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For All the Roads You Followed

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And for all the roads you followed,
And for all you did not find,
And for all the dreams you had to leave behind.

--Trans-Siberian Orchestra, "Believe"

A weekend away—that’s what he’d told himself. A weekend to get his bearings, take time off from the Academy, from the twisted workings of the human mind. He’d told Aaron it was a meeting with an old friend and a couple of contacts he needed to touch base with. It wasn’t entirely a lie, but even the half-truth felt wrong. One didn’t lie to Aaron Hotchner. It just wasn’t done.

But he couldn’t stay, not now, because no matter what he tries he can’t get the image of Frank standing over Aaron’s body out of his head. Instead, he sees blood on the wall, broken chairs, shattered glass—the what-ifs run in his mind like broken records, and it’s to his detriment that he lacks the centrifugal force to dislodge them from their cycle. So he’s woken every night since the attack, breathing hard and reaching for Aaron to make sure the younger man is still alive, still whole. He hasn’t the faintest idea how he hasn’t woken his partner, but he doesn’t ask; because all it would have taken was another minute, and the idea of a world crumbling around his shoulders would have ceased to be a cliché.

He needs time to process, to reflect, to force the images into the periphery of his mind. He understands better than most the futility of “closure”, but right now the memories have arrogated most of his cognitive ability, and it’s beginning to show. Around Aaron, he cannot afford that, because he will not be the one to remind him further of what happened, of what almost happened. Except every time he sees him, every time he sees the long, angry scar running down his partner’s torso, all he wants to do is hold on and never let go; and the urge to grab his hands, make sure his fingers are all intact, is beginning to border on ridiculous. He’d leave the BAU and sequester them in a bunker somewhere if he thought it would keep them safe, but it won’t suspend the thoughts, and believing otherwise would make him a fool. Leaving the younger man alone right now feels unequivocally reprehensible, and he knows this, but his rationality is failing him, and he’s hard-pressed to find other alternatives.

This, then, is why he’s meandering aimlessly about Manhattan on a Saturday morning. The press of the crowds, the bustle even in the early hours of a weekend keep him distracted, keeps him from thinking too much, because if he loses himself in his thoughts he’ll find himself in the Bronx and not know how he got there. Instead, he ends up in Central Park (not knowing how he got there), elbows braced on the fence surrounding a pond and trying to just listen. If he listens hard enough, he’s found he doesn’t have to think.

“Jason?”

Slowly, he turns at the interruption, nodding once in greeting. “Mac,” he says, attempting a smile and not quite succeeding.

The ex-Marine pulls him into a one-armed hug before leaning an arm against the fence and shooting him an assessing look. “It’s good to see you again,” he begins after a moment, “but I gather this isn’t a pleasure call.”

Wordlessly, Jason shakes his head, resuming his former position against the fence. When he tries to find the words, however, he can’t.

“Aaron with the kids?” Mac asks when it becomes clear Jason won’t speak, and though the agent knows it’s meant as small talk, he can’t help the involuntary flinch.

He recognises the moment suspicion arises, as blue eyes sharpen and the brunet tips his head to the side. “You two aren’t…”

“No,” Jason answers quickly, before the question is even finished. “We’re fine.”

“I don’t think you are.”

It catches him off-guard, and the look he shoots at the detective is sharp; Mac sighs. “You might be the profiler, Jason, but that doesn’t mean you’re the only one who knows how to read people.”

“Point,” he concedes softly, twisting the gold wedding band on his finger. “How did you… how did you survive it?” he blurts out finally, but Mac just looks confused.

“Survive… what?”

It’s a toss-up as to which will hurt his friend more, saying 9-11 or Claire, so he goes with the latter. He hadn’t made it into the city until the funeral, nearly a month after the attack on the Towers, but it hadn’t taken a profiler to see its impact, either.

“Losing Claire.”

When Mac freezes, Jason curses himself silently, realising how that had sounded—it’s hardly an unjustifiable reaction. “Is he—”

“No.”

Mac pauses. He knows better than to attempt force recon in unforgiving territory (especially around Jason), but if the look on his face is any indication, he wants to.

