“Come on, Spencer; you can do it. Just keep your eye on the ball.”

But Spencer can't. The desert sun is so bright; the heat burns red beneath his eyelids, prickles under his skin. His father's hands cup the sun, a ball of puckered skin and angry stitches, and Spencer tries to steady the wobbling bat. It's inevitable, though. Spencer misses; he always misses, and they walk home, stained with sweat and disappointment. Spencer's shirt is soaked, his mouth cotton dry. He can try another day, maybe, when it's not so hot, when he can will his sluggish legs to move, move faster. The heat is like quicksand, and he's sinking in it. His father's far ahead on the sidewalk, and Spencer has no hope of catching up. He calls to him, not wanting to be left behind, but his pleas fall on deaf ears.

“Spencer, I have to leave, but I'll be back.”

“No, you won't. Don't go, Dad, please.”

“I'm sorry, Spencer.”

“Don't go…”

*******************************************************************************************

“He feels too hot,” says a familiar voice. Spencer settles the moment the hand comes to his forehead, cool and comforting. Not gone, then. Here.

“The fever's still coming down.” A woman's voice. “We should continue to see improvement; he'll be weak for a while.”

“M'not weak,” Spencer mumbles, and fingers card his sweaty hair. He wishes he could open his eyes and tries, but they refuse to obey, and he's slipping under again, under the suffocating weight of summer and sleep. “Don't go.”

“I won't.” The same familiar voice promises; gruff, like a big-city cop from one of those old movies Spencer sometimes stays up watching. “Sleep, Spencer. I'll be here when you wake up.”

Those cops always keep their promises.

Spencer sleeps.

************************************************************************************

The light is too bright, Spencer thinks. And the room is too warm. Hospital room again. He sighs. This can't be good.

“You're awake,” says the woman at his side. In her forties, maybe, wearing kitten scrubs. She smiles, checking his IV. He has an IV. This must be what happens when you pass out on your kitchen floor. “Are you thirsty?”

Spencer swallows; it's painful. “Yeah.”

Her mouth twists sympathetically. “I'll get you something to drink; your dad should be back any minute.”

“My dad?” Spencer blinks, fumbles with his hand to find the controls on the bed. After a moment he's sitting up, trying to find a position that will silence the protests of his aching muscles.

The nurse is shaking her head. “I finally convinced him you'd be okay while he got a cup of coffee. He's been with you all night.”

Spencer frowns. “Ahhh, there must be some sort of misunderstanding; my father's in Las Vegas.”

Her green eyes widen slightly. “Oh, but you called him your – I just assumed… Mr. Gideon?” she tries, searching Spencer's face for signs of recognition.

“Oh.” Of course it was Gideon. Who else would be here? Spencer quirks his lips into the semblance of a smile. “Gideon's not my father, he's – well, he's - ”

“Still your emergency contact, or no one would know you were here,” the profiler says, slipping into the room with surprising grace for a man with his still-muscular frame. The subtly-striped dress shirt he's wearing over his t-shirt is rumpled, and the nurse casts him an approving glance as she discreetly takes her leave. Once she's gone, Gideon steps closer, holding his cup of coffee like he used to during interrogations, like they're sharing companionable conversation, but the dark eyes are speculative. Concerned.

“Yeah, sorry about that,” Spencer apologizes, feeling guilty that someone roused the older man from his bed in the middle of the night to come down and hold his hand. “I meant to change it when you left, but I kind of forgot about it.”

Gideon shrugs. “Now you can forget about it again.” Before Spencer can respond to that, the nurse is back, this time with a small cup.

“Here's some water,” the she says, handing the cup to Gideon. “Make sure he takes it slowly; we want it to stay down.”

“Thanks, I got it,” Gideon tells her with one of his warmer smiles, setting his coffee down on the small bedside table. Spencer doesn't quite have the energy to roll his eyes. The man can be incredibly abrupt, sometimes verging on rude, but he definitely knows how to charm.

“Here,” Gideon says, once she's left again, and holds out the cup to Spencer. He doesn't say anything when Spencer's grip shakes, just steadies his hand as Spencer takes a gulp. “Tiny sips,” Gideon reminds him, thick brows drawn together. “That's why we're here, you know. You were dehydrated.” There's an unspoken accusation there, mild as it may be, and Spencer shifts in his bed.

“I was drinking fluids,” he tells the man, sneaking one more sip before Gideon pulls the cup from his fingers. The cool water is heaven on his parched throat. “They just kept coming back up.

Gideon frowns. “And you didn't think to call?”

Spencer scoffs, coughs a little. “So you could hold my hair?” All it takes is the sharp look from Gideon, and he drops his gaze back to his hands, to the taped IV. “Sorry.”

“Just keep your eye on the ball; you're not even trying,” his father scolds, his face tight with frustration. Desperation, even.

“Yes, I am,” Spencer insists.

The man shakes his head. “You just need practice.”

“Hand-eye coordination is fully developed by age nine,” Spencer informs him. Why can't his father see it? “I won't improve without natural aptitude.”

That bit of information earns him a glare. “Spencer, would you forget all that for a few minutes and just try to hit the ball?”

“They said you made the 911 call yourself.” Gideon's watching him closely, too closely, and Spencer fidgets. He'd known he was sick, but he'd pushed through such illnesses before without anyone the wiser.

“Viral gastroenteritis wouldn't typically pose a threat, but – ah,” Spencer hesitates, seeing impatience flit over Gideon's weathered face. “I guess I miscalculated.”

The man nods his agreement. “We'll work on it.”

*************************************************************************

“I can't just lie around here, Gideon; I need to get back to work.”

Jason frowns, watching as Spencer darts around his cluttered apartment, picking up his Go-bag and his keys. The merest physical exertion has the kid's face beading with a thin film of perspiration, and Jason thinks he needs nothing as much as a few swats on his too-skinny behind and some uninterrupted sleep.

“You need to take it easy for a week or two,” Jason tells him, trying to be reasonable and not give into the temptation to take matters into his own hands. “You heard the doc; modified schedule.” On that, the woman had been very clear. He's damn sure she didn't intend for Spencer to be packing up for work the second Jason dropped him home.

“Because that's what you would do?”

Jason ignores the smart remark. Mostly because the kid has a point. “You got dehydrated from the flu, but it doesn't hit you like it did unless you're run down. You've been dragging.” He frowns as Spencer picks up a folder, flips through it. “Are you listening to me?”

“Yes,” Spencer says, opening his bag and dropping the folder inside.

Jason rubs his hands together, staving off his doubts. “If there aren't any cases, you come home, understand?” He pins Spencer with a look. “Do not stay at the office all night. That's an order.”

A faint smile curls Spencer's lips. “Gideon, you're not my boss anymore.”

“Who says I'm not?” Jason wants to know, and Spencer shakes his head.

“And we call Hotch a bully.”

