Spencer had made an effort to get into work even earlier than usual today. He’d ridden the metro through the city, dipping his hand into his messenger bag every few minutes to compulsively check that the slim letter he’d received in the post the other day is still in the front pocket where he’d safely placed it that morning. He brushes his fingers over the paper once more as he enters the near-empty bullpen, the letter cool from the winter air.
It’s still so surreal to him that this is where he works. After years of dreaming of working for the FBI he’s finally here, and even though it’s been his place of work for almost two months now, he’s still not used to it. The warm offices are a nice reprieve from the wintry December wind, and he can feel himself relaxing as he heads to his desk. Leaving his coat and messenger bag on his chair, he pulls the letter out of the front pocket and runs his index finger along the edge. He finds himself biting his bottom lip as he tries to work up the courage to go and see Hotch.
Sucking in a deep breath, he marches determinedly up to Hotch’s office, entering as soon as his knocks are answered.
“Reid,” Hotch says pleasantly as he takes a seat opposite his desk, realising belatedly that he probably should have waited until he was invited. “You’re in early. What can I do for you?”
Nervously, Spencer hands him the letter he’d couriered across the city so carefully. He’d taken care to open it neatly with his letter opener but the return address on the back has been stamped at a crooked angle, and it bothers him every time he notices it. He can’t stop looking at it now as he taps his fingers anxiously against his leg in the pattern of the Fibonacci sequence, a safe and familiar reassurance played out by his nervous fingers. He watches apprehensively as Hotch pulls the letter out of the envelope, unfolding it and skimming his eyes down the page, taking in the news Spencer’s been so anxious to share with him.
Diagnosis: Asperger’s Syndrome
God, it had been a long process. He’d had to seek out a doctor in DC who diagnosed adults, paid for all the consultations and diagnostics himself — his insurance certainly wouldn’t cover it, not that he’d feel comfortable using his cushy FBI insurance for something so personal anyway — and the whole process had taken far longer than he’d expected. Finally, though, the envelope had arrived in the mail, and he officially had a diagnosis.
Of course, he’d had his suspicions for years, especially after one of his professors during his second PhD had casually asked whether he’d ever been tested, planting a seed in his brain that led to many late nights in the library, reading all the literature available to him. It’s why he’d found it strange that it had felt so validating to finally receive that letter in the post. But it had.
The label made sense, and now that he had a diagnosis from a medical professional he felt comfortable to share it with others; he’d been far too paranoid about being questioned, not being believed or lectured about the evils of self-diagnosis no matter how he was confident in himself. He didn’t tend to be an insecure or self-conscious person, but after years of bullying and trauma surrounding what he now knew for sure to be his autistic traits, he couldn’t help but feel almost protective of his affirming label.
Now though, it’s an irrefutable statement. Dr Spencer Reid has autism, and the first person he wants to tell is Hotch.
“I had no idea you were getting tested, Reid,” Hotch says, a hint of surprise bleeding into his voice. “Is there any specific reason you wanted to share this with me?”
“Well… I felt like someone on the team should know,” Spencer starts carefully, afraid to give too much of himself away, “and I thought that someone in a leadership position was the best option. Gideon has never been very… supportive of my autistic traits or behaviour, so I thought that you— that you would be the best option.” He feels awkward, fidgeting in his chair as he watches Hotch’s serious face and kind eyes absorb the information.
“That trust in me means a lot, Reid,” he says, a rare smile making its way onto his face. In that moment, Spencer knows he made the right decision. “How can I make things easier for you? Is there anything you need me to be doing differently?”
“Uh—” He hadn’t really been anticipating that question and it catches him off guard: he’d predicted a quick nod of acknowledgement, a request to photocopy the letter so it can be put on file followed by a swift dismissal, but the letter is now sitting on his side of the desk: clearly, Hotch intends on keeping this between them. This is far from what he expected.
“Why don’t you start by telling me about autism and how it might affect your work?” Hotch corrects himself, recognising quickly Spencer’s need for specifics. “I’ll admit I don’t know much beyond some probably rather unhelpful stereotypes.”
