Disclaimer: Aside from Karen Marie "Roger", I only own my twisting of the cannons and characters herein. Cannons which shall now include Numb3rs due to an upcoming cameo appearance.
This takes place at the end of Criminal Minds season one. The episode 'Machismo' which first aired April 12, 2006, had the Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations (October 31-November 2). So for the purposes of this story, ´The Fisher King´ takes place mid-December 2006. According to the Farmer's Almanac website, the temperature in Washington DC spiked into the low 70s °F (21-24 °C) for a couple days, so the characters who wore short sleeves aren't even a continuity error. CM cannon up to the season finale more or less matches the series, with tweaking of a few character's backstories. Buffy cannon and backstories have been folded, spindled and mutilated. However, this takes place in the equivalent of Buffy season seven.

Dave Rossi nodded politely as the Marine sentry returned his ID and waved him on his way to the FBI Academy. Dave frowned as he made his way to the building with the Behavioral Sciences Unit. Analysis Unit. Whatever they were calling it now. He periodically returned to the Academy to lecture, but had yet to visit the new offices.

He had always meant to—sometime—but had never thought that it would be under these circumstances. Dave honestly did not know which had surprised him more: the news that Aaron Hotchner and his family had gone missing, or Erin Strauss actually calling in the favor he had promised at Ron´s barbecue last month. Erin and he had had a… somewhat abrasive relationship ever since the day his old frat buddy introduced his fiancée. Between Ron's shindigs and being thrown into the same office off and on as they advanced through the Bureau, a rough start gained plenty of burrs over the years. Their typical interaction consisted of a veneer of politeness over their mutual antagonism. Even the promised favor fit that pattern. A voiced offer of support for her then-upcoming appointment to section chief, it was really an attempt to get a rise out of her by suggesting she would need the favor.

Not that Erin responded, though she clearly recognized his intent. No, she was too sensible to be baited that easily.

Dave turned into the visitor's lot closest to the building. At this time of night, he was able to find a spot with ease, and made his way to the front door. He signed in at the front desk, received a visitor's badge, and waited for Erin to escort him up to her domain. He did not wait long; Erin stepped out of an elevator a minute after the guard called up, a case folder tucked under her left arm. "Hello, David."

Dave nodded at her. "Erin."

"This way," she said briskly as she turned back to the elevators. Once the elevator doors closed behind her, she turned to him. "I can get the security office to issue a temporary ID in the morning. Thank you for coming in so late."

"Aaron's a good man," Dave replied. "And a damn good profiler."

"You know him well?" Erin asked.

"He did his post-academy training in the old bunker," Dave responded. "Several agents did. The goal was to have field agents with basic profiling skills to see if that would help in solving general cases."

"Like the seminars we hold for agents and LEOs from around the country?"

"This was more one-on-one, and a little more in depth. Aaron stood out, and we kept him to train fully. He mainly shadowed Ryan or Gideon, but I took him on some consults. He had sharp instincts and asked questions that some more experienced agents didn't think of."

"Impressed you from the start, did he?" Erin asked, a strange note of disgruntlement in her tone.

Dave wondered if she had gotten a negative impression of Aaron during her brief time at the unit. He made a note to ask more about that later. "Actually, the first time I saw him, he dropped and broke our only coffee pot. Between worrying that the coffee was hot enough to scald, and wondering how I could possibly have spooked him, I remember thinking that if he was the future of the Bureau, we were all screwed."

"You were flat-out pissed off that he disrupted your caffeine intake."

"That didn't help," Dave conceded. Or the fact that with that navy suit of his, he looked like he'd pissed himself, he thought. Dave had that image in his head whenever he heard Aaron's name for months afterwards. "Anyway, that's why I didn't work with him much. He was embarrassed about the incident and avoided me, and well, not being initially impressed, I didn't press the issue." The elevator opened and Erin led him straight across the hall to a pair of clear glass doors with the Bureau insignia etched on them. They entered a large bullpen area with a raised level of offices surrounding most of it. "Then I got stuck with him on the Redmond Ripper case. That trip started off rocky, but he turned out to be a huge help." Especially with Beauchamp's kid. "I took him out every chance I got after that. Then just before the end of his stint, Ryan sent him to Boston alone as a test. The plan was for one of us to follow up with our own assessment if Aaron's efforts hadn't uncovered the unsub before our caseload cleared or critique his profile if the guy was caught."

"How'd that work out?" Erin asked as she climbed the stairs to the mezzanine-level offices.

"It didn't." Dave followed her up the stairs. "The lead detective abruptly shut down the investigation before Aaron could complete the profile. He insisted on keeping Aaron in town for six weeks, in case the killings resumed, but blocked Aaron's access to the evidence needed to build a profile. Frustrated the hell out of Aaron; he said that if he'd wanted to be paid to stick around a hotel, he'd have put in for vacation and taken Haley." Dave frowned as he turned onto the catwalk. "Actually, it bothered all of us how soon after the last deaths the investigation ended, but as all the crimes happened in Boston, we couldn't keep the case open without the locals' cooperation."

Erin stopped at an office and produced a thick key ring. Dave absently noted Aaron's name on the nameplate. Erin unlocked the door and flipped the light on. Dave automatically studied the office as he followed her in. The far wall, the one with windows, was unpainted, revealing the dismal gray of the cement used in construction. The other walls were painted a warm yellow, and most of furniture was dark stained wood. Framed diplomas and certifications hung on the walls, along with a couple of neutral and not-too-expensive pieces of art. A lamp, coffee maker and a basket full of a various coffees sat on a narrow table directly to the right of the door. Behind Aaron's desk, the right wall had bookshelves filled with legal texts and Bureau publications flanking a larger shelf filled mostly with awards and keepsakes. Across from his desk, a black sofa sat against the wall, flanked by small end tables with matching lamps. A black upholstered chair with a wooden frame sat against the window wall next to the far end table and a coffee table sat in front of the sofa and chair. A hall tree next to the chair held a forgotten raincoat, and a red Bicycle hung vertically on a rack. Two black office chairs with lower back support sat in front of Aaron's sturdy desk. Behind the desk, Aaron's black leather chair had a tall back, including thick cushioning and a headrest.

