took to leaving with Emily, using her as a kind of shield.

When Aaron called Morgan and Dave in on Wednesday to ask their opinions on a potential case, Dave was able to concentrate and make a judgment that no, the murder of a young man in Des Moines wasn’t related to the one that had occurred a two weeks prior in Montana. Aaron and Morgan nodded in agreement and Dave said something about getting back to it, so that was good. He wasn’t totally lost yet.

Whatever Aaron was going through, he kept it to himself. Other than a thank you note for the books he left on Dave’s desk, he behaved as normal. So much so that by Thursday, Dave felt as if the night had never happened and wondered if he’d misread Aaron in a big, big way. He then decided that he was being paranoid and juvenile and that he’d stay after everyone had left so he and Aaron could have a little chat.

But, as fate would have it, JJ got a call from the DEA and by noon they were on the plane heading to Texas.

_____________________

“Do you think she was conscious?”

Dave glanced up from his casebook. JJ was staring out the plane’s tiny window at the darkening sky, hand on chin. Reid was sitting next to her reading a book—he looked up, also waiting for Dave’s answer. “I hope not,” he finally said, even though he was doubtful that Sheriff Ruiz had died peacefully. Boyd’s psychopathology had no room for sympathy and he’d hated Ruiz—the piked head in front of her house had illustrated that quite nicely.

JJ turned from the window. “I liked her.”

Reid nodded. “Me too.”

“Me three,” Dave said softly.

“Do you think she made a difference?” JJ asked.

Across the aisle, he could feel Aaron pause in his work and when he answered, his words were for Aaron as much as the kids. “Yes, I do. She started something and change doesn’t have to be big to have a lasting effect. The people of Terlingua will look at each other differently from now on, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.”

“Speaking of change…” He thought Emily was asleep in the seat behind, but she obviously wasn’t. She came forward and sat on Reid’s armrest. “Did you guys know that Clyde and Richard were lovers?”

He looked up at Emily, confused, because who the hell was Clyde and Richard? Then he remembered. “The guy who ran the outreach program for immigrants and the deputy?”

Emily nodded. “Yep. Richard came to see me this morning; he’d heard the news and wanted confirmation.”

Reid was frowning. “I thought you said they hated each other.”

She shrugged. “Hate and love are two sides of the same coin, or so they say.”

“That’s so sad,” JJ murmured. “Why did he tell you?”

“Well, he didn’t come right and say it but it was clear what he meant. I think he just wanted someone to talk to. Terlingua is a small town and, you know….” She shrugged again, then added, “They’d apparently had a falling out when Richard opened the center. He said he’d been waiting for Clyde to get used to the idea.”

Reid murmured something about a recent statistical analysis of same-sex, mixed-race couples, but Dave stopped listening, stuck on the word, ‘waiting.’

He was tired of waiting, tired of sitting on his hands. He wasn’t used to inaction and now couldn’t think why he’d done it, caution and reason notwithstanding.

He made some vague excuse about a drink, then pushed to his feet. Emily gave him a questioning tilt of her head that he ignored. Aaron also looked up and that he didn’t ignore—for a split second he told Aaron without words that he was done with patience, done with waiting.

And then he went to the galley for a bottle of water.

His non-verbal communication was effective. After the plane landed and they were striding across the tarmac to their waiting cars, Aaron caught up with him and murmured an invitation to a late dinner for just the two of them. Dave, equally quiet, said yes.

_____________________

Nine didn’t leave a lot of time to get ready but he managed a quick shower and shave. When he was done, he stood in front of his closet, hesitating. His usual date clothes seemed a little over the top, but he wanted the night to be special and his usual jeans and a sweater wouldn’t work. He finally chose black trousers, white shirt, and a black sports coat. He thought about bringing condoms, then decided not, then decided maybe it would be a good idea. He was in the car, waiting for the garage door to rise, still mulling the condom question, when he realized he’d forgotten a crucial date night element. He turned the engine off and hurried back into the house for a bottle of wine.

And that took longer than it should because he couldn’t make a decision: red, white, rose? Finally, he grabbed a ninety-dollar bottle of Sangiovese he’d been saving for a special occasion and hurried back to the car.

Traffic was light. The drive usually took thirty-five minutes but he made it in twenty-eight. It didn’t hurt that he was speeding the whole way and as he turned into Aaron’s drive, he imagined what he would have said if a cop had pulled him over: ‘Sorry, officer. I’m on my way to have sex with my boss and I got distracted. It won’t happen again.’

The image that brought made him grin and he was still smiling when he rang the doorbell, when Aaron opened the door.

“Hi,” he said foolishly.

Aaron smiled and said, “Hi,” just as foolish. “Is that for me?” He nodded to the bottle in Dave’s hand.

“It is.” He held it up, a simple gesture that suddenly seemed fraught with symbolism and he wanted to drop the bottle and reach for Aaron instead. He took a deep breath, then repeated, “It is.”

Aaron smiled, stepped back, and waved him in.

***

Making dinner that night was an exercise in frustration and seduction. Jack was already in bed, so they decided on steak and a salad. He went out to the grill, fired it up, then returned to prepare the food.

Aaron usually let him do all the work, but tonight for some reason, he wanted to help. So they chopped and sliced and shredded, each getting in the other’s way until he realized that Aaron was doing it on purpose. He was deliberately brushing close, reaching around Dave for a knife or fork that he could have easily gotten some other way.

Dave didn’t say anything because by the time the salad was done and the steak ready to go, he was wondering if he’d be able to ever speak again, his throat was so choked with lust. Finally, Aaron stepped too close to look over his shoulder as he uncovered the marinated steak and he said evenly, “Aaron?”

“Yes?”

“Are you really hungry?”

Aaron breathed a laugh, then whispered, “Yes, but not for food.”

A comment that from anyone else would be ridiculous, bordering on cheesy, but from Aaron? He re-covered the steak. “Why don’t you turn off the grill. I’ll put everything away.”

“Okay.”

Aaron was halfway to the French doors when he turned and said, “Bring the wine?”

Dave swallowed. And nodded.

***

He waited for Aaron at the foot of the stairs, bottle and glasses in hand.

When they got upstairs, he found that sometime in past week, Aaron had hung a series of family photos on the long wall. There could be a handful of reasons why Aaron chose this particular time to do something he should have done long ago but Dave didn’t let himself think about those reasons. He walked by the pictures, willing himself not to look or hesitate. There was nothing to feel guilty about. She was gone and he wasn’t.

At Jack’s door, Aaron touched his arm, ‘wait,’ then ducked into the boy’s room. He was in there only a moment—he came back out, making sure to leave the door open.

“Everything all right?” Dave whispered.

“Fine.”

There was another moment of pause when he crossed the threshold of Aaron’s dark bedroom. Not fear or guilt, but a kind of, ‘I hope we’re ready for this,’ because it was a visceral hit—the realization of what they were about to do.

Aaron didn’t give him time for more—he gently pushed Dave, then locked the door, keeping one firm hand on Dave’s back.

Other than Jessica’s suite, this was the one room in the house Dave hadn’t seen, but like everything else, it was quietly elegant and reserved. The thick beige carpet, the big mahogany bed with its tall headboard on the left, dresser and bathroom on the right. The only things out of place were a toy truck in the corner of the room and a storybook on the dresser. He smiled.

And then didn’t when Aaron stepped right behind and kissed the nape of his neck.

After that, time fractured and he felt each touch as if he were a disinterested third-party, watching from a distance.

He dropped the wine and the glasses, seeing them fall without a care as Aaron turned him, kissing the back of his ear, then his cheek and finally his mouth. Long and slow kisses, like before only not and he couldn’t figure out why because Aaron was removing his clothes: jacket, shirt, trousers, boots, socks, stroking his arms, surveying him intently as if trying to figure out how he worked.

Still in that same continuum of lust, he saw more than felt when Aaron pushed him towards the bed, a gentle shove back and back, until he was sitting, hands on Aaron’s hips, the mattress giving sweetly. And huh, that was odd, the dark blue comforter so cold compared to Aaron who was so—

The haze cleared and his out-of-body experience crashed into hard reality because Aaron had stopped moving, had practically stopped breathing. He was bowed, stone still, his hands gripping Dave’s neck and shoulder with a pressure that bordered on pain.

Dave didn’t hesitate—he should have been prepared because even though he didn’t know this, he knew this. “It’s okay.”

“I know,” Aaron answered, his voice at its most monotone.

He squeezed Aaron’s hips. “No one has seen them, have they?”

“Just the medical staff and the physical therapist. Well,” Aaron grinned with gallows humor, adding dryly, “and George, but they weren’t scars, then.”

He squeezed again, this time not lightly. “Aaron, look at me.” He waited until Aaron met his gaze, then asked, “Do you want to stop?”

“No. No.”

Two ‘no’s’ didn’t necessarily mean ‘no’ and he asked again, “Are you sure? We can just—”

“No. It’s okay.”

“Aaron?”

“Yeah?”

He said, his voice deep with perfect sincerity, “If I could, if it would make any difference, I’d dig that son of a bitch up and burn his corpse to make him pay for what he did to you.”

Aaron’s eyes widened and his breath caught in his chest. Dave wasn’t sure if it was in protest or gratified surprise, but it didn’t matter.

He didn’t let it matter.

He began again, spreading his thighs so he could tug Aaron closer, nuzzling Aaron’s stomach through his shirt until his fists uncurled and he began to respond. Just small movements at first, hips and hands but when he glanced up, Aaron’s eyes were half closed, and a faint sheen of sweat glossed his forehead. Perfect. Perfect, and now for the hard part.

He undid Aaron’s shirt buttons quickly, like pulling off a bandage. Aaron was, of course, wearing an undershirt and he got that off just as fast.

Then he leaned back and looked.

All told, they weren’t anything unusual. There was no reason for his throat to close up with pity and a surprisingly hot rage. He’d seen much worse—everyone at the BAU had seen much worse. Bodies so torn up they’d lost all sense of their humanity, reduced to rudimentary tissue and bone.

These were only thin strips of red flesh, raised and puckered at the edges, the longest, near Aaron’s right hip, almost three inches. Dave ran his thumb over it, not really touching.

“Do they make you sick?”

Aaron’s voice was small and he was looking off to the side. Dave shook his head. “Not even close.” And to prove it, he leaned in and kissed the one to the right of Aaron’s navel reverently.

“Dave—”

“Aaron.” He shook his head again, letting his lips wander, a kiss on the one that paralleled a floating rib, then the one on the left hip. “I’ve seen worse. It’s not a big deal.” He licked the spot to convince and Aaron shuddered, his knees buckling. “So shut up,” he added, his voice muffled against Aaron’s skin.

Aaron laughed softly, a signal, and Dave unfastened his belt, his zipper, and let his pants fall. There were two more scars, almost hidden by his boxers, and he kissed those as well, smiling when Aaron gasped and curved over him.

The weight was too much, the lack of pressure on his dick also too much so he rocked back and they fell together.

