Warnings: child abuse, bible nonsense, I'm pretty sacrilege but like really it's just a funny word I'm only half sure of the meaning, and self-harm
Word count: 6 or 7,000? No pairings. All of them die single.
Here's the bible shit you need to know only because Hotch knows: In Genesis, Cain killed his brother Abel. Also In Genesis, Abraham's faith was tested by God telling him to take his only son, Issac, to the top of a mountain and offer him as a sacrifice. He is stopped before he delivers the killing strike and a goat is offered in Issac's place. In Exodus, Moses saw a flaming bush and God instructed him to get the Israelites out of Egypt.
Now to the main show:
He goes to sleep with his window shut.
Dreams of the branches of the willow in the backyard creeping into his room. Long branches wrapped around his throat. A noose. He’s seen pictures in his history books. Black and white pictures of limp bodies. How bad would it really hurt? Worse than broken ribs? Worse than a fractured skull? He’s passed out before, a hand around his throat and another slamming into his stalled chest. That hurt. But suicide is a sin. The preacher on Sunday mornings, voice cracking through the mountain fog, looks right at Aaron as he breathes these words. It’s the worst sin. To kill the gift of life that God has so tenderly breathed into your lungs. Aaron looks away. He’s angry enough, scorned enough, not to care.
He wakes up and his window is open, leaves scattered on his carpet.
His mother tells him this too shall pass, holds his hand, and reads from the bible. She thinks that this is a trial, smiles, and tells him his father is just battling the devil. Aaron looks away from her, lets her hold his cold, thin wrist but refuses to sit with her. God is her comfort but not Aaron’s. If the devil is who his father battles, Aaron can’t imagine how small God must be. The devil is a bottle. So who is God?
Whiskey. The devil is whiskey, hellfire scorching Aaron’s face as his father holds him still. “Smartass,” his father jeers, thick fingers sunk into Aaron’s bottom jaw. “You never know when to shut the hell up, do you?” Aaron’s mouth hurts, his jaw grinding under the grip his father has on it. His lips are bleeding, split by the fat class ring on his father’s index finger. His blood is smeared on his cheek, dripping onto his nice shirt. Held still by his father’s crushing grip, looking into his wild, angry eyes only inches away from his own, Aaron survives by withdrawing. He sees nothing and feels nothing. Thinks about the willow in the backyard. He wouldn’t even need a rope. The branches are so thick– He’s shaken back to cognition, reflexively pulling back as his father’s face gets closer. “Are you listening to me, you little bastard?”
The fingers loosen just a fraction, he’s moving his other hand back to slap him, but Aaron sees it coming. He wrenches his face free, feels the sting of the slap, but runs. Throws the screen door open and runs. Doesn’t look back. Can’t look back.
“Come back here you stupid little prick!”
The woods welcome him. He is their child. His blood has spilled onto their foliage. He has laid in their safety. It is their life that has maintained his.
He stole a knife from the Brookes’ County Store, the owner the father of a girl he goes to school with. He’s a nice old man but Aaron doesn’t trust him. No matter how softly he speaks. Aaron’s not stupid. He’s not certain Roy Brookes would hurt him but he knows what happens when you trust adults. Two summers ago, Johnny Raylan was found drowned in the river. Lured there by his neighbor. A man he trusted, a man who loved him. Roy Brookes doesn’t even care about Aaron, so no, he doesn’t trust the man.
He stole a knife just because he knew Roy wouldn’t say anything and that made him feel big, powerful. Untouchable.
Mockingly, he carved into the bark of the oak in the middle of the woods. Taking out his pain and fear on old wood. Where no one would find his sacrilegious offense, he left “These trials will show your faith.” Aaron finds it easily and knows where to go. The woods are his home, these trees are just hallways. He comes to stand at the base of the oak tree, panting from his run. He presses his fingers into the jagged letters, feeling where the wood raises. From his back pocket, he pulls out his knife. He thumbs the blade experimentally. He sinks it into the tree, satisfied by the resistance but craving more. The knife shimmers in the sunlight, a wicked idea crosses his mind. How terribly fucked, he imagines, he must be to think such a thing. To hurt himself because he’s being hurt. How terribly unforgivable and immoral… He craves it nonetheless.
