Disclaimer: I do not own Criminal Minds. (And yes, damnit, I know that it is extraordinarily cliché to say this, but if I did, Haley would not have died.) Title from a Hem song because I was feeling uncreative.
Summary: it's the night after Haley's funeral, and Aaron finds comfort from an unexpected visitor.
The Part Where You Let Go
"It is not so much our friends' help that helps us as the confident knowledge that they will help us."-- Greek philosopher Epicurus
Aaron cursed when the doorbell rang; Jack had only just fallen asleep after hours and hours of crying, and if he woke up now Aaron suspected that neither of them would end up going to bed that night.
He wondered who it was that decided to visit him so late on the day of Haley's funeral, and decided that it could be any of the team but was most likely Dave or Morgan. Possibly Prentiss. He prepared a different thank-you-but-go-away for each of them in turn as he made his way slowly to the door.
His hand shook as he pressed his eye to the peephole. Though he didn't want to admit to himself, more than anyone else he expected it to be Foyet, back once more and there to finish off his son.
But it wasn't Foyet, or Dave or Morgan or Prentiss, or anyone Aaron would've ever guessed at. The face on the other side of the peephole was keen and craggy, with dark hair and dark eyes, and Aaron was so stunned that all he could do was open the door.
"Aaron," Jason Gideon replied as he stepped in, clapping a hand on his shoulder. "Sorry it took me so long."
He wandered further into the apartment without invitation. "Jack's asleep," Aaron warned him quietly, still standing at the door.
"What do you want, Jason?"
"To see how you are."
"You wanna take a wild guess?" Aaron snapped, then sighed. "I'm sorry. That's not fair. But… two and a half years gone and you think you can just drop by at eleven at night? And regarding how I am, well, I just buried my wife."
Jason was silent for a moment, then nodded, raising his hands. "You're right. It was a stupid question. And it was stupid of me to come. Just thought maybe if I came back for anything I should come back for this."
"For what, the aftermath?" Aaron demanded, crossing his arms. He still stood with his back to his own door, staring at Jason, who was half a room into his apartment. "How about coming back when we were still actually looking for Foyet? You think that might have been a little bit more helpful?"
Jason blinked. "I tried," he replied quietly. "I've been chasing down any lead I could for the past six months. I would've called the minute I got something. But you know how hard he was to track."
Now it was Aaron's turn to stand in stunned silence. He'd expected Jason to brush off the accusation or come up with some wild excuse. As well as he knew the older man, he hadn't seen this one coming, and found himself growing unexpectedly emotional at the thought of the secret assistance that had been going on all along-- although, of course, it didn't take much to set him off the past few days. But the thought of Jason alone in his pickup roaming the country without asking for credit was one he suddenly couldn't shake from his mind.
"Can I get you a drink?" Aaron finally sighed.
Jason was sitting back in the armchair when Aaron returned with two tumblers of scotch and extended one with a trembling hand. He recognized that body language immediately: with his legs crossed and his head back, Jason was the perfect example of how to set someone at ease. Aaron was about to be profiled.
"How's your head?" Jason asked, gesturing to Aaron's black eye as he accepted his drink.
"Better. I had a mild concussion." Aaron sat carefully at the end of the couch farthest from Jason.
"Any other damage?"
"Broke a few ribs."
Aaron's throat constricted, and he aborted the sip of alcohol he was about to take. "He didn't touch him."
"How's he handling it?"
"I don't know. During the day he seems alright. Then it gets to be bedtime, and…." Again, his voice failed him mid-sentence, and this time he had to clear his throat before continuing. "Tonight he screamed. I mean, Jason, he just… screamed." Aaron's eyes burned at the memory of his son's flailing arms and reddened face, writhing on the bed as he screamed for his mother. Quickly he threw back the rest of his drink and waited for Jason to continue his line of questioning, hoping he'd be done with it soon. In fact, Jason made no comment about Jack's behavior, but simply nodded.
"How are you handling it, Aaron?"
Aaron exhaled, swilled the ice in his empty glass, and tapped his fingers against his leg before answering. "I don't think it's been long enough that I'm actually handling it yet."
"I'm assuming you're on leave?"
"For a month." He shook his head. "And it's gonna take about that long to get all Jack's paperwork straightened out. Get custody again, get his files reactivated, get him back in school here…."
"Then are you going back to the BAU?"
"I don't know," Aaron admitted quietly. "I'm not sure I can."
"What do you mean?"
Aaron sighed. "I mean, I tried to put my guns on when I went back to HQ for my interview. And… I really almost couldn't. Then when I'm home…." He lifted his pants leg to display his occupied ankle holster. "I can't take them off. Even with Jack around. I can't sleep… I feel like I can't blink. I mean, I still feel my hands on his shoulders. All the time, I see his… skull breaking open. I feel the moment when his neck snaps. But I still feel him standing around the corner. I've been… killing him again and again for a week. But I can't make myself believe that he's dead. I'm going to… I'm gonna snap, Jason. I can't be what the team needs right now. And I can't leave Jack. He just lost his mom…."