“He has his moments,” Jason agrees. “Before I forget, I found some things when I was unpacking; thought we might be able to use them,” he says, jerking his chin at the items sitting in Spencer's living room chair. Jason had brought them over this morning before Spencer's release, hoping to give the kid something to look forward to. But Spencer's face reflects none of the pleasure Jason anticipated.

“It's a glove. And a ball,” Spencer adds woodenly, glancing over at Jason, a question in his eyes.

“You were talking about baseball,” Jason explains.

“Yeah, thanks,” the kid mumbles, some of his color waning. “I think I'd better get going.”

“I'll drive you,” Jason offers. Almost insists. But Spencer's already half-way out the door, probably doesn't even hear him. Or pretends not to. With a longsuffering sigh, Jason makes a quick assessment of the apartment. The sheets need laundering, and the refrigerator is nearly empty, the only occupants an apple and an expired carton of milk. The coffee pot is still full, the trash has several take-out containers. Jason dumps both the coffee and the milk, forehead creased as he watches the liquid circle the drain and disappear.

Spencer's always been good at hiding illness - too good, actually. Jason had seen he was overtired, and had written it off to the demands of the job. He should have known better; no job was a match for the kid's youthful energy. And maybe he's crossing some sort of line with his young friend, but he finds he doesn't much care. Spencer's feverish pleas are burned into his brain, were nearly impossible for Jason to deny, even when he'd had to step out to speak with the attending physician.

“Spencer, I have to leave, but I'll be back.”

“No, you won't. Don't go, Dad, please.”

“I'm sorry, Spencer.”

“Don't go…”

No, there's still work to be done here. And Jason isn't going anywhere.

***************************************************************************

Baseball. Why is it always baseball?

Spencer scowls as he exits on the elevator on the sixth floor and makes his way into the BAU. It's always awkward returning after being sick, which is why Spencer is almost never, ever sick. And it's not that he doesn't appreciate the hugs and pampering from J.J. and Garcia, the kind words from Emily. The polite inquiries from Rossi. Even the concern from Morgan and Hotch should be proof he's cared for and wanted, but right now it just makes him feel weak, vulnerable. Like everyone can see right through him and expects him to break at any moment. He wishes he never opened that package, wishes it had simply disappeared along with his other memories.

“Hey, kid, welcome back,” Morgan says, his face breaking into a broad smile as Spencer slides past him.

“I'm not a kid,” Spencer's compelled to remind him, sitting down at his desk and opening his bag. He takes out the few files he's carrying, determined to finish them before attacking the pile already stacking his desk. Better just to get back to work, business as usual. “What?” Spencer asks, when he feels Emily staring just a bit too long.

She shakes her dark head. “Nothing,” she says quickly, her gaze dropping back to her work.

“I'm not weak.”

Spencer pulls over a file and opens it.

**********************************************************************************

Spencer squints and rubs at his eyes. Checks his watch. Quarter past noon, and his head is aching. Probably caffeine withdrawal. He gets up and pours a cup of coffee in the break room, sweetening it with close to a half cup of sugar. He's only just sat down again when J.J. and Garcia stop by.

“Hey, Spence, want to come have lunch with us?” J.J. asks, smiling as she takes a seat on the edge of his desk.

“We're going to try that new Japanese place downtown,” Garcia tells him. “It'll be fun.”

Spencer purses his lips. “I have work to do,” he says, nodding at the autopsy report he's about to review.

“Work?” J.J. asks, sounding amazed. “This is the first downtime we've had in weeks.”

“And everyone needs a little downtime, my magically delicious genius,” Garcia points out. “Even you.”

Spencer takes a closer look at the toxicology results, which seem inconsistent for the particular type of unsub… “Huh?” he asks, suddenly realizing the women are still there. J.J. looks amused, Garcia less so. “I hope you have a good time,” he offers, hoping that will finally end the conversation.

Garcia looks like she'd like to say something, but sighs instead. “You too, my dove,” she says, reluctantly linking her arm through J.J.'s and pulling the other woman toward the doors.

Spencer's shoulders sag with relief, and he takes a sip of his coffee, the hot liquid warming him all the way to his stomach. It's the sweetness, usually so pleasant to him, that unexpectedly churns his stomach.

“I hate to say I told you so,” Spencer's mother is saying, and Spencer stops just short of his bedroom, listens from the hallway.

“So don't,” his father snaps, throwing the bat and glove down by the door.

“Why are you so determined to make him something he's not?”

“It's a game, Diana, and he's a kid. He deserves to have a normal childhood.”

Spencer's mother scoffs. “Normal.” She says it like it's a bad word, like the ones Spencer hears the kids hanging out in front of the convenience store use. “You think the world would be a better place if Mozart or Da Vinci's parents had insisted they be normal?”

“I don't care about the world, I care about Spencer.”

“Oh, you don't care about Spencer,” she rants. “He's been given an extraordinary gift, and all you can think about is having him toss a ball around with some little Neanderthals.”

Spencer barely makes it to the bathroom before he throws up.

**********************************************************************************

Spencer flushes the toilet for the final time, his stomach still threatening to dry heave. He guesses that coffee on an empty stomach hadn't been the best choice, but his appetite deserted him days ago. Finally straightening, he exits the stall and makes for the sink, rinsing his mouth, splashing his face. He's blotting his clammy skin with a paper towel when he realizes he's not alone.

“You okay?” Morgan asks, from where he's leaning against the wall near the door, arms folded patiently.

“I'm fine,” Spencer grits, keeping his eyes on his pale reflection. He wishes people would stop asking him.

“That didn't sound fine,” Morgan says, and Spencer grimaces as he crumples the paper towel in his hand, tosses it in the wastebasket.

“What, are you spying on me now?” he demands, with every intention of leaving the lavatory, only Morgan shifts so he's standing in front of the door, and damn if Spencer is going to give him the satisfaction of stepping around him. Morgan doesn't look that pleased himself.

“No, but if Hotch finds out you're keeping something from him, he's going to be pissed,” the man warns.

Spencer rakes back his hair in agitation. “So don't tell him.”

Morgan sighs. “Reid, what is going on with you, man? You've been acting weird since we got back from Abilene.” The man's brows lower over his worried eyes. “Whatever it is, you know you can talk to me, right?”

“Nothing is going on,” Spencer snaps. “I really wish everyone would just mind their own business and let me do my job. May I?” he asks, indicating the door.

Morgan chuffs in disbelief, but he steps aside. “Be my guest, kid.”

And this time, Spencer doesn't bother correcting him.

****************************************************************************

It's past eight when Aaron Hotchner emerges from his office, still appearing miraculously fresh in his coat and tie despite the hour of day. His brows rise upon seeing Spencer still at his desk.

“Reid. What are you still doing here?”

Morgan, also working late, snorts at his screen, but to his credit, doesn't say anything.

