I just want to be okay, be okay, be okay
I just want to be okay today
I just want to feel today, feel today, feel today
I just want to feel something today
Open me up and you will see
I'm a gallery of broken hearts
I'm beyond repair, let me be
And give me back my broken parts
-"Be OK" by Ingrid Michaelson
JJ gritted her teeth. Sweat dripped lazily down the back of her neck, soaking into her tank top. She probably should have put on sunscreen- most likely she was going to end up burned, or at least faintly pink- but at this point it was too late.
The coach blew the whistle and JJ half-crouched, priming herself to take off. She could do this. They wouldn't have put her on the team if she couldn't do this.
She ran through the drill, her brand new cleats slipping against her heels. Why was this so hard? It shouldn't be so hard. No one else seemed to be struggling. Just her.
The coach blew the whistle again, sharp and piercing. "All right, all right, we're gonna call it a night here," she called. "Practice again tomorrow, 3:30 sharp. Jareau, come see me."
The other girls immediately dropped out of their game faces, breaking into laughing conversations as they strolled over to the bleachers to pick up their bags and water bottles. JJ ducked past them, squaring her narrow shoulders as she walked over to the coach busy with her clipboard. She waited for a moment, nervous impatience building in her chest.
"Jareau, you seemed a little lost out there," the coach said. She bit her lip. "You did so well in tryouts. I figured you'd catch on a little faster."
"I'll do better," JJ said.
"How many years have you been playing?" the coach asked.
She hesitated. She'd been dreading this question. "This is my first team," she confessed.
The coach did a doubletake. "Seriously?"
"I've been playing since I was little, but just for fun," she said quickly. "This is my first time playing on a real team."
The coach sighed. "Well, I'm gonna need to you to work a little harder to catch up to the other girls," she said. "Talent can't make up for a lack of experience, and your teammates have all been playing for years. We've got our first game coming up next week, so I'm gonna need you to put a hundred and ten percent into this. Understand?"
"Yes, ma'am," JJ said.
"As it stands, there's no way I can start you in the first game. A little practice and you can get there, though, so use that as motivation. You have a lot of potential, but potential can only take you so far."
JJ dug her fingernails into her palms, clenching her fists tight. "Yes, ma'am," she said again, a little quiet, a little tighter.
The coach shuffled her pages on the clipboard back into order. "See you tomorrow, then," she said. "That's all."
She turned away, the conversation over, but JJ stayed there for a moment before turning and walking away to pick up her bag from the bleachers, the last one left behind.
The girls' locker room was nearly empty already by the time she got there, just a few stragglers struggling into their shoes, the air heavy with the scent of dry shampoos and floral body sprays. She slipped unnoticed into the far corner she'd claimed for herself.
The last of her teammates left, flicking off the lights, and she froze, her shirt half over her shoulders. "Hey!" she shouted. "I'm still in here!"
But the door closed anyway. She pulled her shirt down, the fabric stretching too taut. "Shit!" she said aloud, her voice echoing, and she stomped over to the switch and flipped the white fluorescent lights back on.
It wasn't like she'd joined the team to make friends, but they could at least acknowledge she existed.
JJ changed quickly into clean shorts and a tee shirt, cleaning up as best as she could and shoving her practice clothes into her bag. She yanked the elastic out of her hair without mercy, taking several strands with it. The ponytail collapsed around her shoulders and she didn't bother tying it back or braiding it neatly; she dragged her brush through it a couple of times before tossing it haphazardly back in her bag. She slung the strap over her shoulders, tugging it into place as she turned off the lights and left the locker room.
The belltower chimed six-thirty as she crossed the courtyard. The sun hadn't even begun to go down yet and humidity clung to her skin. After she grabbed something for dinner she'd take a shower, and work on her science homework, and maybe if Penelope didn't stay up too late watching TV while she played on her computer she could get a decent amount of sleep.
She slipped into the busy dining hall, turning her bag around so it hung behind her, pressing into the backs of her thighs. Her stomach growled, startling her. She hadn't realized how hungry she was- but lunch had been a long time ago, and all she'd eaten had been a bag of Doritos and a handful of chocolate chip cookies.
"JJ! There you are!"
She glanced over and saw Penelope waving from across the room. "We saved you a seat!" Derek called.