It had been years since he’d had so much weight on him and he tried to remember—had it been like this? So suffocating? So much?

He couldn’t recall and he gave up thinking, skating his hands down Aaron’s back to his ass so he could slide his boxers off and then, with Aaron’s help, his own, encouraging Aaron’s short thrusts with murmured, “Are you okay? Does that hurt?” And, “Jesus…” when Aaron bit his collarbone and pressed closer, harder.

“Dave,” Aaron panted, “I can’t—”

But whatever Aaron couldn’t do was lost and he buried his face in Dave’s throat, stifling the words, the sounds, as he picked up the pace.

The forever feeling was back, making too much of every move, every touch and sound and Dave pushed the emotion away. He didn’t want forever, didn’t want the glorious moment. That meant distance and pedestals. He wanted Aaron as he was, up close with his messy human emotions, stripped naked and bare.

He swallowed sharply and with a faint, “Hey,” he pushed Aaron up, the moist sound of their bodies parting unbelievably erotic, spurring him on. He reached down and slid his hand around Aaron’s cock, telling himself not to hold too hard, all the while urging, “C’mon, c’mon…

***

“Are you okay?”

Aaron’s voice was raspy soft. Dave nodded. “Yes.”

“Am I too heavy?”

“No.”

“Do you think we were too loud?”

“No.”

“I need to check on Jack.”

“Okay.”

Aaron hesitated, then slid off. “Be right back.”

“Okay.”

Aaron went to the bathroom first. Dave stayed where he was, splayed out on the bed, eyes closed. He listened as the water ran, as Aaron pulled on his clothes. When Aaron left, it was as if time resumed and Dave found the will to get up.

He cleaned up, washing carefully, examining his body. Aaron had bitten him on the curve of his neck, and he touched the mark, looking for any break in the skin. There was none.

In the low glow of the vanity light he looked tired and unkempt. His hair was standing up and his face was red. Well, good sex did that to a man. He smiled briefly and ran his hands over his beard, then smoothed down his hair and returned to the bedroom.

He picked up the wine and the glasses, then paused a moment, standing before the bed. He imagined getting in on the right side because the things on the nightstand—a Popular Science magazine, a pen and a pad of paper—showed that Aaron slept on the left.

So he’d get in and wait, and maybe fall asleep if Aaron spent a lot of time with Jack. When Aaron returned, he’d wake him with a kiss and they’d talk a while and later, because they just couldn’t help themselves, they’d have sex again, this time taking it slow.

It was all he wanted to do, all he couldn’t do and he sat the wine and glasses on the dresser. He began to get dressed.

He was pulling on his shirt when the door opened and Aaron came in. He stopped short. “You’re leaving.”

It wasn’t a question but he nodded anyway. “I can’t stay.”

“Yes.”

“I would, but…” He shrugged, indicating the room down the hall.

“Yes. I know.”

“Aaron.”

“Yes?”

He left the buttons for later and held out his arms. “Come here.”

Aaron didn’t hesitate. He came forward, his eyes losing some of the blankness.

It was odd, Dave thought as he pulled Aaron close feeling warm muscle and crisp hair, but of all the things they’d done in the last hour, this one was probably the most sexy, the most intimate.

“It’s strange,” Aaron mumbled into his neck, unconsciously mimicking Dave’s thoughts.

“What is?”

“I’ve got this bizarre urge to thank you.”

Dave burst out laughing, bringing Aaron even closer. “You do and I’ll—” ‘Never come back,’ he almost said, but no—they were long past that.

Aaron brushed the side of Dave’s neck with his lips as if he’d heard and then pushed him back and fastened the buttons he’d so recently undone. Dave said nothing, feeling like a doll, there for Aaron’s pleasure. It wasn’t an entirely objectionable feeling.

They went downstairs. He made a detour to get his jacket while Aaron turned the alarm off and pulled the door open.

When Dave stepped onto the stoop, he shivered. It was cold and he wondered if it was going to rain. It felt like it could.

And then he wondered what to say. Like everything else, it had been a long time since he’d been here, on a doorstep in the early morning hours, exhausted from sex but feeling so alive it was scary.

“I won’t ask you again, but you know you can always stay in the guest bedroom, right?” Aaron said almost gravely.

“I know, Hotch.” There was no way in hell he’d ever stay in that room. If he ever spent the night, he was going to do it in Aaron’s bed with Aaron sleeping right beside him.

“Okay.” Aaron reached out and touched his arm.

He held back from returning the gesture. He just smiled then turned and left.

This time, when he looked in the rearview, Aaron was gone, the door closed. What that meant, Dave wasn’t sure and he mulled it over all the way home. When he got to his house, he did the usual before-bed things—check the doors, turn off the lights, then head upstairs—figuring that he’d lay awake, reliving the evening like a teenager.

But when his head touched the pillow and closed his eyes, sleep and happiness pulled him under.

***

The next day he got to work early, still feeling the night. He reminded himself that he needed to watch his actions more than ever, especially facial expressions. He wasn’t a kid and couldn’t go around smiling like a loon. But his caution was unnecessary—JJ was already in Aaron’s office and by the grim look on their faces when he said good morning, he knew without asking that they had a case.

_____________________

“…and I’ll make sure she knows it.” Aaron glanced at the team, one by one. “Any other questions?”

They shook their collective heads. Aaron nodded once, as if expecting that very answer. “Good job, everyone.” He pushed off to his feet, ducking his head to avoid the plane’s fuselage. “Get some sleep. It will be a long flight.” He sat down again, this time across from Dave, the small table between them.

They glanced at each other, then Aaron opened his laptop and Dave got out his casebook. What with one thing and another, he hadn’t time to transcribe his notes and he began to write, lulled by the comfortable sound of Aaron tapping away.

By the time he’d finished with the events of day one, everyone was asleep. Well—he craned his neck to look towards the front of the plane—everyone but Garcia. She was curled up next to Morgan, wide-awake, staring out the window. She’d had, Dave knew, a time of it. She was tough, but not in the way the rest of the team. Being onsite for the actual investigation, away from the cushion of distance and her equipment, was completely different and he hoped it wouldn’t break her.

“You okay?”

Dave looked up. Aaron was bent over a sheet of paper, but he was looking at Dave from under his brows.

“Of course.”

“Good.” Aaron dropped his eyes but somehow not his attention and Dave’s heart jerked.

One hundred and forty-four hours and who knew how many minutes.

That’s how long it had been since he’d left Aaron’s house. Which made it about a hundred and forty-four hours and thirty minutes since he’d held Aaron, since he’d kissed him.

It hadn’t seemed that long at the time because he hadn’t had time to think. His training, long since instilled, had taken over and his entire focus had shifted to the bastard that was killing the residents of a small town in Alaska.

The only hiccup had been that first night at the motel. Trudging upstairs with the team, he’d had a moment of, ‘If Aaron and I share a room, how dangerous would that be?’ Too dangerous and he’d turned to Reid and said casually, “How ’bout you bunk with me? I can’t promise not to snore.”

Reid’s expression had brightened and he began a running monologue on snoring, its causes and cures. Dave was regretting his decision when he looked at Aaron—he was so relieved that Dave realized he’d been thinking the same thing; he grinned and that set Reid off again.

Later on, when he was in bed, resolutely telling himself he could sleep with the light on because Reid apparently couldn’t sleep without reading first, he pictured Aaron in the next room, getting ready for bed. That proved a mistake, so he did what he always did when he was in the field and needed to sleep—he imagined he was on the lake with the dogs, waiting for a flock of geese to come floating out of the sky.

The next thing he knew, someone was screaming and he and Reid were tripping over each other, trying to get dressed.

So, one hundred and forty-four hours and thirty minutes, give or take, that now seemed like no time at all and it came rushing back—Aaron on top, heavy and solid, not silent as he pushed and thrust and—

“What are you thinking about?” Aaron murmured.

‘You.’ “The case.”

“Hmm.”

Aaron clearly didn’t believe him and he muttered, “I’m going to get a drink; do you want anything?” He had to get away, even for a few minutes.

“No, thank you.”

He got up and stepped over Reid’s feet, then Emily’s, and retreated to the galley.

He found the mineral water, a cheap knock-off of Evian, and poured a glass. He was concentrating on budget cuts and not Aaron when the galley door darkened. He turned, already knowing what he’d see.

“I changed my mind,” Aaron said blandly making no move to get a drink. He was staring, his eyes hooded and dark.

“What would you like?”

Aaron raised his eyebrow but only murmured, “Water. I’ll get it.”

And then Aaron—controlled, by-the-book Aaron—edged around him, one casual hand on his back. As if he did it all the time, brush so close that Dave could feel his entire body.

“Aaron?” he whispered a warning.

“I know. I just—” He shrugged and Dave could feel that, too. They weren’t doing anything and the curtain hid everything, but still…

Aaron sighed and stepped to the side. Dave’s back felt cold, even through his thick wool shirt and polar-fleece.

Aaron bent and got a bottle out of the refrigerator. “What are you doing this weekend?” he murmured.

“Working on the book.”

“Would you—” Aaron stopped and looked over his shoulder, then dropped his voice, “What about dinner?”

“Sure. What day?”

“Saturday?”

Date night. “Fine.”

***

“Aaron, stop.”

Aaron kissed Dave’s cheek, then bit his ear. “No.”

“C’mon. I’m not as young as I used to be.”

“We’re almost the same age.”

“No, we’re not and my knees—”

Aaron reached down and stroked his ass then thigh, grabbing the back of his knee, tugging his leg up. “Your knees are fine. I’ve seen them, remember?” He kissed Dave’s throat again, whispering, “You have great legs.”

A comment that was sweetly foolish and suddenly Dave didn’t care that they were going to fuck against the bedroom door, something he hadn’t done in years. That he was tired because after Jessica had left for the weekend, it had taken almost an hour for Jack to fall asleep and then another for Aaron to feel comfortable about going upstairs.

Something that had worried him until they got to the bedroom because the second he had closed the door, Aaron was on him, pushing him back, trying to undress them both at the same time. “Will you at least let me move over? The doorknob isn’t too comfortable.”

“Oh…” Aaron pushed Dave’s shirt off his shoulder and began kissing a line down his neck. “I’m sorry.”

Dave snorted. “No, you’re not.”

“No. I’m not.”

They did end up on the bed, though. Stumbling and tripping, a graceless two-step that evened out when he had Aaron on his back, mostly naked. He was solid and broad, but even so, there were the scars. he slid to the side and Aaron grabbed his arms.

“What are you doing?”

Aaron’s shirt was half on, half off and it was ridiculously sexy. “I—” Dave gestured to the scars. “You know…”

Aaron rolled his eyes, but he gave a small, pleased smile and said, “Don’t be an idiot,” then pulled him back on.

***

This time, after Aaron sat up and said, “I need to check on Jack,” he turned back around and said, “Don’t go anywhere.”

Dave nodded. “Okay.”

As if he could. He wasn’t sure he could stand and it must be the long months without continual sex that blew the last two hours out of proportion. It couldn’t have been that significant. Nothing was.