Spencer nods. He can answer that question. “As everyone knows I often go off on tangents,” he begins, “and that’s because my special interests — or hyperfixations — often coincide with our work, so I know a lot about the topics we’re investigating. If I do that, just redirect me to the case and I’ll be fine. It’s also really hard for me to have to present myself in a certain way all the time. Vocal stims and gestures are the most satisfying to me but I often have to mask them, which I’ve never been very good at anyway, and it’s fairly exhausting. That’s why I often excuse myself; I go to the bathroom or a secluded hallway and stim on my own. My doctor also told me I tend to overcompensate in social situations and over-perform emotion. Those are the basics, I guess, but it’s a very complex disorder and since it makes up me as a human being, I can’t exactly explain all of it in one conversation.”
“No, that’s fine, Reid, you’ve given me a good picture of what to expect, thank you.” Hotch smiles at him, fondness in the crinkles around his eyes and the softness invading his usually stern expression. “First of all, you never have to feel like you need to excuse yourself to stim. Do you think it would be helpful if we told the rest of the team so they know what to expect? I’m assuming vocal stims are saying certain words or making sounds…?”
“Okay, so if you needed to do that we could just continue the conversation while you get it out of your system. Gestures certainly wouldn’t be a problem. How do you feel about that?”
He hadn’t really considered telling the rest of the team but it seemed sort of intimidating, like he’d be opening a vulnerable side of himself to people he didn’t even know that well. On the other hand, they’d all been so understanding of his quirks and odd behaviour so far without even knowing the reason behind it. He’d never once been made to feel the way he used to at school, forced to either pretend to be someone else completely or be isolated and ostracised.
He settles for, “I’ll think about it.”
“That’s fine. There’s no pressure,” Hotch assures him. “I’m very happy you told me, Reid. I hope you know you can come and talk to me about anything, whether it’s about this or something completely different.”
Spencer leaves his office with the letter back in his hands, no notes or copies having been made, feeling almost elated. Never in a million years would he have expected that to go so well.
He doesn’t really expect it to come up again. He’d told Hotch so that he could understand him a bit better, and also because Hotch had quickly assumed a protective, almost paternal role in his life and he wanted to share the piece of news with him whether he was leading his department or not. That was supposed to be it, though, he didn't think anything would materially change, especially since he decided not to tell the team about the diagnosis just yet.
But almost immediately after he’d told Hotch his diagnosis, his rambles began to be gently redirected back to the case, sometimes without him even noticing. He wasn’t rudely cut off by anyone anymore, Hotch always steering him back on course before anyone else can jump in and hurt Spencer’s feelings. It’s so… kind that it almost feels foreign, and he finds himself gravitating towards the older man more and more, sitting next to him on every jet journey and staying glued to his side during cases.
His newfound protectiveness over Spencer is only demonstrated more clearly a few months after their conversation in Hotch’s office when they’re on their way to New Mexico for a case. The second he spots that the murder victims had all been found with different Fitzgerald quotes scrawled on sheets of paper found in their own personal notebooks, ripped out and left for investigating officers to find, he launches into an info-dump to rival info-dumps.
He can’t help that literature is a special interest of his, made all the more intense by the fond childhood memories of reading to his mother in her bed. Fitzgerald had been her favourite author of the Modern Era, and he’d spent hours analysing significant passages in his novels as a child, so he starts explaining the literary merit of each of the quotes left at the crime scenes.
Apparently, he doesn’t hear the first two times Hotch tries to direct him back on topic, but he hears it when Gideon shouts, “Spencer! Long and unnecessary tangents are not conducive to actually solving these cases. Get back on topic. Now.” He’s loud enough to briefly knock him back several decades to memories of his father screaming at his mother’s schizophrenic babbling, when she’d become convinced that the villains of her favourite novels were trying to break into the house.