His blades are one thing, sterile and thin. Pinched perfectly between his own fingers, the depth and length determined by him.
He presses the blade into his skin, the same way he would with a razor. He punctures the skin, grunting at the hot pain that lances up his arm. This is so different. It bleeds more. More than cutting and more than he’s expecting. He presses his wrist to the tree and guides the blood into the words. Forces his blood to take to the words. It looks written in his blood.
A blood sacrifice.
A painter does not put brush to canvas without a reference, without some idea of what comes next in the process. And for that reason, Hotch could never imagine fatherhood. How do you raise a child as a man raised by his own hand? And as the living proof of his own handiwork, at his own success at raising a child, Hotch could not suggest that other people leave their children in his care. His well of understanding on how to raise a child was not just barren, it was dry. There had never once been water to pull from his well. He’d never seen successful, kind fatherhood. He had never felt it. So how could he do it? How could he be expected to love and care for a child when he had never known it himself? When he had never been able to show even himself that same kind of gentleness.
Jack’s head rests on Hotch’s pillow. His hair is thin still, a youthful straw yellow he’ll grow out of before too soon and Hotch will miss just how young blond hair made Jack look. His little face is still pink with agitation but his breathing calmed. He’d woken up sobbing, as he often does these days. He’s too young still to understand exactly why Hotch can’t just go get Mommy, why she won’t come back no matter how much either of them cry or agree it would be better if she were here.
It’s soothing to watch Jack sleep.
His morning breath smells like pure rot but he’s terribly adorable taking up all of the bed with all of the three feet of his body. Hotch’s on the edge of the mattress, sleeping on his side – Jack’s razor-sharp elbows and harsh kicks having driven him to there. And as fit full as his own sleep had been, he smiles as Jack slowly works at waking up. He yawns and Hotch grimaces at the face full of his son’s morning breath. Hotch makes him brush his teeth every day but there is just something about the breath of little kids…
Jack is disjointed, moving his shoulders and hips in a way that would certainly cause Hotch’s to lock up painfully. Jack tries to stand up and Hotch smirks at the state of him. His little wisps of hair stick up in every direction but he smiles happily. “Morning!” Jack dizzily falls back down on the bed, aiming and landing right on Hotch’s side. Hotch grunts at the impact, sharp elbows meeting his ribs unforgivingly. “I’m hungry.”
“Morning,” Hotch kisses his forehead, soaking in the unexpected way Jack crawls up to him. “Did you sleep alright?” Jack lays down on his chest, yawning and nodding as a reply. “You ready to get up?” Hotch rubs his back, not surprised to find Jack’s back and hair slick with sleepy sweat. The kid sweats more than anyone else he knows. Jack shakes his head. Hotch hums, he’s not ready to get up yet either. The day holds so much to do and taking a shower and shaving does not hold up to sleepy cuddles. Neither does the meeting he has with Strauss at three this evening.
But they can only put off getting ready for the day for so long.
Jack sleeps while he showers, rolling over to claim the warm part of the mattress Hotch had been laying in. Hoarding the one part of the bed he hadn’t taken over earlier in his sleep. By the time Hotch is out of the shower, working a towel through his hair quickly and trying to get a shirt on while Jack’s frantic knocking begins to be accompanied by a loud, Daddy hurry! I’m gonna pee myself! The carpet is spared an accident and Jack scowls at him from the toilet seat. He’d much rather stand to pee but in the rush, Hotch had embarrassed him by just stripping him naked himself and plopping him down on the seat rather than watch Jack piss himself trying to get out of a pair of footie pajamas. It’s happened more than once. A pouty four-year-old is better than one standing in a puddle of his own urine, sobbing uncontrollably over an accident.
Jack recovers from his humiliation and is happy to be allowed to sit on the edge of the sink and watch Hotch shave. Yawning sleepily as he walks his fingers over his father’s ribs and up to his sternum. All until he falls forward and just lets Hotch hold him upright, little feet kicking off the counter.