“Working,” Spencer replies. It's not as though Hotch is the only one who ever keeps late hours, so Spencer's presence shouldn't be all that remarkable. Still, a faint look of surprise registers on the Unit Chief's usually inscrutable face. He recovers quickly, though, clasping Spencer briefly on the shoulder.

“Well, there's nothing there that can't wait. You just got out of the hospital, what?” he asks, lifting his wrist to check his watch. “Not even ten hours ago. You should go home, get some rest.”

“Right after I finish these,” Spencer tells him, eyes still scanning the document in front of him. The headache is better, and a caffeinated soda seems to be sitting better on his stomach.

“I can make it an order,” Hotch drawls, and sure, it sounds like an offer, but Spencer knows an ultimatum when he hears one.

“Heil,” Spencer mutters, ignoring the astonished stares of his colleagues as he begins gathering the file's paperwork together.

“Reid, would you like to take this conversation into my office?” Hotch asks politely. Too politely, and Spencer realizes he's come dangerously close to crossing that line. He winces, glances up apologetically at his Unit Chief.

“Ah, no. Sorry, sir. I was just leaving.”

Hotch nods. “That's what I thought.”

********************************************************

The first thing Spencer notices is that his apartment's been tidied, his books piled into neat stacks, his coat hung up. He drops his bag onto the sofa and heads for the bedroom, wanting to change into a t-shirt and his favorite sleep pants. The bed is made – with clean sheets, probably - and Spencer almost gives into the urge to climb under the covers. But with sleep come the dreams, and Spencer isn't interested in dreaming anymore. Besides, he has work to catch up on. He might not be normal, but he is valuable. In some respects, anyway.

Spencer goes ahead and changes, the soft, comfortable clothing soothing to his aching limbs. He hasn't realized until just now how exhausted he is, how much his body hurts to simply carry. He pads wearily into the kitchen in bare feet, notices the empty coffee pot. Once his French roast is brewing, he opens the refrigerator. Milk, juice, bread, eggs, bananas… Spencer frowns. Gideon's been to the store, too.

He doesn't remember anyone going to this sort of trouble for him. Not when he was ten, making due with whatever his mother might have purchased during a lucid period, sometimes even taking money from her purse to buy Mac & Cheese, tomato soup – anything easy enough for a child to prepare. Not later, when he was alone in Pasadena, sobbing angry tears in his off-campus room because the librarian at Millikan wouldn't believe he was a student, or found himself excluded from study groups. There were academic advisors and professors, certainly, people who saw him as a novelty, but no one who seemed genuinely interested in him as a person. Not until Gideon.

Closing the refrigerator, Spencer happens to glance over at the answering machine. It's blinking. Gideon, probably. Spencer bites his lip. He should call, hates to have the man worry, but whether he calls land or cell line, he'll get Gideon in person, and that will require explanations he just doesn't want to make. If only Spencer hadn't raved like some lunatic, Gideon might have never thought of baseball, of suggesting something in an arena where Spencer can only disappoint. Even fail spectacularly. Spencer's happy with their dinners, their ongoing chess tournament, their late night discussions on everything from the Dutch East India Company to the Qur'an. But what if those things aren't enough? It's crossed Spencer's mind more than once.

They certainly hadn't been enough for William Reid.

Spencer reaches into the cabinet for a coffee mug; sleep won't be coming anytime soon.

**********************************************************************************************

Jason waits as long as he can, until almost six in the morning, before he gives in to the urge to drive over to Spencer's apartment. He'd thought his days of waiting up for his kid to come home had ended with Stephen, and even then, it only happened when Barbara was so worried she'd call Jason at some odd hour from hundreds of miles away, just so he could at least bear part of the burden.

Jason realizes he got off easy all those years, not having to spend every moment worrying about a wayward teen. Not that Spencer's your average kid, by any means. His exceptional mind and stubborn persistence tend to win over even the most skeptical of the BAU's associates. It makes you forget the kid's only in his twenties, that he's never had any kind of normal childhood. Until the stubborn persistence verges on adolescent rebellion. Then, you remember.

The lights are on at Spencer's, and Jason knocks twice before letting himself in with the spare key. To Jason's relief and annoyance, Spencer is slumped over at the dining room table, sleeping on top of various photos and documents. A glance toward the bedroom reveals an untouched bed. Frowning, Jason shakes the kid's shoulder.

“Spencer.”

The young man jerks upright at Jason's voice. “Gideon?” Spencer blinks. Then, “What are you doing here?”

“I called last night; you didn't answer,” Jason says, watching as Spencer slowly gets to his feet and begins reassembling the files. The worn, long-sleeved t-shirt and flannel sleep pants are too big for him, like they belong to someone else. Jason wonders if he ate anything last night.

Spencer shrugs, looks decidedly uncomfortable. “Must not have heard the phone.” It's a lie, and they both know it. Jason lets it go. For now.

“Those are old cases,” Jason observes.

“It couldn't hurt to look at them again.”

“Thought you were going to stay away from coffee?” Jason asks conversationally, nodding at the nearly empty coffee pot sitting on the kitchen counter.

“It was only a cup,” Spencer replies, throwing Jason a wary glance as he closes the last file and carries the stack over to the couch to put into his satchel.

“You been up all night?”

There's a tense shake of Spencer's head as he shoves his work into the bag. “I was just reviewing a few files; that's my job.”

Jason snorts. “Bullshit.”

“What?” Spencer demands, flipping the satchel shut. He straightens and glares at Jason, challenging him to disagree.

“Hotch didn't assign those,” Jason says, trying for an even tone. “My guess is he doesn't even know you have them.”

Spencer scoffs. “Why should he? I really wish everyone would stop treating me like a child. I can take care of myself,” he says, face taut and strained, and Jason can't tell if he's furious or about to burst into tears. Maybe both.

Jason spreads his hands placatingly. “No one said you couldn't.”

“And I don't want to play baseball,” the kid fires off, like he expects Jason to argue. “I don't like it – I never liked it.”

“Okay.”

“Oh, like you're not disappointed?”

What in the… “Do you want me to be?”

Spencer folds his arms. “That's not an answer.”

“I'm not disappointed,” Jason replies curtly, wondering how the hell something as innocuous as a damn mitt and ball could cause this much trouble.

Spencer drops his eyes, mouth pursed in a sulk. “You're just saying that because you have to,” he mutters, and Jason finally loses the tenuous grip on his patience.

“I don't care if you play baseball or not. All I care about right now is keeping you out of the hospital,” he snaps, grimly satisfied when the kid's gaze jumps back to his. “You were supposed to come home and rest.”

“I said I'd come home, and I did,” Spencer insists, with a sudden throw of his arms. “Nothing's ever good enough for you. Maybe you should think about getting another job or something, find another willing protégé to make your latest project. At least it would give you someone else to boss around,” he finishes breathlessly, eyes glassy with anger.

Jason's mouth tightens, and he rubs at his hand, trying to calm his frustration. “We're not doing this now; you're too damn exhausted to be reasoned with.”

