Author's Note: This story takes place pre series.
Disclaimer: I don't own any of these characters, and I'm not making any money from this story.
Warnings: Angst and discussion of past abuse. One swat of an adult by a mentor.


“Hey, kid.”

Aaron Hotchner glances up as Agent David Rossi takes a seat on the edge of Aaron's tiny desk in the basement quarters of the BAU. “My name isn't kid,” he reminds the man, for what feels like the hundredth time today alone. Rossi's only in his mid-thirties, after all; not even ten years over Aaron's twenty-seven.

Rossi purses his lips, considering. One of the Italian's hooded eyes is just smaller than the other, giving the man a look of perpetual skepticism. “This guy have a name, Jason?” he asks, glancing over at the third occupant of the space, Jason Gideon. The other agent just frowns where he's bent over his paperwork, scratches at the back of his neck.

“Hutch?” Gideon offers vaguely, and Aaron resists an urge to sigh. Formerly a respected prosecutor and Seattle field agent, Aaron could have applied for any number of positions at the FBI. Yet here he is, teamed with the only two agents seasoned enough to think of him as a green kid. Both men, along with their Unit Chief, have been here from the Unit's early days, and seem hardly impressed by Aaron's illustrious degrees or reputation.

“What are you doing here?” Rossi persists, unfazed as Aaron yanks a file from beneath the agent's ass. “Don't you have a wife at home?”

“Don't you?” Aaron retorts. Can Aaron just do his job already? Ever since Aaron's transfer became official two days ago, the guy's been relentless in his inquiries, regarding everything from how Aaron polishes his shoes to his gas mileage.

“That's why he's here,” Gideon remarks absently, drawing a dark look from Rossi.

“I just want to finish this report,” Aaron maintains, hoping Rossi will get the point. After all, the man is a profiler, isn't he?

Rossi snorts. “Ryan's going to love this one.”

“Ryan doesn't love any of you,” the Unit Chief says, locking his office and navigating the narrow aisle between desks. “It'd be good for you to remember that the next time one of you morons decides to eat my lunch.”

“Was that yours?” Rossi asks. “The pastrami was to die for.”

“Oh, you won't die,” Ryan assures him, pausing by Gideon's workspace. “But there'll be enough desk duty for you to wish you would. You got that?” the man asks, his pale blue eyes narrowed on the younger agent.

“Yes, sir.” Rossi glances at Aaron, unabashed. “Stay away from the roast beef; it's stringy.”

Ryan shakes his graying head. “When I'm playing thirty-six holes a day in Florida, this whole place is gonna seem like a bad dream. Meanwhile, you guys will be working the same old grind,” he says, passing a file to Gideon before finally continuing to the elevators. “Serial murders in Alabama, your flight's at nine. Have the kid shadow you - I'll join you on Monday. And guys…”

“Yeah?” Rossi asks.

“This is my last case; don't fuck it up.”

“Son of a bitch,” Rossi mutters, as the Unit Chief disappears behind the elevator doors. “So not only do I have to go home to fabric samples, now we gotta chase some jag-off in a hundred percent humidity. This was supposed to be my duck hunting weekend, too.”

“Women appreciate input,” Gideon drawls, heavy brows drawn together as his eyes scan the file in his hands.

Rossi scoffs. “The only reason my input has been requested, is so that woman knows which sofa she doesn't want. My ass still hasn't recovered from those crazy chairs Connie had made for the dining room.”

Aaron frowns. “I thought your wife's name was Angela.”

“Connie's his first wife,” Gideon says, still focused on the file, and Aaron's brow furrows.

“I'm sorry, are you saying there's more than one woman willing to marry this guy?”

“Hey!” Rossi objects indignantly. “I have my secret charms.”

“Yes,” Aaron agrees. “Very secret. Now can you take your ass off my work?” And for some reason, he's sure that it's his use of the word 'ass' that has that shit-eating grin crossing Rossi's face.

“Aw, cheer up, kid,” he says, leaning over the desk to smooth down Aaron's tie. Satisfied, he pats it fondly. “We're going on a field trip.”

# # #

“Nothing like flying coach,” Rossi mutters, from across the jet's tight aisle. Gideon's taken the seat next to Aaron; maybe because he prefers the elbow room, or maybe just to give Aaron a break from his more excitable teammate. Either way, Aaron's grateful. Or he would be, if he could just concentrate on the file he's trying to read. Just in front of Gideon, a baby screams in her mother's arms, despite the woman's desperate attempts to soothe her. Aaron's surprised when Gideon eventually leans forward and lightly touches her shoulder.

“Need some help?” Gideon asks kindly, his hawk-like features softening in intensity.

The young woman glances back over her shoulder, wincing apologetically as she brushes a wave of brown hair from her harried face. “I'm so sorry; she's teething, and nothing seems to be working.”

The profiler offers her a compassionate smile. “May I?” he asks, holding his hands out for the child.

She hesitates, her weary green eyes moving from Gideon's neat, knit sweater to Aaron's pressed suit and tie. “Are you sure?”

“It'd be a pleasure.”

She half-sobs, half-laughs, but turns and passes the baby back to him. Aaron's surprised at how easily Gideon handles the crying child, nestling her against his shoulder, his large hand smoothing over her dark curls before rubbing gently at the back of her bunny sleeper. After a few minutes of unsettled tears, the baby hiccups, eyelids fluttering shut beneath the man's steady ministrations.

“How did you do that?” the mother breathes, her face a study in relief.

Gideon shrugs. “Sometimes the stress of the pain is worse than the pain itself,” he explains. “She just needed to relax.”

“Thank you,” she says, waiting for the flight attendant to pass before coming around the seat to retrieve her sleeping daughter. Gideon carefully passes the child back, looking almost disappointed to give her up.

“Did you just profile a baby?” Aaron asks, watching as the woman settles back into the seat in front of them.

Gideon chuckles. “Do it all day long; how do you think I work with him?” he asks, tilting his head toward Rossi. “You have any children?”

“No. Not yet.” Aaron and Haley have just gotten married, after all; a baby is still years ahead on their schedule. “You?”

“A son,” the man admits, rubbing at his left hand. “Don't see him much.”

Rossi leans over from across the aisle. “That's the thing about the job, kid; there's always somewhere else you can't be.”

“Didn't think that was a problem for you, Dave,” Gideon remarks dryly.

“Do you have children, too?” Aaron asks.

“Doesn't need 'em; he marries them.”

“Twenty-three is completely legal,” Rossi insists.

Gideon glances at Aaron. “She thought euthanasia was a non-profit.”

“Are you gonna hand over those files, or just sit around making witty repartee?” Rossi wants to know, and Gideon winks at Aaron before taking the file from his lap and passing it across the aisle.

Aaron decides he likes Jason Gideon.

# # #

The morning brings another body. Aaron hurries from his room and into the motel parking lot, the black SUV more than a little conspicuous among the hatchbacks and campers. His teammates are already there, Rossi automatically reaching for the passenger handle.