Brushing his teeth is like torture. Jack can not brush them well enough to avoid cavities on his own so Hotch has to double back and Jack hates it. “If you let me brush your teeth,” Hotch barters, moving Jack’s toothbrush back so he can’t grab it, “I’ll let you brush my teeth.”
Jack squints skeptically at Hotch for a moment but that’s too good of an offer to refuse. “K.”
True to his word, Hotch does allow Jack to brush his teeth and he’s very rough on the gums. But Hotch smiles and tells him that he did such a good job anyway.
He has his morning cup of coffee and two or three spoonfuls of soggy cheerios. Jack eats all of his cereal soggy, a side-effect of not yet mastering the motor control it takes to wield a spoon. Most foods he eats end up all over him. They’re working on it. In the meantime, Hotch is force-fed bits of soggy cereal every morning. Bites he has to take because he’s pretty certain if he rejects his terribly adorable son’s offer he’s an awful father. And he does enough stupid shit throughout the day to be a bad dad, he needs the easy breaks where he can get them.
Unfortunately, he really fucking hates soggy cereal.
He has two more cups of coffee before he leaves the house and he realizes then that he is fighting a very unwinnable battle.
He hasn’t been sleeping well.
Or, at all.
The couch in his office was a gift from Dave in ‘98 when he got promoted. It was a complicated gift – Dave was retiring, leaving, and giving Hotch that shitty old couch felt like blood money. Not that Dave really cared, he just didn’t want to figure out how to get that couch out of the building or to pay for a U-Haul. And who better to pawn it off onto than Hotch? In the three years that the couch sat in Dave’s office, only Hotch had ever liked that ratty old thing. The cushions are thin and the fabric is very rough. Jason would rather stand through hour-long meetings than sit on it – springs digging into his ass and back were not as bad as just standing uncomfortably.
The first concussion Hotch got on the job he slept off on that couch, curled up like a baby, and almost unwilling to get up once Haley got there. It had taken Dave and Jason to get him back up off the couch – the only reason he left the safety of the shitty couch was with the promise of a peanut butter & jelly sandwich. The only person who ever liked that couch was Hotch but Dave was almost surprised to find Hotch had kept that old piece of junk for so long but then again, not really. Then again, Hotch was still packing PB&Js for lunch so nothing really changes.
That couch is every bit of twenty years old, it’s only redeemable quality is simply that Hotch loves it. The cushions are thin and the only way he can sleep on it is on his back but that couch does what nothing else can. He takes sleeping pills and he ends up having nightmares – sleep is futile to the body if it never has the chance to relax. And the nightmares are night terrors, dreams so intense he wakes up soaked in sweat. He takes sleeping pills and then sits up for four hours in the middle of the night waiting for anxiety medications to bring him down from whatever anxiety attack he manages to work himself into.
Penelope buys him tea and the only person that seems to work on is Jack. The smell of organic Chamomile tea steeping, even just the sound of water boiling, has Jack yawning and rubbing at his eyes. Penelope says honey will help the taste and dutifully, Hotch stirs a little into his mug, but he’s not sleeping.
Except for one that shitty old couch.
It’s not at a point where people are noticing, people being Emily, but someone’s noticing and that’s never any good. She doesn’t say anything to him or any of the others about it because when it comes to dealing with Hotch making public observations about him doesn’t blow over well. Noticing him is always a bad thing but it’s better to notice in private.
“Why aren’t you sleeping?”
Hotch sits up slowly, palms pressed into his eye sockets as he tries to encourage his brain to work. “I was,” he offers matter-of-factly. For someone else he might sit up, fake being more attentive and awake. Get right to business and distract from his just sleeping hair sticking up in every direction. But Emily’s seen him worse. Besides, she’s got her arms crossed over her chest and giving him this look that he knows is going to annoy him. He has no choice but to entertain it.
She’s sitting on the coffee table, her knees against his. She’s cornered him. “You’re being weird.”
