Aaron Hotchner doesn't like to fly. Not that he's ever said as much to the team, or that he's actually afraid of this mode of transportation, but he prefers solid, steady ground beneath his perpetually-polished shoes. Considering what they do for a living, the predictable benevolence of the earth is welcome comfort. Up in the air… Well, there are surprises, and though Aaron's experience and training has prepared him for them, it doesn't mean he's a fan.

Brows lowered, he peers furtively over the top of his file and surveys the cabin, checking the status of his team. Dave's finally closed his eyes; J.J. and Morgan dropped off some time ago. Prentiss is still reading, but Aaron's learned to depend on her discretion. His gaze finally comes to rest on Spencer Reid. Aaron's problem child of the day. Of most days, actually.

Aaron sighs, tells himself he's not being entirely fair. The twenty-six year-old genius is a daily asset to the department; with his nonlinear thinking, his ability to make connections between seemingly unrelated information. If his enthusiastic ramblings sometimes become too obscure and tangential, a firmly uttered “Reid” is usually enough to put the kid back on track. No, usually all Reid elicits is occasional annoyance or a sense of paternal pride some might consider ill-suited to Aaron's position as Unit Chief.

But not today. No, today Reid crossed the line. Aaron will never forget arriving on the scene with Dave and Morgan to discover Reid there with Savage, and nothing between the young man and their suspect's automatic weapon but a dress shirt and that god-awful cardigan. The earth that Aaron considered so reliable tilted precariously under his feet, and if Reid missed the hard stare aimed his way after Savage laid down his weapon, Aaron will have the kid's IQ retested.

Aaron sets the file aside, straightens his tie before rising from his seat and slipping down the aisle. Prentiss only briefly glances his way; Aaron guesses her book is much more interesting than what's about to transpire, and probably not nearly as predictable. He slides into the seat across from Reid, who's staring down at the table at his folded hands.

“I should fire you.” The stern declaration has Reid's gaze leaping to his, but Aaron refuses to blink. Anyone else would fire Reid, and anyone else Aaron would fire. Has fired. But none of those agents had ever been young, awkward twenty-one year-olds Jason Gideon somehow persuaded Aaron into training. That history has granted Reid a good deal of latitude in the past; this time, it's only sealed the kid's fate.

Reid's wincing. “Hotch - ”

“You don't work in a vacuum,” Aaron tells him. “What you do affects the people around you.” The team got lucky today. It won't always end that way.

“I know that,” Reid says, dropping his eyes back to his hands.

Aaron arches a brow at the easy submission. “Do you? I have serious doubts.” He takes a moment, choosing professional composure over personal recrimination. His anger won't be productive, and this isn't the time or place for a shouting match. “We're all tired; sleep while you can,” Aaron advises. “I'll stop by your apartment after work tomorrow – today,” Aaron amends, glancing at his watch.

Reid looks up, gulping at whatever he sees on Aaron's face. “My apartment?”

Aaron nods. “I don't think this is a conversation you want to have at the office.”

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

“Reid? Spencer,” Gideon says, gratified when Spencer finally looks up from his plate. “Thought this was your favorite?” he asks, indicating the Indian take-out spread over the small table that doubles as Reid's desk.

“It is,” Spencer reassures the man. “Thank you.” He was grateful when Gideon called and offered to bring dinner over to his apartment. The two of them eat together at least twice a week, and Spencer usually finds the older man's company enjoyable. But not even Gideon's dissertation on the ancient rites of Chinese warfare can't distract him tonight. Spencer's eyes flick to the clock. Six twenty-three. Just over an hour and a half until detonation.

Gideon glances from the hardly-touched Madras Chicken to Spencer's worried gaze. “Something happened.”

“What?” Spencer frowns. “You don't know that.”

The straight line of Gideon's mouth quirks. “I know. Are you going to tell me?”

Spencer makes a face. “I'm not sure I should,” he admits. He's pretty sure he's in enough trouble already.

“Why not?”

“You might yell.” Spencer's anticipated being yelled at for most of the day. The team's displeasure with yesterday's events is more subtle than Hotch's, but no less mistakable. Rossi and Morgan are short and disapproving, and the girls – uh, women – they're hardly speaking to him at all. But the worst by far is the reaction of his Unit Chief. Hotch was hardly out of his office today, and when he was, he didn't so much as glance in Spencer's direction. It doesn't exactly bode well for the evening.

