Prompts: midnight kiss, new years gift and camera (for capturing all of those wonderful party photos)
Summary: "I know what can and can't exist, what can and can't be known. What can and can't matter." ~ A single photograph causes things to spiral out of control. Mild Reid/Hotch. Written for the New Year's Challenge on Chit Chat on Author's Corner.
Disclaimer: I don't own Criminal Minds. I don't even own the prompts. I have no control over my own muses, so I'm pretty sure I just don't own anything at all.
A/N: I lost control of this piece a long time ago. Not really sure how Strauss wormed her way in here and took over, nor where on earth this came from, given that I never intended to write slash in the faintest, but this idea took hold and wouldn't let me go until I wrote it. It also ended up a lot longer than I was expecting... I hope you enjoy!
Revision: (1/27/11) Added scene breaks back in; apparently ff . net ate them the first time.
Additionally: a huge thanks to my wonderful beta, starofoberon!
The Ups and Downs of Photography
"One of the hardest things in life is having words in your heart that you can't utter."
James Earl Jones
"Agent. Hotchner." Erin Strauss practically purred the words. "Take a seat."
Hotch followed her instructions stoically, but inside he worried. Strauss using her "satisfied" voice was never a good sign.
"Chief Strauss," he greeted politely.
"Would you care to explain this, Agent Hotchner?" she asked false-pleasantly, sliding a photograph across the desk. Hotch barely kept his eyes from widening in surprise. Yet at the same time, he wondered why this warranted a reprimand. His best guess said that Strauss was simply looking for any excuse to get him and his team in trouble.
"Where did you get this?" he asked apathetically.
"A certain technical analyst was due for a routine inspection today. We found this," she tapped the photograph, "on her hard-drive." She smirked in satisfaction. "You may want to be more careful around cameras in the future."
Hotch inspected the condemning photograph in dismay.
"As I'm sure you're aware, Chief Strauss, last night was New Year's Eve, and there happens to be a New Year's tradition involving this sort of thing," Hotch remarked blandly. "Given that I have a rambunctious five-year-old who insists upon initiating and maintaining every tradition possible, it was inevitable that this would come up."
"And you are certain that Agent Reid will tell me the same?" Strauss asked skeptically.
"I am." He barely restrained himself from automatically correcting her title before Reid's name: Gideon had ingrained the reflex in all of them.
"Very well. Send Agent Reid to me."
"Yes ma'am." He got up to leave, but just before he reached the door, Strauss added,
"Also. It would do you well to remember that this entire building is covered with security cameras."
On the surface it was an innocuous statement, but Hotch saw what it actually was – a warning. Don't you dare tell him what to say. I'll know.
Hotch nodded impassively and left the office.
Reid looked up from his desk.
"Strauss wants to see you."
Reid nodded and stood.
"Just tell the truth, all right?" His eyes added what his mouth couldn't say: Only as much truth as won't get us in trouble.
Reid nodded solemnly, understanding both instructions perfectly.
Hotch nodded in return and went to tackle the paperwork on his desk, but his mind was following the youngest member of his team all the way to Strauss's office. What he wouldn't give to be a fly on that wall.
Reid knocked shyly on the frame of the open door. Strauss looked up from her paperwork and pulled off her reading glasses.
"Take a seat, Agent Reid."
Obediently, Reid sat in the stiff chair, fighting to keep from squirming.
"I assume Agent Hotchner has informed you as to why you are here?"
Silence reigned for a beat before Reid realized that wasn't a rhetorical question.
"Then you are prepared to explain to me, in your own words, the circumstances surrounding this photograph?"
She slid the photo in question across her desk. Reid barely spared it a glance before asking, "Did you know that the tradition actually dates back to the ancient Romans? Supposedly a sign of your luck in the coming year, it –"
"Agent Reid!" Strauss snapped. "That is quite enough. I didn't ask about the history. I asked about the photograph."
Reid, with a typical deer-in-headlights look on his face, spoke up hesitantly. "I only meant to say that it is a tradition, Chief Strauss. A tradition that's been around for a long time, and one that exuberant five-year-olds are prone to both indulge in and prompt. And Jack Hotchner has the most irresistible beseeching expression I have ever seen. Adults turn to putty in his capable hands."
"I find it difficult to believe that a five-year-old was the mastermind behind all of this," Strauss stated wryly.
"No offense intended, ma'am, but you've never seen Jack when he wants something. That boy is an unstoppable force of nature."
The pair sat in silence for a moment before a gleam appeared in the Section Chief's eye. A gleam that made Reid squirm. A gleam that couldn't mean good things.
"I would like to speak with both you and Agent Hotchner. Together. You will answer every question to my satisfaction or Internal Affairs will be assigned this case."