After a few minutes while he debated relative exhaustion, he forced himself out of bed and into the shower. He was still under the spray when a shadow passed by the open bathroom door. He wondered if Aaron would join him and wasn’t surprised when he didn’t.

He took his time drying off. He debated clothes, no clothes, just shorts, or towel. He settled for towel.

Aaron was sitting on the bed when he came out, as if he hadn’t been able to decide whether or not to get under the covers. He didn’t look lost, Dave told himself, didn’t look unsure. In fact, he looked quite the opposite and Dave felt a pang in his belly that transmuted into a familiar curl of warmth.

He casually tossed the towel on the bedpost and got in on the left side. After a moment’s hesitation that he didn’t miss, Aaron took off his shorts and climbed in beside him.

This was always awkward—where should he put his arms and legs? How close is too close? On his side or on his back?

And Aaron, he didn’t seem any better at it. He lay on his back staring up at the ceiling, grim and stern as if the ceiling were a particularly gruesome murder scene and Dave thought, ‘Aaron, don’t do this to me, don’t make too much of this.’ “How’s Jack?”

“He was awake, sort of. He asked if you were still here.”

“And?”

“I told him yes.”

“Okay.”

“He asked if you could have breakfast with us.”

Ah-ha. “What did you say?”

Aaron turned his head. “That you had things to do and you needed to go home soon. I waited until he fell back asleep, but…”

“Aaron, it’s okay.”

“It’s not that I don’t want you to stay. It’s just that he’s been getting up around two every night and crawling into bed with me.”

That was news to Dave, but he didn’t pause, “Then we have almost two hours.”

Startled, Aaron smiled slowly. “I guess we do.”

Dave held out his hand. “C’mere.”

Aaron slid over and they settled in, Dave on his back, Aaron against his side, arm draped over Dave’s chest.

“What are you thinking about?” Aaron asked quietly.

“Nothing.”

Aaron raised an eyebrow but didn’t call Dave on the half-truth.

They lay there for the longest time, each lost in thought until Dave asked, “What about you? What are you thinking about?”

Aaron shrugged. “The report I need to finish tomorrow.”

“Aaron?”

“Yes?”

“You do realize that it’s Friday night, right?”

“Yes.”

“And that you don’t have to work tomorrow?”

“Tell that to Strauss. She’s expecting it by noon.”

“Aaron?”

“Yes?”

“You do realize that’s a challenge I can’t refuse, right?”

Aaron leaned back so he could look Dave in the eye, then gave him a ghost of a smile and murmured, “I do.”

Challenge thrown, challenge accepted.

Twenty minutes later he was sitting against the headboard with Aaron in his lap, hoping like hell the bed was as sturdy as it seemed.

_____________________

The following months were busy. Summer came and along with it, a change in Jack’s schedule. Jessica had opted out of summer courses and was able to spend more time at home with Jack. On the days she needed a break, Dave took up the slack.

He’d get to Aaron’s and after a quick chat with Jessica, he and Jack would start dinner. Aaron usually made it home by seven, but not always and Dave got used to filling in, making sure Jack ate well. When Aaron wasn’t going to be home until very late, they’d eat on the lawn because Jack said it was like camping.

After dinner, they’d hang out in the living room and play.

Sometimes it was drawing and painting, sometimes it was just building complicated structures out of Legos or wooden blocks. One evening they set up a train in the living room and when he saw how much Jack loved it, he ordered more track and cars so they could rig a system that ran from the living room to the front room and back again. Aaron came home the night the packages arrived and found them on the floor laughing as they tried to get the train to crash. Aaron stood there for a long moment, head cocked. And then he grinned, tossed his briefcase and jacked on a chair and joined them on the floor.

Once Jack was in bed, he and Aaron would settle on the sofa and work. It was mostly for show in case Jack woke up but when it was clear the boy was asleep, they’d set aside computers and reach for each other.

They never had sex on the sofa, but they made out like there was no tomorrow. Spending long moments just kissing, all a prelude to going upstairs. After a month or so, once they grew comfortable with their new situation, the urgency abated and they actually got some work done. Aaron worked on his endless reports and Dave started a new book. He wanted to examine the influence that geographical environment had on serial killers, if any. He got to work, first with the outline, and then with the actual proposal. It didn’t take too long to find out that having one of the BAU’s most brilliant agents within arm’s reach was a big plus and he used that to his advantage.

There were other discoveries, revelations that he’d never tell a soul. Things like the realization that Aaron was energized by sex and liked to talk afterwards. Not the standard pillow talk, but conversations about everything and anything. Aaron had also, Dave found, been nervous about sex, worried that inadequacy was one of the reasons why Haley had left. The night he’d confessed that fear, Dave had pushed away his astonishment and spent the next hours proving Aaron wrong, a kind of sexy object lesson that left them both happy.

About the third week in, after they’d gone for a brief bike ride with Jack, Aaron suggested Dave bring some clothes to the house, just jeans and khakis in case they wanted to go for a drive or take Jack to a park. So, a little hesitantly, he packed a few things, making sure to keep the quantity to a minimum. When he got to Aaron’s, he was surprised to find that Aaron had cleaned out a drawer for him. They didn’t talk about it other than a ‘Here you go,’ and ‘Thanks.’ It was a delicate thing, the dance they were doing. He’d trod the steps before, as had Aaron, but this time it felt different although he wasn’t able to figure out why.

He knew there’d be a fall—there always was. But he ignored the alarm bells that rang every so often because when it came down to it, he was having too much fun and didn’t want to think about ramifications and consequences. he spent his days in a kind of golden stupor and later, when he had time to reflect, he could easily pinpoint the day things changed for him.

_____________________

He tossed his bag on the chair and continued on to Aaron’s office. JJ and Morgan were huddled around the desk, listening to a woman saying, “… and I may be jumping the gun, but I wanted to see what you think.”

Aaron looked up and waved Dave in. “No. You were right to call us in. If he’s escalating this fast, waiting another week might be dangerous.”

“So we can count on you?”

“Yes. We’ll leave in two hours.”

“I might not have rooms ready for you by then.”

“That’s okay, Detective,” JJ said, leaning towards the phone. “I’ll take care of that.”

“Thanks, folks.”

“See you soon.” Aaron disconnected, then pocketed the cell. “That was Detective Atkins from the Lansing office,” he said to Dave. “There’s been a rash of break-ins on the MSU campus and last night, two students were murdered in their dorm rooms.”

Dave raised an eyebrow. “Two in one night? It’s pretty big jump from petty crime to murder.”

“It is. And the semester is almost over, so we don’t have much time.” Aaron pulled a file towards him, glanced at the contents, then gave it to JJ. “Get the team together. Wheels up by ten. I need to let the Director know we’re leaving.” He rose and hurried from the room.

Morgan gave Dave a look of, ‘What was that all about?’ He shrugged and left to get his gear.

***

The flight to Lansing was quicker than he remembered it being. But maybe that  because he spent most of it watching Aaron, wishing for a little solitude so he could ask what happened with Strauss, so he could try to make Aaron smile.

When he’d left Aaron’s house the night before, Aaron had been laughing over a stupid joke he had made. And for once, he’d followed Dave’s order to stay in bed because it was senseless to get up to see him to the door when he was just going to have to get back in bed. Dave had kissed him goodbye then bit his lip gently because Aaron was still grinning.

But whatever, however, Aaron was back to grim and it wasn’t just about the case.

He opened his mouth at one point to ask what had happened because screw discretion, but Garcia called before he could and from then on, it was all work.

***

They cleared the case in two days. The profile said male, someone with access to the students, someone those students would instinctively trust. That turned out to be the case. The unsub, Martin Englemann, was the newest member of the university, teaching New Media and Social Network Paradigms in Emerging Markets, a mouthful of nonsense that made Dave want to roll his eyes every time he heard it.

Englemann was thirty-two and considered the murders a ‘social experiment.’ He’d set his own students up as real-world examples of the power of the internet and how social media could be manipulated to drive public opinion. The kicker was that dead kids weren’t killed by the unsub himself—they were shamed into it by their peers.

When the team, the Lansing PD, and the campus police converged on the classroom where the arrogant bastard was still teaching, he made some disparaging remark to the effect of, ‘What took you so long?’ then ran like the coward he was.

He didn’t get far. Aaron had set up a trap with Emily and Morgan waiting in the south wing. When Englemann ran towards them, chased by Aaron, Reid and Dave, he had no choice. He tried an end-run around Emily, but she flattened him with a flying leap.

After that, it was the usual: interviews, paperwork and cleanup. By the time they were done, it was ten, too late to schedule the plane.

The day had been long and he was tired, but he perked up when Emily looked around the field office and said, “Drink?” They all stood up except for Aaron—he was in Atkins’ office on the phone with Strauss again. When Emily knocked on the door and jerked her thumb; he shook his head and went back to his conversation.

Atkins led them to a bar about a block away. It was clearly a cop hangout—dark paint with red leather booths and a pool table in the back. The wall behind the long bar was covered with photos and Dave didn’t have to examine them to know they were memorials of the fallen.

Atkins chose a booth near the back and they all sat down, one by one, first JJ and Emily, then Reid and Morgan and finally, Dave.

He hadn’t spent much time with Atkins. As soon as they’d arrived, Aaron had sent him to the campus to begin the interviews so he’d missed any initial introductions. She was forty-one, maybe forty-two, had blond hair that reminded him of Strauss, but wasn’t quite as pretty. She had a dry wit, though, and soon they were laughing over a story she told about her first day on the job.

He never remembered how the conversation changed—one minute they were talking about their rookie days, the next, they were talking about the case. He did, however, remember when the subject of only children came up—Reid had been dissecting Englemann’s background, throwing out theories as to what had driven him to kill.

“All I’m saying is that his childhood wasn’t what we define as normal.” Reid brushed his hair out of his eyes, his gesture as impatient as his words. “Effectively, he was raised by bad cop shows and had relatively no human interaction during his formative years.”

“But he also had no telltale signs of psychosis until a few months ago,” Emily said. “A lot of kids are raised in front of the TV and they turn out fairly normal.”

“He was an only child, his mother was killed by a drunk driver when he was five, and he was homeschooled by a series of disinterested relatives until he was thirteen,” Reid countered quickly. “I’d hardly call that normal.”

“But his dad was around, Reid,” Morgan said. “He wasn’t alone.”

“His father was a cop,” JJ spoke for the first time. She’d gotten quiet as the conversation became more serious. “That doesn’t necessarily mean he wasn’t lonely.”

“We’ve seen it before,” Emily added thoughtfully. “Cop’s kids, problems with authority.”

“That doesn’t mean anything,” Dave interjected. “A lot of cops have healthy kids.”

Reid leaned forward. “Yeah, but single dominating parent, single child households raise the stakes.”

JJ shifted from side to side then murmured, “Not every only child turns out to be a psychopath, Spence.”

There was a sudden silence.