A loud buzz resonates within the satchel, and Spencer fumbles for his pager. “Fine,” he says, reading the text. “I need to shower and get to the airstrip.”

“This conversation isn't over,” Jason warns. “We're going to talk about this.”

Spencer drops the pager back into his bag and shrugs again, won't look at him. “Do you mind letting yourself out?”

Just now, Jason thinks it's the best thing he can do.

******************************************************************************************

“J.J., please tell us what we've got.”

Spencer leans back in his seat, determined to focus on the discussion of their current case and not the mess he left behind him in DC. Usually the low murmur of the jet is a comfort to him, puts him to sleep as easily as a familiar lullaby, but this morning he just feels restless. He'd heard the door slam behind Gideon all the way from the bathroom. Gone. And probably wouldn't be back. Of course, that's Spencer's fault. It usually is.

He looks up as J.J. passes Hotch the folder so he can distribute the contents. “Four women in their twenties were murdered in Bismarck this month, two in the last week.”

“Why does law enforcement think they're related?” Spencer wants to know, decidedly unconvinced. He ignores the sharp glance from his Unit Chief and qualifies. “Women in their twenties represent the most frequently targeted subgroup of the population.”

“Because they were strangled,” Rossi says from his seat by the window, eyes roaming over the crime scene photos being passed among the team.

“Those aren't ligature marks,” Morgan notes, frowning at the bruises on the women's' necks. “Whoever did this did it with their bare hands.”

“The bodies were all found outside bars within a four mile radius downtown,” Hotch informs them. “The victims have all been placed at the scenes.”

“You'd have to be pretty confident in your own strength to attempt something like this in such a public venue,” Spencer muses, fiddling with the knot on his tie.

“Anything interesting in the toxicology report?” Morgan asks, passing his photos to Emily.

“Nothing but good alcohol,” J.J. replies, exchanging a brief smile with the other agent.

Emily looks up from the photos she's spread over her table. “All of these women look to be college age; did they know each other? Attend the same school?”

“Lacey Armstrong and Drew Kent attended Bismarck State, Marnie Vasquez went to University of Mary, and Sheila Doran was a cashier at the local supermarket,” J.J. says. “Garcia is checking their credit card records to see if they had any activities or recent purchases in common.”

“I doubt it,” Rossi say with a frown. “These are crimes of opportunity; blitz attacks.”

“And high-risk victims,” Hotch puts in. “We're looking for someone with something to prove. Prentiss, you and Dave start with the crime scenes, see if we can narrow down where he might strike next. Morgan, talk to the ME. Reid, you're with Morgan.”

“Of course I am,” Spencer mumbles at the table in front of him, because how could Spencer possibly do anything without Morgan there to babysit?

“Would you rather come with me to the station?”

The terse inquiry is from Hotch, and Spencer realizes he's spoken out loud. “No. Thank you,” he adds meekly, just to be safe. The capitulation earns him a narrowed glance, and Spencer sinks lower in his seat. This just isn't going to be his day.

***************************************************************************

That assessment turns out to be more accurate than Spencer could have suspected. No sooner have they landed and their feet touched pavement when local law enforcement pulls up on the tarmac. A stout man in his fifties with a full mustache steps out to meet them.

“Agent Hotchner,” he says, holding out his hand in friendly greeting.

“Captain Hale.” Hotch nods, polite but puzzled. “We usually aren't met at the airport.”

“Well, I would have called, but you were already landing,” the man says, rubbing his chin sheepishly. “My apologies, but it seems we caught a break this time.”

“A break?”

“We have a suspect in custody; we're just waiting on DNA results from the lab.”

“What makes you think he's the unsub?” Spencer wants to know. He was counting on a few days of distraction, some serious casework – anything to take his mind off that ridiculous package and this thing with Gideon. And now they're just going to send them home?

Hale gives Spencer an odd look, directing his reply to Hotch. “The ex-girlfriend turned him in; he has defensive wounds consistent with the cause of death.”

“When does that ever happen??”

This time it's Hotch that gives Spencer the look, before turning back to the captain. “Excuse me; if Agent Rossi could just ask you a few more questions?” he asks, and waits for the man to nod his consent. “Reid; a word,” he says, as Rossi steps in to take his place.

Hotch walks back toward the plane, expecting Spencer to follow. He pauses a few feet from the stairs, turns on Spencer with a disapproving eye.

“Hotch, they could still have the wrong guy!” Spencer blurts, knowing he's about to be reprimanded, but not being able to stop himself.

“Reid, stop,” Hotch commands, apparently sensing Spencer's present lack of impulse control. “You're out of line. If there's any reason to doubt the local LE, Dave will let us know.”

“But - ”

“Your behavior is verging on antagonistic, and it's starting to impact the team.” He levels Spencer with a hard stare. “It stops now, understood?”

“Yes, sir,” Spencer says, overwhelmed by the man's displeasure. His cheeks flush, and he's mortified to feel the sting of threatening tears.

It takes a minute, but the lines of Hotch's face soften almost imperceptibly. “Good. Wait for us on the jet.”

Spencer reluctantly climbs the stairs. Like it or not, he's going home.

**************************************************************************************

“Well, today was much ado about nothing. At least for us,” Emily says, switching off her monitor and slinging her Go-bag over her shoulder.

“The night isn't over yet,” Morgan says, keys swinging from his hand as he glances between her and Spencer. “You guys want to get a drink?”

Emily shakes her head, dark hair brushing her shoulders. “The only thing I'm looking forward to is crawling into bed.”

“That an invitation?” Morgan teases, and grins when she rolls her eyes and waves.

“Goodnight,” she sings, walking towards the elevator.

Morgan looks over at Spencer. “How about you, Reid? Wanna get a drink?”

“No. Thanks, though,” Spencer says, taking a seat at his desk. He glances at his files with defeat. Even the promise of work can't distract him anymore.

“See you tomorrow?”

Spencer looks back at the other agent and forces a smile to his lips. None of this is Morgan's fault, and he can't keep treating the man like it is. “Sure.”

Morgan smiles back, a truce of sorts, and then it's just Spencer in the bullpen. He rubs at his blurry eyes, glances at the elevators with mingled longing and apprehension. Gideon always seems to know when Spencer's home from a case, like the profiler has some sixth sense or something, and there's a part of him that wishes the man would come for him. The thought of going home to his empty apartment now, with nothing but the memory of his own words to keep him company, is almost unbearable.

“Nothing's ever good enough for you. Maybe you should think about getting another job or something, find another willing protégé to make your latest project. At least it would give you someone else to boss around.”

Shame churns in his stomach. Even if the older man would have eventually been disappointed with him, Spencer shouldn't have said those things, regretted them even as the words had left his lips. Gideon's frustration had been palpable, too. Spencer squints, tries hard to swallow around the lump in his throat.

“I'm out of ideas, Diana.”

After today, Gideon might be out of ideas, too.