“I might,” the profiler agrees easily.

“Fine.” What's one more look of condemnation at this point? “Hotch is coming over at eight.” The information is met with an expectant look. “I – ah – didn't exactly follow protocol in Texas.”

Gideon isn't surprised. “Why not?”

Frustration tightens Spencer's grip on his fork. “Because everyone wanted to kill this kid,” he bursts out, hating how defensive he sounds. Spencer had his reasons, reasons most people couldn't possibly understand. “They don't know what it's like…”

“What what's like?” Gideon asks, having set down his own fork and wiping smoothly at his mouth with one of the paper napkins.

“Being bullied by other kids, feeling like you're the only one, that you're all alone…”

The deep lines of the profiler's face soften almost imperceptibly. “So what happened?”

Spencer sets down his plastic flatware and starts from the beginning, carefully detailing both the unsub's spree and the contributing factors. If his voice wavers when he talks about the video taken of Owen Savage in the locker room, Gideon pretends not to notice. Spencer doesn't mention taking off his vest, just that he ostensibly left Hotch and Rossi to apprehend the suspect themselves.

“I didn't really tell Hotch where the Owen was going? But I knew if I could just talk to him, he would have a chance, and it worked, Gideon,” Spencer insists. “I saved him.”

Gideon's lips purse thoughtfully. “Hotch didn't want to save him?”

“Ah, well, yeah, I guess he did, if we could,” Spencer concedes, “but all those agents would have spooked him, and - ”

“You thought you knew better.”

Spencer's brow furrows. Of course he didn't know better than Hotch; is that what Hotch thought? That Spencer didn't respect his ability to lead the team? Spencer might be a genius, but he's no match for the Unit Chief's experience and authority. “Do you think I was wrong?”

Gideon shrugs. “It doesn't matter what I think.”

“It doesn't?” Spencer asks, uncertain whether he's relieved or disconcerted. Since Gideon's return, the man's made it clear he considers Spencer family; to be praised, nagged, and reprimanded accordingly.

“No; when you're on the job, you answer to Hotch.”

Spencer's stomach sinks. “That's what I'm afraid of.”

“Hotch?” Gideon scoffs.

“Answering,” Spencer confesses. “After that, uh, incident in Loomis, he kind of implied that he'd be taking similar measures if unhappy, and I'd say he's pretty unhappy.” Heat floods Spencer's face. That particular incident had resulted in an unprecedented trip over Gideon's knee, and Spencer isn't interested in a repeat performance from either man.

“Then I'm guessing you'll have a lot to talk about,” Gideon offers blandly, picking up his fork again.

Spencer suddenly has an idea. “Maybe you could stay,” he suggests hopefully, but the older man shakes his head.

“You don't want an audience for this…” Gideon pauses, glances up, eyes narrowed with that uncanny perception. “You want me to talk him out of it.”

Spencer doesn't deny it. “You could try.”

“No.”

“But, Gideon - ”

The profiler points his fork at him. “You over-identified with this kid, Spencer. That profile, that person - it's not you anymore.”

“How can you say that?” Spencer asks, hurt by Gideon's dismissal. The hours he spent tied to that goalpost are as vivid to him as if they happened yesterday and not over a decade past, the jeers and laughter just as clear. The hopelessness when he realized no one would come to his rescue.

“Because you're not alone,” Gideon tells him, waiting for the accusation on Spencer's face to morph into understanding. A rueful smile touches the profiler's lips. “If you were – well, this wouldn't be a problem, would it?”

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

Aaron checks his watch for what must be the third time in the last fifteen minutes and sighs, glances over at his closed office door. Eight forty-three. He should have been at Reid's over half an hour ago. Without Haley and Jack to go home to, there's nowhere else Aaron needs to be. And still he can't seem to move from his desk.

He's been in here all day with the blinds drawn, only venturing into the bullpen twice, and briefly at that. The team must be feeling the tension, because their voices were subdued and didn't carry beyond their desks. Even Dave, who remembers Aaron from the time he was the 'new kid' and isn't intimidated by him in the slightest, gave Aaron a wide berth today.