He uses the side of the couch to stand, old knees protesting the deep movement. “I do believe that calling people names is rude.” His left leg is asleep and he limps to his desk, rubbing at his eyes as he moves blindly around his office. He knows exactly where everything is just as he knows Emily is watching his every movement.
Emily clicks her tongue, pleased that he’s still groggy from his nap. Enough to loosen his tongue, to give her what she wants. “Now you’re deflecting.” She has no questions to ask. If she should be worried, he’d tell her. If something were wrong, he’d tell her. They’ve worked hard at this trust, given up too much to suddenly start pulling back.
She caves, she doesn’t want to but he sits down at his desk and puts his head in his hands. He needs to drink more water and eat something. She brought him a muffin from downstairs, a little plastic-wrapped situation. Blueberry. Normally, she brings him the chocolate chip muffins because those are the ones she likes and he never finishes one on his own. So he’ll always give her half, it’s a win-win. They’re giant muffins, really. But he is acting weird. So she feels bad and he knows it. “Here,” she throws the muffin at him and he reads the vulnerability in her kindness easily. “Eat something.”
She got him the muffin he prefers.
She shrugs it off and makes a face at him that says more than she’s willing. A warning not to make this a weird thing and a careful avoidance of his eye contact, a clarification that he does matter to her. That his well-being is something she considers and cares about. “Eat it, JJ wants us at the round table. Got a case.”
He frowns, JJ didn’t say anything to him. “Where?”
Barefoot two a.m. runs down the road, tearing off in one direction for as long as his legs would carry him. Hoping, praying, that his father would be too drunk to be able to find him. Seeing headlights coming up behind him and bracing for the impact.
Squeezing between his mattress and the floor when the yelling got too much, hoping if he made himself scarce he’d suddenly be forgotten. Drunk hands swiping at him, trying to grab at an ankle or a wrist and pull him out. Coming into his room the next day to find his bedframe gone, his mattress on the floor.
The clawfoot tub in the bathroom, being held under the water by a strong grip on his hair. He could never do anything right. His fear of water was born one summer afternoon, the lawn hadn’t been mowed the right way, and his t-shirt was too dirty at the dinner table. He couldn’t breathe, didn’t think he ever would after that.
One short invaluable life measured out in quick, thundering heartbeats not certain things wouldn’t end right here. His head underwater. Headlights casting the shadow of his long skinny legs up the road.
“Hotch?” Emily is still standing in his office, watching him just pause – this vacant, horrified look in his eyes.
He clears his throat and lowers his eyes to his desk like he’s looking for something. “I’ll – I’ll be out in a second.” He opens the muffin but only to make her think he has any intention of eating it. He doesn’t.
In terms of relativity, is a big enough place. Logically, the odds are on his side that they run into no one that he knows. But he knows better than to hope that luck is aligned with that logistic.
JJ hands him the file and he opens it, holding his breath as his eyes scan the page. And, of course, he’s wrong. JJ doesn’t need prompting to start so with him standing she begins the case outline.
Abraham Boseman, thirty-four, was found in the woods at the base of an old dying oak tree. Laid out on a firewood prye, throat slit.
Under the table, Emily kicks his foot. Hard. No one else notices, Derek keeps on his worried path arguing with Dave about sacrilege. Reid is trying very hard to patiently wait them out. Lips pressed together to glue them shut and his entire body bounced with his leg.
“It looks like a sacrifice.”
Hotch can’t tear his eyes away from the pictures.
“What’s that written on the tree?”
The tree. He can’t think. The tree? He looks up and watches Emily flip to pictures forward. He does the same. The tree.
Solemnly, Derek reads, “these trails will show your faith.” His voice is steady and even, the opposite of Hotch’s beat skipping thundering heart. He can’t help but look up, search Derek’s face for some reaction to the thing that he is seeing. But Derek gives nothing. He just sighs and shakes his head. “Look at that tree, the coloration of the wood, the words?” He points the tip of his pen up at the board, “it’s dark. Aged. That was written there… years ago.” He shakes his head and looks back down at the photos in front of him. “So, either he chose these woods, this tree… or we’re missing years worth of bodies.”