Aaron made it through the speech without interruption, until, on the very last word, he felt his face twist up without warning. He closed his eyes and willed himself to calm down, but it was too late; he could hear Jason standing, walking, and reseating himself on the couch. "Don't worry about that now," Jason said quietly, and Aaron felt his arm settle on the couch, behind him but not touching.
"Hey, you asked."
"I know. I'm sorry. I didn't come here to get information, I came here to see my friend."
Friend. Pathetic as it was, that single word did Aaron in. He was so angry, at everyone-- at Foyet and himself and even Haley, and at the world in general, but Jason didn't deserve to have that all thrown at him. He hadn't had to come. It wasn't as though the others on the team had been unsupportive-- in fact, all of them had hugged him and sworn that they were there for him at least once so far-- but Jason was different. Jason had left when Aaron had still held on to some modicum of normalcy and vulnerability. Jason didn't know what he'd become in the past few years, cold and driven and frightening even to himself.
Put simply, Jason didn't expect as much from him.
"I still love her," he murmured. "I never let myself believe that I'd be able to win her back. But… I still dreamt about it." Two hot tears swelled up in his eyes and ran down his cheeks, burning on the way. "I fell in love with her when I was seventeen. There's never going to be anyone else for me. And now… she's gone…." He choked. Jason's arm slipped forward, encircling his shoulders now. Aaron bowed his head as more tears fell. "I wasn't fast enough to save her. There's no other way of looking at it. I didn't figure it out fast enough and when I did I didn't get there fast enough. And he killed her. With our little boy upstairs. He killed her. Jack heard the shot."
There was no use now in even trying to hold it in. He gave himself over to voiceless sobbing, and Jason pulled him closer, so close that Aaron could feel the warmth of his body.
"I should've made the deal, Jason," he moaned. "I could've made it so that none of this happened." Quietly, hyper-aware of his son sleeping two rooms away, he turned his face into Jason's shoulder and bawled. He was dimly aware of Jason pulling them both backwards so that they were reclining against the sofa, and as he relinquished control of his tears, he felt his muscles involuntarily relaxing as well.
All the pain of the past week rushed out of him like a river: the terror of the race to their house, the shame of not making it in time, the fury of his final confrontation with Foyet, the grief at Haley's death and Jack's near miss. Then slowly his mind worked backwards to the constant anxiety of his family in witness protection, the unbearable frustration of his hunt for Foyet, the doubt about his decision to refuse the deal. And eventually he was crying for more than that, for everything-- for his shortcomings as a father and a husband, for his own sense of abandonment, and finally for his entire existence since the moment he'd come home to find Haley gone. He felt swept out to sea, tossed every which way by towering tsunamis that wouldn't let him draw a single breath. No matter how tightly he clutched to Jason, he was spinning out of control, and there was no indication of the direction of the surface. The water on his cheeks didn't even come close to representing the oceanic agony hidden inside.
"I can't do this," Aaron murmured, pulling his face back from Jason's shoulder, stunned at the gentility and composure of his voice. It felt as though the words should be ripping out of his chest of their own accord; or, at the very least, he should be screaming them. But instead he spoke evenly and low, and his confession came out sounding like a business call. "I can't do it," he repeated.
"Can't do what?"
"I can't raise Jack by myself. He barely knows me."
"Don't be an idiot," Jason said firmly. "You have every right to be scared, but don't you let yourself think for one second that Jack doesn't love you just as much as he loved Haley. Be scared. It's okay. It's a lot to do on your own. But he loves you. You're his dad."
Choking up again, Aaron didn't acknowledge the answer-- he couldn't. Instead, his mind turned to the event that had caused Jason to leave the BAU for good, and he deliberated only a second or two before bringing it up.
"When Sarah died… when you saw her there… how long did it take to get that picture out of your head? How long did it take for you to think of anything else besides how dead she was?"
"I still see her," Jason admitted quietly, that familiar smile of sadness creeping onto his face. "That doesn't change. But you learn to live with it. You learn to incorporate it. And eventually you forgive it."
Aaron blinked, suddenly feeling stationary again, as though the wave had pulled him fully under and he was floating, clothes and hair adrift in the cold, translucent waters. He had stopped drowning; he was drowned.
"Oh." He didn't try to talk anymore, just curled up on himself, arms around his own waist, and cried. Jason's heavy hand rubbed gentle circles on his back, but neither of them attempted to say anything. Slowly his tears escalated until it was hard to keep them quiet, so he brought his hands up to his face and prayed that Jack was sleeping soundly. There was nothing else he could do. Now that he had fully given in to the tears that had been lurking constantly and breaking out in short bursts over the last few days, he couldn't stop them-- didn't know if he'd ever be able to.