It's not that Aaron's angry at Reid; not really. After Morgan confided the source of Reid's sympathy for Owen Savage, Aaron understands why the kid acted as he did. Understands; not condones. Reid's been having trouble since Chula Vista, when the young man who'd abducted two teenage girls and murdered one was executed right in front of him. Aaron saw the shock, the stunned disbelief on Reid's face, and Aaron walked away, sheathing his weapon and his compassion and expecting Reid to do the same. If anything alerted Aaron to how bad things had become, it was Reid's excuse a few days before that he'd been “at a movie.” The craving for Dilaudid had grown right along with Reid's guilt. No wonder he'd been so reckless in his desire to save Savage. No, Aaron's not angry at Reid.

Still, none of these extenuating circumstances change the fact that Reid's behavior endangered himself and others, or that Aaron warned him what such behavior would reap. Aaron flips the file he's been staring at for over an hour shut and returns it to his drawer, rubs a hand over the short hairs at the nape of his neck. The discussion with Reid is bound to be unpleasant, but Aaron's never been one to shirk his responsibilities; a team is only as strong as the word of its leader. Mouth firmed into a somber line, Aaron slides out from behind his desk and collects his suit jacket from the coat tree.

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

Aaron's visited Reid's apartment once before, when Reid had been attacked by William Wendt in revenge for Jason shooting his son. It had been a harrowing experience then, knowing how close they'd come to losing the youngest member of their team. Now, after another close call, Aaron's here again. He wonders, not for the first time, how Reid manages to engender this sort of response. Apparently, the “Reid Effect” pertains not only to canines and children, but Unit Chiefs as well.

When he finally arrives on Reid's doorsteps, the lights are out, but Aaron's undeterred. He straightens his jacket and knocks anyway. Waits. After a moment, lights switch on from behind the blinds, and there's the repetitive click of twin locks before the door swings open. Reid stands there in his bare feet, obviously dressed for bed. He scrubs wearily at his eyes.

“Hey, Hotch.”

“I didn't know they sold Einstein pajamas,” Aaron says, for lack of anything better to say.

“Uh, yeah. You can actually buy them mail order?” Reid drops his fist from his eye and flushes, as if just now realizing he's speaking to his boss wearing printed sleepwear. “I'm sorry; I - I thought maybe you weren't coming over after all.”

“There was some paperwork,” Aaron explains. “May I come in?”

“Yeah, sure,” Reid says, nervously backing into the apartment so that Aaron can enter. The small apartment is exactly how Aaron remembers it, the walls covered with art from what Aaron guesses are Reid's favorite comic book artists, and posters of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. And then there are the books, piles of them tower from every flat surface. A day's worth for Reid, probably; a lifetime supply for mere mortals like Aaron. “Ah, here,” Reid says quickly, sweeping a stack of texts from the sofa so Aaron can have a seat.

Aaron shrugs off his jacket and lays it over the arm of the couch before sitting down. “I see Jason's been here,” he says, glancing over at the chess pieces scattering what must be Reid's kitchen table.

Reid manages a small smile, shifts restlessly on his feet. “He brought me dinner. I don't think he thinks I can take care of myself.”

“'Won't' is more like it,” Aaron says, more to himself, before addressing Reid's fidgeting. “Reid, relax. And sit down, please. You're making me nervous.”

“Sorry,” Reid responds automatically, brushing too-long hair from his hazel eyes as he perches on the edge of a nearby chair. “I don't usually have company.”

Aaron leans forward, clasping his hands neatly in his lap before assuming his professional demeanor. “I'm afraid this isn't a social visit.”

Reid grimaces. “Yeah, I figured that out when you said you wanted to fire me.”

“I never said 'wanted', I said 'should',” Aaron reminds him sternly. “I think it best we attend to business and move on as soon as possible. Don't you?”

“I guess.” The kid worries at his lower lip, and Aaron resists the urge to reassure him. Reid needs to understand the gravity of their present situation.

“I'd hoped we'd never have to have this discussion, Reid.”

“I'm sorry, sir.”