“You don't mind taking the back, do you?” The accompanying smirk suggests it isn't a question, which is confirmed when the older agent opens the front door and settles into the front seat, taking a few moments to smooth his fashionable suit.

“Can I sit on the hump, too?” Aaron grumbles under his breath, climbing into the back seat. It's that much farther from the air condition, and even at 7:00 a.m., they need it. The Alabama sun blasts back up from the pavement like a furnace, and Aaron's dress shirt is already sticking to his back.

“Only if you promise not to enjoy it,” Rossi concedes, shutting his door as Gideon starts the vehicle. “C'mon, kid,” he says, glancing over his shoulder at Aaron. “Would it kill you to crack a smile?”

“Fourth body this month, second this week,” Gideon says, pulling out onto the highway. With his polo shirt and belted khaki slacks, he could just as easily be on his way to teach junior high. “This guy is devolving on us.”

Rossi shrugs, turning back in his seat. “Maybe we just haven't found all the bodies yet.” There's a brief silence as they consider the implications. The heat and humidity here are capable of destroying forensic evidence, and the effect they have on a decomposing body... “You missed the turn.”

“No, I didn't.” Gideon's hands steadily grip the wheel.

“You were supposed to take the second right and then the third left,” Rossi tells him, glancing back at the street in question.

Gideon doesn't blink. “I know where I'm going.”

Rossi turns to the other agent with obvious exasperation. “Is it so hard for you to follow simple directions?” he asks, like he really wants to know.

“Is it so hard for you to shut up?”

Aaron sits back and closes his eyes. Great; it's a thousand degrees, and he's shadowing his parents.

# # #

“We appreciate you coming down here,” Captain Lamont says, a hint of chagrin in the gruff voice as they gather in front of the suburban park. “The second victim was Sergeant Farrell's wife; I don't need to tell you that emotions are running high. We want this guy.”

“We'll do everything we can to help,” Rossi assures him.

Lamont nods, considers a moment. “The ME mentioned we might have a partial print to check against prior offenders - ”

“You won't find anything.” Gideon's smile is humorless. “This guy isn't going to give us anything free.”

“Well, then.” There's an awkward pause. “The headquarters for the task force is at the station; we've set aside Conference Room One for your use. Anything you need, you just let us know.”

“Thanks. We'd like to start by taking a look at the latest victim,” Rossi says, and Lamont glances over his shoulder, where several officers linger by the squad cars at the park's entrance.

“Henry,” Lamont barks, and one of the younger officers looks up. “Walk the agents over to the crime scene.”

# # #

Henry leads them toward a small clearing beneath some trees at the edges of the park. In the distance, Aaron can hear the happy shouts and shrieks of children on the playground.

“Jogger found her this morning,” Henry tells them, evincing more native drawl than his captain. Then again, he could just be more shaken; the skin beneath his freckles is pale and drawn. “We secured the crime scene; the ME is down there now.”

“Good,” Gideon says, already striding toward where a man who's old enough to be Aaron's grandfather kneels by the body. Aaron and Rossi follow, the latter releasing a low whistle as he takes in the scene.

“This is one pissed-off unsub.” The woman is crumpled on the ground, curled into an almost fetal position. Around the duct tape masking her eyes, her face and head have been beaten severely. The swelling and bruising has Aaron's stomach turning.

“Do we have a time of death?” Gideon asks the ME, as the man draws the thermometer from the liver. He peers at the equipment, sun glinting from his balding head.

“She's been dead about four hours; I'd say just after 4:00 a.m.,” the ME replies, rising and stepping back toward his bag. Aaron stares at the obviously fractured jaw of their victim.

“What did you say to me, Margaret? What did you say?”

“What did you say?” Rossi's voice brings Aaron back to the present.

“Nothing,” Aaron replies, squaring his shoulders and ignoring Rossi's doubtful expression.

Gideon's mouth presses into a grim line. “Hutch, you take a shot; what do you see?”

Aaron's brow furrows, and he's surprised to find he's nervous. This is the moment he's been training for, and he wants to get it right. “White woman, age approximately thirty-two, brunette, about 5' 7”, one twenty-five - ”

“You like art, kid?”

Aaron blinks at the random question from Rossi. “Sorry?”

“You know, Rembrandt, Caravaggio?” Rossi sighs. “Look, you wanna know the artist?” he asks. “You gotta study his work. Forget the stats for a moment, and focus on what's been created.”

Aaron looks down again, his eyes narrowing as they move over the body. “Fully dressed; I'd guess no sexual violation. Excessive contusions and abrasions to the face and head indicate rage of a personal nature.”

“Good,” Rossi says.

“He left her jewelry,” Aaron observes, noting pearl earrings and a slim gold watch. “He's angry, but not contemptuous. “Everything but the wedding band,” he muses, gaze moving to the white, untanned skin circling the left ring finger. “Those he keeps; they have value to him.”

Gideon nods.

Aaron frowns and crouches for a closer look. “The eyes taped shut, antemortem – all the blood is over the tape – he doesn't want them to see him?”

Rossi frowns. “Why would he care? She's not going to have a chance to identify him.”

“It's not about identification; he's ashamed of something,” Gideon says.

“Ashamed?” Aaron can't imagine shame applying to an unsub this violent.

“He has some physical imperfection – could be hardly noticeable to us, but it would be a big deal to him. The way he leaves the bodies suggests contempt, but he still cares what these women think.”

“He'd lack confidence,” Rossi says. “Can't charm them, so he waits until they're alone and sneaks up from behind.”

Aaron considers. “This was an athletic woman; he's either very physically capable himself, or he has means of subduing her other than his fists.”

“The first blow could incapacitate her,” Rossi offers. “Or severe enough to convince her she doesn't want to fight back.”

“Maybe,” Gideon says. “Do we have a cause of death?”

The ME looks up from his clipboard. “Right now I'd say blunt force trauma to the head, but I'll need to do an autopsy to confirm.”

“Fax your findings to the station, attention of SSA David Rossi,” Rossi says, squinting in the bright light. “We may be running out of time.”

# # #

After quick tours of the other crime scenes have left the agents red-faced and sweat-stained, Gideon relinquishes the task of driving to Rossi. The senior agent cranks the air condition to the highest setting, and the three of them sit in silent bliss until Rossi pulls over at a shabby drive-through.

“I want the meatball sub,” Rossi orders through his rolled-down window, then pauses, waiting.

“Pastrami,” Gideon says, eyes closed.

“And a pastrami.” Rossi glances in the rearview mirror. “What about you, kid?”

“The chef salad, please,” Aaron says, remembering Haley's concerns about his FBI agent's drive-through/take-out diet.

Rossi frowns. “I'm sorry; did you say you wanted a salad?”

“Leave him alone, Dave,” Gideon chides.

“Make that two meatball subs and a pastrami,” Rossi finishes decisively, and pulls up behind the car at the window.