Dave murmured, “Henry is fine, JJ. Reid was just talking about at-risk kids.”

“Yeah,” Reid said quickly, looking around the table. “I didn’t mean Henry. Or Jack, for that matter.”

Dave raised his eyebrow in surprise. He’d never thought about it, not in that way. Yes, he’d watched for signs of PTSD in Jack, but he’d never given any thought to Jack being permanently damaged by the death of his mother. And apparently neither had any of the team. No one said anything for the longest time and then Morgan shook his head slowly.

“Hotch is fine. Jack is fine. His early development was patterned by two loving parents and that makes all the difference.”

Reid nodded, Dave nodded and Emily patted JJ on the arm. “It does.”

JJ nodded. “I know. It’s just…” She trailed off and shrugged apologetically, as if silently saying she was sorry for her worry.

Emily patted her arm again, but before she could say anything, Morgan got there first.

“Besides,” Morgan said, “Odds are, Hotch will remarry and who knows—Jack will probably have a baby brother or sister.”

And that was another surprise, completely unwelcome, almost shocking. He stared down at his drink, too afraid to look up in case whatever he was feeling was bleeding onto his face.

Why had he never thought of that, that Aaron might want more children? Family meant a lot to him—he’d said as much on more than one occasion and his reaction to cases that involved abused children? Anyone would notice how confrontational he became when faced with the abuser.

Abused children craved what they didn’t have growing up—in Aaron’s case that would be a loving, stable family.

Dave cleared his throat, then downed the last of the drink. The air was suddenly stifling, choking him and if he were by himself, he’d loosen his tie and unbutton his collar. “Well,” he said evenly as he got out his wallet. “It’s been a long day. I’m going back to the hotel.”

He didn’t wait for a response, didn’t wait for any offers of company. He threw a couple twenties on the tabletop and rose, ignoring the startled looks.

The area around the bar had gotten crowded and he had to patiently wind his way through, wanting only to push and shove. When he stepped onto the sidewalk, the cool air and space eased the odd panic which was good because there was something waiting for him, on the path that his thoughts had taken, and as he headed towards the hotel, he followed that path to its natural conclusion.

Aaron believed in giving his all and his best. Aaron believed in family. Aaron would do anything to make sure Jack had what he needed to grow up healthy, both in mind and body. Since Haley had died—hell, even before—Aaron had sacrificed so much for his family. Aaron didn’t do things by half—when he was in a relationship, he expected as much from himself as his partner.

And finally, Aaron didn’t do casual—he believed in forever and all time and expected that from his partner, as well.

Dave stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. He was a block away from the hotel and it was then that he realized he’d been walking so fast he was almost running. He took a deep breath and looked up at the sky—it was milky white with clouds that only reflected the city lights.

They’d never talked about the future.

They’d talked about Jack’s future, about Jessica’s future. Hell, they’d even talked about the team’s future. But never their own. He’d wanted it that way, sure, but what about Aaron? Was the fact that he’d never brought up the coming months or years significant or not? With most people it wouldn’t matter, but Aaron wasn’t most people.

So, what was his future with Aaron going to be? The Bureau’s policy on same-sex partnerships was liberal, but a liberal policy didn’t make the day to day any easier. He never cared what people thought, but this was different. If they were in it for the long haul, that meant possible exposure and exposure could hurt Aaron’s chances of advancement—the Bureau’s policy didn’t extend to superiors screwing around with their staff.

And then there was Jack…

He sighed and stuffed his hands in his pockets and began walking again.

What had he been doing all these months? The sex was fantastic but what had he been doing?

Playing house. Like it was a role he could throw on or off at a whim, deliberately ignoring the fact that the other players were in it for keeps. And damnit, his track record when it came to relationships was abysmal, pathetic even. In the past, that had been okay because it had never affected anyone who could truly be hurt and when things had gotten rocky and the writing was on the wall, he deliberately made them worse so the wife of the moment could point to him, say it was his fault and pack her bags with a clear conscience.

But now there was a child in the mix and he suddenly remembered two things: Aaron’s comment about, ‘I don’t want Jack relying on someone who might not be there in a week or a month,’ and his own to Aaron during the Henson case: ‘I might have tried harder if children had been involved.’

What a facile, stupid thing to say. It wasn’t a matter of trying harder. Kids didn’t make everything easier—they’d made everything convoluted and difficult and if he’d been thinking with his brain instead of his dick, he’d have realized that.

Which meant he had some decisions to make.

Something he was in no mood for and when he got to his room, he locked the door and threw the keycard on the dresser. He wanted another drink. He wanted to go to bed. He wanted to forget the past hour and how it had put a new spin on everything that mattered most to him.

His cell rang. He touched his pocket not having to look to know who it was. He could ignore it of course, but Aaron would keep calling.

And he was never that much of a coward, right?

He got out the phone and walked to the window. “Hi.”

“Where are you?”

“At the hotel.” And then, when he realized his tone was abrupt, almost rude, he added a belated, “Where are you?”

“At the bar with the team. I decided I had time for a drink. Are you all right? Morgan said you ran out of here like your pants were on fire.”

There was a smile behind Aaron’s voice and somehow that made him angry. “He did not.”

“No, he didn’t. So, are you?”

“All right?” He ran his hand over his hair. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just tired.”

“That’s too bad. I was thinking of going for a walk.”

“It’s almost midnight.”

“It’s only ten after eleven.”

“It’s been a long day, Hotch.”

There was another long pause, and Aaron finally said, “Okay.”

“I’ll see you in the morning?”

“Yes.”

“Maybe we can go for that walk when we get home.”

“Okay.”

He hung up before he could start babbling and stood there, at a loss.

Eleven-ten. They had to be out the door by seven to get to the airfield by eight. Which meant he really should get to bed. He touched the phone again, then tossed it on the bed and went to the mini-fridge.

***

When they landed, he used twin excuses of work and exhaustion as a reason to go straight home, adding vaguely to the team at large, “I’ll see you on Monday.”

Aaron gave him an odd look, but just murmured, “Have a good weekend.”

***

And don’t forget, if you need anything else, give me a call. I’m proud of you for giving school another chance. Event Planning sounds like an exciting career. Give my best to your brother and sister. Yours, Dave.

He tapped the enter key and his note to Connie was on its way. He hoped she wasn’t offended by the gift of cash but he remembered how it had been—books had been expensive then and they were more expensive now, never mind all the add-on costs of college. The last thing he wanted her to worry about things like groceries and utilities as she got her life back on track.

And now that was done, he could get back to the book. Something he’d been doing all day now, getting back to the book.

He’d started out the weekend with the best intentions—he’d write until he couldn’t write anymore and by the end of day Sunday, he’d have something he could show his editor. Instead, he spent the day in a kind of limbo, sitting in front of the computer, trying to make the words come. Every time he managed to grasp the thread of what he wanted to say, it vanished, demolished under the weight of his guilt and regret.

It didn’t help that Aaron had called twice, once in the morning and then at noon. Dave had let the calls go to voice mail because apparently he was that big a coward. The only brave thing he’d done was to listen to the messages to make sure they weren’t work-related.

So he was back to getting back to the book, but he didn’t move and was still sitting there fifteen minutes later, staring at the screen when his cell rang. He sighed and answered. “Hey.”

“Is this too late?”

Aaron’s sounded tired and the remorse Dave had been avoiding settled in, like a fist around his heart. “Of course not. Just finishing a few things.”

“How’s the book?”

“Stalled.”

“Sorry to hear it.”

He leaned back in his chair. “It happens.”

“Which one is this?”

“Foyet.” He hesitated. “So, how are you?”

“I just got off the phone with Strauss.”

“And?”

“Sacramento has requested a team to fly out on Wednesday to give a talk about internet stalking. They’re running scenarios on Thursday and Friday and would like our help.”

The Boise case was having major repercussions, as well it should. “You’re sending Reid, of course.”

“Yes, and Penelope.”

“What’s wrong?

“I want to send Prentiss but her mom is in town.”

“I can go.”

Aaron hesitated, then said, “Isn’t your class starting next week?”

He shrugged. “Yeah, but the syllabus is already written. I’m ready.”

This time the pause was longer. “No. I’ll go”

It was on the tip of his tongue to suggest making a weekend of it. They could hang out in the city or visit some wineries. But he ignored his the treacherous urge and cleared his throat instead. “Does Jessica need any help?”

“No, the semester is finished.”

He’d forgotten about that, forgotten that summer was almost over. “That was fast.”

“Yes.”

“Well…” He ran his hand over his beard and crossed his legs. “I’ll see you on Monday?”

“Dave?”

“Yeah?”

“Come to dinner next week? On Friday?”

Aaron’s voice had deepened and the fist became a lump, hard as iron. “I’ve got a meeting with my editor. Maybe the weekend after next?”

“Okay.”

“’Night, Hotch.”

He hung up, not waiting for Aaron’s response, feeling as if he’d just dodged a particularly painful bullet. And then he realized the depth of his duplicity and shame crept over him like hot breeze.

He had to do the right thing and he had to do it quickly. If he didn’t, he’d end up hurting Aaron and maybe Jack. He’d state his case rationally, firmly. It would be like pulling off a bandage—it would hurt like hell at first, but once the trauma was over and things were back to normal, even Aaron would agree it was all for the best. He’d move on to someone more suitable, someone who could give him what he needed and that would be that.

His decision gave him a measure of calm and he opened up his email. He typed quickly, detached and casual. ‘Hey, I changed my mind. I can make it on Friday. Don’t worry about groceries—I’ll pick something up.’

He sent it off then closed his laptop harder than necessary.

He went to bed soon after, still in that blank state of calm and fell asleep within minutes. But that night he had the Galen nightmare for the first time since the case had been solved. He woke up, heart pounding, sweating like he’d run a mile. And it didn’t take a profiler to realize what that meant.

He got up and went to the bathroom to splash water on his face. Then he went back to bed and lay there, staring at the ceiling, hand pressed against his chest as if that would make the pain go away..

***

He lived the rest of the week in that same state even though, later on, he couldn’t remember the specifics of each day. Every hour was spent on autopilot as if he hadn’t a care in the world. When guilt did manage to break through the metaphorical shield he was building, he simply put it aside and started refortifying again.

But in the end, all his rationalizations and avoidance and self-protection didn’t matter because the one thing he hadn’t planned for in ending his relationship with Aaron was Aaron himself.

***

He drove sedately, one hand on the wheel, the other on the seat beside him. The drive was so familiar—he felt as if he knew every curve and dip intimately; he knew just how to take the lazy loop on I-95 and when to slow down for that tricky intersection on Old Bridge Road. All so familiar, and it wasn’t until he’d turned onto Crestview when he realized that it might be the last time for a while and his stomach actually hurt with sudden grief.

He clenched his hands tight around the steering wheel, hard enough to make the leather creak and then he relaxed his fingers one by one. This was necessary—he was doing the right thing.

When he pulled up in front of the house, Jessica’s SUV was in driveway so he parked on the street and got out. He looked around.