It was the kind of office Dave expected of Aaron, though Dave had trouble picturing the man biking around Quantico. And the furniture was nicer than anything the Bureau had provided for the old bunker. He idly wondered what kind of budget the BAU had these days.

"So, what's the situation, and why don't you have the personnel to investigate it?" He turned to Erin, who had all ready sat in the chair against the wall, and set the file she had been holding onto the coffee table. Dave walked over and sat on the sofa.

"We made the mistake of assuming the disappearances were linked to the unsub taunting Hotchner's team, so I sent the remaining teams off to other locations. Several months ago, Agent Hotchner arranged for most of his team to have the 18th through the 29th off. Sometime over the weekend, somebody breached the Bureau's firewall and hacked into the team's emergency contact info for the duration of the vacation. Late last night—well, Monday night into yesterday," Erin amended with a glance at her watch, "a cryptic package was sent to Agent Reid in Las Vegas. An anonymous call alerted the Jamaican resort Agents Morgan and Greenaway were staying at to a murder of one of their guests, and the manager found a fresh, deliberate blood smear along the walls to Greenaway's room. The victim had been dead over a day, and his head, packed in dry ice, was delivered to Jason Gideon at his cabin…"

Dave listened carefully as Erin described the events of the past twenty-four hours. The guy taunting the primary BAU team was appalling and fascinating. Never in all the cases Dave worked on, had the bad guy worked him into his delusion. And for this guy to fixate on an entire team… "Damn," he said softly when Erin was finished. In his hands were photos of the wrecked Brooks' house from the casefile Erin had provided him. "That is one messed-up guy your people are dealing with." Dave shook his head. "I hate to say it, but the odds of finding Aaron and his family alive aren't good. I'll assume they are, absent proof of the contrary, but it's been nearly twenty-four hours."

"Past, if the stopped clock's any indication." Erin stared at her hands. "If they are dead, I almost hope it occurred early on. That way my mistake won't have cost them."

"I might have assumed it was one case too," Dave told her. Erin had perfected her icy all-business persona long ago, and he found it easy to forget that she actually cared.


"The timing's highly coincidental and Gideon didn't see anything that made him think of a different unsub."

Erin nodded. "I know. It was still my call." She stood and folded her arms across her chest as she looked out a window. After a minute she turned back, her normal demeanor restored. "We'll find them, David. I'm not sure how much use a profile will be in this case, but sooner is better. Do what you can tonight, and I´ll make sure Accounting signs off on your contract in the morning. I can't guarantee your usual fees—"

"Don't worry, I'm just doing a couple friends a favor." Dave said absently as he read through the crime scene report. "Under the circumstances, I´d do it for free." He flipped through to next page. Wait, did I just call Erin a friend? Damn. If she caught it, she's not going to let that go…

Erin snorted. "You know that's not possible. Also, I understand your request to go through Agent Hotchner´s life. I know the importance of determining where vic—where their paths crossed, but I can't let you look through his casefiles. Your consulting's a conflict that the Bureau won't accept."

"I haven't done that much consulting on BAU-related cases lately. Apparently I've told too many defense attorneys that a guy's not completely fitting a profile isn't a sufficient defense in light of the other evidence." And that time he ascribed the discrepancies to an incorrect profile did not go over well with anyone.

"That won't make a difference," Erin replied. "It wouldn't even if Agent Hotchner were the most likely target, instead of the sister-in-law."

"They could have set a trap for him at her place," Dave pointed out. "Besides, the rage suggested by the vandalism's hard to hide. Aaron or one of the sisters might have noticed something. We need to know if Aaron looked into it."

"You mean misused Bureau resources."

Dave raised an eyebrow. "If you met someone potentially dangerous, wouldn't you at least check for open warrants? Especially if they were around your family."

Erin sighed and then turned to Aaron's filing cabinet. "Well, I can at least tell you if he's got anything here not related to his cases."

JJ sighed as she collapsed into the chair behind her desk. She needed to get some sleep, but did not want to stop working the case.

Unfortunately, exhaustion seemed to be blocking JJ´s thoughts.

JJ absently rubbed her head before she sat upright and turned her attention to the casefiles on her desk. She really should go through them and route anything urgent on. Besides, maybe the routine task would unfreeze her brain on the case at hand…

Her gaze fell on a box with a FedEx label. She was not expecting any deliveries. With a frown she quickly grabbed the package and a pocket knife. JJ pulled out a mounted and framed butterfly with a label tape on the glass reading 'She has been searched for, yet never found'. She was out of the office and at the conference room with more speed than she thought she had the energy for. "We need a warrant for Hotch´s house and mail," she announced as she opened the door.

Morgan and Gideon sat at the round table while Spence stood at the dry erase board and Elle looked up sleepily from the couch against the wall. JJ handed the frame to Gideon. "That's a pale clouded yellow butterfly. They're indigenous to Europe. Britain mainly." Gideon absently nodded as he handed the frame to Morgan.

Reid leaned over Morgan's shoulder and read the inscription out loud. "Don't crowd people kid," Morgan complained as he pushed his chair to the side and handed the frame to Elle.

"That's been sitting in a box in my office. If we consider the crime scene in Jamaica as meant for both Elle and Morgan, that's contact with all of us, at the location in our files."