Aaron can't believe the nerve of the guy. “Do you know how much sodium that has?”

“Kid, if you're worried about sodium at your age, you've got bigger problems than a lousy sandwich,” Rossi informs him.

“That's hardly your – and would you stop calling me kid?” Aaron snaps, the heat and constant jibes wearing on his patience. “My name is Hotchner: H – O –T – C –H – N – E - R. Or if you prefer, Hotch. Not kid, not Hutch.”

“Okay, okay,” Rossi says, releasing the steering wheel to hold up his hands in a placating gesture. “Don't get your panties in a bunch.” He glances over at Gideon. “Touchy, isn't he?”

Gideon finally opens his eyes, his gaze sliding back towards Aaron. “You learn to ignore him,” he assures him.

Aaron leans back in his seat. “I'm counting on it.”

# # #

Task force headquarters are at the station, and Aaron and Rossi immediately shuck their jackets and loosen their ties. It's hotter than Hades, and Aaron finds himself envying Gideon's casual, infinitely cooler dress code. Then again, the formidable agent could probably command the local LEOs respect in his boxers. The team eats quickly, their greasy sandwiches supplemented with drinks from a nearby vending machine

Rossi frowns from his seat at the conference room table, his paper plate with crumpled butcher wrap pushed aside. “The blitz attacks, the dumping of the bodies; this guy isn't thinking about getting away with this; he's on a spree.”

“So if we look at our first three victims, Anne Suskind, Tracy Farrell, and Cindy Cox, geographic profile puts our unsub somewhere in here,” Aaron says, standing at the head of the table, two fingers indicating the area he's circled on a hanging map of Montgomery's outlying areas. “But today's victim, Celia Brooks, was found here,” Aaron continues, pointing to a flag outside the circle.

“Outside his comfort zone.” Gideon's gaze lingers on the map. “He's no longer guided; he'll devolve fast. The only question is how many bodies we'll have before he's finished,” Gideon muses grimly.

Aaron has to agree; the potential outcome here is harrowing. “We know he'll have an end plan; what is it?”

“Let's go back to the victimology,” Gideon decides, rubbing thoughtfully at his left hand. “What do we notice about these women?”

“All brunettes,” Rossi recounts, “all high-risk. Middle-class, in their early thirties, athletic…”

Gideon's brow furrows. “Classic displacement; this is a wife.”

“Or an ex-wife,” Rossi adds, indignant when Aaron chuffs. “Hey, believe me, I know.”

“So why aren't the victims sexually violated?” Gideon wonders out loud, ignoring the exchange. “Even if he's not a sexual sadist, rape is still an effective way of exerting power and control.”

He values the rings… Aaron looks at his colleagues in surprise. “He's being faithful.”

Gideon's eyes flick to Rossi's, a small smile curving his mouth. “We're ready to give our profile.”

# # #

“We're looking for a middleclass white man in his thirties who's recently experienced marital discord or has divorced,” Gideon tells the assembled task force and other law enforcement personnel, speaking loudly so his voice can reach the back of the squad room. Hotch stands between he and Rossi, arms folded, and surveys the crowd. A sunburned officer near the front snorts.

“That'll be easy to find,” he jeers, nudging his partner, who's quiet, if not skeptical.

“Mertzer,” Lamont barks from the sidelines, and the man resentfully subsides.

“He may have suffered from an injury to the face in the months before the divorce; something he feels rejected for,” Gideon continues. “People who know him will have seen a change in his behavior. He'll have gone from charming and sociable to withdrawn and volatile. Right now he's targeting women similar in appearance to the object of his rage – middleclass brunettes in their thirties. He'll continue to escalate until he's caught.”

The crowd shifts uneasily, filled with wary looks and murmurings. “So how do we catch him?” one of the officers asks over the stir.

Rossi steps forward, his voice raised and confident. “Someone knows this man and will recognize him – his employer, his neighbor, his brother or sister, his wife. He's breaking down, and his erratic behavior will be more and more difficult to disguise.”

“He may have started drinking heavily or missed work; there may be signs of self-harm as well,” Hotch adds, watching as this new information is registered and considered.

“Is it possible we've already booked this guy for beating his wife?” Mertzer's partner wants to know.

“No,” Rossi replies. “This unsub can't confront his wife; she isn't a weak, cowering woman –she wouldn't stand for it. We do know she's a brunette in her thirties, likely successful in a career of her own, and that financial independence he will also find emasculating.”

Aaron frowns. “ – isn't a weak, cowering woman - ” It takes an effort not to have his fingers curl into fists.

“Mom, he's drunk again.”

“I know, Aaron. Just turn out the light and go to sleep; don't come downstairs.”

“We'll be releasing this profile to the press; they can help us. Cause of death and MO will remain internal information only,” Gideon states with stern emphasis. “We can't afford to waste time chasing false leads or copycats. Captain Lamont will now go over the tactical strategies with you,” Gideon says. “Captain?”

They surrender the floor to Lamont, who begins detailing the procedures for taking calls and tips. Aaron catches up to Rossi at the back of the squad room.

“Is that what you think?” Aaron asks casually, proud that he's able to ask the question in his cold, prosecutor's voice.

“Is what what I think?” Rossi asks, focused on adjusting his boldly-patterned tie.

“That women who 'allow' their husbands to beat them are weak?”

Rossi's dark eyes jump to Aaron's, flicker briefly with surprise. “That's not what I said.”

“Isn't it?” Aaron doesn't drop the stare, and Rossi's lips purse with annoyance.

“Look, you want to catch this guy?” the man asks. “Forget about what I think and get your head in the game.”

Aaron watches him walk off, forces himself to control his frustration. He can't decide if he's irritated with Rossi being a jerk, or irritated with himself for letting it get to him.

“Hell of a day, huh?” Gideon says, suddenly appearing at Aaron's side. For a man built like he could have played college football, he's surprisingly agile.

“It's had its moments,” Aaron says noncommittally. “So what now?” he asks, staring beyond the station windows at the media gathering outside the doors.

“Now?” Gideon shrugs. “We let Dave do what Dave does best.”

“What's that?”

Gideon quirks a smile, jerking his chin in the direction of the reporters. “Talk.”

# # #

It's late when they return to the motel, almost 2:00 a.m., and Aaron finds himself lying in the room adjoining Gideon's and Rossi's, staring at his cell phone on the night table. He frowns into the darkness, considering. His new bride doesn't sleep well when he's gone, and she might very well be awake. At any rate, the comfort of Haley's voice is too tempting to resist. He reaches for his phone, punches the speed dial and waits.

“Hello?” Haley mumbles, and Aaron smiles even as he feels that familiar twinge of guilt for waking her.

“Did I wake you?” He knows the answer, but can't resist asking anyway, just to hear her respond.

“No,” she denies quickly; too quickly, and Aaron hears the rustling of blankets as she resituates herself.