Spencer stops mid-sentence and stares at Gideon, who is staring right back. Everyone’s watching the two awkwardly, but the short moment of silence is quickly broken by Hotch. “There is absolutely no need to be that rude, Jason,” he says disapprovingly, while he lays a hand on Spencer’s arm in a light, absent-minded sort of touch. “Reid may have been off-topic but he deserves respect just like everyone else on this team. Nobody needs to be shouted at like that.” He directs his attention back to Spencer. “Why don’t you tell us how those Fitzgerald quotes could help us solve the case, Reid?”
He gives him an encouraging look, and when he looks around the jet, everyone else is, too. Carefully, he starts speaking again, a little afraid of being cut off again, but after a few sentences of relevant explanation he regains his momentum. It’s more than a little vindicating when it’s his ‘unnecessary tangent’ that ends up being the key to cracking the case.
Soon after Hotch’s split from Haley, he approaches Spencer one evening when they’re the only two left at the office with a dinner invitation. Within the hour, they walk into a nice, low-key Italian place in the city and take a seat in the far corner of the restaurant.
“Is everything okay?” Spencer asks a little uncertainly, confused as to why his boss is suddenly taking him for dinner.
“I had this idea almost as soon as you told me about your autism,” Hotch explains, knowing by now that preambles and niceties only frustrate Spencer instead of setting him at ease. “I wanted to take you out for dinner every week to try and give you a space to ramble about all your special interests and not feel like you have to mask around everyone. But when I was with Haley, all my personal time was obviously spent with her and Jack. Now, I have the time to dedicate to you and all the incredible knowledge you’re hoarding in that brain of yours.”
“Really?” Spencer asks excitedly. The idea of uninhibited space to talk about the recent knowledge he’s acquired and not have to feel insecure or worry about performing social skills he doesn’t see the point of is everything he’s ever wished for, and something so wonderful being provided by Hotch only makes it better.
Spencer wastes no time. He dives right in. “I was just watching a documentary the other day about volcanoes and their ability to trigger lightning storms with their voltage,” he begins. “Basically, magma rises toward the volcano’s surface, its water rapidly turns to vapor, which shatters the molten rock into tiny particles and creates charged particles. When the ash plume erupts into the atmosphere, the densely packed particles collide, driven by momentum. Friction then affects their electrons, becoming electrically charged. Positively and negatively charged electrons separate in the ash plume which creates a charge imbalance that builds an electric charge strong enough to trigger a lightning storm.”
“I know,” Spencer says excitedly. “If the ash plume rises high enough in the atmosphere ice forms, and when ice, hail, and supercooled liquid droplets collide, the rates of lightning explode, it’s crazy.”
They’re briefly interrupted by a waitress taking their orders, but as soon as she leaves, Hotch gets him to jump back in. “What about that lecture you attended last week… the literature of 18th Century England or something?”
“19th Century English Lit, yeah!” He’s so eager to finally share this with somebody who will genuinely listen to him, and he can’t help it when his arms start to flap excitedly. Remembering where he is, he doesn’t try to mask it, pin his arms to his sides and simply deal with and suppress the innate urge to stim, he lets his body do what it wants to. Instead of eliciting a strange, sideways look, Hotch just smiles fondly.
“The lecturer had this fascinating theory on Dickens. I’ve always seen him as a pretty straight forward author of picaresque fiction, obviously combined with facets of melodrama. And it’s common knowledge that he was inspired by the novel of sensibility, of course. But I’d never thought about the stylistic and lexical choices in his works beyond standard analysis, and this lecturer went on a deep dive into his use of collocation and it opened my eyes…”
He spends the whole evening stimming to his heart’s content while detailing every current interest of his to Hotch, who simply listened intently while eating his meal slowly, dragging out the meal for as long as Spencer needed. “Let me give you a lift home,” Hotch insists after footing the bill, leading him out into the warm evening air.
“Oh, I don’t mind taking the metro,” he replies truthfully.
“I know. But it would make me feel better to drop you home safely. It’s late and seeing you into your apartment building would give me peace of mind.”