“So am I,” Aaron tells him. “I trust you, Reid. Every day I put my life and the lives of this team in your hands. Tell me I haven't misplaced that faith.”

“What?” Reid pales, and Aaron suddenly feels like he's kicked a small puppy. His own brother is fourteen years younger than himself, only a year older than Reid, but Sean's never managed to look so dismayed by Aaron's censure.

“You failed to disclose Owen's intentions. You confronted the unsub on your own, without vest or back-up, and compromised our ability to take him out. Does that sound like an individual who thinks and acts as part of a team?”

Guilt washes over Reid's face. “No, but I knew I could save him - ”

“By putting the team and everyone else at risk?” Aaron demands, determined to see this though. “By creating a potential hostage situation? Even if Owen hadn't shot you, there was every chance someone eager enough to take a shot at him would take you out in the process, and that is simply unacceptable.”

“Yes, sir,” Reid says miserably. Aaron's not much happier himself.

“Well.” Aaron guesses this is it. “Come over here, then.” He unbuttons the cuff of his left sleeve and begins rolling it up.

“And sit with you?” Reid queries, apparently still in denial regarding what's about to transpire.

Aaron finishes with the sleeve and pins the kid with a hard stare. “I think you know better.” He pats his thigh meaningfully.

Reid stands, but he doesn't approach, just hovers anxiously. “Ah, Hotch, can't I just bend over the table or something?” But Aaron's already shaking his head.

“Over the knee was good enough for Gideon; I expect it will work here.”

“But, Hotch - ”

“Now, Reid.”

Reid flinches at the barked command, but he finally skirts his way over to Aaron's side. His right side.

“Reid?”

“Yeah?”

“I'm left-handed.”

The young agent blushes, but steps over to Aaron's left, allowing Aaron to take his arm and tug him down and over his lap. It's awkward – Reid's as tall as he is, and his legs are everywhere – but it's a little late for Aaron to second guess this now. He wraps an arm around Reid's narrow waist, pulling him snugly against Aaron's stomach. There's a bit of squirming from Reid, but Aaron guesses it's anticipation rather than discomfort.

Aaron rests a hand on the kid's pajama-clad backside. The next several minutes will undoubtedly bring tears, and Aaron's never been much good with tears, from either gender. Arguments and weapons, yes, but tears – tears remind him of times better forgotten, whether they came under the cloak of darkness or in the midst of drunken shouting and the distant echo of open-handed slaps. A time when the power and control provided by his position as Unit Chief eluded him…

“Hotch?” Reid frowns at him from over his shoulder. “Are you okay?”

“I'm fine,” Aaron returns curtly. It isn't like him to wander off, to lose focus.

“You don't look fine.”

Aaron's jaw tightens. “Shouldn't you be using this time to reflect on your mistakes?” The question is directed as much to himself as to Reid. Had any number of things gone differently, Reid's reckless behavior would have resulted in something much worse than tears; it would have ended in blood. And all because Aaron failed to act on his suspicions. He wonders if Reid realizes this is as much a punishment for him as it is for Reid.

Reid blinks, offended, but turns back around. “This really isn't necessary,” he's compelled to point out.

“Isn't it?” Would Aaron be here if it wasn't?

“I won't do it again,” he promises

“I know you won't,” Aaron replies, lifting his hand and bringing it down smartly on the right side of Reid's backside. There's a small gasp and a jump from Reid, but nothing further, and Aaron sets up a brisk pace, letting his palm deliver this part of the lesson. It isn't more than a few minutes before his hand starts to sting, and Aaron guesses Reid must be feeling it, too, but from a vastly different perspective. The kid shows no sign of wavering, though, and a small rush of pride floods the Unit Chief. Reid's always been tougher than anyone takes him for at first glance.

Not seeing any advantage in letting the punishment drag on, Aaron raises his left thigh, giving him better access to the tender underside of Reid's E=MC2-covered seat. Reid's reaction to the spanking's change of venue is dramatic. After the initial shock, the kid's shoulders slump and he finally bursts into sobs, flinging his left hand behind him in hopes of deflecting the punishment. Aaron quickly captures Reid's wrist and holds it at his back, then continues, letting the well-placed smacks fall just a bit harder than before.