“Liar,” he teases gently, rolling to prop himself up on one elbow.

“Wow, the honeymoon really is over,” she replies, and Aaron can almost see her smile.

“I miss you.” He never fails to be humbled by how much he relies on her for a sense of normalcy, something grounded beyond his world of apprehensions and fieldwork.

“I miss you, too,” she says. “So how's it going with the living legends?”

Aaron huffs softly. “I don't think I'm impressing anyone.”

“Now why do I find that hard to believe?” she asks, all-too familiar with Aaron's perfectionist tendencies.

“They think I'm some green kid,” he reports with disgust, then raises his brows when he hears her helpless giggle. “Oh, that's great. I'm glad I can amuse you,” he tells her, shaking his head but enjoying the sound of her laughter nevertheless.

“Oh, honey, I'm sorry,” she says sincerely, just before giggling again.

“Go ahead, get it out of your system,” Aaron tells her, his sense of humor making a brief appearance. “Gideon's cryptic as Yoda, and Rossi never shuts up. I think he thrives on harassing me.”

“So do you have any suspects?” she asks. “Do you have a murder weapon?”

Aaron pauses, but only for a moment. “There is no weapon; the unsub beats them to death.”

“Oh.” Silence. “Aaron. Are you - ”

“I'm fine, Haley,” Aaron promises. “I'm a big boy.” Big enough to take care of himself and his wife, and any children they might have in the future.

“Oh, I know you are,” Haley drawls, in that honeyed tone that never fails to make Aaron's dick twitch. “It's just – are you sure this is the job you want?” she asks worriedly, and Aaron can just picture the little crinkle in her forehead.

“Honey, we've been over this…”

“I know,” she says, “but I worry about what seeing all that horrible stuff every day is going to do to you.”

“I saw my share of horrible things as a prosecutor, too, Haley,” he reminds her. “I just couldn't do anything until it was too late.”

She sighs. Then, “Just have to save the world, don't you?”

Aaron smiles at her obvious resignation. “Are you saying you're impressed?”

“Come home safe and I'll show you how impressed I am,” she tells him.

“I love you.” Every time he says it, he's sure he couldn't mean it more.

“I love you, too.”

# # #

“What did you say to me, Margaret? What did you say?”

Aaron runs through the woods, the small black and white dog running beside him. He heads for a place, the secret place, a blanket left behind on spring day, now covered with leaves. A blanket left intentionally for this very purpose. He scrambles under the blanket, bruising an elbow on a rock, rough grass clinging to his cotton Superman t-shirt, drags Chipper protectively under his arm.

And he waits, under the blanket, his young body pressed tightly to the earth, flattened painfully beyond recognition. His lungs scream for oxygen. He wants to scream, too, but he can't; he can't even breathe. The leaves; any movement on his part and his camouflage could shift, become obvious even to eyes blurred by Scotch and life's disappointments. The footsteps crunch by him, once, twice, and then circling. Aaron's frozen.

But something, maybe the smell of his own weak fear, scares the dog lying beside him. Chipper whimpers, and Aaron pulls the blanket tighter over the dog's muzzle, stifling its struggles against his own stiff, ungiving form. Now he can't hear the dog, can't feel the whiteness of his fingers, the sharp stones cutting into his bare skin. His heart is beating so loud, louder than a drum, so loud that Aaron can hardly hear the footsteps. They come by him again, so close that the sick taste of bile rises in his throat. But then they move on. He breathes a sigh of relief, looses his grip on the dog. But the dog, it doesn't move. It's no longer breathing. Aaron screams, the world shifting above him, and those pale, poisoned eyes appear with the light…

Aaron jerks upright in bed, his t-shirt sticking damply to his back. The pounding, not his heart, or a drum, but a knock from the adjoining room.

“Hey, kid – everything okay in there?”

Rossi. Of course it is. Aaron takes a deep breath, trying to think of an excuse that won't come back to haunt him. “It's fine – sorry. I tripped over my suitcase on the way to the bathroom.”

“Try using the closet sometime,” Rossi suggests dryly, from the other side of the locked door.

“Yes, thank you; I'll do that.”

# # #

When they arrive at the station the next morning, the squad room is in mayhem as a thick crowd of officers tries to pull one of their own off a civilian.

“What the fuck's going on?” Rossi asks no one in particular, glancing around the room. Looking for Lamont, probably. Aaron can just make out the captain pushing through the throng.

“Someone's confessed to the Prattville murders,” an officer replies, as Gideon, Rossi, and Aaron shoulder their way to the center of the calamity. The air is hot and tense and Aaron wonders if the next chalk outline they see is going to be right here.

“Mertzer!” Lamont shouts, now red-faced with temper as the belligerent officer is dragged back by his peers.

“That prick killed Tracy, and you're worried about his rights?” Mertzer jerks free of his colleagues' hands, still breathing heavily and glaring at the slight, terrified-looking man Officer Henry has cuffed beside him.

“Mertzer, get your ass out of my sight now, before I come to my senses and suspend you,” Lamont growls. “Henry, take Mr. Holbrooke to the interrogation room.”

Henry immediately complies, escorting the suspect from the room with obvious relief. Mertzer turns his fulminating stare on his superior, and there's a moment Aaron thinks the officer might argue. But then some of the tension drains from the man's shoulders. With a frustrated snarl, Mertzer turns and shoves his way out of the squad room, and the crowd slowly breaks apart and disperses, leaving Lamont standing there with the three agents.

“We'll take the interrogation,” Gideon says in that unflappable way of his, as if there hasn't just nearly been a brawl in the middle of the station. “If you care to observe, you're welcome to watch with the rest of the team.”

“Thanks, I'll do that,” Lamont says, wiping at his brow with the back of his hand. “The sooner we get him in lock-up, the better. I don't want to be locking up my own men.”

“Maybe it's not a bad idea,” Rossi remarks, regarding the lingering officers warily. For once, Aaron's half-inclined to agree. The small station appears to be wearing under the strain of the investigation.

“Look,” the captain says apologetically, “I know we don't do things here the way they do in Quantico, but the truth is that this is still a small, tight-knit community, no matter how close we are to the city. And when something like this happens to our own, we take it personally.”

“We understand, Captain; that's why we're here,” Gideon assures him, and rubs his hands together. “The sooner we interrogate him, the sooner we'll know if we have our unsub, so why don't we get started?”

# # #

It's one thing to read about profilers, and quite another to see one in action. Aaron stands with Rossi and Lamont in the dim room, watching through the two-way mirror as Gideon establishes a rapport with the suspect. It's times like these that Gideon's dressing down is an advantage, seems to put the nervous man at ease. The older agent sits back in his chair, hands clasped, listening as attentively as the most highly-paid therapist, nodding his way through Holbrook's ramblings.

After a few minutes, Rossi switches off the microphone and grimaces. “This isn't our guy.”

Lamont frowns, offering Rossi a sideways glance. “How do you know?”

