You know, we forget half of what they teach us in school, but when it comes to the torment and the people who inflicted it, we’ve all got an elephant’s memory.
“This is probably the stupidest idea you’ve ever had,” Derek says sternly.
“I hear they got the wildest of times down here though,” Marcus huffed. “Besides, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” Derek rolls his eyes, turning to face the window as he watched the residential houses roll by.
“I don’t think this side of Vegas is what that saying is meant for.”
His friend shrugged, patting the wheel of their rental car with an upbeat tick. The two of them were down for a bachelor party. Originally, he’d protested, wanting to stay in Chicago and keep up his studies in hopes of becoming an explosive technician. His best friend had peeled him out of the dorm – which wouldn’t be their dorm for much longer seeing as graduation was a week ago – as a celebration for his preliminary acceptance into the Chicago PD. Nonetheless, the groom who invited them tended to party a little… out of control. Derek was hesitant to put the job in jeopardy.
“Relax a little, I’m picking up my sister’s husband and then we can head to the casinos, alright? No funny business yet, see?” Marcus hit the side of his shoulder, and Derek knew he should loosen up.
Derek grunted in response, untrustworthy but compliant in their journey to hopefully not a too-wild night of drinking and money wasting. The houses rolled by and he surveyed them carefully. It was a well-off neighbourhood, not overly showy, not rickety either.
“Why are we picking up the husband all the way out here?” He asked curiously.
“He’s a substitute teacher, bussed to work today. I’m just returning a favour for my sister.” There was a lull in the car, and one of the things Derek appreciated in Marcus was how casually he could fill a silence. “She picked me up after I got absolutely wrecked that one ti –”
“Watch it, man!”
“Jesus,” Derek lurched with a hiss when the brakes were slammed. A group of kids, around seventeen, maybe eighteen at the most darted to the side, still blatantly in the way of the car, like a group of idiotic ducks.
Half of the teens in the road scrambled to cross while the rest followed along behind like sheep, completely oblivious to the near miss as they laughed. Derek couldn’t help but compare them to hyenas as they cackled.
He resisted the urge to reach across the console and hit the horn. “Damn teenagers,” Marcus grumbled, turning the car into the parking lot. He kept his eyes on the kids who were wandering down the street and piling into their own cars. The front pack looked like jocks, and he rolled his eyes when two of them fist bumped each other like they had actually achieved something.
Turning his attention back to the parking lot, he noted it was devoid of cars. Derek settled in his seat, checked his watch – half past five – and leaned back comfortably.
“You mind?” He asked as his friend stepped out of the car, ready to collect his sister’s husband. He held up a packet of chips that were ‘reserved for the road,’ as Marcus had said earlier.
“Go for it,” he shrugged. Derek gave a nod of appreciation and peeled open the bag.
He watched Marcus trek up the sets of stairs into the school and contemplated himself in the quiet of the car.
It hadn’t seemed long ago that he had been wandering around high school campus each day, holding out for college. Now, he was here. A fresh college graduate, a soon-to-be member of the Chicago PD, that much closer to working his way into the FBI.
He exhaled smoothly, tapping his fingers against the glass impatiently. He could see the top edges of a goalpost in the distance, slowly leaning back and forth in the wind.
Football had been a release, a tactical distraction really. A way off the streets. He had used it as a steppingstone to get to college, not as a potential life direction.
It truly didn’t feel like much time had passed since high school, and yet seeing the goalposts in the distance still tugged on the nostalgia in the pit of his stomach.
Derek crumbled the chip packet in his fist, leaning forward to stretch as he cracked open the door of the car.
There was a fair amount of rubbish packed into the vehicle. The flight had gotten them to the Vegas strip, and they had driven all the way out to residential school districts just to pick up supplies and run an errand. They still had to haul themselves over to the casinos for the actual bachelor party. He gathered as much as his arms could balance and closed the door of the car with the back of his foot.
The nearest bin he could see was squashed behind the block of classrooms that no doubt surrounded the field. He wrinkled his nose, dropping the armful of wrappers and drink cans into the bin.
One of Marcus’ glass energy drink bottles, that he insisted on drinking, hit the side of the bin and echoed loudly in the empty school grounds. Derek ignored it, turning to walk back to the car.
He tilted his head to the side, blinking back in the direction of the bin and straining to listen. He had probably imagined the voice –
“Th – this isn’t funny… please.”
The voice, which seemed more probable now, was distant. He could tell at least that much. He could barely make out each word from however far away the speaker was.
“Please. Please, I need to go home.”
Derek recognised that desperation, as far away as the voice was, he picked up on the absolute anguish of someone who needed reprieve.
