The force of the explosion was enough to make them all stagger on their feet, even at their considerable distance. Reid’s head snapped around in horror - there were supposed to be children in there.
“No…” J.J. breathed in agony beside him, and he knew she was thinking the same thing.
Hotch barked orders over the radio, calling for fire and SWAT and whoever else might be on the periphery that could help. Distantly, Reid recognized the edge of panic in his voice that only those who knew the Unit Chief well could distinguish. For a split second before he acted, Reid spared a thought for his boss - Sorry, Hotch, but I have to - and then he was gone, running towards the burning farm house and ripping the comm. unit from his ear to silence Hotch’s angry growl.
The front of the house was gone, walls at unnatural angles pointing upwards to the night sky and the sparks cascading through it. The heat was obscene, searing him even before he leapt over the burning threshold and really experienced it. He stumbled in, tripping over furniture and wood and brick. The smoke stung his eyes and they began to water so much that things went in and out of focus. His feet slid as he tried to move quickly, calling out for survivors but giving up when he just ended up coughing instead. He walked across something that shifted unexpectedly and he looked down to realize he was standing on someone. He almost lost it then, almost retreated. But the body was still, blackened, and he knew there was nothing he could do for them. He moved in deeper.
The center of the house was an inferno. He stood in the doorway of what must have been a meeting room of some kind and took in the scene for a terrifying second. There were bodies everywhere. Some were on fire, none of them moved. The walls were hissing like living things and the support beams of the roof made ominous cracking sounds that said he had seconds before it collapsed like the front of the building had. His eyes burned, he could barely breathe, he couldn’t see anything… and then he heard a single cry. He blinked savagely, wiping his hands at the smoke in front of him as if he could clear it away.
“Hello?” he coughed.
He heard the cry again but it sounded a lot like the shrill hissing of the flames consuming the room. It could’ve been just that. He stepped into the room and ran through the bodies quickly trying to catch any movement before he had to leave to save himself. There was a howl, loud and sharp to his left, and he dove pulling at a woman’s body who was limp but unburned. She was already gone, half her chest blown away when he rolled her to him, but there under her was a baby covered in blood. The child’s eyes were white moons in her gore-riddled face and her mouth seemed too small for the scream she made when she saw him. He scooped her up, tearing his Kevlar from him and wrapping it around her as she continued screaming and yanking his hair in her tiny fist.
“Got you,” he half-whispered, half-coughed and then sprinted for the doorway blurring before him.
He was stymied on the way back; hallway walls had crumbled into flaming barriers and the smoke was so thick and cloying that he got turned around, backing into a stairwell he didn’t remember on the way in and trying to calm down and think.
“C’mon, Reid, c’mon…” he hissed and closed his eyes tightly to try clearing them while also attempting to call up a floor plan of the farm house in his mind. The baby’s cries were less frantic but when he looked at her she seemed listless and that more than anything spurred him to move. Screw it. Follow the flames… they’ll always point to fresh air. And they did. He knew he stepped on more bodies as he went, and he felt the slice of flames burning through his shirt to the skin underneath, but he kept moving until he found himself in front of a cracked window. Ground floor… we can make it… He clutched the baby close and threw himself through the window, glass shards scraping his burned arms and stabbing into his legs. He landed with a grunt, miraculously under the baby, and then he hopped up and kept running before his brain could tell him how injured he was. The burnt grass crackled under his feet until the blurring red and blue lights became everything he could see. Hands grabbed him, tried to get him to sit down.
“Hey, buddy, stop stop stop…”
“Baby,” he coughed uncontrollably. “First.”
“George, oxygen mask, now,” the voice said. “It’s okay, give her to us, alright?”
His hands unclenched and when the burden was lifted from him, the baby howled miserably. Reid smiled: if she could complain that was a good sign. Something tugged on his hair and he turned with a hiss.
“Oh hey, let go, little one, c’mon now. Let’s have a look at you…” Rubber gloves worked at the baby’s fist until she released Reid’s hair. Someone chuckled and it sounded alien against all of the shouting and burning. “She’s real attached to you, FBI.”