“Doesn't fit the profile,” Aaron explains, still watching the interview. “No disfigurement or scars; lacks the upper-body strength.”

Rossi chuffs. “How much you wanna bet any one of our victims would have kicked this guy's ass?”

“Interviewing officer said he's divorced,” Lamont counters, his gaze returning hopefully to Holbrook.

“Who isn't? Except you, of course,” Rossi adds, glancing at Aaron. “How's that working out for you?”

Lamont sighs. “So why are we interrogating him?”

“Standard procedure,” Aaron replies, with a dark glance for his colleague. “Knowing we have a suspect in custody might cause the unsub to let down his guard.”

Just then, Gideon slides back in his chair and exits the interrogation room. The other three men meet him in the hallway.

“He's not our guy. Let's hold him for a couple more hours, see if anything shakes loose.”

“Are you sure?” Lamont asks, graying brows knitting together.

“I am,” Gideon replies. “He described in detail how he strangled the victims; he doesn't know the specifics of the case. He's just a lonely guy looking for someone to listen.”

“Aren't we all,” Rossi mutters, and Aaron somehow avoids rolling his eyes. Officer Henry appears at Lamont's shoulder.

“Excuse me, Captain; Agent Rossi has a fax in Conference Room One.”

# # #

“What have we got?” Gideon asks, his dark eyes intent on Rossi as the latter flips through the fax.

Rossi shakes his head. “Same as the other victims: toxicology is clean and no DNA. But we were able to recover some fiber evidence.”

Gideon leans forward in his seat, hands clasped together. “What kind of fiber?”

Rossi frowns. “Kevlar.”

“He was wearing a bulletproof vest?” Aaron asks skeptically.

“Too conspicuous,” Gideon agrees.

“So where did it come from?” Aaron wants to know.

Rossi looks up from the report, realization washing over his face. “Gloves.”

Gideon nods. “Explains the lack of usable prints.”

“Kevlar lined gloves are used in a number of industries,” Aaron says, now thinking out loud. “Construction, fabrication, bottling…”

“It's a lot of ground to cover,” Gideon remarks.

“Maybe not,” Aaron contends grimly, eyes narrowing as he jumps up to examine the map again. “Take a look at the geographic profile. We think he lives here,” he says, palm slapping the area. “Most Americans don't commute more than sixteen miles from their place of residence. We take the largest employers first, run the profile by the managers, and hope we hit something.”

Gideon considers. “It could work.”

Rossi arches a brow in challenge. “Got any other ideas?”

# # #

Several hours later, Aaron watches Gideon thank yet another assemblage of managers for listening to the profile and Rossi begins giving out their contact information. Gideon walks over to where Aaron's waiting, claps him briefly on the shoulder.

“Don't be discouraged; we knew this would take time.”

“Agent Gideon.” A stocky, middle-aged man in a shirt bearing the Schoen Water Heating logo approaches them. “I'm Jerry Albright, Human Resources Manager? Your profile does sound like someone I know.”

Gideon nods and shakes the man's proffered hand. “What can you tell us, Mr. Albright?”

“His name is Charles Boudreau, worked in manufacturing.”

Aaron frowns. “He doesn't work here anymore?”

Albright shakes his head. “He's been known to have a drinking problem, but ever since his wife filed for divorce, he's missed more and more days; we finally had to let him go.”

“When was that?” Gideon asks.

“About two weeks ago now.”

Gideon and Aaron exchange knowing looks. “Do you know where we can find Mr. Boudreau?” Gideon persists.

Albright shoves his hands in his pockets. “I know where we sent his last check.”

Gideon turns to Aaron. “Call headquarters; let's get a team together. We're doing this now.”

# # #

“It's clear,” the leading officer says to Gideon and Rossi, and Aaron follows the senior agents into the dark and gloomy apartment, Lamont and his team filtering in behind. The shades are drawn; the place reeks of alcohol and sour sweat, a testimony to the empty whisky and beer bottles littering the flat surfaces.

“Start bagging and tagging,” Lamont orders the officers. “We don't leave until we've turned over every inch of this place.”

“Looks like we just missed him,” Aaron observes, sniffing cautiously at one of the boxes of Chinese take-out scattered over the dirty Formica counter.

“Found some gloves,” Mertzer's voice shouts from the bedroom. “Looks like they're lined with Kevlar, too.”

“We need to get in front of this jag-off,” Rossi growls, surveying the space with a speculative eye. “Where's he going, and why leave the gloves behind?”

“He doesn't need them,” Gideon says slowly, picking up a picture from a 60's-style end table and studying it with a frown. He turns it toward Rossi and Aaron. It's a photograph of a woman, a brunette. The face is scratched out in jagged, white lines. “He's ready to make his final play.”

# # #

“No one likes getting this kind of news; let Gideon do the touchy-feely stuff,” Rossi instructs Aaron as they cross the lawn fronting the brick, two-story home. It's a nice, suburban neighborhood; sometimes Aaron wonders where it all goes wrong. “Keep your eyes open for any sign of the husband, anything that looks out of place. You got any questions, you ask me.”

Aaron tamps down on his irritation. “You do realize I was in the Seattle field office for two years, right? I think I know something about attention to detail.”

“You just stepped in dog shit,” Gideon says blandly, never breaking stride, and Rossi snickers as Aaron stops and lifts up his shoe. Shit. Literally. Aaron wipes it off on the green grass, making sure the soles are clear before following the two senior agents up to the porch.

It's Gideon who rings the bell, who's the first to speak when the woman opens the door. “Lynette Boudreau?”

“Yes?” She smoothes a hand over her dark hair even as she regards them suspiciously. Aaron finds her more well-groomed than pretty, but she has the confident air of a woman who knows her strengths and how to play to them.

“Hello, ma'am.” Almost as though Gideon's a friendly neighbor. “We're with the FBI; we'd like to ask you a few questions about your husband, Charles? May we come in?”

“Soon to be ex-husband,” she's compelled to point out, still appearing skeptical. “I just got home, but I need to let Bitsy out…”

“We'll try not to take too much of your time,” Rossi assures her.

The woman throws a less than convinced look at the Italian, and then at Aaron, but finally opens the door, allowing the agents to file into her living room. It's a Jacobean nightmare, something Aaron's mother would be fond of, with scrawling florals covering the sofa and wingback chairs, and a decided contrast to the grunge and disorder of Charles Boudreau's apartment.

“What is it you want to know about Charles?” Lynette Boudreau asks, crossing her arms over her tailored blouse.

“Do you know where he is?” Gideon asks.

The woman's gaze shifts to an anniversary clock on the wood mantel. “At this time of day? Just leaving work, I'd imagine.”

Gideon frowns. “Mrs. Boudreau, your husband was let go two weeks ago.”


“You don't seem surprised,” Aaron says.

“I'm not.” She shakes her head, unimpressed. “Charles always did like his whiskey; I'm surprised he lasted this long.”