"And he's given no indication that he realizes Hotch isn't playing his intended role," Spence finished for JJ. "Good catch."

"Also, I used to collect butterflies as a child."

As Elle returned the butterfly to him, Morgan cursed softly. "How does he know these things about us?" He set the butterfly on the table in front of him. "I doubt they're sitting around our personnel files."

Spence frowned. "What things?"

"The unsub sent me the Nellie Fox card," Gideon said. "And I—"

"Was a fan," Spence continued. "This unsub´s very thorough." He tapped the end of the dry erase marker against his thumb as he frowned at the wall. "'Never would it be night, but always clear day to any man's sight'," he said.

"Kid?" Morgan asked.

"It seems familiar," Spence answered. "My mother read a lot of classic poetry to me. We should run this through a search engine."

"It's Chaucer," their section chief's crisp voice came from behind JJ at the same time Elle said, "I thought you—"

JJ turned to the door. Behind Strauss stood a stocky, bearded man with dark, graying hair. He looked familiar, though JJ could not place him.

"Ma'am," JJ said politely, though displeased to see the woman. Gideon had made it clear that Strauss had ordered him to suspend the search for Hotch—right before instructing them to squeeze in as much investigation as they could under the guise of "absolutely ruling out a connection". He had made it clear that Hotch was counting on them.

Spence seemed unconcerned by Strauss´ appearance, "Chaucer…" he echoed, frown deepening.


"´The Parliament of Fowls!´" Spence cried out. "Of course! It was one of Mom's favorites. I must of heard it a hundred times." He uncapped the marker in his hand and turned back to the board and hastily scribbled. "Thanks!" he called to Strauss as she entered the room. With his concentration on the board, Spence did not see Strauss' displeasure at being interrupted.

Fortunately for Spence, her ire was soon drawn by the man following her. "Since when do you know Chaucer?"

"Rossi?" Gideon asked incredulously as Strauss turned to glare at him. JJ's eyes widened as she recognized the former profiler from the book lecture she attended as an undergrad. "What are you doing here?"

"He owed me a favor," Strauss said. "He's here to help track down Agent Hotchner."

"He's been retired for years," Gideon said harshly.

"I've done private consultations. I'm not out of practice." Rossi folded his arms over his chest as Gideon glowered at him. "Look, from the sound of it, you need all the help you can get."

Gideon huffed and crossed his arms over his chest as he looked at Strauss. "Can you even get the Bureau to go for it? They may like the image his books cast of us, but coming back for new material won't go over so well."

"I'm here because a friend and his family are in trouble."

"Friend?" Gideon scoffed.

"Yes, Ja—"

"His consulting contract will specify that he won't write about either of these cases, and that his access to other casefiles will be denied," Strauss cut in firmly. "That should satisfy those upstairs enough to let this one slide. In the meantime, catch him up with what you know." She turned and strolled out of the room.

The SUV pulled out of the lot as soon as the brunette woman jumped into it. She shut the door as the blond woman behind the wheel took a left. The vehicle slowed as they approached the red light, but the driver looked both ways and then gunned through the deserted intersection. "Haley!" the black-haired man who had helped Roger into the SUV protested over the wailing kid.

"The Bringers were chasing after us!" the driver retorted. "I'm not going to risk them disabling the car when the road's deserted! Now buckle Jack into his seat!"

Roger reluctantly grabbed the seatbelt over her left shoulder and buckled herself in as the SUV sped down the ramp to the highway. She had no desire to be thrown to her death if the woman crashed. But while grateful for the escape from the robed figures, the wisdom of hopping into a vehicle full of strangers was catching up to her.

Even if she had dreamed about them just hours ago.

"It's easier to secure his carrier when the car's not lurching wildly!" the man snapped. Roger turned to look behind her. The curly-haired blonde strapped the baby into the carrier in the middle of the SUV´s backseat as the man belted the carrier itself in place. Then he strapped himself into the back seat next to the boy.

Haley merged into the highway traffic. "I"

"Anyone hurt?" the other blonde asked.

"Our guest is," the brunette woman said. "She was limping as we ran to the SUV."

"Switch with me." The brunette hopped out of her seat and around the blonde to take the seat behind Roger. She turned to her right to help the man calm Jack.

The blonde knelt beside Roger´s seat. "Where are you injured?" she asked.

"It's just a sprain," Roger said, pulling her right foot away from the aisle. "I landed hard the last time those freaks attacked me."

"Did you get it x-rayed?" Roger gritted her teeth. She did not feel that it was any of that woman's business. "I have medical training," the blonde persisted.

"So did the guys in the hospital." Roger crossed her arms over her chest. The woman backed off to take the seat Faith had abandoned. "What are Bringers?" Roger demanded. "Why have I been dreaming about them? And you? Who are you guys?" Roger stared into the brunette woman's brown eyes.

"I'm Faith," she replied easily. "Jack. Aaron," Faith pointed at the baby, then the man in turn. "Jessica, and Haley's driving. I'm assuming you don't want us to call you Dorito."

Roger scowled at the obvious reference to the rack of chips she had collided with, and then shoved onto one of the Bringers. "They were Fritos."

"Smacking a guy with Doritos sounds cooler."

Roger felt her lips twitching into a smile despite herself. "Roger," she said as Jack settled down. Aaron looked up from Jack and frowned at Roger.

Faith blinked, but just said, "Nice to meet you, Rog. Do you happen to believe in vampires?"

Roger´s jaw almost dropped. "You're not seriously suggesting that those were vampires at the gas station?"