The garden was coming together. A month ago, Aaron had hired a landscaper to get the front yard in shape, but when the man had cancelled at the last minute, he decided to do it himself. Jack had wanted to help so he and Aaron had spent a Sunday digging and planting. They’d tried to enlist Dave—he’d told them that he and dirt didn’t mix. But, he sat on the porch with a glass of iced tea and a newspaper, watching them as they tried to figure out what would look best where.

Aaron had gotten as dirty as Jack and at one point he’d caught Dave’s gaze and leered with comic exaggeration. He had a smear of soil on his cheek and another on his chin and Dave had rolled his eyes and grinned, telling himself that it wasn’t sexy, that Aaron in filthy jeans and ripped t-shirt was no reason to put the glass down and join them.

He sighed at the memory and walked heavily up the driveway.

He rang the bell and waited. First he heard running footsteps, then Jack, shouting something about chocolate. The door was yanked open and Jack stood there, smiling like crazy. He raised his arms. “Dave!”

And damnit, it was almost second nature now, responding to Jack’s needs and his stomach flipped as he picked him up, thinking, ‘Another reason to nip this in the bud.’ “Hey kiddo, how’s it going?”

“Good. We’re making dessert.”

He raised his eyebrow, leaning back to see the brown goo that was smeared across Jack’s shirt. “So I see.” He shut the door with a gentle kick. “What kind?”

“Chocolate pudding.”

“Pudding, huh?” He headed towards the kitchen. “Did you leave any in the bowl?”

“We did,” Jessica answered for Jack, peering around the corner. “But it was touch and go.”

Dave sat Jack on a stool. The kitchen was a mess—bowls and spoons and spatulas were all over the place. “So I see,” he said again.

“I’ll clean it up,” Jessica assured him with a wave of a potholder. She was wearing a white shirt and tan slacks, both an unfortunate choice—she had a wide smear of chocolate on her sleeve and another on her pants. But she looked good—she’d gotten her hair cut sometime in the last week and it framed her face in a soft cloud.

He shook his head. “No, that’s okay. You did all the work.”

“Whoever cooks doesn’t have to do dishes,” Jack intoned, sounding so like his father Dave had to smile.

“You got it. Besides, it will give me something to do while we wait for your dad.” He shrugged off his jacket, sighed regretfully at the chocolate on the lapel, then unbuckled his holster and put it and his gun away.

Jack picked up a spoon out of one of the bowls and began to lick it. “Daddy loves pudding.”

“He does?” He got his apron and put it on slowly—Aaron wasn’t one for sweet things and generally passed on dessert.

“He does,” Jessica agreed as she handed him a bowl. She paused and looked down at Jack, then murmured sadly, “It was one of the things Haley loved about him.” ‘One of the many things,’ she didn’t say.

“Go on,” Dave said gently, touching her elbow. “I’ll do this. You go sit.”

“Thanks.” She sat next to Jack, giving a mock groan. “I’m getting too old for all this adventurous cooking. I haven’t made pudding in years.”

Dave began to gather up the dishes, saying thoughtfully, “When I was young, my mother used to make us zabaglione for Easter.”

“Is that pudding?” Jack asked, his voice muffled—he was licking one of the larger bowls by sticking his whole head in it.

Dave nodded. “Sort of.” He cleaned the stove and moved on to the countertops. “Only it has egg and wine.”

“Egg?” Jack stopped licking and put the bowl down. His eyes were wide with horror.

“It’s like a flan, Jackie.” Jessica leaned over and ruffled Jack’s hair. “Like you had at my birthday party last year, remember?”

“Oh, yeah. That was all right.”

As if he were the final word on puddings and Dave exchanged a quick look with Jessica. She smiled back, her sadness fading as she stood and held out her hand to Jack. “Okay, dessert is finished and now?”

Jack’s face fell, but he sat the bowl on the counter and let her help him down. “Now it’s time for a bath.”

Dave smiled in sympathy. “Are you going to stick around for dinner?” he asked Jessica.

She shook her head regretfully. “I’m going to take advantage of you.”

“School?”

“Yeah. My study group is meeting at the library to go over the new curriculum and I promised them I’d make it tonight.”

“I’ll save you some pasta.”

She smiled. “Don’t worry about me. We’ll be there ’til they kick us out and since it’s Friday, I’m staying at my place.” She looked down at Jack and winked. “C’mon. I’ll race you.”

Jack forgot all about the bath and took off with a shout, Jessica chasing after.

Dave watched them run thinking absently that he’d finish the cleanup, then get a drink and catch the evening news.

***

The news was full of shootings and celebrity gossip; he gave it a few minutes then turned the set off and carried his drink to the patio. It was comfortably cool and he settled into a lounge, resolutely thinking about nothing.

“Dave?”

He twisted around to find Jack walking towards him, a stack of library books in his arms. His hair was slicked back and he was wearing clean clothes. Without a word, Dave put his drink down and held out his arms.

They decided on A World of Dragons. Jack made himself comfortable against Dave’s chest and he began to read. They finished it quickly and moved on to the next book in the pile.

They were halfway through What Were Dinosaurs Really Like?—a subject that Dave knew very little about and wanted to learn even less because, seriously, how could scientists know—when he looked up to find Aaron standing in the French doors. He was staring at them with a look Dave couldn’t interpret. He gave Jack a squeeze and said, “Look who’s here,” just to stop Aaron from gazing at them that way.

As expected, Jack shouted, “Dad!” and scrambled off and raced to him. Aaron picked him up then walked over to Dave.

When he got closer, Dave saw what he couldn’t see from twenty feet away: Aaron’s face was drawn, his eyes weary. “How’d it go?” he asked, even though he really didn’t need to.

Aaron shook his head once. “More cuts.”

“Which means?”

“It means JJ’s job is going to get tougher.” He sat Jack down. “Go put your books away and wash up. We’ll eat pretty soon.”

Dave waited until Jack was out of earshot, then asked, “What about personnel?”

Aaron loosened his tie, then the top button of his shirt. “What about it?”

He kept his eyes firmly on Aaron’s face and not the curve of his collarbone and neck. “I’ve been waiting for you to mention Strauss’s idea about putting some of us on furlough.”

Aaron gave him a sharp glance. “How did you know?”

“You forget I’ve worked with her longer than you.” He got up and they walked towards the house. “A bureaucrat is a bureaucrat. That’s one of the first things she’d recommend.” The house was cool but he was sweating.

“She started to, but I cut her off.” Aaron went to the refrigerator and got a bottle of water. “There’s no one on my team that’s superfluous.”

“Except me. Something I’ve already told you.”

“You weren’t serious.”

Dave sat down at a barstool. “I was.”

“It’s out of the question.”

“Why, Aaron? We both know Strauss would love it if I quit. You wouldn’t have to worry that she’d come after the kids and you’d have the budget for more cases.”

Aaron sat the bottle on the countertop and leaned over. “I’ve got three reasons. One, you bring experience that this team very much needs, we’ve all seen that. Two, you have an in with a lot of the agencies here, connections the rest of us don’t have. And three—” He broke off and looked down at the counter, glaring.

“Three?” Dave urged, not sure if he wanted to know.

Aaron looked up and answered evenly, “Three, I don’t want you to go.”

He might as well have added, ‘There, I admitted it,’ because it was clearly what he was thinking.

Dave swallowed and looked down. It was one of those moments he’d learned to love and dread—loaded, balanced on the knife’s edge of his body’s own response and Aaron’s waiting gaze. But luckily, he’d also learned to deflect. “You’ve got chocolate on your tie.”

Aaron glanced down. And straightened, examining his tie. “Where’d that come from?”

“From something that you’re not supposed to know about. Are you hungry?”

“Yes.”

“Well, go change. I’ll get dinner started.”

“Dave—”

“Hotch? Go.”

Aaron hesitated, then went.

***

Dinner was a disaster. He fixed a meal he’d made countless times, but somehow it all went wrong. The pasta was an overcooked mess, the red sauce too salty. Even the sautéed vegetables were ruined.

Aaron was unfailingly polite—he ate every bite and Dave watched him, wondering once again how terrible his childhood had been. Only the desire to please would account for Aaron’s unwillingness to make a fuss, his over-the-top empathy.

It didn’t help that a wall had come between them, hard and fast. Or, Dave thought moodily as he sipped his wine, maybe it wasn’t a wall that had come up but a wall that had fractured because he felt vulnerable and exposed and as the night drew on, he grew more and more uncomfortable until he found himself avoiding Aaron’s glance as they talked about nothing.

Jack was the only one who seemed to enjoy himself. He wolfed the dinner down, even the vegetables and the minute he’d finished, he jumped up and ran to the kitchen, yelling, “I’ve got a surprise, Dad! Close your eyes. Don’t peek!”

Aaron cracked a smile—the first of the evening—and dutifully covered his eyes.

Which left Dave free to look where he wanted, but even so, he didn’t realize he was staring until Aaron muttered, “Stop that.”

“What?” he asked, a little guiltily.

“You’re staring at me.”

Dave nodded then softly said, “I just realized.”

“What?”

“The tan line from your wedding ring is gone.”

Aaron dropped his hands and met Dave’s glance. He was completely startled. “Does that surprise you?”

“No. It just makes me sad.”

Aaron’s mouth dropped open and whatever he would have answered was lost as Jack came in with a silver tray loaded with small dessert cups, each sliding around on the slick metal. Dave watched Jack give a cup to Aaron, still in shock over his own words—why the hell had he said that and how could he take it back?

“Dave,” Jack held up a cup. “Do you want some?”

“Thank you,” he said, even though pudding was the last thing he wanted.

They ate dessert as they’d eaten dinner—Dave said nothing, Jack chattered about this and that and Aaron answered in low tones. He shot Dave a glance every now and then, which Dave fielded as serenely as possible. An increasingly difficult thing because between the first and second bite of pudding, whatever calm he’d been clinging to fled and he decided that he couldn’t end it tonight. Just the idea was too painful and he wanted more time. He’d failed at so many relationships—his working relationship with Aaron was too important to fuck up and if they got into it tonight, his own anxiety would compromise his control of the situation.

So he’d say goodnight to Jack, then run without making it seem like he was running and tomorrow or the next day, he’d call Aaron and give his reasons. Aaron wouldn’t argue—he’d take the excuses with his usual good grace, the same way he took all difficult news.

And then he’d lock his heart up tight and never show it to Dave again.

He made a noise, then pushed the pudding away, feeling sick to his stomach. Aaron cocked his head, but said nothing.

Jack finished his pudding and cast a longing look at the tray and then to his father.

“Don’t even think about it,” Aaron said gently, but firmly.

“But, Daddy—”

“It’s too close to bedtime.”

Jack made a face. “Is not.”

“It’s almost nine. If it were a school night, you’d have been in bed an hour ago.”

Jack’s face darkened, on the edge of a tantrum, but then he backed off. “Can we read a book?”

“Of course.”

“Can Dave read it to me?” He looked over, not begging or wheedling and Dave didn’t have the heart to say no.