She wended her way through the sea of tables and hung her bag on the empty chair between Penelope and Hotch. "We were wondering where you were," he said, scooting over to make room for her.
"Sorry, practice ran a little late," she said.
"Go get dinner, then, you've got to be starving," Hotch said.
Emily leaned across the table. "Get me more rolls," she said. "Like...a lot of rolls."
"Oh, me too, please," Spencer said. He turned to Alex. "How do I say that in Italian?"
JJ smiled a little to herself as she walked up to the line and picked up a plastic tray. Dinner didn't look that great- some kind of baked chicken- so she settled for mostly roasted potatoes and macaroni and cheese, and a plate of rolls for Emily.
She set them down in front of her before she sat down. "Is that enough?" she asked.
Emily brightened, saying something in fluid Italian, and Spencer immediately parroted it back, his accent flat and almost a little nasal. "No, no, not like that!" Emily laughed.
"Didn't I say it right?" he said, perplexed.
"I mean, technically you said all the syllables, but Jesus, your accent," she said. She picked up a roll and handed it to Spencer, then picked up one for herself. "Thank you, Jayje, you're an angel."
Spencer turned to Alex. "Was that not right?" he said.
"Almost," she reassured him.
Hotch frowned. "JJ, you have to eat actual food," he said.
She scooped up a forkful of mac and cheese. "This is real food," she said.
"JJ, you just spent...what, three hours running around in the heat?" he said. "Please. Eat protein. Vegetables. Something of nutritional value."
She stuck the fork in her mouth. "You're not the boss of me," she said.
"JJ, just let him win, trust me," Derek said.
Hotch sighed. "Come on, somebody back me up on this," he said.
"You need to rebuild your glycogen energy stores after exercise," Spencer said, yawning. "Moderate carbohydrates, proteins, and healthy fats."
Hotch gestured broadly at him. "See? What Spencer said," he said.
"What do you know about exercise?" JJ said.
"Yeah, you were the last one to finish the mile in gym class today," Penelope added.
Spencer scowled. "You were second to last," he said.
"Anyways," Derek said as he got up from the table. "I'm getting seconds anyway. What do you want, JJ?"
"I'm fine, thanks."
"Tonight's options are green beans, zucchini, or carrots," Hotch said.
JJ made a face. "I told you, just let him win," Derek said, flashing her a charming grin.
"Fine," she said. "Carrots. The least gross of those options."
"You got it, baby girl," he said before disappearing into the crowd.
Penelope twisted around in her chair. "Hey, I thought I was your baby girl!" she called. She sank back down in disappointment. "Apparently not."
Emily tore off a piece of her roll and popped it in her mouth. "Hotchner, you've been at this school for a while, right?" she said.
"Yes?" he said slowly, raising an eyebrow.
"Is it normal to get so much homework on the first fucking week of school?" she said. "I already have a paper due on Friday and trig homework on Thursday. And some useless shit for French class, but they placed me in French I, so I don't really care about that."
Alex scrunched up her face. "French I?" she repeated. "Aren't...aren't you fluent in French?"
"Well, yeah, but I'm sure as hell not telling anybody that. It's the easiest A I'll ever get in my life. Maybe the only A."
"First of all, yes, they give us a lot of homework," Hotch said. "It's a college prep school, what did you expect?"
"Not this," Emily said. "My school in Rome didn't give a shit."
"Second of all, can you please stop swearing?" Hotch said, exasperated. "I don't want the younger kids picking up on it."
"I can swear," Penelope piped up.
"Okay, I don't want Spencer picking up on it."
Alex glanced down. "We're in the clear the moment," she said. "I think he's asleep."
Derek leaned around JJ, nudging her empty plate out of the way and replacing it with a full. "There you go," he said. "And don't worry, Penelope, you'll always be my number one baby girl."
"Shut up!" Hotch hissed. He nodded towards Spencer. The smallest of their group had his head down on the table, resting on his folded arms.
Derek's eyes went wide. "Oh, shit, let him sleep," he said.
"Why?" Alex said. "He just fell asleep at the dinner table. That's not normal."
Hotch hesitated. "He…"
"He's got insomnia real bad," Derek said. "He stays up all night reading. And last night he-" Hotch shook his head and Derek sat back in his chair. "He's just having a rough time."