"Nah," Faith drawled. "Bringers are demons, though they do tend to move at night. However, they want to kill you because you have the potential to become the Vampire Slayer…"

As coughs wracked her frame, Rebecca awoke. She kept her eyes stubbornly shut. Wanting nothing more than to go back to sleep, Rebecca knew the sunlight pouring through the small window and her illness would prevent that. Never one for remembering her dreams, the last several weeks had her waking with vivid recollections of demonic monks attacking—and usually killing—various young women. Now, just as her subconscious started to add an explanation of sorts, she had been pulled from the grim dreams to face grimmer reality.

"I'm perfectly capable of driving."

Dave turned away from the window to the agent Jason had foisted on him that morning. It had surprised Dave when Dr. Reid turned out a full-fledged BAU member rather than some post-academy trainee. Reid looked the minimum age to apply to the FBI.


And at six-foot-one, with little meat on his bones and mousy blond hair that pushed the limits of regulation length, he looked like a grad student wearing a Halloween costume to boot.

"I never said you couldn't."

"Trained to read behavior, remember?"

Okay, so Dave had been a little tense, and had tried to tell him how to turn out of Quantico. But it was not like Jason and the rest of his cadre had inspired confidence in the kid's driving skills. Hell, Morgan and Greenaway had looked about ready to burst out laughing when Jason had announced that as a retiree Dave could not drive the Bureau SUV.

"I don't like being told I can't drive myself around." And maybe he was irritable from the little sleep between last night's briefing and this morning's interviews with the team. One thing about retirement, you got to bed at a reasonable hour.

"Hmfh." Reid did not look convinced. He passed a slow-moving semi. "So got any more books coming out?"

Morgan's quip about the kid having memorized all of Dave's books flashed through his mind. Dave preferred dealing with fans at his book signings—he could be polite, charming, and get the hell away from them after a couple hours. "There's always something in the works," Dave said vaguely.

"Do ever miss it?" the kid asked, no evidence of noting Dave's gruffness. "Working at the Bureau? I know you've done well, but… you did a lot of good in your career."

"Thinking about moving on all ready?" Dave knew his tone was harsh, but he had received plenty of criticism in the past.

"No, I—"

"My life's not as vacant as it may seem."

The kid winced. Whether at the words or the steel in Dave's voice, Dave did not know. Or care. "That's not what I meant," Reid protested.

Dave snorted. Of course you didn't kid.

"It's just…" Reid sighed as he moved to into the left lane. "While I was researching my last doctorate, I had occasion to help the world in a very different way. I'm more suited to the BAU and—"

"Last doctorate? How many do you have?"


"How the hell old are you?" Dave had assumed that Reid looked younger than he was, but to have three Ph.D.s, he had to be one of those super-young looking folks that got carded until fifty.


Or the exact age he appeared.

"Ah. Child genius?"

"Something like that."

"What made you join the Bureau? And when did they change the age limits?"

"This is something I've been drawn to for a while. The Bureau made an exception on the minimum age because of my intelligence… And the amount of field experience required for admission to the BAU."

Rossi nodded at that. If he had had the chance to recruit a genius, he would have done his best to place him where he could do the most good quickly. And while Dave's first thought would be to further advance the crime lab, obviously Reid was not inclined to a profession in the hard sciences.

"So, how long have you been with the Bureau?"

"A little over three years. I've been with the BAU fourteen months."

Dave had not kept close tabs on his former colleagues, but he did get periodic updates. And he paid attention to the national news. "Shortly after that Bale mess in Boston."

Reid nodded. "I´d been promised an eventual transfer into the unit and had studied for it, but I'd expected put in the minimum three years first."

"It happens." Dave could not think of anything else to say. Though from his own experience, little would help.

"Life's funny like that." The kid's tone suggested that he was thinking of more than his BAU recruitment. Interesting. Unfortunately for Dave's curiosity, it also suggested Reid had no intention of explaining that.

Dave frowned out the window. "How's Jason doing?" he asked. "I heard Boston was rough on him."

"So´d the entire country."

Dave laughed darkly. "Damn press can be vultures."

"Funny thing from a guy whose current career was built by the press."

"Necessary evil," Dave growled. Reid kept his focus on the highway, but Dave could see his skepticism. "I admit most of the reporters I've met are decent people, but when the public gets a taste for some stories… the coverage can turn into a storm of locusts."

Reid laughed. "As in the biblical plague? That's a new one. I´ll have to remember it—Son of a Bitch!" Reid slowed and pulled behind the sedan he had been passing. He then quickly merged onto the approaching exit ramp.

"This isn't the right exit!"

"I know. I need to call in." Reid parked on the right shoulder of the exit ramp, switched on the hazard blinkers and threw off his seatbelt.

"Now?" Dave felt more than a little incredulous.

"Now." Reid climbed onto the seat and leaned over to grab his soft briefcase from the backseat. He threw open the tan leather flap, pulled out his cell and dialed in. "Garcia, can you check to see who has moved to the area from Nevada?" A pickup sped past them, causing the SUV to shake. "I know privacy policies may be a problem, but the person you're looking for would most likely have been a patient at Bennington Sanitarium in Las Vegas within the last two years. Possibly earlier, if he writes or visits someone there. Also, can you have a couple agents from the Vegas field office take my mother into protective custody? Have her brought to the BAU if possible… She's at Bennington." Reid took a deep breath and steeled his posture. "No, she's a patient. I… Gideon! What ar…? I think the unsub knows my mother. I realized that I have mentioned the random facts this unsub´s hit on in the letters I've sent her… Gideon, you've mentioned Nellie Fox and the damn White Sox in every lecture you've ever done on your interrogation of Rick Monroe and how you won his trust! Forgive me for thinking it was safe to mention." For a literal-seeming guy, the kid could do sarcastic well. "Ma'am, I wouldn't write her case details, even if she were sane… I just make casual references to the friends I work with and places we recently 'visited'. Less than anyone could get off the national news, except for minor hobbies and interests… Yes, I understand that. But ma'am, her most common break-through symptom is the belief that the government induced her schizophrenia, even when she's convinced herself real events are fantasies. She knows I work for the government, but is more willing to see me as separate from it than any other agent… Possibly, but Gideon, I've never sent photos, so she might not believe you're who you say you are."