Reid grimaced but then another set of rubber gloves began manhandling him. “Sit here,” they said, and then he tried to stay still as they rinsed his eyes until he could almost make out shapes again. “You’re gonna need some stitches and we’ll have to take you to the ER for the burns. Don’t want ‘em to get infected…”
An oxygen mask was strapped to his face and ten minutes later he felt more like himself and absolutely terrible all over. A paramedic appeared in front of him, still blurry but smiling, and then shuffled forward with a white bundle.
“So, good work, FBI. She’s gonna be fine.” Who? Oh right, the baby… and since she was born into a doomsday cult and subsequently lost her deranged family in a fire, chances are the paramedic’s assessment was overly optimistic. “Listen, this scene’s still pretty wild and I can’t sit around waiting for Child Protective Services to show. So… would you help a guy out?”
The paramedic shoved the white bundle at Reid and he gasped a muffled ‘hey!’ into his oxygen mask.
“Like I said, she’s fine so, just… don’t drop her ‘til I get back.” Then the guy was off like a shot before Reid could complain.
Reid’s burned arms grumbled under their bandages but he cradled the baby without thinking about it first. He sputtered uselessly after the fleeing paramedic and then looked down when she cried out softly. She was blurry too but he could make out the confused, scared expression and the sooty smudges where her tears were drying. If there was one thing Reid understood it was that kind of irrational fear that left you exhausted and numb, waiting for whatever horror came next. He bent closer so she could see him better, thumbing his oxygen mask off to the side.
“This is a terrible thing,” he murmured roughly. “But I promise you it’ll get better. You don’t know me but I won’t let anything happen to you.”
She fussed a little, a tiny hand escaping her blanket and reaching for his face as she squirmed. There was a singed bracelet on her wrist woven from once-colorful string. Reid twisted it around with his finger and it revealed a name: Olivia. Reid grinned even though his face hurt. It was as if they’d just been introduced.
“Hello, Olivia,” he coughed gently. “I’m Spencer.”
Olivia’s face creased up and her chest hitched in tiny half-sobs but she just stared at him warily and pouted. Her hand found its way to his hair again and yanked.
“Ow!” he huffed but didn’t free himself from her grip. And that’s how his team found them, sitting on the lip of an ambulance staring at each other curiously.
The nearest CPS office was two towns away and since the whole cult debacle had happened over a weekend there was no one available when the Bureau called about Olivia. The local police suggested sending her to the children’s ward of the county hospital until the mess could be sorted out, but there wasn’t anything wrong with her and she’d be mostly alone there anyway. Reid became oddly territorial about it all and decided not to think about why he was reacting so strongly.
“She can stay with us,” he said in a tone that indicated he considered the subject closed, and then marched out of the PD’s conference room while his colleagues looked at him as if he’d lost his brilliant mind.
The case was still ongoing and there was plenty to do. They were sleeping in shifts at the PD and it didn’t seem like that much of a stretch to take a break every once in a while for a feeding or diaper change or an opportunity to tell an age-inappropriate story to a baby. In the end, they all helped out but Reid did the lion’s share of the hovering.
“Ugh,” he tsked as he changed Olivia’s diaper on the conference room table. “Diaper rash…”
Olivia wriggled and smiled as the cool air hit her tiny bum. J.J. chuckled and handed him a bottle of cream that mysteriously manifested from her go bag.
“You’re so much better at this than you used to be, Spence. My boys have trained you well.”
“Once you get past the freeform terror of it, it basically boils down to practicalities, doesn’t it?” He winced as he cleaned Olivia. Olivia just ‘wooed’ as he applied the cream.
J.J. laughed heartily and Reid looked up at her with a raised eyebrow. “Not really, Spence. Raising a baby is about 80% love, otherwise we’d kill them while they slept just to get a modicum of peace back in our lives.”
“Jennifer, that’s horrific,” he deadpanned.
J.J. shrugged and then moved to stand beside him, looking down at Olivia and laying a hand on his shoulder in the process. “She’s beautiful. Look at those eyes…”
Olivia smiled at them both, happy to be the center of attention. She had dark eyes and olive skin, and thick knot of dark brown tangles that stood away from her head like a curled exclamation of excitement. Other than the rash, she was absolutely perfect. Well, that’s what Reid thought anyway…
“I wonder if she has any other family,” he said quietly, something sinking deep in his chest. J.J. squeezed his shoulder.