He pushed back through the gap between the buildings closest to the field, keeping as quiet as he could in case the person spoke again.
Derek guessed it was a boy, he could tell now. He was outside, probably on the field. The voice wasn’t muffled enough to be within a building.
When he rounded the corner and began to quickly scan the bleachers, he saw a school bag strewn on one of the steps up. A few books were untucked, peeking out of the unzipped pocket. He could make out a few words like quantum and advanced, and turned away again when the yelling started back up.
“Sir?” Just one word, thick with apprehension.
There was a kid at the end of the field, sitting by one of the goalposts. Derek blinked, holding one hand up in front of his face to block the sun from his eyes. Injury during practice, he guessed.
“You good, kid?” He called back. He saw the shake of a head and began to make his way over.
It was halfway across the field when he pinned the kid as the type who definitely wouldn’t play football. At fifty yards, he noticed the amount of skin on display. Forty and he could see the way he shuffled backwards and tucked his legs to his chest. Thirty, he saw the shaking. Twenty, the remaining light of sunset caught the wetness on his cheeks.
Ten, he guessed the kid was about twelve, probably younger.
Five, he saw the zip ties and the lack of any type of clothing.
The boy tilted his head down, hair falling in front of his face, covering himself as best he could with wrists pinned behind the thick pole.
He had been five foot three. Weighed, at most, a hundred and twenty pounds.
So, yeah. He understood the bruising on the kid’s arms, the crescent shaped nail-marks that decorated the skin of his biceps, even the way he shifted away from him as he approached. The zip ties were overkill, really. Duct-tape had been the way to go for ‘pranks’ like this back in his high school days, and although he’d never been so far down on the social ladder that he’d been taped up, he knew it wasn’t impossible for bullies to sink that low.
But the lack of clothing?
That wasn’t bullying. That was so far from understandable, Derek couldn’t even begin to comprehend what this kid could’ve done to provoke this.
“Sorry,” he says hurriedly when the kid shivers harshly, sending the pole rocking above him.
He tilts his head upwards and to the side, making it obvious that his attention was directed elsewhere as he draped his own jacket over the boy’s lap. “Just – just gimme a second here,” he mutters, crouching down beside the kid’s backside and rummaging around in his pocket for his keychain.
He chose the key he would no longer need for his college dorm room. He wasn’t well versed, but he got the job done, using the jagged metal edge and the teeth of the key to haphazardly break apart one side of the ties.
The boy leaned forward, immediately rushing to readjust the jacket around himself more securely. He murmured an apology, which Derek ignored – because, really? Someone had stripped him, and zip tied him to a pole, after hours, on a Friday no less. And the kid was worried about ruining his jacket?
He sighs, shaking his head as the young boy tucked his legs beneath him, the jacket covering his lap, and folded his arms around his midsection uncomfortably.
“I – I um, I have gym shorts in my bag, on the bleachers…”
“I’ll be right back,” Derek says. He jogs across the field, shoves the books back into the bag and shoulders it. The weight of the thing startled him, and he guessed it must have been at least fifteen to twenty pounds.
He begins to stalk across the field, keeping his eyes firmly on the dark grass and painted lines. He deposits the bag in front of the kid, turns his back and paces a few steps forward, giving him ample room and, hopefully, enough belief in the fact that he wouldn’t turn back around until he was ready.
He can hear the rustling of clothing, and then a soft ‘done,’ before he turns back to look at the kid.
The gym shorts are double knotted, hanging almost past his knees. Derek watches the boy carefully fold the jacket and move to hand it back to him.
“No, it’s fine. Keep it on, kid.” Brown eyes that mirror his own blink up at him sceptically for a moment. Derek almost wants to point out that standing around an empty field with a shirtless, twelve-year-old kid was a great way to find himself in a boatload of trouble, but the boy is already tugging the jacket around himself.
“Thank you,” he says shakily. Derek watches him rub his wrists.
The skin isn’t broken anywhere, but there are nasty, red marks all up and down which will certainly begin to darken and bruise in the coming days.
Surprisingly enough, he finds himself having to keep rein on the steadily rising acrimony in his chest. When he stops to think about it – to really comprehend what kind of sick, twisted assertion of dominance he’d walked into – Derek realises how messed up it is.
Securing someone to something as a joke is one thing, leaving them there with no thought is another, but stripping them – violating them like that – it was on an entirely different plane of existence. Not to mention a criminal offence.
“What’s your name?” He asks heatedly. The boy tenses, his hands shifting back to clutch at his midsection protectively.
“Um, Spencer,” he answers quietly. “Wh – why?”