A small, blue Geo Metro raced by them, too fast even for having just left the highway. It started slowing painfully close to the intersection, its breaks squealing in protest. Dave shook his head, wondering what the guy behind the wheel was thinking. Personally, Dave would never drive something so small compared to everything else on the road, even if it had a better frame than glorified Styrofoam. And if he had to, Dave certainly would not drive it recklessly.

"I'm not sure, ma'am, but she used to be a professor of fifteenth century literature, and enjoys giving lectures to her fellow patients. She's very popular, actually… I hope not, but maybe? Her fondness for Arthurian lore has caused issues in the past, in that she further confused another patient. I can't remember who, though… Eidetic. And it's just for things I read, Garcia; this was a phone conversation with her doctor… Thank you, ma'am. I appreciate that this is an unusual and difficult situation… Yes, ma'am. Here," Reid handed the phone to Dave.

He put the phone to his ear. As Dave heard Erin's stern voice telling the eccentric researcher to shut up and take the phone off of speaker, Reid buckled himself back in and pulled off the shoulder.

"Thank you, David," Erin bit out before hanging up the phone. Calling in that favor had turned out every bit as annoying as she had feared. And she had no one to blame but herself. She turned back to the technical analyst. The woman had calmed down since Erin had sent Gideon to arrange the safe transport of Diana Reid, but tears still leaked out of her eyes. "This personal laptop," Erin folded her arms over her chest. "I appreciate that its use was on your lunch hour, but if this game was indeed the gateway for the hacker to get into our system…"

"I know what it means, ma'am." Garcia hugged herself. "I don't need you or Gideon telling me."

"Is that what he was doing? Telling you?" In her opinion, verbally flaying the young technician fit the scene Erin had walked in on better.

"I was careless. I didn't think it would do any harm, but people have died. Could have been our own. I thought it was Hotch and—" Garcia cut herself off, obviously realizing what she had let slip.

"You've known what caused the breach for a while."

The woman flinched as if slapped. Erin frowned at that. She had to be tough to make it in the male-dominated Bureau, but nothing about her current manner should have provoked such a response. Just how often did Gideon go off on tirades?

"I suspected," Garcia admitted quietly. "I wasn't trying to hide it or anything. I was just focused on sealing the breach and finding the hacker before he did any more damage." Garcia choked back a sob. "Nobody asked until Gideon…"

"I see. And you're sure he's accessed nothing else, and can't get back in?"

The younger blonde nodded. "Computer Security's reviewing everything, but I'm confident in the fix." Garcia swallowed hard and looked at the floor. "You know, before he left, Hotch—Agent Hotchner—said something about admiring my desire to see the good in people, but that I also need to think about possible ulterior motives. I should have listened."

Damn right, you should have, Erin thought. "Well, your actions will have to undergo a review. In the meantime the priority is catching this guy. You're certain this Randall Garner´s not another false lead?"

"Yes, ma'am." Garcia looked back up. "That's the trail I followed from the Sir Kneighf account, not the trail left with the visible attack. Though a guy this careful…"

"May be long gone and using a false name," Erin finished. "CSU may still find something useful. Dig up everything you can about Garner, if he exists."

"Yes, ma'am."

When Erin opened the office door to leave, a siren sounded from Garcia's computer speakers. She turned to find the technical analyst rapidly typing on her keyboard. "What is it?" Erin demanded. "Another hack?"

"No, ma'am. I flagged anything related to the team incase Garner-or-whoever-this-skeezeball-is tried, but this came from the Integrated AFIS system." The technician pulled up another screen. "Looks like Albuquerque PD ran a few partial prints through the system that matched Hotch."

"Albuquerque?" Erin asked sharply. "New Mexico?"

"Yes, ma'am," Garcia replied calmly over her furious typing. "There were other prints ran with the same case number attached—Huh, that's weird."

"What is?" Erin asked sharply as Garcia fell silent and again typed furiously.

"There was a hit on a Faith Lehane, but it looks like the hit buried itself. No, an alert was sent somewhere, just not to Albuquerque… Someone's gone to considerable trouble to bury Lehane in our system. It looks like there's a criminal record and a fugitive file, but there's nothing in them. Not even a photo, and the data was wiped over thoroughly. Looking at what remains… an Agent Ian Edgerton was initially on the case and has tried to access her file since it was emptied."

"Get me his cell number," Erin ordered. "I want to talk with him. And contact Albuquerque, I want to know everything about their case."

She left the computer room and walked swiftly to her office. Once the door was safely closed, she collapsed into her seat and buried her head in her hands. This mess with Hotchner and his unit's top team qualified as the worst first month ever, and things just kept getting crazier. At this rate, she might not even have time for the family Christmas.

Not that that anyone other than Ron was eager to have one. Sarah and Michael felt homesick for the Midwest, and were still adjusting to their new school. Karen still smarted over the upcoming loss of her in-state tuition, and apparently preferred to hang out with friends over a place where she only knew her family.

"'…Clearly now, the rain is gone; I can see all po-obstacles in my way…'."

Beside Roger, Lorne—the green-skinned, honest-to-God demon—winced. "That's an embarrassing mistake to almost make," he commented, taking another sip of his sea breeze. "Even if Jess did set it by intentionally by mentioning that sitcom and popsicles."

Roger glanced up at the left side of the nightclub's stage. Aaron sat on the piano bench, singing a capella even though he had played the songs Faith and the blonde sisters sang. Jessica still sat on the stool in the middle of the stage, but now she leaned forward as her shoulders shook in a manner that screamed laughter.