Aaron can't let this happen again; he's always preferred the proactive course of action to the reactive, and if he can head off a terrorist attack before it's waged, he should certainly be able to keep one geeky genius out of trouble. Reid's cries are escalating, and Aaron starts to worry. He's reasonably confident the distress is emotional rather than physical, but he's unwilling to take any chances. Pausing mid-swing, he carefully tugs Reid's pajama bottoms down around his thighs, hushing his tearful protests.

“Enough, Reid. I need to be sure I'm not hurting you,” Aaron explains, frowning at the bright color suffusing Reid's normally fair skin.

“You are!” Reid nearly shouts, as if suddenly concluding his Unit Chief is mentally deficient. Aaron decides they've both had enough. He starts spanking again, this time on bare skin, taking care to lighten his touch. He needs Reid's head clear enough to think.

“What is protocol when in possession of vital information regarding an unsub?” Aaron presses quietly.

“S-share it with the t-team,” Reid stammers, his chest hitching against the sofa.

“And what do we wear when confronting an armed suspect?”

“Ow! My vest!”

“And unless absolutely necessary, do we approach an unsub on our own, or deliberately block the kill zone?” Aaron persists, his tone the grimmest it's been tonight.

“No!”

Aaron sighs with relief and drops his hand to where Reid's pajama bottoms are bunched at his thighs. “Good boy,” he murmurs, releasing Reid's caught hand and reaching to replace his clothing. Aaron carefully eases the cotton up over the hot, punished skin, eliciting a whimper and another round of choked sobs. Hesitant about what kind of comfort Reid might want or need, Aaron pats his back once, twice, even a few times, until Reid finally sniffles and pushes up on his elbows.

A moment later, Aaron has him settled next to him on the couch. Reid's pulled it together for the most part, angrily brushing away any stray tears that dare to appear. The childish gesture tugs at Aaron's well-guarded heart.

“It's okay to cry, Reid,” he says gently.

Reid huffs. “You wouldn't.”

“I don't get spanked very often.” He raises a brow when Reid chokes again, this time on a laugh. “What? Too disturbing?”

“More than you know,” Reid replies hoarsely, still subdued, but with a smile now lurking at the corners of his mouth.

Aaron exhales, regarding him with an affection and concern usually reserved for those rare moments when Aaron's been forced to kick the kid into taking his weapon, or Reid's just been rescued from another schizophrenic psychopath. “Are you alright?”

“I'm fine.” Reid considers. “I think Gideon spanks harder.”

Aaron has the grace to look chagrined. “I'm sorry it came to this; I hope you understand why I did it.”

Reid's brows draw together. “I know what I did was wrong?” he says, glancing up at Aaron with a bemused expression. “I just figured it was my turn to save one, you know?”

“It doesn't work like that.” Aaron wonders how many Owen Savages there'll be before Reid stops believing everyone can be saved, before he loses his innocence. Aaron's not sure he wants to be there to see it.

“It should,” Reid submits.

Aaron crooks a sad smile. “I know how painful it can be when the person you identify with is the bad guy.”

Reid nods, plucking absently at the hem of his pajama sleeve. “What does that make me?”

“Good at the job,” Aaron replies honestly.

Reid squirms onto his hip, doubtless trying to take some of the pressure off his backside. “When I look back on Marshall, on Chula Vista, I think, well, what if - what if I'd just done things differently?” he muses, and Aaron briefly closes his eyes. Doubt is a terrible thing for people who do what they do. “Sometimes I think I'll never reconcile who I am with the agent I want to be.”

“You can't compare yourself to Gideon.”

“I don't.” There's that tiny smile again, almost sheepish. “I compare myself to you.”

Aaron thinks he might respond, but his throat hurts and suddenly his collar is about three inches too small. Instead, he reaches with his aching hand and cups the back of Reid's neck, giving it a fond squeeze. After a moment, he drops it, clearing his throat with an embarrassed cough.

“I know it's none of my business, but I think tomorrow you should go and try to catch the rest of that movie.”

Reid nods. “We're okay, then?” he asks, puffy eyes moving over Aaron's face. “You're not mad?”