“I’d love to,” he said. He rose and tossed his napkin next to his plate. “Let’s go and give your father some peace.”

That came out wrong and Aaron frowned. Dave held out his hand and Jack took it without question. Before they left the room, he turned and said, “Don’t clean up, Hotch, I can do it.” Said partly as an apology for the bad dinner, partly because of the fallout to come.

Again, Aaron frowned. “No, that’s okay. I’ll do it.”

He nodded and he and Jack left the room.

When they got to the stairs, Jack held his arms up and after a moment, Dave picked him up.

“Dave?” Jack said as they climbed, voice muffled against his shoulder.

“Yes?”

“James has a dog.”

“He does.”

“Daddy says we can’t have one. He says he’s not here enough.”

“He’s probably right.” He’d reached the top of the stairs and began the walk down the long hall and its visual reminder of the life that Aaron and Jack used to have.

“But I want a puppy. I’ll be really good. I’ll feed him all the time.”

“There’s more to owning a dog than just feeding him, Jack. You have to make sure he’s healthy, that he gets regular exercise.”

“And clean up his poop?”

Dave laughed briefly. “That too.”

“Mommy said we could get a puppy when I turn five.”

Dave said nothing for a moment because there it was, the crux of the matter—the life before Foyet, the life after. “C’mon,” he finally said as he pushed Jack’s door open. “Let’s get you ready for bed.”

Jack sighed. “Okay.”

He helped Jack into his PJs and then helped him wash up and brush his teeth.

He was watching Jack scrub his teeth when he caught a glimpse of himself in the vanity mirror and a shock burned from his belly to chest. Except for the difference in coloring, they looked like any normal father and son and he reminded himself that he wasn’t Jack’s father and he never would be.

“What book do you want to read?” he asked roughly.

The World of Dragons?”

“You got it. Don’t forget to rinse your mouth.”

When Jack was in bed, book in hand, Dave switched on the wall nightlight.

“The bathroom too?” Jack said, leaning out of bed to make sure Dave did it right.

“Got it.” He closed the door, just so. “How’s that?”

“Good.”

He sat on the edge of the bed and got his glasses out. He opened the book but before he could start reading, Jack shifted restlessly and said, “Dave?”

“Yes, Jack?”

“Aunt Jessie has to go back to school.”

He put on his glasses. “Next month, yes.”

“Daddy says I have to go to a new place all day because Aunt Jessie is busy. It’s a day cares.” He said it as two words, not one.

“I know.”

“I have to stay all day.”

“It will be fun; you’ll make new friends, I bet.”

“I guess.”

He looked over. “What’s wrong?”

Jack turned on his side and rubbed his cheek on the pillow. “I don’t want to go.”

“Why?”

“Mommy says day cares is dangerous.”

Dave took off his glasses then closed the book. “They’re not, Jack. Are you sure she was talking about the same thing?”

Jack frowned, his little face screwed up as he thought. “She and Aunt Jessie were talking about where I would go when mommy found a new job. She says I couldn’t go to day cares all day because it would be dangerous.”

Because that bastard was still around; because nowhere was safe back then. Dave smothered the sick rage that choked his throat. There was nothing he could do about the past, it was done, cemented in stone, but—he realized with a clean sweep of insight—the present and future were still up for grabs.

He sat the book on the nightstand, then twisted so he could lean over Jack. “Kiddo, I need you to pay attention.”

Jack nodded.

“Your mommy was right, for that situation. Do you know what that means?”

Jack frowned, then shook his head.

“When that man—”

“The bad man?”

“Yes, the bad man. When he was around, things weren’t so safe. But he’s gone now, and everything is fine. Do you understand what I mean?”

“He can’t come back?”

Dave laid his hand on Jack’s cheek. He knew that Aaron had explained in general what had happened, but Jack wouldn’t be asking these questions if he wasn’t still working it out. He’d probably been living with the confusion for months—even Dave knew that fear and grief didn’t take a break, not with kids. “Son, that man is dead. He won’t ever hurt anyone again.”

“He won’t?”

“No.”

“Promise?”

Said the same as that first time. The time—he realized with a sinking feeling—that his heart had been caught.

So much for avoiding pain, so much for being smart and doing the right thing. He was damned if he did, damned if he didn’t—the Hotchner boys had hooked him and there was nothing he could do about it. “I promise, Jack. Nothing will happen to you while your daddy and I am around. I promise.”

And he was ready—when Jack raised his arms, he scooped him up and held him tight to his chest.

He felt unbelievably fragile, held this close; thin arms and legs with little muscle; no way to protect himself, not even to run very fast.

The thought made his eyes burn and he held on harder.

This was why he’d never had kids. Not because the time wasn’t right or he was worried about the future of the particular marriage—those were excuses and he should’ve known better. The simple fact was that he hadn’t been strong enough, brave enough. He’d always wondered how anyone could possibly want to bring children into the world he saw every day, but now he wondered how could one not? Because no matter how horrible it got, the Jacks of the world always outweighed the Georges.

He’d been such a fool.

He held Jack long enough for his back to start aching, for Jack to start wriggling. He gave him a squeeze, then helped him back under the covers. And he didn’t read to him. He just watched, one hand on Jack’s shoulder, as his eyes shut and he fell asleep.

Later on he wondered how long he would have sat there, staring in a daze, if a small movement hadn’t made him jerk his head around.

The same as the first time,’ he thought with a rush of euphoria.

Aaron was standing in the doorway, arms wrapped tight around his chest, dishtowel in hand. He was just a backlit figure, dark grey against the bright hall light, but even so, Dave felt the intensity of his gaze like it was a physical thing.

He made himself get up. Aaron came in, handed him the dishtowel, then edged in front and leaned over his son. He kissed Jack’s forehead and smoothed the covers.

Before, Dave had no rights, but things had changed and he touched Aaron’s back lightly, then firmly with the flat of his palm. The rush he’d felt seconds before became a wave and he needed the anchor of Aaron’s body, his presence, because the die was cast and he wasn’t quite sure what he felt yet.

Aaron straightened up, into the curve of Dave’s arm and they stood there a moment.

Then Aaron stepped away; Dave followed.

Like that first night, they walked down the hall and down the stairs, side by side.

When they got to the living room they broke apart; Dave headed for the liquor cabinet while Aaron went to the kitchen. “I’m getting a drink.”

Aaron turned on the water. “Get me one, too. I’m almost done.”

Dave nodded. He poured the scotch slowly, absently.

It had been like this, growing up. Sometimes when he couldn’t sleep, he’d sneak out of bed and sit on the stairs to watch his parents as they did their usual night things—his mother in the kitchen, his father in the living room.

When his mother was done, she’d turn out the kitchen light, leaving the stove light on, then join his father in the living room. She’d knit or sew while he read the news to her and they’d talk about this or that, their voices too hushed to be heard clearly. Sometimes, if it were a special night, they’d turn on the radio and his dad would pull his mom up and they’d dance, a slow back and forth.

Once, when he was very young, he came down to find them huddled around the television. After a while his mother started to cry and his father put his arm around her. Dave had wanted to go down, but he was supposed to be in bed so he stayed put; he fell asleep on the stairs, waiting to find out what had happened. By the next day he’d forgotten all about it and it was only years later that he realized that was the day that Bobby Kennedy had been shot.

“Are you okay?”

He jumped. Aaron was standing a few feet away, watching him. His sleeves were still rolled up and he was holding the dishcloth. Dave wondered what he’d do if he reached out and asked him to dance; the room was made for it—large space, great sound system.

“Dave?”

Dave handed him a glass. “I’m fine. Just thinking.”

Aaron tossed the cloth on the island. “About?”

Dave went to the sofa and sat down with a sigh. “My parents.”

Aaron sat a foot away. “You don’t talk about them.”

“No.”

“When did your mom die?”

“When I was twelve.”

“What about your dad?”

“When I was in the Marines. Heart attack.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. She was a good mom and he was a good dad, even though he was a tough son of a bitch.”

“You loved him.”

“Yes, very much.”

Aaron nodded and looked down at his glass. His quiet mood had turned somber and Dave didn’t want that—there had been enough of that earlier in the evening. He sat his glass down on the coffee table, then reached for Aaron’s.

“Hey,” Aaron protested softly.

“You can have it later.” He placed Aaron’s glass next to his. “On one condition.”

“I suppose you want me to ask, ‘on what?’”

“I do and it’s on condition that you kiss me.”

Aaron’s expression didn’t alter and he stared at Dave for a long time. Long enough for Dave to think, ‘Shit. What’s going on?’ But then, Aaron’s eyes somehow lightened and he slid forward, twisting to meet Dave, chest-to-chest, mouth-to-mouth.

It had only been nine days. Not long enough to truly miss Aaron this much, right? But the way they fit together, like puzzle pieces or key to lock…

He took Aaron in, wishing they were upstairs in bed because he’d forgotten how this had felt, as if Aaron had been made for his kisses or maybe that was backwards—maybe he’d been made for Aaron. Maybe every move he’d made in life had been so he could be here on this sofa with this man…

He sighed and Aaron said, “What? What is it?”

He thought briefly about lying, but no, he was done with that. “I just realized that I’m happy.”

Aaron pulled back, his gaze searching. “Yeah?”

“Hm-mm. I love your home. I love your son, and—”

He had to stop—he’d said the words so many times, but it was like he was a teenager again, experiencing the emotion for the first time, although that couldn’t possibly be true. He swallowed and said roughly, “And I love you.”

Aaron’s eyes were already wide. “Dave—”

“No, Aaron, you don’t need to say it back. I just wanted—”

His words were cut off by a kiss that almost hurt. “Don’t do that. Don’t make it less than it is.” And Aaron kissed him again, muttering, “Don’t,” and, “Me, too.”

He was on his back, the armrest digging into his shoulder, his leg trapped under Aaron’s at the wrong angle, but none of those small pains mattered. Because he was floating, surrounded by air or music, the weight in his chest gone.

“Dave?” Aaron whispered, kissing his way to Dave’s throat.

He tipped his head back. “Hmm?”

“What made you change your mind?”

“Hmm?” He asked again, not really paying attention. He tugged Aaron’s shirt free and slid his hand inside. They couldn’t make love down here, but at least they could get started.

“About not seeing me anymore. What made you change your mind?”

He froze, mid-motion. “What do you mean?”

Aaron drew back. His hair was messy, sticking up and out. “You were going to call it off tonight. With us, I mean. What made you change your mind?”

Well, son of a bitch. He opened his mouth, but Aaron shook his head.

“Don’t. I knew you got scared off. What excuse were you going to use? Jack or me?”

“You,” he managed. “I mean, mostly you.”

“Oh.”

“Aaron—” he started to backtrack, backpeddle, any which way that would lead him out of the quagmire of his own self-deception. But Aaron’s lips firmed in that, You’re an idiot for trying to fool me so don’t bother, expression and he could only come up with a weak, “Yeah, okay. I panicked.”

“Why?”