*************************************************************************************

Aaron Hotchner leans back in his chair and looks out his window and down into the bullpen. Reid is still slumped at his desk, head lifting every few minutes to gaze wistfully at the elevators. Aaron smiles slightly. Apparently, the young agent still believes Jason can sense the team's return. Jason's omniscient powers can be traced directly to Aaron's cell phone, but Aaron sees no reason to enlighten Reid. God only knows how young Reid was when he stopped believing in Santa Claus – if he ever believed at all. Aaron figures he can give the kid one all-knowing profiler.

Aaron's musings come to an abrupt end as his cell phone rings. He picks it up from his desk, smiles at the number. Flips it open.

“We've been back an hour; you must be slipping.”

“Spencer still there?”

“Yes.”

A pause. “You order him home?”

“I would, but he's asleep,” Aaron tells his friend, seeing that Reid's finally nodded off in his paperwork. Today wasn't the first sign of trouble with Reid, but unless it directly impacts their work, Aaron tries to respect the boy's privacy. He frowns, contemplating an appropriate course of action. “How long do you plan to let this go on?”

“Until he admits there's a problem,” Jason retorts, and Aaron blinks with mild surprise.

“Well, good luck with that.”

“Sir?” Penelope Garcia hovers in Aaron's doorway, appearing poised for flight should Aaron make any sudden or threatening moves.

“Jason, hold on,” Aaron says, and puts his cell on mute, sets it down on his desk. “Yes, Garcia?”

The blonde Tech Analyst glances down at Spencer's sleeping form, then back at Aaron, as if still trying to decide whether she or not she should just go home. “Sir, I really feel uncomfortable about being here, but there's something I think you should know.” She winces at the confession. “It's about Reid. And normally, I would keep it to myself, but he's been acting weird, and not like normal weird, but Reid weird? Which is really, really weird,” she mutters to herself, and Aaron wonders if maybe she's spending a little bit too much time alone in her tiny office.

Aaron adapts his most calming tone. “Garcia, if you know something that might be helpful, now's the time to share it.”

“Right.” Penelope nods, blonde curls bobbing around her shoulders. “While the team was in Abilene, Reid got a package. I know because they had me sign for it… It was from Bennington, sir.” There's no need for her to elucidate; the residence of Reid's schizophrenic mother is known to all of them, if rarely discussed.

“Was there a name?” It seems unlikely Diana Reid would send a package, let alone send it to Reid's workplace.

“It was from the office,” she says, fingers nervously gripping the purse strap at her shoulder.

Aaron's brows draw together. “I see.”

“I brought it to him when you guys got home.”

“Did you see what was in it?”

“No. But whatever it was, he didn't look happy about it,” Penelope confides, gazing at Aaron with hopeful eyes.

“Thank you, Garcia,” Aaron says sincerely. “Could you please close the door on your way out?” He waits for the office door to close behind the woman before punching the mute button on his cell again. He clears his throat.

“Hotch?” Jason sounds faintly annoyed at the delay, and Aaron stares down at the phone.

“You're looking for a box.”

*******************************************************************************************

Jason finds it under Spencer's bed. Any guilt he might feel about invading Spencer's privacy is outweighed by his desire to figure out what's bothering the kid. It's a medium-sized box, not much larger than a shoebox, and easily slides from its hiding place. Jason picks it up and takes a seat on the edge of Spencer's bed, opens it carefully.

It appears to be filled with pictures and memorabilia. An unfastened manila envelope rests on top, and Jason carefully slips out the contents. There are two notes here; the first, a letter from Bennington's administrative office, referring the box to Reid's care, and then an enclosed statement from a Vegas storage facility that William Reid's account has been closed and the items unclaimed.

“Well, I'll be damned,” Jason mutters, returning the notes to the envelope and setting it aside. He turns his attention to the contents of the box, pulls out a picture of Spencer as a baby, the wide eyes still just shy of brown and full of curiosity, the pouty lips. He was a beautiful child, even then. Jason picks up another photograph of the kid. A little older in this one, two maybe, in alligator pajamas, and a shaggy tousle of hair. Jason smiles in spite of himself. Time hasn't changed Spencer's style much. Another picture, this time with the glasses and a summer cut, probably the first day of Kindergarten.

There's a ribbon of fine, golden hair in a white envelope; in another, two tiny teeth. The mementos of childhood most parents treasure. Jason instinctively reaches for the picture of a couple standing apart, recognizes Spencer huddling in between. The Reid family. Spencer's looking up at his father, the open yearning on the boy's face almost painful to see. Baseball, team picture. William Reid on the left, his hand on some other kid's shoulder, Spencer on the right, almost out of frame. Separate. One arm reaching across to hug the other. Not exactly the picture of a kid who thinks he belongs.

“Bastard.” This is all Spencer will ever have from William Reid; a box from storage he couldn't bother to claim any more than his own son. No wonder the kid places such little importance on himself.

Jason pulls out his cell phone, hits Hotch's number again. The man picks up on the first ring.

“Jason?”

“Can you call security? I'm coming to get him.”

**************************************************************************************

“Reid?” Aaron shakes the kid's arm again, this time a little harder.

Reid's eyes creak open. “I'm awake,” he mumbles, slowly sitting up and scrubbing at his face with his hands. There's something off about his posture, like he's ready to fold into himself, and Aaron leans closer.

“Are you alright?”

Reid nods. “Yeah. Yeah, I'm alright,” he says, quavering on the last word, and Aaron crouches beside him.

“Hey.”

“I really screwed up, Hotch,” he murmurs thickly, dropping his hands and his gaze to his lap. He looks miserable, and Aaron wonders how Reid always gets Aaron to break his own rules.

“It's okay, Reid,” Aaron tells him, but the kid is already shaking his head.

“No, it's not.” He draws a shuddering breath. “I ruined everything; Gideon probably hates me.”

“I doubt that,” Aaron says, but Reid doesn't seem to hear. “We're done for the night. I'm going to shut down and lock up, and I'll be right back and we'll go. Clear?”

Reid nods again, and Aaron's satisfied. He goes back to his office and shuts down his computer, slides on his jacket. He's just locking his office door when he hears the elevators. Jason, then. Aaron meets him at Reid's desk, watching as Jason's dark eyes move over Reid assessingly. The kid's nodded off again, this time upright in the chair, telling Aaron he'd at least tried to wait for him.

“Thought you were going to meet us downstairs.”

“I was.” Jason's brow furrows as he contemplates the young agent. “He's a heavy sleeper; thought you might have trouble.”

“I see what you mean,” Aaron says, as Jason tries to jostle Reid into wakefulness.

“Come on, Spencer; wake up,” the older man persists, wrapping an arm around Reid's waist and hauling him to his feet. “I'm not gonna let the FBI tape me carrying you over the threshold.”

Reid mumbles something incoherent, but doesn't open his eyes, a sure sign not to expect any assistance from that quarter.