“If there is, we’ll find them.”
“Yeah.” He fastened her diaper and lifted her up against his chest. He held her close for a moment and then was going to pass her to J.J. when he found his friend watching him with a soft expression.
“You’re good at this because you’ve learned to be. But you’re also good at it because you want to be.”
Reid blinked as his heart stuttered and then restarted with a painful thud. He tried not to notice; there was no sense thinking about things that you couldn’t change. Olivia made a wet burbling sound and slapped the side of his face with her tiny hand as if reaffirming his opinion on the matter. J.J. reached forward and collected her with a smile.
“C’mon, Liv, let’s go Skype with Aunt Penelope while Reid plays with his maps…”
Reid watched them leave and he found himself waving when Olivia twisted in J.J.’s arms peering at him over her shoulder.
Olivia slept soundly on Reid’s chest as he lay stretched out on the conference room couch reviewing the preliminary crime scene report from the fire marshal about the house explosion. She was making a drool spot on his shirt, but since he already had spit-up and diaper cream on his outfit he didn’t see the harm in a little saliva. It was late and the PD was mostly abandoned, but even still Hotch managed to creep up on him silently.
He twitched a little and then stilled, watching as Olivia snuffled but didn’t wake. He looked up at Hotch with relief and saw a weird, concerned expression on his face.
“Hey,” he said quietly and with a caution he usually didn’t have to worry about. “I’m glad you’re here. I think the explosion tells us something important about our cult leader. I was going to come find you but…” He gestured to the tiny sleeping human holding him down. Hotch’s expression grew even more worried, lining his face with deep creases as Reid watched. It was disconcerting. He shook it off. “So, I’m thinking that-”
“Reid,” Hotch interrupted softly. “You can’t keep her.”
A strange mix of hurt and rage burst at the center of him in an instant. He felt his cheeks heat and even though it was dim in the conference room, he turned his face away to hide it. Why would Hotch feel compelled to tell him that? As if Reid wasn’t aware of that already… His heart rammed against his ribs and Olivia shifted in her sleep, mewling softly and grasping a button from his shirt in her fingers.
“I know that,” he said quietly but with a firmness that told Hotch to let it go.
“Perhaps.” Hotch shuffled closer. “But you’re… attached. She has to go into the system. There’s nothing we can do about that.”
Reid sighed. “I have no illusions about what’s going to happen to her.” He laid a hand lightly along her back with just enough pressure that he could feel her chest expand and contract, expand and contract. “But… I’ll never have my own kids. I guess… I guess that I’m allowing myself to pretend for a while, that’s all. And she’s making it easy for me…”
Reid knew the smile that spread over him was a sad one, but he didn’t expect Hotch to look gutted when he turned his gaze back to him. “What?”
Hotch straightened his shoulders and cleared his throat. His concern disappeared under a professional scowl with practiced efficacy. Reid was unsurprised.
“Nothing,” he murmured. “Give me what you have about the explosion findings.”
Reid handed over the report in his grip as well as pointing out some paper on the conference room table. Hotch collected it all up in silence and then turned to look at Reid over his shoulder.
“I’ll take care of this,” he said and then jutted his chin at Reid and Olivia. “Take some time. CPS will be here in the morning.”
“Alright,” Reid whispered and watched Hotch leave. Hotch didn’t turn back to look at them again.
Olivia cried when the lady from CPS took her from Reid’s arms. He stroked her curls and whispered, “Be good now. It’s going to get better.” But she just cried and cried as if nothing would ever be right again. Reid swallowed everything down, walking back to the conference room and past the worried stares of his team before Olivia was even out of earshot. A hand reached for him as he passed.
“Spence,” J.J.’s voice sounded wet.
“Don’t,” he gritted out. “It’s fine. I’m going to review the M.E.’s manifest again.”
They left him alone and he went back to work. In time he knew she’d just be another face in another case file. All he had to do was be patient and wait.