“Because we’re going to make a report and –”
“No thank you!” The kid – Spencer – interjects with a startling amount of volume. “I – I don’t need to do that, it’s fine. I’m okay.” His eyes are wide now, and Derek starts to argue, opens his mouth to point out that no. This isn’t okay. It would never be okay. It was fucked up, and he was a child, for God’s sake.
But he doesn’t. Because he’s already seen the kid flinch one too many times.
So, he takes a deep breath, lets it back out again, and squats down slightly until he’s looking the boy in the eyes.
“You can’t just ignore this,” he says calmly. “It won’t go away.” Spencer is paling now, and Derek hates himself for having to tell him this. “I can promise you, things like this stay with us. Sometimes what you need to do, is stop it from ever happening again.”
“I – I…”
“Spencer,” he presses, still holding his eyes in one place even if the kid’s are bouncing all around like a pinball in his skull. “Don’t let them do this to you.”
He can see the moment the resistance drains from him. His shoulders sag and he hangs his head unhappily.
“What are you, a cop or something?” Spencer asks dejectedly.
“What gives you that impression?” Derek straightens up, folding his arms across his chest.
“You just – you knew what to do,” he shrugs. Derek doesn’t expect more, but he gets it. “You got down on my level to seem less threatening, didn’t let your anger show. You treated me like you understood, with empathy. That’s how authorities like the police and such are taught to treat kids.”
Derek nods his head, impressed. He smiles when he speaks.
“That was good. You aren’t wrong,” he says. “Derek Morgan,” he introduces. Spencer smiles back shyly, heating up under the praise. He follows alongside Derek when he begins to trek back across the field towards the parking lot, answering most of his questions without hesitance now.
“I’m almost thirteen,” Spencer says.
“So, you’re like a genius Freshmen?”
“I’m a senior,” he corrects. Derek looks across at him, taking in the small frame, the way he practically swims in the jacket and gym shorts. Then, he remembers the books, and the fact that he’d found the kid zip tied to a football pole.
“Interesting,” he comments, “unexpected, but impressive all the same.” From the way the kid looks at the ground, he’s not used to the compliments. “What are you planning on doing with all the extra brains then, huh?”
“Math, chemistry. Maybe engineering, but I want to focus on psychology and sociology.” He kicks a stone awkwardly as they leave the field and speaks quieter than before. “I’d love to work in the behavioural analysis unit.” He lifts his head, turning to look at Derek suddenly. “What police department do you work at?”
“Chicago PD,” Derek said clearly. “Where are you –”
“Born and raised right here,” the boy answered pre-emptively. “But I’m attending Caltech next year.”
“Never thought I’d meet someone with the same goal in mind.” He smiled easily, watching as the kid compulsively tightened the knot of his gym shorts. “’Specially one from what, a hundred and fifty miles across the country?”
“One thousand, seven hundred and forty-seven point five. Assuming you lived at the West end of Chicago.” The kid nudged his glasses further back onto his nose as Derek stares at him. “Eidetic memory,” he answers without needing prompt.
“Man, why’re you always wandering off?”
Derek looks up, pulling his attention away from Spencer who’s only growing more interesting by the minute.
Marcus is leant out the front of the car, his sister’s husband in the passenger seat. Spencer stays put when Derek jogs up to the window and exchanges words.
“Hey, you mind if we drop this kid off? I don’t think the busses run this late and I’m not comfortable leavi –”
“I’m okay,” Spencer pipes up. “It’s like a fifteen-minute walk, I’ll be fine.”
Derek looks from the small stature of the boy, to his watch, then up to the quickly receding sun. He turns back to the car and has a more hushed conversation.
“If you drop him off with your sister,” he nods his head to the man in the passenger seat, “I’ll walk the kid home and give you a call when I’m done, yeah?”
Marcus leans to the side, glancing in Spencer’s direction through the windshield before turning back to Derek.
Derek mirrored his action, looking over his shoulder and back again.
“He will be,” he answers. He hopes. Marcus gives one curt nod, waits until Derek steps back, and then pulls out of the parking lot.
“I walk home every day after school,” Spencer points out once Derek has waited patiently for him to move to his side.
“Sure,” he replies indifferently. “Lead the way,” he gestures ahead at the road. Spencer adjusts the grip he has on the strap of his bag and turns left, keeping stride with Derek as they walk.
“So, are you gonna make me fill out a police report?” Spencer asks after a lingering, brisk silence broken only by their footsteps and the occasional passing car. Derek exhales, rubs the back of his neck. He can see the bone-white grip the kid has on his bag.
“I’m sure I can pull a few strings,” he relents. Spencer stays quiet, his face blank. “But I’m going to need names, kid.”