Aaron was sobbing harder now, sobbing so hard that he began to cough, then coughing so hard that he gagged. He could taste the sudden bile waiting at the back of his throat. Surprised, he shot up, holding his breath; Jason released him from his embrace and looked him over with concern. "Do you need to get to the bathroom?" Aaron shook his head; he'd be damned if he'd cry himself sick in front of another man, even Jason. He closed his eyes and sat perfectly still until the burst of nausea faded. He felt himself shaking, wondered if that had been going on all along or if it was new.
"It's okay, Aaron," Jason murmured gently. "I'll help you walk if you need to."
"No, damnit," Aaron groaned. "I'm not going to vomit, Jason." And then naturally, just to make him a liar, his stomach heaved violently. He stumbled to the bathroom and dropped down before the toilet, feeling so wretchedly awful that he was tempted to cry again just from the nausea alone. He felt himself swallowing repeatedly, still instinctively fighting it; but maybe, he reasoned, it would be better just to let it happen. Maybe throwing up would help; it was something concrete, something that he didn't have to ponder and define. At the very least maybe it would make his stomach feel better. Aaron leaned forward and let the retching take over his body.
Nothing happened. He hadn't eaten for days. He waited until his knees began to shake.
Cool hands pressed against the back of his neck as he fell backwards to a sitting position, disappointed tears running down his cheeks. "Get up, Aaron," Jason ordered quietly. "The floor's cold."
Aaron did as he was told, slowly trailing Jason back to the couch. They sat, and with Jason's arm around him once more Aaron gave himself over to tears yet again. This time they fell quietly, with no sobbing to upset his stomach, just a steady stream pouring down his cheeks and dropping into his lap. He watched them as they landed and stained, not thinking as he cried, just letting it happen. He needed no motivation. In the past few days, crying had become his natural state of existence.
He didn't struggle when Jason pulled him sideways; he let his head drop onto the other man's chest, not caring that he was half in Jason's lap. He closed his eyes and felt Jason's arms encircle him, strong and fatherly, like nothing he'd ever felt before. Now his tears ran slowly across his cheeks and slid calmly onto Jason's shirt. Distantly he felt his breathing slow and even out, and decided that it was fine to fall asleep right there. Didn't matter. Nothing mattered, not anymore.
His head was displaced briefly as Jason's chest rose and fell in a sigh. Rough fingers that were by now familiar again brushed soothingly through his hair, and Aaron felt his tears finally trickle to a stop as he drifted through mindless half-sleep. His breathing fell into line with Jason's in a nearly meditative rhythm and gradually the churning in his stomach subsided.
He thought he was dreaming when soft footsteps echoed suddenly in his head. "Daddy?" It was Jack's voice.
"It's okay," Jason rumbled gently, and Aaron felt the words as they left his chest. "My name is Jason. I'm your daddy's friend. You probably don't remember me, but I'm here to help."
"What's wrong with Daddy?"
"He's sad about your mom, sweetie. You understand that, right?"
"Yeah," Jack whispered.
"Do you wanna come over and help him feel better?"
It wasn't until he felt and heard the small body climbing up into Jason's lap next to him that Aaron fully awoke, momentarily stunned to find that he hadn't been dreaming. He shot up instantly, scrubbing his cheeks, but Jason pulled him back. Jack was curled up in Jason's other arm, head nestled in the crook of his neck, watching wordlessly.
"It's okay, Aaron," Jason said firmly. "Let him see you cry. He needs to know that it's okay."
Aaron frowned; he'd never taught his son to be ashamed of emotion the way his father had. Hadn't he just held him for hours before bed, rubbing his back as he cried and screamed for his mother? But, thinking about his own father, Aaron realized what Jason meant: it wasn't his son's tears that he had to vindicate. It was his own. He had to share the grief with him, set an example of that, because if he didn't he might never be able to set an example of being happy. He might never be able to raise Jack the way Haley had wanted him to-- raise him to believe in happy endings.
Hearing the echoes of Haley's last words to him, Aaron let tears well up once more in his eyes. "Hey, Jack," he said quietly, reaching over and taking his son's small hand. Jack lifted his face and peered up at him curiously.
"Daddy's sad," he whispered.
"Yeah, buddy. I'm really sad. I…." Jason's free hand found his back as his voice faltered. "I miss your mom, just like you. I know she's in a better place, but I still wish she was here."
"Me too," Jack bleated softly. The look on his face was nearly enough to make Aaron lose all control, but despite the truth of Jason's words, he still had to hold on to some modicum of strength. He couldn't break down completely in front of him son. So he cleared his throat and smiled.
"I know you do, buddy. And I'm really glad that we have each other to help when we miss her, right? I help you…."