“Have you noticed anything strange about your husband?” Rossi asks.

She scoffs. “Every day.”

“Any depressive episode that might suddenly have lifted?” Gideon clarifies.

“He was pretty depressed after his car accident; kept going on about the scar.” She releases an exasperated sigh. “I didn't exactly fall in love with Charles for his looks, anyway? But he was convinced I was having an affair.”

“Were you?” Rossi wants to know, earning him a glare.


“When was this accident?” Aaron asks, before Rossi can piss the woman off even more.

“Back in January,” she replies, blue eyes narrowing. “What's going on?”

“We're here in Montgomery investigating a series of murders,” Gideon explains gently, and the woman's previous composure seems to crumble. She moves to sink down into a chair, her face a pale mixture of confusion and disbelief.

“Those women they've been finding in the parks? That's - ” She huffs a nervous laugh. “Charles might be a drunk, but he's not a murderer.”

“Would you mind if we searched the house?” Gideon persists.

“What for? He's not here,” she says, fingers fidgeting with the button at her collar.

“Mrs. Boudreau.” Gideon splays his hands calmly. “We have reason to believe your husband sees these women as surrogates for you, and that you're in danger here. He's gaining confidence with every kill; it's only a matter of time before he feels he's ready for the real thing.”

She offers a weak wave of her hand, hardly more than a flutter of fingers, but it's enough. Gideon nods at Rossi and Aaron.

“I'll take upstairs,” Aaron says, glancing toward the stairs.

Rossi nods, drawing his weapon and stepping into the adjacent dining area. Aaron pulls his Glock and makes his way upstairs, past Lynette Boudreau's family and vacation photos, images of a happy life she must have lived before her husband. Aaron's childhood home had similar photos, with similar smiles; no one ever guessed they were only fragments of a much larger, darker picture.

He slips down the hallway, checks the bathroom and two smaller bedrooms, ones that were probably intended for children. Aaron's relieved they were never filled. He heads on to the master, a spacious room at the end of the hall. His hand is reaching for the louvered doors on a closet when a scuffle from under the bed has him swinging in that direction.

Aaron suppresses a sigh as a fluffy gray and white ball of fur crawls out and pants at him, bright eyes gleaming. Bitsy, Aaron guesses, as the dog scampers past him and down the hallway. Probably the gifter of the little present outside. He turns back toward the closet, only to be met by the sudden, jarring pain of the door slamming into his forehead. It's followed by a swift blow to his jaw, knocking him against the adjacent wall and to the floor.

He groans and blinks, trying to clear his vision as the man – Boudreau – scrambles to the nightstand. Aaron lifts his Glock at the same time the fugitive pulls the revolver from the nightstand drawer.

“FBI. Put down your weapon,” Aaron barks, still dizzy and squinting in his effort to focus. He recognizes Boudreau from his Schoen ID badge photo; tall and broad-shouldered, muscles thick from sculpting sheet metal. A three-inch scar stretches from below his right eye and down towards his jaw, puckered and angry.

“What? What did you say?” the man demands shakily, not pointing the weapon; not yet.

“What did you say to me, Margaret? What did you say?”

I said 'you've had enough.'”

“Put down the gun!” Aaron repeats, blinking sweat from his eyes and bracing his finger firmly against the trigger of his weapon

“Put the gun down, Charles.” Rossi. Gideon, just behind. Aaron senses them in his peripheral vision, weapons drawn and at the ready.

“Stop looking at me!” Boudreau anguishes, wild eyes darting between them, his head tucked against his chest as if he's the one expecting a beating.

“It's all over, Charles,” Rossi reassures the man. “We know what happened.”

Boudreau shakes his head. “You don't know anything!”

“You don't have to keep running. We know you didn't want to hurt those women,” Rossi tells him.

“Lynette…” It's half-plea, half-curse.

“She never supported you after the accident,” Rossi insists. “She drove you to this.”

Aaron's grip tightens on his weapon, and logically he realizes Rossi will say anything to talk an armed suspect down, but there's a small part of him that wonders if the man actually has come to believe his own bullshit.

Boudreau's actually trembling now. “She laughed when I asked if there was someone else. I'm not crazy,” he tells them desperately.

“Of course you're not,” Rossi says. “You're just some guy with shitty luck, trying to get his life back. But that's never going to happen if you don't drop that gun.”

The man seems to waver, and the weapon lowers a few inches. “I want to say goodbye to Bitsy,” he demands, glancing from agent to agent, as if anticipating furious argument.

Rossi nods. “You cooperate, and we'll do everything we can to make sure that happens.”

Boudreau considers, then carefully sets the gun on the floor. Rossi is on him in seconds, pinning him to the floor and cuffing him with practiced efficiency. Aaron slowly reholsters his gun, hears water running in the bathroom. Suddenly Gideon's crouched beside him, blotting at Aaron's head with a damp towel. The towel comes away red. Not sweat that Aaron had been blinking away, then. Blood.

“How are you doing?” Gideon asks kindly, a slight smile curving his mouth. “Hey, don't get up just yet,” he warns, even as Aaron attempts to push to his feet.

“I'm fine,” Aaron says, but acquiesces to the older agent's hand on his shoulder and sits back down. His head is pounding, although he doubts he has a concussion. He feels a flush warm his cheeks as Rossi heads downstairs with Boudreau; he can't believe he was distracted by a six-pound lap dog.

“Don't take orders very well,” Gideon comments, one warm hand clasping the back of Aaron's neck as he continues to examine whatever bump Aaron's going to have. Aaron tries not to tense under the easy comfort.

“I'm sorry,” he replies, deferring automatically to the senior agent.

“Why do I doubt that? Relax,” Gideon urges.

“I didn't think we were going to be able to take him alive,” Aaron finds himself admitting, as the sound of approaching sirens echoes from the neighboring streets.

“Didn't I tell you?” Gideon smirks. “Talking's what Dave does best.”

“Must be all the practice,” Aaron mutters, and Gideon sobers.

“You don't need a gun to kill someone out here; empathy is the most powerful weapon we have.”

Aaron reaches up and takes the towel, holding it himself as he glances up at Gideon. “You think Rossi really empathizes with Boudreau?”

Gideon's mouth twists wryly. “You ever go through a divorce, you can tell me.”

# # #

Aaron sits up in bed, case file strewn across the motel's worn comforter as his pen skates efficiently over his paperwork, reviewing every word before adding his signature at the bottom. He stares thoughtfully at the completed work, the neatly tied-up ends of tragically intersecting lives. Lamont's team found the victims' missing wedding rings under Boudreau's mattress; they'll be processed and returned to the victims' families so they can move on; however much that's possible.

“Mom, he's drunk again.”

“I know, Aaron. Just turn out the light and go to sleep; don't come downstairs.”

“I'm not going to stay up here and let him hit you.”

