Epilogue

"In the desert

I saw a creature, naked, bestial,

Who, squatting upon the ground,

Held his heart in his hands,

And ate of it.

I said, "Is it good, friend?"

"It is bitter – bitter", he answered,

"But I like it

Because it is bitter,

And because it is my heart."

-Stephen Crane

St. Louis, Missouri, 2001

He hadn't known what to say then, and Jason didn't know what to say now, crouched on the cold tile floor in front of his colleague and friend. There had been cases since which had struck Hotch hard, but that was true with everybody. The nature of the job meant there were cases that required more than the usual amount of time to bounce back. Waverly, however... Gideon had almost been able to see the armor plating grow around Hotch's psyche. The way he played up his already laconic nature when dealing with local police and fellow agents; the quieter tone he took when talking to family members. He still did smile more than people gave him credit for, though. But only when he thought nobody was looking.

What to do? Perhaps getting off the bathroom floor might help. "Hey, Hotch, are you cold? Because I'm freezing just looking at you. Let's get you out of that wet suit, at least."

"All right."

That was a start. He offered his hand, and Hotch took it. Jason pulled him up to his feet. Hotch looked steady enough. However, Jason's rusty parental skills reappeared, so just in case, he placed a bracing hand on Hotch's back as he guided the sodden agent to a seat on one of the queen beds. Hotch did not protest, but remained silent as Jason helped him remove the jacket, dress shirt, and pants. He wordlessly put on the grey sweats that Gideon handed him.

Finally, Jason sat down beside him on the garish polyester comforter. If he knew one thing about Aaron Hotchner, it was that pushing would not usually help. And so he waited.

"I should have taken the shot."

The statement was vague enough, but both men knew what Hotch was implying.

"You don't mean that."

"Probably not. 3 years ago, I couldn't imagine saying that, but now?"

Hotch looked out the window, and Gideon could feel, if not see, Hotch's right hand tremble. His trigger hand.

"Hotch, you can't second-guess yourself like that. You made a call. I wasn't sure at the time, but you made the right call. I know you, Aaron Hotchner. You would have made the shot, and it would have haunted you for the rest of your life."

"He killed them, Jason."

"So, you kill him, judge jury and executioner? What would that have done? Fixed anything? Brought Ricky and Mark back to life? What? "

Hotch abruptly stood up, and stood at the window, looking out at the busy St. Louis skyline.

"I was just coming down to dinner, and I turned on my cell phone, to check my messages. And there was a message on there, from Kelly, back at Quantico." The last syllables seemed to catch in his throat.

"Hotch? What was it?"

"It was to call the Davenport police. They arrested Martin Therkorian last night."

"For what?"

Hotch looked back at Gideon, and there was a new fire in his eyes: anger. His voice shook, but this time with fury.

"Two weeks ago, the Bremer County Sheriff found the body of a boy in Shell Rock County Park, five miles from Waverly. Bound, nearly naked, raped. Ketamine on the tox report, bruises on his knees. A latent print on the band of his underwear matched the set we took from Therkorian two years ago. "

"Hotch."

"Matthew Milanowicz. From Waverly Junction. Twelve years old. He was only twelve years old, Jason. "

Hotch punctuated his outburst by slamming his hand futilely against the window. But even as he did it, Gideon could see him visibly deflate, like the tirade had taken every ounce of strength he had left. Hotch sat down heavily against the wall beneath the window. Gideon lowered himself down beside him.

"Jason."

"Yeah?"

"You know what you always say: save one life, you save the world entire? What happens when it's the other way around?"

"Hotch, please don't do this. You are not responsible for Matthew's death. You are not responsible for Martin Therkorian, or any of them."

"I wish I could believe that."

"I know, I know, you can't. You're not wired that way. But trust me, feeling too much is better than the alternative."

"How do you do it?"

"By the seat of my pants, most of the time."

Hotch didn't smile at that, but some weight seemed to have lifted off his shoulders. Just then, Gideon's cell phone, as it usually did, picked the worst time to ring.

J. Plancini.

"Hey, boss. Everything all right up there? "

Jenna kept her voice light, as always, but he could tell she was worried.

"Yeah, Hotch seems to have caught a stomach bug. I'm going to rustle up some microwave chicken soup. You and Sheridan and…the new guy, what's his name again?"

"Derek. You know, I think you've learned it by now, and you just do that to annoy him."

"Possibly."

"Definitely. I'll check in after we find some grub."

Click.

Gideon looked over at Hotch. The young man looked to be holding himself awake through sheer force of will.

"Hotch?"

"Yes?"

"You will get through this. I will make sure of that. If only because I will not lose one of the best profilers I've seen in a long time. I'm selfish that way. If you want to get some food, we'll get some food. You want to just sit here for a while, that's fine."

"Sitting sounds good."

"Okay."

"There may be long periods where I don't say much."

"That's okay, too."

So the two of them sat, and stared at the Clark Inn's supremely ugly wallpaper. The insanity of Martin Therkorian would not claim another victim tonight. Not if Jason Gideon had any say in the matter.

The End