Hotch wonders if they can see the pulse he can feel in his face.
Dave scoffs, “we don’t know that. Something like this?” They all look back at the photo, Hotch stares forward. “It upsets people. Southern, old people don’t sit well with sacrilege. They’d have called it in if there were more bodies or, at least, called in a priest.” Like an exterminator. Leave some traps to drag the pests out.
JJ sighs, “I meant, where’s the quote from?”
Spencer raises his hand, fingers poised in that thoughtful way he does as he thinks. “It’s 1st Peter, These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world.”
Derek grunts, “so this is a sacrifice? For who, God? Kind of… grotesque.”
Spencer shakes his head, “no not really. Biblically, sacrifices are very common. From the Israelites, God asked for a ram. From Abraham, his son Jacob”. From Aaron–” Spencer’s eyes move involuntarily to Hotch “–Mose’s brother, a bull.”
Derek frowns, rolling his eyes, “animals are a totally different thing.”
Aaron clears his throat, his head throbbing as the attention in the room spins back to him. He feels immediately light-headed. “I think Dave’s right,” he knows, “but we won’t know for certain until we get to the scene.” It’s meant to be demissive, the sound of closing files following him out. They don’t but he’s also not going to stop for the meandering conversations that they’ll have once he’s gone. His residual presence in the room will make things awkward, they’re less open when he’s around. After all, he’s the boss, not their friend.
Emily noticed his unnoticeable dissociation. The way his eyes never left the photos JJ paperclipped to the file. She follows him out of the room, accusing his back, “you’re still being weird.”
Hotch keeps on his path and ignores the Emily that apparates at his heels. He does leave the door open when he steps into his office and lets her take the time to close it behind them. He tosses the file on the desk, and lets it thud punctuate his sentence. Gives things a theatric pause. “Do we need to talk about the hostile work environment you’re causing?” He leans back onto his desk, arms crossed. There is no malice in his tone. He collected coins as a child. Endured torture at home and in class. Weird is on the list but it’s not that harsh or even creative.
Narrowing her eyes, Emily crosses her own arms. “See?” She nods her chin at him, “now you’re being defensive.”
He opens his mouth nearly immediately but closes it and that’s nearly the same thing as answering her. At least this way he doesn’t arm her with words. Pushing himself off the desk he rounds the other side, puts the desk between them. Keeps being defensive. “Is there something I can do for you, Prentiss?”
She frowns at him, calculating the response she’ll get from anything that isn’t her departure. He’ll kick her out, he’s done it before. “Yeah,” she decides. “I gave you the muffin to eat.” She turns back to the door, “so eat it, you get real… moody when you’re blood sugar is low.”
“It’s not–” he shuts his mouth. He hates the way that she gets under his skin, and bothers him like no one else can. “Tell the others we’re heading out in thirty. I just need to call transport, get enough SUVs.” He smiles politely, already thinking about how he’ll send her in the same SUV as Penelope and Spencer. Payback.
It’s mocking and he knows it.
It’s a forty-five-minute drive which is, truthfully, one of the more tame adventures they’ve endured in cramped SUVs. Not that Emily will forgive Hotch anytime soon for making her go with Derek, Penelope, and Spencer for it. Her head pulses to the beat of the song Derek and Penelope happily sing over, not even the wind from her downed window relieves the pressure. He’s a bastard and she stares at the SUV in front of them, trying to stare a hole into the tires. She wants him to have to change one on the side of the road. The sweltering sun beating down on his suit-clad shoulders. Make him get a weird pain in his back. Dirt all over his hands. He’s a rat bastard and she hates him.
They’re greeted into the city of Winchester by an old wooden sign, rustic in an authentic, rotting in the ground kind of way. Derek cringes. Small towns are the worst cases to work.
Immediately, something is off. The Sheriff is a little too stiff as he shakes JJ’s hand. But Emily can’t figure out why. She narrows down the oddities to age – no one younger than thirty eyes them oldy. The woman who works the front desk frowns at them and not even Dave’s nasty way of flirting with her eases that tight frown. It’s weird, Dave’s charming. It’s also nasty but he’s very good at it.