“Because I realized how much I cared for you and I’m no good at relationships; I didn’t want to hurt you. And I was worried I was stopping you from having more kids. I know how important family is to you.”

“Family is important, but Dave?”

“Yeah?”

“I really hate that, I’m doing this for your own good, shit.”

Aaron rarely swore and Dave swallowed, shocked. “Okay. You hate it. Got it.”

“Don’t do it again.”

“I won’t.”

“Do you mean it?”

“Yes.”

“Okay.” Aaron exhaled, picking up where he’d left off. “Next time you plan on freaking out, ask me what I want—I might have some ideas of my own.”

“Okay.” He stroked Aaron’s back. “Hey?”

“Hmm?”

He pulled Aaron’s head up. “How did you know?”

“That you were getting ready to call it quits?”

“Yeah.”

“Because after dinner you called me Hotch.”

He froze again. “Huh?”

“Before, whenever you got scared, whenever I was getting too close, you’d call me ‘Hotch.’”

He frowned, thinking about it.

Aaron nodded, watching him carefully. “I could point out a half dozen times.”

“Some profiler I am,” he said ruefully, softly, because he’d remembered one of the times and Aaron was right—he’d deliberately used ‘Hotch’ in order to create some emotional distance. He really was an idiot.

But Aaron, he was just smiling fondly. “You’re not superman.”

He choked out a laugh. “Thanks. I’m glad you’re around to keep me humble.” He leaned up and bit Aaron’s chin, then moved down, nosing under Aaron’s collar to get to his neck because he loved that so much.

Aaron rocked his head with a soft groan. “It’s a full time job, believe me.”

Dave bit his throat. Then tongued the mark when Aaron hissed in pleasure. “Hey, Hotch?” he said sweetly.

Aaron smiled. “Yes?”

“It’s not too late. I could still have my freak out and leave, you know.”

“You could. But it wouldn’t matter.”

“Why?”

“Because I care about you and so does Jack. I’m not giving you up.”

He swallowed, then muttered, “Okay.”

“And I’d find you,” Aaron whispered silkily. “No matter where you ran, I’d find you.”

Dave took a breath. And pushed Aaron up by his shoulders. “You’d hunt me down and bring me back?”

“Yes.”

Behind Aaron’s bland expression was an arch smile and a curl of lust warmed Dave’s belly. Why was it so hot, the idea of Aaron as a bounty hunter? He leered, as over the top as possible. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

Aaron grinned. “Do.”

His smiled died. “And not to be a buzz kill, but we need to talk about Haley at some point.”

Aaron’s grin died as well. “You know most of it, but we will.”

“Because I can’t take her place.”

“I know.”

“What about Sean? And Haley’s parents?”

“We’ll tell them. Sean won’t care. He’ll probably be thrilled. Haley’s parents—they’re another story.”

‘And your mother?’ he wanted to ask, but didn’t—there were still some verboten topics and he was okay with that. “We’ll need to talk about work.”

“We will.”

“Morgan will figure it out if he hasn’t already.”

“It will be fine. I’m not planning on making any changes.”

“Erin might have something to say about that if she finds out.”

“We’ll worry about that when the time comes.”

“And the housing situation?”

“Do you mean ours or the country’s?”

He smiled slowly—Aaron was flirting again, acting foolish, and apparently that was another turn-on because a faint shiver raced up his back. “The former, please.”

Aaron shrugged impatiently and Dave let him fall to lie on his chest again.

“We’ll take it slow,” Aaron said. “But there’s more than enough room here at the house. I never use the front study and the kitchen is practically yours, anyway.”

It was all too easy. “Aaron?” he said hesitantly. “Are you really ready for this? For what people will say? For what your family will say?”

Aaron looked up, mild surprise in his eyes. “Of course, I am. What do you think I’ve been doing all this time?”

“Okay, why me?”

Aaron hesitated a moment, then murmured, “Because beyond the physical, we fit. We have the same careers with the same stress—I don’t have to explain or lie or feel guilty when the job takes precedence.”

It sounded a little sterile, but then Aaron continued.

“And you’re good for Jack and me.” Aaron thumbed the edge of his beard thoughtfully, gravely. “But it’s not just what I want. I know I’m good for you, too.”

Dave’s breath caught in his chest for the third time.

Aaron nodded. “I know you’re lonely sometimes. I know you’ve wondered if anyone could stick with you for longer than a few years. Well, I can. I will.”

And there it was, another ah-ha moment, the reverse of his earlier panic because, yes, Aaron would expect much from any relationship, but he would also give in equal amounts. Unswerving, clear-eyed support with the added luxury of knowing how to back off because Dave needed that sometimes. It was a wonderful, scary, epiphany that he’d examine later—Aaron was watching him with an almost bemused expression. “What is?”

Aaron cocked his head. “You. I thought I’d be the worrier in the relationship.”

“No, you’re just the mom.”

Aaron laughed out loud, a happy sound that Dave took ruthless advantage of, twisting until Aaron was beneath him so he could steal kiss after kiss.

***

It was late.

Too late to be as wide-awake as he was. Just laying there with Aaron wrapped around him, head on his chest, thinking too many things, random images and past conversations flitting here and there, one especially: ‘And I was destined to wonder, what if?’

He’d told Aaron that he should have married Emma.

She’d been the love of his life even if that love had been perfected by time and capricious memory. And they would have been happy together—he had no doubt that she’d still be alive if she’d married him. Life was like that.

But would he, in some alternate reality where he and Emma were married, be wondering about Aaron? About how it would feel to make love to him? How it would feel to have him by his side both at work and at home? To know that there was someone he could count on with no reservations?

And—he realized—who in turn needed him as much or maybe even more? Because there was the heart of it—no matter how much he’d loved Emma, she’d had her own strength and hadn’t needed him in the way Aaron did. It wasn’t vanity, recognizing that he helped Aaron cope, that he was a bulwark and sounding board when life hit Aaron where it hurt. That he gave him a stable center so he could go out and do what he does best—catch the bad men.

Dave closed his eyes tightly. He’d never seen it so clearly—that for all of Aaron’s strengths, his dogged pursuit of the truth, his ability to push away physical pain to get the job done—for all that, he had a steely fragility about him that needed care and love.

He must’ve made some noise, because Aaron stirred, his light beard scratching in a way that deepened the ache. “Are you okay?”

‘Yes, Aaron,’ he wanted to say. ‘I just realized that I love you so damn much it makes me want to write lyric poetry. Makes me want to sing out loud and tremble with fear.’ “I’m fine.”

Aaron raised his head, then twisted to look at the clock. “What time is it?”

“It’s almost two; I should leave.”

“No, don’t. Stay.”

“Aaron, Jack’s not ready to find me in bed with you.”

“He won’t. I locked the door.”

“That’s not what I meant and you know it.”

“I know what you meant. And I want you to stay.”

“Okay,” he said after a moment. “If you’re sure.”

“I’m sure.” Aaron pushed away and made to get out of bed but Dave reached for his shoulder and held him back.

“Don’t. I’ll go.”

Aaron paused, then whispered, “Yeah?”

“Yeah. And,” he hesitated as well. The words—unplanned, but there as if he’d been waiting months to say them—were thick in his throat. “I might as well get used to it. You’re not alone in this, Aaron.”

Aaron’s eyes widened, but all he said was a whispered, “Okay.”

Dave leaned over, kissed him and got out of bed. He pulled on shorts and a t-shirt and then Aaron’s robe, all the while aware that Aaron had settled back in bed, arms crossed behind his head and was watching with that Mona Lisa smile of his.

 

 

 

Coda.

 

He arrived at six-thirty—fifteen minutes late. The auditorium was full and he looked around, tapping the program against his palm, surprised at the crowd. It was just a school play—surely it wasn’t that important?

And then he remembered Aaron’s voice, his urgency when he said he’d completely forgotten what day it was and that someone had to be there before the play started. So, yes, it was that important.

There were no aisle seats near the back or the front. It was one of the first things he learned on the job—when you were in an auditorium, you sat closest to the exits in case of emergencies.

He could sit by himself—there were plenty of singles. But Aaron had said he’d make it at some point, so he scanned the rows until he found two seats about five rows down— they weren’t ideal but they were better than standing.

The auditorium was built for kids and he had to sidle down the narrow strip between knees and seat backs. He almost stepped on a woman’s toe and he looked up to say, ‘Sorry,’ but she wasn’t paying attention. She was busy setting up her camera. In fact, Dave realized as he made it to the seats, almost everyone had a camera or a smart phone. All he had was his cell and the last time he’d tried to snap a picture with it, he’d ended up taking a photograph of his middle finger.

He sighed and unbuttoned his jacket, then sat down.

At least the view was good—he could see the whole stage. If Aaron came, he’d be happy about that.

If Aaron came. Dave doubted he’d get away. Strauss had something up her sleeve again and she was riding Aaron hard.

The image made him snort and the woman in front turned around. She smiled at him and waved. It took him a moment to remember her name—Holly? Holly Turner? No, Holly Warner.

He leaned forward and whispered, “Are your two on tonight?”

She smiled again and shook her head. “Just Ellie. Sam’s got that flu. The one that’s going around?”

She nodded and Dave nodded back. He did indeed know about it. Aaron was worried that Jack would catch it as he had the year before. At dinner, Aaron had asked Jack if he was feeling okay every five minutes until Dave had suggested, sotto voce, that they should just hook Jack up to an IV as he was obviously on his deathbed. Aaron had given him a dirty look. Then asked him to clean the kitchen while he made a quick trip to the drugstore to pick up some vitamins that were suppose to boost the immune system. Dave hadn’t tried arguing—a worried parent was a worried parent. “I hope he’s not too sick.”

“He’ll be fine.” Holly smiled again, obviously searching for something to say. “El told me that Jack is playing a flower?”

Dave smiled. “He is. A daffodil, if I remember correctly.” At least that’s what he thought that’s what Jack said. He’d been too excited, jumping up and down, saying ‘Dad, look, look! Dave, look at me!’ for Dave to get the gist of the costume. “I’m just hoping the costume makes it through the play—he wore it all last night.”

Holly nodded, her smile becoming a little self-conscious. “Is Aaron coming?”

“If he can. He’s been busy, so I’m standing in, just in case.”

“I hope Jack does well.”

“Same here. I hope Ellie knocks it out of the park.”

They exchanged smiles and she turned back around.

He sat back and crossed his legs. It hadn’t escaped him that while he and Holly were talking, the other parents nearby had stopped chattering and had listened in. It was just one of those things, he supposed. Not only common nature but also—given the circumstances—to be expected. He wasn’t bothered by it.

He looked at his watch. They were now four minutes late. He folded his hands and sat back to wait.

___

Twenty minutes later they were still waiting and the crowd was growing impatient. The noise level had increased and typical of school auditoriums—even one as high-tech as this—the acoustics weren’t perfect. He felt as if he were encased within a bubble of sound. Several parents had gotten up to stretch their legs and he was thinking of doing the same when a lull in the din made him look around.