Faith and Haley were with Jack at one of the front tables, watching Aaron's performance.

Roger turned back to study Lorne again: straw-colored hair, rough green skin with bright red lips, eye sockets and inch-long horns in his forehead. She wanted to believe it was an elaborate make-up job, but she had spent enough time working backstage to know what theatrical make-up looked like up close. She saw no sign of that on Lorne. Roger quickly turned her attention to the slip of paper in front of her when she realized that she was staring. Again.

Lorne´s light chuckle filled her ears. "It's okay, Hydrangea. You're not my first human to be new to the supernatural. Those layers of reality keep themselves well-hidden in this dimension."

"It's still rude," Roger mumbled. "I'm sorry." She brought her head up to meet Lorne´s face. "You can really tell people's fortunes, by watching them sing?" The whole thing was surreal, and after the past twenty-four hours, she would believe almost anything possible. Still, Roger did not like the thought of her whole future becoming open viewing so easily.

"It's not so simple." Lorne fished a few spiced peanuts from the dish in front of him and turned back to the stage. "Predicting the future is like watching the world from a helicopter. Let's say you say see an intersection with a stop sign knocked over, and on crossroads a semi and speeding car are set to hit the intersection at the same time." Lorne quickly swallowed a few peanuts. "Now, the obvious prediction is that these vehicles will crash. But maybe the car travels its road all the time, and breaks to a stop out of habit. Maybe the semi turns off the road before the intersection. Now, most people's lives are more complex than a two-way stop. What I get is an impression of what's in front of them and advise on their best path. They don't always take it, and there are limits to what can be seen."

"From singing?"

Lorne shrugged. "When people express themselves musically, it puts them in a mental state that's easier for me to read."

"But just how good is it? If there are limits, and complex possibilities?"

"It depends on the reading. Bravo!" he called up at the stage as Aaron finished. "Can I get a little 'Footloose' for an encore?"

Aaron scowled. "I've played through everyone else's songs. That's plenty of time to have read me."

"But I haven't heard your gorgeous voice since high school, Quatro. Consider it a favor."

"Come on, Aaron," Haley said as she hopped up onto the stage. "It'll be fun, and you haven't really cut loose in a while."

Lorne groaned at the joke as the older Slayer pulled her husband to his feet.

"No! I can't sing and dance at the same time, remember?"

Haley smiled. "So you agree to sing?"

Aaron closed his eyes. "Haley..."

Lorne turned back to Roger. "Thing is, the brain is fundamentally lazy. It likes to associate new experiences with preexisting memory trees rather than expend the energy to create new ones. It makes sense, conserve energy that might be needed for fight or flight. However, it also leads to habits and prejudices that are hard to break, even when you want to. Now, the world tends to follow the same pattern. The bulk of people tend to repress any evidence of the supernatural. An automatic reflex as they know everyone around them will not believe them, so they don't believe it either. And when they can't repress it—say when they're being hunted by supernatural beings or have awakened their own power—then they're drawn instinctively to those that are 'in the know' and supernatural hotspots. Saves time by providing them teachers, or well, plopping them at the feet of their killer. It also makes for rather interesting coincidences."

"So that's how we crossed paths." Now that Roger thought about it, it was unlikely.

"In part. Once targeted, odds were good that you would cross paths with other targets or more Bringers. Crossing paths with that group… Still possible, but something directed you to them."

Roger´s eyes narrowed. "I haven't sung for you yet."

"You hum when you read." Lorne gestured at the document in front of her. "To whatever music you hear at the time. It's not as thorough a read as singing, but it's enough. Don't worry," Lorne added. "I'm serious about the confidentiality unless the world's at stake deal. I'm not going to blab anything, even if you don't sign my pact."

Roger frowned and glanced at the stage where Aaron stumbled over the words as Haley led him through a reluctant dance. "And you saw that we have a shared destiny?"

"There are powers beyond this world that have an interest in it. They cannot act directly, but they do choose Champions to act on their behalf. The ones they choose don't have to accept their calling. Even if they do… well, the Champions don't always listen to instructions or properly interpret things. When that lot decided to drive to LA, something put Albuquerque in your mind. A message you picked up at the subconscious level. You could have ignored it, but it appealed to both your survival and go-find-supernatural instincts. Now you have another choice: to try to make it on your own, or join the others in Sunnydale. Alone, you may pass unnoticed, but there will be no one to help you out if you're attacked again. In Sunnydale, you will be under the protection of experienced warriors while you train to defend yourself. However, Sunnydale is also where things will come to a head." Lorne stood up and picked up his sea breeze. "Now I have a message to relay, and a little guy to get to know."

The smiles melted off of Aaron and the sisters´ faces and they stopped their impromptu dance. Faith looked up looked up to see Lorne approach the table with a grim look on his face. She sat up straighter and earned a disgruntled cry from Jack as he realized he had lost her attention. Aaron picked the boy up as the rest of the family gathered around the table.

"It's big," Lorne said. "Something's changed that has allowed The First Evil to strike directly at the Slayer line. The First means to end the Slayer, and this world as we know it."

"We got that much from when we called Red," Faith pointed out.

"There's more." Lorne turned to Haley. "Your seal didn't just give out at an opportune time. The Powers broke it—And now they want the deal Aaron bartered fulfilled."

Aaron paled and shook his head. "There was no deal."

"As far as they're concerned, there is."

"But it's been seventeen years," Haley said. "Why now?"

"When you live outside reality, time's not always a pressing concern. Though as long as Aaron didn't meet his end, they were fine leaving it undone."

"Do you know what they demanded?" Aaron asked.