“We're okay, Reid,” Aaron tells him, rising from the couch and picking up his jacket. He slips into it with practiced ease. “That doesn't mean - ”

“I know,” Reid interrupts, pushing to his feet before the older man can launch into another lecture. “You won't have to do that again.”

Aaron's lips twist, forming a wry smile. “Let's not make promises you might not be able to keep, hmmm?” He doesn't expect Reid's impulsive nature to be tamed that easily.

“You won't have to do that anytime soon?” Reid amends.

“Better,” Aaron agrees, turning and opening the front door. “Don't forget to lock up.”

“Hotch?” Reid blurts from behind him, and Aaron pauses, glancing over his shoulder at the kid. Reid's mouth quirks self-consciously. “Thanks.”

Aaron frowns. “For what?”

Reid shrugs. “Showing up.”

The lines creasing Aaron's forehead deepen. “Get some sleep, Reid.”

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

Aaron's been sitting at the bar for less than an hour when he hears the footsteps behind him, senses the presence just behind his left shoulder. There's a faint raise of his brows as he stares wearily into his drink.

“How did you find me?”

Jason Gideon climbs onto the adjacent stool. “You really have to ask?”

Aaron guesses he deserves that. “Okay; why did you find me?”

“Spencer thought you might want some company,” Jason replies, gazing at the collection of historical photographs hanging haphazardly behind the bar.

Of course. Sometimes Aaron thinks Reid understands much more about people than he lets on. “How is he?”

“He's fine,” Jason assures him, with a sideways glance. “Better than you, I imagine.”

Aaron's fingers curl around his glass, more a reflex than any real desire to drink. “My father was an alcoholic. When he was sober he'd take me to Redskins games. When he wasn't, he was a bully and a womanizer who thought the best way to discipline children was with his fist and his belt.”

“I know.”

Aaron looks up at the older man. “How?”

“I've read your file.”

Aaron nods, returns to swirling the contents of his glass. “It wasn't always that way,” Aaron explains. “If it was, I could have hated him. He just wasn't the same man when he was drinking. When Mom got pregnant with Sean, she told him he'd have to stop drinking or leave, so he stopped.” Aaron shrugs. “Sean doesn't remember any of it.”

Jason's face is etched with sympathy. “He had a different father.”

“Not for very long,” Aaron says. No, after winning a battle with colon cancer, his father had succumbed to a rather unexciting heart attack when Aaron was twenty and Sean only six. Aaron sighs and takes a sip of his drink, feeling much older than his forty-one years. “I never wanted to be that man.”

“Were you drinking when you discussed things with Spencer?” Jason asks, sounding merely curious.

“No.”

“Did you beat him with a belt?”

Aaron's eyes flash. “I'd never – no,” he replies tersely. “Of course I didn't.”

“Were you angry?”

“Only with myself.”

Jason shakes his head, kindly reiterating his supposition. “You're not that man.”

And maybe the profiler is right, but his father's influence isn't the heaviest thing weighing on Aaron's mind. “He's struggling, Jason.” It feels better, just coming out and saying it, being able to share his concern with someone who views Reid as more than just a valuable asset.

“I know.”

“I made him cry,” Aaron adds, still disturbed by that portion of tonight's program.

Jason's mouth tightens; he's been there. “Yes.”

Aaron takes a breath. “I explained that his conduct was detrimental to the team and himself; told him I hoped we wouldn't have to revisit the issue and that he didn't resent me for it.”

Jason glances over at him. “And what did he say?”

Aaron huffs into his drink. “'Thank you'.”

Jason smiles. “What are you having?” He lifts his chin in the direction of Aaron's glass.

“Tonic water,” Aaron replies, and Jason chuckles predictably as he motions for the bartender.

“I'll have what he's having.”

And Aaron guesses he won't have this thing figured out tonight, or even this week. But he hasn't come this far, as an agent or a man, without learning perseverance. Jason reminded him often enough during Aaron's first year with the BAU, reciting the Samuel Beckett quote Aaron's never forgotten. “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Aaron can do that. Reid, too. At least Aaron will give the kid every incentive to try.

Solid ground can be hard to come by, after all.

Sometimes all you need is someone to hold you steady until you find your feet.

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