Leaning close to JJ, the only trustable person on this team, Emily asks, “Is it me or…” Emily frowns, “they’re acting weird.” All of the officers. It started with one or two, no reason she could wrap her head around. They don’t typically like having the team around but the reactions are… different. Too much whispering and side-eyes. Not the side-eye JJ gets or the kind Spencer gets.
JJ looks up from her work, because she’s doing work and not gossiping like Emily, and frowns. She looks over her shoulder, around the room, and then back to them. “I guess,” she shrugs. “Why?”
Emily sits down, shaking her head. “Hotch.” JJ frowns. “They haven’t even noticed Reid, you notice that? Everyone notices Reid. And Garcia? Same thing. Hotch asks for something, they get weird.” She taps her finger, thinking. “Nobody does that to Hotch.” He’s big. Not broad but long. Mean too. And angry looking. Hotch asks for something and people do it. Not here.
It started with the Sheriff, the old man’s face falling as quickly as Hotch’s had twisted into something unrecognizable. Something akin to fear or… at least recognition. Then a few of the older officers. They looked angry.
JJ shrugs, “people are weird.”
“Always,” Emily frowns. She leaves, suddenly, no warning.
JJ doesn’t bother overthinking that comment or even wonder what the hell that’s supposed to mean. She has no particular interest in paying them any more mind than she has to. Places like this create a certain type of man. Those who eye her as she walks past because they don’t care to be seen watching. That’s exactly why Hotch asks her to go out to visit the victim’s family with him. He doesn't want to stay at the station any longer and he suspects JJ will have far less to say about everything than anyone else.
Her silence is valued and then it’s corrupting. She doesn’t play music in the car and he has entirely too much time to think.
His house of horrors was framed by woods on three sides, the front opening to a driveway connected to the end of a dirt road. As a boy, he’d rest his head on the fence in the backyard gazing out into the trees and imagining the life within them. His mother forbade this after one night he told her a story, one he’d come up with all on his own, about a deer with human teeth standing on the edge of the property. It stood on its hind legs and waved. He was, from then on, no longer allowed anywhere but the front yard. Which he thought peculiar given the front yard was where his story took place. His mother smoothed this over by making sure he understood to never tell that story again. His little head just got away from him sometimes, she said. He was a gifted storyteller with an overactive imagination.
Though, typically, overactive imagination is what she called rehearsing his lies with him. Dotting fleshy color back into reddened, painful skin. Her fingers were gentle where his father’s had been rough the night before. “How’d you hit your head, sweetheart?” And with crooked teeth, he’d smile, “fell off my bunk bed!”
He wasn’t sure he’d actually seen a deer do what he told his mother he’d seen it do until that very moment. This was the line between fiction and truth – his overactive imagination.
He never really wanted to play in the backyard after that anyway.
Not to say he’s scared of the woods. He’s a grown man, faced real demons in the daylight, not ones living under his bed and waving at him from the edge of the woods. But that’s not to say he can’t feel a cold sweat breaking out underneath his shirt as JJ drives them down winding backroads of another Virginia county he wishes to not recall the name of in a month. It makes him nauseous as well, hills upon hills and forever winding roads. It has nothing to do with the trees. Nothing to do with Spencer’s sudden interest in folklore or the older man who Derek questioned who smelt exactly like honeysuckles and moonshine. It’s the road. Long and winding.
“You’ve been awfully quiet,” JJ says, blinker keeping track of the pause that follows her comment. She looks down both sides of the road and turns left. The blinker stops with a click. He says nothing. She glances over at him again. Quiet is the polite way to put it. He let her drive. Aaron Hotchner doesn’t let anyone drive. He’s been acting oddly. Paranoid in the exact same way Spencer is – looking over his shoulder and sitting with his back to the wall. She thought he might just be ill. Hotch wears ailments like relapses in his PTSD. As if the flu brings George Foyet back to life and once again they are in an active manhunt. But she’s fairly certain he’s not sick.