"Maybe he's just homesick," Alex suggested.
"Maybe," Hotch said, but he didn't sound like he believed it. "We'll just let him sleep for now. JJ, eat."
JJ looked down at her plate. The carrots didn't seem too terrible, they were coated in a shiny glaze. She took a small bite. "Okay, they're not awful," she said. "But...they're not great, either."
"Just eat them," Hotch sighed.
Dave felt his pocket buzz and dug out his phone, squinting in the sunlight.
yoooooo study group in the library
"What the hell?" he mumbled to himself.
this is emily btw
dont tell al
"What is happening right now?" he said aloud, stopping in the middle of the courtyard. His phone buzzed in his hand.
Emily, if you don't want me to know, don't text it in a fucking group chat
But yes, Dave, please bring snacks. J and I are working on college apps and we're ready to die
Dave turned around, doubling back over the courtyard. "All right, all right, point taken," he said to himself.
He didn't understand why James and Alex were so worried about colleges. They were both brilliant, with their grades and test scores and personal essays they could both easily make it into any school they wanted. There was no point in stressing.
He ducked into the student union and grabbed some of their usual choices. After a moment he went back and picked a couple more packs of candy. He didn't know Emily nearly as well as he knew James and Alex, better to cover his bases.
David S. Rossi
all right snacks procured omw
He hit send and headed back towards the main building. Inside the air was crisp and cold, especially in comparison to the sweltering heat outside, and he sighed audibly in relief.
He jogged up the broad stairs, not bothering to hold onto the polished handrail. Now that classes were over for the day, the halls were quiet and empty, a couple of students straggling here and there.
He rounded the corner and stopped. A small figure stood in front of the water fountain, frantically scrubbing at a wet blazer. "Hey, Spencer," Dave said. "Everything okay?"
Spencer whipped around. "Huh?" he said. "Oh. Hi." He cleared his throat. "Yeah, everything's okay."
"Is there a reason you're trying to drown your uniform blazer in the water fountain?" he asked.
Spencer sighed. "I just...spilled some stuff on it," he said. "Apple juice. It's sticky. And I don't even like apple juice."
Dave held out his hand, beckoning gently. "Switch with me," he said. Spencer reluctantly handed over the blazer and took the plastic carrier bag full of snacks. Dave examined the back of the tiny jacket. "It doesn't look stained. Should be fine." He leaned his elbow on the button to activate the fountain and rinsed it out again, then wrung it out firmly until no more water leaked out. "Just let it dry and it'll be good as new in time for class tomorrow."
"Thanks," Spencer said, shifting his weight from one leg to the other. He was struggling to hold onto the bag and his backpack at the same time; Dave took the carrier bag back.
"Are you in Emily's group chat?" he asked.
Spencer shook his head. "I don't have a phone," he said.
"Ah," Dave said. "So you definitely didn't get her text. Well, everybody's in the library studying if you want to come."
"Okay," Spencer said, almost surprised. "Thank you."
"Don't mention it," Dave said.
Spencer still held his backpack in his arms instead of slinging it onto his shoulder as they walked down the hall. "They really like assigning papers here, don't they?" he said. "My old school used to just give us worksheets for homework. We weren't supposed to start writing papers until next year."
"Really?" Dave said. "They didn't make you write papers until tenth grade? That's strange."
"Oh, no, I was supposed to start fifth grade this year," Spencer said. "Our first research paper was supposed to be sixth grade, to get us ready to start middle school."
Dave raised an eyebrow. "So you skipped over four grades and you can't even drink your apple juice without spilling?" he teased.
A shadow crossed Spencer's face. "Uh-huh," he said, offering a crooked little half smile. Dave somehow got the feeling he'd said something wrong, but he wasn't entirely sure what had gone wrong.
"Don't worry, caro," he said. "You're in good hands. Alex's a genius at writing papers, I'm sure she'll help you. Last year she tried to pull an all-nighter to write a fifteen page paper for a final, but she was done before two in the morning. I don't think she even used correct sources, she just wrote it off the top of her head and added the sources later."
Spencer laughed. "What was the topic?"
"Scottish playwrights. I don't think I could even name one Scottish playwright, much less write a fifteen page paper about them without extensive research."