“I'll help you with him,” Aaron offers, slipping under Reid's other arm to steady the pair as they make their way to the elevator.

Jason sighs. “He's running on fumes. Just get us to the car, and I can take it from there.”

Aaron frowns, tightening his grip on Reid as the kid stumbles. “What if he doesn't wake up when you get home?”

“He about one-twenty soaking wet; I'll carry him,” Jason replies, reaching to punch the elevator's down button.

“Thought you said you weren't going to carry him,” Aaron says dryly. Apparently Aaron isn't the only one breaking his own rules here.

“The car, Hotch,” Jason growls, and Aaron smothers a grin.

Reid's going to be just fine.

*******************************************************

“Spencer. You're dreaming.” It's that voice again, blanketing him in brusque comfort, even as Spencer struggles to open his eyes.

“You left.”

“No, I didn't. I'm right here.” A hand brushes his forehead, that same heaviness descending, and this time Spencer submits to its weight.

Dishes clattering, the ping of the toaster. The smell of coffee. The heralds of day slowly permeate Spencer's awareness, sail him toward consciousness. He shifts beneath his covers, cheek rubbing against his pillow as he opens his bleary eyes. Bed. His bed. Spencer frowns. The last thing he remembers is being at the BAU, and Hotch saying they were leaving. Had Hotch brought him home then? Spencer glances down at his t-shirt and sleep pants, heat rushing to his face. If Hotch actually undressed and changed him, too… Spencer groans and pulls the pillow over his head. He wonders how long it will take him to find a new job…

“You're awake.”

Gideon. Spencer turns and peeks out from beneath the pillow, confused. “Ah, hi,” he says, which seems especially inadequate given the situation.

“Hi, yourself,” the profiler replies, appearing relaxed in the Henley-style sweater and jeans that he seems to favor since retiring from the BAU. The thick brows lift marginally over appraising eyes. “You hungry?”

“What?” It's not a question he's expecting, and Spencer considers. His stomach feels hollow, verging on nauseous, but he doesn't know if that's due to illness or hunger. “I'm not really sure,” Spencer admits, setting the pillow and blankets aside and sitting up. He darts Gideon a nervous glance; he's not sure why the man is here, and he's not sure he wants to ask, either. But if Gideon senses his discomfort, he doesn't comment, just lifts his chin in the direction of Spencer's kitchen.

“Come on; we'll figure it out.”

Spencer licks his dry lips as he pushes to his feet. “Uh, I think I'll just take a quick shower and change first?” he says, and Gideon shakes his head.

“I wouldn't. Just do whatever you need to do in there and come out.”

“But work - ”

“You have the day off.”

Normally, Spencer wouldn't object to a day off; there are always old book and record stores to browse, letters to write to his mother. Sometimes he and Gideon even take the chessboard to the park, Spencer cheerfully pointing out which dogs bear striking resemblance to their owners and Gideon grumbling at the gum stuck to the tread of his athletic shoes. Somehow Spencer doubts it's going to be one of those days.

He takes care of necessary business as quickly as he can and heads to the kitchen, wiping his damp palms on the legs of his sleep pants. Gideon turns from the cutting board, his brief nod approving.

“Sit,” he says, glancing over at one of Spencer's dining room chairs.

“Sure. I was just going to get some coffee,” Spencer explains, gesturing at the coffee pot in case Gideon's forgotten where it is.

“You've got juice.” Sure enough, there's a glass of some kind of liquid sitting at the table.

Spencer's brow crinkles. “Yeah. Gideon; about yesterday – I didn't mean - ”

“Eat first, talk later,” Gideon tells him, taking a wedge of cantaloupe from the cutting board and adding it to a plate of toast, then handing the plate to Spencer.

“Aren't you going to eat?”

“I had breakfast already. Go on,” the man says, wrapping up the melon and putting it away, then joining Spencer at the table. Spencer eyes Gideon's coffee enviously, but doesn't say anything.

It's the quietest meal he's ever eaten with Gideon, and that's including their time together when Spencer was being hunted by William Wendt. Spencer had been angry with Gideon then, for leaving the BAU, for leaving him. And maybe Spencer's tired, or just becoming resigned, because he's starting to believe the only thing he's succeeding at here is delaying the inevitable. He drinks the orange juice in a single gulp, nibbles at the toast that's been slathered with butter and blackberry jam. It's surprisingly good, and the cantaloupe sweet, but it all sticks in his throat, is difficult to swallow under Gideon's watchful eye.

Spencer manages to eat about half of his breakfast before standing up and reaching for his plate.

“What are you doing?” Gideon asks, rising as well.

Spencer pauses uncertainly. “The dishes?”

Gideon shrugs. “They'll wait.” He nods at the living room. “Mind if we have a seat?”

“I'd kind of rather stand,” Spencer confesses, fingers combing his tangled hair from his eyes. Whatever Gideon has to say, Spencer definitely feels safer on his feet.

“Okay.” Gideon leans a hip against the back of his chair, the two of them now hovering awkwardly in the few feet of space separating Spencer's dining and living areas. “I saw the pictures,” he says, rubbing his hands together the way he always does when he's thinking his way through something. “Why didn't you come to me?”

Spencer grimaces and looks away. “And say what? There's nothing to say.” People don't need to know everything about his childhood; even Gideon. And in some cases, especially Gideon.

“You don't think I can tell when something's bothering you?”

“Maybe, but it doesn't mean you have to act on it,” Spencer contends, and something like regret flashes on the older man's face.

“I am now.”

“Why are you doing this?” So Spencer's father didn't want some old box anymore. So his childhood wasn't picture perfect. It's not Gideon's problem, and it's not something he can fix. And neither is Spencer. Spencer doesn't mind so much anymore, being the way he is. He just wishes other people didn't mind, either.

Gideon splays his hands. “What else would I be doing?”

“I'm not going to be what you want,” Spencer tells him. Gideon's known for his stubbornness, but sometimes being reasonable means giving up.

Gideon chuffs. “How do you know what I want isn't you?” A crooked smile touches his mouth. “For such a smart kid, you're a slow learner.”

“Gideon, I was a – a complete jerk the other day,” Spencer says with a frown, wrapping his arms around his middle. “The things I said - aren't you mad?”

“Maybe at first,” Gideon admits wryly. “Now, not so much.”

“I haven't thought of him in a long time,” Spencer hears himself say. Slipping into his familiar habit of confiding in the man. “I mean, I understand that father absence definitely plays a part in a child's perception of himself, but I don't actually have many memories of my father,” he tells Gideon. “At least I didn't until that came,” he adds, glancing toward the bedroom.

“Memories from the formative years can be very powerful,” Gideon reminds him.

Spencer considers. “You know, I don't really remember us ever being happy,” he says. “I just remember them fighting.”

“About?”

“Me, mostly,” Spencer owns, with a brief, rueful smile. “At least it seemed that way. He wanted me to be normal.”

“Play baseball,” Gideon submits.