Reid barely refrained from gulping. It was an empty threat: IA would never rebuke them for such a minor infraction. Still, from Strauss' lips, it sounded ominous.
"Do I make myself clear, Agent Reid?"
"Perfectly, ma'am." Reid nodded. He understood what she wanted: to see how they reacted to each other's words.
"Ten minutes, Agent." He nodded again and left to retrieve Hotch.
Returning to Strauss's office, Reid hesitated for an instant, running through his perfect memory of the night before.
JJ led the way into her living room where the rest of the team were already seated. Every one of them held a glass of champagne: Jack had a plastic cup and Henry a sippy cup filled with sparkling grape juice.
"Happy December Thirty-First, boy genius!" Morgan greeted, already slightly tipsy.
The rest of the team greeted with typical sobriety, except Garcia, whose welcome was typical, if not solemn – a bear hug.
"Champagne?" JJ asked.
"Would I be ridiculed if I asked for grape juice instead?"
"No," JJ answered at the exact moment that Morgan exclaimed loudly, "Heck yeah!"
"I'll get you some juice, Reid." JJ decided for him.
"Thanks Jayje," he murmured gratefully.
"Come on, pretty boy!" Morgan moaned. "Relax!"
"Did you know that the word 'relax' actually comes from the Latin word relaxāre which means to loosen?"
Morgan raised an eyebrow as if to say, Why do you know that?
"What? I like words!" Reid protested.
Morgan rolled his eyes. "You need a life, Reid."
Reid chucked a pillow from the couch at his head. "I have a life, Morgan. Just because it doesn't include a different girl every day doesn't mean it's any less of a life."
Morgan scowled darkly, tossing the pillow back at Reid and missing miserably.
Reid rolled his eyes, laughing lightly and taking a seat on the couch next to Hotch.
"Boys," Hotch warned. "Do we need to fill a corner?"
Reid stared at him in shock for a moment before bursting out in laughter.
"Was that a joke, Hotch?"
The corner of the bossman's mouth quirked up a fraction of an inch.
Reid knew that the image of that moment would be ingrained even deeper into the tissue of his brain than was usual: it was the first time he had seen Hotch smile – even infinitesimally – since Haley's death.
The party proceeded as most did with their team: Morgan and Prentiss both became tipsier and tipsier as the night wore on; Hotch and JJ both stopped after one or two glasses of champagne; Rossi, Garcia, and Will were all somewhere in the middle, and Reid watched all of this in amusement.
"Hear ye, hear ye!" Garcia suddenly declared. As everyone looked at her, she pointed to the clock.
"11:55, loyal subjects! 11:55!"
The group scrambled to seat themselves around the television as JJ flipped it on.
"Did you know that they've dropped a ball in Times Square every years since 1907, except for 1942 and 43 because of the blackouts? The tradition actually originates in 1833 in Greenwich at England's Royal Observatory. At that point, though, it was not a mark of a new year, rather, it was a mark of one of the clock, used so that naval navigators could set their chronometers."
A hand on his shoulder stopped Reid from continuing. He grinned sheepishly at his boss and turned silently back to the television, where the ball had just begun to fall. As it neared the end of its descent, voices began to chant in sync, "5! 4! 3! 2! 1! HAPPY NEW YEAR!"
Morgan kissed Garcia flat on the lips as others followed the tradition on the screen.
Curious, Jack asked. As soon as the word "tradition" popped up in the explanation, he jumped up and kissed Henry on the forehead. Shrugging, JJ and Will followed suit, and even Prentiss laid a featherlight brush of her lips on Rossi's cheek.
Hotch and Reid shared a glance. Reid's face was flushed.
"Come on, Daddy! It's a 'radition, that means you have to!" he stated with typical five-year-old logic. Next, the lower lip jutted out. Sighing, Hotch turned and swiftly kissed Reid's cheek. If possible, Reid flushed even brighter red, and he ducked his head. Neither noticed the flash of the camera, and neither planned to ever mention the incident ever again.
Resolutely, Reid finally pushed open the door to Strauss's office and took the empty seat beside Hotch.
They waited in silence for a moment as Strauss stared down at them.
Finally, she began. "I am fully aware that both of you have already relayed your version of last night. It is my opinion, however, that the pair of you will perhaps be more inclined toward honesty with the other as witness to every word."
She eyed both of them and received nothing but impassivity in return.
"Agent Hotchner, would you care to explain the circumstances surrounding the uncovered photograph of last night?"
Hotch sighed internally and told her again, "Jack learned about the new year's tradition and pushed everyone at the party to follow it." He barely restrained himself from adding, "as you well know."
Looking back, he supposed he should have expected the next question. Not just because of the growing gleam in her eye, but because it was the last card Strauss had left to play.
"What did it mean to you?"
Hotch's brain was racing, even as he refused to let his face betray his surprise. He didn't look at Reid, who was obstinately refusing to turn his head as well.