Lorne nodded grimly. "The Powers are more concerned with not violating the balance than anything. Asking them to intervene annoyed them, but they believed their price would balance things out. Now… something's changed. The First's plans could wipe out everything, and this may be the key to a Hail Mary."

Jessica shook her head. "How? The goal is to save the world, not make matters worse."

"What I can open, I can close," Aaron said as he stared down at his hands. "If I've opened it. But there's a refractory period. Things would get out. Lives would be lost."

"The message sent to Cordy suggests that will happen anyway. Your readings confirm it." Lorne drained the remains of the sea breeze in his hand and set the glass on the table. "Things in Sunnydale have not come to a head yet. You'll find what you need to make your final decision there."

Aaron and Haley exchanged looks that spoke of a silent conversation while Jessica looked equally grim. Faith knew the basics: Haley's father/Watcher was fine with neutral demons and partbloods helping out in the defense of the Hellmouth. Until she and Aaron eloped. Then he took advantage of the traditional coming-of-age introspection test the Slayer's handbook hinted at and sealed Haley's powers permanently, leaving her vulnerable to vengeful demons. Aaron had tried to barter with the Powers that Be, on the grounds that her seal deprived them of a trained agent in the fight against evil. The Powers, unimpressed since a new Slayer would be called at death, demanded a high price in exchange. Aaron backed out, even as a demon mob attacked Haley. She barely survived, but never disagreed with Aaron's choice.

"What about Jack?" Haley demanded.

"While you were still sealed, you felt like a potential. Given your age, they probably assumed this precious one was a girl. I doubt they'll target him once you continue on." Lorne took Jack from Aaron's arms. "In any case, my wards´ll prevent Bringer violence. I´ll keep him safe and snug in my rooms."

Haley locked eyes with him. "We'll hold you to that."

If we survive, Faith could not help but think.

He had nothing left.

Jason Gideon stared at the wall in his office, an open report in front of him. The light through the windows had dimmed to the point that he should turn the light on, but Jason did not bother. He could still read, if he had the will to.

That cabin had been his sanctuary; his piece of the world that the depravities of his work could not touch. Jason would go there to recharge his spirit. Now it would forever be stained by the memory of a romantic evening ruined by a head in a box. Still reeling from that blow, Jason had returned to the office to find that he had again failed to protect his own.

Jason glanced down at the photo on his desk. Printed off of the Bureau intranet, Hotch´s ID photo showed a rare smile. It made the normally stoic man look younger and more approachable. Jason considered himself truly blessed to have gotten to know the man beneath the stern mask. He considered the surprisingly warm man a friend as well as a capable agent to watch his back in the field.

And Jason trusted the younger man to watch over his legacy.

Since Boston and Bale, Gideon found the BAU´s work more draining than it used to be. He knew that the day would come when he would not be able to continue. That was why he had quietly ceded leadership of the team and unit back to Hotch after he had proven himself able to return.

Now, Jason felt the day that he could no longer contribute loom closer. He still had something to give and intended to give everything he could. But if they were unable to save Hotch—and they all knew the statistics there—then Jason would have less to give, would be unable to meet the higher demands of leading the BAU. Jason doubted he could meet the demands of running the team. He respected the other team leaders. Any one of them could run the unit, but Jason felt Hotch was a far better choice. Stern enough to keep the unit on track and within the rules, he was also protective enough to battle bureaucracy if necessary.

If Jason had to select Hotch's successor—the man was irreplaceable—it would sting far less if Jason had the solace of having done everything he could to save Hotch and his family. Strauss had effectively taken that from him, even as her orders saved him the guilt of choosing a friend over the girl. Or the girl over a friend. Jason had been surprised at Strauss' decision to bring in Rossi. But if the man had not lost his touch, he could provide some impartial observations that the team, and even Anderson and Fukudome could not.

Still, knowing Hotch could also provide insight, but Jason's efforts to keep updated on the investigation had been stymied. Even sending Reid as the one to search for the "quest clue" and case-related materials had not panned out as Jason had hoped. Aside from the delay in getting the warrant for Hotch's house and Rossi cleared to consult, Rossi had somehow managed to break his nose against the door they jimmied. Neither his nor Reid's explanation of how that happened made sense. Jason figured that Rossi did not know exactly how it had happened, but Reid… Jason had felt Reid holding something back, though he could not imagine Reid having anything to do with the injury. Rossi could be aggravating at times, but he was a decent man. And if Reid had a volatile temper, Morgan would have sported a busted nose months ago.

With the time it took to sweep the Hotchners' home and finally drive Rossi to the ER before the return trip to Quantico, Reid did return to the BAU until just before his mother had arrived. And the kid had blown off Jason's attempts to get the status of Rossi's investigation in favor of making some phone call. Reid had seemed unusually distracted, so it must have been important, but Jason could not get anything out of Rossi.

Jason sighed and wondered how Reid's interview with his mother was going. Hopefully, he would get something out of her. The book code Reid found stuck in the Hotchners' front door was useless unless they could figure out the book and edition that the code originated from. A shadow fell across the door, and Jason looked up to see JJ standing there with a file. "We've identified the girl in the video. Rebecca Bryant. She went missing two years ago from South Boston, Virginia."

JJ handed the file folder to Jason. He took it and slipped on his reading glasses. He turned his back to the door as he read through the file. After a minute, he heard JJ walk away. When he finished, he left the folder on the desk, taking Rebecca's picture with him. Finally, they could do more than play this unsub's game. With a known victim, they could research her history, and hopefully get ahead of this guy. He would have Elle and Morgan drive out to interview the family. This time of night it would be late by the time they got there, but not too late, especially if he had JJ call ahead.

Jason exited the office and descended to the bullpen, where Elle and Morgan sat at their desks. Their chairs were turned to face each other, and JJ sat near them in a chair swiped from Reid's desk. As Jason approached, he realized that the three were going over Rebecca Bryant's casefile. "Reid still interviewing his mother?"