“Sure,” Spencer agrees happily, he’s still buzzing from such a nice evening and the least he can do for Hotch is let him rest easy tonight, so he climbs into the passenger side of his car. A few minutes into the car ride home, he realises he should probably actually verbalise just how much he enjoyed dinner. “Thank you, Hotch. I don’t think anybody’s ever done something so nice for me before.”
“Don’t mention it, Spencer,” Hotch replies, smiling even though he doesn’t take his eyes off the road. Spencer very much likes it when Hotch uses his first name, and he’d been doing it all evening. He doesn’t really understand why it feels so nice, just that it makes him feel… special, maybe.
“Don’t mention it, Spencer,” he repeats, before freezing as he realises what he’s said. He’s got so used to not masking all evening, he’s not in the right rhythm and mindset to suppress the urge to repeat Hotch’s words. He’s been so nice the whole evening, the last thing Spencer wants is for Hotch to think he’s mocking him.
“Hey, it’s okay,” Hotch reassures him, tapping his arm lightly as he smiles encouragingly.
“Don’t mention it, Spencer,” he says again, repeating it a few times in relief before the itch is satisfied. He really does have the best boss/friend in the whole world. There’s no doubt about that.
Rossi’s initial reaction to Spencer had admittedly been a bit rocky, and having Hotch undeniably on his side was the only thing that made those first few months bearable. He never let them go off on their own; never put Spencer in a position where he’d have to be alone with him. Gradually, though, Rossi adjusted to his quirks and he became almost as protective of Spencer as Hotch.
That doesn’t bode well for the local sheriff when they’re on a case in North Carolina. He’s been prickly since they arrived, being as stubborn and uncooperative as possible, slowing down their progress on actually solving the case, and Spencer’s noticed him being a little extra rude to him in particular. It doesn’t massively bother him — it’s not exactly like someone’s aversion to him is a novel concept — but he can feel some sort of tension coming from the others. It happens a lot more now that they know about his autism and are more aware of themselves and others.
He tries to ignore it the best he can; he puts his head down and focuses on the geographical profile, going wherever he’s sent. Besides, the sooner they solve this case the sooner they can get out of North Carolina and back to DC. On their third day on the case, he’s working quietly in their designated corner of the police department alongside Hotch and Rossi while the others are out investigating in various different places. It’s a nice environment, and even though both men are his superiors, he feels more relaxed in their company than in anybody else’s.
It’s a relatively pleasant morning — considering the whole trying to catch a brutal serial killer thing — until they need to ask the sheriff a question. He saunters over, a tense and angry expression on his face, and Spencer can’t help but feel a little off, the confusing tension in the air that Spencer can’t quite identify making him anxious in his inability to properly decipher it. “Gentlemen,” he says, already frustrated. Spencer suspects it’s a pride thing; not many police departments like being shown up enough to have the FBI called in.
Eager to know the answer to their question, Spencer’s the one to jump in and ask. “Sheriff, we were just wondering whether the town gets much traffic from the local university or—”
He’s cut off by the sneering, towering man. “I’m not taking any questions from your kind,” he says aggressively.
“I’m sorry?” Spencer squeaks as Rossi and Hotch both prepare to say something in response.
The sheriff cuts them off before they can get their likely diplomatic and calming words out. “Homo retards aren’t welcome around here.”
“Hey!” Rossi shouts as he leaps out of the chair, grabbing him by the collar as he’s helped by the element of surprise. “You don’t fucking talk to Spencer like that, you hear me? Weak, cowardly men like you—”
“Dave,” Hotch says placatingly, putting a hand on his shoulder and diffusing the situation. “Listen, Sheriff, we are only here to help you. But if you can’t respect my agents then we’re going to have a problem. Either you’re civil to Dr Reid, or I’m reporting you to the NC Sheriff’s Association. You hear me?”
The sheriff’s pride is clearly wounded, but he at least nods before giving them all a scornful look and walking away.