“I… just did,” he answers. “I had people who wouldn’t let me quit, wouldn’t let me walk away from my life. Back then, I didn’t believe them, couldn’t thank them for it—nothing made sense, so all I did was work.” Then his expression turns wry. “In hindsight, it was both textbook and stupid, but at the time, logic was a very long ways away.”

He mirrors Jason’s pose, elbows against the top railing, one foot braced on the bottom, and the silence takes hold. “You’re good at sitting through silence when it’s your call,” he’d told Jason once, “but not necessarily when you’re the one being cornered.”

Even knowing this, it works like a charm.

“Aaron was attacked a couple of weeks ago,” the agent says sotto voce to the water. “We’d cornered a serial killer at a diner back in July, and the bastard took a busful of elementary school kids hostage. Intelligent, psychopathic sexual sadist,” he continues quietly, a bitter litany read from a mental casefile, “and he’d drug his victims into paralysis so he could cut them open. He took ribs as trophies, made wind chimes out of them.”

Mac’s lips tighten in disgust, and he shakes his head; Jason’s fairly certain the detective can see where this is going like there are big, neon road signs, but he stays silent, so the agent moves on.

“He came here, tracked me down. The kids were with a friend of Aaron’s, and I was supposed to meet him at home for dinner; bastard beat me there, called me from my own house. If Aaron hadn’t put up a fight… if I’d gotten there a minute later than I did… I broke every speed limit and knocked the door off its hinges, and by the time I got into the bedroom…” He trails off, shaking his head, and stares at his hands like maybe the answers are written into the lines of his palms. When he speaks again, his voice is low, pained, almost plaintive. “Why? What reason could he possibly have? Aaron’s never hurt anyone in his life—where’s the benefit in hurting him?”

A single tear trails down his cheek, and though Mac shifts closer to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him, he still doesn’t speak beyond “I’m sorry.”

Jason doesn’t expect a response to rhetorical questions for which he already has answers, and he knows better than to expect a magical panacea to fall into his lap. It doesn’t stop him from wishing.

“I don’t… I keep seeing that image, every single time I close my eyes. I tried going back to work, but the first case we had I acted too fast. I can’t… I thought I could keep doing the job, thought I could keep going, but… I don’t know, Mac—if I can’t keep my family safe, why am I even there?”

“What are you saying?”

His friend’s voice is sharp—too sharp, just a hair’s breadth away from accusing; Jason’s hardly surprised, but the instinctive defenciveness rises to the surface, as well. He bites down hard on an equally sharp response and runs a hand over his greying hair.

“I’m saying… I don’t know what I’m doing.” And for Jason Gideon, that right there is a monumental admittance—for the man so surely foundationed in his work, he fumbles badly in his self-assurance over his family, and it terrifies him though he’ll never use those exact words. “If I can’t protect them,” he repeats quietly, defeated, “what am I doing there?”

At that, Mac turns to face him, reaching around awkwardly to grab Jason’s shoulders. It forces him to look at his friend, to stop staring at the water like it holds the Holy Grail, and for the first time, he sees the Marine Corps Major directed at him.

“Don’t you dare,” Mac says vehemently, punctuating each word with the staccato of his voice. “Don’t you dare give up and walk out on them, do you hear me, Jason?”

The order simmers under the older man’s skin, invasive and infuriating, and he lashes back with, “Because you couldn’t save yours?”

“Don’t make this about me.” It’s a curt admonition that says Mac thinks Jason deserves to be cuffed upside the head; he’d never do it, but he’ll think it. “Aaron adores you, Jason,” he continues harshly, which is a low blow, the knife blade slicing through the heart that works better than anything else with which he could have possibly begun. “Those kids of yours think the two of you hung the stars, and if they don’t always run to you first, it’s got nothing to do with loving you less.”

Jason flinches violently, like Mac’s slammed an open palm right in his face, because though he’s thought it; though it haunts the irrational part of his brain every single time they see a child abuse case; though he and Aaron have had countless, heartrending arguments about it; he’s never dared speak it aloud to anyone else, unwilling to admit he may be failing his kids. He’d alluded to it once, months ago when a consult from Mac had turned into the requisite catching up, but he’d never said it plainly. It hurts when Aaron says it; it hurts more, he learns, when someone else does.

“You don’t—”

“It’s written across your face.” Mac cuts off the protest, shaking his head. “Don’t throw this away,” he repeats, softer this time. “It’s harder to get it back than it is to get through it.”