“A year of Little League and then Youth Ball, whatever that means.”

Gideon nods, thoughtful. “So when I brought over the glove...”

“It seemed inevitable, really,” Spencer says. “Men are biologically and socially programmed to desire specific qualities in their male children. In certain cultures, the aggressive behavior of male progeny is even linked to spiritual salvation – it's only logical that you would gravitate toward someone whom natural selection favors rather than someone like – ow!” he yelps, as Gideon's hand smacks the seat of his pants. He takes a step back, just in case Gideon's thinking about swatting him again. “I thought you said you weren't mad!”

“I'm not,” Gideon replies evenly. “I'm just warming up.”

Spencer blinks. “What do you mean?”

Gideon takes a step closer, brows drawing together. “Out of all the schools I visited, you think you were the only genius I could have chosen?” he asks, rubbing his hands together again. “You think after recruiting you for the BAU I had to take you with me everywhere, see to it you were trained, feed you, teach you chess? You see me do that with any other agent I brought in?”

“No?” Spencer hazards, uncertain where this is going. “But I was the youngest agent you'd ever recruited – given the circumstances, it would be odd not to feel a certain obligation – ah!” Another swat, and Spencer glares at Gideon, resisting the urge to reach back and soothe his backside. Because that one stung, even through the flannel sleep pants. “Would you stop doing that?”

“Tell me again I felt obligated.”

Spencer's brow furrows in confusion. “You felt obligated. Ow!” What the...

“Wanna say it again?” Gideon asks, quirking his brows.

Spencer scowls. “No.”

“Good; we're getting somewhere.” Gideon spreads his hands again. “Look, all this, everything that's happened, me being around – it's gonna take a while to get used to. And I can handle a few tantrums - ”

“Tantrums?” Spencer asks, slightly indignant. He's twenty-seven – well, twenty-six – he doesn't have tantrums.

“But neglecting your health; that's never okay,” Gideon says, suddenly stern, and something flutters low in Spencer's stomach.

“If you refuse to take care of yourself, I can't help you.”

Spencer winces. “I wasn't really neglecting – ah!” he yips, as another smack brands his behind. “Okay, okay,” he says quickly, holding up his hands when Gideon raises his palm again.

“Were you or were you not given explicit instructions on how to care for yourself?” Gideon persists. No wonder the man's known as a relentless interrogator.

“Gideon - ”

“Yes or no?” Gideon demands.

Spencer considers pointing out that Gideon was there, but thinks better of it. “Yes.”

“Didn't I give you instructions as well?”

“I was just looking over a few files - ”

“That could have waited. Or do I need to call Hotch to verify?” Gideon challenges, and Spencer finds himself fidgeting.

“No, sir.”

“Then I don't think there's anything else to discuss,” Gideon says, moving to take a seat on Spencer's couch. “Come here, Spencer.”

“What? No,” Spencer blurts, before he can stop himself. “I mean – ah, no, thanks, I don't really want a spanking.” After all, Hotch spanked Spencer on that same couch just a few weeks ago. Spencer makes a mental note to get rid of the piece of cursed furniture the first chance he gets.

“Too bad.”

“You're not my father,” Spencer says, trying to swallow the unexpected disappointment tightening his throat.

“If you mean I'm not William Reid, then no, I'm not your father,” Gideon agrees, leaning forward to rest his forearms on his knees. “But if you mean I'm not the person who cares about you, you're wrong.”

Spencer has absolutely no response for that. He blushes, confused, embarrassed. Pleased. And completely out of moves.

“Don't make me come get you,” Gideon warns, face set in determined lines, and whatever's fluttering in Spencer's stomach takes a dizzying dive.

“I won't do it again?” he offers weakly.

“No, you won't.”

Spencer worries his lower lip, slowly approaches the man's side and waits as Gideon sits up. The man must be out of patience, because he doesn't waste time with words, just takes Spencer by the arm and tugs him down over his lap. Without preamble, Spencer's flannel bottoms are shucked to his knees, and Gideon's hand swats his bare skin. Spencer hisses, squirming against Gideon's restraining arm as he sets a brisk, unrelenting pace, each crack of his palm bouncing from the thin walls and amplifying Spencer's shame. This can't be happening; Spencer's got an IQ of one hundred eighty-seven – he doesn't need to be treated like a child.

“What did I tell you about letting yourself get run down?” Gideon asks grimly, after what seems like endless minutes have passed. A simple spanking shouldn't be this bad, wouldn't be, except that there's no reprieve, no change in rhythm or method. There's just a steady, building sting that has Spencer's fingers tightening on the couch cushion.

“Ah! That I'd get sick.” Spencer tries to wriggle forward, but Gideon tightens his grip on his waist and spanks a little harder, this time targeting the sensitive area where Spencer's buttocks meet his thighs.

“The not sleeping, the not eating – that stops now, you hear?”

“Yes!” Spencer yells, starting to kick with every slap, because though physically improbable, he feels like he's burning up from behind, like Gideon's actually scorching him back there.

“Did you just shout at me?” Gideon wants to know, faintly incredulous.

“No!” Spencer cries in a panic, feeling his sleep pants slipping and tangling around his calves as he struggles and tries to twist from the profiler's unfaltering aim.

“Because that wouldn't be smart,” Gideon continues, his crisp smacks picking up speed.

“I'm not shouting!” Spencer insists, hot, frustrated tears spilling abruptly from his eyes as he kicks and flails over Gideon's unyielding lap, his hands now balled into fists. He should be able to take this, should be able to think of something else, but he just – just can't -

“Settle down and stop fussing,” Gideon scolds.

“I can't – you're spanking me too hard!” Spencer chokes on a sob. “Gideon, please! I'll – ow – do everything – the doctor says!”

“Good.”

“And - what you say!” Spencer gasps, his sweaty forehead dropping against the couch.

“No lies, no obfuscations,” Gideon cautions.

“Okay, I promise!” Spencer finally wails, feeling his tears soak the couch fabric. He's vaguely aware when Gideon stops spanking, relaxes his grip on Spencer's waist. His sleep pants are drawn carefully back up, and Spencer knows he should move, should get up, but his backside hurts, and he can't seem to end the exhausted crying, can't put it all back where it belongs…

“Easy, hmmm?” Gideon murmurs, and Spencer flinches as Gideon's hand returns to the punished area, but this time it only rubs gently, as if Spencer's some spent toddler in the wake of a tantrum. Spencer flushes, chagrined, mops at his face with his sleeve. It's humiliating, but after a minute or two he slowly feels himself relax, sighing as some of the sting ebbs. The sigh changes to a hiccup, and Gideon pats briefly before those same capable hands lift him to his feet.

Spencer can't look at him, even when he feels Gideon rise to stand beside him. He stares at his bare feet, his eyes feeling swollen and gritty.

“You learn your lesson?” Gideon asks, and Spencer nods, brushing at another escaping tear.

“You gonna do that again?”