“You're going to do as I say.” She softens, her hand cool on his cheek. “This is the last time, honey; I promise.”

And it doesn't take long for the voices to drift upward, permeate the walls.

“What did you say to me, Margaret? What did you say?”

“I said 'you've had enough.'”

The crack of the blow echoes in the rafters of the house, and Aaron bites his lip hard enough to taste blood, warm and coppery on his tongue. That taste is still vivid at the next morning's breakfast table, while his mother hums as she slides bacon from the pan and onto Aaron's plate, seemingly oblivious to the bruise mottling her jaw. It's the last time Aaron sees a mark on her, the last time he ever sees his father drunk. Seven months later, Aaron's brother Sean is born, and they resume the life of a typical, upper-middle-class family. His father starts to joke again. They even seem happy, sometimes, and Aaron does his best to forgive.

But he never forgets.

Aaron gathers the pictures of Anne Suskind, Tracy Farrell, Cindy Cox, Celia Brooks… Pictures of the women before violence touched them, the ones with smiles Aaron hopes their families will remember now that Charles Boudreau is going away. Aaron arranges them carefully behind the case's other documentation, closes the file and returns it and the pen to the nightstand.

“Peace is not the absence of war, but the presence of justice...”

And this time when he switches off the lamp, Aaron falls into a sound, dreamless sleep.

# # #

For the second morning in a row the agents find the station in chaos. Phones are ringing and officers milling in groups as the EMTs navigate the crowd with a stretcher.

“What's happened now?” Gideon asks Henry, managing to catch the young officer by the arm as he rushes by.

Henry wipes his forehead with the back of his hand and shakes his head. “It's a complete clusterfuck, sir,” he exclaims, then glances at Gideon's dawning frown with wide eyes. “Pardon.”

“What's with the ambulance?” Rossi asks, jerking a thumb at the emergency vehicle idling by the entrance.

“Mertzer's pled guilty to obstruction of justice and planting evidence on a drug bust, and now the DA doesn't think we can make a case for Boudreau.”

“Son of a bitch,” Gideon mutters, as Rossi erupts with some words even Aaron hasn't heard before. “Where's Lamont?”

Henry winces. “Captain's collapsed; EMTs think it's a heart attack. Chief Svensen is in with your Unit Chief right now – I wouldn't go in there!” he shouts above the din, as Gideon pushes past him and through the crowd, heading toward Lamont's office.

It's then that Aaron catches sight of Mertzer, cuffed and in the middle of some animated conversation with what are destined to be his former colleagues. The man's expression and body language intimate confidence; there's not even a suggestion of remorse. With an unexpected surge of adrenaline, Aaron stalks over to the corrupt officer, grabbing two fistfuls of his dark blue uniform.

“You morally bankrupt piece of – do you know what you've done?” Aaron demands, his normally temperate voice harsh with fury as he gives the man a hard shake. “Do you?” Hands reach in between them, trying to separate Aaron from the object of his wrath, but Aaron hangs tight.

“I did what no one else had the balls to do,” Mertzer snaps. “I got a drug dealer put away!”

“And set a killer free!” Aaron shouts, suddenly releasing his white-knuckle grip on the man's shirt and shoving him backwards. An arm around Aaron's chest hauls him back, and Aaron glares at Mertzer before stumbling backward with his captor. Moments and several awkward steps later, Aaron's swung around and pushed into the familiar conference room. He spins to find Rossi slamming the door shut behind them.

“Don't do anything half-way, do you, kid?” Rossi asks, turning and regarding Aaron with what might be a glimmer of admiration in his appraising eyes.

“We have an obligation to uphold the law, and that bastard just pissed on any chance we had of a conviction,” Aaron fumes, flinging an arm in the direction of the squad room, where the commotion continues without them. “There's no way the DA will try this guy now!”

“Okay, enough,” Rossi tells him, holding up a hand, but Aaron's too frustrated to pay him any heed. He tries to angle around the older agent, wanting nothing more just now than to pound Mertzer's redneck face into the station's tile floor. Rossi moves with him, creating a barrier between Aaron and the door. “You said your piece, now stand down.”

“Boudreau beat four women to death, and Mertzer let him walk. He's an imbecile!” Aaron yells, hoping his voice will carry through the thick glass.

Rossi sighs. “Don't say I didn't warn you,” he says, his hand on Aaron's shoulder abruptly spinning Aaron around. Before Aaron can process the maneuver, his arm is yanked behind his back, and he's propelled forward and down, his chest thumping loudly against the conference room table.

“Damn it, Rossi,” Aaron growls, immediately moving to break the agent's hold. A stinging slap to the right side of Aaron's ass stills him immediately. He blinks in disbelief.

“Did you just - ”

“Yeah, I did, and if you keep it up, I'm gonna do it again,” Rossi assures him, and heat rushes to Aaron's face.

“I don't know how things are in your world, but where I come from, it's considered inappropriate and unprofessional to spank your colleagues,” Aaron snaps, discomfited by his vulnerable position. “You'll be lucky if I don't have you charged with assault.”

Rossi snorts from behind him. “Go ahead. Somehow I don't think you're going to want to advertise this.”

“Let me up, Rossi,” Aaron grits, hating the way his heart's started to hammer against his chest. He refuses to give the man the satisfaction of struggling.

“You're shaking,” Rossi notes, quieter now.

“I'm pissed,” Aaron contends, because the last thing he needs is for Rossi to start profiling him.

“Sure you are,” Rossi agrees. There's a measured silence, a blatant contrast to the uproar of the adjoining squad room. “You think you can control yourself?”

“Yes,” comes the strangled response. Aaron straightens the moment Rossi releases the grip on his arm, taking a step back from the older man, his breathing only slightly faster than it should be. Aaron spends a moment carefully smoothing his tie, straightening his suit. Rossi waits him out with an unanticipated patience.

“Why are you taking this so personally?” the other agent asks finally, appearing genuinely curious.

“You know why.”

Rossi studies him closely. “No.”

Is it possible for a living legend to be this dense? “We're supposed to stop him, not set him free to kill again,” Aaron replies grimly.

“The bad guy doesn't always go to jail; you know this. You did your part,” Rossi maintains firmly. “You've got to make a decision; are you here to catch them, or put them away? You can't do everything.”

“I could have shot him,” Aaron points out.

“Yeah, you could have,” Rossi returns, annoyance sharpening the New York accent. “Any one of us could have shot the bastard. You don't think I'd sleep better at night? But we don't shoot people unless we have to.”

“He'll do it again.” Aaron doesn't bother hiding his upset.

“Yeah, he probably will, and it's a damn shame,” Rossi concedes. “But that doesn't make it your fault. And unless you find a way to compartmentalize, you're always going to be looking over your shoulder.”

Aaron sighs heavily; when did Rossi start making sense, anyway? He glares through the window at Mertzer in the squad room. “Just give me one punch,” Aaron implores the man, his fingers aching to curl into fists.