Jason doesn’t respond, because he doesn’t honestly believe that, and there is a part of him wholly convinced that his family would be better off without him there. Then Mac’s phone rings, and he shoots Jason a long look before he releases him to answer it.

“Yeah,” he says after a moment, “I’ll meet you there.” He slips the phone into his pocket and gives Jason a long, assessing look. “We’ve got a case,” he explains unnecessarily, and then he asks the question they simply don’t ask each other: “Are you going to be okay?”

A nod; then, “I’ll be fine.” He waves the detective away, but he won’t meet his eye. “I have a meeting this afternoon; go—the crime scene won’t wait for you.”

A meeting on a Saturday afternoon is a bullshit excuse, but Mac has sufficient tact to not call him on it. “All right,” he says finally. “I’ll see you later?” he adds, voice lilting up into a question.

“I’ll be there.”

Mac hesitates, then nods; there’s nothing else he can say, and Jason’s grateful he doesn’t try.

(For All the Roads You Followed)

It’s hours later, coming on nightfall, and Jason’s in a bar waiting for Mac, staring into his drink without really seeing it. He knows better than to stop paying attention to his surroundings, but he’s nowhere near his best tonight, so when someone drops onto the barstool next to him and orders a Sam Adams, he starts.

“Jason,” the man says with easy surprise, but the eyes—sharp, angry, the blue of tropical oceans—belie his intent.

“Don,” he says after a moment. It’s been long months since he’s seen the detective, and though he’d call him a friend, he wouldn’t have said they were terribly close. As such, he has no real idea why the man looks like he wants to kill him.

“Are you crazy?” Don asks in that same conversational tone, and Jason considers turning the question back on him.

“Possibly,” he says aloud. “Why don’t you tell me?”

Eyes narrowing just slightly, Don Flack shakes his head. “You’re either crazy or stupid, so I can’t figure out how the Bureau promoted you quite so high.”

For just a moment, Jason contemplates decking the younger man; he’s never started a barfight in his life, however, and he doubts his Section Chief would applaud if he did so now. There’s a treacherous voice in the back of his head that asks, “What if you don’t go back?”, but he tamps it down viciously, takes everything he’s been feeling, and channels it into the conversation, reminding himself that he knows how to do this.

“But you have your theories, Don.”

“You have reasons.”

“This is an interesting dance you’re trying to lead.” Jason tips his head to the side. “Shall I ask someone to put on a waltz?”

If Don Flack had been the snarling type, now would have probably been the time for it. Since he isn’t, he slaps a twenty on the counter. “Would you like to keep evading me, or should I just yell at you here?”

Pushing himself to his feet, Jason nods at the door, a silent “after you”. They’ve known one another a few years, and he’s never seen the younger man genuinely pissed before; the professional side of him is intrigued.

Outside, the detective turns, glaring at him and dropping all pretence of civility. “Tell me I heard wrong.”

He knows the man (or knows of him) well enough to know that Don Flack does not get angry easily—not at his friends; at himself, at the idiot perp who held up someone’s grandmother and threw up on his Italian shoes, maybe, but not at his friends. As such, he probably doesn’t want to believe whatever he’s heard from Mac (who else?), but Jason's not about to put in much of an effort to contradict... well, anything.

“If I can,” Jason concedes. “Are you planning to tell me what you think you misheard?”

No, he’s really not making it easy; Don gives up.

“You’re a fucking idiot if you think throwing all of it away is the answer.”

Jason wonders how much he knows and feigns stupidity. “Oh? What makes you think that?”

“Don’t profile me, Jason,” Don snaps. He’s not a profiler, so he lacks the right to say they don’t profile each other, but the look in his eyes says friendship should count for something. That he’s not making a whole lot of allowances for it himself he seems to be ignoring for the moment. “That family of yours should be the most important thing in your life, and you want to walk away from them??”

A deep breath; he’s beginning to reconsider the wisdom of not punching the younger man in the jaw. “And what would you know about it?”