It felt like hours before Hotch reined in his shock and replied, though in reality it was less than a minute.
"It meant nothing to me."
His voice was dead even. He looked Strauss straight in the eye, and she couldn't find the slightest reason to doubt him.
Strauss wasn't a profiler, though.
Finally, she broke eye contact and turned to face Reid.
"And you, Agent Reid? What did it mean to you?"
Straight-faced and without a single fluctuation in his voice, Reid echoed Hotch.
"It meant nothing."
Again, Strauss broke eye contact first. She looked sorely disappointed.
"Very well. But know this: if I ever hear even the slightest whisper,one or both of you will be out of a job before you can so much as blink."
After another brief staring contest, Strauss finally dismissed the pair with a curt, "You may go."
As soon as the door shut behind them, Hotch told Reid he wanted to speak with him in his office, but he had to speak to someone first. Reid nodded and walked off, while Hotch walked to Garcia's office.
"Bossman!" Garcia yelped. "I- I-"
"I- Yes, sir."
"Would you care to explain to me how exactly Chief Strauss got her hands on that photo?"
"I'm sorry, sir. It's just… They don't actually schedule the 'routine' evals, and I was going to bury it so deep under lock and key that they couldn't actually find the lock or the key, but I didn't have time because they showed up out of nowhere and I could have buried it a little but I wouldn't have had time to bury the lock and then they'd find the lock and then I'd be under investigation again and there are some things on my system that I'd probably get in trouble for and probably get the rest of you in trouble for and so I figured it would be better to let them find that picture than to have them find that picture and all the rest of it so–"
Garcia flushed, looking down.
"Just… Don't let it happen again, all right?"
"And Garcia? Could you do me a quick favor?"
Hotch walked into his office and stated without preamble, "The cameras are down in here, courtesy of Garcia, for about the next five minutes."
Reid nodded, but remained silent.
Hotch sighed, then mused that he really needed to stop doing that.
Reid nodded in response.
"You know why that happened the way it did in there, right?"
Reid nodded again.
"It didn't mean anything because it can't mean anything," Hotch elaborated.
Reid laughed once, weakly, bitterly. "I know. Believe me, I know. I know what can and can't exist, what can and can't be known. What can and can't matter."
He shook his head, though neither was entirely sure what he was saying no to.
"I have work to do, Hotch."
And he left.
Reid sat slumped in his desk, putting his head in his hands. He sighed, staying perfectly still until a tap on the shoulder startled him out of his reverie. Whirling around, he saw Garcia standing near his desk, looking contrite.
"What is it, Garcia?" he asked, a little more harshly than he meant it. She winced, and he immediately rushed to apologize.
"Don't! Don't you go and apologize now! I deserve that, and so much more! I'm so sorry!"
He shook his head, the last remnants of anger evaporating.
"It's not your fault, Garcia."
She looked down, neither agreeing nor arguing, before stating, "I… I didn't just come over here to apologize. I… I wanted to give you something. A Happy New Year's gift, of sorts." She pulled a medium box out from behind her back, handing it to him.
Reid inspected the box curiously.
"The present is inside the box, Reid," Garcia joked weakly. He grinned in response, finally peeling back the paper and pulling the lid off.
"Garcia…" he gasped, trailing off. Inside was a silver frame with the word Family scripted around the outside. The frame contained a single photograph that not one of them had noticed being taken. Jack sat on Hotch's lap, Reid beside the pair. Hotch had his head thrown back in full out laughter while Reid chuckled quietly and Jack giggled at his own joke.
"I figured… Well, no matter what's true about that other picture, this, this matters. You deserve the happier memories."
"Thank you, Garcia," he breathed quietly. "I don't know what else to say."
"I've silenced the unending fountain that is Dr. Reid. That's reward enough."
Reid couldn't help but grin. Garcia had captured one of the rare moments in which Hotch let go of his inhibitions and didn't feel the need to maintain a careful façade. What it was that made this release possible, Reid wasn't entirely sure. Near as he could figure, it was a combination of things: some alcohol, family time, the holiday atmosphere. And, if that peck on the cheek meant as much to Hotch as it did to Reid, that was the largest factor of all.
Yet it couldn't mean a thing, not officially, and that hurt the worst. Because it didn't matter if it meant anything to Hotch.
Reid sighed as he stored the frame in his messenger bag. Tempting as it might be to display it on his desk, it would only be a matter of time until Strauss decided to make an issue out of that, too. She didn't need the extra ammunition.
The warmth that radiated from within his bag made Reid wonder at the fact that they had come full circle. It was a bit paradoxical, he mused. The chaos had started and ended with a photograph, in two very different ways.
"You can close your eyes to the things you do not want to see, but you cannot close your heart to the things you do not want to feel."