“No,” Spencer manages, his voice husky and unfamiliar.

A warm hand wraps around the back of Spencer's neck, drawing Spencer's head against Gideon's shoulder. “I'm proud of you,” the man says gruffly at his ear, the soft words a soothing balm to Spencer's bruised pride. “Back to bed now,” Gideon adds a moment later, turning Spencer by his shoulders and giving him a small push in the desired direction. “Before you fall over.”

Spencer doesn't argue, just goes and crawls back between the sheets, finally collapsing on his stomach. And he probably should be angry – furious even – but there's a certain comfort to hearing Gideon's putterings in the kitchen, in knowing the man will be there when he wakes. Whether Spencer wants him to be or not. He closes his eyes, breathes deeply, peace finally stealing over him from far away places.

“'For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say to myself: 'I'm falling asleep...'”

********************************************************************

It's late in the day when the knock comes on Aaron's office door.

“Come in,” he says, glancing up from his paperwork as the door open and Reid slips in.

“Heyyy…” Reid says, drawing the greeting out the way he always does. The kid closes the door behind him and comes to stand in front of Aaron's desk.

“Reid. How was your day off?” Aaron asks, now that the two of them are alone. Reid looks better today than he has in a while; more color, less tense. Even his choice of sweater vest is decidedly less painful.

Reid considers, flushes. “Ah, well. Uneventful, really.”

Aaron doubts that. Jason can be relentless when his protective instincts are aroused, and Reid does tend to have that effect on people, even Aaron himself. “Restful?” he persists, careful not to smile when Reid shifts uncomfortably on his feet.

“Sure.”

“What can I do for you?” Aaron asks, and returns to flipping through his documentation.

“I was hoping I could get you to sign off on something?” Reid ventures uneasily, and Aaron holds up a hand, eyes still on his work.

“You don't need me to sign your expense reports; you're authorized. Go ahead and submit it to accounting.”

“It's not really an expense report,” Reid says, and slides a piece of paper across Aaron's desk.

“Oh.” Aaron stares at the spreadsheet of dates and… “What exactly am I signing off on here?”

“What time I left work,” Reid says with a grimace, and Aaron's brows draw together in confusion. Reid sighs. “Gideon,” he explains, shoving his hair out of his face.

“I see.” Aaron frowns as he lifts his pen. “You do realize this says six thirty?”

“Yeah?”

“It's five after seven, Reid.”

Reid fidgets. “It took me a while to get up here.”

“Reid.”

“Hotch…” The kid gives him a pleading look; one that Aaron should be immune to by now.

“This is the last time, understood?” Aaron asks, signing and holding out the paper for Reid.

Reid's smile is full of relief as he takes the spreadsheet. “Yes, sir.”

“I mean it, Reid,” Aaron warns, regarding his youngest agent sternly. “Jason's right; sleep-deprivation can affect your performance. When most people have an off-day at work, their productivity suffers, deadlines are missed. When we have an off-day at work, someone dies. Possibly you. I won't allow that to happen.

“Yes, sir,” Reid replies again. Then, “Thanks, Hotch.”

“Alright, then,” Aaron concedes gruffly. “We'll see you in the morning.”

Reid's brow furrows. “Tomorrow's Saturday.”

“Did you not read the memo? We have team-building,” Aaron tells him.

Reid just looks worried. “Am I going to have to catch Morgan again? Because last time that didn't go very well?”

“That's because you didn't actually catch him,” Aaron points out dryly.

“I told him I wasn't ready,” Reid insists, indignant as ever on the subject. “He didn't hear me because he was too busy trying to -”

“Reid,” Aaron interjects. “As much as I would love to continue this conversation, I don't think you want to be late?” He raises a brow.

“Uh, yeah, you're probably right,” Reid says, taking a step toward the door before glancing back over his shoulder. “See you tomorrow.”

Aaron picks up his pen again. “Be on time.”

*******************************************************************************

“Remember what I said,” Hotch is saying, as Spencer readjusts his sweaty grip on the bat and glances up at Gideon on the pitcher's mound. The man winks at him encouragingly, but the familiar gesture doesn't comfort Spencer like it usually does.

“Baseball?” Spencer demands. “Gideon, I told you I couldn't play; I was terrible.”

“It doesn't matter,” Gideon assures him. “This is team-building, not sport.”

“I'm not going.”

“You are. It's time to start making some new memories.”

“Hands together and bend your knees,” Hotch coaches, crouching behind Spencer with his mitt. There's something odd to Spencer about seeing his teammates in their jerseys and jeans, without their guns and suits and bulletproof vests. Well, Hotch probably still has his gun. But, still.

“This is never going to work,” Spencer mutters, as Garcia whistles loudly from the outfield.

“Taught you how to shoot, didn't I? Swing before it's over the plate, and don't forget to follow-through.”

Spencer grimaces, takes a tentative swing with the bat and nearly spins himself around. “Can't I just catch Morgan again?” he pleads. “I liked that exercise.”

“You can catch him when you round third,” Hotch tells him, and yells to Gideon. “We're ready for you!”

Now you're an optimist?” Spencer wants to know, just as Gideon tosses the ball. It flies toward him, and Spencer panics, swinging a good foot before the ball arrives. His cheeks burn as Hotch throws the ball back to Gideon.

“You can take this guy, Reid,” Rossi shouts from second. “He's a White Sox fan!” The slur earns him the finger from Gideon.

Morgan's hovering in the outfield. “Come on, pretty boy, show us what you got!”

“Ignore 'em,” Gideon calls to Spencer. “Just keep your eye on the ball.” He waits for Spencer to take his stand, and then throws another pitch.

And that's when it happens; more accident than anything else, because Spencer doesn't really plan for it. He squints and swings, and somehow the bat cracks against the ball, sending it bouncing off between bases. Spencer watches it tumble through the grass, bat sliding from his fingers and dropping to the dusty ground.

“Run – no, that way!” Hotch urges with a laugh, giving him a shove towards where J.J.'s standing.

“Yeah, Spence,” she shouts, as Spencer runs toward her. He glances over to check the ball's progress, just in time to see Morgan get tackled by Emily and Garcia, which seems like it should be against the rules? The ball bounces into right field. “Go,” J.J. yells, refusing to let Spencer slow down. “Take second!”

“Hurry it up,” Rossi warns, watching Morgan crawl his way out from under Garcia and run for the ball. Moments later, Spencer lands triumphantly on second, the base feeling good and solid beneath his feet.

“Hey, I'm up next,” Emily says, jogging to the plate as Morgan finally throws the ball to Gideon. She picks up the bat, pointing it at Spencer with a smirk. “I'm bringing you home.”

Gideon glances briefly over his shoulder, and Spencer shoots him a breathless grin. “Not bad, kid,” he hears Gideon say, smiling to himself as he turns to pitch. “Not bad at all.”

Spencer has to agree. He blows the hair from his eyes and gets ready to run.

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