"And I help you," Jack cut in quietly.
"Yeah, buddy, yeah. You do."
Aaron's lip trembled; he bit down on it briefly. "Yeah, Jacky. I really do."
Jack squirmed out of Jason's arm and lunged across at his father, wrapping his little arms around Aaron's neck. Aaron clutched his son to his chest until he could feel his heart beat, hiding his face in Jack's hair and breathing its oily, soapy smell. His tears fell rapidly once again, and Jack's little hands began patting his back gently. "I love you, Daddy," he babbled. "Love you, love you."
Aaron's breath hitched; he could barely keep it together any longer. "I love you, Jack," he managed to choke out, then his voice deserted him once again. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the weight of his son in his arms.
A heavy arm wrapped around his shoulder and drew him sideways, so that now Aaron was hunched with his arms around Jack and Jason's arm around both of them. He couldn't stop crying; didn't try to, in fact. This sensation of being comforted was so new and so amazing that he just let it happen, let his friend and his son support him as he wept. And for the first time in a long time, he actually felt safe; actually allowed himself to remember that Foyet was gone. For all the terror and the pain that he had caused and was still causing, he was dead, and he couldn't hurt then any more. The damage had been doing and it hurt at an unbelievable level, but no new wounds could be inflicted. He was there to watch over Jack, and Jason was there to watch over him. He was safe, at last.
Aaron didn't know that he'd fallen asleep until he woke up to find himself sprawled on the sofa with Jack curled up on his chest. His throat stung and his eyes felt glued shut; he rubbed them to coax them open. Sleepily he gazed around the room, and found Jason back in the armchair, reading a book on mood disorders from Aaron's shelf. He laid it, open, on the floor as he noticed Aaron's movements.
"Good, you're up," he said quietly. "Don't have a key to lock the door behind me."
"You're going?" Aaron whispered, trying not to disturb his son. He struggled to sit up, but Jack had him efficiently pinned.
"Yeah. It's almost two. I put my number in your phone. Don't be a stranger."
"That's a little ironic to say, don't you think?" Aaron asked, frowning as he realized that Jason had in fact retrieved his phone from his pocket without his knowledge and left it on the coffee table. But he wasn't mad. The past few hours didn't make up for over two years of absence, but Aaron knew it would be unfair to say they hadn't at least made a dent.
Jason didn't reply. "Could you use a hand with him?" He offered, lowering his voice as he came closer. Aaron nodded, and Jason lifted Jack's sleeping form expertly off his chest. He shivered at the sudden lack of body heat. "Where's he sleeping?" He whispered.
"My room," Aaron admitted, pulling himself reluctantly from the couch, joints cracking as he did so, and led Jason down the hallway. "There's a room for him but I haven't been up for furniture shopping."
"Understandable." Jason slipped into the room that Aaron indicated and laid Jack gently on one side of the large bed; the boy immediately rolled over onto his stomach and stuck his thumb stubbornly in his mouth. Jason smiled.
The two men quietly exited the room, and Aaron trailed Jason to the door. Standing before it, they paused; Aaron wasn't sure what he should say-- what there really was to say.
"Thanks for coming by, Jason," he said blandly, and Jason chuckled. He didn't reply, but wrapped Aaron in a final, spontaneous hug that Aaron returned forcefully. When they let go, Aaron found Jason smiling gently.
"I told you I still see Sarah all the time," he said quietly. "And I do. But sometimes now I see her smiling. This won't last forever, Aaron. Nothing does."
Aaron nodded, too tired to respond. And just as readily as he'd come, Jason stole into the hallway and was gone.
Aaron locked and bolted the door behind him, then turned to face his apartment. The quiet was more pronounced in Jason's wake; he had been the only person besides Aaron or Jack to spend more than a few minutes in the apartment since Aaron had begun renting it. Aaron was surprised to realize that he missed him immediately.
He crossed the room to the coffee table and picked up his phone, entering the contact list and quickly locating the entry entitled Jason. Aaron smiled. Though Jason wasn't a liar, he'd been half-expecting the number to be missing.
As he stared at the screen, the digits of the clock flipped from 1:59 to 2:00. Suddenly it was almost impossible to keep his eyes open, as though seeing for himself how late it was had somehow sent an emergency plea for sleep to his brain. And he was too tired to fight it. He stumbled drowsily to his bedroom, slipped into pajamas, and crawled into bed next to Jack. He tried to resist for a moment pulling his son towards him, but quickly lost the battle. Jack stayed asleep anyway, and Aaron sighed as Jack's even breathing ghosted rhythmically across his neck.
He closed his eyes and did his best to focus on that alone, and in his mind a sudden battle was waged between the terrible bloody faces of Haley and Foyet and the gentle, sleeping countenance of his son.
For the first time all week, the image of Jack won.
Within minutes, Aaron was asleep.