JJ doesn’t want to test her luck, she’s planning on bragging to the others that he let her drive and it’s really salt in the wound if she gets to drive back to the precinct too. But she also just can’t let this go. “You grew up in the area, right?” she glances over at him. Finds a storm cloud in her passenger seat. Quickly, to throw the blame, she adds, “Emily said something about it.”
Head turned towards the window, he hides the eye roll he can’t really help.
Both Derek and Emily have said something about it to him. No sooner than he could pull his hand out of the Sheriff’s, offering the man a small, tight nod, as they walked side-by-side the Sheriff’s attention going anywhere but Hotch. Which is never the standard. Sheriffs usually like to talk to Hotch, not because they like him but just because he’s the easily identified guy in charge. This Sheriff goes to Derek. Even less normal.
Derek knew. Emily was only just starting to work it out. He might not know the name of the street Aaron grew up on or which backroad would take you there but he knew the county name and that look on Hotch’s face. The same one Sean gets when he’s had too many drinks and heads down a road Derek wishes he wouldn’t.
Seatbelts unbuckling, the rest of their car ride spent in complete silence, Hotch pauses a moment before opening his door. JJ sees his contemplation and waits. After a moment he offers, “I grew up a few miles from here. On the other side of those woods.” Then he opens his door and leaves the conversation. That’s all he’s willing to say on this matter.
JJ doesn’t look in the direction he vaguely nodded to until they’re walking towards the house. He grew up in a home, that much she knows for sure, but Hotch’s history is a patchwork of half-truths. This one she’s inclined to believe but she looks into those woods and can not imagine a boy. Knowing Jack, and loving him to pieces, she knows he’s entirely woven from Haley. JJ could never imagine such wide smiles coming from Hotch, such unashamed laughter. It’s heartbreaking.
Normally, Hotch would send Derek or Emily out to do this sort of work. He is better at it and yields better results faster but he’s usually preoccupied with sheriffs and deputies. Here those people would prefer he stay very far away from them and he couldn’t be happier to oblige. He leaves them to Dave and prays the older man doesn’t say too much.
They’re visiting a widow, the victim’s mother. She’s in her eighties, a very typical southern mother. It’s easy and Hotch is comforted by the idea of it. He plays fully into his southern charm, slipping into an accent occasionally guided by the older woman sitting across from them. “And your other son–?”
“Abel,” the old woman gushes. “Abraham, Abel, and Abigail.” She sips at her sweet tea, her smile never fading. “Two sons and a daughter and I couldn’t be happier. They make me very proud to be their mother.”
JJ smiles back, “three As, that’s impressive.” She’d never understood why parents are inclined to pick one letter of the alphabet and name all their children by its guide.
Without looking away from the fireplace Hotch adds, “Abel the good shepherd, Abraham the obedient, and Abigail cause of joy.” The old woman smiles and Hotch looks away. Gideon had called him a divining rod, the kindest way to say traumatized. Adapted. He always knew which family members would be helpful when investigating. Which fathers would curl their lips when questioned and which mothers would weep, would come undone and spell out generations of just the way things are done. Always knew just what to say.
Once she’s done giggling, prideful of his knowledge, the old woman asks, “you said your name was Agent Hotchner? You any kin to the Hotchner’s over thataway?”
Hotch steadies his attention and keeps his eyes on the older woman so he won’t glance at JJ. “No,” he lies, smoothly. Smiles too wide. Too much. Too forced. “I’m afraid it’s a very common last name where I’m from. More Northern.” He glances at JJ, shying from her gaze. His eyes aimed back at the creaking floorboards below.
The old woman shakes her head, “I’ll be damned if you don’t look exactly like that family, though. Could fit right in. Exactly like the daddy of that bunch, spitting image.” She shakes her head and turns to JJ. “Meaner than a snake, that ol’ bastard. ‘Bout beat the skin off his oldest more than once. Why if I had–”
Hotch clears his throat, and suddenly his collar is too tight. “Sorry,” he apologizes immediately. Old habits die hard. Sorry was the first word he ever learned. “Did your boys know them?” He already knows the answers. Against his better judgment, despite everything he knows, he takes a sip of the sweet tea she poured him. Tries to wet his mouth. “You said that – You’ve been in the area for a while. Could they be involved?”