Rossi chuffs. “Look, kid, I get it. But you're going to have to learn to control that temper.”

Aaron glances at the man with surprise. “This from you?”

“This, from me.” Rossi grins. “Those that can't do, teach. Besides, you'll find some things are best left to management,” he drawls, canting his head toward the squad room.

Aaron's brows draw together. “What are you talking about?” He takes a look out the window, just in time to see Unit Chief Ryan launch a right hook at Mertzer. “Did Ryan just punch that guy?” he asks incredulously.

Rossi smirks. “Oh, yeah.” Then, “By the way, kid, the answer is no.”

Aaron takes one last, satisfying look at Mertzer holding his face before turning back to his fellow agent. “No, what?” he asks, confused by the turn of conversation.

“No, I don't think victims of domestic violence are weak,” Rossi replies, with a rueful twist of his mouth. “My mother's youngest sister, my Aunt Lucia, she's only a few months older than me. Beautiful girl. Married the wrong guy,” Rossi laments with a shake of his head. “He starts drinking, smacking her around, so one day she finally decides that's it, she's done, and she packs up the kids and sends them over to our cousin's. Unfortunately, the asshole comes home early. Blackens her eye, breaks her arm in three places and cracks two of her ribs. And never,” Rossi stresses, “never did that woman tell him where those kids were.”

“What happened?” Aaron asks, subdued by the other man's unexpected candor.

“Lucy's married to a plumber in Hoboken; her and the kids are happy as can be.”

“And her husband?”

Rossi shrugs innocently. “Heard he decided to leave the country.”

“Had a sudden desire to travel?” Aaron asks dryly, a faint smile tugging at his lips.

“Let's just say he was inspired.” Rossi regards him with something akin to fondness. “Look, no one gets through life without accumulating a few scars. Guys like Boudreau let their scars define them; guys like us, use them.”

Aaron glances toward the squad room again. “You think Ryan's going to be mad?”

“Won't be a bit left of this ass when he's done chewing it,” Rossi announces cheerfully, opening the door to find Gideon with his fist poised to knock.

“We're going,” Gideon says, frowning as he glances in Aaron's direction. “I wouldn't make Max wait.”

“You're sitting next to him on the plane,” Rossi warns, walking ahead and leaving Aaron and Gideon to follow behind. The local officers stand back to let them pass, with no small amount of grumbling given the recent melee.

“That kid has a real attitude problem,” Mertzer's partner asserts, stepping forward with a scowl for Aaron. The officer's eyes widen when Rossi turns and advances, deliberately crowding his space.

“Hey! This is our colleague; you don't call him 'kid',” Rossi instructs tersely. “You refer to him as Supervisory Special Agent Hotchner of the FBI, one of the people who came down here to help save your ass, you got that?”

The officer doesn't back away, but his stare is wary. “Yeah, I got it.”

Satisfied, Rossi continues on toward the front of the building, Gideon addressing the onlookers without a glance.

“What he said,” the senior agent concurs, a hint of smugness to his tone.

“C'mon, kid,” Rossi says to Aaron, as he opens the doors into the bright sunlight. “Let's go home.”

# # #

“Having fun?”

Aaron turns to Gideon, secretly amused to find the man still evading a tie, even at his superior's retirement banquet. The senior agent's wearing the only corduroy sportscoat in a hall of suits, entirely unfazed by the evening's ceremony.

“Are you?” Aaron has to ask.

Gideon shrugs. “No,” he replies blandly. “I just can't resist a nice canapé.”

Aaron hides his smile in his chardonnay, swirling it slowly as they stand and watch the mingling guests. Rossi is working the other side of the room, gesturing dramatically to an avid audience as he recounts one event or another.

“You did good work, you know,” Gideon says after a minute. “In Alabama.”

“Thank you.” Aaron wishes he could take more pleasure in the praise.

Gideon offers him a sideways glance. “Local LEOs have Boudreau under surveillance; he'll serve time eventually.”

“But will he serve enough?” Aaron muses, the victims' faces still etched in his memory.

Gideon spreads his open hands in vague sympathy. “What's enough?” he asks, causing Aaron to frown. Gideon merely raises his brows before reaching quickly and snatching an hors d'oeuvre from a passing tray. The older man briefly closes his eyes. “Mmm, foie gras,” he reports, apparently impressed. He smiles enigmatically, clapping Aaron on the shoulder as he moves to return to the crowd of federal employees.

Aaron stares after him. “A legend in his own time,” he murmurs. And he's not the only one. Aaron recognizes the guest of honor, Max Ryan, excusing himself from a nearby cluster of Feds with his jacket folded over one arm. It feels like an opportune moment to pay his respects. Aaron sets his glass down on a nearby table and steps forward, extending his hand.

“Congratulations, sir,” Aaron says sincerely, as he and Ryan shake hands. “I know we didn't work together long, but I've considered it a privilege.”

Ryan snorts, blue eyes bright with both humor and alcohol. “A sure sign we didn't work together long,” he drawls.

Aaron ignores the possible truth of that statement. “I just wanted to say how much I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to prove myself here at the BAU.”

The retiree scoffs, unfolding the suit jacket from his arm. “I didn't give you anything.”

“Of course.” Aaron pauses, flustered. “I didn't mean to imply - ”

“I wasn't the one who recruited you.”

What? Aaron's brow furrows. “You weren't?”

“I'm not going to have to work with you. Any of you,” Ryan asserts gleefully, shrugging into his jacket again.

“Then - ”

“Dave's the one that had to have you,” Ryan says, straightening his cuffs. “Tried to talk him out of it, get him to take one of the guys from counterterrorism or ATF, but he insisted you had natural aptitude. And if Jason was willing to go along with it…”

“But - they don't even know my name,” Aaron says, glancing over to Rossi and catching the other agent's eye. Rossi winks and holds up a finger, indicating he's finishing his conversation with the redhead from HR.

Ryan shakes his head. “You got a lot to learn, Hutch.”

“Hotch,” Aaron corrects automatically, still distracted by the new information.

The older man chuckles. “Never gets old,” he says, loosening his tie as he heads for the hall's double doors.

# # #

“Hey, hell of a night, huh?” Rossi asks, finally joining Aaron at the edge of the celebration. “Did you get a load of that Susan? Why don't we have anything like that down in the basement?”

“Maybe because the Bureau doesn't want a sexual harassment lawsuit on their hands?” Aaron suggests wryly.

Rossi mockingly covers his heart with his hand. “You wound me, kid.”

Aaron rolls his eyes. “My name's not kid,” he reminds the other man, and Rossi grins, unrepentant.

They stand there in companionable silence, watching their colleagues laugh and converse, and for the first time Aaron feels himself start to relax. And maybe he could ask Rossi if he was really the one to recruit him, or ask how long Gideon's known Aaron's name isn't 'Hutch.' But just now the questions don't seem very important.

They're profilers, after all.

Sooner or later, the answers will come.

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