"Oh, well, there's Sir J. M. Barrie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Lord Byron-"
"All right, kid, all right, I got it."
Alex rubbed her temples. "I don't think I've done enough extracurriculars," she said, flopping back on the couch, her arms folded over her stomach. "God, I never thought I'd say this, but I wish I'd stuck longer in concert band."
"You were in band?" Emily snickered. She sat on the floor, propped up on her elbows. "What instrument?"
"Clarinet," Alex said. "And I wasn't any good at it."
"No, you weren't," James said absently, squinting at his laptop screen. "God, if I can just get approved for the internship at the Auden's Ridge hospital. That would look so good on my applications."
"I'm just glad I'm a junior and I don't have to worry about any of this," Emily said. She waved her French homework at Alex's ear. "I'm gonna work on this. Did you know that le chien means dog? I'll never pass this class."
Alex pushed the papers away. "You can laugh now, Prentiss, but it'll be your turn soon enough," she said.
"Yeah, Emily, we have to register for SATs," Hotch pointed out.
"Well, fuck," she scowled. Hotch rolled his eyes. "You keep doing that, your face will freeze like that. The only kid here is Penelope, and she already knows how to swear."
"Abso-fucking-lutely," Penelope said promptly from her spot curled up in an armchair, not even looking up from her iPad.
"Jesus," Hotch muttered under his breath.
Alex sat up as the doors opened, but she relaxed when she saw Dave walking in with Spencer at his side. "Hey, guys," Dave said, holding up a completely full carrier bag in one hand and Spencer's blazer in the other. "I got snacks." He paused. "Hopefully I got enough. Are Morgan and Jareau here?"
"No, they're at football and soccer," Hotch said. He held up his phone. "I got a text saying there was a study group happening. I'm not sure why I actually listened. Or how anybody got my phone number."
"You're welcome," Emily said. "I have my ways." Penelope cleared her throat. "Okay, fine. Penelope pulled everyone's numbers for me."
"You're welcome," Penelope said sweetly.
"We need a name for this group chat, by the way."
Dave draped Spencer's jacket over a chair and dropped the bag between James and Alex. Emily immediately dug into the contents and cheered in victory when she pulled out a bag of swedish fish. "So you guys are working on college applications?" he said.
"Trying, at least," James said glumly. "At this point, it's more scholarship applications than anything else."
"You'll both be fine," Dave reassured them. "You're both going to get so many acceptance letters you won't know what to do with them."
Alex slid down farther on the couch. "You say that now," she said.
Truthfully, she was kind of overwhelmed. She knew what her family's finances looked like, she knew how many sacrifices they made to send her to St. Thaddeus, even with her scholarship and her library job. Now that she was trying to apply to colleges, all she could see were the numbers. Maybe she could earn a free ride, but who knew if she would end up at a college she actually wanted to attend?
"Ugh. I'm going to take a break," she said. "I've got homework I should get done."
"Did you learn anything new in your ASL class?" Spencer asked hopefully.
She laughed and patted the spot beside her. "A couple new things," she said. "Come here, I'll teach you."
He clambered up beside her, tucking his feet underneath him. His sleeves were rolled up to his elbows and his tie was decidedly crooked. Alex opened up her binder. "Here, I'm going to teach you the new vocab I learned," she said. "It'll be good practice for me too."
Spencer was such a fast learner, even if his small hands were a little bit clumsy. He copied her motions exactly, his face scrunching in concentration and his hair falling in his eyes. After a while Emily pushed herself up, tossing her candy aside.
"Okay, I can't take it anymore," she said. "You look like a sheepdog."
She got up off the floor and stood behind Spencer, gathering his hair in her hands. "What are you doing?" he asked, confused.
"Hold still," she said. She fingercombed his hair back into a small ponytail at the crown of his head and tied it off with a neon blue hair tie. "There. Can you see now?"
He reached back and patted it gingerly. "I've never had a ponytail before," he said.
"Well, you do now," Emily said, taking her seat back on the floor.
"Do I look weird?" he asked.
"No, you're adorable," Penelope reassured him, and his cheeks turned faintly pink.
Alex leaned back, resting her elbow on the arm of the couch and dropping her chin in her hand. "Dave, I should have told you to get coffee," she said.