He obviously knows the answer. Her sons are younger than Sean and no one knew anything more about Sean in this town than they did about him. The entire town decided the Hotchner boys were the only things to fear in those woods. Drugs and alcohol and screams. Besides, no one lives in that old house anymore.
“No, no,” the old woman says, decisively. Without a shred of doubt, he doesn’t ask for further proof. Doesn’t need to. “Them boys… I couldn’t tell you what they’re up to. Likely prison.” She shakes her head, looks at JJ again. They share a kinship of motherhood and she suspects JJ will agree with her. As if one of those boys isn’t staring a hole into the floor beneath their feet, avoiding her eye contact.
Prison makes the skin on Hotch’s arms stand. He thinks of Sean.
The bails he’s paid off.
The law he’s practiced long after his license expired.
The rehab stays.
“Neither one of them was worth a damn.” The old woman looks remorseful, shakes her head. “Not that their daddy ever let ‘em have the chance.” She looks off to the side, wistful. Imagines the thin, inky black-haired boy standing at the edge of her property. Picking blackberries tell his fingers bled with the juice.
Hotch takes another drink from his sweet tea and sits it down with an air of finality, a southern sort of dismissal. “Thank you,” he manages, “your hospitality has been welcoming but Agent Jareau and I really should get back to the station.” He extends JJ the same smile, never reaching his eyes, “JJ can leave you with a card to contact us.”
Aaron would be the final puzzle piece. His business card would be the damning piece of evidence and that’s a distracting conversation to have. It would destroy the relationship they’ve just built. She’d known in an instant. He is that little Hotchner boy, not worth a damn.
The air is not nearly that humid but it stirs his vision dangerously the second they step out onto the porch. JJ is right behind him, having another goodbye, so she doesn’t see his miss-step. She doesn’t see the man standing in the woods either.
“Who is that?”
The old woman said her oldest son had moved out of the county two years ago and started a family. Her daughter had done the same. The only kids who stay here are caught, if you know what’s good for you, you leave so Hotch hadn’t considered she’d lie.
Shotgun pellets. His side stings.
“Go!” JJ has the old woman pinned to the house’s wall. “Go! I’ve got this!”
Abel and Cain. Guess he should have seen that one coming. A biblical retelling. All the wrong characters, the story jumbled. Close but not right.
It suddenly makes too much sense. Hotch wonders what they’d find in Abel’s house. He’d only heard stories, awful, crass retellings of the sort of things recovered in the bedrooms of men and women in fitful delusions. Mostly, he just gets twisted up. Abel killed Abraham. Dave will eat this up, it’s perfect book material. The twisted biblical stories. Not right but intricate and interesting.
Another shot is fired, this one aimed at his head. He falls down in the driveway, scrapes his knees up but doesn’t get shot. “Abel!” he shouts, following the back of the man in front of him. The bushes at the mouth of the woods have been beaten into a path of sorts, thistles pushed aside. They reach for his pants, tear at his clothing. “FBI! Abel, you need to stop running!”
His side pulses, hot and angry, and he comes to a fumbled stop. He searches the woods for a moment, hearing nothing but the sound of his breath. Then white-hot pain blossoms across the back of his head. He falls back, sticks and rocks digging into his back.
“I did what was asked of me!” Hotch pitches forward, gasping and spitting up vomit. His vision swims dangerously until his head is suddenly grabbed. Two hands hold his face still, forcing his eyes to meet the man in front of him. “I did what was asked of me,” Abel repeats. “You must understand. Who am I to disobey God?” A second time, more frantically, he repeats, “God!”
Hotch tries to open his mouth, to encourage Abel to let him go or to find the right thing to say. But he just can’t think of any words. He just can’t feel anything. His eyes roll back into his head, his lips meeting in a soundless last attempt to stay alive.