Elle snorted. "Last time I stuck my head in, Mrs. Reid was still railing about government goons forcing her to endure a four-hour-plus plane ride."

So much for her having a good day, Jason thought irritably. He would give these three their assignments, and then check in on Reid himself. If he was not making progress, Jason would pull him out and set him on some other task.

Erin sighed as she hung up the phone. A warning from Reid that his mother had a flying phobia would have been nice. The two agents who had escorted Mrs. Reid from Las Vegas had had an interesting time of it. At least that was easily smoothed over. Unlike Hotchner´s disappearance and her decision to call in David Rossi, which had kicked over a hornet's nest in the upper levels.

She had expected criticism over the decision: David had never been the most politic of agents, and his use of his Bureau career for personal gain had alienated many. What Erin had not expected was the fact that David apparently had a fanboy in the upper echelons. Some stray comment about missing the Bureau had reached the right ears, and Erin got grilled about David's receptiveness to a "controlled unretirement".

Heaven help us all.

Erin looked at the man sitting across the desk from her. "I'm getting asked why I allowed you to force open Agent Hotchner's door when you've obviously not had recent training on how to do it safely."

David scowled. "I didn't force it. One of the CSU techs jimmied the lock, and I had it completely open when it swung back."

"And no one else had trouble with it?"

"No," David groused. "I think a weight shifted wrong in the hinges."

"It's designed to automatically close?"

"I guess." David shrugged. "Anyway, there was minor evidence of a struggle in Aaron's house. His cell phone was crushed on the floor, and a vase and statue of some sort were broken. There were some messages on his home machine: mainly this office's attempts to reach him, but two weren´t. Some guy named Lorne wanted either Aaron or Haley. Something about relaying a message from unnamed powers about Ringers and a deal. Also, a message from an Anya with a warning about Ringers and potential. She was worried about Haley becoming a target."

"Ringers," Erin repeated. It sounded like a name a gang or terrorist group would come up with. "That's not any group I'm familiar with."

"Reid didn't recognize it either. Also, he noted that Aaron's travel bag was missing from the house and checked his car. It wasn't in there."

"Implying they may have planned to leave?"

David shrugged. "They might have planned to stay at the sister-in-law's a few days. She had supplies for do-it-yourself remodels in a couple of the rooms. And she had childproofed a couple others."

"Anything about Albuquerque or anywhere else in New Mexico?"

David looked confused. "No, why?"

"Ms. Garcia flagged the team in the computer system after the breach. AFIS got some partial hits on Agent Hotchner´s prints from Albuquerque PD. Some sort of incident in a convenience store. We've requested further details, but haven't heard back yet."

"Albuquerque…" David bit his lip in thought. "That—"

A firm knock sounded on the door, and Gideon burst into the office before Erin could respond. "Reid´s mother recognized the man on the video as Randall Garner and had a photo with an address on the back. It's in Shiloh, Virginia. Morgan's called a SWAT team and Legal´s getting a warrant. They'll enter the house within an hour."

Erin nodded and thought over everything Garcia had found on Randall Garner: the man lost his entire family in a house fire, save for his youngest daughter, Rebecca who was found outside unharmed. Garner was severely burned in an attempt to save the others, and landed in Intensive Care for months. With no other relatives to look after the girl, he signed her over to social services and she was placed for adoption. After his physical recovery, he was admitted to Bennington to treat his mental trauma. "Good," Erin said. "Did Mrs. Reid have anything about Garner that Garcia didn't track down?"

"Well, apparently the way he talked of 'a Rebecca´ led Mrs. Reid to believe the girl wasn't real, but a Grail-figure that Garner thought up. Also, we identified the girl in the video as Rebecca Bryant. Reported missing two years ago, her adoption by the Bryants would fit with Rebecca Garner´s timeline, though we need to get records unsealed to confirm that."

"He left the asylum to snatch his own daughter and keep her locked up because he thinks she's the Holy Grail?" Erin said. "That's some hospital Reid found for his mother."

"Garner has to fully believe his delusion," Gideon said quietly. "That's the only way his actions could be so meticulous and organized. Without moments of varying lucidity, he could easily have convinced his doctors that he had recovered enough to be released."

"Bring her home. And be careful."

"NO!" an all too familiar voice woke Rebecca from the fitful sleep she had fallen into. And for the first time since she found herself in this hellhole, more than one set of footsteps reverberated through the floorboards over her head. "IT'S NOT FOR YOU! THE GRAIL STAYS—" A loud thump sounded, and the strange footsteps came down the stairs.

Hope welled in Rebecca's heart. Countless days praying for rescue, and—

Two figures entered the basement in front of her cell: black robes, bald heads, and eyes gouged out with Greek letters and other symbols. Rebecca tugged frantically at the shackle around her ankle. A frenzied energy she had not known possible filled her, even as she felt her blood freeze. Two more of the figures from her nightmares entered the basement as the first two opened her cell door. One of the newcomers carried a blood-stained axe. Rebecca knew instinctively that it had come from the death of her captor.

From her birth father, a man she had thought lost after he had plopped her on the ground and ran back into the house.

A man far more unhinged by the fire and deaths than she had ever thought possible.

With nowhere to go, she shrank as far as she could into the corner of her bed, the cell wall biting into her back. When one of the Bringers leaned over to grab her, Rebecca lunged into him and pried his weapon from his hands while second one punched her in the stomach. The blow forced air from her lungs. It also forced stomach acid into her mouth. As the Bringer stepped away from her, Rebecca spotted a bloody dagger in its hand. She slumped onto the bed, absently hearing the Bringers walk out as the dark basement grew darker.