"Yeah, too late for that, I'm not going back out," Dave said. "You're on your own, Miller."
She drummed her fingertips against her jawline. "Maybe I'll get a coffeemaker and keep it on my desk," she mused. "I don't think anybody would notice."
"They'll notice when they smell coffee brewing out of nowhere," James said dryly. She picked up one of Emily's swedish fish and tossed it at him; he caught it in his mouth and grinned.
Alex turned around. "Oh, no," she said. "What now, Anderson?"
Anderson fidgeted, looking sheepish. "Uh...so you know how there's the one shelf in the nonfiction section that's a little wobbly?" he said.
"Yes, the six hundreds, go on," she said, eyes narrowing.
"I might be propping it up with a couple of dictionaries and my shoe."
"Your shoe?" Dave repeated, raising an eyebrow.
Anderson shrugged. Sure enough, he was wearing one polished loafer and one argyle-print sock. "Goddammit, Anderson," Alex sighed. She got up from the couch reluctantly. "I'll be right back."
"I didn't mean to!" Anderson protested, hopping behind her.
"What were you even doing in the six hundreds?"
"Reading about patents."
She rounded the corner and stopped dead in her tracks. "Holy shit, Anderson," she said. "How did you get your shoe in there?"
"I don't know. But least it's working."
She fixed the shelf- there was a trick to it, a kind of pop and wiggle to put it back into place- and handed the dictionaries back to Anderson one by one. "There," she said, tossing his shoe at him as she righted the volumes in the six-thirties. "Put the dictionaries back."
"You got them out, you put them back."
Anderson huffed, but obeyed. There were a couple of books tucked in the back of the shelf that didn't belong, so she stacked them up and walked up and down the aisles to put them back into place. One of the books was in bad shape, pages fluttering and threatening to fall, so she brought it back to her broad circulation desk. Maybe it could be fixed, or replaced, more maybe it could just be removed from the library.
She paused and looked over the edge of the desk. "Hey, Spencer," she said. "What's going on?"
He clutched a packet of paper folded into thirds in his hands, chewing on his lower lip as if he was debating what he wanted to say. "Come here," she said, beckoning him behind the desk. He obeyed. "What's going on?"
"Do you have an envelope?" he asked.
"Absolutely," she said. She rummaged through the neatly organized drawers. "And a stamp too."
She handed him the envelope and he took it from her eagerly, stuffing his letter inside. She couldn't make out any of the words, but she could see his untidy handwriting covering the pages in scratchy ballpoint pen. He picked up a black felt-tip and scribbled the address across the front.
Silently she held out the stamp and he placed it carefully on the front She caught a faint glimpse of the address he'd written, but she only caught the name- Bennett, or Bennigan, or Bennington. Something like that.
"Do you know where the mailbox is?" she asked.
He nodded. "In the student union," he said.
"Mm-hm," she said. She hesitated. "Spencer, is everything okay?"
"Huh?" he said, startled. "Yeah, everything's...everything's fine."
"Hotch and Morgan said yesterday that you're having trouble sleeping," she said. "Are you homesick? I know that can hit pretty hard."
He bit his lip, staring blankly down at the floor. "Yeah," he said softly. "I guess. Something like that."
"And that's all that's bothering you?" she asked gently. He hesitated, then nodded.
It was a lie. It was definitely a lie. She just didn't know how to begin to call him out on it.
"Listen, Spencer…" she said. She knelt down so she was closer to his eye level. "I know none of us have known you for very long, but...I know it's got to be a little unnerving to be out here all on your own. You can talk us, okay? Any of us."
He nodded. "Thanks," he said quietly.
He was saying all the right things, but he still seemed a little sad, a little lost, as if he was just going through the motions for the sake of politeness. "Do you want a hug?" she asked impulsively.
He didn't react, still staring at the floor. "You can say no," she said softly.
But he leaned towards her and she wrapped her arms around him, feeling his cheek drop against her shoulder. He was so small, hidden in her hug and pressed tight against her. There was something wrong, she knew it. And she had a terrible suspicion that this was the first hug he'd experienced in a long time.
But she didn't want to spook him, so she squeezed him a little tighter, her hand pressing between his narrow shoulderblades. The letter in his hand crumpled around the corners as he hugged her back.