He smiled.

Because own the aisle, inching in front of the other parents apologetically, came the reason for the sidelong looks, the self-conscious questions.

His own personal circumstance.

Aaron hadn’t changed clothes. He was still wearing his work clothes—dark grey conservative suit, restrained rust tie. He had a program in one hand, a camera in the other and even though this was a school function, he managed to look forbidding and stern. Until he glanced up and caught Dave’s eye. His expression changed, and Dave wondered if the love was as obvious to the people around him as it was to himself.

Probably.

He smiled as he moved to the right so Aaron could take his seat.

“I guess I shouldn’t have hurried,” Aaron murmured as he sat down.

“How many speed limits did you break?”

All he got was a quick sidelong glance as Aaron began to study the program.

“I’m glad you brought that.” He nodded to the camera. “I didn’t even think about it.”

“It’s standard equipment. You’ll get used to it. Haley always had a camera in her purse and in the cars.”

Dave nodded. The timbre of Aaron’s voice hadn’t changed when he mentioned Haley. Hopefully, it was starting to hurt a little less. Hopefully, he was helping. “I’ll get a camera this weekend and keep it my car.”

Aaron just nodded, but Dave could tell he was pleased. “How long do these things usually last?”

Aaron didn’t glance up. “Got a date afterwards?”

“You would know. No, I was thinking we could take Jack out afterwards.”

“That sounds nice.”

“As long as it’s not Chuck E. Cheese.”

Aaron put the program down and crossed his legs, his foot hitting Dave’s. “You’re probably out of luck there. That birthday party he went to yesterday? They went to Chuck E. Cheese and there’s a new arcade game with penguins. He told me he’s in love with it.”

Dave grinned and crossed his own legs, making sure to tap Aaron’s shoe in return. He started to ask about the game but just then a man holding a microphone came on stage.

Finally.

***

“And did you see me, Dad? I waved back and forth! Like this! Dave, did you see?” Jack jumped up, then waved his arms a couple times, fingers fluttering—he looked like a piece of seaweed. All around them, the other flowers and leaves were doing the same thing—it was slightly manic.

“I did,” Aaron said with a smile. “I think I even managed to get a good picture of it. We’ll look when we get home. Well,” he amended, “I’ll look because you’ll be in bed.”

Jack’s happiness faded and he opened his mouth, but Aaron didn’t give him time for complaints—with a gentle hand on the back of his head, he steered him around. “Come on. Let’s say hello to Miss Evans and then we’ll go eat dinner.” He turned his head just slightly, giving Dave that, Wait for it, look.

Jack didn’t disappoint. With a big smile and another jump he shouted, “Chuck E. Cheese!”

Dave swallowed his sigh. There was no way he could disappoint the kid, not with that face. Earlier, when the other parents had gone out to meet the kids, Jack had been happy but subdued—it didn’t take a profiler to know that he was missing his mom. “Sounds like a plan, son.”

Aaron, without turning around, reached back and touched his arm.

He wanted to return the fleeting caress but just said, “There she is.”

Miss Evans’ arms were full of costumes and she was trying to talk in two levels of people: down at the kids milling around her knees, and up at the parents who were thanking her for her efforts.

Aaron, always the gentlemen, waited, holding Jack back until the crowd thinned down. Then he let Jack go.

He rushed up to Miss Evans, talking so fast Dave couldn’t quite catch it. He doubted Miss Evans did, either, but she didn’t let on. She bent over and shifted the costumes so she could shake Jack’s hand. She said something about, ‘…so proud… and, ‘we’ll see on Monday.’

Dave hadn’t met her yet, but he liked what he saw. She was young, maybe JJ’s age, very striking with long dark hair.  Jack clearly adored her. He beamed up at her, then turned to his father.

Cued, Aaron dodged a few kids, and came forward. Dave followed.

“Mr. Hotchner, I’m so glad to finally meet you.” Evans reached over Jack’s head to shake Aaron’s hand. “I’m Theresa Evans.”

“Yes, I’m sorry about that. Jack wanted me to come to one of his rehearsals, but unfortunately I had to work.”

Stop apologizing, Dave thought a little testily. Because ‘rehearsal,’ was a little grand since it had been only two afternoons the week before. What parent would be able to make it?

She looked over Aaron’s shoulder and Dave thought, ‘Here we go,’ because he sort of loved this part, as mean as that was.

“Oh,” Aaron said, with a wave. “I’m sorry. This is David Rossi.”

Her face didn’t change as she held out her hand; he had to give her credit for that.

“Glad to meet you, Mr. Rossi. Jack talks about you a lot.”

Dave raised an eyebrow. “He does?”

“Oh, yes.” She smiled uncertainly. “We’ve all heard stories about the FBI and the guns you carry.”

Aaron’s lips tightened and Dave wanted to protest, ‘Don’t look at me.’ But it was all right. Whatever showed on his face did the trick and Aaron relaxed.

The exchange, luckily, was lost on Jack—he’d stopped jumping around and was beginning to droop, appropriately flower-like.

Aaron noticed immediately. “Well,” he said, leadingly.

Evans’ manner became formal and rote. “Thank you so much for coming. It means so much to the children. Jack, don’t forget to bring your costume in on Monday.” She shook their hands again and they nodded and began to make their way through the diminishing crowd, Jack between them.

“Daddy?”

“Yeah, buddy?”

“I’m tired.”

Aaron handed Dave the camera, then bent and picked Jack up. “We’ll go straight home.”

They started walking again.

“I wanted to go to Chuck E. Cheese,” Jack said, just barely on the edge of being grouchy.

“I know, but it’s no fun when you’re tired. We’ll go some other time.”

“Tomorrow?”

“Probably not. I might have to work late and the restaurant is too far away; Aunt Jessie might be able to take you; I’ll call her.”

But it wasn’t the same, Dave thought, as Jack dropped his head on Aaron’s shoulder with a heavy sigh. Jessica was knee deep in her new classes and she’d begun to move back into her own life. “Hey, Jack?” he found himself saying.

“Yeah?” Jack answered.

‘Yes,’” Aaron corrected gently.

Jack shot Dave a quick glance. “Yes?”

“How ’bout if you and I go?”

Jack straightened up, his face brightening. “Really?”

Aaron cocked his head. “I thought you have to turn in that last chapter tomorrow?”

He shrugged. “It can wait. Besides it’ll be fun.” He tugged at a petal on Jack’s costume. They’d made it to the front lobby and the crowd was larger—everyone was standing around talking. He touched Aaron’s sleeve and murmured, “This way,” then guided them through the mass of shifting bodies until they were outside. “I’ll pick you up from daycare and you can show me the new game.”

Jack’s eyes glowed. “Yay! It’s called Empire of the North and it’s got this—”

Jack began to motor on about the game, but Dave listened with half an ear, mostly focused on the way Aaron was watching him with an expression he’d come to recognize—if they were alone, Aaron would have already kissed him.

He looked around. Sunset had come and gone and the sky was a deep, deep blue. The air was warm, though, and he reminded himself that it was still summer, no matter that Jack had been back to school for a month. When they got home and Jack was in bed, he’d get the scotch and the glasses and drag Aaron out onto the patio. They’d watch the stars and talk, and then…

He smiled and was about to descend the stairs when Aaron said, “Dave?”

He turned back. “Yeah?”

Aaron shifted Jack to his other arm. “I’d like a picture. Of you and Jack.”

He froze, one foot in the air. It wasn’t an unusual request—people around them were doing the same thing. Still, it would be the first time for them and it took him a moment to answer evenly,“Sure. That would be nice.” He held out his arms and Jack came to him. He turned and posed, Jack on his hip, while Aaron stepped away to get a better angle.

“For our house?” Jack said sleepily.

“Yes,” Aaron replied. “We’ll put it on the upstairs wall.”

“Next to Mommy?”

Aaron had the camera up to his eye but Dave could see his thick swallow. “Yes. Right next to her. Do you want to go to the store with me tomorrow to pick out a frame?”

Jack shrugged. “Okay.”

Dave smiled at Jack’s less-than-eager tone and then again when Aaron took a few shots.

He was waiting while Aaron reviewed the pictures when he heard a cheerful, “Hey, you three.”

He turned. Karen Miller was striding towards them. She was wearing conservative black this time, but her smile was just the same. Behind her, trailing as if trying to disappear, was Ms. Williamson.

Karen touched Dave’s arm and Jack’s back. “Did you enjoy the play?”

“We did,” Aaron said, coming to meet them. He nodded to Williamson. She smiled briefly. “It was very well done.”

“That’s good to hear. We had a little contretemps. Our ‘stage manager’”—she used finger quotes—“thought he’d get creative during the morning dew scene and almost dumped an entire bucket of dry ice on the stage.”

Dave grinned. “We saw some of it. We assumed it was part of the act.”

Karen grinned back at him. “It was not. So,” she took a breath and turned to Jack, saying, “Are you excited about the field trip next Friday?”

For some reason, Jack’s shyness appeared; he tucked his head under Dave’s chin and nodded. Dave exchanged a swift glance with Aaron, then said, “We’re looking forward to it.”

Aaron said, “I’m sorry I can’t make it.”

“That’s okay,” Karen assured him. “We’re just happy that Dave is going.”

“I haven’t been to the museum in a long time,” he said, sifting through his memories. “Do they still have the dinosaurs?”

“Oh, they have a lot more than that. They installed interactive displays a few years ago.” She grinned. “You’ll be amazed.”

“I bet,” he said with a smile, too aware that Williamson was just standing there, not speaking. He and Aaron weren’t exactly subtle and no doubt she realized that what had been a false rumor was now fact, but…

But that was her problem, not his.

Karen, as if tracking the path of his thoughts, glanced back at Williamson. “Monica? Mr. Samuels said something about the field trip schedule—could you get that for him? He’s waiting in the office.”

Williamson murmured, “Of course.” She nodded to Dave, then Aaron, and went back inside.

When Karen turned back, she didn’t say what she was so obviously thinking but changed the subject by pointing to the camera. “I’m not a professional, but would you like me to…?”

Aaron hesitated, then said, “Thank you.” He gave her the camera and joined Dave. There was a moment, but Aaron didn’t let it get awkward—he slipped his arm around Dave’s waist and pulled him close. They smiled as Karen took the pictures.

She handed the camera back to Aaron. “I’ll see you,” she nodded to Jack with a smile, “on Monday and you,” she pointed to Dave, “on Friday.”

“Let me know if I can bring anything.” Aaron dropped his arm, but didn’t step away.

“We will. Thanks for coming.” She waved and turned away in a swirl of black.

“C’mon,” Aaron said, reaching out to stroke Jack’s hair. “Let’s get him home.”

Dave hitched Jack higher on his hip and followed, down the steps and to the parking lot, the phantom pressure of Aaron’s arm still warming his back.

 

 

fin.

 

Please note that, except for the very end, I wrote this in January of 2010 and the story doesn’t reflect many of the episodes beyond that year. Therefore, in my world, Emily is still very much with the team.