“I figured,” he mumbles. “The uh – it was the football team. All of them.” Derek can’t get an accurate read on the kid’s expression considering its hidden by his hair and turned to face the ground. “Harper Hillman, Alexa Lisben,” he adds. “They were the ruse, I guess.”
Derek bites his tongue. This wasn’t a wrong time, wrong place. This was calculated, pre-planned.
“So many kids were there, you know, just watching.” Derek can hear the underlying shake in his voice, the pulled expression of his lips when he looks up.
“Nobody tried to stop them?” It couldn’t be all bad, not everyone could take satisfaction from hurting a kid like this.
The small shake of his head, a quiet ‘mm-mmm.’
“I begged –” his voice is so quiet now; he needs to start again. “I begged them to, but they just –” Spencer works his jaw, looking away, a few inches from Derek’s face as they walk, glassy and phased over with the memory. “They just watched.”
He turns further away, breathing in through his nose, his mouth pulling to one side. “And finally, they got bored and they left,” he says in one breath.
And that’s when Derek thinks, he’d do anything to take back what had happened to this kid.
The boy’s house is one of the most overgrown on his street. The windows are all closed, blinds shut tightly with hardly any light seeping through. Spencer pauses at the footpath leading to his front door, toeing at the yellowing grass of his lawn.
“Thank you,” he says quietly. “For – for um…”
“Yeah,” Derek hums. “I know, kid.” He can hear the jingle of the boy’s keys dangling in his fist as he sways to and fro. “Do you want me to talk to your parents?” He sees the muscles in Spencer tighten as he shakes his head.
“N – no thank you,” he says quickly, sharply. He takes a step backwards onto his property, fumbling with the zipper of Derek’s jacket again.
“Seriously, it’s fine,” Derek says. He gently holds his hands out, wordlessly getting Spencer to pause. “Just… just stay safe, yeah?” The kid fiddles with the rim of his glasses, glancing towards his front door.
“Yeah,” he murmurs. “D – don’t you want this back?” He tugs at the collar of the jacket.
“Sure,” Derek says. “You can give it back once you’ve made you way to the FBI.” He levels his gaze, watching as the boy mulls it over.
Spencer reddens, looking down to hide a smile.
“See you then,” he whispers.
Derek speaks with the Vegas police department the following week, once he’s back home in Chicago. He doubts anything would have been done if he hadn’t have given them his badge number.
He’s forwarded an email the next month, right after one of his first cases. He’s tired and he’s sweaty from the chase, not looking forward to filling out case reports but placing himself at his desk, nonetheless. The head of Vegas PD has faxed him the copy of the note made in almost twenty-four files of students from Las Vegas public school.
Twenty-four students suspended for involvement and failure to intervene. Six footballers permanently cut from the team. Three of which – the ones who held him down, Derek is told – faced expulsion, charges against their name for harassment, and the dismissal of several college scholarships.
It’s trivial and short-sighted, but Derek kind of wants to print out the report and frame it. He knows for a fact the students who had actively participated or stood around and watched wouldn’t have come under any scrutiny if he hadn’t called it in. Although it was horrible, and picturing it made him sick, he’s proud to know nobody at that school would pull a stunt like that again.
He thinks about the kid on occasion over the years. Thinks about his backpack and the books it was stuffed with. About his glasses, how they slipped off his face when he looked at the ground. The raw patterns over his slender wrists, whether they healed well. He pictures the twelve-year-old sitting in a lecture hall taking notes, working on degrees and spouting facts like a faucet.
And so maybe he rolls his eyes ten years down the line when Gideon goes on about a new protégé he met after a class he taught that knows so much, that can match him at chess just enough that he has to put effort in to win. Maybe he shrugs when Gideon, Hotch and Strauss call a conference meeting to talk with them all about the possibility of a new addition to the team, because he doesn’t care either way.
Then, when a headful of brown curls bounded into the office at Gideon’s side, he paid no mind to the latest rookie who’d no doubt last a month, tops. He half-heartedly listens as Gideon makes his rounds, introducing the newest member of the team.
“Morgan,” he says.
Derek rotates his chair with one ankle, turning to face his teammate and the man at his side.
It was the height which struck him first. Maybe a fraction shorter than himself, an inch at the most. Second, the distinctive lack of glasses. The addition of clothing – a sweater vest over the top of a professional button-down shirt, tucked into dark brown slacks.
Third, the smile. Soft, hesitant, distinctly glowing.
Next, the neatly folded jacket he held out with one hand, a glimmer in his eyes.
“Sorry it took me so long,” Spencer says.