“We didn’t even get to ask the question,” Spencer says anxiously, suddenly feeling out of his depth, like he can’t quite get enough air.
“Dave, try and get an answer,” Hotch directs, taking charge of the situation. “Spencer, come with me.” He takes him into a secluded hallway for a little privacy, sitting him down on the cool linoleum before sinking down next to him. “You’re okay.”
“You’re okay, you’re okay,” Spencer whispers over and over to himself as he rocks backwards and forwards, trying desperately to self-soothe.
“Do you want me to touch you?” Hotch asks. He’s been in enough of these situations with Spencer to know he’s usually in two very different headspaces: he either longingly craves the grounding touch of a hug or a hand on his back, or he needs complete space. He’s also learned that asking outright is the only way to get an direct answer.
“Yes,” Spencer replies, before repeating it over and over again as he’s wrapped up in Hotch’s arms, head pressed against his chest, his hand pressing gently against the back of Spencer’s head. He starts to calm down as he manages to breathe to the heat of Hotch’s calm, steady heartbeat, the comforting touch of someone he trusts with his life also helping to bring him back down to earth. A good ten minutes after the altercation with the sheriff, he’s feeling much better and brings his head out of it’s safe cocoon between Hotch’s chest and hand.
“Come on,” Hotch says kindly. “Let’s get back to the case, yeah? You can just sit and work quietly until you’re ready to hold a proper conversation again. How does that sound?”
Spencer nods tiredly, knowing that work will perk him back up again, and being surrounded by his team will make him feel safe, asshole sheriff or not.
Over the years Hotch helps him through any hurdles that come his way, learning the exact nuances of Spencer’s characteristics and requirements, making sure to accommodate him in every way possible.
He brings an extra, super-soft sweater in his go-bag in case Spencer ever forgets his and needs something gentle on his skin but tight enough to make him feel secure. He buys him stimming toys, dropping them on Spencer’s desk before he even arrives at work and lets him use his office whenever the lights and noise of the bullpen get too much, drawing the blinds and giving him the space he needs. Rossi doesn’t even question it anymore when Hotch shows up with a stack of paperwork and moves into his office for the morning.
It wasn’t until Hotch made a concerted effort to make his life easier that Spencer realised how hard it had been fighting through life on his own. So when he realises Hotch’s birthday is coming up, he decides he wants to show his gratitude. It’s never been easy for him to express emotions, especially since he’s never really found it rude when people don’t thank him, but he knows that for most neurotypical people, appreciation is important.
So he talks it over with Derek and on Hotch’s birthday, he comes into work to see Spencer waiting in his office with balloons, a cake, a card, and a present. He’d spent hours trying to find the right words to explain how he feels, to find the right words to show Hotch just how much everything he’s done for him means, but eventually he’d settled on something simple:
Caroline B Cooney wrote: “I found my family. I found the right thing to do. I found my way home.”
I found all of these things when I joined the BAU, but more specifically when I walked into your office, hands shaking, clasping a letter I’d been waiting for all my life. Thank you.
Hotch reads it with tears in his eyes before taking in the cake, a classic birthday cake Spencer had bought at the store, the words “Happy Birthday Dad” written in blue icing. He didn’t really understand why the cake had stood out to him, or why he associated the word ‘dad’ with someone who wasn’t related to him at all, but he’d trusted his gut and with Derek’s cheerleading, he’d bought it.
“Oh, Spencer,” Hotch says tearfully. “Can I hug you?”
Feeling only mildly uncomfortable at the visible display of emotion Spencer doesn’t know what to do with, he nods and steps into Hotch’s comforting embrace. “This means the world to me,” Hotch murmurs quietly as he stands, hugging Spencer for as long as the younger man can stand it.
Spencer’s still not completely sure why he’s managed to make him so emotional, but at least he can trust that it’s a good thing, that Hotch is happy and pleased and reassured. And if he can make him feel even a smidgen as happy as Hotch has made Spencer over the years, well. He’ll consider his long and boring trip into the city to buy the cake, present and card worth it.