Something akin to grief overrides the anger in Don’s eyes, making Jason wonder. “I know I lost my best friend this year, and I’d still do anything to get her back,” he says harshly. “She was family, and if she’d survived, I’d like to believe I wouldn’t just walk away because I was afraid she’d get hurt again. There are still days when I want to call her up and ask her what she’s been doing.” Then he sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose though his tone isn’t any less angry. “Hell, I almost got myself killed then, too—and I wouldn’t be any better off if everyone in my life had run away from me.”

Jason hesitates for a moment, riffling through his mental archives before he recalls the story of the NYPD Detective murdered, dumped in a car, and set on fire, followed shortly thereafter by a series of bombings throughout the city. The Bureau’s field office in Manhattan had been burning candles at both ends with a flame going in the middle, too. Damn. “I’m sorry.”

But this is the stage of grief he wants to be at, where it still hurts but you have something resembling objectivity. Here and now, he doesn’t have any hope that he’ll ever get there. This time, Aaron survived; next time—if there is a next time—neither of them might be so lucky, and Jason doesn’t think he’ll come out of round two whole. Not when the faultlines have already formed.

“You didn’t kill her,” Don answers flatly, “and you didn’t blow me up. I don’t want apologies; I want you to pull your head out of your ass and go home to your family.”

Eyes narrowing in both surprise and anger, Jason shakes his head. “It’s my responsibility to protect them; if I can’t do that, what the hell am I doing there?”

Being with them!” the younger man exclaims, exasperated. “Even if you can’t save them from everything, you should be there!”

Jason sighs, bracing his palms on the back of a bench. He resents feeling like he owes the younger man an explanation, even though he knows it’s ridiculous. “I failed them once,” he points out. “Who’s to say I won’t again?”

“No one.” The frankness makes Jason look up, and Don shrugs. “You don’t know that. But I’d rather feel like I failed and have someone to apologise to than leave and have to come back to a body in the morgue.”

And isn’t that precisely what he’s afraid of? It’s been weeks, and still every time he closes his eyes, he sees the livid red line carved into Aaron’s skin, sees the bruises on his body, the panic in his eyes. A minute more and Frank would have had his chest cracked open, would have turned Aaron into one more victim and left Jason with nothing more than that body in the morgue and a house he’d never have been able to live in again.

He says nothing, but something must have shown in his expression, because Don’s softens, if only a touch.

“Look,” he says, “just go back, it’s a long enough drive. You’ll have time to think, and you can still decide after you get there.”

The detective is banking on the fact that Aaron will know something’s off the moment Jason walks in the door, and the agent knows this. He also can’t quite resist the lure of the suggestion, because leaving Aaron and the kids behind scares him almost as much as staying does.

So he nods, slowly and just once, but then Mac arrives and gives them both an odd look. There’s a tactful topic change, an invitation for Don to stay, Jason buys a round, and they take a table toward the back of the bar. The next several hours are spent discussing cases, listening to Don and Mac argue over the merits (or lack thereof) of hockey, and trying to feel like life might be normal again. At some point, Stella Bonasera, Mac’s partner, arrives with the coroner (former coroner, Jason reminds himself), and the evening goes to hell in an extremely entertaining handbasket from there.

By the time Jason’s back at his hotel and trying to sleep, he’s telling himself that Don’s right, that he should go back home and at least see his family.

He doesn’t count on waking in the middle of night in a cold sweat with tears on his cheeks and Aaron’s name on his lips; the image of coming home to his partner torn open and spread across the bed is too vividly emblazoned in his mind and Frank’s laughter echoes in his ears. His resolve shattered, he throws his things together, trying to keep his hands from shaking. He leaves a message for Mac, saying he’s been called back to Quantico for a case, then gets in his car and starts driving west. Destination is both irrelevant and unknown; all he can think about is going somewhere.

He picks up the phone and starts dialling Aaron’s number at least three times, but by the time he has to stop for gas four hours later, he’s somewhere in Pennsylvania (or maybe it’s Ohio) and still hasn’t been able to call without hanging up. I’m sorry runs endlessly through his mind, but he’s no longer sure to whom it’s addressed.

In a restaurant that afternoon, he starts to write down all the things he doesn’t know how to say aloud, and before an hour is over, he has ten pages tucked into an envelope in one of his bags.

It takes another thirty-six hours and yet another nightmare before he finds the nerve to send it, and he refuses to let himself think of Aaron’s expression when he reads it. They’ll be safer this way.


Finis.

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